A serpent hides within these walls

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ryan lee

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As a baby, I was left at the doorstep of Godstow Abbey, a nunnery northwest of the center of Oxford. Growing up I cooked, attended Bible study, cleaned the abbey, and spent all of my off time with the sisters. I’d only ever leave the abbey to go to the market with a sister. At a young age, I decided I wanted to be a nun too. So, in 1981 when I turned 18, I’d become a novice nun and, after 2 years of being a novice and then another 3 of training, I’d taken my final vows. I wanted to stay with the abbey, but a sister suggested going elsewhere. She said that I needed to “experience the many gifts God has laid on the land,” and that Godstow would welcome me back anytime. I took her advice and made my way to Father Warren’s orphanage. A sister recommended him to me as he was a pastor well-known for his benevolence and commitment to The Lord.

On arrival, a lady named Sister Joyce met me at the door.

“It is such an honor to be here working—”

“Please come with me. I will take you to Father Warren.”

I heard violent coughs and crying as we walked through the halls. We reached a room where a man was praying desperately at the bedside of a sweaty, pale child.

He prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, be near this boy in his time of weakness and pain; heal him according to your will; and help him always to believe that what happens to him here is of little account if you hold him in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.”

A sister quietly explained to me that this boy was amongst many with the same symptoms. With little money for medicine, Father Warren had resulted to constant prayer in hopes of The Lord’s help.

“Father Warren you’ve worked tirelessly for these children. God will answer your prayers soon,” Sister Joyce assured.

As he looked up to give Sister Joyce a reassuring smile, him and I made eye contact. Slightly startled by his gaze I blurted, “F-Father Warren, I am Sister Rachel. I will do whatever I can to help you all."

The floors creaked as Father Warren briskly walked towards me. He embraced me and said, “Your devotion gives me hope. Thank you.”

I began my services alongside Sister Joyce as a cook. Curry with fried eggs, turkey with mash and broccoli, chicken pot pie. The work was engaging while the sisterhood and children were loving. But since my arrival, the children had worsened. Vomiting and diarrhea were amongst the new symptoms. I could hear their moans everywhere, as if their pain had manifested and hidden itself in the floorboards, ready to harass those who pass. Sometimes, I’d feel their pain knock on my head as I tried to sleep. One time, it gripped my heart like a vice and tightened until I broke down, waking my fellow sisters.

"Please Lord,” I prayed. “Please help me through this agony for I am not as strong as Jesus to take this torment. Please Lord.”

He listened. Just not the way I wanted. The child I’d met on arrival died. Then another. And another. Father Warren gave every child their meals. He played with them and, when they got sick, tended to them with all of his love and prayer. Father Warren even buried them. Father Warren faced the children’s pain head on with all of his love. My pain couldn’t even compare to Father Warren.

I had promised to conduct myself in Father Warren’s example. I began saving money for a pizza party and in the coming week and a half I’d amassed 80 dollars. I went to Father Warren’s office to inform him of my plan. Father Warren sighed, “Sister Rachel, believe me. This is something I would love to do for the children. But if our donors ever caught wind of this, they would think that we are being wasteful for not using this money on medicine. Sister, I’m sorry. But in this twisted world we are only loved for our pain. We just need to do our best."

He told me to keep my money, but I decided to give it to the orphanage. I felt that I’d come one step closer to mirroring Father Warren’s example. With my newly found motivation, I began scrutinizing over every dish. Precise measurements, plating, menu variety, every dish was made as well as our ingredients would allow.

I wanted to see if my hard work had paid off. One day, after I’d finished cleaning the kitchen I decided to see firsthand how the children felt about the meal. I was about to enter the cafeteria when Father Warren called me over to help him clean the bedrooms. The next day, I finished my kitchen duties quickly so that I could see the children again. But Father Warren had me work in the garden. The laundry, paperwork, errands in town, Father Warren always had tasks for me. So, I stopped trying and trusted that if it tasted good to me, it tastes good for the children.

Every Wednesday was pasta day. Sister Joyce always had us make a spaghetti where before adding the noodles, there would be olive oil put on the bowl. Then the noodles would be added alongside melted parmesan. Some chives and sliced tomatoes would be thrown in and the dish was done. This one Wednesday, we made the pasta as usual and Father Warren took the food to the children. A couple minutes after he left I’d realized there was no olive oil on the pasta. This was my chance to see how the children enjoyed the food. So, I grabbed the olive oil that Sister Joyce uses and made my way upstairs to the cafeteria. As soon as I got up the stairs, the elevator opened. Father Warren came out with the cart of food.

"Father Warren, I forgot the olive oil. Normally it’s put in the bowl before all of the ingredients but I’m sure this will do.” I drizzled it on the food and started walking towards the stairwell when he called for me.


He smelled the pasta and asked what I had just added. I handed him the bottle to confirm that it was olive oil. His face scrunched up as he smelled it. Then he noticed something.

“Sister Rachel, when I look through this bottle, the sticker I see does not match the sticker on the front.” I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.

He frantically peeled the front sticker off and I heard him whisper “La Colza.” He had an icy hellfire in his eyes as he crept towards me and said, “How could you.”

As I tried to keep my distance I stammered, “I-I don’t unders-stand what you mean.” The wrath of God was before me. He made me retreat to the edge of the stairs. I didn’t understand what I had done. What was La Colza? Why aren’t we giving the children their food? Had I done something wrong?

I must’ve. Because a benevolent man like Father Warren wouldn’t have pushed me down the stairs if I hadn’t sinned.

I woke up in the bed that I’m in right now with Father Warren praying for me and the sisters watching. I tried to tell him that I was fine, but I couldn’t speak nor move.

“She got what she deserved,” one of the sisters whispered.

“What happened?” asked Sister Joyce.

The sister explained that Father Warren found me at the bottom of the stairs unconscious with a bottle of colza oil. It was an oil meant for industrial rather than cooking use. Apparently, I was and had been pouring it on the pasta every Wednesday and that’s why the children had been getting sicker and sicker.

Father Warren finished his prayers and the sisters followed him out the door.

“I’d like to pray for her in private as well,” said Sister Joyce.
She waited for everyone to leave. Then I felt her cold hand rest on my neck and slither to my face and pinch my cheeks. And then she spoke.

“To you, I am a torturer. An impurity in this nursery of pureness. To you, I am a bringer of pain.” She let go of my face. “But have the children received nothing? 24/7 care, prayers, cards, all in response to their pain, the pain that I have made. The same pain that has brought these children love, your love even. And then they will go on to receive God’s eternal love while I am shackled by my faith to liberate those who come my way. I am not a bringer, but a craftsman of pain. My craft only serves my true duty. I am a bringer of love.”

She chuckled as she caressed my face.

“A bringer of—,” her chuckle became a laugh, then a cackle. She took a few deep breathes and continued.

“Christ, a bringer of love? Goddamn hilarious.”

Lord, forgive me for resorting to my selfish ways once again. But please, cast you divine power onto my spirit so that I may speak beyond the grave to the children and sisters, for there is only one thing I must tell them:

A serpent hides within these walls.


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