The oft-flooded town wanted to believe in the nun on a moped, it would later be said. Olga whispered over the phone to Janice that Sister Mary Frances signed her name “Francis” with an “-is.” Janice reported that the house bequeathed to expand the nun’s community garden was instead being used as a polyamorous pansexual commune. “Sisters haven’t worn that kind of habit for fifty years,” gossiped a nun affiliated with the local diocese. “But this habit is still worn in Latin America,” insisted Sister Mary Frances, “where I’ve done most of my work.” The local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence claimed the habit style as uniquely theirs but emphatically refused to claim the nun herself. “She’s missing the glitter, and besides, we do more charity in a month than she accomplishes in a year.” And why did someone so devout seem so uneasy about accompanying Olga to mass, after the town elder had opened her home to the nun? “When I asked her if she was bringing her rosary, she had to rifle through a paper bag of loose cash to find it. Even I know a nun shouldn’t have to look hard to find her rosary, and I was born Methodist.”
But what cast the most suspicion on Sister Mary Frances was her disinvestment in the town’s collective fear of river rats and bats. More offensively, she was positively blasé whenever Janice cautioned her about the plight of rat-bats, the malingering offspring of both clawed critters, often born in the wake of winter floods. Try as the UCC congregant might to rally an ecumenical coalition between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews with rat-bat lore, Janice could not elicit the nun’s anxiety toward what she called “winged rodent-esque harbingers of darkness hungry for baby flesh.” Annoyingly proactive, Sister Mary Frances merely suggested swatting them with a broom. “Or plug up that hole in your roof.”
“If she really loved animals like her namesake, she wouldn’t induce violence towards helpless bats, even if they are the Devil’s minions,” Janice muttered darkly to Olga, who was stirring a pot of borsch while staring darkly into Sister Mary Frances’s room through the kitchen door.
As soon as Beth’s fists were big enough to grip a broom handle, Janice taught her daughter to battle disoriented bats that flew into the living room through the old chimney hole. Even when the tiny-toothed airborne balls of fur left Janice in peace, raccoons scrambled in. “They’re sniffing for food scraps; just lock the cat door,” Sister Mary Frances sighed, resting her hands on a shovel with which she’d been digging pits for fruit trees in the community garden. Janice bent over a sapling, inspecting the bark for infestation bite marks. “Or maybe they can smell Beth’s blood, right through her skin.” Sister Mary Frances commenced planting as Janice’s tone squeaked sharper. “After the ’86 flood, I saw rats the size of house cats hunting in packs, their claws sharper than blackberry thorns. And some even flew past Olga’s window.” Olga also converses more with her dead husband than with her living roommate, thought the nun.
Over the six years she’d lived along the river, which, counter to local belief did not in fact “rival the Amazon in fortitude,” Sister Mary Frances had watched Janice pick her fingernails and grind her teeth over her daughter’s edible vulnerability to flying, earthbound, and mythical animals. While much tormented by these phobias, which grew in scope and story by the year, Janice had had no qualms about setting her daughter on the food pantry’s floor and inciting the barely crawling toddler to arrange shoe donations amidst the barely dried residue of the last flood. Sister Mary Frances wondered why aluminum-roofed clapboard shacks had been raised above hundred-year inundation levels, but the church and pantry that served an average of eighty families a week had never been elevated. Even the bridge connecting the town’s main road to the church hadn’t been repaired since its construction by the WPA. “So much is beyond our control when neighbors lose their homes almost yearly. I just want to feel like I can protect my daughter. You must have encountered children you couldn’t protect in your service work.” Maintaining that God was her confessor, Sister Mary Frances patted soil over the last young tree and offered to show Beth defensive techniques with a shovel.
“You have to use whatever’s at-hand,” the nun instructed Beth a few weeks later. “When it comes down to it, what you can count on having is yourself. That has to be enough.” Nodding intently, Beth tried to memorize the advice, excited that a world traveler had taken time off from untold adventures to stay in her small town and teach her to huck corn and survive countless dangers. “But if all you think you are is ‘enough,’ you won’t fight hard enough.” While Olga looked over her shoulder even when she was alone in a room, wary of the town’s claustrophobic gossip, Sister Mary Frances faced the town’s hunger for food, shelter, and scapegoats head-on. The snider the insults to her habit, the more unshaven leg she showed. The ruder the jokes about her rough hands, the more she gardened gloveless. “Believe me, of all the men out there, God cares the least about body hair; he has better things to worry about.” While Beth hid in her room wearing a dime store costume mustache and parrying a toy sword at an imaginary river rat, Sister Mary Frances let rodents nibble the garden’s lettuce. “Most of the time, the rats and bats aren’t powerful enough to threaten any human. That’s why your mother worries so much about them getting big. But it’s never a bad idea to have a little swash in your buckle. You never know when you might have to wield a real knife.”
That winter Janice hoisted the pipe organ into the rafters of the chapel to keep it from mildewing in the floodwater and again began her cycle of river rat legends. “They get as big as babies out here because they eat whatever the floods leave behind,” she said as her daughter climbed out of the car at the community garden. The second grader had continued weeding in the hopes that Sister Mary Frances would reveal tales of snakes swallowing children to take her mind off the nearby river drowning her peers. Or maybe because she could wear her dad’s discarded work shirts while gardening. But most of all because when Beth asked the nun if she could change her name to James one day, Sister Mary Frances agreed and said, “It took years of me arguing just to convince people to call me Mary; it wasn’t my given name. The way I see it, you know better than anyone what name fits you best.”
Following several hours of diligent invasive plant eradication and what Beth saw as a distinct lack of storytelling, the garden sprouted several corpses, along with season-disregarding corn, sweet bell peppers, and strawberries. Balancing the two halves of a dead, wide-eyed rodent on a plastic trowel, Beth approached Sister Mary Frances with questions as to the proper burial of one of God’s children. The nun laughed. “The Church claims that animals don’t have souls, but I’ve always thought that humans were just afraid that they weren’t so distinct from rodents. Bury the rat however you see fit.” Burdened with a somewhat disemboweled body and no assigned destination, the child headed for the stairs of the fellowship hall, where no one seemed to clean up after the floods. Pert ‘60s Go-Go dancer breasts called to her from between the stair gaps. Beth hesitated to reach for the nudie magazine, fearful of germs despite her mother’s encouragement that, “only 7 in 10 people catch E. Coli after a flood.” Getting caught by a nun with an outdated copy of Playboy didn’t seem likely to answer her questions about rats and the afterlife.
Another corner of the garden offered soft soil untainted by the temptations of the flesh. Beth slid the two rat pieces off her shovel. Nudging aside a few Swisher wrappers with her petite foot, Beth started to dig, thinking about the time she’d dug up her dead rat in the garden, unearthing only the fake velvet she had wrapped the pet in for the funeral. Sister Mary Frances had her hand on the shoulder of a biker when the girl looked up. Distracted by the leather jacketed man’s curly red chest hairs, the nun probably hadn’t noticed Beth staring between the stairs at the alluring photograph. Pushing the two rat halves into a hole and kicking dirt over the bodies, she finally realized that one had pink, silky rat ears and the onyx feathers of a bat. It was small, rat-sized, if the two halves were fit together, but the contents of its burst stomach leaked something larger than Sister Mary Frances would ever have believed could fit. Fingers smaller than hers, baby fingers, eaten because humans were the only things left by the flood’s onslaught. Beth’s friends usually stayed on roofs until FEMA rescued them in helicopters. The rat-bat surely scavenged after the helicopters gave up on them.
Beth convinced herself that she was excited to share undeniable proof of rat-bat proliferation, evidence of a natural predator that wasn’t a natural disaster to validate her mother’s anxiety. But what really soothed Beth was evidence of a creature hated for its hybridity that refused to be buried, even after one of its many predators tried to divide its whole into discernable, separate parts. Beth tiptoed back to the spot where she had been weeding, skillfully evading dried patches of crunchy flood sewage. Intent on making up for time lost burying a genuine rat-bat, Beth didn’t look up from her weeding until she heard the sound of a motorcycle choking away. Sister Mary Frances was waving at her friend’s considerable backside girth, which spilled voluptuously over the bike’s seat. Less enticingly, a damp, drab paper grocery bag occupied the sidecar seat, probably full of garden produce. He must’ve been hungry, Beth thought.
Janice picked her fingernails and gritted her teeth when her daughter told her of the groundbreaking discovery of a rat-bat in the flesh. She didn’t like that Beth had been touching dead things, severed things. The girl might catch a disease, and she was vulnerable with such a young immune system. This seemed strange to Beth, who had listened to her mother’s first- and second-hand accounts of the creatures every night ever since she’d started helping Sister Mary Frances.
One afternoon, neither the nun nor her moped was in the garden. No one seemed upset when Beth asked them if there was a way to find Sister Mary Frances, or an address where one could forward a card. She missed her mentor’s no-nonsense brevity and a nurturing quality that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Maybe it was that the nun hugged her when her mother felt uneasy about physical affection. Or that she managed to make plants grow where there had only been weeds before. Beth went back to the garden, which had gone to seed, missing the feeling that she could rely on herself. Without anyone watching her, she headed to the stairs and nudged the old Playboy open with her foot. Inside was Sister Mary Frances’ rosary and a note. “Rat-bats are only scary if you agree to fear them.”
All the adults said that Sister Mary Frances left town on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle with bags of charity money, headed to San Francisco to board a plane to Europe. But it was rumored that the nun never made it onto the plane. “Her boyfriend murdered her and took all the money for himself,” Janice conjectured. “I knew she wasn’t really affiliated with the diocese,” Olga replied over the phone, “but she had a green thumb; I’ll give her that.” Even the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had to admit that Sister Mary Frances’ garden had fed as many mouths as their community dinners, and perhaps more regularly. Some said that Sister Mary Frances and her boyfriend went over a cliff along the coast, that they plunged into the sea unable to see the unlit roads in the darkness. But Beth always imagined that Sister Mary Frances and her boyfriend didn’t make it to the plane because they didn’t need manmade wings. Rounding a curve and quickly airborne, their motorcycle had been intercepted by a rat-bat, or maybe, if they were lucky, a whole town’s worth of rat-bats. The ocean hadn’t swallowed them; they flew beyond the horizon line, to a place between sunrise and sunset, where food, homes, and embodiments were plentiful and limitless.
© Jenny Irizary