j o h n    e s t e s

Spirit Willing


Fine, very fine. Unaware how often he deploys this rejoinder, Edmond routinely answers all manner of questions with it—about himself, the weather, one of his teams, his prognostication on the fate of the human race short of the coming supernova. So what if he is a bestselling author, an intrepid technical climber, and (according to Darla) intensely original in the sack? It goes to prove that we all have strongholds of banality within us, no matter how much attention has been given to rooting them out. Fine, very fine. In most respects, Edmond prides himself on his precision with language, his care with vocabulary and variation of syntactical expression. If he were forced to think about it though, which he never does, he might be able to tell you that this particular response is actually an appropriation, a phrase unconsciously assumed from his favorite of the nuns at Scholastica Prep, Sr. Mary Celeste.

It began as a joke between the boys, probably started by Wallace Welch who seemed to start everything, a kind of mocking (though to call it that belied just how beloved she was, compared especially to those who ruled by fear like Mary Aloysius, who they merely disliked but cut some slack on account of her limp). In moments of distance or loneliness he would sometimes recall an event in eleventh grade, when after English class he and Sr. Mary Celeste talked privately for the first and only time (long before the notion of classifying human interactions as appropriate or inappropriate had entered the lexicon, before teachers needed insurance riders or kept the door open as a matter of policy), marking his first definitively personal connection with an adult woman, noteworthy for its warmth, vulnerability, and mutual, genuine concern. You might have called it a moment of human intimacy, something both of them wanted for, desperately even, although neither knew their own emotions well enough to name it as such. She had above-average ability, for a nun, to connect with high school students, credited to her youthful hue and vigor, and the boys especially noted that she had an uncommonly fresh smell (for a nun), lilac maybe. They were discussing a dilemma that felt like one with earth altering consequences—Coach Rogers had asked him to drop track for baseball to help them win state (they did) even though it would probably cost him a running scholarship (it did)—which prompted her, by way of consolation, to confess her own struggle to make personal sacrifices for the order, for the Church, how even as a professed nun for fifteen-odd years she often wished for a family, a home of her own, to know a husband, and had to continuously reconcile the vow taken long ago with what she might feel like doing today. She made no plea for hers as a special case, but rather suggested that these trade-offs—a term too transactional to convey the potential for deep hardship, she admitted—are merely consequences of being limited and limiting beings, as much political as animal even if parcels of God, doomed more often than not to make and to fail-to-make choices we soon enough regret. Every choice is worthy of lament from some perspective, she said. He never forgot that line, had found it regularly consoling, and recycled it at the emotional climax in his first novel, True Enough For What It's For.

Her admission moved him to reveal what he'd never told anyone, not even his best friends: after his birth father died while on a business trip to Canada, he'd been adopted by his mother Margery's next husband who, coping poorly with the pressures of parenting two small children, a couple years later took off abruptly to California with their neighbor's sister and fell off the grid. So his mom, married with no way to procure a divorce, has lived (in sin, he thought but did not say) for over ten years with her boyfriend Stewart, a nice enough man except when he drinks, a film buff who takes them to the movies and loves baseball, a cop with loaded pistols stashed around the house but who's promised at last to take him hunting, a generous provider and father in deed if not in name. For obvious reasons but to Edmond's mortifying shame, Margery masquerades as an intact, nuclear family, introduces Stewart as husband and dad, and more than once had asked the kids to call him that. Sr. Mary Celeste touched his hand but said poor woman, told him that family can be the source of our greatest trials, but added that bonds with others are the only true blessing. She didn't, however, keep up the quid pro quo, didn't tell him that, as the youngest daughter and twelfth child she had been marked at birth as belonging to the church, had as a toddler been dressed in nun's garb by her mother, had been dropped off at the convent at fifteen by her father without being allowed to say good-bye to her siblings, her vocation no choice and thus no source of joy. She didn't tell him either about being sent away by Fr. Mark to have their baby in a back alley in Rome's Rione Monti District, how a squadron of red-robed men swept in the day after and took the child, quite literally off her breast, without a word of comfort much less scorn, which would have at least helped her know what to feel.

She had an affinity for Emerson and Thoreau, and the most animated he ever saw her, the most passionate he'd seen any sister (apart perhaps from the fury of Sister Francine after Junior Reinholdt had put up Playgirl centerfolds in girls' lockers and the teacher's lounge) had been the days they covered Transcendentalism, where instead of the scheduled discussion on Civil Disobedience she bore witness for wildness, for the wild as crisis, for freedom as communion with forces alien and inhospitable. Christ himself, she said—commander of demons and the dead, master of fig trees and fishes, conjurer, alchemist, metamorphosist—if indeed the archetype of man, modeled a way of doing it distinctly magical, committed to liberty, disdainful of false (i.e. institutional) authority. She rolled up her habit's sleeves, swept back the train of her veil and paced the classroom cat-like while reading the "we have a wild savage in us" passage from "Walking": Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man—a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit.

This moved some of the girls to remove their uniform-mandated hair bands before leaving class and others to push their socks down, and Edmond and the boys lit up that day before even off the school grounds and cussed and spat with impunity. That night he found a note from Darla Bronn in his satchel asking him to meet her at Nicky's after the basketball game. So that day in the classroom it was not surprising that suddenly the image of kissing Sr. Mary Celeste flashed before his mind's eye, but he blushed all the same and started to gather his belongings for a quick exit. When she wiped away a tear while trying to look like she didn't, he knew he'd seen too much, and though his prevailing impulse was to embrace her, he knew he had crossed into the presence of something holy or at least inconsolable.

After that day he became obsessed with the fantasy that she possessed a rich, clandestine personal life, would sift through her trash for notes or revealing sketches (she was a mad doodler) while she monitored lunch, found himself hyper-alert for any mention of her name, even went so far as to volunteer over the summer on the grounds crew for the school, which abutted and shared staff with the convent, so as to remain in her proximity, fully expecting to see her checking a car out of the motor pool, imagined himself following her at a safe distance, but couldn't bring himself see where she might lead him. Quite to the contrary and much to his disappointment though, no amount of sleuthing or spying satisfied a scintilla of pure or prurient curiosity. As sweet or interesting as some of the nuns were—about the same number who were silent or dismissive or grumpy—he found only what he should have expected to find (with one notable exception he wished he could have unseen): they traveled back and forth to prayer, back and forth to meals, back and forth to work and to their cells and to prayer again and hardly spoke to any one of them. They did their work (Sr. Mary Celeste pulled refectory duty over summer) in silence, had no particular friends, pursued no obvious pleasures. He ended the summer with far more pity in his heart for Sr. Mary Celeste than attraction, even plotted to break her out, going so far as to diagram an escape route through the school laundry, which connected to the convent through an old underground railroad tunnel he was pretty sure he could jimmy open. The life appeared so regimented, so devoid of the spirited freedom she espoused to cherish, of spontaneity and anything he recognized as happiness, he could not see it as a life at all, something worse than the prisons he'd seen in movies, where at least they roamed the yard for an hour a day, played ball, lifted weights, or smoked. Its appeal, and any benefits to society beyond cheap labor for the school, were opaque to him, unless of course one simply enjoyed eating cafeteria food for every meal or wearing the same clothes or going to church a lot.

The day he found himself with his sack lunch reading the Rule of St. Benedict, a red RB 1980 pamphlet edition left behind on the picnic table by the track (inscribed to Sr. Mercedes but he wasn't going to do that bitch any favors) was the day he learned they were forbidden to own property of any kind or allowed to do anything not expressly permitted by the Abbess. He'd been his whole life so accustomed to their presence as part of the Church's pageantry that he'd never seen how strange they were, how foreign that long procession of women in black robes, and suddenly what had been normal looked freakish and cult-like, and even, considering again the sisters trapped within the Order's labyrinth of draconic rules, Kafkaesque—a word that felt empowering to use even as he checked against his memory that he did so correctly. That his gratitude to Sr. Mary Celeste for teaching him that word intersected with his reading of this passage—"Above all things let him have humility; and if he has nothing else to give let him give a good word in answer for it is written, 'A good word is above the best gift' (Eccles. 18:17)"—pleased him, and preceded a chill on the nape of his neck, a sensation connoting the design of coincidence, as if events spoke to him, as if nature intended to guide him toward its preferred future. It reminded him of something else she said on occasion, always as a low aside, as if reminding herself: you don't come to know yourself so much as get used to yourself. All the same, he quit work on the crew that afternoon and transferred to the public school.



JOHN ESTES work appeared recently in Tin House, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Crazyhorse, AGNI and other places. He is author of Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America.

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