WINNER OF THE 2020 FICTION - THE ALVIN ENS PRIZE
Angels We Have Heard
The morning Baby Jesus went missing from the Christmas creche was the beginning of astonishing changes in the One, True and Apostolic Church, as it was then commonly referred to among the faithful. Word in ecclesiastical circles was that it was Vatican Two that brought it all about, but we the alumnae of the convent school of the Sisters of Divine Bemusement know better. Or at least we know what events on a snowy, post-Christmas morning in a girls’ school in the nation’s capital set the ball rolling.
At 9:10 AM Sister Latituda, a creaky, superannuated member of the teaching staff, was fussing about the chapel, watering the Christmas poinsettias and tidying up stacks of hymnals. She had just begun dusting the Wise Men and fluffing up the hay in the manger when, with a shocked intake of breath, she noticed that Baby Jesus was missing. Some impudent urchin from Grade 10 must be responsible! She knew who. That Mary Margaret Mullins. The one with her eye on the boys. In a flurry of black bombazine skirts, she whirled about as quickly as arthritic joints would bear, headed for the chapel door and up to the principal’s office.
Shuffling down the corridor with all possible haste, she tottered past Room 4, where a geometry class was in progress. Inside, a small, knockkneed girl was being frog-marched to the blackboard and told to bisect the quadrilateral on rhomboid ABCD, or some such mysterious and improbable operation. With trembling hands, the girl took up the protractor, made some ineffectual dabs with a piece of squeaky chalk and burst into tears. “Typical,” roared Sister Ferocita. “This just shows that you do not even deserveto be in Grade 9. Do you want tospend your days selling bobby pinsin the Woolworth Store? You are nothalf the girl your older sister Cecelia was. What do you say to that, Maureen O’Malley?”
“Thank you for your correction, Sister,” snivelled the trembling Maureen, stumbling back to her seat. (That, for your information, was the standard reply in those ages of faith and proper decorum.)
Next door, someone was being berated for having lost her beanie, thereby disqualifying herself from attendance at chapel later that afternoon, where some form of head-covering was required. “Into the presence of the Lord bareheaded? I think not! You will stay behind and translate fifteen pages of the writings of St. Augustine into English - then French.” (It was a bilingual school.)
As Sister Latituda hastened onward, she could smell the aroma of fried bologna, tinned peas and lumpy tapioca being prepared for the boarding students’ lunch. She had just rounded a corner when - kapowie - a burst of blinding light and a sound like thunder knocked her to the floor, stunning her like Saul on the road to Damascus. We will draw a veil over Sister Latituda and her interrupted mission and repair to the office of the school principal.
At the very moment that Sister Latituda was discovering the seeming abduction from the chapel, the formidable and ominous Sister Margaret Mildred, School Principal and Scourge of God, was in the process of interviewing Joanne Casey, one of her least-beloved charges. In the course of her morning sweep through the school corridors, her black and gimlet eye had fallen upon the hapless Joanne attempting to creep up the stairs late for the 9AM bell, having stopped briefly to flirt with the janitor’s young assistant. As we enter the scene, Sister Margaret is furiously dialling, stabbing at the phone with gaunt and agitated fingers, as her victim writhes on a hard, straightbacked chair. “Hello, Mrs. Casey,” she roared down the line. “I have your daughter Joanne here in my office. And she has not done one speck of work so far today. What do you say to that?” Not one to be intimidated, Mrs. Casey mildly observed that, as it was only 9:15, hope remained that something might yet be accomplished before the dismissal bell. Slamming down the phone, the Scourge of God warmed to her task. Pacing the room, leaning her gaunt frame forward like one fighting a heavy headwind, her draperies flapping, she honed her razor-sharp tongue and began her customary litany of denunciation. She had just completed the “You are so immature” section of her oration, when the same fate that befell the hapless Sister Latituda burst upon her.
At the peak of her near-apoplexy, her office door flew open to the blare of heavenly trumpets, the same blinding light flooded the room and a powerful wave of scorching heat pinned her to the wall. In the doorway, an angel of the Lord stood before her and the glory of the Lord shone about her. And, for the first time in her self-righteous life, she was sore afraid. The angel had hair of fire and eyes of sapphire and the usual raiment of radiant brilliance. He looked big. He looked tough. Worst of all, he looked angry with Sister Margaret. The angel slapped his way through the partially-open door like the sheriff of Dodge entering a rowdy saloon. “What’s this ‘mature’ stuff?” he boomed. “The kid’s only 14. Of course she’s immature. What’s the matter with you people? Mature manure. Old shit.”
“Language... I will not tolerate such...,” spluttered Sister Margaret.
The angel cut her short with one peremptory flap of a wing. “You may be il capo di capi here, Sister, but that doesn’t cut much ice with the Boss. Surprise visit from head office. Get your stuff together and come with me.” Bending down, he ruffled Joanne’s hair and told her to “Get lost, kid”.
Out in the hall, the place was overrun with angels; big-shot seraphim directing rank-and-file members of the heavenly host, the flapping of robes and the susurration of mighty wings accompanying their inspection of the premises from sanctuary to broom closet. Classrooms and corridors were assessed for health and safety violations. Chalk-dust was found to exceed acceptable limits. The school’s ancient janitor was cajoled from his lair and tested for TB. The quality of the sacramental wine was checked by the cherub/sommelier and found to be merely adequate. The kitchen was inspected for cleanliness, godliness and nutritional soundness. Large infractions on that last item! Most importantly, classes were visited for pedagogical soundness and teachers’ comportment and attitude gauged against a checklist of the cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins. While most of the teaching staff was found to be mercifully short of major sin, they were also regrettably light on the virtue side of the ledger as well. Charity, forbearance and humour got generally D-ratings each.
At the end of this long, long day, during which the more sociallydaring among the students had escaped to a local beanery to meet boys, a sort of staff meeting and General Assizes was called by Archangel Michael. It was held in the chapel where the kerfuffle had begun. A badly-shaken Sister Margaret, her wimple askew, led her staff through the carved oak doors to meet the assembled heavenly host. “This is all your fault,” she hissed at the principal of the French side of the school, which had somehow escaped inspection.
“How so?” Soeur Mathilde replied, laughing up her voluminous sleeve. Those two had never gotten on.
Imagine Sister Margaret’s surprise and consternation. For not only was the place packed to the rafters with angels of all classes and degree but there, standing there on the steps of the sanctuary, was Baby Jesus Himself, holding a clipboard and looking impatient. Yes, he who had gone AWOL from the Christmas creche had merely slipped out for a moment to put a call through to home and ask for an inspection team to be sent post haste. From his bed of straw he had heard many unkind words and the accompanying wails of sorrowing students percolating down through the heating ducts. “Suffer the little children indeed,” he thought to himself. “I’m calling Dad.”
“Well, Sister Margaret, what do YOU have to say for YOURSELF?” asked Jesus, in a surprisingly resonant and authoritative voice for one so young and who, frankly, had bits of straw sticking to his robes. Sister Margaret opened her mouth to speak, but only a squeak came out and her knees buckled. She was helped to a pew and propped up by Sister Consolata, who was in charge of the infirmary on account of her fairly sweet disposition and preoccupation with medical matters.
“I want you to know,” said Jesus, “that I am not pleased by what I have seen and heard here today. Changes will have to be made. For starters, I want you to get a better statue of Mom for the nativity set. Frankly, the one you have now makes her look a little frumpy. Mom has been upset about it for a few decades now. But you know her - too nice to say. As for the state of this school - oy! I’ll pass you over to my right-hand man Archangel Michael for specifics and a timetable for upgrades. Over to you Michael.”
With a stately settling of wings Michael rose to his feet. “First of all - and excuse me for correcting you Boss - I am not a man. I am an angel, a pure, disembodied spirit, without gender. I have appeared in this form and will tolerate being referred to by the masculine pronoun just for the purpose of getting today’s job done. I guess this transformation into human form has gotten you a bit mixed up. No offence.”
“Sorry Mike. Go on with the agenda,” said Jesus, patting a lamb from the creche. Michael removed a pair of bifocals from an inner pocket, polished them on one radiant sleeve and cleared his throat. “The inspection has revealed a shocking number of shortcomings. Oh, the school is safe enough, though marginally on the point of being a firetrap. The humanities curriculum is generally sound, but the science labs are frankly inadequate. The Phys. Ed. programme is woefully substandard. Come on ladies, precision marching drills and folk dancing just don’t cut it. And we have already told the school cook, Sister Immensia, to stop with the fried bologna. Chapel beanies a big deal? So keep a few spares in a drawer and forget the lectures and yelling.
On the positive side, we commend you for your efforts in these prombesotted, Betty-Crocker-driven 1950’s to encourage girls to focus on the mind and the spirit, to learn and grow to be all they can be, to be responsible for their own lives.
“On the really bad side (and now Sister Margaret grew pale), do you have to be so damn mean all the time? Be patient with the latebloomers. Don’t compare younger to older sisters. Stop being so hard on the homely and the awkward and the unique. Don’t say demeaning things to your girls - things that tear down their pride. And stop calling on God to back up your own dubious pronouncements.
“And here’s the big news, ladies. There is going to be a staff shake-up. Sister Margaret is being sent to tend the lepers, as she has gotten too big for her tiny boots and needs to work on her compassion and humility. Sister Latituda, who I see has recovered from the shock of our sudden arrival, will continue to tend to the chapel, as she has a way with poinsettias and flowers in general. She is basically a harmless old dear and we will correct those girls who refer to her as Running Bear for reasons best known to themselves. Sister Immensia will be sent on sabbatical to a Cordon Blue cooking school. Sister Consolata will be given a course in basic first aid and CPR. Best of all, Sister Catherine Beatta, who taught the same girls Latin (of all things!) for three years in a row and they liked her better every year and who has never been seen or heard to cause unnecessary pain to anyone will be school principal from today onward.”
“Meeting adjourned,” said Jesus. “Amen, amen,” sighed the angels, gathering up their robes and portmanteaux. A clamorous cheering was heard from below stairs, as those girls who had not run off to flirt with boys at the beanery overheard the good news. “Glad tidings of great joy. Laus tibi, Domine. Gaudeamus igitur!” they shouted, showing that they were not literary and cultural ninnies.
And so it came to pass that the mother superior of the order got on the telephone to the bishop, who got on the wire to the cardinal who called Rome to report on all that had transpired the day Baby Jesus went on the lam and the angels visited an old grey stone school, not far from Parliament Hill, in the heart of Ottawa, on a snowy post-Christmas morning.
And His Holiness took the hint and set out on a campaign of reforming religious orders, putting nuns in normal clothing for a start. And then he started on a general shake-up of the rest. And what a Pandora’s Box that turned out to be! That is a story for another night, when you are quite bit older. Some of it is great, some of it terrible, but that is quite enough for now.
Good night children and amen.