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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 3: May 2020
Flash Fiction: 812 words
By Mary Hannah Terzino

Nunworld

 

Her father snapped the photo with his new Polaroid camera at St. Gregory’s Parent-Teacher open house in 1965. In it, Annie sits at her desk, hands folded, wearing a new middy blouse piped in navy and a matching navy pleated skirt. The outfit, a gift from her grandmother, thrills her; it resembles the von Trapp children’s clothes in the new movie all the Catholics are talking about, The Sound of Music. The classroom crucifix hangs on the wall behind Annie, draped for Lent in a tiny purple sash, like a Barbie doll’s shawl.

Sister Mary Bartholomew, her teacher, also appears in the photo, a Holy Cross nun on the threshold of Ancient. She wears a pleated paper plate around her invisible ears. A cardboard-like white bib cuts into her neck and squishes her breasts. Dangling from the tip of the bib is a palm-sized silver heart, recalling for Annie the fulfillment of the Tin Man’s dearest wish in The Wizard of Oz.

§

This photo, of course, was taken years before Annie’s recreational drug use, abortion, marriage to a Jew, divorce, and various other felonies committed against the Church.

§

The annual fifth-grade spelling bee had occurred the day before the parent-teacher conference. The grand prize—a three-dimensional holy card enrobed in lace like a valentine, featuring the sacred heart of Jesus popping out of His chest—remained displayed on Sister’s desk for days before the bee, just to get the juices flowing. Two smaller, flatter holy cards would go to the second- and third-place winners. Annie had won the fourth-grade spelling bee the previous year, her teacher a retired Naval officer named Mr. Rhodes. He reminded the students of Captain von Trapp: They knew he tried his best, but he had a hard time showing his love.

Sister Mary Bartholomew became a bracing splash of cold holy water after the stiff but kindly Mr. Rhodes. She injected a hefty syringe of Catholicism into every subject, her efforts to mold her students into holiness often styled as competitions. She relished catechism quizzes and rounds of diagramming religion-themed sentences on the blackboard. During these pitched skirmishes, those eliminated gathered in the back of the classroom, heads hung low. In Sister’s world, sentence diagramming promoted satisfactory natural selection.

For this year’s spelling bee, Annie’s classmates had lined up on either side of the fifth-grade classroom, boys against one wall, girls against the other. The lines became shorter as students went down. Eventually, but only when absolutely necessary, Sister merged the boy and girl lines. Finally, three students remained: Paul, Patty, and Annie. Paul went down first; Patty followed. It came to Annie: an easy word.

“Bouquet. B-O-Q-U-E-T. Wait.” Annie paused. The word wasn’t fully spelled until you said it again at the end.

“Bouquet. B-O-U-Q-U-E-T. Bouquet!” she spat out, triumphantly.

“Correct,” Sister said. Everyone clapped, and Annie started toward the magnificent, lace-bedecked holy card. “But,” Sister said. The word hung off her pale lips like an icicle. “Anne nearly failed. It would only be fair if Paul and Patricia returned for a final round.”

Annie, already defeated, misspelled the very next word, “denigrate.” As the third-place winner, she received a flat Virgin Mary card. She longed to destroy it, but feared it would be a sin to rip it into shreds. Instead, she placed it carefully in the back of her closet under an old Easter hat, Mary side down. Her parents would find it twenty years later, when they moved from the house into a Florida condo. They told Annie they threw it in the trash.

§

“All right!” Annie’s father said jovially at the open house. “It’s time for a picture!

Sister Bartholomew hesitated. Perhaps she balked at a photograph with a loser like Annie. Or perhaps her hesitation was vanity, a concern about how she looked in that heavy wool skirt with the tight wimple, the chafing bib, the ridiculous paper plate, the Tin Man’s heart dangling over the place where her own should be. She seemed to steel herself. Annie’s dad directed Sister to stand next to Annie. Sister never looked at her. Instead, she stuck her index finger out as if admonishing Annie, holding it there throughout the agonizingly long setup. A thin silver band encircled the ring finger of her outstretched hand, the object that proved she was married to Jesus.

At last Annie’s dad said, “Smile!”

Annie gave a sidelong glance at Sister’s finger. As the camera flashed, she stuck out her tongue, thus beginning her decades-long insurrection against the Church. But insurrection carries a price. The accusing finger of Sister Mary Bartholomew hovered over Annie’s apartment during her experiment with cocaine; lay on the instrument tray in the abortion clinic; quivered under the wedding chuppah; stirred the divorce papers as Annie signed them. “You denigrate the Church,” Sister hissed as Annie sinned, “and you can’t even spell that.”

Mary Hannah Terzino
Issue 3, May 2020

practiced law for over thirty years before writing short and flash fiction. She has nearly always lived in the Midwest, and currently is at home in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Blue River Review, and the UK’s Vamp Cat Magazine, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine, and a 2019 fiction finalist in the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook competition.

 
 
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