We were all watching Sister Elvira Lecumberri on tiptoe from the window as she climbed up the steep path that led from Agromos, the village, to Polar, the school. Sister Elvira Lecumberri, we called her, even though the last time we’d seen her she already hadn’t been a sister anymore; she’d left the order, left Polar, to marry. Yet there she was, climbing with that gait that we’d always admired, more dainty than we ourselves were ever likely to manage—time would tell—even though she was a very, very tall woman.

It was already getting dark, but we didn’t feel like going upstairs. Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been absent from us for two years but, as we now observed from the window, there wouldn’t be a third. In the darkness, squinting our eyes, we could tell that she was wearing a hat—the kind that ladies wore, our older sisters, for example—but we couldn’t tell if she had her habit on underneath, even though some of us were so anxious to see that we stuck half our bodies out the window. We were still young and could do things like that. That was the sort of thing we did at Polar.

The other day, Sister Mártara Junior read us the schedule. Third period, sewing, she said.

Sewing? we asked. Sewing was what Sister Elvira Lecumberri taught when she was still a nun.

She answered: That’s what I said. Or are you girls going deaf? And so we copied it down by hand, even though our pencils were trembling: Sewing.

Sister Elvira Lecumberri would put us in pairs—never the same ones. We took each other’s measurements and cut the cloth right against our bodies. These were not pieces that we could wear in Polar—we could only wear the uniform: the smock or nothing—nor at home, but we hung them in our closets and kept them there like treasures. We were at that age, after all.

Two years earlier, on the last day of the course, Sister Elvira Lecumberri walked into the classroom and announced in front of everyone that she was leaving the order to get married. We almost thought she would take off her habit right there the way she was going, but she didn’t. All the better, we quickly realized, because only an immature mind would desire such a thing.

Since then, we girls had started to better understand whom Elvira Lecumberri had married. He was the editor of a journal. A journal that some of us knew from our houses because our older brothers had begun to bring it home—the ones who were studying to be things like notaries, businessmen, or pilots, and wrote poems in their leisure time. When they did, our fathers scoffed and said: Let’s see what filth you’ve brought us now. You kids just love to be provocative, don’t you (our mothers didn’t say anything, because they were doing something else). But, when they got bored, the fathers would pick up the journal themselves and read it. Then they’d say: I’ll tell you what, there just might be something to this FA-SCI-SM. They said it like that. Some of us knew very well that the fathers weren’t as dumb as they looked, but they pronounced it that way to make us see that something of these modernities they’d already taken up.

For us, on the other hand, FA-SCI-SM caught us too young and too uninterested in what the world of the not-too-distant future, our brothers’ world, would hold for us. The gentleman became a household name for some of us, though—a man who started as a poet and became the editor of a journal. If this was possible, anything was possible, we maintained—or would be soon enough. (Some of us thought that even a girl could become the editor of a journal; others said that was impossible.) When we returned home for Christmas, some of us began to read that journal when our brothers or fathers happened to buy it. We read it only to see if Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s name would appear (now just Elvira Lecumberri), and occasionally it did: twice, and both for her charity work. Which we also did, us and the mothers. We were disappointed by the similarity, but we counselled ourselves: Once you go out into the world, you’ll have to do a bit of everything. We also reminded ourselves that girls who did charity work would never be told to measure and cut their clothes against their own bodies.

We heard about fascism the same way we heard about so many other things: vaccines, catastrophes, factories—matters for our fathers and brothers, those of us who had them. It didn’t escape us, though, how plump and handsome some of our fathers made themselves for their discussions about fascism, as if they were living their second youths; they brushed their hair back, shaved closely, and bought new suits. One or two younger men kept watch in the streets and, if we went with them, other women eyed us jealously. The world is going to change, our brothers would say by way of explanation, but our older brothers said so many things that we didn’t pay much attention.

We brought some of what we’d gleaned back with us to Polar after Christmas break, but so well disguised that it barely amounted to anything. The nuns didn’t want to hear a peep about fascism. Once, years before, the school was almost shut down because of fascism, and since then they were much more careful. An inspector had come. She was quite arrogant, well buttoned up into a dark coat with a belt at the waist. Back then, we were still young and we gathered behind half-open doors to watch her pass by, watch how she spoke first with Sister Dolor, then with Sister Mártara Junior, then even with the less powerful nuns: Sister Mártara Senior, Sister O’Malley, Sister Chinta, Sister Radegunda.

When she went to speak with the latter, Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior’s eyes bugged out in horror. Sister Radegunda, even though she was paralyzed from the waist down and spent nearly all her time in her room, had studied in Hildesheim as a novice and liked everything with a whiff of Germany: magazines, old languages, old music. The inspector went to Sister Radegunda’s room and asked to see the magazines. She saw them and didn’t respond in any significant way, but Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior got nervous and said: Nothing like this will ever enter Polar again. At least not if we can help it. We, innocent nuns that we are, can only control what we see; everything else is in the hands of God.

Therefore, it wasn’t fascism that was banned per se, because we couldn’t call it by its name inside of Polar, but a lot of things that came from the outside. Some things and not others; there was no hard rule, a detail that showed, for once, some prudence and intelligence on the part of the nuns. And so when Sister Elvira Lecumberri happened, the nuns didn’t comment one way or the other. Just once did we extract a remark from Sister Mártara Senior, back when she was still teaching our sewing classes. She said: This sort of thing happens in all the convents. What do you expect; she’s at that age, that Elvira Lecumberri.

In the first sewing class of the new course, we did everything we could to call Sister Elvira Lecumberri by her name so she would help us with this or that. Each time we deliberately called her Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We’d already observed that she was wearing her habit again, but. Sister Elvira Lecumberri this, Sister Elvira Lecumberri that; help me with this stitch, please, Sister Elvira Lecumberri. She did everything we asked—not with a smile, but she hadn’t smiled much before either (in Polar, only the older nuns smiled). We could only conclude that she was a nun once again, and that is how we came to know someone in the flesh for the first time who had been married and now wasn’t.

When we went down to Agromos on Sundays after mass, we bought that journal (when they had it) to see if we could find out anything else about the man with whom Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been married; we wanted to know who he was, how he was, if Sister Elvira Lecumberri had also cut his clothes against his body like she had us do. In the journal, we never found anything about him besides his name printed on the masthead—which wasn’t helpful, but it was enough for us to understand that the gentleman did, in fact, exist.

Soon San Martiño arrived and, with it, the first and last time that a pig was slaughtered at Polar. Sister Dolor had ordered Sister O’Malley to raise a pig outside the kitchen and Sister O’Malley, who was mute and Irish, raised him well and we were fond of him, but then on the day of the slaughter, since Sister O’Malley was inexperienced, all the meat was lost and Sister Dolor exclaimed: Never again, I swear.

By San Martiño, we’d already grown tired of buying the journal, but we still wanted to know more about everything: about the gentleman, about the married life he’d had with Sister Elvira Lecumberri, about why Sister Elvira Lecumberri had left us and then returned. (Deep down, we wanted to believe that Sister Elvira Lecumberri had returned for us, because, like us, she’d missed our sewing classes).

During the first weeks of the course, we studied Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was serious and pale (before she’d had a caramel tone; she’d lost her color—during her marriage, before, or after, we’ll never know—and she never got it back). She wasn’t quiet. At the table she spoke plenty and the other nuns spoke back. About what, we didn’t know; what the nuns talked about between themselves was always a mystery to us, but we had the impression that Sister Mártara Junior spoke to Sister Elvira Lecumberri with an air of condescension, the same way she spoke to us when we got back from bathing in the swimming hole on Saturdays: What on earth were you thinking, going to the swimming hole alone without your bloomers?

We spied on Sister Elvira Lecumberri away from the table too. We took notes about what she did: that she walked down to Agromos alone, that she came back at unusual hours (though to be fair, we didn’t know how she behaved before, so). We took notes, but we learned very little for all our hard work. The idea began to congeal among us that something more needed to be done; we would need to make more of an effort if we wanted to find out anything worthwhile about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. If we were to get close to her, one of us would have to undertake the mission alone. Since the day we entered Polar, we had always done everything together, but we were beginning to understand that some things were better done separately.

After thinking it through, we chose a girl who we’ll call Imogen. Imogen wasn’t her real name—you needn’t know what it was, but it was similar—and Imogen’s mission was the following: fish the information that we wanted from the very mouth, the very body, of Sister Elvira Lecumberri.

(What did Imogen look like? Believe us when we say that we barely remember; what we remember, of course, are the important things.)

So we sent Imogen on the mission; we were already nearing the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the weather had turned quite cold. The nuns hadn’t let us swim in the river at the foot of the mountain for some time already. We told Imogen that she had to affix herself, endear herself to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, just like a niece or a younger sister. And so she did. From the Feast until the solstice, almost nothing happened. We watched Imogen getting closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, especially in the dining hall; she seemed to be doing everything that we’d told her to, but our hopes still weren’t very high. One has to give these things time, Imogen repeatedly reminded us in the dormitory at night, especially when we exposed more of our impatience than we should have.

Then Christmas break arrived, which was somewhat of a pity but no more than usual; we’d barely settled into Polar after the summer and we had to leave it behind again. We always left at Christmas and Holy Week, or almost always—not when our parents happened to go to Rome or Florence for Easter Sunday and left us to stay at school. That year, though, not one of us stayed behind at Polar. At home, alone as usual, we would think: What is she doing right now? It bothered us inside, in silence, that question.

The day we returned to Polar, four of us swore that we’d seen Sister Elvira Lecumberri during the holidays (one in A Coruña, two in Vigo, one in Betanzos). During those sightings, Sister Elvira Lecumberri always wore pants and never had her habit on. Even before finishing our first breakfast, we’d already concluded that none of that meant anything: mere coincidences, hallucinations that attacked us when we were alone. So we returned to the task at hand. With our bones still sore from the bus journey and the second term ahead of us, we looked to Imogen. While all of us girls at the table awaited her insights, Imogen only watched, half-smiling. What is it? We asked her. What? But don’t you realize that you can’t smile in front of the nuns? You shouldn’t smile; this we had all known since the day we stepped through the gate.

She said: But I’m not like you. I’m on a mission, or have you already forgotten? We turned our heads and saw Sister Elvira Lecumberri at the nun’s table, lifting a biscuit delicately to her lips. We sighed all at once, but we were always very sensitive anyway, returning to Polar after a holiday. Then the bell rang and we went to class. In terms of learning, it’s true that we didn’t learn much at Polar, but it would only occur to an outsider that we were there to learn; we were at Polar to be with each other.

At breakfast a few days later, we were surprised to see Imogen getting especially close to Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall, and then again the next day and the day after. You’d better watch yourself, we said to Imogen later in the dormitory while she sat Indian style on the bed brushing her hair. Look, we weren’t going to mention anything, but wasn’t the goal of your little mission to report back to us? When you sit with Sister Elvira Lecumberri in mass, when she asks you to organize the needle boxes, what does she say to you? She must say something. She must tell you something.

Something, concedes Imogen elusively. But these things take time. We were forced to admit that she was right.

She strung us along for weeks (she was clever that way, the pig). Then she started to tell us things, always a bit at a time. Look, she said to us in the dorm, putting on her know-it-all voice. Look, the two of them already knew each other from before, through Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s brother, who’s a poet and columnist (just like ours, we thought admiringly). Or did you think that the editor of a journal, a journal like that, no less, would come here to cozy up to nun?

A journal like what? the rest of us insisted earnestly. Deep down, the curiosity was consuming us; we, like Sister Elvira Lecumberri, had brothers, and some of them were poets and columnists, but how were any of them going to introduce us to their friends if we were always here at Polar? At home, we saw some of them in passing, but we usually hid because we weren’t presentable.

A journal like that, says Imogen. That one that you buy at Eliseo’s store in Agromos—or did you think that the nuns don’t see you? Of course they see you, and what’s more, when they see you, they want to follow you, but they control themselves. Listen to what I’m telling you: the whole country wants to move backwards, and it will. And when it does, the country won’t turn around again like Sister Elvira Lecumberri did.

Imogen’s words made the flesh inside our blouses tremble, because we knew that these sorts of things weren’t to be said, not inside Polar and not outside. Some of us even mustered the courage to respond, in voices a bit louder than necessary: Imogen, you’d better spit that filth right out of your mouth. We know that your grandfather kept pigs in the yard and killed them with his own hands; people like him, sure, they believe in all the things that this journal wants to bring to the country without shame, without thinking. We have more common sense. Imogen stretched out her legs on the bed and smiled again. That pig, we thought.

What bothered us most, though, was when we realized that Imogen had stopped reporting anything new; it became more apparent as heat began to linger in the air and the days began to grow longer—finer clothes, more hours of light to think and to notice things. Contemplating Imogen—her sleeves rolled up higher than before, her cheeks shining—many of us began to see her as separate from us.

Search and you will find, as it goes, and needless to say, what we found unnerved us; we marched like bullets to the chapel to kneel in prayer. Back then we still thought that certain things were incompatible; prayer we instinctively associated with the known, so it followed that prayer could dispel the unknown. We still understood everything in pairs.

The nuns didn’t mention anything, but they were suspicious. So much praying, they said when they saw us marching about the chapel at three in the afternoon, at eleven in the morning on a Saturday, after dinner. So much praying. Could it be because they don’t want to study? They need to study, because they’ll have to do something with their lives when tomorrow comes. The latter, which the nuns said casually, startled and confused us; we’d always known that words like past, present, and future didn’t make sense in Polar, but the nuns, who’d been there longer than us, used them anyway. What we wanted to do when tomorrow came, we had no idea, but we knew what we didn’t want to do: be nuns.

Trusting Imogen less and less, we began to observe Sister Elvira Lecumberri ourselves. We felt unsettled, because it had never occurred to us to distrust one of our own. At the beginning, it was hard for us to interpret what we were seeing. We spied on them rearranging the flower pots through the window overlooking the patio and, reading their lips, we found that it was Imogen rather than the nun who said: This goes here, Sister Elvira, and that goes there. Don’t you see? And Sister Elvira Lecumberri said yes and did as she was told. Then she rearranged the flowers as she’d had them before and then again how Imogen instructed. Imogen stuck too close to her; Sister Elvira joked, at first, that she wanted to escape (which surprised us), but then she would let the matter drop.

What do you have for us today, we pressed Imogen too eagerly at night. We still wanted her to tell us in her own words. She just brushed her hair parsimoniously, not nearly as bothered as we were, and shrugged her shoulders apathetically. This made some of us grip our own brushes with an angry fist, as if we wanted to strike Imogen in the rear with them. Others put a hand on her shoulder from behind as if to say: We were just hoping to hear your side of the story, we promise we’ll believe you.

Imogen hemmed and hawed, but she always ended up speaking, and she always had plenty to say. We asked her: What have you discovered about that man? She sighed and said: Lots of things. Do you know what? Sister Elvira Lecumberri, as much as she washes and scrubs, can’t rid herself of the smell of that man, neither inside nor outside. It’ll always be with her. It’s the same for our mothers and it’ll be the same for us.

Almost without thinking we answered: Spit that filth right out of your mouth, Imogen. (We did want to know more about those things, because we were at that age, but they also repelled us.) Spit that filth out of your mouth and tell us about what really matters: how did they meet, what did Sister Elvira Lecumberri see in him, an all that?

 

That’s what really matters, she said. It matters because the smell of that man—and now also of Sister Elvira Lecumberri—is the smell of their substance. Now the two of them think and smell the same, and that’s how we’re all going to end up thinking and smelling; it’s the law of nature.

At the time, cornered, we answered: Psh, Imogen. Psh. Forget about the mission right now; it’s not necessary anymore. Forget about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We have to forget about her too; we’re not the same girls we were four or five months ago. Forget it. Deep down, the thought of forgetting about her just like that stabbed at us, because we were girls and curious, but it was more important to make Imogen forget so that she wouldn’t take us with her down this path. Imogen rejoined: How am I supposed to forget now that I’ve discovered the most important part. You’ll discover it too; you already have, really, but you’re pretending that you don’t understand. I’ll tell you something: that’s no way to spend your life.

That night, each in her own bed, we thought about what had happened during the previous months and we all arrived at a similar conclusion: that Imogen had embraced the teachings of that man she didn’t even know, because she was a simple girl who believed things as they were presented to her. The rest of us girls and Sister Elvira Lecumberri were clearly more mature, and that’s why we fearfully shut our eyes against everything bigger than us, and having closed them, we were in danger of getting swept along with everyone else. The other nuns didn’t count; they were very obtuse. The other conclusion we drew was that something had to be done. Now we were all a little bit closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, because Imogen, even as simple as she was, had strung us along here and there about the school however she wanted. Being so close to that nun gave us some consolation, perhaps all that we had during those years in Polar.

Spring had sprung by then, somewhat earlier than normal. In the first days of March, we were already altered, agitated by that whisper in the air around Imogen: Giovinezza. Giovinezza. Primavera. Di Bellezza. We tried to deafen ourselves internally, but we couldn’t; there were some things that we weren’t ready to learn yet. Spring also brought the usual excitements: finally going to bathe in the swimming hole, for example, to relieve the heat we’d accumulated all winter. Imogen came with us to bathe, and in those hours we almost believed once again that she was one of us, especially when we observed her flesh—the same as ours, we repeated to ourselves while we cooked in the water. Even on those very first hot days, the water was too warm and did little to alleviate our fevers. When she finished swimming, she got out of the pool naked, dried herself clutching the towel very tightly to her body, and smiled. That was the end of the illusion that she was one of us; at Polar, we all made ourselves serious—it was our lot to endure. Even when she wasn’t smiling or laughing, there was a happiness in Imogen that was not in us; it wasn’t the happiness of the girls of Polar.

Some days, sure, we managed to go on with our lives. We were horrified to think about what it was that we’d have to do. We couldn’t continue this way, but to do something also seemed impossible. Maybe we’d have been able to go on like that for many years, even until we had to leave Polar, if it weren’t for something that happened a few days later when we saw Imogen leave Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s sewing classroom.

It was like seeing her climb out of the swimming hole once again. Soon, Sister Elvira Lecumberri appeared behind her. This time she wasn’t pale but positively aflame. What’s more, it looked to us as though Sister Elvira Lecumberri was blushing because Imogen had just gotten something from her that she’d wanted very much—the thing she’d wanted most in the world—though we didn’t know what it was. We had to look away; we’d never seen anyone blush like that. Meanwhile, that filthy Imogen had the nerve to laugh. Climbing the steps to the dormitory, she looked at us, looked at Sister Elvira Lecumberri, and fell into stitches.

Another day, Sister Elvira Lecumberri was showing us a stitch and getting a bit irritated when it didn’t come out well. We couldn’t get it right, because we were thinking to ourselves that now we’d really have to do something. Whatever shall we do, we thought. The only answer that occurred to us was to continue as always, go bathe in the swimming hole and allow what would be to be.

The nuns must have noticed something. Look, they’re more sullen than normal, more withdrawn, a bit congested, they said when they saw us walking in the hallways towards the dining hall, towards the dormitory, towards the communal showers. They’re congested; the water won’t do them any good. They’d better not go to the swimming hole this Saturday. We started to tremble in alarm, which only encouraged the nuns. They said: Look how the shivers rise from their toes to the tops of their heads; you can see it all the way from the third floor patio. Soon we’ll have to send them to Sister O’Malley in the infirmary; that’s what she’s there for after all. We straightened up, plucked up, and ran outside. We even fought with one another to show that we were as strong as ever, pounding flesh with closed fists, which also helped us release what we had boiling inside. It goes without saying that Imogen, in those moments, didn’t come anywhere near us; she was off alone, the pig, smiling and silent as if nothing mattered to her.

Saturday finally came. We had study hall in the morning, but we spent nearly the whole hour looking out the window (studying was, of course, a pretext; many of us read novels or wrote in our journals). We went to lunch when the time came, and when we finished, went outside as if daylight itself pulled us towards the swimming hole. Walking down the hallway, we looked behind us to see if Imogen was there. She was, she came, and so something worried at our hearts, each of us separately, because if Imogen walked with us, some part of her must still be like us.

We got to the bottom of the hill and turned towards the swimming hole. We thought that maybe Imogen had been one of us before, but wasn’t now (remember that, at Polar, it was difficult to separate the present, past, and future). Warmed by the sun, we arrived at the swimming hole. First, we all occupied ourselves with undressing and admiring how the sun penetrated our skin. We approached the water, stepped in, dunked our heads, and came back up, as we always did.

The water seemed warmer to us than usual. We had already all gotten in when we noticed that Imogen hadn’t. We looked over to terraferma and saw her walking towards us. Here she came, smiling, her skin shining as if she were covered in scales, the pig. You’ll have to excuse us, but the bitch! There she came as if she were superior to the rest of us—which she was.

How can we tell you what happened next? Truthfully, when we saw her, we all threw ourselves onto her—some from above, others from below. Don’t imagine that we’d planned it like that; it was some primal force waiting inside. We hadn’t believed in it before, but Imogen had. We would also have you believe that we got rid of it that day once and for all, every drop. We didn’t think that any more would come out ever again.

When we returned to Polar, the nuns gathered us all urgently in the assembly hall. We told them the story, and the nuns agreed that they’d have done the same. Look me in the eyes, said Sister Mártara Junior when we’d finished, are you sure that you’ve told us everything you have to say? We have, Sister, cross our hearts, Sister. Well, that’s that, then. Go rest now and, if you can’t, go see Sister O’Malley for a cup of English breakfast tea. Tomorrow this will all have passed. It will have, Sister, we said like an echo, and we left. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was hunched over in the hallway watching us. We didn’t even turn our heads to look at her. We had lost interest in her; we were at that age.

Portrait of Eva Moreda

Eva Moreda was born on the northern border between Galicia and Asturias in 1981. She has been active actively publishing novels in Galician since adolescence and is currently a professor of musicology at the University of Glasgow.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Linsday Semel is an emerging translator, freelancer, and organic farmer living in northern Galicia. Her book reviews have been published in the Women’s Review of Books, Kirkus, and Asymptote, where she was also a long-time staff member.

Trafika Europe