It was the end of the world, and a priest in his early thirties, along with a young nun from the local convent, were burning books to keep their fire in the rectory alive.
After exhausting the supply of pre-chopped wood in the cellar and all of the burnable furniture, and having no axe to hand, they were forced to scavenge from the selection of books in the convent library. After tearing through Milton and Dostoevsky, Aquinas and Augustine soon followed.
The young nun, who never wore anything other than her habit, and who lamented the destruction of even one secular author’s work, couldn’t help but flinch at the callous way the priest flung them one by one onto the blaze. But it was winter, and there was nothing else to be done. They were the only two survivors of the end of the world.
The priest, a man ordained to his office six years ago that summer, had removed his collar after the first two weeks. But he was a well-dressed man by nature, and so he kept the black shirts and trousers that composed his lay dress. Inwardly, he scoffed at the young nun, who remained dutiful in wearing her habit, and wouldn’t even take off the veil that swathed her light brunette head. He felt compelled to speak about it again.
She was staring at a stray piece of paper, half-curled up in fire. At his voice she raised her head.
"Margaret, why don't you take off your veil? I know it's cold but your hair will hide your face."
"I'm fine," she replied, smiling a small smile.
He refused to look at the fire.
"We're alone, Margaret. It's just the two of us. You don't have to be worried about anything."
"I didn't say I was worried."
"Then why persist in wearing it? Are you still afraid of offending the Lord?"
"Offense has nothing to do with it." She kept on smiling that small smile. It was the kind she wore when a stranger pointed out her nice costume, or asked her about her motivation behind wearing it. He'd seen it many times during joint campaigns held throughout their small diocese by the convent and local parishes.
He scoffed lightly.
"We've been alone for months, now. No-one has passed through. No-one will. Eventually you'll take it off, when the summer comes. So why not practise now, for the inevitable? It might make the realisation a little less painful."
His voice lilted over the last few words. It was the same tone he'd taken countless times with wayward young teenagers.
Her small smile grew in response. It chipped tiny grooves in her cheeks, glowing in the light of the fire. He stared and waited.
"We've been in the presence of God. I don't believe we are alone, Father."
"So you are afraid of offense."
"I want a gentle reminder, in these strange times, that He is still with us."
"You are truly convinced we have not been abandoned?"
"He promised never to flood the earth again."
"True indeed," the priest replied, a note of triumph stealing into his voice. "But in the first instance he saved Noah to ensure the continuation of the human race. Is this not perhaps a second sign? A second cleansing?" He shuffled across the carpet to sit a little closer. "If so, it seems to fall on those remaining to heed this sign… to take up Noah's role once more."
Something - the fire, perhaps - lended a pinkish tinge to the young nun's face. She appeared to be suppressing something behind her quiet smile. A flicker of hope stirred in the priest's heart.
She pulled the veil tightly against the sides of her head. The flicker died.
"He promised us that He would never flood the earth again. And the signs of end times are not the ones we see here, Father. Our Lord appears to be biding His time. We are being tested, as we are in all things."
"It's just a veil," he replied testily, shifting the conversation back to its impetus. "You carry your Bible, still. You wear the crucifix on your breast. I fail to see how it alone can remain so very important to you, Sister."
"Because you felt so free to remove your collar, Father?"
It hit him like an arrow. Her gaze, directed solely at him throughout their exchange, took on a strange intensity. He found himself unable to meet it. The fire diverted his attention once more.
"...you seem comforted, Sister, but I confess not to be. If we alone remain, what use is there in the roles we fulfilled amongst men? What use are the orders that bound us to Him when the very structure that gave us them has collapsed?"
The priest murmured this into his knees, drawn up under his chin.
"The Church is gone. Our flocks are gone. Are we not released from our duties? Are we not free to take on more pressing ones?"
He glanced over at the young nun. She was no longer staring at him. The full of her face was turned to the yellow fire.
"You ask what use there is in our orders, Father." She looked down at her lap, at her fingers laced together. "I know this - that they have saved me, all through this life. They made everything clear to me again, after a long spell in darkness. And if anything good has come of them it is to the glory of God."
The nun closed her eyes.
"I put my trust in Him two years ago and I will not let it break. My orders remain the same."
A short silence descended on the rectory. The priest looked at the layer of dust coating the top of the mantelpiece. A crucifix hung above it.
"What would you do, Sister, if I just reached out and took it down?" he murmured, staring at the ribs of the painted wooden carving.
The flames crackled. He turned and lifted his hand, imitating the motion he described. Her eyes were open, and gazing at him again.
"Just took it… just like that?"
He smiled, tilting his head. The young nun smiled back, a small smile.
"There'd be nothing I could do, Father. If you truly wished to."
The more he met her gaze, the more he noticed the flecks of brown in her grey eyes. He wondered how she could stare at him without any hesitation. It was her way with everyone.
Under any other circumstances he would have felt compelled to look away. But with no other prying eyes he took advantage of the moment. The white of her sleeve almost brushed his black.
"What do you think of me?"
The corners of her grey-brown eyes wrinkled.
"I think fondly of you, Father."
"Do you love me?"
Through the gaps in the veil he saw the folds of her hair, tucked behind her ears. It was a little too large. He wondered why no-one had ever pointed it out, before thanking them quickly.
"Yes. I love you, Father. I love you very much."
"In what way?" he asked, licking his lips, dry from the constant heat of the flames.
The nun sat as she had from the beginning of the night, parallel to the window, casting a pail of soft white moonlight over her head. Her smile waned.
"The way we are called to."
It was the answer he'd half-expected. And he didn't doubt that it was true. But he refused to shake the suspicion that there was perhaps a part of her that wanted to give a different answer.
"Do you love me?"
"In what way?"
Was this some kind of invitation? If so, what kind? He looked down at the young nun, whose smile had all but disappeared. Her back was straight and she leaned neither towards nor away from him.
"The same way you love me."
That gave her pause. The nun touched the side of her veil, rubbing it between her fingers and gazing at the fire.
"Is that it, then?"
"Is what it?"
"I'm certain that someone will find us soon. In the meantime, I'm certainly glad that I found you, Father."
He screwed up the side of his mouth.
"You're very persistent."
When she turned to face him again his eyes were glittering, and she smiled.
"And I feel very safe around you."
The priest shifted away from her side ever so slightly, hugging his knees and gazing at her over them.
"I'll try not to disappoint you, Sister."
She reached for the stack of books at his elbow and drew out The Four Loves. By some chance it had been missed during the purge of secular volumes.
"Then can we spare Lewis the fire?" she asked, holding the cover out to face him. He rolled his eyes.
"If you insist. I suppose."
The spine creaked as she laid it open on her lap. The priest watched her grey-brown eyes flash over the pages.
Silence reigned for the remainder of the night.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, MirroWrite a Review