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Day of Reckoning

by Elizabeth Shanley Driscoll

A bell splits the silence before dawn, shattering the last fragments of a restless sleep. Dah-dong, Dah-dong, Dah-dong, Dah-dong! A merciful pause—then four more clangs vibrate through a labyrinth of halls. The window is still dark. I cover my head with the pillow and lie still. A whisper of fear runs through me. The day has come. The day I have dreaded since I arrived at the convent boarding school, passed through the iron gates, and entered the foreboding rose stone mansion. It is the day veterans at Eden Hall refer to as the day of reckoning: March 22, 1955, the day of oral examinations.

Dies irae, dies illa

All week I prayed, “Lord, grant me some mysterious suffering, a fever, a concussion, anything that could turn this day of reckoning into a day in the infirmary.” Gratefully will I accept any penance, and humbly will I submit to Miss Judd’s cures.”

I pick my head up and look around the room. No one is moving except Yvonne. She is shining her shoes. I lie back down, close my eyes. My prayers have not been answered. Oh God. I feel fine.

Requiem aeternum/ dona eis, domine

The rhythm of the shoe brush fills the room. Kathleen and Cynthia are still in bed. Yvonne is always the first one up, and she is always smiling with her big white teeth. I try to look away but she catches me. “Rise and shine,” she says holding up her glossy brown oxford.

I shuffle to the sink. Cold linoleum seeps through the soles of my slippers. Warm water feels good on my wrists.  In a minute Mother Stewart will come to the door with the holy water. “Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary.”  We dip a finger, make the sign of the cross, and mumble “I give you my heart.”

Now the water is hot. I let the sink fill. The word catafalque shivers out of the white enamel bowl.

I see the dimly lit chapel, pews filled with uniformed girls in stiff white veils, surrounded by nuns kneeling in stalls under stained glass windows. An open coffin rests on the draped catafalque in the middle aisle only inches from my shoulder. A single bell tolls, calling mourners from the outside world. Mother Forden swoops down the aisle, removes the silver cross and the thin gold band from the nun’s rigid body. She closes the lid. 

I gasp.

“What?” Yvonne says startled.

Water swirls down the drain.

We dress in silence, buttoning starched blouses, straightening hose.

The ten-minute bell rings.

“Hurry,” someone says, “we’re going to be late.”

Yvonne is already out the door.

Reverend Mother,” I curtsy, “I have question number three.”

The question typed on a long narrow strip of paper was drawn from a semicircle of eighteen identical papers carefully set on a round silver tray. I stand alone holding the paper in my white-gloved hands staring at swimming black letters. I try squinting the letters into focus. I force my eyes wide.

Faceless shadows behind pleated white bonnets sit before me. Reverend Mother’s chair is raised on a platform. Judge and jury wait. The even rows of wimples begin to sway like the letters on the paper. I open my mouth, then close it, lest some involuntary cry escape. 

"Reverend Mother,” I begin again. My gloves are damp. My blouse is wilting. “I have question number three.” The student body holds its breath. A voice rises from my throat and begins to drone somewhere in the distance. The words from Scripture, tightly strung together, continue without pause or inflection.

“Thank you Reverend Mother.”

I am sitting down.

My eyes focus clearly on a perfect semicircle of shiny brown oxfords. 

Yvonne has question number four. Her voice is steady. Her blouse is crisp. She is a veteran.

Elizabeth Shanley Driscoll has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College.  "Day of Reckoning" is from a collection essays, titled Through the Back Door.  She lives and writes in the beautiful countryside of Northern Maryland.


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