Habit of Retreat

by Megan Lloyd

 Lily gazed through the bars at her great-aunt’s withered fingers, which were laying out digestive biscuits on a cracked plastic tray.
‘Eat’, came the croaking voice, and her aunt gingerly placed the tray into a rotating wooden cubby hole, which with the turn of a handle allowed Lily to reach in and lift one of the stale snacks to her lips. She chewed as she peered up at the high ceiling, her eyes roaming around the visiting room. A tarnished gold crucifix looked back at her, an eternal witness in this place. Tall pillars kept vigil from the entrance, and shafts of light peeked through crevices in the weathered door, which offered scant protection from the stifling heat. She turned back towards her aunt, and the iron latticework which separated them. They could never touch one another, save for clumsily clasping hands through the gaps.
‘Mmm, delicious…’ she trailed off through the crumbs, as she tried not to allow her face to betray her. She guessed that they saved the biscuits for visitors, and she saw fewer each time she was here.

Her aunt’s skin was pale. She hadn’t seen the outside world for almost seventy years, aside from the increasing number of occasions when she received special dispensation for trips to the hospital. She had joined the monastery when she was sixteen, and by entering a closed order she had cut herself off from the outside world. Lily couldn’t even begin to imagine spending that many years behind locked doors, never again able to embrace a loved one, or to watch your little brothers and sisters grow up. She imagined that within these dusty walls it would be easy to forget that the ocean was just a few minutes walk away, the reassuring rush of the waves and the feeling of the sea breeze on your skin an echo of a memory. Even the smell of freshly cooked pastizzi wafting from the bakery next door was refused entry. Lily searched her aunt’s face for signs of boredom or misery, but as usual she couldn’t see beyond the watery blue eyes and benevolent smile. Maybe the brain had to shut down after so many years of solitude. But no, that didn’t feel quite right. Her aunt’s expression was peaceful and content; she didn’t seem at all perturbed by the silence that was ringing in Lily’s ears.

Her aunt’s last memories of the outside world were of a small village in the centre of Malta in the early 1940s, when World War II ravaged the island and it became the most bombed country on earth. Nestled south of Sicily in the Mediterranean, its strategic position between Europe and Africa made it a constant target and air raids were an almost daily occurrence. In a country so tiny, each explosion changed the face of the land she knew, from the obliteration of the Opera House in the heart of Valletta, to the destruction of the family corner shop. It was in the midst of this chaos that her aunt chose to don her habit and retreat. Since then, she had lived and cleaned and prayed every day of every year, her unwavering dedication meaning that she eventually became the Mother Superior, the leader of her small Catholic community.

Lily ached to know how her aunt had developed the unwavering tranquility she exuded during every visit. With the absence of her Nanna, who usually acted as interpreter, it wasn’t so easy to ask.  When Lily’s great-aunt had joined the monastery it was during a time of rationing, when military forces were trying to starve Malta’s inhabitants into submission. For families struggling with mouths to feed, learning English hadn’t been a priority. Lily, on the other hand, had been born in England to a Maltese Father who, far from his home and those who spoke his native language, hadn’t been able to raise his children in his mother tongue. She felt sad at times like these, regretful of the barrier this raised between her and some of the older members of her family.

‘So, how are you?’, she ventured tentatively. She chastised herself inwardly. What an inconsequential question. Her aunt lived a life that was part of a rich yet declining cultural history, of her cultural history. Couldn’t she think of something more profound to say? Lily scrambled for some simple words that would convey how eager she was to build a connection, to show her love and respect, but her aunt’s frail voice answered first.
‘I pray for you every day, my child’, came the slow and laboured response. Lily knew it to be true. She could say with almost absolute certainty that if questioned, her aunt would not know her name, even after years of Lily’s summer visits. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t included in her prayers. In a large Catholic family like theirs, to pray for the whole was more efficient than to dwell on each relative individually. Lily felt a warmth spread through her stomach. Someone was asking God to smile on her every day. That had to count for something. Admittedly, she wasn’t sure if she believed in God. At this thought, the image of the Virgin Mary that she wore on a gold pendant felt heavy around her neck. She glanced up at the crucifix, fidgeting in her seat.

 Lily’s eyes were once again drawn to her aunt’s hands, as she noticed the affection with which she fondly rotated the tarnished ring on her wedding finger. Her aunt noticed and sat up smiling, appearing much taller.
‘Try it, try it’ she said, fumbling the words. She slipped the ring off, hands bony with age, and passed it through a small gap in the bars between them. Lily took it and slid it on to her own finger, holding it up to show it off.
‘My husband!’ her aunt exclaimed, pointing at the cross, the already crinkled skin around her eyes becoming even more lined as she beamed. What Lily saw as an institution of isolation was everything to her aunt, who was now awaiting the day when she would welcome death and join God, her eternal Leader, Husband, and Father.

Lily found that level of trust incomprehensible. She was glad, though, that her aunt awaited the end of her life without fear, and she continued to make small talk, as much as they were able. She reached for her aunt’s hands once again and was startled by the strength with which her own were gripped in return.
‘Goodbye Aunty, I will pray for you too’, she assured her, as she stood up from the low chair and waved a final farewell. Lily never prayed, but she always made an exception after these visits, just in case someone was listening. As she pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped out onto the street, she was blinded by the sunlight. The door clicked shut behind her and she stepped outside, hoping that this wouldn’t be her final visit, as she did with each passing year. The monastery would only be open to her while her aunt lived and breathed, her link to this ancient place. But, as families do, she would continue to visit for as long as she could, so that they might continue trying to find common ground in their misimagining of each other.

In loving memory of Sister Lucia Aquilina

I wrote this story as a tribute to my great great aunt, who lived in a convent in Valletta, Malta, from the age of 16 until her death almost 70 years later. She dedicated her life to God, and also to convent life, serving as the Mother Superior for many years. I have fond memories of childhood visits with my family, and still treasure the rosary beads she would give to us each time we went to see her.

I am from the Isle of Wight, and am now living in Hannover, Germany. I am currently completing a degree in English at the University of Cambridge. Thank you to New Wave Press for supporting my work, and I look forward to more collaborations in the future.

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