Today of all days, Sister Marie San Francos de la Mar is allowed to set aside the veil and wimple, for today is her Anointing Day. Today of all days, Sister Marie San Francos de la Mar is allowed to sleep until the sun gilds her uncovered hair and touches soft fingers to pale cheeks. Today, because it is Anointing Day, she is allowed a measure of grace, for today, she is Anointed.
She rises exactly two hours past dawn and leaves her cell. Two white-robed Sisters accompany her; like sentinels, they await the Postulant, girded in simple belts of rope, veiled in crimson. Past the envious eyes of her agemates, Sister Marie walks with a light heart, flanked by white-clad guardians. They lead her from the heart of the convent and upwards past the jade-carved statues of veiled Saints, to the bedrooms along the inner cloister where the sun shines down through clear, high skylights.
There are golden sunbeams like coins in her hair, and the guardians seat her before a silvered mirror trimmed in golden wood and carved with dancing sprites to regard a face uncovered for the first time in ten years.
Wordless, they are, and silent; she is brought a breakfast of sweet fruits, and a dessert of cheese wrapped in pastry. Silent, for her vows are not entirely set aside today, she accepts the morsels, gazing into watercolored eyes as they tease and braid the strands of her hair into a crown woven through with white lilies and sprigs of periwinkle blossoms.
It is the loveliest she has ever been, and she is allowed to sigh for wonder of it. Then they strip her nude and bathe her in a great marble tub; afterwards, she is dried and rubbed with oils. Always, she watches herself in the grand mirror; for ten years, she has not glanced in even the shining surface of water or polished goblets. Alone amongst her agemates, she has gained this singular honor; alone amongst them, she is purity. Alone amongst them, she is to be Anointed.
Bearing this in mind, her lips move in silent adoration of the Creed of Whispers, her throat trembling with unspoken words. It is the subtlety of the words not voiced that falls, and it seems even veiled, the visages of her sisters approve. They clothe her in silver and ivory, they clothe her in a wide-sleeved robe embroidered with smoke. A wide band of cloth of gold wraps thrice around her waist.
She takes this all in with grace, chin held high, lips moving in the Creed. Oh, for the Saints of Veils and Silence, she dreams, oh to stand amongst them. Her devotion must be absolute; but today of all days, it is Anointing Day, and her grace is upon her.
They take her down the long and wide stair, to a palanquin, and here, she is allowed, behind gauzy veils, between two of her white-robed sisters, to see the squalor of the world. Through stone-trimmed streets, into the very ghettos, Sister Marie San Francos de la Mar is taken to the docks. Her very Anointed feet do not leave the silken cushions, but for the first time, her radiant face gazes upon her parents.
Dirt covers their faces; rags clothe their bodies. She takes their hands in her own, but is silent; her lips smile at them, but vows hold her yet, and it is with a measure of grace that they back away from the palanquin, so proud of their Postulant daughter. When the curtains are drawn once more, her sisters each take a hand, and with perfume-dipped scraps of linen, they wash the fingers and palms free of the imperfections of mortal dross. Comforted by this, she silently recites the Psalm of Murmurs.
At sunset, they return: she has gone, like a pilgrim, to the shrines and signs of the city, and at each place, alighted only on holy ground. When she steps from the palanquin, a stool is brought; perched like a bird on the edge she is serene as they wash her feet, and serene when they slip soft-soled slippers of suede over the still-wet skin.
In contemplation, she is led to the great arched hall of the Sisterhood, and she awaits them there on a cushion of dove-grey silk. At midnight, the Anointed come, robed in white.
Candles come alight, one by one, tongues of flame casting back shadows from the corners of the sanctuary. One by one the Sisters cast back their hoods.
Their eyes are serene, for they have none; the sockets are as smooth as the statues of the Saints. Their mouths are smooth and tight, for they are sewn as close as one might dare. Scarcely breathing, Sister Marie San Francos de la Mar gazes on their visages, hands clasped to her thigh like a maiden in a bower. There is no sound, but for a bird calling restlessly from somewhere without; here, the congregation is of shadows and silent women.
Finally, Sister Marie San Francos de la Mar bows her head. For today is her Anointing Day.
She takes up a needle threaded with fine white silk, and smiling like an idol in the high hall, she delicately, silently, sets the tip to the corner of her mouth.
And begins to sew.