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Doubt: Eight Drabbles

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William doesn't mean any harm when he grabs Sister James to ask her again about the math test, he really doesn't. "How much of it will be long divis--"


Sister Aloysius's voice roars down from on high like a judgment. Sister James jumps, William London goes to his doom, and Father Flynn jokes, "The dragon is hungry."

"What did he do?" a girl whispers.

"He touched Sister James," her friend replies. "You don't touch a nun."

The Church teaches mercy and compassion, but Sister Aloysius has none. Not about this. Never.



"Vatican II is under the auspices of the Holy Father in Rome, and as such may not be disputed," says Sister Aloysius, disputing it. Sister Veronica doesn't need to see; she knows exactly the sour look on Aloysius's face, the pinch to her mouth that remains untouched by all but the most subtle kindnesses.

"I think it is a sign of progress," Sister James ventures. The parlor goes silent. "Don't the changes make it easier for people to understand?"

"Because Mass is in English now?" Aloysius retorts. "Holy mysteries aren't meant to be understood."

But she does not sound angry.



Sister James looks for something giving, generous, merciful in her face, but Sister Aloysius will not yield. She has no evidence, no proof, nothing but her own intuition and prejudice.

That isn't good enough for Sister James. It just can't be. Father Flynn himself has just explained everything.

"Well, I'm convinced," she says defiantly.

"You're not," Sister Aloysius scoffs. "You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back."

Sister James is astonished that Sister Aloysius, all in black and white, separating the sheep from the goats with no third alternative, dares to object to simplicity.



In March, Sister James takes a fall down the stairs. She fractures her right arm, which remains in a cast for months. Sister Aloysius is there when they set the bone, and tells the nuns approvingly that Sister James did not shed a tear. "She's toughened up," Aloysius says.

Yes, thinks Sister Raymond. Father Flynn has been gone since Christmas and everybody's been obliged to toughen up.

And yet at dinner, when Sister James is clumsy with her left hand, Sister Aloysius takes her fork and feeds her as tenderly as a mother bird with a chick. Nobody says anything.



Father Flynn now has proof of what he has long suspected: that Sister Aloysius has no heart. Why won't she understand? "I've done nothing wrong," he chokes. "I care about that boy."

Her eyes are flint. "Why? 'Cause you smile at him and you sympathize with him and you talk to him as if you were the same? You are a cheat." She sneers. "And that warm feeling you experienced, when that boy looked at you with trust…"

She looks him dead in the eye, voice flat with certainty.

"…was not the sensation of virtue."

He wonders how she knows.



Donald Miller will make it until June because he promised Father Flynn. He doesn't break his promises.

But he thinks it isn't fair. It isn't fair at all that Father Flynn was sent away for summoning Donald alone to the Rectory when, for the past few months, Sister Aloysius has regularly been calling Sister James to her office, sometimes four times a week. Once Donald passed by and saw Sister James sitting in front of the desk as Sister Aloysius closed the door. Sister James saw him, and smiled. Sister Aloysius scowled and shut the door so hard it rattled.



"I shall step outside the church if that's what needs to be done," she shouts, "though the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell!"

Father Flynn knows that she will. But he is not the only sinner in this room, and maybe she will see logic, if nothing else--can logic ever touch the bounds of compassion?

"Have you never done anything wrong?" he asks.

"I have," she snaps, tensing up.

He has a flash of insight. "A mortal sin?"

Her face twists in agony.

"Yes!" she gasps.



May. William London fakes a nosebleed and is supposed to be at home, not in the garden overhearing Sister Aloysius speaking to Sister James.

"…not renewing my vows this year," she says.

"Oh, heavens," Sister James whispers.

"And you?" Sister Aloysius sounds out of breath. "What about you?"

"I don't know." William peeks, and sees Sister James twisting her thin hands. "Is this, is it wrong?"

"Of course it's wrong!" Sister Aloysius leaps from the bench. "Stop fooling yourself, Sarah!"

Sister James reaches out and touches her wrist. Sister Aloysius, head bowed beneath her bonnet, goes still.

William's eyes narrow.



Sister James's smile is less innocent, but no less gentle. "Welcome back," Sister Aloysius tells her. "You were missed."

They talk. Sister James, predictably, fails to understand that a lie can work in the service of truth. Aloysius attempts to explain: "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God. Of course, there is a price." Her crucifix digs into her palm.

And then it bubbles up: "I have such doubts!"

It's out. She's nauseated.

But Sister James kneels, presses her face into Sister Aloysius's skirts, and softly takes her hand. There's mercy in it. Aloysius breathes.