Burlap Cloth and Shaved Heads
As everyone in Mount Saint Canice knew, I knew that the institution we inhabited existed in the liminal space between salvation and subjugation. It was a place where narrative broke down, where the stories we told ourselves about freedom and redemption crumbled under the weight of our daily reality.
Mother Anselm and her sisters navigated this grey territory with a measured detachment as if they had traversed its psychological geography a thousand times over. They had perfected the rituals of punishment, an unspoken liturgy performed in the stark halls of the convent. It was a theatre of discipline, but it was also a theatre of degradation.
In the quietude of Mount Saint Canice, beneath the facade of piety, a vocabulary of punishment thrived. The nuns spoke it fluently as if heaven had whispered the dialect of degradation directly into their ears. And we — the captive audience learned to interpret each gesture, each tightening of the lips, as a forewarning of some unspoken sentence.
We had our own whispers, too. A parallel underbelly of rumors and escapes — the convent grapevine, always fecund, always ready to drop the fruit of illicit knowledge. “Three girls went over the fence,” the rumor would circulate, and for a brief moment, the air itself seemed to shimmer with the audacity of flight.
How we wished them well, those courageous escape artists. But our well-wishes were laced with cynicism from too many years in captivity; we knew the likely epilogue. It was as if their absence sharpened the outlines of our own confinement, casting longer, darker shadows on the corridors we walked.
I was a ‘trustee’ — one considered unlikely to run. Where would I go?
And on a particular day, the echo of my compliance rang hollow as I polished Our Lady’s blue and white statue in one of the convent front halls. I was half-hidden, the statue like a phantom audience, as the girls — freshly captured, dirty, and defeated — were led back into the den from which they had so bravely escaped.
As I watched, the policewomen exchanged somber words with Mother Anselm, the tone too curt for comfort. The trio stood there, disheveled and marked by their journey. The law left, and then it began.
There was a choreography to their humiliation. Policewomen handed them over to Mother Anselm. Mother Marguerite — like a prison warden wrapped in the cloth of the Lord — took two away. The third, a girl I knew well…