Everything about Sister Florentina was black. Her habit was black, hanging off her thin frame, reminiscent of a starved crow. The hair beneath her wimple was black with tight, mean curls that clung to her scalp. The crucifix that hung from her waist appeared black glinting in the flickering glow of a dozen candles as she prostrated herself beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary in the chapel. What the Virgin Mary failed to perceive as she looked benignly down at the nun was that Sister Florentina’s heart was also black.
She was an efficient sister in charge of three dozen children, some orphans, some not. Not a warm woman, she projected an inhospitable coldness. Her gaze, blue eyes, raked a child from top to bottom, seeking out imperfection, a hair band not quite straight, and button slightly loose, a shoe not quite polished enough. Lips were dragged into a thin disapproving line, like a small tear on a white wrinkled sheet of paper.
She spoke softly, barely raising her voice above a whisper. Every word was carefully presented, every syllable drawn out. Hers was monotone voice with little variation in pitch and tone and the most harmless of observations took on menacing quality. She wielded the name of Jesus like a whip, snapping it over the heads of girls who whispered or giggled.
“When Jesus invited the children to come to him…he didn’t mean you, Collridge! What would he want with a child like you?”
Children were addressed by their surnames as if she disapproved of the frivolous manner in which most parents named their children.
Children, thought Sister Florentina, were instruments of evil in their natural state. Born into original sin, they were tormented throughout life with carnal and base desires. It was her job to break the hold of the devil and present the children unblemished before their creator. The devil, she knew, would not surrender to kind words and gentle caresses, so she offered none to his hosts. She would never have entertained the idea that she was cruel, but interpreted kindness as weakness and gentleness as pampering.
Grace Fraser was just twelve when she came to stay at the orphanage. Her father’s recent death had propelled her mother into a respite home, and Grace into Sister Florentina’s care. Like the conjunction of planets in the solar system, so many factors lined up to rob Grace of all her usual support systems and left her fragile.
It wasn’t so much the spoken reprimands, or even the sharp slap of a hand against the back of her legs that hurt Grace, but the subtle things. A picture over the door of the room she shared with the other girls depicted a graphic scene of twisted bodies being poked into hell. A hand worked sampler in faded colours in a heavy gold embossed frame reminded her that God was watching her. Even Sister Florentina’s critical gaze seemed to confirm that Grace was a wicked girl. Her father’s death and her mother’s illness were all somehow her fault. Jesus, she knew, would want nothing to do with a child like her.
Grace had been in the orphanage no longer than six weeks when Emily Collridge found her body. No one could account for the empty bottle of tablets underneath her pillow. The enquiry pronounced “death my misadventure”. Grace’s misadventure, thought Emily, was falling into the care of Sister Florentina.
It will come as no surprise that Sister Florentina petitioned the bishop against the decision to allow Grace to be buried in the chapel’s small cemetery. He did not need to be reminded that suicide is a sin, but she reminded him anyway.