Hide and Seek

If I shut my eyes tight, I can still see the Monastery of Saint James the Lesser. I could, of course, see it with my eyes open if I chose to leave my home and walk forty minutes across the Tiber River into Trastevere, but I mean seeing it the way it was decades ago, when we first visited as a family to retrieve my older sister, Grace, not the way it is now, a four-star hotel that (the website tells me) offers a variety of “unique amenities” including a windowless, but cozy, meeting space in what was formerly the monastery’s crypt.

There had been some disagreement about us all going. My father thought we should send a single representative: my mother. She had experience at this sort of thing, he said, and she did. My father had been studying to be a Jesuit priest until he met her. My mother insisted, however, that this was a family matter and that we should all go together.

A nun in a brown, ankle-length habit and a starched white wimple answered the doorbell. Either she knew who we were at a glance or someone had forewarned them; no words were exchanged as she admitted us. I remember a musty smell, and a dark room, and then another, smaller door opening, which led into a room I don’t remember very well at all, except for the predominant color, pink. There were definitely chairs, maybe a couch, a desk? I don’t think there was a table, though for years, I would picture us all at a long table, the nuns on one side, my family on the other, deep in negotiation. But this was purely a product of my imagination, one fiercely constructed to obscure what actually happened that day.

The nun who let us in left, and after a few minutes, three other nuns returned. The first, and oldest, wore a large pectoral cross. Even at age nine, I understood that she was in charge. The other two were younger. One looked to be near the age of my mother, and the other closer to Grace’s age then, nineteen, or younger still.

“Where’s my daughter?” my father said. He taught religious studies back in the States—we were in Rome on his sabbatical—and was proud to be the last of the faculty on his campus who taught in coat and tie.

“This must be Grace’s younger sister,” the oldest nun said, and smiled at me. A flurry of things then happened: Grace arrived, wearing a long gray dress and a kind of white smock; my mother and father stood; I was led away to get a snack while the adults talked.

I felt no fear but relief—I’d worried I’d be held accountable for my role in all this—and some anger. My parents paid my departure almost no heed, focusing instead, as they had since we’d arrived in Rome, on Grace.

 

Grace was supposed to be at Harvard. Though she could have gone to any Jesuit college for free—my father taught at one in Milwaukee, and that was one of the benefits—when she got into Harvard, something my father famously had failed to do, my parents were so bowled over, they insisted she go. “We’ll find a way,” my father said.

For her part, Grace had wanted to stay in Milwaukee and go to school there. But soon enough, she was at Harvard, we all had crimson sweatshirts, and Mom or Dad would leap for the phone whenever it rang. What was she up to now? Climbing this or that marble staircase, leafing through a gilded book, walking along the Charles River, making friends? At first the phone calls were jangly and fun and even I was invited on to say a word or two. I don’t remember saying more than that; given the age gap, Grace had always been more of a mother than a sister to me. A kind mother, if distant, someone who might braid my hair and read bedtime stories one week, and forget I existed the next. I remember her silence on her end of the line, shallow breathing, and then, “Put Mom or Dad back on.”

After that, I remember hearing my parents argue about “the boyfriend.” After that, I wasn’t put on the phone anymore. After that, Grace didn’t call as much. Again, I didn’t mind. I was looking forward to Italy, to being a family of three, to being doted on, to not having Grace or “the boyfriend” be the subject of my parents’ every other conversation.

 

The other two nuns led me from the room. The one roughly Grace’s age was pale-cheeked with a large light brown birthmark big as a thumbprint under her chin. The older nun saw me notice the birthmark and a look of concern flashed across her face, and then a smile, she said something in a language I didn’t understand and then asked again, which is when I began to realize that she was speaking English, just with an accent I’d never heard before.

“Where are we going?” I said.

The young nun began to say something, but the older woman shook her head, and then turned to smile at me. We were walking down a long outdoor corridor that was forested with arches and overlooked a lush, green, well-tended rose garden. Windows looked out on us from upper floors, but no one was visible. We had passed a series of doors; every one of them was shut.

“Are you hungry?” the older nun said.

“What’s your name?” I said.

She stopped. “I am sorry,” she said. “I am Sister Josephine. This is Sister Ann. What is your name?’

I hadn’t understood what she said and repeated, “Josephine?”

“Your name is Josephine, too?” Sister Josephine said, delighted. “Let us be friends.”

I shook my head and looked at Sister Ann. “Do you live here?”

“We both do,” Sister Josephine said. “I came here when I was your sister’s age.”

“My mother doesn’t want Grace to be here.” I turned to Sister Ann. “She has a boyfriend.”

“Sometimes the Lord has us do things that are difficult, or difficult to understand,” Sister Josephine said. She turned to Sister Ann. “Take her to the grotto. She’ll like the little pond. I’ll get some biscuits.” And with that, she disappeared through a door.

“I don’t really want a snack,” I said to Sister Ann.

“Then you’re in luck,” said Sister Ann. “Sister Josephine’s memory is terrible. It’s possible she’ll forget to come back.”

“What’s the grotto?” I said.

She waved this away and looked intently around the courtyard before suddenly turning back to me.

“Hide and seek?” she said.

“No,” I said.

“Close your eyes and count to ten,” she said.

I stared at her. She darted away and hid behind one of the columns we’d just passed.

I knew she wanted me to find her. I very much wanted to deny her what she wanted. I studied the garden. It wasn’t a great place for hide and seek. Rose bushes, columns abounded, but you’d be found soon enough. I decided I would find my own hiding place, then, and draw her to me, but at just that moment, I heard a door open, looked up, and saw her disappearing into it. I spent a minute alone deciding what to do. And then I followed her.

 

She was waiting for me on the other side of the door, and with a nod of the head—follow me, down the corridor—I knew the game had changed. Now we were both hiding, though from whom—Sister Josephine had been odd, but not sinister—I didn’t know. But I followed, and Sister Ann showed me everything, even things I think I wasn’t supposed to see, to judge from the surprised looks on the faces of nuns we encountered in various spots: the laundry room, its air almost too thick to breathe; the kitchen smelling warmly of carrots and celery and onion simmering; the dim chapel, a single candle lit inside a red votive; the quiet herb garden; the infirmary’s open door, through which I saw a thin form flat and motionless on a bed. And finally, and most unexpectedly, my sister Grace. She was holding rosary beads and wandering the graves of a little cemetery nestled in a small courtyard we’d not seen before. She didn’t see us. She was praying, or singing, or both. I wondered why she’d left the conversation with my parents, and turned to Sister Ann to ask her, but she shook her head, put a finger to her lips.

“Don’t cry,” she said, which I thought odd, and odder still when I realized she was.

 

“The boyfriend” was code for Jesus. My mother told me this on some night—soon, one of many—that my father came home late from work. Grace had fallen under the “spell,” as my mother put it, of a zealot in Cambridge, and was talking about dropping out of school, giving everything up to follow Jesus. Rome had been a compromise; Grace could take a leave from Harvard, not drop out, live with us in Rome during my father’s sabbatical, clear her head. In retrospect, a mistake, my mother said. They should have had Grace come back to Milwaukee; they should have stayed in Milwaukee. One doesn’t lead a moth from the flame by moving to a city where the fire has long burned bright.

My mother later asked me where I’d gone while they were fruitlessly discussing Grace’s future. I told her we’d walked around the monastery. “Tell me what you saw,” she said.

 

There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as a bad bottle of wine in Italy, but that’s not true. What is true is that there’s not a bad rooftop patio in Rome, and that even the worst wine tastes wonderful on high. Today the former-convent-now-hotel has its own little rooftop bar that I send clients to, and they always come back with sighs. Some insist that I join them. I don’t; I haven’t been since Sister Ann first led me up so long ago. Back then, there was no bar, of course, just a small patio of cracked tiles and some long, limp clotheslines that ran from one end to the other.  

“No one will think to look for us here,” Sister Ann said.

I looked out over the neighborhood.

“Can you see your house?” she asked. I shook my head; I could barely see over the wall that encircled the patio. She looked to the far end. “You want to climb atop that crate, don’t you?” I didn’t, but she pressed on. “I will let you, but you have to promise to be careful. I need to get you back to your parents in one piece.”

“You’re American,” I said.

“So are you,” she said.

“We’re going home at the end of the year,” I said.

“Not Grace,” said Sister Ann. She looked at me for a moment. “I’ll get the crate,” she said, and retrieved it, along with a little plastic bag that had been underneath it. She set the crate down before me and opened the bag. Cigarettes.

“Does your sister smoke?” she said, drawing a lighter out of a pocket I hadn’t seen.

“No,” I said.

“Good girl,” she said. “It’s fu—it’s hard if you smoke.” She made a face. “Sorry.” She held the cigarette out to me. “Do you?”

I recoiled. “How old are you?” I asked.

“Not old enough, right?” she said. “I didn’t think so either. But I was. I was old enough to—” she paused, took a drag. “Show me your house.”

I stood on the crate. I could see red roofs, dozens of domes and spires, a pale blue sky. I could see all the strange trees, skinny cedars and gangly umbrella pines whose tufted lollipop tops reminded me then of Dr. Seuss and now remind me of Rome. Low green hills rose in the distance looking hazy and unfinished. I had no idea where we lived.

“How about that pink one?” She pointed to a grand edifice just across the Tiber, a palazzo whose roof was fringed with greenery, striped awnings, likely a patio much like this one. The second-floor windows looked enormous, two or three times my height.

I tried to explain what our apartment looked like, the compact four rooms, one of which was a bedroom left empty in anticipation of Grace’s supposedly imminent return. I had been assigned the living room couch.

“Just pretend,” Sister Ann said. “Just —just pretend. That’s what I do. ‘That’s my house. I have servants. And a husband who loves me. And a dog.’”

“And a cat,” I said.

“Three cats,” she said, “Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail.”

“Like the rabbits?”

“I’ll have a rabbit, too.”

“Will you have kids?” I asked, and she looked away, then back.

“The nuns mean what they say, you know. Don’t let your parents go home thinking it’ll be different for them, for Grace. It’s the same for all of us. At least those of us who take vows here. Different orders have different rules. Here, you can see friends or family once every twenty-five years. You can write letters once a month, but to actually see people, that’s different. Once every twenty-five years. How old is your mom?”

I had no idea.

“Do you love your sister?”

I nodded, as I should have, and finally started crying. She swept me up in a hug. I tried to wriggle out of it, just like I’d tried to wriggle out of my sister’s arms that day in the apartment in Rome, when it was just the two of us, when Grace explained to me that she’d been seeing visions, the Virgin Mary—not Mary herself, just her shadow in the courtyard beneath our window—and wanted to know if I saw it, too. She explained that she’d been talking to some nuns up the way. One day, out walking, she had just rung the doorbell and asked to speak to someone. “I’ve been talking with them a lot,” she said. “You understand, don’t you?” I nodded, though I didn’t.

I asked if I could come along on her next visit, and hoped she could understand what I was saying, too, because at nine, I had no other way to say it, and I’m not sure I do now, either. I was curious about the nuns, sure, but I was curious about Grace, this magical creature everyone—my parents, the nuns, that Harvard zealot, the Virgin Mary?—adored. I wanted to see what she saw. I wanted her to see what I saw.

No, she said.

My family later learned about the twenty-five-year rule, too, and we learned that it didn’t come into effect for at least a year—there was a trial period of discernment—but that Grace had simply asked not to see us. My parents went to the police. The police said they wouldn’t get between a woman and her vocation.

But that was all still to come. Then, now, I was on the roof, alone with Sister Ann.

“It’s okay,” said Sister Ann.

“What if you change your mind?” I asked.

Sister Ann sat down on the patio, her back to the wall. “You can change your mind,” she said. “You can change your mind and walk right out those doors,” she said.

I looked around at Rome. I studied the pink palazzo. I imagined someone—me—looking back at me. I walked to the other side of the patio and looked down on the convent’s internal courtyard. I didn’t see my sister. I didn’t see anyone. I smelled roses, soup, bread.

I waited for Sister Ann to ask me about the boyfriend, about my sister, the way she sometimes talked in her sleep at night but no words I could ever make out, how my mother said Grace would make a good mother someday. I waited for Sister Ann to light another cigarette and offer it to me again, and ask again, Now, really, what did your sister see? The Virgin’s shadow? C’mon.

I’d have said, I saw it, too. But I hadn’t told Grace that and I didn’t tell Sister Ann.

 

“This isn’t the end!” my father said as we stormed out, but it turned out to be. December came, we went home, my parents took turns flying back and forth to ring the monastery doorbell and when it got too expensive to fly, they stopped. Letters arrived from Grace—now named Sister St. John—on a regular basis. She was doing well, she missed us, but she was so blessed, so fortunate, so lucky to be a Bride of Christ, the term they all used. My parents told neighbors and friends that they were proud of her. My mother saved all Grace’s letters in a box. When Grace had been in for twenty-five years, my parents received an invitation to attend a mass to celebrate their daughter’s quarter century of vowed life. I didn’t go. She’d cheated, so far as I was concerned. She’d vowed not to leave the premises, but the order had sold the building years before and moved the remaining residents stateside, to a farm outside Poughkeepsie. I have a photo of the three of them, my parents looking old, my sister beaming brightly. I don’t know who took the photo; I couldn’t afford to go, as I was by then living in Rome.

Years later, I saw her in the Campo de’ Fiori. It’s almost useless now as a place to shop, given over as it is to tourists buying “authentic” Italian olive oil, but there is a man there who sells tomatoes I can find nowhere else—tomatoes that, I joke, mean I will never move back to the States.

And there she was. Kids in tow. Not my sister. The young Sister Ann, who’d shown me around. It was 20 years on. But for the birthmark between her chin, she looked completely different. I knew her as well as I know those tomatoes. If I’d seen my own sister there that day—if she had been there that day—I’m not sure I would have known her. I have a box of things to send Grace, things my mother saved. All her letters, her acceptance letter from Harvard, her baptismal certificate, report cards, a crayon drawing that I—me!—had drawn of the four of us, surrounded by rabbits, cats, a dog, roses, and a sun so bright and yellow it must surely have cast a shadow, but there’s none to see.

Ann walked toward me, kids surrounding her, and opened her mouth to speak.

But when she did, it was to ask the tomato seller something.

“Please,” I said softly, but it was like I wasn’t even there.

*

Liam Callanan’s novel Paris by the Book, a national bestseller, was translated into multiple languages and won the Edna Ferber Prize. His story collection Listen won the Hunt Prize, and his first novel, The Cloud Atlas, was a finalist for an Edgar Award. He’s taught for the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. His new novel, due from Dutton in 2023, is set in Rome.