Nyasha lay on her side, knees curled up to her chest. One hand burrowed under the pillow; the other pressed close to her chest, a blanket carefully stuffed between arm and torso to simulate the feel of a stuffed bear or a rag doll. Her breathing was slow, deep, even. Her eyes were closed. Anyone looking in would surely think she was asleep, as all good little girls should be at this hour.
Nyasha was not asleep.
It wasn’t for want of trying. That she would maintain until her dying day. She’d tried everything. Deep breathing, a warm cup of milk before she went upstairs, stretching and relaxing once in bed. She’d tried counting sheep, and even her blessings, though Mother Julian had called that bit of advice “overrated, unless you want to bring on more guilt and make it harder to fall asleep.” Still, when desperate, one was willing to try anything.
The only thing Nyasha seemed able to count through the darkening hours were her anxieties — and unlike gently bleating sheep or even sometimes-soothing blessings, there was no end to them. And they were precisely the thing keeping her awake.
She had, for instance, seen Widow Thatcher today.
It wasn’t that Nyasha didn’t like Widow Thatcher. Far from it. If anything, the older woman reminded Nyasha of Mother Julian: careful and smart, with perhaps little patience for people who insisted on acting like fools but boundless love and affection for those wise enough to try to help themselves first. Maybe Widow Thatcher’s speech was rougher, and maybe she said some things that Nyasha suspected Mother Julian might think but would never say, but she seemed kind enough. What wasn’t to like about that?
Yes, that was the problem: Nyasha couldn’t find anything not to like, except for the fact that Widow Thatcher, like Mother Julian, could be a bit strict and demanding when she wanted something from you. And she was intimidating enough to make Nyasha want to melt into her boots and never leave. She had wagered she had shown that she was intimidated a bit too much, and that had destroyed her chances.
For Widow Thatcher was looking for an apprentice. She wanted a little girl to train up to be a midwife just like her. Midwifing was a good job, the kind that would keep you in bread through lean times and through fat ones, too. It was the kind of apprenticeship that orphan bastards didn’t get, because the children with two married parents tended to snap them all up. It was the chance of a lifetime.
And Nyasha had blown it.
She hadn’t known the right things to say. That was the problem. Nyasha was good at giving the right answers, if she knew them in advance. Of course she knew that good girls were supposed to be honest and true, and Widow Thatcher had even told her to be honest, but everybody knew that no grown-up really wanted honest answers from a child. When the teachers, even Sister Margery, asked you a question, they didn’t want to hear what you thought. They wanted to hear what they themselves had told you, time and time again, preferably just the way they told it.
But Nyasha had never talked to Widow Thatcher before, at least not for any length of time. Widow Thatcher had never told her anything to parrot back to her. So Nyasha had to fall back on the position of just being truthful, and that was what had done her in.
Widow Thatcher had asked her how she was with hard work. Well, Nyasha was good with that, because she had to work hard all the time. It was the girls who kept the nunnery mostly clean, with Mother Julian of course, because Mother Julian said that all the girls would need skills and scrubbing a floor was a useful skill to have. So that had been an easy question. The next question had been harder. Widow Thatcher had asked Nyasha how she was with blood.
Nyasha should have seen where this was going. When Nyasha had turned ten, Mother Julian had taken her aside and explained to her about the “facts of life,” where babies came from and how Nyasha’s own body would be changing in a few years, so she could have a baby someday. Everybody knew that women’s bodies had far too much blood, so they had to shed some every month or so. And Nyasha knew, too, because Mother Julian had told her, that birthing babies involved a lot of blood.
But Nyasha didn’t like blood. Even when she got little cuts on her fingers and scrapes on her knees and elbows, she grew woozy and her stomach turned. Other Sims’ blood was worse, if that was even possible. She couldn’t even be in the room when Mother Julian had to bandage up one of the other girls.
And like a silly goose, she told all of this to Widow Thatcher!
She knew she had done wrong when Widow Thatcher’s lips had twisted and she had murmured, “I see, lass. I see.” Then she smiled a little ruefully and patted Nyasha’s hair, and called her a good girl and thanked her for being honest. That was when Nyasha knew she was in trouble. Grown-ups never thanked you for being honest unless you had said something that wouldn’t be any good for you. Then Widow Thatcher had gone off to find Mother Julian.
Then, if possible, it got worse. Because Widow Thatcher hadn’t found Mother Julian at first. She’d found Rhoslyn.
Rhoslyn was everything Nyasha wasn’t … well, at least when it came to blood. She almost seemed to have an odd … fascination with it, always helping Mother Julian out when one of the other girls needed a bandage applied or a splinter pulled. She was bold, too, brassy in a way Widow Thatcher might just like. She was a hard worker, too, even a harder one than Nyasha. When Nyasha mopped a floor or cleaned a sink, it shone. When Rhoslyn mopped a floor or cleaned a sink, it practically sung.
Widow Thatcher hadn’t said much to Rhoslyn. Nothing overt, anyway. But there had been the poke of a smile at the corner of her lips, a knowing lift of one eyebrow and an amused placing of her hands on her hips. She’d seemed to quite enjoy taking issue with some of the more outlandish things Rhoslyn had said, deftly popping her bubbles just to see how Rhoslyn would endeavor to fill them up again.
And the worst thing? The very, very, worst thing?
Rhoslyn was Nyasha’s best friend. No, she was more than a best friend: she was a sister. The two of them had grown up together, spending their whole lives in this very nunnery. They had been each other’s only companion and playmate until Jean had come back from the babies’ orphanage … and when that had happened, well, Jean had been only four, while Rhoslyn had been eight and Nyasha nine. They had still been each other’s best and most constant companions.
So if Rhoslyn got to be the midwife’s apprentice … how could Nyasha be anything other than happy for her?
But Nyasha still worried. So she had done a Bad Thing, even though she knew she shouldn’t. When Mother Julian and Widow Thatcher had found each other, they had both gone into Mother Julian’s office and shut the door. That was the sign for the girls to keep away unless there was an emergency. But Nyasha hadn’t kept away. She had hung about outside the door, trying to listen.
She wasn’t supposed to do bad things — well, nobody was supposed to do bad things, Mother Julian had been quite upfront about that. But Nyasha and the other girls especially weren’t supposed to do them. Most other Sims thought that because their mothers had done bad things, they too would grow up to do bad things. So they had to be extra careful to be good, so people wouldn’t think they were bad automatically.
None of the girls liked this. It wasn’t fair. The problem was that when they complained as such, Mother Julian … agreed with them. “Of course it’s not fair,” she would say, giving the complaining girl or girls a look. “I don’t like it any more than you do. But that’s how it is. And the only way you’re going to make your way in the world is if you prove those nasty, small-minded people wrong, again and again and again. And maybe, if you keep proving them wrong, they’ll eventually realize they are wrong, and choose other things to be nasty and small-minded about.”
It didn’t seem like much of a solution to Nyasha. But there was still something to be said for being good, and not doing things like eavesdropping. Because what she had heard … hadn’t been good.
“She ain’t right, Mother, an’ I’m afraid that’s all there is to it. Oh, she’s a good girl, like ye say. But she can’t stand the sight o’ blood an’ admits as such. What am I supposed ter do with a girl what can’t look at blood?”
“But she is a smart girl, and a dutiful one. Perhaps you could train her to mix up your potions or salves or –”
“Oh, I could, no question o’ that. But what good would that be, Mother? A girl can’t earn her bread just fixin’ potions. She’d have ter be able ter see ter the folks’ little problems — all the things she can’t handle. An’ I need a successor. Once I can’t work no more — well, who are the poor women ter go to? Not a fancy doctor like Lady Clarice. She’d be too expensive fer ’em. An’ not Brother Andy, neither. No woman’s gonna want a man down at the other end o’ her at that time, let me tell ye.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that … but, Widow Thatcher, you’re the best opportunity I’ve had come along for one of my girls. Is there any way I could get you to reconsider?”
“No. Not on Nyasha. But I would like to talk about Rhoslyn.”
With all that in mind — was it any wonder that Nyasha couldn’t sleep?
So she lay in bed, now staring up at the … well, it wasn’t the ceiling. It was the slats holding up the mattress above her head. But unlike the old nursery, this bed didn’t have the comforting form of Rhoslyn to creak and shift above her. There was nobody in there but Nyasha. All of the beds in the nursery were filled up, and so Mother Julian, instead of moving more beds in, had moved Nyasha into the bigger bedroom, the one that was meant to house the other nuns … if there ever were any other nuns.
Nyasha’s eyes went wide. Other nuns. Of course! There it was — the answer to her problem! The orphanage couldn’t keep caring for girls after they hit the age of twelve; they had to be sent out into the world to find work. But you could become a nun as young as twelve. If Nyasha chose to become a nun …
Then nobody could make her leave! And it wouldn’t matter that Widow Thatcher didn’t want her as an apprentice! She could just stay here.
The idea was so brilliant that it was amazing Nyasha hadn’t thought of it before. But that wasn’t all. An idea that clever needed to be talked over. And Nyasha knew just the person to talk it over with.
She scurried out of bed and out of the room, tiptoeing across the frigid balcony that was the only connection between the different rooms of the upstairs of the nunnery.
She tiptoed a little faster than was best, but with the flagstones so cold, Nyasha had to wonder if there was any other sensible way to get across. Once across, of course, it was child’s play to open the door that led to the nursery. It wasn’t even locked. It couldn’t be — none of the bedrooms in the nunnery had a lock on them.
And once there, it equally wasn’t anything for Nyasha to creep up to the bed that had once been her own, the bed where Rhoslyn slept now. “Psst — psst, Rhoslyn!”
“Rhoslyn!” Nyasha shook her arm, glancing around nervously. But she probably needn’t have bothered. The other girls were deep sleepers all. They had, unlike Nyasha and Rhoslyn, spent their earliest years crowded into a single room with as many as six or eight other babies and toddlers. If they hadn’t learned to sleep through that, they never would have gotten any sleep at all.
“Come on, Rhoslyn, wake up!” Nyasha whispered. Then she said the four words made to drag Rhoslyn out of a perfect slumber. “I have an idea …”
Rhoslyn’s eyes popped open. “Huh?”
“I have an idea! But I want to talk about it with you.”
Rhoslyn yawned and sat up, rubbing one eye. “What time is it?”
“I dunno. Late.”
“Humph.” Nyasha couldn’t see her friend’s expression, but she was sure Rhoslyn was pouting. Rhoslyn might have had energy enough for three during the day, but when night came, she wanted to sleep. “It better be a good idea.”
“It is! I figured out a way to not have to leave at the beginning of the year!”
Rhoslyn’s eyebrows went up, and she grabbed Nyasha’s arm. “Come on. Let’s talk about it in your room.”
Your room. That was what Rhoslyn always insisted on calling the nuns’ chamber. But maybe it would work now, if Nyasha became a nun. It really would be her room.
They scrambled inside, Rhoslyn lighting the candle over Nyasha’s bed. She frowned a little at the unmade bedclothes, but amazingly — for Rhoslyn — ignored them in favor of plopping onto the floor. Nyasha plopped down, too. “So,” Rhoslyn demanded, “What’s your idea?”
Nyasha gulped and rolled her shoulders. “I … I think I’m going to be a nun.”
Rhoslyn blinked. “Huh?”
“You know. When I turn twelve. Instead of having to go out and — and take care of myself, I’ll tell Mother Julian I want to be a nun. She always says she doesn’t have enough nuns! So if I want to be one, then she’d have to let me be one, aye?” Nyasha fingered some of the strands of hair that were perpetually working their way loose from their braids. “Right?”
“… I dunno, Nyasha.”
“Do you really want to be a nun? And be stuck in here forever? And never get to go out and … and be normal, or be in a family, or anything?”
Nyasha slumped. A family. That was another reason why she had wanted to be Widow Thatcher’s apprentice. It was just Widow Thatcher and her son, and being with them would have been almost like … a family. But if she got sent to work as a maid somewhere, then she’d just be one more servant among many, and she’d probably never get that chance, ever. She already knew that boys didn’t marry girls like her, girls who had mas they couldn’t talk about and das they didn’t know anything about.
“… Well, we’re never gonna be normal, anyway,” Nyasha mumbled. “‘Cause everyone knows what we are.”
“We might never be normal here, but once we’re grown, we can go anywhere! We can go to Glasonland and Reme, and say we’re sisters –”
“Rhoslyn, nobody’s gonna believe we’re sisters.”
“Stepsisters, then,” Rhoslyn shrugged. “We could be stepsisters! Anyway, we can make up any old story we like about ourselves, and people will believe us, ’cause they don’t know any different! Then we can be normal.”
“Except we can’t,” Nyasha mumbled. “‘Cause we’ll get indentured once we’re bound out. Mother Julian says.”
“People run away from indentures all the time! Who’s to say we couldn’t, once we were old and big enough?”
“But that wouldn’t be right.”
“Says who? An’ why?”
Nyasha frowned and scratched her head. “I dunno,” she admitted after a moment’s long thought. “Except it just wouldn’t.”
“Well, we could still try to be normal,” Rhoslyn added. “Even if we were here. As as long as we don’t do anything bad, Mother Julian says people will have to treat us the same. ‘Cause they’ll realize they’re being stupid.”
“Running away from our indentures would be bad! They’d treat us different then!”
“Not if it worked.” Rhoslyn waved a hand dismissively. “If it worked, they’d have to treat us the same, ’cause they wouldn’t know any better!
Nyasha wrinkled her nose. She had to admit that the idea had a certain appeal …
At least, it did until the candleflame suddenly gasped and guttered, a cold wind blew up Nyasha’s back, and a sudden familiar tapping of a foot claimed all of Nyasha’s attention. “Ahem. Girls?”
Nyasha froze. So did the smile on Rhoslyn’s face. “H-hi, Mother Julian …”
“Bed,” was all Mother Julian replied to that.
“Bed, Rhoslyn! It’s late. You — we all have school tomorrow. We’ll discuss this in the morning. In the meantime, you belong in bed.”
Rhoslyn sighed and hung her head. “Yes, Mother Julian.” She rose and padded out the door. Nyasha still sat frozen, not nearly brave enough to turn around and look at Mother Julian’s face. Or Rhoslyn’s face, for that matter, since Nyasha was sure she was getting sent some very, very dirty looks.
“And next time you decide to go sneaking around at night,” Mother Julian hissed out the doors, “put on some slippers, for goodness sake! You’ll catch your death of cold or frostbite or both!” Nyasha still wasn’t brave enough to turn around, but she knew Mother Julian was shaking her head, the ties of her coif flapping around her shoulders. She could never be bothered to tie it, since she said the strap always irritated her chin. She pinned it into her hair instead.
“And that goes for you, too, Nyasha,” Mother Julian added. “I’m sure I heard two pairs of little footsteps sneaking past my bedroom door.”
Nyasha hunched even farther into herself, if it were possible.
“Now up and to bed with you, my lass. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
“But Mother Julian –”
She raised a hand. “It’s late. As I said, we’ll –”
“But — but Mother Julian! I want to be a nun!”
That made Mother Julian do something Nyasha hadn’t ever before seen her do. She stopped still. Then she cleared her throat and gave Nyasha a long, hard look. “Eh?”
“I want to be a — a nun,” Nyasha replied. Her heart was pounding fast, because this was it, wasn’t it? She was leaping feet-first into her future. This — this was the moment that would decide how the rest of her life went. And she had to get it right. She’d already messed up one such moment this afternoon. “I want to be a novice. When I turn twelve. Can–can I?”
“Why?” Mother Julian asked.
“Why do you want to be a nun, dear?”
The dear — that made Nyasha relax. So she wasn’t in trouble. Well, at least not for this. “I …” She tensed up again. Why did she want to be a nun? Because this time, she knew better than to make the mistake of telling the truth.
“To — to serve the Lord Wright,” she replied. That had to be the right answer, didn’t it? That was what Sister Margery said monks and nuns were called to do. But Mother Julian didn’t smile. Her eyes only narrowed. “And … and …” Nyasha bit her lip. “To help other orphans. Like me.”
Then Mother Julian did a strange thing. She crouched to Nyasha’s level. With one hand, she took Nyasha’s chin and turned her head so that she could see into her eyes. And with the other, she smoothed back Nyasha’s hair. “No,” she murmured before letting go of Nyasha’s chin and standing up again. “No, that’s not why.”
“Why do you really want to be a nun, Nyasha?”
Mother Julian watched with one eyebrow raised.
“I don’t want to leave,” Nyasha mumbled. “Here. When I turn twelve. And … and …”
“I don’t want to go, Mother! Please just let me a novice! Please, please! I’ll be good, I promise!”
“Oh, sweetie, of course you would be good. You’d be very good. But … no.”
“What? But you said I’d be good!”
“And you would be. But, Nyasha …” Mother Julian ruffled her hair once again. “Being a nun is a big decision to make. It’s one you can’t ever go back on, because it’s a promise you make to the Lord. And you can’t break those kinds of promises. So I wouldn’t be doing the right thing by you, letting you make that kind of decision without at least seeing what the world has to offer you.”
“But leaving is a big decision, too! And I don’t — I don’t want to!”
“But if you leave here,” Mother Julian pointed out, “you can always come back, after you’ve seen a bit of the world and if — if — you decide that you want to leave it for good.”
Nyasha froze. “I — I could?”
“But … I’d be indentured. You said.”
“Oh, there are ways around that,” Mother Julian laughed. Nyasha’s eyes bugged half out of her head. She never thought she’d hear Mother Julian start to sound like Rhoslyn! “Don’t you fret about that. If you truly have a vocation, once you’re old enough to tell, I’ll find out some way to get you back.”
“Do — do you promise?” Nyasha asked.
Mother Julian’s eyebrow went up. “Would I lie?”
“Then what do you think the answer will be? Oh, come here, sweetie …” She held out her arms and Nyasha vaulted into them. “It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. And even once you leave, I’ll be seeing you almost every day, remember? You’ll still be coming to school.”
“I … I guess …”
“And if anything goes wrong, don’t you worry but I’ll figure out a way to get you back here. One way or another!” Mother Julian gave her one last squeeze, then a faint whack to the bottom. “Now get you into bed, lassie. Old ladies and young ones alike need their rest.”
Nyasha hadn’t been raised by Mother Julian for her whole life to not know when she meant business. So to bed she went, blowing out the candle. Mother Julian tucked her in before leaving the room herself.
Leaving Nyasha alone and staring at the underside of the empty bed above her once more.
But maybe … just maybe … this time, she would find sleep.