by Julie Ann Stewart
I watched my sister Laura drown in the Ohio River.
The river pulled her into its embrace, enveloping her until its water kissed her lips. Not clear spring water, tipped from a glass, this came with a smell of earth to it.
When the water rose above her mouth, Laura panicked. I saw it in her eyes. When it filled her nose, she tossed her head back, prolonging what she knew was coming. The water stroked the back of her neck, briefly touching her hairline and then the top of her head. She flung her arms about her and thrashed her legs but she could not make all her parts work together to save herself, and so in a moment, her hands were the only part left in the air and she was grasping for something, the way she must have reached up when Mother lay her down in the cradle and she remembered wailing to be picked up, pushing open her mouth below the surface, the water filling her and capturing the sound of her cry.
And then, in answer, she was entombed in water, as she had been in the womb, but having forgotten how to survive there. And she was sinking, the water pouring in like soup and she was the ladle, dunked into the pot of murky broth.
That was the last time I entered the water until today.
When we were postulants at the Mother House, many girls grieved the loss of childhood pleasures. They spoke of swimming in pools and creeks and backyard ponds, the way other regular girls pined for the old beaus they did not marry.
I liked to bathe quickly, often asking one of my sisters to wash my hair in the sink, preferring water that poured over me to that in which I must submerge myself. I say a blessing that I was born Catholic, baptized as an infant, Holy Water sprinkled on my head while my godmother held me in her arms.
Clinging to the overturned boat, I had watched my sister Laura, on her twenty-second birthday, reach out to me. She had been thrown into the water with the rest of us. She flung herself around, like a fish at the end of a line. Then her head, her nose, her arms, her hands, her fingertips slipped below the surface. At the funeral, there was no body to see, just a closed casket with a framed photo on top and twenty-two white roses. I was eleven, turning twelve the day of the visitation, our birthdays only two days apart, two days and ten years Mother would add. I wore my new dress, too festive, but the only one that fit, as I had grown an inch every month that year. Had it only been two days before that I was wearing that dress, sitting beside Laura as she practiced for her first solo violin performance?
Has it truly been over thirty years since she drowned?
During the school year, I teach at Our Lady of Providence in St. Louis, but during the summer, I return to the Motherhouse, as do most of my sisters. One year I was assigned to work in the sewing room. I found it difficult to imagine that I was doing the work of our Lord, of Jesus, who baptizes us with eternal life, while my hands pieced together those garments that only, barely, covered a woman’s torso. After my first day, I walked straight to the confessional.
And the fabric, it was like nothing I had worked with before. I had to remove the seam on the first garment I sewed three times before the fabric lay flat. It was thick and heavy, like the wool of my first vestments, but with a give to it. I could pull it the width of my arms and yet it returned to its original shape when I let go.
Before dawn each morning, I heard the other sisters giggling in the hall on their way to the pool. I wondered if one of them might be wearing a suit I had sewn. One morning, I rose and dressed and rode my bicycle across campus. Behind the gymnasium, I let the bike fall to the ground, pushed my face against the wavy glass windows, the way neighborhood boys had done, my brother’s friends, trying to peer beneath the curtains on Saturdays when all of us girls bathed before Mass.
Cupping my hands to block the sun, I saw blurs of color, dark navy shapes that were the swimsuits I had sewn, fleshy peach of skin that were legs and arms, a backdrop of jeweled aqua blue, so different from the dark, muddy water of the Ohio River.
I heard His voice, telling me not to be afraid.
From thirty years before, I heard another voice too, that of Ernie, my sister Laura’s fiancé. They would have been married the following spring, when an early Easter meant they could hold the ceremony while the forsythia was blooming.
“Don’t be afraid,” Ernie had said to her, holding her hand as she stepped from the dock into the boat rocking between us.
I was already seated, at Ernie’s urging, to encourage Laura to be brave. A wink and a smile from him was the only nudge I needed to be convinced to play along. Ernie was the first man, the only man, I ever knew who was kind and tender and funny, who didn’t yell after a few beers. I was young, I know that now, even if I have never loved another man besides Him, but even Mother liked Ernie, so different from Father and my brother.
He never married, Ernie.
The paper got his name all wrong. Who would name their son Urban? It was my fault. After the storm, things were so chaotic and the wind was howling at us and Ernie did not have time for the newspaper man who wanted to get the story, so I spoke to him, between my crying and looking over Ernie’s kneeling form who was still hoping the doctor would be able to revive Laura.
We knew she could not be saved. She had been in the water too long.
River water is different from what I saw behind the thick panes of glass. The river was anger where this was peace, a laughing peace judging by the peals of laughter ringing out from the sisters. It echoed inside the chamber.
The river was dirty and had tried to pull me under too. This water was clean and bright and buoyed them along stroke after stroke until they reached the other side then it turned them around to go again. None of them wanted to escape this body of water but craved it, drank it in through their skin.
This water called to me, offered to wash away the past, cleanse and caress me.
By then the light was rising outside, so I climbed back onto my bicycle and rode to the dormitory. I went through my regular routine: prayers, celebration of the Eucharist, breakfast, chores. But at work that day, I began cutting the navy and white fabric for one more bathing suit.
It was agony waiting to request permission to swim from the Mother. She had no reason to refuse, but would she ask me why? Mother Theodore and I had been novices together. She was my superior then, even though she had stayed behind while I went out into the world to teach. Still, I remembered the day we sat side by side to cut off our hair, both of us looking down in apparent humility, but I, at least, was watching our shorn hairs, hers and mine, mingle together on the floor.
Now, sitting across from her, I was looking down again. She, I knew, was looking right at me.
“Many of the younger sisters are enjoying exercise in the water. You would be the first of our generation to join, Sister Marie.”
“I know,” I said, keeping my head down.
“Are you certain you will be comfortable with it?”
I looked up, wondering how she knew about the accident.
“I believe the attire has kept many of us away. It has been so long since I wore anything but my habits,” she said, smiling. “You should have seen the first outfits approved by the Bishop. We might as well have jumped in a river and drowned ourselves as try to float in those skirts.”
I searched her face for cruelty buried in the remark, but there was only her smile. She did not know about the detritus that threatened to carry me away.
Tears rose at the inside corners of my eyes. I quickly looked back down.
“Sister Marie? I apologize. I did not mean to upset you. Are you sure you are alright?”
“Yes, Mother. Just tired. I have not been sleeping well.”
“The exercise will do you good. If you are not an experienced swimmer, or need some assistance after so many years out of the water, Sister Mary John has been called to lifeguard for us. She will watch over you.”
I knew no one could promise to keep me safe, but I thanked Mother Theodore and excused myself to wash up before dinner. I felt filthy after a day in the sewing room, the heat of the machines and July’s humidity. At the porcelain sink in my room, I cupped my hands, let the water gather there, overflow the sides, run down to my elbows, even drip onto my dark habit, darkening it even more. I tried to imagine water all around me, covering my head and nose and mouth. Fear rose in my throat like vomit, threatening to dredge up my lunch. The new suit hung on a hook beside my nightgown, two snapshots of one woman taken years apart.
The next morning, I rose with the bells. Like a child in winter, I pulled my arms inside the sleeves of my nightdress. In the dark, I pushed the gown up over my shoulders. I reached for the bathing suit and stepped one foot and then the other through the leg holes, wishing for the protection of the long skirts Mother Theodore spoke of.
“You might as well have jumped in a river and drowned yourself.”
I had never spoken to anyone about what I had witnessed. I was rescued from the water and watched as my parents were told that Laura was not. No one grieved for me, only looked to me for comfort.
“Did she die peacefully?”
“Was she frightened?”
Torturing me with questions to which we all knew the answers, avoiding the one they wanted to ask.
Why didn’t someone save her?
I know now what they meant, all of them, my parents and Ernie and my brother. Why didn’t I save her? I understand; my parents wanted their daughter back. I don’t believe they would have preferred to have saved her and lost me instead, but rather, they knew I could take care of myself. Laura was someone that needed protecting. We all knew it. They knew Laura had to be convinced to get into that boat, by Ernie, and by me, the adventurous one, the tree climber, the rope swinger, the bicycle rider.
Laura would never have worn a suit like this one.
I know they thought I ran away to the convent to hide.
Maybe I wanted to find a way to save someone. My strong legs couldn’t save my sister, but they could run the length of a kickball field at recess. My arms didn’t reach for her, but they could hug or discipline a child, especially one who got neither at home. My brain didn’t come up with a plan to save Laura, but I taught math and reading and other skills my students needed to survive, to thrive.
I struggled to pull the suit up over my hips. The thick double-knit scaled my thighs then inched up my body. The skin covering my legs was nearly as white as my nightdress. It almost glowed. I wrestled the suit over my backside and up to my waist. I put my arms through the wide straps, pushed my gown over my head and dropped it to the floor. My breasts fell into the padded cups that I had sewed into the lining. The neckline had a small scoop that revealed the dip at the base of my throat. I felt naked touching the skin there, knowing it would be exposed. I shuddered as if I had a chill. It did not help to think of the other sisters dressed identically, and I called to mind an image of prisoners, how the sameness of clothing didn’t remove the shame.
I hung my gown on the hook and slipped my day dress over my head, let the skirt fall into place. Without stockings, the hem brushed my bare calves. Our skirts had already grown shorter over the years. I didn’t know it then, but it would not be long before we sisters stopped wearing headpieces altogether, before we were granted permission to return to our birth names, although most of us older ones kept our religious names. We didn’t know ourselves as anyone else anymore. We had no desire to go back to being the person we used to be, even in name.
I slipped my bare feet into solid black shoes.
There is no going back. Even after we face our fears, do the thing we have avoided. We are changed, new, reborn into something else, something unknown. Therein rests the fear. Who are we without our guilt, our regret, our wish for the past to be different than what it is?
I heard the sisters in the hall then. I opened my door. They looked at me but showed no surprise. They nodded, out of respect. I was older than all of them by at least a decade, perhaps more. I walked behind them, thinking I could be invisible, but this made them more self-conscious, believing I was witness to every step, every turn of their heads. They did not know that I walked with my head down. I had no need to see where we were going. I had walked those halls for twenty-five years. I knew them. I could have gone blind and not have gotten lost in Providence House.
At the front door, we stepped outside. Heat rushed at us. The temperature was already above eighty. We walked silently, following the brick path across the lawn. I looked around now. Sunlight filtered through the trees. I jumped when a single brown leaf fluttered down on my left, so gracefully that at first I thought it was a bird come to light on my shoulder. I brushed the leaf away and kept walking, skipping a bit to keep up.
Occasionally I had to take an extra step out of time not to get left behind.
When we reached the pool house, it looked like it was on fire. The rising sun reflected its light off the glass roof. I put my hand to my forehead and squinted to see. We filed in, each person holding the door until the sister behind had put up her hand to hold it open for herself. I was last. The door closed behind me. I heard the latch softly click. The floor was tiled in blue and green, without any obvious pattern, as if someone kept reaching into a box and pulling out one and then another without a thought to a plan. So random. Blue, then green and green and green again, blue then green, until finally the finished floor revealed a pleasing array, beauty in the chaos.
In the changing room, we slipped off our dresses and hung them up. We were all the same pale white beneath, even those who had been swimming the longest.
When I sat at the edge and slipped my feet into the water, I knew it was nothing like the angry water that took my sister. This water was calm and cool, as beautiful as it looked from outside. I wanted to let my whole self slide in, but something held me back, a tether.
Maybe it was the one that kept me alive.
I could have reached out to Laura that day on the river. I chose to hold on. There were ten of us in that boat and not one person, not even Ernie, let go to save her. After they fished out her body, a doctor spent three hours trying to revive her, to make up for our lack of courage. He must have known it was hopeless, that doctor. No one comes back to life after being gone so long. Sometimes it is too late. Why did he keep trying? For my sake? For Ernie, or my parents?
Perhaps he did it for himself, to save himself, to say he had tried his hardest.
We can drown ourselves in fear and guilt.
Or we can let go, let it be washed away like dirt after a long day’s work.
I would like to tell you that I dove into the pool that day and let it all go. I did not. I sat there at the edge, my feet making rings that rippled outward until they reached the other swimmers, my sisters.
Every morning that summer, I rose and pulled on my navy suit. I walked to the water’s edge and sat down, dipping my feet, my calves.
Not until today do I let myself slide in, let my hips and stomach and breasts and mouth, my arms—flung over my head—then my elbows and wrists and hands and each fingertip go under the water.
As I come back up for air, I think, how easy it is to rise to the surface.
“Baptism” is from Julie Stewart’s collection Water and Blood (to be published in 2022), winner of the 2020 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize. She earned an MFA from Spalding University and has published stories in Litro Magazine, PoemMemoirStory, and Punch Drunk Press. In Sophie Speaks, Stewart explores the challenge of balancing creative and family life as she recopies Anna Karenina by hand as did Sophia Tolstoy for her husband. She lives in Indianapolis, but her heart resides in Michigan.