The letter waiting on her bed looked crumpled and grubby, yellowed with age. She switched on the bedside lamp, shrugged out of the heavy habit and hung it in the wardrobe. Clad only in her shift, she sat down with a sigh of relief, ruffled her short hair, then picked up the envelope and held it under the meagre light. Not a handwriting she was familiar with.
Scrawled, immature letters and the ballpoint pen had been pressed down so hard that it had dug deeply into the paper. Addressed to a young school nurse and nun working at the BC in Savannah. Someone she had been 25 years ago. She flipped the envelope over, quite curious now, acknowledging her major fault with a wry chuckle. It turned into a gasp. Edward Straker she read, and the envelope was unopened. All these years.
They half-carried, half-dragged him, the icy night wind playing with his thin cotton shorts. He was still too new to know where they brought him; and the blindfold had been tied so tightly, that he could not even catch a glimpse of the ground over which they marched him. It would have been useless anyway. Instead he concentrated hard on keeping his composure. Never cry out, never complain, take it and be quiet. That was what made it be over faster, he knew from past experience. And never rat. Ever. He knew the rules.
No use fighting them, they were so much bigger, those hands crushing his wrists felt huge, he gave in without complaint when they pushed him down until he kneeled. Grass. A stench of tarmac. A loud metallic noise he knew from somewhere; and then they slit his clothes off him, the razor-sharp switchblade gliding through the material of his flimsy pyjamas with deadly ease. He grew entirely still, and they laughed.
Straker. Edward. Rail thin, small, hair so blond it was almost white and those huge blue eyes. She slid the letter opener under the fold, unsealing what had been waiting for her for so long. Boys. So young and innocent. The angelic voices of boys singing in choir filled her mind again, mixed with the harsher cadences of drill training.
She had been so young herself, still shy of twenty, and assigned to the military boarding school across the town, as nurse to the school’s physician. She pushed her fingertips into the envelope and cautiously pulled out a wad of mulberry paper. It was thin and crackly with age, holding something in its embrace. And then there was the letter, covered closely with the same serious minded scrawl as was on the envelope. Unbidden memories pushed to the surface, and she breathed in deeply.
The shaving had not been too bad. They had nicked him in a few places, but it did not hurt. That they talked out loud about what a runt he was and that they would ensure he would never be able to get it up again scared him. Still he kept calm. They wanted him to beg or cry. It was when he smelled the hot tar that he trembled with the first flutter of panic. And then, all of a sudden, time seemed to stretch. Each stroke of the brush burned sizzling hot into his scalp. That was when he bit himself, only to shriek with the pain and fear as they dragged it down his front to coat him just there.
He knew he had lost then, now they were howling with laughter. The sharp ripping noise of tightly woven canvas and the feathers spilled over him, clogging his nose and mouth. Large, strong hands rubbed them into the cooling tar on his head and into his crotch and no amount of squirming stopped them. The heat settled into his skin. Burning him. Blistering. He would not scream again. So he endured being tied and shoved into some space in complete silence. And they walked away.
The school had been her first assignment as a nurse, and so soon after her novitiate. Ninth to twelfth grade, over one and a half thousand boys, the youngest barely thirteen, the oldest almost her own age. She had been hard pressed to do right, by the Mother Superior, by the Bishop, by the headmaster, and of course by the doctor. It was rare that she left the infirmary before Vespers. The shortcut through the park helped her make it back to the cloister in time for night prayers.
With a sigh she climbed onto the bed, and placed the brittle paper beside her on the quilt. She hugged her knees and laid her head back, closing her eyes. So long ago, and yet she remembered it as if it had been yesterday. It had been that tiny sound which led her to him.
It was dark. Not only because of the blindfold he still wore, he knew for some reason it was dark where he was, even if he had been able to open his eyes. He had explored the space they had locked him in, a shed, barely two steps into each direction. Fusty smelling, garden utensils in one corner. Feet bare he had stepped onto a rake, and crashed into one of the walls with the pain of it. Spiders had rained down on him, crawling over his skin, stuck to his tarred head. Still no sound from outside, except the wind singing in the trees.
It was enough. Why didn’t they come back? He had taken everything they had done to him without complaint, now they could let him out. They had won. The walls he could not see were moving. The panic he had held at bay stretched its limbs with leisure. He was unable to contain the first whimper of terror.
She had been walking briskly, bent forward into the sharp, cold wind. One of the first autumn storms of the year, and if she did not make haste she would get soaked. It was half past eight, dusk had turned into night already. Soon the lights in the park would go out. It was pure chance that she heard that small mewling sound of fear. At first she had thought that one of the cats had been locked into the shed as a prank, but as she came closer she realised those terrified sobs were human. The door, normally padlocked, had just a strong wire fed through the eyelets, securing the bolt. The lock lay broken in the grass close by.
She put her ears to the door, and listened. Someone was crying inside, and then the sounds were quickly muffled, until all she heard was rapid, strained breathing and an occasional hiccup. She fumbled with the wire, barely able to bend it open, intent on freeing whoever was inside. When she managed to wrest the door open at last, she was unprepared for what she found.
Someone was outside. They had come back. He bit down hard on his lips. No more sobbing. Being found out crying would make things a hundredfold worse. The bolt was shot noisily, then the door creaked open and a blast of cold wind soothed his burns a bit. It was not them, someone gave a small cry of shock.
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice was gentle, and female. “I’ll take this off.”
A hand cupped his chin, then he felt fingers pry the tar-caked cloth from his eyes. Slowly, with care, and still taking half of his eyebrows with it.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He slitted his eyes against the sudden light streaming in from one of the streetlamps. Thus all he saw was her outline. Veiled. A nun. Shame slammed so hard through him it felt worse than a punch.
One of the freshmen. Tarred and feathered.
It was impossible to make out who he was, although she had seen all of them just the day before during the obligatory physicals. Where his face was not begrimed, feathers clung to him, the whole head was covered, a trail led down to his pubic area, which had also been tarred. In the narrow shed the stench was overwhelming. It took her a moment longer to grasp he was tied. She turned him around, only to see that whoever had done this had pawed him all over, leaving feathers and tar between his buttocks and on his bony shoulders. She undid the knots and freed him of the rope. He immediately covered his crotch, shivering violently by then.
There was no helping it, even though the cloak was almost new. She wrapped it around him, closely watched by a set of huge blue eyes.
“Please, don’t tell anyone,” he said, the voice young and not yet broken. He was trembling so hard that it took her a moment to understand. “Please!” He was pleading now.
He was thankful for the coat. At the same time he knew there was no way it ever could be cleaned of all that filth. She helped him back to the main hall and after a short moment he realised she was leading him to the infirmary. Moving had made the pain worse, stoically he suppressed any sound, but he could not keep the tears from running freely down his cheeks now.
She brushed past him, opened the door with her own set of keys and switched on one of the smaller desk lights. Edward watched her spread a fresh towel on one of the examination tables, her movements spare and graceful. She removed the filthy cloak and helped him jump up to sit on the bench. He winced when she parted the matted feathers on his head, the thought of how that mess would come off enough to make him feel faint.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. “Don’t go anywhere. Don’t touch anything.” And almost in afterthought she added, “don’t be afraid, we’ll manage between ourselves.”
He slumped with relief, the events of the past hours finally catching up with him.
By the time she returned he had shed that icy cold composure that had so disquieted her. She still had no idea what it had been. Shock? Terror? Fear? It did not matter, on the examination table now sat a small, slender boy, shivering and in pain. She had been but a few weeks at the school, yet his reason for wishing to stay quiet was obvious. She knew hazing when she saw it and she was aware that he would be hit even harder, if he told anyone. As thin and small as he was he did not stand a chance against any of the bullies.
She felt sorry for what she had to do to him now, but there was just one way for the tar to come off within the next few hours. She placed a flat bowl to his right side and filled it with turpentine, the sharp tang reviving him a bit. She soaked a washcloth and started on his hands, making him hold them out towards her. Grubby, bitten fingernails, the scuffed and scratched hands of an active boy. She knew she had seen them before.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her voice calm. She glanced up into his eyes. So wary. So utterly wary.
“Edward,” he said in a very low tone, then cleared his throat. “Edward Straker.”
“That’s a nice name. I’m Sister Agnes,” she smiled. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Boston, Massachusetts!”
It came out stilted, but right then he did not care. Instead he wished the ground would open and swallow him up. He had looked down at himself. His crotch was so thickly covered with feathers and tar that nothing was visible. But she was cleaning him.
He knew her of course. She was the sick nurse, she regularly worked in the infirmary, together with the doctor, and yesterday she had helped him examine all boys, and take down notes. They had queued all the way around the large room and out onto the hallway. He had had over an hour to watch her. She looked so different from the kind of woman he was used to being around at home. Beautiful, young and lively. She had smiled yesterday, even at him. And when she had helped the doctor take his measures he had smelled her. Warm, soft, with the faintest fragrance of roses on her hands. He had been mesmerised. They all had been. A woman at an all-male boarding school, that had been unpredicted.
She remembered him then. A thatch of bright blond hair, a soft-spoken boy with large, clear blue eyes, so slender and fine-boned that she had wondered why anyone would send him onto a military high school of all things. He had been very polite and correct when answering all the questions. The youngest and smallest of the group, and with that hair he had stood out. All of a sudden she grasped that he must always have been the one they would notice. No wonder he behaved like an old hand at being hazed.
He looked incongruous now, arms cleaned and held out to the sides, so as to not sully them again. That beautiful hair hidden under black grime. She bent over his head and started to pull the feathers from the sodden mass covering his scalp. It took her a while to grow aware that he was struggling with pain, barely able to force himself into submitting to her ministrations. That was when she noticed at last that he had been shaven, and that the hot tar had been applied straight onto his skin. No wonder he hurt.
“Close your eyes, Edward,” she said and took a deep breath, then started sluicing turpentine into the mass. It would hurt more, but it would take less time.
It burned like fire, worse than the hot tar itself. Yet in a way it was better than having his irritated and blistered skin pulled and prodded at feather by feather. Eyes firmly closed he wavered, taking but shallow breaths, the vile stench of tar and turpentine enveloping him. He could not smell her now, and that angered him. Again and again she ran the soaked washcloth over his head, then rinsed it in the bowl. The fumes dazed him.
“Edward!” she said, her voice loud into his ears. “Edward!”
Startled he pulled himself together, almost opened his eyes, but thought better of it.
“Yes, ma’am?” he managed to answer. A soft laugh.
“I’m Sister Agnes, or just Agnes. Not ma’am,” she said. “Hold onto me, you’re swaying. If you fall off and break something, I have to get the doctor.”
Touch her? How could he touch her? He stretched out his hands, not too high, oh please no, he thought. Not too low either. It was hard visualising her. He had screwed his eyes shut for so long. His fingers made contact with strong cloth, relieved he firmly clasped her habit, avoiding touching her.
Almost there now. She looked down, the feathers had come off, the skin of his scalp visible now. The boy was drooping. He had astonished her with his careful, polite manners. She would not have minded being grabbed hold of, he was a child after all, instead he had shown her modest diffidence.
How he managed to stay quiet she was unable to understand. There were several large, split blisters covering his head, which had to be very painful. Here and there she saw cuts now, where the razor had slipped. The shave had not been complete, some scraggly patches of his blond hair had survived. She would have to give him another headshave, so that at least he did not look as bedraggled as he did now.
“Let go of me, Edward,” she ordered in as gentle a tone as she could make it and snapped off the gloves. Immediately he dropped his hands. “Please keep your eyes shut, I will help you into the tub. We’ll scrub off the rest there.”
Taking his hands, she led him to the bathroom at the back of the infirmary. Slender, warm hands, holding his with reassuring kindness. Edward blindly followed her, and complied when she bade him climb into the tub and helped him sit down. Water was run and she tilted his head, one hand grasping his chin, the other cleaning his face with a fresh washcloth. Then he heard her walk out of the room.
He opened his eyes. The room was tiny, just a tub, a sink and shower stall. A large electric boiler in one corner, water murmuring inside it. Steps on the flagged stones, she was coming back. He felt the need to cover himself again, but he would have tarred his hands again. Helpless, deeply ashamed he waited.
He was looking at her, apprehension written largely on his face, crouching deep inside the tub. There was no way she was going to use turpentine on his genitals. Nor, she decided would she be doing the cleaning. Those eyes spoke loud and clear, he did not need to say a word. He might not yet be a man, but this also was no toddler either. And she could see the mortification, easily. She set down the large container of grade mineral oil, which was supposed to last the school year, and handed him a pair of fresh gloves.
“Here,” she said, and when he looked up at her, puzzled, she explained. “You need to clean yourself down there. I’m a bride of Christ, I may not touch other men like that.”
His relief was palpable, and moving, yet she was careful not to show any amusement. He had been through so much on his first few days. Instead she filled the cleaned bowl now with oil, held it so he could dip the cloth into it without problems and carefully averted her eyes, making it a point to ask instead of look at him.
“Does it work?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Yes, it comes off.”
He glanced at her from out of the corner of his eyes, but he need not have doubted her. She knelt beside the tub, head averted, balancing the bowl where he could reach it.
It needed harder rubbing with the oil, but the feathers and the tar came off without too much pain. She helped him stand, when he was done and made him turn around, so she could clean his back and butt. He did not really mind that, and she was quick and matter of fact. Then she had him wash down with soap until the suds were pure and clean, and ran a real razor over his shorn head, taking off the scraggly bits the older boys had missed.
Wrapped in a large terrycloth towel she sat him down on the examination bench again, and spread bacitracin ointment on his scalp, squeezed some onto his palm and asked him to rub it into his crotch. It all was not even half as humiliating as he had feared.
Bride of Christ. He knew what that meant. He had read about it. He just had not thought that much about it. It meant she belonged to someone else. Not just anyone. To Christ.
She had sent him to his dorm after getting him new school pyjamas and a small jar of cosmetic ointment he could cover the blisters with on the morrow. It had taken a further three hours to clean up the bathroom and infirmary. It had been midnight when she arrived at the cloister, and she had taken the reprimand and penitence in stride. She had never told anyone, and to her knowledge Edward Straker never said anything either. The hair had grown back in fast.
She had seen him of course, from afar most times, a breathtakingly beautiful child. Standing out with that bright hair, a shade no other cadet had, just as with his clear sweet voice in choir. She had watched him from the window doing drill routines with the other youngsters a couple of times, simply because he was so easy to notice. And twice he had been into the infirmary, once with badly skinned knees, the other time with concussion. On both occasions he had been polite and very shy, blushing when she smiled at him.
Mother Superior had not left her on the school for long, she was replaced with an older nurse and sent on to work in a hospital ward downtown. On occasion she had thought of him. Whenever she saw ash-blond hair, or someone had piercing blue eyes, or when she smelled the stench of fresh tar.
Had he ever thought about her? She wondered how the man looked like that he had become. And where he was.
She allowed the tips of her fingers to brush across the crackling old paper, then unfolded it with care. The smell of roses wafted from the folds and when she looked inside there was one single, dried and pressed red rose nestled into them. Perfectly preserved.
She opened the letter and read. And cried.
Breathing was painful. It would not be long now.
… Therefore, we commit ourselves to the deep. … Returned to corruption. … Waiting for the day of resurrection, … when the sea shall give up her dead…
Written in response to dragon’s challenge: “It hurts to be in love”, Gene Pitney’s 1960s song , 1500 words, male protagonist
It Hurts to be in Love
Turns out to be someone who’s NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU
It hurts to love her so when deep down inside you know
She will never want you NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO
And so you cry a little bit (it hurts to be in love)
Ah, I die a little bit (it hurts to be in love)
Day and night, night and day, it hurts to be in love this way.
How can long can I exist wanting lips I’ve never kissed?
She gives all her kisses TO SOMEBODY ELSE
She thinks I’m just a friend, though it hurts I must pretend
The only way to keep her is KEEP ‘ER TO MYSELF
And so I cry a little bit (it hurts to be in love)
Ah, I die a little bit (it hurts to be in love)
Day and night, night and day, it hurts to be in love this way.