I walk home alone at night, and I am told that this is a poor decision. I admit that this is true. It is indeed unwise to walk home at night alone at four in the morning in the French Quarter down Chartres Street past the fern-covered wall behind the old Ursuline Convent.
But because I walk alone there is no one to ask me why I stop and stare at the old wall, or why I run my hand along its mossy bricks until I reach the locked iron gate that allows the tiniest peek into the convent’s courtyard, and there is no one to say that I am probably tired and maybe a bit tipsy and surely seeing things when a bear shaped shadow appears in one of the convent’s second-story windows.
I know that the Ursuline nuns are named for Saint Ursula not because her name means little bear but because she was an eleven-year-old holy virgin martyr who was shot with an arrow or maybe beheaded along with her eleven holy virgin martyr companions and because she is the patron saint of schoolgirls.
And even if one of the Catholic schoolgirls who once walked the cloistered halls of the Ursuline convent frequently complained that her porridge was too cold or her desk was too tall or that the ruler whacked across her knuckles drew a little too much blood, she still considers herself lucky because sometimes a leather-soft paw would pull her in for a hug when she was good and she would give anything to be hugged like that again and to be called good.
The sisterhood encourages diversity. Beneath their identical black robes and leather girdles, beneath their white veiled headdresses, the sisters’ coats range from glossy black to rusty brown to polar white. The sisterhood has modernized and accepts all faiths, but the current Mother Superior, a grizzly in whose powerful jaws only a few teeth remain, whose eyes are slowly turning milky and blue, keeps the oldest faith of all and leads the sisters in chants to the Big Bear in the Sky, to Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. She keeps time on a hand drum with her claws like dull rusty daggers as the bear nuns chant in their deep voices until the stone walls quiver with the bass that rumbles from their furred chests.
The old Ursuline convent is over three hundred years old. The stone floors have been worn smooth by generations of the shuffling paws of sisters trundling from cave-like dormitories to chapel for their morning prayers. This is the time when they wake from their deep sleep, the bear nuns, and this is why I walk alone at night and stop and wait to see them begin their day as I end mine. The Big Dipper is sinking into the muddy brown river behind me. Any moment now the soles of my feet will feel the nuns’ chant begin. I will wait, just a little while longer, I will wait with my hands wrapped tight around the iron bars of this gate at this time that is neither night nor day in this air that is neither too warm or too cold and I know that everything will be just right.
Lindsey Austin Pharr (she/her) lives in a cabin in the woods outside of Asheville, NC. Her work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Bending Genres, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @lindsey_a_pharr.