Sister Beatrice and the Cosmos
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 shoulder blade.
“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 quickly.
“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 God.
“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 doesn’t matter?”
“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 steps.
“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 sin?”
“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’s skin.
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.
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her work has appeared in New World Writing, Bending Genres, Ellipsis Zine, Trampset, and elsewhere. Her stories have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize. Her debut fiction collection is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in 2022. Follow her on Twitter at @sbdobbie and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites.
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