It was rumored among the postulants, although without corroboration, that the prioress had been an African missionary in her younger years. She ran, with relentless efficiency and absolute control, a combination hospital and orphanage in the remotest backlands of Nigeria. The sick, the lame, and the unwanted eventually found their way into the haven that she provided for all without question or fear of reprisals.
The native children, at first invariably bewildered by her whiteness, her size and her alertness–she seemed to be everywhere at once and where they least expected her–quickly named her maubi: Swamp Fog.
Her charitable work, as time passed, became known in every corner of the country. From time to time, foreign journalists would arrive at the gates of the compound to document with their cameras what was already common knowledge. They were received politely, shown around the premises and invited to share a simple meal with the residents of the orphanage. Eventually they would return to their respective countries, singing their praises and with enough footage to soften the most hardened hearts. The donations to her cause, as a direct result, poured in from every nation. The Catholic Church, not wanting to be left out, used some of these films–commonly aired today in every state of the union–to promote their own Save the Children Foundation.
Her benevolent work at the orphanage continued. It seemed that nothing could disturb the holy mission on which she had so zealously embarked, making it the focus of her entire life. Surely nothing could be more noble than caring for children who had no one to turn to.
One day, while dispensing some orange-flavored vitamins just arrived from the States, the unrestrained exhaust of a truck just outside the double gate caught her attention. A few moments later, the urgent and impertinent sound of a horn was heard. They were expecting no one; the latest shipment of medicines and supplies had already been delivered. Besides, the usual driver would never be so rude.
Leaving the vitamin tablets with one of her assistants, she removed the wooden beam that opened the gate. The driver of the unexpected truck, even though he had not received an invitation, stepped on the gas and drove into the crowded courtyard. The children, suddenly frightened by the noise, ran into the safety of the building and hid. Through the shutters, ajar at that hour of the day to shield the rooms from the rising sun, they cautiously spied on the disrespectful intruders.
The driver, with a quick motion of his hand, turned off the ignition. Suddenly, the courtyard was devoid of sound; even the birds in the mango trees had stopped singing.
A tall, black man opened the passenger door and stepped down. He wore no shirt. From his neck hung a huge medallion–its center showed a red stone encased in a full sun whose blazing rays had been worked in pure gold–held by a thick chain made of hammered gold links. Erupting from his back pocket, a bright red handkerchief avidly reached for the morning sunlight. Sister Gravity immediately recognized it as a sign that the man was a devotee of Shangó, one of the more powerful orishas–powers–in the crowded pantheon of the Yoruba religion. That in itself made him even more feared among the local populace, who believed that the supernatural powers of a deity could be channeled through a man. In his left hand he carried a coconut, perhaps meant as an early offering to the head of the orphanage. In the middle of the courtyard, under the full morning sun, he stopped and smiled. His gold-capped teeth at once multiplied and reflected the light. The slowness of his walk, the parsimony of his movements and the frozen smile on his lips denoted the arrogance of a Dahomeyan prince about to deliver a vital edict.
He did not speak.
His right hand rested morosely on the handle of the machete that conspicuously dangled from his waist, hidden in an embossed leather sheath. Then, as if a spring had suddenly been released inside of him, he simultaneously threw the coconut into the air, drew the machete and with a purposeful motion chopped off its top. By the time the coconut landed back in his left hand, ready to yield its milk, the machete had already disappeared from view.
He drank avidly, holding the coconut with both hands. Loud, insulting noises escaped from the hollow cavity. Once he was satisfied, he carelessly tossed the empty shell aside, into one of the flower beds.
It had obviously been a maneuver meant both to demean and intimidate.
From inside the orphanage the sudden crying of a child was heard.
“My name is Mobutu,” he finally spoke. “I have come to announce that these premises must be vacated within the week. I personally intend to make this my headquarters.”
There was no need for the man to introduce himself. Everyone knew that he was one of the most powerful warlords of the factions that had emerged soon after independence from a European power.
Everyone also knew that he was ruthless in his tactics.
The orphanage, unfortunately, was located in one of those disputed areas whose control shifted back and forth between the opposing factions. For the past year, no matter who was in control of that territory, the orphanage had been allowed to continue its merciful work undisturbed. It was one of those tacit and vague agreements that the chiefs had observed until that day.
But now Mobutu, apparently in a strategic maneuver to gain the upper hand and permanently entrench himself in that stretch of barren land, was staking his claim before anyone else could beat him to it.
“I will be back in three days,” he added. “I expect everyone to be gone. Understand?” There was an underlying threat in the tone of his voice.
As he climbed back into the truck he retrieved the red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat off his face. Before putting it away, maybe as a silent but unmistakable challenge to the whiter than white missionary, he waved it in the air.
As abruptly as they had arrived, they disappeared.
No words had been exchanged. A message–a threat–had been delivered with impunity. A decision had to be made as to the best course of action. The directress was not afraid; she would do whatever was necessary to continue her work with the unfortunate children of that country.
She decided, as if guided by divine inspiration, to make the long and often perilous journey to Lagos. There she could confront her ecclesiastical superiors with the dilemma and receive further instructions.
The next morning, as she was about to board the dilapidated jeep that had been donated to the orphanage by a now-defunct relief organization, a horn, demanding admission, sounded at the gate. Again she removed the beam that opened the doors.
Before her, visibly agitated, was a middle-aged priest– his cassock dusty from the precipitous night ride–behind the wheel of an abused Land Rover.
He drove into the central courtyard and parked next to the jeep.
Walking directly to the directress, and dispensing with the common courtesies, he delivered his frightful message.
“It’s time to leave,” he said. “The situation is much too dangerous; the Vatican wants everybody out.” He was referring, of course, not only to this particular institution, but to all others the Catholic Church had in that country. They did not want their personnel to be trapped between the warring factions.
“What about the children?” she asked. Her concern was genuine; she was not afraid of staying.
“They will be taken to a shelter in Lagos, until we can decide what to do on a permanent basis.”
As the emissary was delivering the urgent message, he retrieved from his pocket a crumpled document and handed it to Sister Gravity. All the appropriate seals and signatures were present; it was a papal decree which corroborated all that the priest had said.
There was no room of discussion; despite her inner desire to stay, she was bound by her vows of obedience.
“We will prepare the children,” she said showing an expression of incipient rage.
By the second day, all the young tenants had been evacuated from the orphanage to the safety of the capital. Only the supervising priest, the directress, and some of the help remained.
On the third day, just as before, the impertinent blare of a horn was heard at the gate.
Mobutu was back.
This time the parsimony of his previous visit was absent; by now he knew that all the children had been taken to the capital. He had won.
But that was not enough for him. He wanted to exult in his victory while at the same time obfuscate the retreating
Once again he approached her slowly. The rising sun extracted the first reflections of the day from the huge medallion that hung from his neck. The red stone in its elaborate center–the eye of Shangó–contrasted mockingly with the whiteness of the habit, with the translucent skin of the directress herself.
Mobutu stopped in front of her, just inches away. The white and black profiles, harshly set against the pale morning sky, suddenly became the icons of good and evil about to collide.
“Nguma-kali,” he uttered with contempt. The term ‘nguma,’ meaning a white, fluffy cloud, she could have overlooked. But the general suffix ‘kali,’ which when applied to nouns meant harmless in an insignificant way, like a dog that is all bark, was more than she could tolerate. In this case the insult meant an empty cloud, one that carried no lightning and is always at the mercy of the shifting wind.
The wide hand of the nun, hardened by years of physical labor, landed abruptly on Mobutu’s face. The sudden slap shook his head. The gold medallion trembled slightly on his chest, as if echoing the force of the blow. Just as before, the birds in the mango trees stopped singing. Everyone in the courtyard seemed paralyzed; given his violent temper, it was anybody’s guess as to what Mobutu would do next. In the past he had killed men for lesser transgressions.
The directress had not retreated a single inch.
He slowly raised his hand to his cheek that was still burning from the forceful slap.
“Nguma-leme,” he said and broke out laughing. “Nguma- leme,” he repeated in a louder voice. She had certainly driven the point home. The suffix ‘leme’ meant worthy of respect. It had originated generations ago, when the Yoruba still hunted for their food. After the kill, they gathered around the slaughtered animal and chanted its name adding the suffix ‘leme,’ to show that even in defeat, their respect had not diminished.
With the painful, but daring act, Sister Gravity had attained Mobutu’s respect. She had lost, but was not defeated.
The papal nuncio, from the cool shade of a tree and holding a rosary in his flaccid hand, had carefully observed the unfolding events.
Later that day, back in the safety of the capital, he prepared the detailed report that would make its way to the desk of their superiors and end the benevolent work of the directress in that country. He relentlessly described, with an overabundance of obscure adjectives imbedded in alembicated sentences, the violent incident that had taken place early that morning.
The logical consequences were quickly forthcoming. Such lack of restraint, even on the face of provocation, could not be tolerated in someone who represented the very essence of Catholic doctrine before the public. Within the week she received, directly from Rome, her new assignment. She would become the prioress of a convent located in the southern state of Georgia. The papal officials deduced, and rightly so, that if she were isolated from the public she could hardly embarrass the church with another outburst of violence. She would guide and mold the young novices, just as she had done with the children at the orphanage.
The only sign of her instant dislike for her new assignment was the slight trembling of her upper lip and the hand that crumpled the official letter with the papal seal and the bishop’s signature. They were nothing but outward signs of impotence; again she was bound by her vows of obedience.
Three days later, she was on her way to Atlanta. At the airport, a lean, tall priest with jet-black hair was waiting for her. He introduced himself as Father Gideon while expertly helping her with her luggage.
For the next two hours they sat in a pick-up truck, traveling the secondary roads that would eventually lead to her new assignment. Some of the poverty evident on the back country reminded her of the place she had just left.
Eventually, among a cluster of trees, she caught a glimpse of the tall, white belfry. As they approached the Convent of the Righteous Path she saw the river that ran on the other side of the trees.
“This is it,” said Father Gideon as he stopped the truck in front of the steps that led to the portico. He opened the door and started to unload the luggage that he had earlier placed on the bed.
“I’m sure you will like it here,” he said, making polite conversation. “My parish is in town, just a few miles away. I come twice a week, to hear confession and to say mass. If you need anything, feel free to call on me.”
“I will,” she said. “And thank you for your kindness.”
“My pleasure,” said the priest as he drove away, leaving a dusty trail behind.
The massive biprostyle door had, carved on its surface, the emblem of the religious order. She was about to knock, using the huge bronze lion claw, when the door opened by itself. A young novice appeared in the threshold.
“We were expecting you,” she said softly, almost with a tone of reverence. It was apparent that she was in absolute awe of the new prioress. Perhaps it was her unforgettable physical appearance; perhaps they were aware of her previous assignment and the commendable work she had performed.
Sister Gravity followed the novice through an interior patio and a corridor that led to her office. There were, in every corner, statues of saints with their pious eyes reaching towards heaven and their hands folded in prayer. They were a constant reminder to the faithful that the eternal reward was not to be found on this earthly plane, but beyond.
In their wake they left a combined whisper of voices–the other novices were understandably curious about the new prioress–whose subdued tones quickly died out in the hallowed silence of the convent.
At last they arrived in the main office. The new directress, with a quick glance, thoroughly surveyed the
After the long journey she felt tired. She also knew that in a short time she had changed; she was no longer as naive as she had been during her stay at the orphanage in Nigeria. All her years of selfless work had been wiped out by a mediocre functionary’s report. A dormant streak of cynicism, despite her best efforts to contain it, was now beginning to surface.
The young novice, still standing silently in the middle of the office, awaited her first order.
“Bring me a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks; straight up, no chaser,” she said without hesitation.