Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” – William Shakespeare
He grabbed me by the arm, the look of sheer terror and confusion in his eyes as he backed me into the office.
“Let me go! I’ve told you that this is it this is the way it has to be! Why can’t you understand that, Eric?” I tried to tell him in a harsh whisper for fear of being heard.
“I do understand it, I understand that you’re scared, Jesus, I am too – you think I don’t know what we’re risking here?” His eyes softened then, as did his grip on me “Sookie” he gripped my chin gently “Look at me Sookie? Please?”
Through tears so thick that I could barely make out his features in front of me, I looked up at him “I can’t Eric…I can’t”
“I love you Sookie.”
At that confession I felt a shocking jolt through my spine. It’s not that I ever thought that he didn’t love me, but to hear him say those words out loud and with such conviction, I was a little stunned.
“I love you and I want to be free to love you without feeling this shame. The shame is eating at me and I know it’s eating at you too …but Sookie… loving someone isn’t wrong and I’m tired of feeling like I’m damned because of it”
“We are damned. Eric we broke-“
“I know what we did, and Sookie I don’t regret it, not for one second. Being with you was something that was so beautiful and right I don’t get how you don’t see that”
“I don’t see it Eric because of my vows –”
“VOWS you haven’t taken yet, vows you aren’t bound by YET…”
“I swore my life to God Eric and so did you, or did you forget? Just because we haven’t taken the final vow yet doesn’t mean that we’re any less devoted. I can’t just abandon my belief just because –”
“Because of me? Is that it? You don’t want to give up this life for me.”
“NO! Eric, please don’t be this way. You swore to me, you swore we’d made a mistake that we’d never make again no matter what we felt or what we thought we felt! You promised me.”
“I thought I could, I thought I could just ignore what we did. Ignore it like I’ve been ignoring it since I was sixteen years old but it’s too hard now. I want to be able to turn it off like you can but I can’t. And for that I’m sorry.”
They say that the sense of smell is one of the strongest links to our memories, that just one waft of something familiar and suddenly you’re hit with a rush of memories each one stronger than the next. I believe this to be very true.
There was always that smell, one that wasn’t overpowering but it was in itself extremely distinctive it was something helped to recall dozens of scattered memories within myself. It’s one of comfort and peace, in the mind of a child a smell is just a smell, but for one that has outgrown their childhood in such a place, this smell was , it’s what they burn during mass or scatter over a coffin during a funeral mass, but it’s the smell that I remember most from growing up. Some remember home cooked meals or the smell of their mother’s attempts at baking, I remember the smell of the church.
The church was St. Jude’s, and we were taken their twice a week to ‘repent’ for our sins, taken by the group of Catholic nuns – fronted by Sister Geraldine and the small group Sisters that taught in orphanage where I was to spend a dozen or so years of my life.
The orphanage like most things at that was a hard place to be. Not only because we were wards of the state or unwanted children or at the mercy of sometimes slap happy sisters of ‘mercy’ but because as parentless children a thing such as a ‘childhood’ wasn’t possible. As I knelt down and began my prayers, I couldn’t help but think that this church had been my comfort for a long time but would there come a time when prayer and a sense of home wouldn’t be enough? I thought I knew what my life had in store for me… it turns out I had no clue what was to come.
It was in September 1945 that I first set eyes on this place. The St Jude’s home for parentless children the dark looming grey stone building to a seven year old seemed like a prison, and in some ways, my seven year old self was right. It was. The home sat next to another grey stone building, only this one was beautiful, the church was adorned with stain glass floor to ceiling windows and a spire so tall that it was a struggle to see its tip – at seven and sheltered, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
The boy to my left, the boy with the ever lengthening limbs and floppy dirty blonde hair was Eric. My Eric, mine in the sense that for as long as I could remember he’d been there with me. Ignoring Sister Alice in math class or helping me make up stories about dragons in creative writing for English for Sister Silvia. Of course it was frowned upon, it always was.
The girls were not meant to mix with the boys unless absolutely necessary. I hated being a girl; it was at age seven nothing but a nuance, it was the age that I was conveniently dropped off at the orphanage by my Uncle Bartlett. After the death of both my parents and with no other living relatives other than my uncle I was at his mercy. He ran a farm outside of Connecticut and claimed he hadn’t the ‘time, patience, nor money’ to waste on a female who would be of no use to him or his business. My brother Jason he decided to keep, on the argument that the boy would one day become a man and take over his business. I was young but I do remember Jason and his tears as he protested and argued with my uncle. He was only nine to my seven but he stood up for me, not that it did him much good. Yes my Uncle disposed of me as if I were the runt of the litter of kittens he’d found on his back porch.
By age eleven being a girl was still the most useless thing to be in my eyes. I wanted to be a boy, they got to wear pants and play in the mud. The girls we were expected to behave as ladies in both the eyes of God and in the eyes of Sister Mary-Francis for she was the eagle eye that watched over every class recess there was. Dresses were to be worn at a certain length, hair was to be braided or tied back at all times or else you got it lopped off. Girls were to read, to be seen and not heard, to never speak until spoken to.
I hated it then.
As we crawled along setting the seeds into the clay for Sister James, who was now too old to do the stooping herself so she picked Eric and I every year, her ‘favourite’ orphans as she’d call us, to come help her do it. The garden of the convent was always so beautiful and well tended. It hosted an array of plants and flowers each more beautiful than the next. It was also home to the fruit and vegetable patches that provided the Sister’s with their nutrients, it also provided Eric and I ample snacks on the strawberries when they came into season. We’d snack on more fruit that we’d have planted seeds for the following season, I told Eric that it was stealing, he of course balked at me and convinced me it wasn’t stealing so much as it was payment for all our hard work. Even then it was hard to argue with him.
It was difficult to argue with him but that didn’t mean that I didn’t, in fact arguing with Eric was one of my favorite past times. He challenged me like no one else and he frustrated me like no one else either! But he was always there for me, and we became fast friends despite our gender, teaching each other silly things like how to tie unbreakable knots in the Sister’s shoelaces when we were nine, or how to cheat in math class at 13, or the less so innocent things we did at 16 like breaking out of the dorms to the kitchen and getting drunk on the cooking sherry and teaching each other how to kiss…
“Shh you’re going to wake the old biddies up” Eric whispered to be as he gave me a leg up over the iron gates of the back of the building, it led the path to the vegetable garden off the kitchen. The kitchen held the cooking booze, our mission was to break some rules and get drunk.
“You know, most of these women probably want to break out of here and here we are breaking in!”
“Eric, they do not. This is their calling it’s something they’re fully committed to. Marriage to God an all that. At least that’s how Sister Margaret tells it” I shrugged.
“Marriage to God? Is that what keeps their bed warm at night?” He raised his eyebrows at me and it earned him a nudge.
“You hush that’s not right”
“I know you’re all pro-nun an all Sook, but honestly you think this is the right life? Alone with nothing but prayer to comfort you in the night?”
I didn’t answer him “why are we even talking about this now? We’re going to get caught if they hear us whispering”
“No they won’t” with that he produced the key to the back door that led to the kitchen, I was to stand watch as he rummaged around clinking bottles every few seconds before he emerged with a grin and two bottles “Irish Cream? And …I guess this is cooking Sherry? Looks horrible but it’ll do, come on!”
And with that he led me back out and down around the corners to the scattering of oak trees that led to the graveyard.
“Are we really doing this? If sis-”
“Sookie, weren’t you just complaining today that we never get to have any real fun? That we don’t behave like ‘real’ teenagers? Hmm?” He had that smug smile on his lips, I knew he was right and he knew it too “Yes?”
But still I stood with my arms folded “Yes…”
“Ok well this is what they do right? Besides think of how many things we’ve done tonight that we didn’t dare do before! We swiped keys-”
“Swiped. I fully intend on giving them back, besides she was asleep she won’t even notice”
I still stood arms crossed as he took a swig of his bottle. “We broke out of and into an establishment, and yes ok we ‘stole’ liquor…and now we’re going to drink to our little adventure.” With that he handed me my bottle.
I couldn’t help but smile. He was right it was fun, as scared as I was, it was a rush to do things we knew we weren’t allowed to do and he was only doing this before I was the one who wanted some fun. So I bounced down beside him under the tree, checking once again to make sure we were out of sight of any prying eyes. “Ok fine, cheers?”
I took a gulp of the liquor and ugh was it disgusting.
He laughed “Cheers …and stop worrying, the only people who can see us are the dead, and who are they going to tell?”
With that I laughed too “God, and since Fr Patrick seems to think he’s the conduit to all things holy he’d find out and tell Sister Geraldine and then we’d be whipped.”
We sat in silence each with our drinks wondering when it would kick in and we’d experience ‘drunk’ or at least a little change. It took a little while but I started to feel ever so slightly light headed. It was kind of nice, until it wasn’t.
“Sookie?” Eric spoke up finally.
“Do you…do you ever wonder what it would have been like if your parents hadn’t have died?”
I looked at him then, but he was staring at his bottle.
“What do you mean? Of course I do, I mean…don’t you? It’s only natural”
“I know. But if my parent’s had lived I’d be back in Sweden and if your parents had lived you’d be back home…we’d have never met.”
I’d never thought of it like that before. Even when I fantasized about having my family again, Eric was always somewhere in the equation too.
“True, but we did meet right? And that’s what matters. Through bad foster homes, evil ole nuns who are way too slap happy with that leather belt, bad kitchen food, and learning Latin like it’s going out of style” I laughed to show him that it was still ok “We had each other right? And you’ve had your cousin…heck even I have your cousin” She was always writing to Eric but on my birthday or Christmas I’d always get a package of clothes, ones I assumed she’d owned prior but they’d always be in amazing condition and far too fancy for anything I’d ever be needing them for. But it was her thoughts that counted right? And I always appreciated the gesture.
“That’s true. But I…I’m just glad to have met you too you know?” He sounded sad, if this is what alcohol did to him, it would the last time I ever encouraged it. I took his hand and slid closer to him allowing him to wrap his arm around my shoulders. Even at sixteen he was tall, but he was skinny lankier more than anything else, but he was warm and sweet and I felt like he needed me close to him then. Whatever was going on in his head was wasn’t something I wanted him dwelling on.
“Eric…um…Have you…I mean have you ever…” I got flustered, what was I doing, why was I bringing this up now?
I felt him shift beside me to look down at me “Spit it out Sook.”
I inhaled a deep shaky breath “I well, I mean I was just wondering… if you, you know” I was starting to stammer what the hell was wrong with me. Stupid sherry. “I was wonderin’ if you’d ever… kissed someone before.”
He was silent but a small grin appeared “Why you wondering about that Stackhouse?”
I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t, I was blushing too much. I felt so red I thought my face would explode.
“It’s nothing it’s not a big deal, forget I mentioned it.” I moved to get up but he just yanked me back down.
“Ouch my butt!”
“Sorry but you can’t just bring stuff like that up and then bolt for the hills. Now, why do you ask?”
There was that sarcastic tone in his voice again. He knew fine well why I’d asked. So I just glared at him as I folded my arms “It doesn’t matter I think we should get back before Sister wakes up from her nap”
“You know as well as I do that a few swigs of whiskey and she’s out till at least 2am …are you really wanting to know if I’ve kissed anyone Sookie?”
“Maybe a little? I mean Eric you were gone all summer and I was here and …you seemed different when you came back”
The foster family that had taken Eric over the summer had taken me the previous spring, they were nice but no one wants to foster an older kid, never mind a teenager. They all want babies for the long haul. So we get carted out every now and then for periods of time, before they decided they like us well enough but they want to keep looking if they can. Yeah its catalogue shopping for kids, who knew.
“Have you?” He asked as he raised that eyebrow at me again; he knew the answer as well as I did. I didn’t say it out loud I just shook my head to indicate a ‘no’. He smiled.
“You want to?”
I did, but how did I say that out loud?
He shifted up to his knees in front of me, took my chin to tilt my eye level so we were even. His gaze travelled from my eyes to my lips as he licked his own, I remember his breath smelled sweet like the drink he’d just consumed, warm and steady his lips met mine – I froze.
I was tingling from head to toe, I could hear the blood rushing in my ears, and I’m pretty sure my heartbeat could have woken the dead whose yard we were sitting in.
“Breathe Sook, just breathe” he told me in a calm tone that was only as comforting as it was exciting. He closed off the small distance between us, his mouth slightly open as he grazed his lips against mine again, this time lasting a little longer before I felt his tongue swipe across my lips; acting on instinct I opened my mouth ever so slightly crashing my lips to his following his lead.
He was sweet, slow and steady were as I was the opposite. I sucked on his upper lip slightly and moved to his lower lip taking it in a little harder before we resumed our exploration of each other’s mouths. It was a rhythm we didn’t even know we’d established until he was leaning over me and I was then flat on the grass behind us. I moved to bring his bottom lip gently between my teeth again when he moaned into my mouth gliding his hands that had drew lines up and down my arms seconds before straight to my neck and up into my hair. Feeling his large hands take me so completely to him earned him a moan I didn’t even recognise coming from myself. I felt dizzy but I never wanted it to stop, the all over tingling had stopped but there was a deeper throbbing in the pit of my stomach, emptiness below that I didn’t know existed.
With that Eric lost whatever hold he hand on his balance and crashed against me, hard. I didn’t stop him as his hands slid down my neck and over my breast; I was too consumed with the sensation of his lips suddenly moving from my lips to my neck. From my neck to my earlobe and back down again he continued murmuring something about ‘beautiful’ and ‘so soft’ though all I could really hear was the sound of both of us almost panting for air.
That’s when I heard the cough.
Eric froze. I froze.
“Mr Northman, Ms Stackhouse…Please detangle from each other and face me please” Said the mystery voice. Mystery voice then cleared his throat as we did as he asked.
Awkward doesn’t even cover it.
“Now, you two care to explain …this?” He gestured to the bottles and what he interrupted.
“Father Brigant this is my fault” Eric began as he tucked in his shirt while I still couldn’t look either of them in the eye.
“Is that so? And you Ms Stackhouse? What was your role in all of this?” I finally looked up to see him standing there with a somewhat bemused look on his face, arms crossed over his dressing gown and the keys to the kitchen in his hands.
“Right you two, my office now if you please”
I looked at Eric, he looked at me, and we both knew we were screwed. Fr Brigant walked ahead of us quietly neither Eric or I could find the words to break that silence.
His office smelled of old books and coffee. He took his seat behind his desk and gestured for us to take the seats opposite.
“One of you had better explain this to me, no lies you hear me?”
I finally found my voice, I still felt dizzy and a little weak but this time I knew Eric wasn’t the cause. I think the alcohol finally hit me.
“Fr this is my fault. I was the one who …suggested to Eric that we do something fun I mean I didn’t suggest THIS but …at the same time I didn’t not suggest this so this is really all my fault and it’s not his really Fr so please if you’re going to punish us don’t…Punish me.” I rambled without air. This time the Fr just looked amused.
“How old are you Ms Stackhouse?”
“And you Mr Northman?”
“Almost eighteen sir”
With that the Fr just let out a ‘humph’ sound.
“So both of you being old enough to know better you still …Broke out of your dorms? Broke INTO a convent no less – to steal. Drinking underage and …what looked to be the beginning stages of premarital sex!”
“Hey, NO! That’s wasn’t …Fr that wasn’t what it was at all” Eric spoke up in our defence. Even though I thought in my drunken state that what the Fr had said was completely on the money.
“No. It was just…” But Eric, who was many things – a good friend, a stealth thief when it came to cooking alcohol, a maths wiz and as I discovered tonight- an excellent kisser. He was all these things, but he was also a lousy liar. So, he stopped talking, knowing that he’d be lying and not wanting to get us both into any more trouble.
“Look, kids” Fr Brigant spoke finally, his voice softening somewhat. “I know that at your age …things …Urges.”
“These urges are there and while they aren’t necessarily wrong…they have to be squashed. You two are good kids, why on earth you haven’t found parents …well that is their problem not yours. You’re both smart and decent …and smart and decent people do NOT go around stealing from nuns and feeling each other up in front of the dead!” he exclaimed. “You are both extremely lucky it was me who discovered you and NOT Sister Geraldine, you know she’d have both your hides for this.”
He looked at us both then. “The company line is ‘sex before marriage is a sin’ ‘stealing is a sin’ ‘copulation on the grounds of the dead …is I’m sure also a sin’ so…there I’ve done my bit haven’t I?”
We both nodded.
“Ms Stackhouse you may go”
“No Fr really it wasn’t Eric it was me if you have to-”
With that Eric braced my shoulders and looked me in the eye.
“Sookie…I’ll be fine”
“Go, before sister wakes up and ole Geraldine really does have us whipped”
I looked across to the Fr and back to Eric. It was a lost battle so I simply nodded and made my way outside.
I didn’t know it then but what was talked about in that room would be the beginnings of change none of us could have imagined.