Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS. He lives, writes, and edits in Oxford, Mississippi.
Only a sliver of early morning light penetrated the gnarling dark oaks. The nuns formed us into a line of schoolchildren and led us through the schoolyard to a dirt trail that went into a dense pine forest. Passing through the schoolyard, I saw wooden sheep placed on posts driven into the ground. I will never forget those sheep; their silence disturbs me even thirty years later.
The nuns led us on and on down the trail. Some of the little girls began to weep with hunger and fatigue. We stopped in a clearing just off the trail, and all the children sat down on the dewy grass with the nuns amongst us. We were happy for a little while. One of the older nuns pointed out a crow that was flying higher than I thought crows could fly, and I somehow got it in my mind that crows were messengers from God, and that God was smiling down on our little gathering of resting nuns and children.
After we snacked on cheese and crackers, and drank from glass bottles of water, they took us down to a dried up creek and told us to search for stones, gems, and Indian arrows. Even the nuns took part in the search; they were in uniform, habits and all. Although I was only four years old, I understood the severity, the weight, of their clothes was intentional; I know now that they were dressed this way to spark poetry in our minds, and I wonder how they would respond if one of them should happen to read this somehow, somewhere.
We were seeking out something sacred along this white sandy dry creek. The nuns too wanted to find some object they could take home as a souvenir of this profound day they had engineered. Some proof was needed of this time that was now passing and would pass into darkness like everything else, until even memory itself is no more.
There was a young nun slightly ahead of us who stopped and let out a cry of wonder. She signaled us to come closer. All the children and the two older nuns circled around where the young nun was looking down; it was a snake skeleton, completely intact and ivory white. I almost cried out from the sheer beauty and mystery of the skeleton — we all looked down for a long time, realizing the first inkling of the lesson the nuns were teaching us, that the sacred is not merely given to us but must be discovered, sought out, and found. Eventually, we began our trek back to the school; for me, and I hope for all of us, knowing that this day would live as long as we did.