General Fiction posted October 13, 2016


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
a story of loss and faith restored

Jeanna

by RodG


"Just pick up the pieces . . . and pray," intoned Father Jean-Michel.

He'd been repeating this litany since the last howling winds of the hurricane swept past Haiti.  Prowling through the rubble of the village, exhausted women and children sought personal belongings while men and boys pulled out bodies.  Eighty found thus far.

"They no longer listen, Father," a young nun said.

The small wiry man who had been encouraging everyone squinted at her while fingering the tight clerical collar now almost as black as his shirt.  He'd lost his glasses.

"And you, Jeanna?  You seem distracted.  Are you praying?'" he asked with a sad, all-knowing smile.

"I--I try, Father."  She lowered her head, knowing her reply displeased her benefactor.

Jeanna.  He'd used her old name.  Six years ago a great quake demolished much of the country and razed her house and those of most of her neighbors.  Her mother and she had escaped with minor injuries, but her father and younger brother Tomas were buried beneath the ruins.  Three months later cholera killed her mother.  Not long afterwards Father Jean-Michel found the skinny teenager picking through the remnants of her home and took her to an abbey on the village outskirts.  He left her with Mother Superior and seven young nuns who became her new family.  In time the girl became Sister Margaret-Mary.

Earlier that day two Sisters were buried in a corner of the churchyard.  After a brief ceremony, Father Jean-Michel led the few Sisters not badly injured into the village where help was desperately needed.  Jeanna tried to focus on the task at hand, but couldn't.  Sister Cecelia, her best friend, was still missing.
*     *     *

Warned by the authorities about the approaching storm and urged to evacuate, the villagers stayed.  Where could they go?  The village had long been cut off from other cities because of roads destroyed by the quake and never repaired.

Although the abbey had suffered much quake damage, it seemed the safest refuge to Mother Superior.  The walls were thick and there was a cellar.  As the winds stirred the fronds of the banana trees outside, she directed the nuns to move furniture, barricade the doors, and cover the windows with whatever wood they could scrounge.

Sister Cecelia and Jeanna had always enjoyed working together.  Their temperaments were similar and each could easily make the other laugh.  As the storm worsened, they worked outside with hammers and nails.  Darkness hampered their efforts as great black clouds rolled in from the south.  Soon strong gusts bent the trees, ripped apart the vegetable garden, and threw both women to the ground.  Habits shredded, they groped their way to the front door.  Mother Superior, braced by the frame, screamed at them.

"Give me your hands!"

Mother Superior grabbed Jeanna's outstretched hand and tugged.  Jeanna tumbled inside.

"Cecelia!" screamed the older nun, snaring fingers.

Jeanna struggled to help, but the wind tore Cecelia away and flung her sideways out of sight.

Without a thought, Jeanna threw herself after her friend, screaming her name.  She cartwheeled head over heels as the wind hurled her about, viciously slapping her face.  The rain slammed into her with body punches.

She rolled against a splintered banana tree and wrapped her arms around its trunk.  Unrelenting rain obscured her vision of the abbey and any limp form that might be inches from her.  She heard no moans, only the shrieking wind.

Hours later Mother Superior found Jeanna still clutching the tree, whimpering Cecelia's name.  Jeanna had not seen or heard the abbey's roof collapse.  Mother Superior had dug herself out, but two of the Sisters were killed.

"Wh--where can she be?" sobbed Jeanna.

"God willing we will find her, Sister Margaret," Mother Superior said as she cleaned Jeanna's numerous cuts and bandaged her head.  "He spared Sisters Marianne, Helena, Inez, Lucia, you . . . and me.  Be thankful."
*     *     *

As quickly as the storm had come it was gone.  Cloudless skies reappeared with the molten sun.  The air, too laden with moisture to be moved by coastal breezes, garbed everyone in a damp shroud.  Jeanna could hardly breathe as the stench of death was everywhere.

No house was intact.  Some walls still stood, but most roofs had collapsed.  First and second story rooms lay open to the elements.  Scraps of bedding, clothing, and furniture were scattered in mountainous heaps.  Man-made and natural debris clogged the roads and passageways.  Most of the villagers worked through the rubble in clusters, pulling, tugging, prying pieces apart with make-shift levers.

Jeanna worked alone, seldom straying far from Father Jean-Michel.  But often she scurried back to the abbey when she had a wild notion where Sister Cecelia might be found.

The cellar!  No, empty.

The small stable!  Collapsed.

The chicken coop!  Blown away.

She was seeking usable clothing with two young girls when she saw Mother Superior approaching, Father Jean-Michel a step behind.  Both stared at Jeanna with tear-stained faces.

"You . . . found her?"

The woman in the dark blue habit nodded.  Father Jean-Michel thumbed away a tear.

Slowly Jeanna understood why they had come to her together.  Her small chin quivered and suddenly she was wailing.  As Mother Superior stepped forth, the young nun fell into her outstretched arms.
*     *     *

Father Jean-Michel plodded along the coastal trail, pausing now and then to look over his shoulder at the young woman who straggled behind him.  She wore a blue tee-shirt and a dead farmer's overalls.  Everything else she owned had been tossed into the small banged-up suitcase she carried.

"How much farther, Father?"

"Not far, Jeanna.  Perhaps five kilometers."

Sister Cecelia had lain in her grave two days, and she was Jeanna once more.

"Can we stop for water?" she asked.

"Yes.  Near that old tree ahead there is a stream."

They sat beneath an aged bayawonn tree, and for a long while Jeanna peered at the rocky coast far below where waves smashed against the cliff.  Looking up, she saw the priest gazing at her with that familiar sad smile.

"I have weathered fifty years.  This old tree . . . twice that," he said.  "Consider where it stands, the storms it has endured.  A miracle, no?"

Jeanna nodded.

Father Jean-Michel pulled off the glasses someone had found and rubbed his eyes.  Jeanna knew he had slept little since the storm.  Even less since she'd made her decision to leave the abbey.

"What will you do in Jeremie?" he asked.

She shrugged.  "Work.  I have schooling.  Perhaps I will teach the little ones.

His smile brightened.  "You did that at the abbey where they need you more than ever, Jeanna.  Did you not see all the new orphans?"

She violently shook her head.  "For money now.  I--I save and go to America."

Father Jean-Michel restored the glasses to his nose and stared at her, curling his lips in thought.

"America . . . yes, one often dreams of going there.  I did."

Jeanna gawked.  "Y--you?"

"Yes, when I was very young."

"But why did you not go?"

"Because I, too, lost my family, Jeanna.  To men, not earthquakes or hurricanes.  Before your time we had a dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.  His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, came at night, butchered my parents and sisters, and slashed me here."  He ripped open his collar to reveal a long scar just below his throat.  "They left me to roast alive as my house burned around me.

"But I survived, like it--"  He pointed at the old tree.  "Scarred but stronger."

"Stronger?  I do not understand."

"Because you do not try.  Your pain and grief only weaken you."

"What would make me strong?  Him?"  She pointed upwards.

"Yes."

She shook her head.  "I have lost too much.  He is never there when I need Him."

"Where do you look for Him, Jeanna?"

She scowled.  "Everywhere.  In your church.  Our sanctuary before it was destroyed.  In Nature when she--she is friendly."

"Hmmmm . . ." Father Jean-Michel's thin lips parted.  Teeth gleamed.  "Do you know where I find Him?"

She shook her head.

"In you, Jeanna."

"N--no!  You are wrong."

"And others like you.  The Sisters, Mother Superior, but mostly the villagers who do not whimper and moan about their losses.  God is manifested in their strength, Jeanna.  Their fortitude.  Their love for one another."

Jeanna's vision blurred with welling tears.  She blinked until she could clearly see the priest again.  She smiled.

"I think I see Him."

"Good!" the priest laughed.  "Then should we go home again . . . Sister Margaret?"

"Yes, Father."

As the dying sun reddened brightly above the abbey, Mother Superior spied the priest and young nun coming.  She raced toward them with open arms.


What Happened? writing prompt entry
Writing Prompt
Write a story that starts with: "Just pick up the pieces..."

Recognized


The picture is an image of the people in Haiti shortly after Hurricane Matthew devastated their village.
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