In order to catch fish in the reef, the nuns use their teeth, which they have filed to an unholy sharpness—the better to tear away the illusion of the flesh.
The spirit they leave intact.
The nuns moved into the deep waters beyond the reef some winter long ago. Their benedictions had always drawn people to them, but in the deep water beyond the reef the nuns are distant, submerged below the usual prayers. The fish, however, allow the nuns to get very close. They perceive the nuns’ habits, swirling in a loose and shifting formation, as a benign effect of the ocean current, drifting seaweeds perhaps. But the drifting of the habits is an entrancement strategy. Gazing at the hypnotically wriggling tentacles of a nun’s habit, several fish at once can become mesmerized. The murderous nuns then approach.
Nuns are swift, predatory swimmers.
My father says nuns were not mesmerists when they lived on land.
Men have watched from the surface of the water, bending over the gunwales of their canoes, to see the reef nuns darting back and forth like slashes of black ink in the clear blue. They tear and rend the fish, and they swallow the pieces whole.
My mother told me they leave the spirit, but people see haloes of blood in the water.
At night, you never see them, but you can hear them. Their ghostly devotions are audible over the waves against the black rocks. Sometimes there are songs from farther out over the water, squeals of soprano worship. These songs do not resemble the hymns they taught us when they lived on shore.
In the summer, families boat on the hot days. Children are delighted by what they see. They squeal as reef nuns approach their boats. The nuns remain below, though they will make eye contact from time to time, a glance of recognition or welcome.
The children, tense with excitement, drop things in the water: crosses and votive candles, which descend to extended hands. The nuns bow their heads in prayer, or perhaps to say thank you. Thank you for your offering, for your recognition of our devotion. The children say thank you, too: Thank you for noticing our held breath.
In the fall, with the leaves drifting in red-yellow masses on the water and the waves beating with renewed intensity as shifts in temperature and pressure recreate the world, the reef nuns leave blessings on the water.
Scraps of detritus, flotsam and jetsam, bits of trash. It floats back to us. Our own refuse comes back to us as a blessing. My mother told me.
Sssssss, goes the sound of the surf, as I stand looking out at the boats full of people cataloguing the trash. They bring in loads of blessings, bags upon bags cinched and stacked wetly on the docks, waiting to be hauled away to wherever blessings go.
All belief requires waste management.
Waste is transfiguration, my father says in the fall.
The reef nuns work in mysterious ways, crumpling what we haven’t crumpled or un-crumpling what we’ve squashed and folded. As if we need to glance again at the wet papers we’ve tossed into the water with the various fluids and plastics that float on or sink through it.
One night when I was young I collected all the trash in our house and walked to the beach under a yellow moon. I threw it all in the ocean and waited for the tide to go out.
You see reef nuns diving off the rocks sometimes. I have heard men make jokes about the robes that stick wetly to their bodies. In asceticism or isolation, men see something erotic. But the black rocks off the coast are the nuns’ only contact with the land where they used to live.
The coastal water smells of gasoline and stinging salt, worse every year.
I watch the last boats come in from collecting our transfigured trash.
I watch the men commenting on the soaked robes of the reef nuns, their technological stares focused through binoculars.
The nuns must believe we have abandoned them, not that they have left us.
I stand in the cold spray. The reef nuns are way out. I sometimes see their heads floating in the water, black specks of devotion.
A little bit of seashell cut my mother’s finger on the beach last spring. She bled, and sandy grit sparkled painfully in the wound as she held it up for my inspection. The waves rolled, and out in the surf I could see a pale head: a lone nun. She was watching us, watching this examination of my mother’s tiny, stinging wound.
Then the head ducked below, leaving a field of excited bubbles.
They are the only creatures I know whose bodies never wash ashore.