by Sarah Law
1. Laundry: 1895
These are hard days:
the sodden sheets, robes, scapulars
are scrubbed with salt and ash
and now need rinsing,
rolling, beating, rinsing again,
in the convent’s wash-house pool.
Every nun is needed; they jostle
each other at the water’s edge,
grip their wooden paddles,
plunge their hands into the cold.
The heavy fabrics billow and contract;
their fingers burn and freeze.
To keep their spirits up, they sing,
rounds and home-made verses,
pummeling, wringing in rhythm—
then Sister Marie-Joseph
splashes Therese, her neighbour,
with sour grey water. She
closes her eyes too briefly
to be noticed. When she opens them,
they shine—on Marie-Joseph,
and her lilting hymn, the blue-white
skin of the sisters’ wrists, the dim
reflections of the pool—on everything.
2. Therese and Martha, March 1896
to convent drudgery,
the cold of the wash-house
the hen coop’s stink,
fell just a little
for the Mother Prioress.
Most sisters did—
her Roman nose,
a sudden, flashing smile
and you’d be hooked.
Therese, just sixteen,
how sweet such crumbs
taste on dark days.
Still she took Martha
under her wing,
helped her wash
her heart until it shone
to crack and hatch
a fledgling love,
to doubt’s black spot.
SARAH LAW lives in London, UK, and tutors in Creative Writing and English Literature for the Open University and elsewhere. She has published five books of poetry, the latest of which is Ink’s Wish (Gatehouse Press 2014). She is interested in saints, sinners, medieval mystics, and the twists and turns of language.
Photo: “Laundry day” by Karlis Kadegis