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Her parents had waved her into her first class, grinning inanely. The hall was dark, like a timeworn cave. She said goodbye to them in the same way she might take leave of a bereaved couple. “There, there,” she lulled, as their smiles ebbed away, leaving bare imploring eyes and agitated mouths. She was methodical and her mouth flat. She smoothed mother’s face, laughter lines embellished with powder, like cracked clay. She then patted father’s densely veined hands that always reminded her of the trailing maypop above her front door.
But even as she did this her father lifted her into his hug, so that only her toes grazed the floor, and she crumpled into his arms.
The two-strata maroon blazer the school had given Molly lacked the yield to sculpt her form into that of daughter. She fell down the shadowy corridor shapelessly, head suddenly heavy.
“Remember to sit at the front, Molly dearie,” mother said, attempting a smile.
“Yes, mother.” Molly waved back.
As she entered the classroom the shadow-caul was peeled fast from her eyes.
A hundred more wide eyes peeked out at Molly from behind pink, enquiring noses. At once she was aware of her hands and their largeness, muddling with the straps of her satchel. She felt her face growing hot, and slid gratefully onto an available seat near the front - while wondering, for a flitting moment, if perhaps the outburst of cackling from the girls on the back row was prompted by the fact that they knew she had chosen the window seat because it was closest the front, as her mother had counselled, and this was what was so ridiculous.
The nun bent at the front desk with her back to the class did not notice Molly's arrival. A nun... “I thought we were learning about Ancient Greece?” Molly whispered, too loudly, it seemed, from behind the black, puffed out hump, which somehow managed to appear haughty, that arose as the nun bent over the desk.
The girl sharing Molly's desk opened her mouth to reply, but no sooner had it filled with air, than the nun had spun around, eyeing Molly sharply.
“It is not for you to speculate, little one.” Her strawberry blond locks were imperceptible behind her tight headdress, and a deep furrow knotted her brows together.
Molly felt her cheeks redden at having been addressed so directly.
The sister clapped her hands. A cloud of chalk dust formed, as though she were made of flour. “Genesis two, verse eighteen. Come now, no time to spare. You there! Come now! The good Lord will not reschedule the appointed hour for tardy schoolgirls.”
Molly looked up. She had no Bible! Why didn’t she have a Bible? Perhaps she could improvise... no! She had never so much as touched a Bible before; the summation of her knowledge consisted of the Nativity story. And that wasn’t in Genesis... was it?
The very walls seemed to pound.
Hesitantly, delicately, Molly attempted to find the words. “I-I... left my Bible at home, Sister Mathilde.”
The woman appeared to puff out, and her head retreat into the caverns of her headdress, as though she were a ruffled hen. She spoke with an unsettling calm. “My name is Sister Mathilde. It’s the second lesson of term. You should know by now to...” Suddenly her eyes shone and lifted, as though stirred by some celestial divination. Glassy eyed and quiet now, she spoke as though in response to some unseen agent that unearthed thoughts instead of documents, that had hopped from Sister Mathilde’s shoulder to Molly’s and then back again. “I see. Your Biblical studies have been neglected somewhat, have they not? Ancient Greece has been de rigeur, no doubt?”
And, when none replied, she spoke to Molly with a suddenly changed tone of nonchalance. “Here, borrow mine this time. Purchase a small, leather-bound copy by tomorrow; Authorised King James Version.” She glanced down at Molly. “Your hands are of an idle shape. Don’t you even think about writing in it.”
“Yes, sister.” Molly could not help but be acutely aware of the too-straight backs, too-quiet chairs; the obedient yellow ribbons dividing every Genesis, but wayward-turned eyes of the rest of the class. She turned to the girl beside her for support; the other girl seemed not to notice.
Another girl was reading the passage already – Molly mustn’t have noticed the passage of time after being chastised. “not good for the man to be alone...”
Molly remembered this story. Embryo images of a plasticine man and woman surfaced, weaving animals, herbs and, she imagined, each others’ hair into a rudimentary tapestry of domestic order. She thought again of home. Something occurred to her.
“Miss – I mean – Sister Mathilde... Are men short one rib since God had to use one to create Eve?”
The Sister looked at her sharply, eyes ablaze. The girl who had been reading sucked in a breath, but Sister Mathilde held up a hand up to silence her. But just as suddenly as her eyes had quickened to fire, they relaxed. “Ah! The male anatomy! Now that, dear child,” she smiled now, but thinly, “is a question no doubt to be expected from a girl that shirks her devotional readings in favour of the carnal of pleasures of Ancient Greece!”
That night, Molly wrote a letter composed of a single sentence to her parents. But the following morning, having slept through her initial resentment, decided not to send it, after all: “Why did you never teach me the Bible?”