Sister Bettina’s Curse: Horror Short Fiction By Marshall Geck
Marshall Geck, author of Sister Bettina’s Curse, is a dual citizen of Minnesota and California, but currently lives as an American expat in London, United Kingdom. His short stories have appeared in Mobius: the Journal of Social Change, The Hungry Chimera, and Five on the Fifth.
We lost Sister Bettina the night I discovered her curse.
It was a cool night around harvesttime. The full disc of the moon cast its bluish-white light over the valley, refracting through the clear autumn air and making the night sky resemble black crystal. I had just led evening prayer under Sister Bettina’s watchful eye, eager to embody everything she had taught me and validate the confidence the sisters had placed in me to shepherd the future of our convent.
When prayer ended, the nuns retired to their sleeping quarters, stepping one by one out of the chapel and into the moonlight. I followed Sister Bettina along the riverside stone path toward the prioress’s chambers on the far end of the convent with the confident step of a protégé who had just succeeded in impressing their mentor. Sister Bettina was known to move in such a graceful manner that, had it not been for a glimpse of her leather shoes below the trim of her habit, one might mistake her for floating. But my self-assuredness faded as I found myself scurrying to match her pace. The flame of the candle I held was on the verge of extinguishing itself as Sister Bettina’s long strides outpaced my petite steps.
When prayer ended, the nuns retired to their sleeping quarters, stepping one by one out of the chapel and into the moonlight.
When we reached her chambers where the path met the convent cloister, she blessed me with a swift and erratic sign of the cross, and then hurried into the dark recesses of her room. The lock on the stocky wooden door clanged as she secured it behind her.
Panting for breath, my hair falling out of my coif from the hurrying, I puzzled over Sister Bettina’s strange eagerness to get to bed. It was the first time I had seen her so flustered and lacking her usual poise. I wondered what I had done to make her so bothered. Perhaps the Bible readings I chose to lead prayer were not to her liking after all? Perhaps she was so unimpressed that she simply could not wait to get me out of her sight?
“No, Sister Catherine, these are not becoming thoughts for a future prioress,” I whispered to myself. “Whatever is troubling Sister Bettina is surely between her and God.”
The noise started with a low moan, which gradually grew to a shriek and then settled into an elongated wail. I shot up in bed, shaken and bewildered. There was no sleeping through the deafening uproar. It echoed and reverberated off the stony convent walls, like someone holding their finger to one key of a church organ and refusing to let go. Between the wails came lengthy groans, playful growls, and snappy barks, each noise more unsettling than the last. Although Sister Bettina’s chambers were a cloister corridor removed from mine, the sounds were unmistakably in her sonorous voice, but twisted into animalistic outbursts I never could have imagined coming from her windpipe.
They were not cries of pain. Oh no. On the contrary, the carnal chorus I heard that night from her chamber was pleasurable, even joyous.
What could possibly cause her to cry out in such eruptions of ecstasy? My mind tumbled for an explanation, clouded by my midnight stupor, rattled by the ongoing cacophony. I could think of only one answer. I grasped the gold crucifix hanging from the rosary around my neck at the dreadful thought.
Could it be that Sister Bettina had a secret lover who ravaged her under the cover of night? Was our most holy prioress, my master and spiritual mentor, no chaste and humble servant of God after all? Could it be she was…a fraud?
The horrible frenzy carried on through the night. Not until the blue light of dawn did the noises begin to fade.
The next morning, I was beside myself with worry. I sat red-eyed from lack of sleep on a wooden pew in the chapel before mass. While the sisters smiled and exchanged Sunday morning pleasantries, I could do little but fiddle with my crucifix and stare vacantly at Jesus on the silver rood cross above the altar. He gazed heavenward, despondent over why he had been forsaken.
I yearned so badly to confide in someone what I had heard the previous night and cast off the weight of my suspicions. How could I remain silent while knowing that the archangel of our convent was full of deceit? How could I keep bottled up inside me a scandal that would shock the entire village, if not the whole of Ireland? And yet, the thought of betraying Sister Bettina, just as Judas did to his messiah, was equally agonizing.
Surely, I must not have been the only one thinking such thoughts? Surely, the commotion must have awoken others? Perhaps we all held the same suspicions?
I leaned toward the wise ear of Sister Shannon. In a nervous whisper, I asked whether she had heard anything unusual the previous night.
The crow’s feet around her tired blue eyes tightened with what I imagined as surprise. “No child, wherefore do you ask?”
I whispered the same question to another sister but received the same answer. It was a similar refrain from every other nun within my reach. Not one of them admitted to having heard anything unusual during the night.
Dismay rolled over me like a bleak fog. How anyone could sleep through the racket of the previous night was utterly baffling to me. Even if their sleeping quarters were far removed from Sister Bettina’s chambers, the euphoric chaos was surely loud enough to awaken the entire valley.
Sister Bettina suddenly glided into the chapel.
I started and sat upright. The unclean thoughts brewing in my head made me shift my gaze downward, afraid to look on her. But in contrast to my rattled and exhausted state, Sister Bettina appeared to have lost not a wink of sleep. On the contrary, she looked radiant as ever, beaming at her congregation with approving green eyes, like a shepherd admiring her flock. Gone was the haste and consternation she showed the previous night. Her black habit waved gracefully as she floated to her place at the top of the altar. She kneeled and crossed herself below Jesus on his silver rood cross, and then turned to face her disciples with arms outstretched.
“Sisters, breathe deeply and be thankful, for this Sunday in October, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and twenty, is the day He hath made for us. Breathe deeply and be thankful, for He has given us health today. Breathe deeply and be thankful, for He has given us wealth. Not wealth in gold or silver, but wealth in the unshakable love that holds this convent together…”
The unclean thoughts brewing in my head made me shift my gaze downward, afraid to look on her.
The Pope himself could not have given a more beautiful sermon. Sister Bettina was wise and inspiring as always, spreading her Catholic radiance and brightening every face in the chapel with her eloquent words.
Every face, except for mine.
The more wonderfully she spoke, the deeper my doubts sank. Perhaps I had just imagined it all? Perhaps what I thought I’d heard was nothing more than a bad dream? Perhaps there was something wrong with me? I chastised myself for ever thinking Sister Bettina could be anything other than the most holy of prioresses and decided not to give the matter another thought.
Many nights passed and I heard nothing unusual. My lessons with Sister Bettina continued. Long afternoons studying scripture and absorbing her wise lectures were the norm, becoming shorter as autumn set in. Frost often covered the ground when we went to fetch water from the river every morning. I noticed that the sisters of the convent seemed to become increasingly tense as the forest leaves gradually turned yellow, red, and orange. I fretted about whether we had enough provisions to survive the winter. But Sister Bettina consoled me that all seasons, even those that harken cold and darkness, must be celebrated and revered. For with the spring will come an even more joyous rebirth.
“You are young, bright, and full of promise, Sister Catherine,” she went on. “It is little wonder this aging convent has placed such faith in you to lead us when I am gone. But a prioress must learn to be strong and provide comfort when others are wary. You must learn to see the light in all forms of darkness.”
On the night of the next full moon, Sister Bettina and I concluded our evening lessons earlier than usual. She seemed agitated, dropping her Bible on the table and declaring we had done enough for the day. She instructed me to think on the scriptures and recite my psalms overnight.
“I can show you the path of the Lord, Sister Catherine, but it is you who must walk it. I expect you to make more progress tomorrow.”
“Yes, Sister Bettina.” I said, my mechanical answer masking the despondence that settled over me.
How I yearned to not disappoint her. Though she remained composed, a twitch in her cheek told me she was not pleased. A twitch such as that could not hide on a face like hers, so soft and vibrant that it hid all marks of age.
I adjusted my veil, picked up my candle, and followed her dejectedly along the stone path toward her chamber. My eyes drifted listlessly to the river running alongside the path. Moonlight shone in rippling white ribbons on the water.
We arrived at Sister Bettina’s chamber door. She turned to bless me as usual. Rapid puffs of frosty air rose from her nose as she made the sign of the cross. Her green eyes blazed at me in the candlelight for an instant, then she hurried into the dark recesses of her chamber and clunked the wooden door closed behind her. A dull thud reverberated off the convent walls. The lock within clanged shut.
When I arrived at my own sleeping chamber, I was beside myself with misery. I knelt by my bed, clasped my gold crucifix, and prayed the Lord would someday give me the strength to speak and teach with the wisdom of Sister Bettina.
Her lover returned that night. A cold bolt of terror shot up my spine and jolted me awake at the return of the cacophony I had tried so hard to convince myself was imagined. That devil lover of hers was truly ravaging her into a hysteria. Sister Bettina’s entire chamber seemed to shudder. I heard a bedframe bang, fabric tear, and chains jangle. The clean Catholic spirit in Sister Bettina was being conquered, and in its place the joys of the flesh reigned. I lay in bed, condemned to listen to every horrible second of it, grasping my crucifix so hard its metal edges cut painfully into my palms.
The noises once again subsided at dawn. But this time, my shock and despair slowly gave way to determination to see her lover with my own eyes. It was the only way to know if my suspicions were the truth or delusion.
I pulled myself out of bed, wrapped myself in a woolen cloak, and tiptoed across the cold hard floor toward my chamber door. With a gentle push, I inched it open and peered across the misty cloister corridor towards Sister Bettina’s chamber.
I watched and waited. I waited and watched. From down the stone path leading out of the cloister, the outlines of the river and forests emerged through the morning light.
Her lover had to appear at some point. There were no windows in Sister Bettina’s chamber through which a man might escape. The door was his only way out.
My shoulders tensed. I formed fists around my gold crucifix, tightening as the time for my morning chores grew nearer. Just as I was on the verge of wringing my hands, the lock clanged, and Sister Bettina’s chamber door creaked open. I recoiled, covering my eyes with one hand, my faith instinctively warning me to look away and not gaze on the face of sin. But I quickly fought off this reflex and forced my hand to lower. The door remained open for what seemed like ages until a figure finally emerged.
It was Sister Bettina.
She wore a grey sleeping gown and her eyes had a blank, drowsy expression. She let down her black hair, which was interspersed with strands of silver. It fell all the way to her waist. She carried a wooden water pail. With a yawn and a shiver, she stepped away from the door, drifted out of the cloister, and made her way down the path toward the river. I watched her disappear into the mist like a black fairy.
Her lover could not be far behind. The longer he delayed his escape, the more he risked discovery. The sisters of the convent would soon start to wake and begin their daily work.
But no one emerged.
This is truly one bold man to let the morning grow late like this, I thought. My brow furrowed and my eyes grew itchy as I willed myself not to blink, so fearful I was that he would somehow slip away unseen. The sun rising over the hills told me I would soon be late to my chores.
I broke. I could no longer wait. If Sister Bettina were to return, I would miss my chance. In a burst of unthinking energy, I shoved my chamber door open and scurried across the cloister corridor. I stormed into Sister Bettina’s chamber, resolved to confront the intruder.
There was no one to be found.
I nearly screamed in sleep-deprived frustration. Whether he had he slipped away before the light of dawn or escaped by some other means, the defiler of prioresses was long gone. I threw up the bedding in a hysterical search for any sign of him.
It wasn’t hard to spot. The bed was strewn with curly short hairs that certainly didn’t belong to Sister Bettina. The sheets smelled of man sweat. There were even shreds of dried mutton, a snack more common to the men from the village than the prioress of an ascetic convent.
I felt faint. My stomach lurched. It was one thing for suspicions to linger in my head, it was quite another to see evidence with my own eyes. Much as I wanted to find the truth, part of me hoped I was mistaken. Staring at the remnants of the previous night’s rapture made the awful reality impossible to deny.
A distant melody shook me out of my trance.
It was the graceful voice of Sister Bettina, singing to herself as she returned from the river. I gasped, realizing she might reappear at any moment. Clasping my cloak at the brooch, I turned about and hurried back to my chamber in a shaking haste.
I was a battered soul after that. The secret wore heavier on me each day. I moved around the convent grounds with lethargic indifference, staring blankly at the stone walls, the marble altar, the colorful leaves that littered our courtyard. Suddenly it all seemed dirty and fraudulent. I looked on the other sisters with a mix of pity and sorrow whenever their faces illuminated at the latest beautiful sermon by Sister Bettina. They knew not what skeletons she hid behind her veil of holiness.
At last, it became too much for me to bear. I was in the gardens one cold morning, harvesting squashes and gourds for the winter. A leaden blanket of clouds stretched low and suffocating across the sky. The river sloshed loudly after the night’s rain, a turbulence matched only by my own tumbling mind. Sister Shannon noticed my sluggish movements and defeated expression. She waddled over to me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“Is something troubling you child?” she said. “You look as though you haven’t slept a wink.”
I let go of my gourds and froze. My insides contracted and my mind sputtered for a response. “Yes, I’m very troubled indeed. But…I’m afraid to tell you why.”
Sister Shannon put her hand on her heart as if in shock. “My goodness, Sister Catherine! If you have something to confess, pray do so. God is merciful. Any evil troubling you is better let out than kept in.”
I hesitated still. How I yearned to trust in Sister Shannon’s wise words and cast off the weight of my thoughts. But she knew not what evil I held within. There was no way of knowing what it might do if unleashed.
Finally, I became too exasperated to hold back any longer. Fighting tears and a throat tight as rope, I hastily told her my suspicions, from the first night until the present. At first, Sister Shannon listened intently, her tired blue eyes filled with sympathy. But her brow grew stonier and the lines on her face deepened the more I told. By the time I finished, there was no more sympathy to be found in her expression, only a mortified scowl.
She leaned into me and whispered, “Sister Catherine, I know not what devil has seized your tongue, but I think you would do well to rest. I fear you are ill and not of sound mind. Rest, and be mindful not to utter such hearsay again. The sisters of this convent are counting on your youth and bright potential to one day lead us in the ways of Christ. What shall they think if they were to hear you utter such venom about Sister Bettina? Why, if I didn’t know better, I would dare say you have ambition to dethrone her before your time.”
I was too afraid to say another word after that. Perhaps Sister Shannon was right. Perhaps I was ill. Or going mad. Despite the harvest work that lay ahead, I took Sister Shannon’s advice and retired to my chamber for several days, in the hope that God would banish the shameful demons lurking in my head.
But still, they persisted.
I barely looked at Sister Bettina during our lessons. I avoided her eyes as if I were the one who had invited treachery into our convent. My evasive gaze and deflated attitude did not sit well with her. One day, she lost patience and used that same booming voice that enlivened minds during her sermons to command me to attention.
“Sister Catherine, we are all full of sin,” she started. “There is not one of us who is truly pure. There is not one of us who does not give in to temptation. Not you, not any of the sisters of this convent, not even me.”
She paused, her hand resting on her breast and her index finger pointing towards her face. It was a long, soul-piercing pause that only she knew how to deploy. Sweat bubbled up on my forehead as the full force of her presence fell upon me.
“But I do not despair about sin and temptation, Sister Catherine. On the contrary, I embrace them, for they are as much a part of what we are made of as flesh and bone. I embrace them and focus on God’s work, for having done this, I know he will forgive my sins and be merciful to me.”
She had just confessed to me, I was certain. Her stern eyes burned like a green flame as she spoke, as if forbidding me to look away.
“At present, I fear the sin of sloth has taken hold of you,” she went on. “I know not for what reason, but I implore you to take back your heart and mind and focus on the Lord’s work. Alas, if our next prioress cannot learn to do this, what hope is there for the rest of this old convent?”
Sister Bettina’s behavior flowed in cycles as the winter set in. She became paranoid and agitated as the full moon approached, cursed me with sleepless nights whenever her lover returned, and then emerged the next morning beaming, eloquent, and saintly as ever. The more reborn she seemed, the more I felt myself buried alive by the weight of her secret. Where I used to spend my nights praying for her favor, I now spent them praying for God to be merciful to her unfaithful soul.
I could not go on like this. It did nobody any good to keep everything covered up. If I was right, it was better to let this be known and start the process of mourning and repenting. If I was wrong, then it would only benefit this convent to have their next prioress freed from dark suspicions.
One miserably grey day while polishing the chapel altar, I happened upon the key to Sister Bettina’s chambers, which she must have left there after preaching her latest words of wisdom. With chores underway and lessons not until afternoon, I wrapped myself in a cloak, rushed across the bridge overstretching the churning river, and hastened along the dirt path that led to the village. There, I approached a stout, red-bearded blacksmith and offered him my gold crucifix if he would create a replica of the key. He eyed me curiously, perhaps wondering what business a lone nun had wandering the streets of the village asking for metalwork. But he shrugged, evidently more interested in my gold than my intentions. He shoved a scrap of metal into his red-hot forge, pulled it out once it became flimsy, and then hammered away at it on his anvil. He replicated the key in short order. I took it from him and started back on the road just as the black sky unleashed a cascade of wet snow and sleet.
The wind raged and the sleet pounded our convent into the evening. Sister Bettina went to bed early after our lessons. She clanged the lock of her chamber door shut, with the haste and irritability I had come to expect before her lover was due for a visit. I retired to my own chamber, kneeled by my bed, and prayed.
“Lord, give me the strength to do what must be done. Lord, give me the courage to see the truth I’d rather not see. Lord, may you and Sister Bettina forgive me for the trespass I am about to commit.”
There was a gaping emptiness between my hands where I once held my crucifix, making me feel like a body without a soul. I crossed myself, blew out my candle, and lay myself down, knowing that sleep would not come easily that night.
The gleeful wailing started on cue. Those wild noises that had left me petrified and shaking in my bed so many nights before lifted me upright and resolute this time. Barely conscious, I threw a cloak around my shoulders and stumbled through the darkness toward my chamber door. A torrent of frigid air met me as I creaked it open and looked across the cloister corridor to Sister Bettina’s chamber. Just beyond, through the blackness and leaden curtain of falling sleet, I could see the river. It was high enough that Noah himself might ponder building another arc. Its raging white flow filled the air with the sound of crashing water.
Still in a sleepy stupor, I threw myself outside and scurried across the cloister corridor, nearly slipping on the cold icy ground in the process. There, quickly sobered by the biting wind and chilling sleet, I froze. From right outside Sister Bettina’s chamber, the euphoric cries were louder than I ever could have imagined. They drowned out even the thundering storm. The big wooden door banged and clanged. Steam emanated from the doorsill.
It was enough to drain the courage of even the bravest saint. My heart thudded like the blacksmith’s hammer on his anvil. Every instinct screamed that I should turn back, lock my chamber door, and hold my palms over my ears for the rest of the night.
Fighting to regain my composure, I closed my eyes, grasped the key with my sweaty hand, and exhaled until my lungs were empty.
“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion,” I whispered one of Sister Bettina’s favourite proverbs.
With the inexplicable bravery of one in a lucid nightmare, I thrust the key into the lock, turned it over, and shoved open the heavy door. In an instant, the commotion from inside ceased.
“Sister Bettina!” I screamed into the chamber. “In the name of the Lord, come forth with your lover and hide your secret no more!”
I heard nothing but the whooshing wind, pattering sleet, and rushing river. My eyes frantically searched for Sister Bettina and the sinful man. But there was nothing to be seen. I stared into a black cavern.
Suddenly, from the depths of the room, two spots glowed. They fixed on me with iridescent fury, bearing an unmistakable resemblance to that glare I had seen during so many lessons. I stood my ground, ready to endure whatever wrath she might rain upon me.
That’s when the growl began. A throaty, nerve-curdling growl, more vicious than that of any angry dog I had ever heard. Strange rows of glistening white daggers appeared, illuminated by the little moonlight that made its way through the storm and into the chamber. They came at me, slashing threateningly with every step.
It dawned on me then, how very wrong I had been. My boldness evaporated. A flash of hot fear coursed through my frigid wet body. Grasping my cloak at the brooch, I tiptoed backward as the figure inside crept closer.
The wolf emerged.
She came into the dim light, crouching, ears pointed back, silvery black fur standing high on her shoulders. She snapped and snarled, deadlocked on me with fiery green eyes. The fiery green eyes of Sister Bettina.
She pounced before I could run. The creature knocked me to the ground, snapping at my throat all the way down. I screamed as I hit the frozen path, my body erupting in pain. I flailed my hands and legs, prepared to shriek and fight to my last breath.
But the wolf’s thirst for blood got the better of her that night. She lunged herself with so much force that she tumbled right over me when we hit the ground. The beast skidded away along the icy path, legs clawing and body thrashing to regain a foothold.
To no avail.
She let out a screeching yelp as she splashed into the river. From the slushy ground, I watched as the white current snatched up the black animal and sent her tumbling over the sharp rocks of the rapids. She disappeared into the stormy blackness, but not before emitting one last ecstatic howl that echoed through the entire valley.
The air of the chapel was soupy with grief. Sister Bettina had been missing for weeks. Her pious disciples had searched the convent, asked around the village, and trekked the hills surrounding the valley in search of her. Their tired old faces, usually captivated and glowing with inspiration every Sunday morning, were now grey with despair. The realization that she was never coming back sank their spirits deeper than Jonah when he lay in the gut of the whale at the bottom of the ocean.
Some kneeled and prayed for Sister Bettina’s return. Others gazed toward heaven, worrying over the endless uncertainties facing our aging convent. Still others trembled like new-born lambs.
Only one soul in the chapel knew the truth.
The sisters watched me with a mix of hope and trepidation as I stepped up to the altar to give my first sermon as the convent’s prioress. I had spent many hours practicing it, agonizing into the early morning over whether I should reveal Sister Bettina’s Lycan curse. Would the sisters believe such a charge against their revered lost leader? Perhaps they would call me a heretic, as Sister Shannon had? Perhaps ignorance was a preferable path, and it was better to let Sister Bettina’s hallowed image remain in their memories? God granted me no easy answers.
From the top of the altar, I looked down on my wary congregation. My stomach fluttered, my breaths quickened, and my face flushed warm. Summoning all my courage, I smiled, parted my lips, and began to speak to them.
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