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In the Convent: A Rewriting of “Araby” by James Joyce

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A sliver of light slanted in through the stained-glass window in the chapel. When the sky was cloudy, the interior of the chapel seemed dark and drab. But today, sunlight came in at just the right angle to create a pattern on the opposite wall. On even slightly sunny days like these, Siobhan couldn’t pay attention to the priest’s sermons or her schoolwork. She could hear the monotone of Father Cassidy’s voice, but didn’t focus on anything he was saying. His words were background noise, like the persistent drone of an insect. It was Lent, so he was probably preaching about the same old topics: repentance and abstinence. He told them to remember that Jesus had died for each and every one of their sins. That made Siobhan shudder, because it sounded like Jesus was still dying right now, and her actions were killing him. Father Cassidy always talked about the things they should give up, but she thought Jesus couldn’t possibly want them to give up everything.

Father Cassidy’s sermons were always boring, but Siobhan enjoyed the rare times when James, the seminarian, came to speak to them. In a few years, he would be Father Nolan, but for now he was just James. He was tall and slender, with green eyes and dark brown hair. In the beginning, he’d been shy and anxious about speaking in front of a crowd, even if it was just a chapel full of young girls. He sometimes used funny anecdotes to prove a point in his sermons, while Father Cassidy was always completely serious. She thought it was a little sad that James was going to become a priest and live his entire life without getting married. It’s such a waste! she thought vaguely, although she did not know exactly what he would be wasting. Just imagining him growing old without marrying anyone was like picturing fruit ripening and then rotting. Siobhan stopped, startled by her own thought. No, that wasn’t what she meant! She meant that he was a nice person, and that he’d probably be good to his wife and children.

During Lent, the air inside the chapel seemed heavy, almost suffocating. The pungent odor of incense irritated the back of her throat, and the hymns sounded like funeral dirges. Even the statues had been draped in black cloth, so it looked like they were in mourning or hiding their faces in shame.

Beautiful spring weather made the convent school seemed even more unbearable. All Siobhan could think about was how badly she wanted to go outside. She longed for an adventure in a distant land, where she would meet a mysterious, fascinating man. Or if she couldn’t have some epic romance, she at least wanted to get away from the school. But the nuns were constantly warning the girls about the many dangers of the world.

The nuns spoke about boys as if they were almost a separate species. If only they’d known that this made males seem exotic and therefore even more desirable. Boys were predatory creatures, the nuns told them, but they also had much less self-control than girls. At the same time, the girls were expected to become obedient wives and good mothers soon after they graduated from school. It didn’t make any sense, Siobhan thought. If boys were really so dangerous, what made them suddenly deserve complete respect and devotion as soon as they became husbands?

Maybe the sisters wanted them to be afraid of men because they had never gotten married themselves. After all, what did they know about men, or about life for that matter? They had probably entered the convent when they were only a few years older than Siobhan. The sisters tried to convince them that a religious vocation was even more sacred than marriage in its own way.

When she was a little younger, Siobhan had wanted to be a nun. At home, her little siblings were always running around their crowded apartment, annoying her when she wanted to read or daydream. So a life of solitude appealed to her. But she didn’t like the idea of wearing a habit that covered her long, chestnut-colored hair. With their faces partly covered, it was impossible to tell whether some of the nuns were eighteen or eighty. In one of her anthologies about the lives of the saints, she’d read about a girl who had paraded through the streets the day before she joined the convent, daring all the boys to have one last look at her. If Siobhan ever became a nun, she’d want to do something dramatic like that. She liked being alone, but when she walked out on her balcony at night, she saw that boys noticed her.

Yet there was something undeniably exciting about the idea of getting married. Her parents argued with one another constantly, usually over money, but she and her husband wouldn’t be like that. She would marry someone handsome, funny, and preferably wealthy, and he would be totally fascinated by her. On the other hand, she couldn’t see herself as anyone’s mother. Siobhan’s mother was only in her early thirties, but her face was already lined and haggard. Once everyone had been fed, she was often too exhausted to even talk to them. Just imagining the messiness and drudgery of raising children was enough to make Siobhan’s head hurt.

One day in the middle of Lent, the girls at school began buzzing about a bazaar called Araby that was coming to their neighborhood. Only one of Siobhan’s classmates, a girl named Margaret, had been there before. Margaret said it was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. The bazaar was full of incredible oddities: foreign foods with ingredients too unfamiliar to name, fortune tellers and snake charmers, and men with turbans who had trained monkeys. Siobhan was captivated as Margaret regaled them with her stories. She couldn’t help being a little skeptical, though, since Margaret loved to exaggerate things. But Siobhan wanted it to be real. She imagined going to Araby and meeting someone handsome and charming, who would take her away to an exotic place. But that was just a daydream. It could probably never happen, Siobhan reasoned. Still, it would be thrilling enough to just get a glimpse of another world. So when Siobhan learned that the bazaar conflicted with a school retreat, she felt crushed.

That night, Siobhan was standing on her balcony, looking out over her crowded, ugly street. The buildings were dilapidated, and built so close together that they seemed to be staring into each other’s windows. Her convent school and the boys’ school that her younger brother attended were only a few blocks away from their tenement. One of her brother’s friends who lived in the next building over was looking out the window at her. He was a scrawny, pale child, and he was staring at her like he was mesmerized. Boys her brothers’ age were awkward children, barely growing into their ears and noses. For a moment she enjoyed the attention of someone, anyone, staring at her. But she barely knew this boy. Her brother’s classmates always called each other by their last names, so she didn’t even know his name.

She started to feel a little unnerved that this strange child was staring at her without saying anything. So just to break the silence, she asked him, “Are you going to Araby?”

He seemed flustered and didn’t know how to answer. “Uhhh, yes — I mean, I dunno — what’s Araby?” he stammered, blushing.

“Oh, it’s a splendid bazaar. I’d love to go,” she said wistfully. “There are musicians, fortune-tellers and snake charmers!”

“That sounds wonderful,” he said. “And why can’t you go?”

“Oh, there’s a retreat in my convent that week,” she sighed. She was leaning slightly on the railing. She knew that if she tilted her head just a little, her long hair would fall down her shoulders. But since he was already so besotted, that would almost be cruel.

“It’s well for you,” Siobhan said. She thought it would be wonderful to go anywhere she wished: not just Araby but anywhere other than the convent.

“If I go, I’ll bring you something,” he told her earnestly. Siobhan turned away and walked back inside.

She wondered why he was so intent on getting her a present. Why would she want something from him if she barely knew him? A present was no replacement for going to Araby herself. In any case, there was probably nothing special at Araby. Margaret could be a terrible liar. Maybe it didn’t matter whether she went to Araby or not.

What if there was no dramatic escape in her future? Siobhan wondered. What if she would never see the distant regions of the world, and no one would ever sweep her off her feet? Maybe her only choices were becoming exhausted and overwhelmed, like her own mother, or going into the convent for good. But how could she give up the possibility of marriage without even knowing what she was missing? She wanted to be part of the world, not retreat from it. Did she have to stay in the same squalid, gloomy world where she had grown up? For now she could daydream, but soon she would have to make a decision about the rest of her life. Whether she chose to be a nun or someone’s wife, Siobhan thought that she would always dream about what might have been.