In the year of Our Lord 2033, I bide here in my cell.
Technically, I’m a nun, not a prisoner, but why quibble because I have a name instead of an inmate number? Mary Elizabeth’s not even my real name. A preacher gave it to me when I took my vows at the virginal age of forty-five.
“Do you willingly and obediently pledge your troth to Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior?” The preacher’s tone suggested he was reading a takeout menu rather than performing a sacred office.
No option: “I do.”
“I anoint thee …” For him, a boilerplate reply.
For me, those three words served as the linchpin in my regression from butterfly to chrysalis, peach ice cream to cow and fruit tree, living to existing. Before, I was Alicia Turner, PhD. After, a bride of Christ.
My convent is in Gainesville, Georgia — once known as the chicken capital of the world because local poultry farmers innovated chicken processing techniques. In the 1970s, the townspeople erected a monument in a downtown park to honor the chicken’s role in their prosperity. Of course, the life-size bronze standing high atop a marble obelisk is actually a rooster, which is ominous foreshadowing now that I think of it.
I can trace my incarceration to the election of Michelle H– as president of the United States. The Plague sped things along, yet she primed the country’s righteousness. And no, despite official doctrine, gay Muslims didn’t bioengineer the Plague. Nor was it in fact a plague. We poisoned ourselves with non-stick coating.
That’s right, the stuff that used to coat the pots and pans to make dishwashing a breeze.
Termination by Teflon.
Eradication by Perfluorooctanoic Acid.
Destruction by Polytetrafluor— Well, you get the picture.
The chemicals leeched into pretty much everything, especially after one enterprising corporation got the bright idea to add them to laundry detergent to repel stains. When the chemicals built up to a critical mass inside us, more than eighty million died in the United States alone. Mostly men, a fatal quirk in their body chemistry. The scale of the crisis required the government to designate North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska as national crematoriums.
Global warming played a role too.
“Drill, baby, drill.”
“Frack, baby, frack.”
They lowered gas prices by 2.7 cents per gallon after preserving the oil companies’ profit margin. Our joy was soon tempered. The coastlines sunk several inches without crude oil taking up space beneath the earth. Combine that with melting polar icecaps, and once-landlocked Gainesville features an ocean view reminiscent of Charleston, South Carolina, before it went the way of Atlantis.
I take great solace in watching the seagulls.
However, the forced re-drawing of our national borders didn’t generate a growth economy.
So, we had a perfect storm: not too many men, not too many jobs. Michelle H– and her VP, John T–, who was an ordained Savoring the Savior Chapel pastor. In hard times, people slaver for religious dogma disguised as pure faith, desperate to win the “My God is better than your god” sweepstakes. America ended up the largest fundamentalist Christian nation on the planet, banning all other religions and denominations.
The war against women began as another pro-family movement. The talking heads on radio, TV, and the Internet droned that America could return to a Golden Age if we fulfilled God’s will and restored the traditional family. The government provided electricity subsidies to keep these communication channels operational and thereby prevent social anarchy.
“Heed God’s warning. Christ is the head of man. Man is the head of woman,” the pundits said. “God punished us because our homes were divided. Repent, and let families flourish.”
“We need to respond,” said a concerned friend.
“They’re grieving,” I replied. “This much death and diaspora — it’s incomprehensible. They’re lashing out.”
Fighting family values wasn’t a popular pastime in the face of human and ecological devastation. No one itched to be known as a Christian-hating socialist bent on destroying our society. Nobody was eager to clue in the religiously minded that they were perverting the word of God. We’d seen what happened to President O–.
Next, the self-appointed experts set their sights on single, childless women in their thirties and forties. They adopted old Japanese slang to show their contempt, calling us Loser Cats. The Japanese had used the term “Loser Dogs,” but, of course, dogs were deemed too family-oriented to describe us.
“Loser Cats are the New Plague,” they said. “They take jobs from hard-working men. They lure husbands from families. Loser Cats are destroying America.”
“This is getting scary,” said a few more friends.
Like many, I thought our society was too advanced for preposterousness to take hold. It had been at least sixty years since my great-grandmother had to ask her husband to add her name to the deed of their home “for love and affection” – even though she’d earned the entire down payment.
“They’re idiots,” I said. “Free speech and all. It’ll blow over.”
Some argument, no action.
Maybe if we’d paid attention to Margaret Atwood, something would have smacked some sense into us. While the world judged George Orwell’s dystopias to be forever imminent, the future Atwood envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale was regarded as fantasy. Orwell was the prophet; Atwood, the quirky Feminist. We didn’t foresee how close to right she was.
Mistake. Some people took the Loser Cat rants as Gospel. Fast forward several months: Average Americans protested in the streets.
“L.C’s are an Abomination!” they shouted.
I was in WTF? mode until my family drove home the new reality. “What you are — it’s unnatural, an offense to God,” said my surviving brother. “God’s will be done,” said his wife.
True fear came too late. The new State Church, taking a page from the annals of Catholicism, decided to put single women in nunneries where we could serve God, since we weren’t serving anyone else. We were rounded up.
In theory, the decision to take vows was ours. But choices dwindled as the Church stripped our rights. Let’s take me as an example. A male graduate student with a wife and two toddlers replaced me as a tenured professor of world history. A police captain and his family received the gift of my home, the mortgage paid off four years earlier, as a reward for public service.
“It’s my house.” I spoke across a desk to a preacher in the U.S. Department of Equitable Societal Redistribution.
“You’re a leech. You offer nothing the world needs. It’s time to give back.” The words coming out of the preacher’s mouth didn’t match his persona. He had the genial way of puffy, avuncular men who are overly fond of chicken wings and pizza after the third beer. He offered me a pen to sign the transfer of ownership.
“I won’t do it. This has got to be illegal. That house is mine,” I said.
“It’s perfectly legal. You allowed Satan into your life — a sign of mental incompetence. I can sign on your behalf.” He turned the document toward him and added his signature.
“The Devil? I …”
He cut me off. “Godly women are wives and mothers. The Church will aid you to make restitution for your sins. Take joy in your penance.” A straight face, not one snigger. The hysterical laughter was all mine.
My brother took me in for a few months. Christian Charity, he called it. The Spinster Tax ended even that bitter dream. Neither of us could afford to pay the $30,000 annual fee that would allow me to stay in his home. It may not sound like a big deal, a bunch of straight and lesbian spinsters, divorcées and widows being put on the path of virtue. And in a way, we have it better than many married couples. I can’t imagine having to sleep with a person week after week year after year when you don’t find them attractive, whether it’s a matter of sexual orientation or a thirty year age difference.
Only the older single women came here, at first. Eleven years and two months down the road, girls marry by fifteen or take the veil. In addition, women who don’t conceive during the first three years of married life must renounce their husbands for the nunnery.
Convents are enclosed. The Catholics pushed the concept of enclosure during the Renaissance, typically allowing a single door for human egress and using a giant wheel-and-hatch system, like a lazy susan with walls, to bring in supplies from the outside world. The Church follows a similar course, but only in that grandiose style that remains the hallmark of America. We live on self-contained farms: pretty lavender and chicory-dotted compounds with a church, a nun’s dormitory, barns and other buildings for various nunnish enterprises. We’re surrounded by fields and frolicking livestock, the whole ringed with razor wire, twenty-foot fences and guard towers. According to the Church, the ungoverned woman is easily swayed. We need this isolation in order to concentrate on our duty to God.
When the military first started picking up single women at gunpoint, a few female leaders spoke out. It didn’t go well no matter what their marital status. Hillary C–, deep into her seventies, stood trial for agitating the female mind to engage in ungodly behavior. The Church closed the hearing to the public but televised the execution nationwide. Hillary was gagged, her eyes stoic as the needle punctured her arm.
Some women thought Hillary and her kind got what they deserved for being Feminists instead of real women. Then Michelle H– stepped up and asked the Church for a six-month reprieve from further executions. She died within the week for crimes against the State. John T– took over the presidency.
This turn of events cowed most women. Again, let’s consider my situation. One Friday night after Michelle H–’s murder, the military police arrived at my brother’s door. They handed Daniel a warrant. He waved them inside.
“She’s here in the family room,” he said to the men wielding visible guns on their hips and rumored needles in their back pockets.
“Daniel, please.” I stood up from my chair. Though the Tax was beyond his means, somehow I expected more from the little brother I’d helped raise. We were family, with matching brown eyes and the hint of a cleft in both our chins.
“God bless you,” he said. His voice, his face, everything about him held me at a distance. His wife Beth, on the sofa, closed her eyes and said nothing. The children were asleep upstairs. I could picture them getting up in the morning.
“Where’s Aunt Ali? She’s taking us to the park today,” they’d say.
What I couldn’t quite fathom: how Daniel and Beth would explain my disappearance. Maybe they’d deflect the children’s questions with a parental “Eat your breakfast,” “Do your chores,” or “Let’s pray,” and I’d fade into whispered memories.
The police escorted me to Fort McPherson in southwest Atlanta. I gave my vows in the khaki blur of the intake center. My reward was a head shaving – obligatory B-movie bullying that surprised me more than it should have. My brown hair joined a spongy carpet of multi-colored female tresses obscuring the concrete floor. Herded into a barracks. A matron, wearing a knuckle-to-knuckle gold band on her left ring finger to signify her married status, told me to undress down to the skin. She threw my clothes into a giant bin.
“Can I keep my earrings?” I said. The pearl studs had been a twenty-first birthday present from my parents.
“Self-adornment violates the vow of poverty.” She didn’t look at me. I guess she’d seen one too many novitiates cry.
The matron gave me what could only be called a brassiere and underwear. The cotton was too white, too sturdy, too big for a bra and panties. Then thick black crew socks and black lace-up oxfords. Finally she offered a long-sleeved, floor-length black habit and a white wimple that cradled my shorn head down to my eyebrows and up to my mouth. The burka-inspired nature of my new garments seemed to elude the matron, but perhaps she thought the rosary with the writhing, thorned Jesus in my pocket would remind me which religion I belonged to.
When my brother and I were young, we made puppets by drawing faces on paper plates. I imagined my disembodied eyes, nose, and mouth floating in the middle of a giant black-and-white paper plate. I had to imagine it. Mirrors violated the vows.
“You’re missing service,” the matron said.
“It’s getting late, and I’m tired. Can’t I start tomorrow?” I wanted to dream my new world away.
“That’s against the rules. To follow the Church’s wisdom is to follow God.”
She ushered me into a vast building filled with other floating faces to start my training. Fear kept us tethered through thirty days of indoctrination. Then a convoy of buses took me and a thousand other nuns to the empty convent on the outskirts of Gainesville. The Church didn’t want to appear cruel, so they outfitted us with supplies like we were pioneers going West to find our fortune.
With the scramble to survive and pay tithes, for several years we kept our heads down and worked. And I’ll be honest, we weren’t sure the Church was wrong. As young girls, we’d all dreamt of a handsome groom (or bride), a white satin wedding gown, a tiered cake awash in butter-cream roses. I even kept a hope chest, filled with blankets and candlesticks for married life, until I was thirty-five. That sounds crazy, but in the Little House series of children’s books, Laura Ingalls kept a hope chest before she married Almanzo Wilder. I must have read those books more than eighty times each, and had it drummed into my head that I would marry my own Almanzo. I didn’t. So the idea that I must be a freak lingered in the back of my mind. When the Church named me an Abomination, who was I to disagree?
It took time – what the Abbess and I call our mule years – but the convent prospered as we figured out how to run a farm. One by one, the men and women who brought medicines and other trade items began to talk. Our removal from the world hadn’t ushered in new American prosperity. The much-beloved traditional families were suffering, and some auctioned off their children as young as twelve to prospective brides and grooms so they could pay their bills.
Late one night near the dawn of Year Seven, the Abbess peeked out from behind her Bible and said, “Does God hate us? I read the Bible, and I don’t see where the doctrine comes from, but if it’s true, God must hate us.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said in my most professorial tone.
“But the Church …”
“People who use God’s name the most, usually have the least grasp of God’s will,” I said. “That’s a fact. There were studies in Sweden, pre-apocalypse.”
“You goof,” the Abbess laughed. “We’re not supposed to be nuns. What the hell are we doing?”
That simple exchange showed trust. We had ceased being too afraid – to allow thoughts to take substance.
Then my brother came to visit. I met him in the solar, an old word for what amounts to a living room. When I opened the door, Daniel was sitting in one of the many straight-backed wooden chairs that wallowed in painful piety. I crossed the room as he stared vacantly toward the small, high square window. I sat next to him. After seven years, he could speak first.
Daniel jumped up and paced. On his second pass beneath the window, he stopped and cleared his throat.
“I have no right to ask you for anything,” he said. “I let them take you.”
“Yes, you did.”
I wasn’t prepared to lie.
“The Church said it was God’s will.”
I refrained from rolling my eyes. “The Church also said you’d be content in God’s love.” I smiled with beatific purpose. “How’s that working out?”
“My wife and daughter won’t talk to me,” he said. “They won’t meet my eyes.”
“That’s called obedience, Daniel.”
“I messed up. I’m sorry.”
“You made a choice,” I said, my hands twitching in my lap like they might lunge for his neck. “You stayed quiet.”
“The Church was killing people.” Daniel seemed to have his own trouble making eye contact.
“Women,” I said. “The Church put the needle to women. Men are sacred, saved by God. You could’ve spoken.”
“I failed you.”
Nothing to say. Love doesn’t preclude disgust.
“I need you,” said Daniel. “Our preacher says it’s time for Ruth to marry. She’s 13, Alicia.”
“The name’s Mary Elizabeth now,” I said.
“You never bought into that shit.”
“Such language from a Christian. I’m shocked.” Not well-done of me.
Daniel finally looked at me, all sweet-little-boy earnestness. I was stone-faced, no reciprocating big sister.
“Save her,” he said.
That earned him a glare. “You saw the barbed wire, right? I’m in a big prison at the edge of the ocean.”
Daniel sat down and pulled my hand into his. “You get things done; you always have. Please.”
“You’re asking a lot.”
I wanted him to squirm, but I’d already relented, unwilling to abandon my niece, or my nephew, as my brother had me. Though I had no biological child, I couldn’t be the woman who held down her daughter while her genitals were mutilated; who told her daughter to stay with a husband who beat her or to marry a man who raped her; who offered up her daughter as a sister wife; who taught her daughter that education didn’t matter, that being a wife and mother was all she should aspire to. And I couldn’t be the woman who let her son relegate women to sex, progeny, and housekeeping.
I wouldn’t accept the crimes against me as a woman’s lot and pass them down to future generations. The righteous twist the word of God to meet their ends. The just don’t forsake their own when the righteous twist too hard.
“Send Ruth to me as a novitiate,” I said. “I’ll figure out what to do.”
Daniel kissed my cheek and left. The wood of the chair pinned my muscles in fine stitches, but I didn’t move. I cleared my mind, feeling serenity of purpose. I got up and left, outside, to find the Abbess in the olive grove.
“Let’s get to work,” I said.
It wasn’t that easy. Some nuns – the brainwashed, pious ones and the ones with a dread of needles – wouldn’t take any action.
“We serve God and men of faith. What greater purpose could there be?” they said, toeing the party line.
Ruth’s presence solidified my resolve.
“They’re men of fervor, not faith,” I said. “That leaves out kindness, grace, love even. That leaves out God.”
Then a few pointed history lessons revealed how people through the centuries have turned against nuns, however holy. The holdouts realized that we have to play ball, or one day the Church will cast us as the vain and greedy whores of heaven, much worse than a run-of-the-mill Loser Cat. They’ll have an excuse to exterminate us.
“How could we be whores? That’s not logical,” said Ruth. The young women who enter the convent enjoy learning to employ reason and logic.
“Uppity women are always whores to certain people,” I said. “They use sex to put us in our place. The question is: Are we going to let them? Some women do. Otherwise, the dance form known as twerking never would’ve been invented.”
I demonstrated the rhythmic ass twitching the best I could. My career as a professor may be gone, but I will teach to the end. Helpless laughter once again filled the air. Mine, facing that preacher, had been the sound of fear. Ruth’s was pure joy.
We strive hard to maintain outward compliance. Like the nuns of old, we participate in public services only through music. The choir sits in a separate room, visible and heard from the chapel through a grilled window. We’ve converted (i.e., blackmailed) the local man to our side, so his sermons are inoffensive. When outsider preachers visit, dummies sit in most of the chairs to limit the Sisters’ exposure to tripe.
Those preachers we christened the Dogs of God. While we enjoy that whole Cat/Dog dynamic, we named them after the Dominican monks who spread pain and terror during the Inquisition in the 1500s. Sometimes, one of them will think to catch us out and ask something like, “Why do so few Sisters sing to God’s glory? Do you forget your duty?”
“The Sisters have taken the vow of silence, praise God,” we’ll say. That old standby ends the speculation. The Dogs believe the vow of silence assists the weak woman to cleave closer to God and man.
Overall, though, the Church pays us little heed as long as we pay the tithes.
“What could a bunch of enclosed spinster nuns do?” officials think.
Quite a lot. First, we built windmills for electricity. Our preacher hemmed and hawed about approving the project, but our self-sufficiency left more of the spotty local supply for deserving families. To this day, we feed electricity into the city grid. Such acts of benevolence bring power. Then we traded goats, honeybees and geese for computers and servers. They weren’t cheap – think herds, swarms and flocks – because we’re not supposed to have computers, let alone Internet access. Even pen and ink are forbidden.
Keeping us separated from society has had consequences the Church couldn’t anticipate. We’ve come to represent a mysterious sanctity, and some will do our bidding outside the convent walls in return for prayers. “Dear Lord in Heaven, aid thy servant,” we intone. Five minutes of fervent, pious babble later, the favors trickle in. A fair exchange of goods and services also can get things done. And it’s not just women, men work with us too. Some, like my brother, don’t like the way their mothers, daughters and wives are treated. Others want to see tits and ass on display again. Many want to come back out of the closet.
However, our most fervent supporters aren’t defined by religion or sex. It’s a love of reading — the breath of sanity. Librarians handle much of our outreach activities. The Church banned most books not named Bible, but many former Americans (e.g., non-Christians and LGBTs who escaped) help us access banned books from what’s left of Europe. Librarians can be surprisingly intrepid if you dangle the lure of a book.
Ruth is seventeen years old now. By the time she’s a full-fledged woman, she could be free to choose her path, whatever it might be. Last week, she sat in on a planning session with myself and the Abbess. She’d been listening to us for a few minutes when she said, “Aunt Ali, the Church has guns, needles, the Dogs, God, everything. How can we win?”
“We plant the seeds, tend the saplings,” I said. “The forest will grow. It’s not easy, but ideology can fall to truth. One day the Church won’t have enough chainsaws to save itself.”
“A-1 inspirational analogy, Professor,” the Abbess said as she reached across the table and flicked my shoulder with her rosary. “But nice hardwoods take decades to grow, and you and I don’t have that kind of time unless we’re prepared to do the back-end of our campaign from wheelchairs.”
Ruth drew back her sleeve. A stiletto was strapped to her arm.
“We could speed things up,” she said. My little girl grown pragmatic. The family eyes and chin front a singular spirit.
“Violence is a last resort – better that the Church not see what’s coming.” I glanced at the Abbess as I spoke. “Still, weapons training wouldn’t be amiss so long as we don’t get righteous. I think I could kill if necessary, but righteous murder is the Church’s forte. We don’t want to go there.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” the Abbess said.
Ruth snorted and the Abbess’ rosary flew into her shoulder.
“Yes, I said it, and I’m not ashamed. Spinster nuns are funny people, Ruth, humorists of the highest order. Get used to it.” The Abbess smiled as she spoke, the wrinkles around her eyes darting like radiant halos. “And start training. We prepare for every eventuality.”
The meeting closed with a round of fist bumps and “Peace be with you.”
My thoughts return to Michelle H– a lot these days. She believed she could succeed if she joined the men whose power was built on the backs of women. She trusted that their authority was just, God-given. But in the end, she saw through the smoke and mirrors to the petty viciousness. She did what was right.
I will too. Word of a Loser Cat.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., USA, and works as a freelance writer/editor for trade publications in the healthcare and technology transfer fields. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, and other journals. Her “faves” include making jewelry and herding a pesky gray cat. She can be found on Twitter: @CaralynDavis