A Tale of Ung
Corridor inside Defdefa Convent
Next morning, although Thrulxmarj could have driven or we might have gone by golden comet or hailed a taxi in the form of a motor-powered brougham popular in the fair-weather metropolis, Mecnita, Olezconia preferred to walk to Forgsha Station, about two miles south. It was a scenic walk along the Avenue of Ung or any of the many flowery little lanes that parallel it. It wasn’t often that the abbess visited the capital, ever busy as she was around Dwesfesco. Forgsha Station is the largest terminal on Nya, with 100 tracks and platforms, many of them miles long. Minitrains and moving sidewalks bisect every platform longitudinally, carrying people to and from the big trains. Pedestrian overpasses with moving staircases enable passengers to cross over trains, while tunnels checkerboard the station under ground. It would be very easy to get lost in Forgsha Station, but everywhere about are phones in which you need just state your destination to receive a message telling you the way. If, 500 feet along, you’ve reached a point where you’re again uncertain, you just pick up another phone and state your destination once again, but this time the recorded message is a new one, tailored to your new location. Of course, autobuggies and a score of other conveniences are there as well, in addition to amenities like libraries, boutiques, hotel rooms, restaurants, amusement centers, baths and cinemas. Décor is sleek and streamlined, luxurious and beautiful. It’s been said that you could live inside the station, which is open every day around the clock. You wouldn’t even want for greenery and sunshine, as numerous parks and gardens dot this city in a city.
Apparently, the dignified religionary had a childlike facet too, for she was all excited when we got into the station. I suppose I could have taken advantage of her animation to attempt escape, but I knew my liberty would be short-lived, so I just tagged along behind the abbess, nearly jogging to keep up with her athletic pace. First, she visited some libraries and bookstores, looking at illuminated books of hours and lives of saints, volumes on religious history and theology. Ever and anon, she sat a moment in a little bower or café. She visited a variety of tiny shops and bought some souvenirs and trinkets. She spent a little time admiring the murals in the central waiting room. These famous murals depicted some of the most breathtaking of Ungia’s landscapes—mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, waterfalls—with the trains that fetch them, massive locomotives of 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand horsepower and the endless strings of cars they draw. She also introduced herself to several embassies of nuns of other orders, though, incidentally, our ladies of the cloth are fewer nowadays by far than centuries ago.
At last, though, Olezconia was ready to depart. It was high noon and our 6000-mile journey would take a day almost to the minute. Our course was westward over the wide Umzid River, and through the suburbs of Uqilso, Rolasponiu, Dagomagd and Wavernbo. After that we’d pass through several major cities—Zhiginards, Atardbanc, Zladnropol, Cnaizdadf—and presumably detrain in Fwascren, Ung’s third city, with some 30,000,000 people. I supposed we’d pilgrimage the 20 miles from the station to the convent. Most nuns took at least eight hours on this walk, but I knew Olezconia could make it in just five, which meant I’d have to go so fast I’d be almost on the point of running. But the trip turned out quite differently.
We crossed the Umzid west of Devanasc. Upstream I saw the ships that bring materials to Ulmactab Mills and other giant factories as numerous as coots along the riverbank. I never did get to Ulmactab’s Devanasc facility with Shandra, by the way. A while later, I could see that we were bulleting through the outlying areas of Zhiginards, and I could feel the train slow to 100 miles an hour, then 80, 60, 40, 20, 10, and stop. We’d have a quarter-hour in the station, a building of clear glass and weathering and stainless steel. Zhiginards is Ung’s telephonic center, where satellites are built and a variety of telephones are manufactured, including videophones, computer-phones and astrofax in two or three dimensions, even novelties like earring phones and minifax for sending microfiches from pocket phototelegraphs. Professionals and other folk in Ung enscroll biographies or resumés on chips accessible by phone from anywhere. Zhiginards produces these updatable metallic chips in long, low, ultramodern factories that march along its stately avenues. In the station, one could sample most of the devices, and we spent our little stay observing passengers experimenting.
Now Zladnropol’s a city of a wholly different character, a stronghold of traditional and ancient ways, with intriguing little streets that zig and zag, hither and thither, back and forth, and south and north. Along those aisles and alleys there’s no telling what you’ll find. Relics, heirlooms, olden volumes in forgotten languages, little treasures of unknown provenience, even forgeries and artifacts of doubtful authenticity are in abundance there if only you will look. You might find a century-old loveletter on yellowed paper that crumbles in your hand like wilted asphodel corollas. Or you might find an unidentifiable gold coin with a silhouette, nearly vanished, of some long-dead duke or princeling. You could buy a terra cotta stallion or an iron elephant, a cnidarian or molluscan paperweight, ivory, coral, ormolu or bone, jade kings and amber queens, charms of sandalwood, and rosewood figurines. Zladnropol’s train station was a grand bazaar, a fascinating marketplace. Sister Olezconia just had to see the bric-a-brac, and naturally I went traipsing after her, tripping in the folds of my black habit. Mere minutes later, we were back in our compartment ready to retire.
In the morning we breakfasted on melted cheese and toasted muffins, dates and figs. This was a hearty meal compared with what I could expect inside the convent, with its oaten bread and barley gruel.
I spent all morning sitting, looking out the window. Olezconia and I by and by experienced a rapprochement of sorts and found a measure of rapport. She even put her arm around me, covering me in the drapery of her habit, and the fragrant lavender that she exuded without even using perfume held me there and made me glad to be there. The rosy freshness of her breath was like a summer morning, and I found myself enchanted with her melodious soprano voice, with its pretty trills and lovely little flourishes. Her slender fingers traced figures full of grace before my eyes and hypnotized me, or they brushed against my arms and legs so gently, sending impulses of holy bliss through every tissue in my body, as if I’d just imbibed some transcendental opium. Confinement in Defdefa Convent might be delightful after all, I started thinking as we rode.
Later on, I heard, "Cnaizdadf! Cnaizdadf!" Cnaizdadf is a suburban city of a million ten miles east of Fwascren. Normally there is no rest stop at Cnaizdadf, since Fwascren is so near. Only some few passengers alight or board in just a minute and then the train continues.
"Come on! Let’s go!" said Sister Olezconia.
"But this is just Cnaizdadf," I hastened to object.
"I know. I know. Cnaizdadf is where we’re getting off."
"Cnaizdadf? But why Cnaizdadf?" I asked amazed.
"More walking and less talking!" Olezconia commanded.
Soon we were rushing through the station in Cnaizdadf, no whit inferior in architecture to many of the larger stations in the major cities, with its lobby decorated with dark green enameled wooden columns surmounted by gold palm-leaf capitals supporting vaulted sandstone ceilings. But as if there’d been but little time to dilly-dally and shilly-shally, we went straightway to the exit. Though ordinarily I’m no more a connoisseur of architecture than is the average human being, anxiety awoke within me a keen interest in the green-and-gold-and-beige décor, but Olezconia kept tugging at my wrist.
I’d never visited Cnaizdadf before, but like every native or adoptive Ungian, I’d heard of Shrongmoil Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of Shrongmoil University, and generally reputed as one of Ungia’s finest medical establishments. I knew nothing else about Cnaizdadf, but I was almost certain that Defdefa Convent had no presence there. As far as I recalled, the convent in Dwesfesco was the order’s only convent, though there were half a dozen chapels scattered round the continent—not any in Cnaizdadf—as well as a nunciature in Eldor Palace. Therefore, I was puzzled at this new development, but I obeyed the nun’s command to walk not talk, and handled my bewilderment in silence.
We walked onto Cnaizdadf Plaisance, an elegant, broad avenue with lofty eucalyptus trees striding down the median. Railings separated sidewalks from the street with an occasional shining footbridge. After minutes, Olezconia and I came up to Shrongmoil Drive, with slender poplar trees and cypress trees filing down each shoulder. At length we found ourselves before a splendid gate. On an arch above the gate shone a scutcheon—staff and serpents argent on a field gules—with a motto, "Zina rio Quant"—"Health of the Nation". I wondered why the abbess was taking me to Shrongmoil. Then I recalled my entrance of the cloister was conditioned on my getting medically cleared, which I’d thought odd. But here we were at Shrongmoil, perhaps to get the checkup.
When we’d passed through the blazoned gate, my first glance at the institute revealed an enfilade of gleaming highrise ultramodern buildings—spheres and cylinders, paraboloids and cones—all clad in muted coppertone revetments, more tan, less ruddy than pure copper. One-way windows tinted in the selfsame pale copper matched the color of the walls so nearly that they looked like disembodied rectangles afloat upon the surface, and the figures of the buildings had the semblance of precision geometric figures, immense and overwhelming. A spacious lawn of emerald green, immaculately manicured, surrounded all the muted copper buildings like a verdant ocean with metallic islands. Bone-white nonskid concrete sidewalks connected all the buildings, but otherwise the grounds were like a gentle fairway or a rolling campus, without trees or bushes—acres, acres, acres wide.
It was all so vast and superhuman, impersonal and awesome, that I cringed. Surely this was not a simple checkup. In that case, I’d have gone to some physician’s little office without ceremony or ado and been done in half an hour, as the doctor worked sphygmometer and stethoscope, laryngoscope and ophthalmometer, and signed a quick certificate. Surely Sister Olezconia would not have brought me to world-famous Shrongmoil Institute of Medicine for that.
The administration building was a cylinder of copper, 1200 feet in height, 300 in diameter, except that, for the lowest 15 feet, the diameter was recessed, so that the upper stories overhung the ground floor and left a covered mall around the building. The bone-white nonskid concrete walk that sliced the campus joined the mall just where the entrance, a tensome of revolving doors, admitted guests and staff.
Sister Olezconia now ushered me through one of the revolving doors into a grandiose and modern lobby. Lamps with copper lampshades, cylinders that miniatured the building as a whole, hung from the ceiling and gave off a mellow light suffusing the reflective floor. The abbess led me to a desk where a stately, black-haired, tan-skinned Ungi lady, dressed in white, was seated as if awaiting visitors.
"This is Sister Rogizlenia née Vocno Ganven, a novice of our order, who is here by an appointment, the whole matter having been arranged beforehand by a royal rescript," Olezconia began, simultaneously producing a leather wallet coffee-brown with age and displaying her credentials, apparently a mere formality, as her mien identified her eloquently as a personage of note, "I was to ask for Derabandi."
"Yes, I am Derabandi," said the beauteous receptionist, "and I am quite familiar with the case. If you’ll kindly wait a moment." Then, into her wristphone, she addressed, "Ornaluna, Arcuvelvia, come at once to the reception desk. This is Derabandi."
Within a minute, two young ladies dressed in knitted offwhite garments—long smocks or minidresses, as you will—over cuffless pants of white, appeared. These were teenage student nurses or nurses’ aides presumably, around my height, but of decidedly more buxom and robust appearance, certainly good-looking and well-built.
"Ornaluna, Arcuvelvia, show Rogizlenia her room, room 9602." I started to contest the feminine possessive, but recalling my attire, I merely let it go.
Ornaluna took my left wrist and Arcuvelvia my right, so we were in a row, facing in the same direction. From the firmness of their grip, I understood that they were wary lest I try to break away, and could and would prevent it. At first I marveled at the existence of preparedness like this, which, suddenly I realized, could only mean one thing. Yes, I grasped it in a flash.
The two young student nurses led me to an elevator with doors of stainless-steel-and-copper stripes, which opened as a sensor noticed our approach. Seconds later we emerged on 96, and walking down an endless corridor of doors, we finally found room 9602. The girls unlocked the door, guiding me inside.
"Pass your habit out to us in the pivoted compartment in the door, and we’ll get it cleaned and pressed for you. Here’s a gown that you can wear instead," Arcuvelvia instructed.
I took the floorlength ruffled yellow cotton flannel morning dress as the two student nurses closed and locked my door behind me. Minutes later, having changed, I passed my habit through the door.
Early the next day, my inner door, which functioned as a sally port, slid closed all of a sudden, and I heard the outer door slide open. A minute later, I heard the outer door slide closed again and saw the inner door reopen. The sally port now held a little car, a metal basket upside-down equipped with four brass casters. The car door stood ajar, and someone’s voice commanded, "Get in the car and seat yourself." I got inside; the car door closed. My outer door slid open and the car rolled out into the corridor, then both my doors slid closed again. I tried the car door, I was locked inside. The car rolled automatically up to an elevator, which opened to accept me. I felt the quick descent, the elevator opened and the car rolled out. Soon I was out on one of those white nonskid concrete sidewalks, rolling rapidly across the campus. At length, the car rolled into an entrance in a copper cone—a lofty pointed tower of a building, dully lustrous—and thence to floor 120 on another elevator. Finally, I rolled into an operating theater of unbelievable complexity and size.
Medical technology in Ung is so advanced that when you undergo an operation like the one that I foresaw awaited me, even pregnancy is possible.
When I awoke from anesthesia, I was furious, embarrassed, shocked. But the sight of my full bosom and round hips, my little baby face and soft, smooth skin assuaged my fury, and 15 minutes later, I was reconciled to my new sexuality. "Oh, well, there’s nothing to be done but live with it," I philosophized unto myself. The car returned me to my room and two days later I had convalesced entirely. That’s medicine in Ung for you! I was in the best of spirits, delighted through and through.
On the 59th of year 394, Olezconia came back to Shrongmoil to collect me and see me to the nunnery. She drove a long black limousine some pious benefactress had given to the convent. She reasoned that I couldn’t pilgrimage the customary 20 miles so shortly after my transfiguration.
We took a pretty little road directly to Dwesfesco from Cnaizdadf, and we saw grassy plains with stands of cashew and mahogany, with an acacia or black locust here and there. A scattering of hamlets lay before us, as well as some of Fwascren’s suburbs, like Old Belbenox, Renbobo and Clangzponder.
We rode in silence almost all the way, but Olezconia gave me a brief preamble to my new confinement, "I’ve decided simply to annul your first novitiate. It’ll be as if you were arriving the first time. You’ll be a novice for a year, maintaining perfect silence save for the repetition of your vows. You’ll be in zhnanbad every day from 3 till 4 o’clock. Of course, you’ll have a round of chores—sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, laundry, sewing, writing and the like. You’ll sleep the minimum required for your health. You’ll eat more sparely. And you’ll be subject to strict punishment for misbehavior or neglect of duty. After one full year, you’ll take your final vows. At that time, you’ll enjoy more liberties."
Eventually, I judged we must be right upon Dwesfesco. Storks and pelicans suggested that the Anwap River was nearby. Then I saw the high gray walls that ring the cloister I’d call home for many decades. The massive oaken door on iron hinges yawned all of a sudden, and the abbess steered the limousine around, driving skillfully between the jambs into the courtyard, then lastly into the garage. Three nuns received us, and five minutes later, I was locked in my old alcove, with a tiny bath, a bed, a table and a chair. There were also some religious texts, a pad of paper and a pen.
Strangely, I discovered that I liked it after all. It satisfied my spartan, conservationist, utilitarian ideals. It made me feel safe, secure and sound. I spent the afternoon sitting at my table, reading books and writing. But with nightfall I lay down to sleep.
Just before 3 Ungi, Sister Olezconia was at my door. I knew the ritual and I was ready. I had bathed and dressed and eaten breakfast, brought by some lay sister to my door. When Olezconia unlocked my alcove, I stepped out and raised my hands, the insides of my wrists together. The abbess looped a strap about my wrists and buckled it securely. She turned about, tugged at the loose end of the strap, closed my door and marched with me in tow upon her heels. The door between the novice quarters and the atrium stood open, and Olezconia led me unto a spot inside the atrium, where a leather pillow lay upon the floor. I knelt on it. She brought a bolster and five scarves, a ball of putty and a long black mask. She tied me up as tight as tight can be and left me there an Ungi hour, helpless in my pious agony.
Later on, when she’d released me, I went about my chores, scouring pots and washing dishes, dusting, polishing and mopping, mending clothes and ironing, repairing bindings, raking leaves, anything and everything that Olezconia could think of. This lasted over 12 earth-hours, 5 Ungi hours, that is, half a day, till bedtime. I noticed that the transom I’d escaped through in my first commitment was now barred up. The dumbwaiter I had used descending from the refectory in the novice quarters to the scullery below was now locked tight. Escape was utterly impossible.
The next day was the same. Sister Olezconia was at my door at 3 and I was busy all the way till midnight. This went on day after day. Now and then there’d be a lull, a respite of an hour or two, and I’d sit silently in a big rocking chair in the communal room inside the novice quarters, fingering the pages of a book or adding little loops to a shawl I was crocheting. Sometimes, later in the evening, Olezconia would call me to her office to tidy up or serve her tea and pastries. However fast I worked, she wanted me to work still faster, and I’d fly about her office in a panic lest she find fault and punish me. She’d just sit behind her desk, calm, collected, imperturbable, supremely confident of her authority, her right to rule me so punctiliously and so minutely. In all my haste and hurry, I envied and admired her composure and placidity, her lofty mien, her expression of serenity and dignity, all so natural to her soft lovely visage. This envy and this admiration were stimulants that vitalized and energized my service, putting speed in all my motions and my actions.
In my previous commitment in Defdefa Convent, I’d been so eager to return to Udi, who was awaiting me in Fwascren, that all my thoughts were of escape, and I’d paid no attention to the real person behind Olezconia’s authoritarian façade. Now that Udi had cashiered me and no future save the convent lay before me, I resigned myself to my new station and turned my gaze to Olezconia. As days passed by, my envy and my admiration were transformed to love and adoration. The change that had been brought about at Shrongmoil Institute of Medicine enabled me to love the noble nun with confidence the purity of my fine sentiments and my affection would never be diminished by unchastity.
The walls that girt the nunnery about excluded all the outside world except the sky of peerless blue that always canopies the prairies of Dwesfesco. Fwascren, like Mecnita, straddles the equator, where all the seasons are alike. Cloudy days are seldom; sunshine is the rule. Now and then, a stork or two, a curlew or a pelican would overfly the cloister. Perhaps a godwit or a phalarope would wing its way on high. Sometimes towering clouds would huddle on the far horizon, gilded by the sun. But every day was a remembrance of the day before and a preview of the day to come. At night, I’d glimpse the old familiar constellations—Pojolfs, Cnascha, Dwadf and Zhrinx. But nights were just the leaves of a single tree, one the very pattern of another.
Day in, day out, I’d rise in silence, kneel in zhnanbad in the atrium an hour, work five Ungi hours, eat, retire and sleep soundly till it was time to rise again. I started counting days but soon lost track. I tried to guess but had no faith in my own guesses. Surely a good one hundred days had passed. I was looking forward with excitement to the day I’d take my final vows.
My devotion to the abbess deepened every day. In my poor eyes, Olezconia could do no wrong. And since the order was her order and the nunnery her nunnery, I began to feel esprit de corps surpassing even that which I had felt among the Kshaddi Geese. It was my order, I’d defend it. It was my nunnery, I would preserve it. No one could say a word against the abbess. I’d walk away, a sullen pout upon my face. No one could criticize the convent. I’d stamp my feet and gather up my skirts and hurry off, tears dripping from my lashes.
Sister Olezconia observed my loyalty, applauding all my fervor and my ardor. She said Defdefa Convent needed nuns like me, who took their calling seriously and weren’t there just for room and board. Every little word of praise that came from Olezconia’s rose lips was nectar and ambrosia I imbibed. Each syllable of gratitude, approval or encouragement made me renew my efforts. Sister Olezconia took note and was appreciative.
Perhaps 200 days had passed, when first the stringencies and strictitudes of my routine and ritual were sensibly relaxed. Fewer pots required scouring, fewer floors required mopping, fewer tables needed polishing. More and more, I’d just repair the bindings of rare books, restore old palimpsests and manuscripts, tend the violets, begonias, sweet-peas and petunias in the convent garden, make lace and tapestries, or do embroidery. Of an evening, now and then, I’d sit with Sister Olezconia, reveling in her elder-sisterly embraces. Still I kept my vows of silence, answering with gestures and expressions, while the abbess did the talking.
No one but Olezconia knew of the operation Shrongmoil Institute of Medicine’s famed surgeons had performed. Everyone was simply told that I was Sister Rogizlenia, formerly of Eldor Palace. I was Defdefa Convent’s shortest nun and because of this was given several nicknames—the bee, the bug, the tit, the chick, the kitten. All the nuns regarded me as Olezconia’s pet novice, and though this pleased me in a way, I still eschewed a reputation as a beneficiary of favoritism.
I continued with my finer duties—restoring books and needlework and gardening—and started delving into the convent’s history. This led inevitably to the study of the life and work of Sister Mevandolia, and I recalled with some embarrassment the afternoon at Managutsa Pines with Dhabbi when I’d pooh-poohed her comment that I could do worse than emulate that pious lady. Now I was rethinking my philosophy and making Dhabbi’s words appear prophetic by patterning my every action after that heroic sister I was reading all about.
Eventually, it seemed that I had measured out about 300 days of my novitiate, and I was getting restless, eager to get on with my great deeds that I was hoping to accomplish in the spirit of the foundress of our convent, that Sister Mevandolia, whom I envisioned as the perfect replica of Sister Olezconia.
Slowly, slowly passed the days. I looked to the immutable complexion of the sky, seeking unavailingly a hint from heaven, a sign, a prodigy, a portent. I plied my crafts, performed my chores, obeyed the rule of silence.
I was guessing that 350 days had come and gone. The pelicans and storks, the curlews, phalaropes and godwits gave no augury I could decipher. The comets and the meteors said nought. The waxing and the waning of the moon revealed nothing.
Then suddenly one day, Sister Olezconia, instead of binding me in zhnanbad, led me to her office, saying, "Today’s the 59th of year 395, and your novitiate is ended. You may speak."
"Thank you, Sister Olezconia. I’m very happy to be ready for my final vows. I sincerely hope that I can be of real service to our community. I regard this as a milestone in my life. Let me express my heartfelt gratitude for your instruction and your guidance. May I tread humbly in your footsteps."
"Very fitly spoken," said the nun, "I assure you I’ll make every effort to advance your cause." I was standing at her desk. She rose and put her arm around my shoulder and kissed me on each cheek. It seemed that those two kisses were the moment I had lived my life for. I was transported, rapt, ecstatic. I would swoon and faint away but for the arms of Olezconia, who clasped me firmly and upheld me.
"Tomorrow we are leaving for Mecnita."
Corridor inside Defdefa Convent:
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