The Lift Away by Robert S. Hummel (2011)
(It is Estonia, the 15th century. Europe is plagued by broken Crusades. Armies run amok over the land, leaderless and merciless and in the name of God. Civilization is dark with fear and confused thoughts. In the highlands of this country sits a Catholic convent. The room we see, the chapel, is empty, save for a young nun, Annabelle, who sits in the front pew, and Damaris, the head nun, standing before her.)
DAMARIS: They tell the story of the holy man, a knight who fought in the name of his Lord. He carried his sword in a great battle, as the dust flew and mixed with blood in the arid dirt beneath his feet. This knight was felled, given a wound and driven to the earth, where he lost all sense of the chaos about him. He awoke to find the place deserted, empty, with no trace of the thousands who fought there. The blood had been dried and buried beneath the sand, and in the place of stone buildings there were trees, twisted and dead. His face was emaciated, his heart was as gray as the sky. He wandered among the sparse weeds and desert, though the day is empty and the sun is gone. This goes on for eternities. Miles came and went fruitlessly, aimlessly, and in his exhaustion and despair he laid his head on a stone. When he opened his eyes, a great darkness, a chasm of black, vibrating with the low timbre of some alien noise. Then a chord. Long and pronounced from some enormous organ. It stops quickly, almost strangling the notes, and then silence as it reverberates through the black. Another noise; he looked to his left to find a specter playing the violin, the strings weeping for this holy man, for he could no longer cry. It is then that he was graced by the Lord, lifted out. And now we sit today, and what do we have to offer? What do we have to give for this glory?
ANNABELLE: Mother Damaris?
DAMARIS: I wish to hear it from you, Sister Annabelle.
(Annabelle closes her eyes and bows her head, speaking practiced words. The charade reeks of falseness.)
ANNABELLE: We must give God our everything, and give everyone our God.
DAMARIS: Yes, child, our God. He must come into the hearts of others through us. This means we must demonstrate to others the same grace, the same strength, the same mercy, the same hardness.
ANNABELLE: But kindness, Mother? Is God not kind?
DAMARIS: Kindness comes with grace. And grace must not interfere with strength. The strength to defend your Lord, and to respect his wishes without qualm. This also means respect, the respect that is demanded of you to me, as my inferior, and us to God. All of us.
ANNABELLE: Mother, concerning the knight. What of the horrors of war? How did he receive the terror of battle and death?
DAMARIS: With hardness and strength. That is bravery, child. The forces of evil bear the destruction of body and mind. One must face evil with this knowledge, and with the unwavering faith in God that you may be delivered to heaven, to an eternity of happiness in the face of God. The knight demonstrated this, and as a result found himself in that kingdom.
ANNABELLE: Mother Damaris, may I share a dream of mine?
DAMARIS: I will allow it, child, if there be any use for dreams.
ANNABELLE: You do not believe in the clairvoyance of dreams?
DAMARIS: I find them to be trivial, of no use. One’s thoughts should always be of God.
ANNABELLE: I have seen this dream often of late. Forgive me if I tell it to you; I know you care not.
DAMARIS: Speak if you must, child.
(Annabelle stands, slowly, and enters a trance as she tells the story, wandering about with images of the dream passing over her eyes. She is oblivious to reality.)
ANNABELLE: …A field of horses, Mother. Wild horses. And I am one of them. We sprint through the trees and bound down the hills into the fields, and we are free. The tall grasses against my four legs. The treeline bare of any houses or people. We climb a steep hill, and I look up to the sky, where it meets the hill, and I think of all that could be beyond it. But then we tumble, we reach the top and fall over a great cliff, tall as towers, into a dark pit, a portal below the earth. And there is great evil there. (a pause as she emerges from the trance) I wake up.
DAMARIS: (pause, concerned) Sit, child. (Annabelle obeys) I do find concern with this vision…but a trick of the mind is all. Pray to God that these disturbances may pass.
ANNABELLE: (hesitantly) Mother Damaris, if I may confess….
DAMARIS: Child, you have already confessed what you have done.
ANNABELLE: I stole a loaf of bread from the kitchen. Yes.
DAMARIS: For that is why we are here. Righting your wrong. Why do such a thing, child, when we offer only gifts, the charity of shelter and spirit–
ANNABELLE: We are barely fed, Mother–
DAMARIS: Do not interrupt me. This is your wrong. Your fault. And you shall learn from it.
ANNABELLE: Forgive me, Mother. I understand. But I bring forth a new confession. A new disturbance. A miserable pox of conscience that eats away at my strength, my heart.
DAMARIS: Pray tell, what haunts you, child?
ANNABELLE: Fear, mother. I have great fear.
DAMARIS: Fear, child? Fear of death and judgement?
ANNABELLE: Not for myself, Mother. For greater good.
DAMARIS: (confused, almost insulted) What is this assertion?
ANNABELLE: (hastened and quiet) Mother, forgive me. I know not what I say, what I may tell you–
DAMARIS: Then do not speak!
ANNABELLE: (loudly, commandingly) Mercy, Mother, let me speak my peace! Let all that has been kept silent be known. Hear me, Damaris. Do you know not what you do? Food is a scarce necessity in this place, but peace is scarcer still! Why should I be driven to steal, not for myself but for my fellow sisters, not for sustenance so much as for hope?
DAMARIS: How dare you demand my respect! How dare you talk down to this holy community!
ANNABELLE: Do you know not the fear that keeps us as nothing but obedient animals? Do you see not these frail girls? The men, they beat us for repentance, minor infractions of an absent mind, and you do nothing but stand and watch? Listen to our cries? Do you see not the injustice upon which this convent is built? The fear I have known for so long–
DAMARIS: You will not speak out against this convent! Our practices mean to induce piety!
ANNABELLE: Mother, do you know how I came to this place?
DAMARIS: Indeed I know this, child, now at once–
ANNABELLE: You do not. You know not the things I have seen. The evil so close so as to graze my cheek!
DAMARIS: (astonished) What say you? What is this evil, child? You know nothing of evil!
ANNABELLE: I know the evil of death. The unceasing pain, the fear in my young brother’s eyes–
DAMARIS: What brother? You have no brother! You have only this, the holy community of the nuns and your sorority of sisters!
(Annabelle stands to meet Damaris at eye level. All restraint that may have saved her has been thrown to the wind.)
ANNABELLE: Do not repudiate my family, condemn them to the void of forgotten souls. How dare you. They’re dead. They lie dead in the fields of my childhood, their bones collecting dust and you have forgotten.
DAMARIS: Child, I demand you cease this obscenity at once!
ANNABELLE: You forsake my past, my wonderful past, you damn who I once was. I care not. I do not forget. I lived among the kingdom of nature. A home atop a small hill, overlooking the fields and forests of the earth. A family of beautiful souls, a mother and father, bearing the boundless gift of love for myself and my younger brother. The kindness we shared, for ourselves, for all other beings and the world around us.
DAMARIS: Blasphemy! You speak of the kingdom of nature. There is only the kingdom of God!
ANNABELLE: Silence! I have sat in waiting and in fear these two years for the moment to speak these words and you will be silent while you take them now. I was given twelve lashes for this loaf of bread, this simple kindness, and I will not sit still any longer to take your rope. You will see the emptiness of your words. You will see what haunts me. I have seen evil. I am not a child. My spirit is old. I am much older than you. Those Catholic soldiers, those men of God, they came on horses and wore a devilish grin as they destroyed who I was. With their swords they cut down my mother, my father, my brother, no older than four, and with their torches they burned my house, where I lay in hiding. I escaped and fell in the tall grass, mourning this loss that no person ought to bear. Then I came to the town and was made to enter this convent. It was you who pulled me in, saying if I refused it would be condemnation to begging and dying in the streets of this town.
DAMARIS: That is what you will do now, child! How dare you indict me in this matter! You shall beg! You shall beg indeed!
ANNABELLE: I would now were it not for the anger that weighs on my heart! Now is the time to release it, to rightfully damn you as you should be damned!
(At this, Annabelle extends her arm and, in a sweeping motion, desecrates a small vigil, sweeping it off its pedestal, sending lit candles through the musty air and iconography to the floor.)
DAMARIS: Do not cast such sentences at me, for I am not the one who killed your family!
ANNABELLE: Do not so easily acquit yourself, Mother. ‘Twas you and your steadfast belief in giving the world your God, whether it wanted it or not. You and your kind. My family was killed because they were thought to be pagans and what is the gain, Mother? Three fewer souls to save?
DAMARIS: (pointing her long finger, jabbing as if it were a weapon) Damn you to hell! You girl, you have no understanding of the ways of God. For your two years of obedience here you know nothing! And now you speak and condemn yourself! Repent! Repent, now! (looks to the ceiling) Oh, Lord…
ANNABELLE: (struggling against her education) No, no, I won’t–
DAMARIS: (hands clasped) Oh, Lord–
(In one swift motion, Annabelle drops to her knees and clasps her hands together, each one pressing on the other with astonishing force. The sudden, methodical way in which this occurs gives one the thought that she could be possessed, as if some dark force was controlling this compulsion.)
DAMARIS: Oh, Lord–
ANNABELLE: (shouting to the heavens) Oh, Lord–
DAMARIS: I have lost my way, my path to salvation.
ANNABELLE: I have lost my way, my path to salvation.
DAMARIS: May you show me the meaning of mercy.
(Annabelle breaks the trance, and stands up in as violent a motion as when she knelt.)
ANNABELLE: No! No! None of this! You know nothing of mercy, Damaris! You know nothing of understanding the souls of those who are not as you are!
DAMARIS: (zealous, preaching) It is the word of God! The heathen will be converted or else killed!
ANNABELLE: (stands) Silence! Witch you are, for as long as you had your grip on my life, living in the pit of despair, in silence with that wicked image branded upon my mind. The image of those soldiers of God, your God, slaying my family in front of me. (quieter, solemnly) Never will the red of their blood, the gray of their eyes be scrubbed from my memory.
DAMARIS: To the street with you, demon! I will hear no more of this poison!
ANNABELLE: You fool. You still believe you are righteous. You believe you know of the world around you from a book. May you one day learn from the world itself. The trees tell truth beyond any human mouth, beyond any written word. And you are so blind, to shut yourself in this stone prison for all time, away from all the world. I can only offer you my pity.
DAMARIS: And I spit it back in your face, wench. Pity. It is a pity you came here in the first place. It is a pity you were not made to atone for your paganism as your family was.
ANNABELLE: I can take whatever hatred you cast at me. I am twice the person you are.
DAMARIS: (turns away) In God’s eyes you are little more than a burr on a dead animal.
ANNABELLE: And how does he see you? Do you think because of your years of piety you will be saved? Yet your mind will never waver from God. It is all you know, and yet you know nothing.
DAMARIS: (softly, a final effort) No, child. In the end it is you who know nothing. You forget the knight, and all his suffering in the face of death and disillusionment. He had the fortitude, the bravery, the strength and hardness to endure these evils, and in the end finds the Lord. But you have forsaken those traits. You are weak, as weak in the mind as a farm animal. You cannot accept his actions, his will. Your heart has strayed from God, and if you do not atone, you will find Hell at the end.
ANNABELLE: You fool. Here you sit, big as life yet small as a mouse, citing an old tale of the Crusades to justify your faith. (genuinely curious) Why do you condemn the hearts of others? What gives you the right? Who was it that gave you and your contemporaries the jurisdiction to damn who you please? What maniac conceived it?
DAMARIS: Curse you. Curse you, child.
ANNABELLE: Where is your kindness? Your love? Why do you have none? Why did you not give me that, that eternal escape from the despair around us?
DAMARIS: (as if reciting her rebuttal) Not despair. Discipline. The means to bow in piety, with purity and selflessness. Those who cannot will find the bitter end. It is the Lord’s demand..
ANNABELLE: Then your Lord is broken. To steal the hopes, the dreams of others. Why do you not forgive them? You speak of mercy but I have not seen it. And I find only doubt in my heart when I go searching for it. My family believed in peace. Now I only believe in justice. I lack the will to rob the life of another, but that does not spare you. You will suffer me. I haunt your memory. I have hollowed out your words. I curse you.
(She turns; a peace, a serenity in her face now.)
ANNABELLE: Now I exit for the world, and leave you alone with this. That will be enough.
DAMARIS: Your excommunication means death, Annabelle. Exit this chapel and enter your grave.
ANNABELLE: Do you not see the death that I am? The death that surrounds me: from my eyes, darkened with fatigue, to my heart, shriveled for lack of love. ‘Twas you who killed me, Mother. I am already dead. My body will wither and my soul will depart: not for Hell but for the cathedral of the forest. And here you will remain, decaying under the weight of your falseness and guilt, locked in the tomb of your mind and the prison of your heart. Both built tall and strong with hardest stone. May you never escape. May you never feel the freedom I feel now. That is my final hope. All else is clear to me now, after all. After you. I hope you may never be free.
(Exit Annabelle: Damaris is left alone in her silence and her guilt. She cannot speak to refute what she says. She lets the girl leave, and remains locked in stone. The weight of all this grows too heavy, and she collapses to her knees, her hands, and her head on the cold ground, weeping for the hope that will never come to pass, for the truth that has just passed out of her unforgiving world.)