Madame Dupont’s School for Girls, LaVelle, Quebec, Canada
Jeanne-Marie loved sunset.
Her favorite time of day, she loved the pure rich color of the sun as it sank out of sight, and the way the light painted the sky and clouds around it. There was a small lake on the grounds of the school, and the light at sunset would spread over the water, creating sparkles among the warped reflection of the sky above. The light was similar at dawn, and some people preferred that because it signaled the start of a new day, but Jeanne-Marie was just the opposite. Sunset was her favorite time out of the two because it meant the day was over. She could retreat into her bedroom, close her eyes and fall asleep. It was her only escape from the harsh reality of day.
Like today. Some days were easier to deal with than others, but today had just been……how did she begin to describe it? It had started with breakfast. Or lack of it, in this case. Jeanne-Marie had a hard time sleeping without some sort of light coming into her room. Whenever the door to her room shut closed at night, the darkness fell over her like some kind of heavy, miserable weight. A favorite punishment of the sisters was to lock her up in the closet and make her pray. She didn’t mind praying. Communion with God was peaceful and good. But to be locked in the dark closet for hours on end made Jeanne-Marie feel trapped, and it felt the same when the lights went out at night, as if she were trapped in the dark of the closet again, and even though she knew she was in the safety of her own bed she couldn’t get over that fear. Having a little light helped her relax and let her sleep. The one time she’d asked the sisters for a nightlight however she’d been slapped, Sister Angelique berating her for the vanity of asking the school to spend its money on her like that, and for her weakness in fearing the dark.
So at night Jeanne-Marie would leave the curtain open on her bedroom window so that the faint light from the night sky would come into her room, or open her bedroom door just a crack after the sisters went to bed, so to let just a little bit of light in from the hallway. It wasn’t much, but there were windows in the hallway so even at night it was just a bit less dark than her bedroom. Full moon nights were the best, and Jeanne-Marie slept peacefully with the pure silvery light of the moon shining down upon her. Last night however was the dark of the moon; even with her curtain open the room was near pitch black, and Jeanne-Marie tried to huddle herself under the light blanket she used, as even in the heat of the summer she did not feel comfortable sleeping unless covered. She wrapped the worn cotton fabric around her, felt its softness and tried to drive away the feeling that she was trapped. She was in the safety of her bed and nothing was wrong, but her mind would not accept it, and so by the time sleep came it was the wee hours of the morning. This caused Jeanne-Marie to sleep late, and by the time she arrived in the breakfast hall the meal was almost over.
The saying went that there was no rest for the wicked; well there was no food for the wicked either, and for her tardiness Jeanne-Marie was not allowed to break her fast. She still had to sit with the other girls though, and they would tease her by offering her slices of toast with jam only to snatch it away, or go on about how delicious their fruit and oatmeal was, and how they were so full that they couldn’t eat another bite. Jeanne-Marie in the meantime, sat with her empty stomach grumbling and rumbling at her, loud enough that the girl next to her could hear, and when she did she laughed. The day only went downhill from there, and by the time supper came Jeanne-Marie was so sick in heart and mind that she could barely pick at her food.
After supper she retreated to her room, under orders to pray as she always was. The quirk of nature that gave Jeanne-Marie delicately pointed ends to her ears had convinced the nuns of this school years ago that she was hellspawn. They reminded her of this on a regular basis, that her mother had consorted with demons, that she and her father had died tragically as a result of that sin, and it was only by God’s grace that Jeanne-Marie was spared and so she needed to pray to Him for forgiveness for the evil in her nature and that she would not become a harlot like her mother. No matter what Jeanne-Marie did, no matter how well-behaved she tried to be, it was never enough. They did not seem able to find a kind word for her; not a hug or soft touch, like she saw given to some of the other girls occasionally. The sisters believed in not spoiling the child by sparing the rod, and the rod was not spared, not one bit. Some of the girls here had families of their own, and were just here for an education, but others were orphans like herself. Jeanne-Marie had never known her family. Her parents were long dead, killed in a car accident when she was but a baby. There were some cousins of her mother, but they were dead also; Jeanne-Marie had never known them either so they might as well have not existed. There was nothing for her, no world but this school, and as she sat before the window she wondered if there would ever be a world for her outside of it.
The sun shone brightly as it began to lower itself through the sky, but instead of the peace and relief she usually felt that the day was ending, Jeanne-Marie felt nothing but emptiness. She moved through her days, one by one, doing as she was told, saying her prayers, but was God listening? She used to pray for escape, that what family she had left would come for her and let her have a home and happiness, but that prayer became useless when her mother’s cousins died. Then she prayed for strength, for the ability to survive and keep going, but at thirteen there was only so much pain one could take, only so much her soul could starve before it began to turn inward and consume itself, and Jeanne-Marie could feel the pain inside, twisting and biting at the parts of herself that didn’t already feel numb. God was supposed to love the children, but was her nature so corrupt that he did not consider her one of His children, is that why her prayers went unanswered? Was it too late for her already, was she written off as one of those bound for Hell?
It seemed obvious to her. There was no point to her prayers, no point in her going through the motions when her future was already set in stone, no point in continuing at all. Jeanne-Marie knew that suicide was a sin, but if she were already one of the fallen, what was the point of remaining in this life? Why not just end it all and go to where she was supposed to be? And it was an indication of how dead she felt inside, that this seemed like the perfect solution. A preferable solution. She would not be missed. Even He had turned His face, and closed His ears to her. It was time to go.
And so it was that Jeanne-Marie found herself climbing out of her second-story window to crawl up to the roof. Up here she could see all around her; the lawns and fields and lake, with the light of the setting sun sparkling across the water. Cars occasionally passed on the road nearby, but Jeanne-Marie didn’t register the sound. All she heard was the rustle of the evening breeze as it moved through the trees, and all she saw was the brilliant light of the sun. This is how she wanted things to end, she wanted the last thing she saw in this life was to be the sun’s light as it heralded the end of the day. And so would she end too, stop this pointless cycle she was living through. Her path decided, Jeanne-Marie felt a bit of calm come over her. It would be okay now. She would step off this roof, but she would keep her eyes on the sun, so that was all she would see instead of the ground rushing to meet her. And there would be pain when she finally landed, but if God had any mercy at all it would be brief. Her soul would not be released, not if she were destined for the fires like the sisters constantly reminded her, but at least this punishment would be ended.
Despite her intention to commit a mortal sin, Jeanne-Marie could not help but utter one final prayer, whispering the familiar words.
”Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grace. Le Seigneur est avec vous. Vous etes benie entre toutes les femmes, et Jesus, le fruit de vos entrailles, est beni. Sainte Marie, Mere de Dieu, Priez pour nous, pauvres pecheurs, maintenant et a l’heure de notre mort…….et a l’heure de mon mort…”** Surely there was no one fallen so low, even her, that Holy Mary could not be moved to intercede, to ask for even a small piece of mercy, from their Father? Jeanne-Marie hoped not.
The tall, slender girl stepped to the edge of the roof. Step by step, she did not look down, instead she kept her eyes fixed on the setting sun, wanting that to be the only thing she saw. Finally there came a step where there was no longer any roof for her to step on, her foot landed on air and gravity took over, pulling her down and off the roof with a swiftness that took Jeanne-Marie’s breath away. Panic welled up inside of her, part of her crying out to stop, that it was a mistake, she wasn’t ready to take this step, but it was too late for regrets and so she fell. Her eyes never left the sun though, her despairing mind clinging to this last constant image; and she couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when her perspective changed, but all of a sudden Jeanne-Marie noticed that instead of the sun rushing away from her, she was rushing toward the sun.
Gravity was no longer pulling on her with immovable hands. Instead the breeze moved past her, and a surge of feeling like Jeanne-Marie had never known flowed through her. She broke her gaze from the sunset sky, and saw that she was hurtling up, away from the earth, up past the trees, up past the roof of the school. Startled, she cried out and almost started to fall again, but she managed to correct herself and she started to soar again. A feeling that was part abject terror and part pure ecstasy swept over her.
She wasn’t dead. Far from it. She was rising above the earth, where only birds could go unaided. It was a miracle. God had heard her, he hadn’t turned away from her at all. Instead he was lifting her above it all. Surely this had to be a sign, that the sisters were wrong and that Jeanne-Marie was not forsaken. Would hellspawn ever be granted such a boon as this? No.
Laughing with a joy like nothing she’d ever known in her life, Jeanne-Marie shot across the sky, not sure where she was going but at the moment not caring, faster and faster. The evening breeze became a strong wind that whipped across her face, and one would think that something like that would hurt, but for some reason it didn’t bother her and Jeanne-Marie went faster, just needing to feel the speed and the sense of freedom it was giving her. She didn’t know how fast she was going, but it felt much faster than she’d ever gone in a car. Did trains go this fast? Did planes? Maybe, maybe not, but in her giddiness she had the thought that she might give them a run for their money right now.
”Merci, Sainte Marie, benie” she whispered, although the wind whipped her words away. For was this not a sign that the Holy Mother had heard her and granted her prayer?
As much joy as she was feeling in this miracle though, the sun was dropping lower in the sky and soon it would be dark; Jeanne-Marie would no longer be able to see where she was or where she was going. It was tempting to use this divine gift she’d been granted to escape the school, to leave it behind and try to make her own way in the world, but at thirteen where could she go and what could she do? She wasn’t even old enough to graduate; she wanted to attend college and get a degree in education, become a teacher. This gift wasn’t given to her in order for her to break free, it was too soon for that. No, Jeanne-Marie felt that this given to her as a means of lifting her spirits, of showing her that she was not alone and that God would always be with her, no matter how bad things got.
She started nose-diving at first when she tried to turn, not used to this whole business of flying, but finally Jeanne-Marie managed to turn herself around and head back towards the school. It was weird, seeing the town from sky level, but even from up here she could make out familiar landmarks, and so she managed to find her way back to the building she’d grown up in. Landing was difficult too, and finally Jeanne-Marie ended up collapsing on the ground with a loud thump. She half-expected broken bones, given that she’d just basically sky-dived without a parachute, but in God’s wisdom He seemed to have taken this into consideration, and she only had a bruised tailbone from where she’d landed.
Rubbing it, Jeanne-Marie stood up shakily. She felt tired, as if she’d gone running in a marathon. She supposed flying could be considered similar to that. Better even, and the thought made her want to laugh. A couple of the other girls had come out of the school and so they saw her land but now just stood nearby, mouths gaping open in shock. Jeanne-Marie just laughed, and this seemed to surprise them even more, as she was not prone to laughter. She didn’t care. She’d just experienced a miracle, a true miracle, and she would never doubt His love for her again.
A smile broke across Jeanne-Marie’s face as she started to run inside, and surprised herself again by running faster than she’d ever seen anyone run, not even in the Olympics. This was just getting better and better. She simply had to tell Sister Angelique. The nun would just be amazed.
And so, feeling like her future could only get brighter from here, Jeanne-Marie raced into the house, a blur of movement as if she had wings attached to her feet.
**Hail Mary, full of grace, our Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death….in the hour of my death…