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February 19, 2024

A Nun's Tale

By Pete McArdle

Sister Mary Dismas was dead, about this there can be no doubt. Her heart had stopped in the cold winter's night, the blood had congealed in her veins, and as the clock tick-tocked, her temperature dropped ever closer to the room's, which she kept at sixty degrees. She was not one to waste energy.

Sr. Mary Dismas was as dead as, well, St. Dismas himself, who back in the thirteenth century had confronted a powerful miller who was producing tainted Communion hosts. The miller's response was to stab and quarter Dismas, then grind him to dust under the massive millstone. Dismas was then incorporated into a new brand of host called "Holy Pumpernickel," which became quite popular with the local communicants due to its speckled appearance and nutty taste. A disapproving Vatican, however, soon stepped in and after canonizing the hapless Dismas, had the miller slathered in lard and thrown into a dungeon full of Shih Tzus, where he was licked to death.

In life, Sr. Mary Dismas was much like her namesake: brave, strong-willed, and uncompromising. She would not look away from evil, could not be swayed from the course of her duties, and preferred her hosts just as Dismas did: pure, white, and papery. But now she was dead in her bed, and this must be clearly understood or nothing wonderful can come of this story.

After cardiac arrest, the brain dies slowly, discrete pockets of neurons continuing to fire hours after the heart has ceased to beat. At six a.m. sharp, the morning after Sr. Mary Dismas's demise, an undamaged shred of the nun's cortex ordered her to rise -- and she opened her eyes. She clumsily climbed out of bed, knelt down on the hard wood floor, and began her morning devotion. As she prayed, she felt numb and extremely sluggish. But this concerned her little, for Sr. Mary Dismas had taught fifth grade for fifty-two years, never once missing a day, and she was not about to start now.

After washing up, the nun carefully donned her habit and soon her tall frame was draped in flowing black robes and veil, her face encased in stiff white cardboard. If she'd looked in a mirror, she would have noticed her ashen cheeks and fixed pupils. But there was no mirror in her little cell, for she abhorred vanity.

At breakfast, Sr. Mary Dismas found she had no appetite, so she used the time to mentally review the day's lesson plan. The other nuns at her table might have commented on her unusual pallor or unsullied plate, but they were all quite old, and senile to varying degrees.

We're a dying breed, thought Sr. Mary Dismas, looking around at the other nuns' ancient, furrowed faces. There'd been no new sisters at the convent for more than a decade, and sadly, there were none on the way. To girls today, poverty and chastity meant driving a used Audi and waiting on sex till they were seventeen. The school affiliated with the convent, Virgin Birth Elementary, was now staffed almost entirely by lay teachers and except for Sr. Mary Dismas, the nuns had been relegated to non-essential subjects such as art, music, and religion.

At seven-fifteen on the dot, the dead nun left the dining room, put on her old wool coat, and walked the short distance from the convent to the school, a squat brick building which was perfectly square and perfectly ugly. The structure's only saving grace was a huge stained-glass window over the entrance depicting the Holy Family: beautiful Mary holding sweet baby Jesus, their heads ensconced in golden halos, and behind them, a glum bearded Joseph.

As she neared the school, Sr. Mary Dismas gazed up at Mary, at her long arms enfolding her infant Son. This sight never failed to inspire the nun and resonate with her devotion to her fifth-grade pupils. In their year with her, they would learn and grow in a safe and orderly environment, and not just some students, by God, but every last one of them.

Today her left foot dragged a little as Sr. Mary Dismas climbed the front steps and entered the building. Perhaps it's time for a cane, she thought as she came to the principal's office and peeked through the small window in the door. Principal Withers was talking to a tall, angular man wearing a badge who abruptly turned and stared at the nun. Sr. Mary Dismas did not like the way the man looked at her, not one bit, and she hurried on down the hallway, as fast as her imbalanced gait would allow.

Arriving at Room 12, the nun turned on the lights and raised the window shades. As always, she took a new stick of chalk from the box in her desk and wrote the day's agenda on a side blackboard. She loved the smell and feel of the chalk, the whisking sound it made on the blackboard, and the neat, clean look of her list:

  • 8:00 Morning Prayer
  • 8:15 History: How the Early Settlers Converted the Indians
  • 9:00 Geography: The Cathedral at Lourdes
  • 10:00 Math: Properties of Isosceles Triangles
  • 11:00 Penmanship: The Correct Way to Write Capital "Q"
  • 11:30 Religion: Common Venial Sins to Avoid
  • 12:00 Lunch
  • 1:00 Health: The Scourge of Herpes
  • 1:30 Literature: "My Dog Skip"
  • 2:15 Science: What's a Pixel?
  • 3:00 Dismissal

Soon the fifth-graders began arriving, the boys jostling each other and the girls talking loudly. Sr. Mary Dismas gave them time to hang up their coats and settle in at their desks, then demanded silence with a few taps of her pointer against the blackboard. If necessary, a look from her glacier-blue eyes -- dull gray today -- would calm the stray over-stimulated student. When the room was perfectly quiet, the nun called attendance.

"William Adams?"


"Nancy Avery?"


"Clarisse Benet?"

"Present, Sister." Clarisse was the best student in the class. She had red hair, braces, and perfect penmanship.

"Tammy Caputo?"

"Pres-ent, Sis-ter." Sr. Mary Dismas glared at young Tammy who glared right back. At age eleven, she already had distressingly large breasts and frequently chewed gum.

"Tommy Dodd?"


Several kids snickered. The light of intelligence flickered dimly in Tommy and few would have predicted he'd eventually own over twenty Tommy's Tacos franchises.

"Tommy Dodd?"

"Um . . . here."

"Bobby Dolton?"


Sr. Mary Dismas looked up from her attendance sheet and saw Bobby's empty desk. Bobby was an angry, disruptive boy with an unfortunate tendency to pick fights. Just yesterday, he'd been kept after school until he'd written "I will keep my hands to myself" three hundred times on the blackboard.

"Amy Ettinger?"


The nun continued down the list until Joseph Zapolski had been accounted for, then she signed it and asked Clarisse to take it to the principal's office. While the girl was gone, Sr. Mary Dismas led the class in an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and the Pledge of Allegiance, watching Tammy closely to see if she was chewing gum. Several boys were also watching Tammy closely, especially Mark McAvoy, whose head bobbed every time she inhaled. Sr. Mary Dismas made a mental note to move his desk to the front row after lunch.

When Clarisse returned, she handed the nun an envelope and quietly took her seat. Inside the envelope was a request from Principal Withers that Sr. Mary Dismas meet with him at her earliest convenience. That would be lunchtime, she thought, since the children's education was far more important than anything the principal might have to say. Mr. Withers was a small man, both in stature and substance, and he'd come to Virgin Birth under murky circumstances. Sr. Mary Dismas did not trust him any farther than she could throw him, which would have been a considerable distance considering their difference in size.

As the nun was placing the note in her desk drawer, one of her fingernails got hung up on the desk's edge and tore halfway off the nail bed. Shockingly, there was no pain and not a single drop of blood. She looked up to see if anyone had noticed.

Were some of the children looking at her strangely? It was hard to tell, her mind seemed to lack its normal clarity. Resolving to deal with the damaged fingernail later, the dead nun closed the drawer and began the day's lessons, starting with the inspirational story of Father John Trump.

Father John was one of the first Catholic priests to set foot in what is now New York, and at great risk to himself, he managed to convert scores of savage Iroquois to Catholicism, thereby saving their souls when they were slaughtered by other colonists soon afterward. When Father John's twin brother, Donald, arrived in America, he built hundreds of luxury cabins on the Indians' vacated land, attracting boatloads of well-heeled Catholics to the New World and helping Father John attain the rank of Cardinal.

Later, in Geography, Sr. Mary Dismas showed the class slides of Lourdes, France. After numerous shots of forests and fields, peasants and goats, a photo of the Cathedral at Lourdes made everyone go Oooh! The nun was explaining how, in such a poor region, the Cathedral at Lourdes came to be decorated with so much gold and precious stones, when there was a sharp knock on the door.

It was the third-grade teacher, Ms. Van Dyke, who motioned for the nun to come out into the hallway. Sr. Mary Dismas was annoyed, both by the interruption and the interruptor, a powerfully-built woman with a blond crew-cut and a man's wristwatch. The nun had long been leery of Ms. Van Dyke and worried about her influence on the young girls.

"I have terrible news, Sister," said the third-grade teacher. "Yeesh! What's that smell?"

"Excuse me?" said the nun. She smelled nothing, her olfactory grid had just quit.

"It smells like sh -- , uh, rotten food or something," said Ms. Van Dyke, wrinkling her nose and checking the soles of her work boots. "In any case, it appears Bobby Dolton's been murdered. He never came home from school yesterday, and this morning the police found his body behind Virgin Birth, near the stream that runs in back of the playground. His skull was smashed in."

"Dear Lord, the poor child!" cried Sr. Mary Dismas. Although Bobby had been her own personal crown of thorns, had in fact aggravated her more than the rest of the class put together, she'd never given up on him. She'd been determined to spark some passion in the boy, to awaken the intellect that surely lay dormant. But not now.

"The kids don't know anything yet, Sister, but it'll be all over the news tonight. Also, 'Mr. Big' and some cop want to see you ASAP," said the third-grade teacher and then she walked away holding her nose. Sr. Mary Dismas greatly disliked nicknames, acronyms, and dramatic nose-holding but managed a "Thank you" to Ms. Van Dyke's broad back.

The nun wondered who could have done such a terrible thing. The killer must have been familiar to Bobby to have lured him to the stream, someone seemingly benign yet vicious enough to inflict such a grievous wound. Someone who had reason to hate the boy. Hmm.

Ms. Van Dyke, a competitive bodybuilder in her spare time, had certainly had her problems with Bobby in the third grade. He was constantly acting up and had repeatedly called her Ms. Man Dyke in front of the other children. That was two years ago, however, and the list of people Bobby had infuriated was now long and comprehensive.

Sr. Mary Dismas was stunned and saddened by the boy's death, still, class must go on. The meeting with the principal and the policeman could wait until lunch. When the nun re-entered the classroom, Clarisse whispered, "Sister, are you all right?"

"Yes, dear," said the nun, "Why do you ask?"

"You look a little peaked, that's all."

"I'm fine, thank you," said Sr. Mary Dismas, "and I see you remembered 'peaked' from our vocabulary list."

Clarisse smiled shyly.

Still pondering the girl's remark, the nun picked up a piece of chalk and was drawing a triangle on the board when she noticed her hand. It was two-toned, the back of her hand as white as the chalk, the palm purplish-blue. From watching "CSI: Las Vegas," Sr. Mary Dismas knew exactly what this was: post-mortem lividity.

Why that's absurd, she thought. I'm teaching, talking and walking, though not walking so well, I have to admit. I must make a doctor's appointment and stop watching that foolish show. She furtively rubbed some chalk on her palms then continued with the lesson. "Class, this is an Isosceles Triangle. It has the following properties. . ."

Twenty minutes later, the class was this close to comatose -- all except for the McAvoy boy who was clearly entranced with Tammy's mammaries -- when a loud booming on the door made everyone jump. Sr. Mary Dismas walked over and opened the door to Pasquale, the school custodian. Although he kept the school immaculate, Pasquale himself was a magnet for dirt and grime, a sweaty three-hundred-pound magnet to be precise.

"I don' fine no smell in the hall like Meez Van Dyke say," he said.

Sr. Mary Dismas cringed under the onslaught of mispronunciation, double negative, and fractured tense, but forgave Pasquale since English was his second language. The custodian had arrived in America nearly a decade ago, but he'd concentrated more on linguini than linguistics, and it showed. Recently, Pasquale had had to work far into the night, scrubbing graffiti off the gym floor. The graffiti read "Pasquale's a Pig" and the artist was probably Bobby Dolton, but there'd been no proof. Had Pasquale acted on a grudge? Hmm.

The custodian leaned in and sniffed, and in a stage-whisper loud enough to be heard in the parking lot, said "I theen maybe you got some B.O, Seester."

There was muffled laughter from the class and Sr. Mary Dismas would have turned crimson -- except that color was no longer possible.

"Thank you, Pasquale," she said, smiling thinly, and closed the door. Her wobbly walk, torn fingernail, and purple palms had all been disturbing, but to think she reeked was unbearable. She'd always had impeccable hygiene, cleanliness as important as godliness, yet apparently . . . she stank.

"Class, I have to leave you temporarily," she announced. "Please spend the next hour reading 'My Dog Skip', then go quietly to lunch." Sr. Mary Dismas surveyed the room, making eye contact with each student for emphasis.

"Mr. McAvoy, please move your things here," she said, pointing to an empty desk in the front row. "Now!"

Then the nun fled to the convent, her left foot lagging worse than before.

* * *

Back in her room, Sr. Mary Dismas removed the shoe and sock from her balky foot and gasped. It was entirely black from the ankle down. She fell to her knees and prayed.

Dear Lord, I'm so afraid. I don't know what's happening to me, but thankfully, I feel no pain. Please help me get well and continue my work. But if my time here is at an end, I've had a wonderful life, please let me die with dignity and grace.

I pray Bobby's safe in Your loving arms and I'm sorry for every time I was short with him. You know I loved him, just as I've loved all my students. If it be Your will, please make me an instrument of justice, let me find Bobby's killer.

All glory is Yours, Amen.

Much calmer now, the nun put her shoe back on and pulled a suitcase out of her closet. Never much of a traveler, she used the suitcase to store odds and ends, such as the cheap perfume she now dabbed liberally on her cheeks and habit. The perfume was called "Lilies of the Valley," a gift she'd no use for but couldn't discard since it came from a student. Unable to smell a thing, she used up the entire bottle and left the suitcase to be put away later. She was anxious to meet with Principal Withers and the policeman and see what she could learn about the murder.

Sr. Mary Dismas opened her door and nearly walked into a pinched-faced man in a polyester suit.

"Going somewhere, Sister?" said Detective Steele, according to the name-tag above his badge. He was looking past her where the suitcase lay on the bed.

"No . . . I mean, yes, I was just going to Principal Wither's office."

"Well that's funny, because I was just there and Withers told me you were the last person to see Bobby Dolton alive, at detention I believe. He said you and Bobby didn't get along."

"Bobby had behavioral issues, that's true," said Sr. Mary Dismas, "and I did have to discipline him. But he seemed fine when he left detention yesterday, and I assumed he'd get home safely."

Detective Steele stared coolly at the nun. There was powdered sugar on his tie and his fly was at half-mast.

"Sister, did you know that some of the boy's brains were missing?" He paused, apparently trying for dramatic effect, and then continued. "The media's gonna say there's a zombie on the loose. Happen to know any walking dead, Sister?" Steele smiled, showing crowded, tobacco-stained teeth.

Sr. Mary Dismas stared implacably at the cop and kept her palms together in an attitude of prayer. She did not answer.

"No? Well don't go on any trips, Sister," he said, glancing in the direction of her suitcase. "I'll be back after school." He stepped aside to let her pass.

"Nice perfume," he said as the dead nun walked by.

* * *

Under a bruised, lowering sky, Sr. Mary Dismas shuffled slowly towards the school. The temperature was falling rapidly, the wind had picked up, and it looked like snow was on the way. Why had Principal Withers implicated her in the murder? she wondered. Since his arrival at Virgin Birth, he'd gone out of his way to marginalize the nuns. Did he want her out of her position? Withers also viewed a problem child like Bobby Dolton as a stain on his reputation, rather than a human being in need. Was he attempting to kill two birds with one stone? Hmm.

"It's about time," said Principal Withers as Sr. Mary Dismas entered his office. "Take a seat."

The principal had dark, beady eyes, a wispy mustache, and a deep overbite. The students called him "Ratso."

"I presume you've spoken with Detective Steele," he said.

"Yes, I have," said the nun. "And he was most curious as to why you lost your previous position."

With his mouth agape, Mr. Withers looked even more like a member of the rodent family.

"He also asked if you'd threatened to expel Bobby," added Sr. Mary Dismas.

"Why, why that boy was a cancer in this institution! I should have. . ."

"Should have what?"

Withers opened his mouth and then closed it. He got up and walked around his desk to face the nun.

"You are the one under suspicion, Sister, not me," he said testily. "Under the circumstances, I must relieve you of all duties as of Dismissal today. In the event you are cleared as a suspect, I will certainly consider your reinstatement. Now please leave, I'm completely inundated with work, thanks to this unfortunate incident."

Sr. Mary Dismas rose up and towered over the principal.

"The murder of a child is a terrible tragedy, Mr. Withers," she said, pointing a bony finger in his face, "not an unfortunate incident!" Having said her piece, Sr. Mary Dismas intended to leave in a dignified manner. But major circuits in her cerebellum had gone offline, and she stumbled out of the principal's office like a drunk at closing time.

* * *

Back in Room 12, the students were filing in after lunch and there was no mistaking it now, they were avoiding having to look at Sr. Mary Dismas, all except for Clarisse who placed an apple on the nun's desk.

"In case you get hungry, Sister," she said.

What a kind, sweet girl, thought the nun. There should be more like her.

"Class," said Sr. Mary Dismas, "you all read Chapter Three in your Health text last night. Who can tell us what herpes is?"

"Some kinda fish?" said Tommy.

As the class roared with laughter, the nun shook her head and waited for the room to calm down.

"It's a virus that causes skin sores," said Clarisse.

"Correct," said Sr. Mary Dismas. "And how is it transmitted?"

"By sex," said Tammy confidently. Everyone held their breath, except for the nun who'd stopped breathing some twelve hours or so ago. She said, "Chapter Three dealt with oral herpes, Tammy, but do share with the class your knowledge of genital herpes."

The McAvoy boy suddenly perked up but Tammy just looked down at her desk. Normally, Sr. Mary Dismas would have forged ahead with the lesson -- but not today. Her career was probably over, her body seemed to be falling apart, and thanks to the incriminating circumstances and her open suitcase, Detective Steele might well arrest her when he returned. If she was wrongly blamed for Bobby's murder, the real culprit might go unpunished. She needed time to think.

"Class, let's do something a little different," said Sr. Mary Dismas. "Please take out your composition books and write three hundred words or so, on . . . something you love."

Tommy raised his hand. "Can it be food, like tacos, Sister?"

"Yes, Tommy."

"Can it be Tammy's ti -- " started the McAvoy boy, but he froze at the look on the nun's face, which was truly ghastly by this point.

"Begin," said Sr. Mary Dismas, "and write neatly and completely."

There was a low buzz in the room as the children scratched their heads, chewed on their pens, and scribbled in their composition books. Sr. Mary Dismas fully intended to concentrate on the crime, but her center for self-control had now ceased all operations. Instead she took out some loose-leaf paper, picked up a pen, and thought about something she loved: the exploits of Inspector Sherlock Holmes. As the last of her inhibition circuits died, the nun wrote the first fiction of her life:

The Continuing Adventures of Sister Mary Sherlock
"The Case of the Wayward Boy"

"Now Watson, what precisely do we know about our suspects?" said Sr. Mary Sherlock in a clipped British accent. Although Sr. Sherlock was a woman of the cloth, she was as beautiful as she was intelligent.

"Well, Ms. Van Dyke has both motive and the requisite strength to rend a noggin," said ruddy, rotund Watson. "And we both know she leads a secret life."

"True, good fellow, but unless one is the Prime Minister, one's bedroom activities are no one else's concern. The fact is, Ms. Van Dyke's a dedicated schoolmarm who tried like the Dickens to reach the lad. By all accounts, she is a good and decent chap . . . er, lady."

"Perhaps the culprit is Pasquale, the janitor," said Watson. "He has more than ample motive and bum to have committed the crime. He could bloody well crush a skull just by sitting on it."

"The murder weapon was an arse, eh? That's novel," said Sr. Sherlock, chuckling. She tamped some tobacco in her pipe, lit it, and waved the match till it went out. "Nonetheless, our man Pasquale's a gentle soul, never cross or snippy, much less homicidal. That bloke's no killer, he's utterly content to clean, eat, and repeat."

"Then how 'bout Principal Withers?" said Watson, taking a sip of brandy. "He's a mean, grasping bureaucrat who despised Bobby. He also had great leeway to do the deed since he was the last to leave. I always say, If it looks like a rat. . ."

"Whoa, boy, it's not a crime to be in dire need of Orthodontia, especially here in the Isles!" said the nun, taking a puff on her pipe.

Sr. Sherlock waited for Watson to stop laughing, then continued. "Withers is certainly mean and narcissistic enough to be our killer. However, young Bobby was street-wise and a good deal stouter than Withers. It would've been quite the sticky wicket for him to catch the boy unawares, much less dispatch him."

"We've no evidence and no witnesses," said Watson, pouring himself another generous brandy. "How'll we ever find the fiend?"

"Elementary, my dear Watson," said Sr. Sherlock, pointedly putting the stopper in the bottle of brandy. "Think, man. What do murderers always do?"

Watson scrunched his face in concentration, then brightened and said, "Why, they always return to the scene of the crime, yes, that's what the blighters do!"

"Right, old boy," said Sr. Mary Sherlock, blowing a perfect smoke ring and watching it rise to the ceiling, "quite right."

Sr. Mary Dismas flinched when the dismissal bell rang, and then watched her students scurry for their coats and hats. She wished she could give them a proper goodbye but perhaps it was better this way. The nun led the children single-file to the front door of the school and silently blessed each one as they walked or ran out into the lightly falling snow.

When the last child had departed, Sr. Mary Dismas set out for the playground in back of the school. She could barely move now and as the storm intensified, her robes flapped behind her like big black wings. She'd forgotten her coat but there was no time to go back; Detective Steele was probably en route with an arrest warrant. Luckily, the dead nun's sensory nerves for cold had long ceased functioning.

Upon reaching the playground, Sr. Mary Dismas surveyed the stream which ran alongside it, some fifty yards away. She saw the place where poor Bobby must have died, it had been cordoned off in yellow crime-scene tape, just like on "Law & Order." Shielding her eyes against the swirling snow, she spied a small figure standing by the water's edge.

I knew it, she thought. Ratso!

The wee figure, all bundled up in winter wear, kept its back to the nun as she approached, then turned around to face her.

It was Clarisse.

"It was . . . you?" said Sr. Mary Dismas.

"Yes, Sister," said Clarisse proudly. "I told Bobby if he met me here after detention, I'd let him look under my skirt." She shyly toed the gathering snow. "I waited until he knelt down and then I bashed his head in. With this."

Clarisse reached into her backpack and brought forth a hammer with bloody clumps of hair on it.

"Then I ate some of his brains," said the girl. "I've wanted to try that ever since I read 'Hannibal' last summer. But raw brains don't taste like much -- I can see why Dr. Lecter sautéed them first."

Beyond appalled, Sr. Mary Dismas could barely think. "But why?" she croaked.

"For us, Sister, I did it for us. You're my favorite teacher and I know you love teaching me. Now that Bobby's gone, there'll be no more distractions in class." Clarisse grinned, her braces glistening in the fading light.

"Dear God, child, you have no conscience!" said Sr. Mary Dismas. The nun felt so weak, and worse than weak, defeated. "I just don't know, Clarisse," she said. "I don't know what the police will do, or if anyone can help you."

"The police don't have to find out, Sister," said the girl evenly. "You could just forget about all this and simply concentrate on my education."

"No, Clarisse, I can't. I have a duty to tell the authorities what I know."

The girl pursed her lips and stared. Her eyes were two cold stones.

"Well, Sister, if that's the way you feel," said Clarisse, and standing on her tip-toes, she drove the hammer's claw deep into the old nun's neck. As the girl tried to withdraw the hammer, Sr. Mary Dismas fell onto her and they toppled into the stream with a big splash. Clarisse struggled frantically to free herself but the nun's habit, now heavy with water, wrapped around her like a black cocoon and as they slowly sank, the girl's thrashing gradually diminished, and then ceased.

Sr. Mary Dismas lay on the muddy stream bottom, sad Clarisse in her embrace. In the deepening gloom, the nun's last living brain cells began to freeze and blink out.

Soon, I'll meet my Lord, she thought and smiled. And His mother, Mary, too. And soon this stream will ice over and stay frozen till spring. By then, the fish will have eaten our flesh and our bones will be buried in the mud.

Sr. Mary Dismas was just fine with this, for if there was one thing she hated, it was a mess.

Originally published in Dark Fire Fiction.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-03-05
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
2 Reader Comments
Mary Krismus
08:44:54 PM
Great illustration, Sand. Very reminiscent of my third-grade teacher. P
Lydia Manx
02:07:40 PM
Terrific piece. I think I had that nun in high school.
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