The buzz of the tattoo gun causes her back to stiffen in anticipation,
and she braces herself against the unknown. Her long black habit is
draped over a high stool, the white scapular a stark contrast against
the ebony fabric. The halter top Helen lent her for the occasion makes
her feel like she’s fourteen again, though many decades have passed
since her flesh has been exposed like this.
The bearded man with the septum-piercing places a gloved hand on her
“Are you ready, Sister?” he asks, bemused by this irregular client.
“Go for it,” she tells him, and shuts her eyes tight as a sharp
sensation presses into her skin. The vibration of the needle sends a
throbbing pressure through her body, pulsations of dull heat, but she
breathes deep, relaxes into the foreign feeling. Across the room, Helen
sits on a fake leather couch, slouched forward over her knees.
“How do you feel, Bea?” she asks, her furrowed brow betraying guilt.
Beatrice winces as the tattooist wipes away excess ink with a cool, damp
cloth. “Totally fine, Helen. It’s not as bad as I thought!”
Helen stands up and walks around the shop, her eyes roving over posters
of half-naked pinup girls, bodies covered in swirling vines, blooming
flowers. Leering skulls, religious figures. She steps toward Beatrice
and the tattooist. “What’s your name again?” she asks him, as if this
information will clear her mind of doubt.
“People call me Snake,” he says, and Beatrice laughs out loud.
“Perfect,” Helen mutters.
“What about you two?” Snake asks, throwing a questioning look in Helen’s
direction. “What’s your story?”
Helen regards this woman who has become a friend, a mother, a teacher.
Her mind circles back to that day in the churchyard, and she begins to
tell Snake how they met. Beatrice shuts her eyes against the sting of
the needle and focuses on Helen’s voice so she can relive the experience
as a distraction from the pain.
Beatrice is on her knees pulling weeds from the gardens that line the
base of the church. The large brown stones of the walls are cool,
protected from the burning rays of the sun by the shade of an oak tree
fabled to be a hundred and fifty years old. They say a sister planted it
as a tribute to her forbidden lover, a priest back in England. Of
course, this legend is only whispered late at night in the halls of the
convent, not something the sisters would speak of in the light of day.
She works all morning, pruning the roses, trimming the hedge. This is no
ordinary garden; this is Beatrice’s life. When she joined the order, she
struggled to find her place within the sisterhood. She could not bake,
she hated cleaning. She was not a born leader and did not want to head
the choir or the prayer groups. But she did have one hell of a green
thumb. And so, she has been allowed to create a lovely Eden of sorts, a
paradise where parishioners can walk the path to mass and reflect on the
beauty of nature.
A sudden movement catches Beatrice’s attention, a play of light and
shadow upon the grass to her left. She turns, and there is a girl. Tall
and lean, dressed all in black with hair the color of a plum, the skin
around her eye bruised a similar shade of purple. Beatrice stands up
“Can I help you, dear?”
The girl doesn’t answer right away, and Beatrice wonders for a moment if
she is in shock. Finally, she speaks.
“I used to come here all the time. When I was a kid.”
Beatrice nods, asks the girl, who appears to be in her early twenties,
if she’d like to go inside the church and look around.
“No, I like the garden. It was always my favorite part.”
Beatrice smiles. “Me too.”
Beatrice offers her a drink of water, asks her if she needs a place to
stay. The girl declines, says she only wants to sit a while and look at
the flowers. Beatrice gestures to the stone bench under the oak. “Stay
as long as you like.”
The girl returns often; not every single day, but Beatrice begins to
count on speaking with her at least three or four times a week. She
learns the girl’s name. In bits and pieces, Helen reveals snatches of
her life, her turmoil. She does not linger on details, only spits out
essential facts like nails from her mouth in passing. Dead mother, drunk
father. A boyfriend far too old for her, with a penchant for violent
outbursts. When Beatrice’s questions probe deeper, Helen evades, a wall
springs up around her like a shield. What she does like to talk about is
“I don’t believe in him,” she says, and Beatrice leans forward. She
makes no comment, only tilts her head, hoping that Helen will continue.
“It’s all bullshit, you know? A bedtime story, a fairy tale. Not to
mention the hypocrisy. The absolute absurdity of it all.”
Beatrice shrugs. “I know what you mean.”
“You do?” Helen is confused, had expected resistance from Beatrice.
“Of course. Do you think it’s easy for me to dismiss all that? I’ve had
many years to ponder my own misgivings, to find ways to justify them
within my own heart.”
“So you don’t fully agree with everything the church teaches?”
“No. What woman could?”
After that, Helen arrives with small presents for Beatrice, a tea or a
muffin from a coffee shop. They spend the summer talking at great length
in the garden about everything from abortion to Buddhism, from sexuality
to mythology. Helen is surprised by Beatrice’s open mindedness. Beatrice
is intrigued by Helen’s philosophical nature. Neither can budge the
other, Helen remaining steadfastly atheist, Beatrice’s faith blossoming
as it never has before. One afternoon, Beatrice says with finality, “I
don’t think any of it matters, not really.”
Helen is floored. “How can you devote your life to something that
“You misunderstand me. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t matter what
religion you choose, it doesn’t matter if you never choose one at all.
God is not a doctrine or a set of commandments. It’s not about any one
philosophy or way of life. And he’s not a him. Or a her. God is just
everything. God is….” At this point her eyes dart over the
immaculate flower beds. “God is the flowers.” She stoops to pluck a
Cosmo from the riot of wildflowers blooming in the corner by the church
“Cosmos,” she continues, “Named by Spanish priests because of the
astonishing symmetry of their petals. A symbol of harmony and balance
within the universe. Now you look at this flower, and tell me there is
nothing out there, no divine force, no meaning to anything.”
Helen’s eyes gloss over for a moment as she stares at the bright fuscia
petals, and Beatrice thinks she’s gotten through to her. Hopes that she
will contemplate the minutiae of creation, insects, babies, the billions
of stars in the fathomless sky. But no, Helen shakes her head and takes
off her plaid shirt. Underneath, she’s wearing a tank top, revealing
arms covered in a pattern of black roses and winding vines. “According
to the bible, I’ll burn in hell for defiling my body with these tattoos.
Not to mention all the premarital sex I’ve been having.”
Beatrice throws back her head and laughs. “No way,” she says, “I think
you know that’s ridiculous. If you think for one second the creative
force that produced the universe cares about a drawing of a flower on a
girl’s arm, I assure you, you are quite mistaken.”
“Ok,” Helen responds, warming to the debate. “Get one then. I dare you.”
Here in the shop Snake listens as Helen recounts the start of their
unlikely friendship. “So let me get this straight,” he says to Beatrice,
“you’re getting this tattoo to prove that God doesn’t consider it a
“I suppose I’m getting it to prove to Helen that we are all one, and
wherever she ends up in the next life, I’ll be there too.”
Snake’s expression manifests sheer wonder, and Helen is stunned into
silence. Beatrice asks Snake about a large cross tattooed on his
forearm. “I was brought up Catholic,” he says. “First Communion,
Confession, Confirmation; the whole bit. Got married over at St.
Patrick’s right after high school. The wife left me a few years back,
and I haven’t set foot inside since. They don’t look kindly on divorce,
or people like me in general. With all due respect, Sister.”
“Yes,” she answers. “Helen reminds me all the time of the many
problematic stances the church upholds.”
Helen describes her own fall from faith. “When I was sixteen, I got
pregnant. They kicked me out of school.” Snake pauses in his work, and
he and Beatrice observe Helen, her dark eyes cast down to the floor. “I
ended up having a miscarriage, and all I could think about was this one
religion teacher we had. She said that unbaptized babies could never get
into heaven. I didn’t believe it, but I couldn’t get this image of tiny
souls floating around in some black void out of my head.”
“I totally understand,” Snake says, leaning back in to continue shading
Beatrice sighs. “I do feel sometimes as though I’ve embarked on an
impossible mission. But I do my best to promote change, and over time,
perhaps some good can be done. I don’t know if I would choose the same
path if I had the chance to do it all over again, but that kind of
thinking leads nowhere fast.”
“I usually have a strict policy with my customers,” Snake says, “No
religion and no politics. Gets too heavy.” Beatrice chuckles and steers
the conversation toward an idea that’s been forming in her mind.
Mentions that Helen’s been volunteering at the women’s shelter, since
she broke things off with the abusive boyfriend.
Snake is happy to hear Helen has removed herself from that toxic
relationship. He’s surprised when she suggests going to the nearest pub
with Beatrice to celebrate losing her skin virginity.
He blushes when Beatrice agrees and invites him along. “Wait,” he says,
“If you don’t mind me asking, Sister, you drink alcohol?”
“Father Michael enjoys a stiff whisky in the evening,” Beatrice retorts.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
Snake lets out a low whistle, charmed by Beatrice. He wipes sweat from
his brow with the back of his wrist. “Count me in.”
They pass a few quiet moments while Snake finishes up his work. “All
done, Sister. I hope this decision doesn’t fill your soul with regret.”
He beckons to Helen, who strides over to observe the freshly inked skin
of Beatrice’s back. A cluster of colorful Cosmos, delicately rendered in
pinks, purples, whites and yellows. She nods in approval as he holds a
mirror for Beatrice to see as well.
“Oh my,” Beatrice whispers, “It’s beautiful! How talented you are,
Snake. Thank you for sharing your gift with me.”
Snake covers the sensitive area gently with clear wrap, and Helen helps
Beatrice don her habit, straightening the fabric so it hangs just right.
Snake closes the blinds, shuts off the lights, locks up the shop. The
three of them walk together down the street to the local bar, like some
newly formed holy trinity. Beatrice, in the center, links arms with her
two wayward companions, a patron saint of outcasts and lost souls. She
notices the look that passes between Snake and Helen as he holds the
door, timid and hopeful, and she thinks sometimes life’s greatest
blessing is a new beginning.