The girls will enter the convent on two feet. They will walk belly first, some showing crescent slivers, others August full-moons. The nuns will watch, stone-angel-faced, as the girls sniffle and cry.
This is your home, the nuns will say. For now.
The statues and icons will also watch. The Lady of Sorrows most intently of all.
It happens when you go into the inner sanctum, the older girls say, if they can still talk in tongues that can be understood. If they’re not yet bed-bound, isolated by busy nuns who despise idle hands.
What does? ask the younger girls, but their seniors’ lips are tight, sealed with wax or sewn with thread.
The girls leave the drafty dorm and move through the nunnery at night as serpentine specters. They listen to the nuns whisper about them in the common room. Mayisses, the nuns call the girls. Fonisses. Witches, murderers. When the girls with the larger bellies stumble, they are caught in cool, large hands. There are many hands, enough to embrace them all, and they all belong to Her.
My children, Panayia, the Most Holy Virgin Mother says. She leads the girls to Her chapel’s inner sanctum, where, instead of moldy communion bread, she feeds them as much chocolate cake as they can stomach, until they are sick with decadence and glee.
The girls are not caught by the nuns on the way back to the dorms. Panayia’s spirit shields them, a heavy maternal veil over them.
Did you meet Her? the older girls ask. Lips smirking, wax cracked, seams snipped. Isn’t She something? Isn’t She everything?
The nuns talk about birth pangs, how to give up the babes for adoption, how to give up a life of sin. The old projector moans overhead, blasting grayscale gore. This is what happens when little birds fly too close to beehives. The girls itch in their oversized dresses covering them from neck to ankle. They hold their hands over their bellies and revel in the kicks.
The girls have never been touched by a bee’s stinger, no matter what the nuns seem to think. No man or boy has fed them sticky honey. Panayia knows. She’s the only one who believes in their immaculateness.
In the dorms, later, they each shed their scratchy burlap dresses like exuviae. While the nuns pray elsewhere, the girls have a ritual of their own.
One will lie in the middle of the bare floor, the cold of which she can no longer feel on her feverish skin. Amid dust bunnies and nail-scratched floorboards, the candles stolen from the chapel will be lit in a circle around her. Light as a feather, stiff as a board, the rest of the girls will chant around her. She will want a kiss then, and she won’t hesitate to ask for it. Several eager mouths will greet hers. She will want someone to hold her. Several hands will stroke shapes against her convex belly, the thin fingers wet with blood drawn from crosses whittled sharp enough to cut. The girls’ fingers will paint sanguine symbols of eyes. The babes will need as many eyes as they can get to watch out for enemies untold.
The girls will be careful as they trace each other’s bellies. The bruised skin will wobble and shimmer with scales. Under their tender lips, the bellies will feel hot as coals, the babes dancing inside a danse macabre, a wild hunt.
The girl in the center of the candlelit circle is not flightless, despite the world weighing down on her shoulders.
She will levitate to the cheering chorus of her sisters, to the proud gaze of Panayia.
A transformation is occurring. Not overnight, but heartbeat by echoed heartbeat, prayer by prayer to Panayia.
The girls miss the taste of sugar across their tongues. The only thing they eat now is oatmeal and vegetable broth. The girls used to chew on their own hairs and dried skin, crunch chalk and ice-cubes between their grinding teeth. Now they choke down vitamins, for the babes, think of the babes. The nuns check the shine of their hair and nails once a week. They do not seem to notice the curved claws and undulating snake hair.
The nuns pass out from imbibing the brandy often used to keep the babes quiet for potential parents. While they snore with the potency of their own poison, the girls roam the convent. Some have tails like a kangaroo, a muscular limb on which they can support their weight when walking gets too tiring. Others have wings, batlike and leathery, sprouting from their backs. Tongues like a penguin, full of bristles and brine. Toenails like a sloth, to help them scale and grip.
The girls crawl across walls and ceilings on all fours, the way the babes will once they’re born. Panayia, they ask, what will the babes look like? Will they be beautiful, oh, will they be holy?
Their Lady of Horrors smiles beatifically at them. Like a mother spider of infinite silk and wisdom, already she is weaving her children a world where witches and killers can fly and slither freely. Where busy ravens with white coifs and twig crosses are barred from entering.
The girls will exit the convent on tails or talons, creeping and crawling with feral delight. Their babes will be strapped to their bosoms or backs, they’ll be gripping their hair in tiny fists, flapping minuscule wings. Panayia will watch over the peculiar procession of giggling girls, and she will smile.
Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov’s, Liminality, Arsenika, The Future Fire, Space and Time, Eye to the Telescope, and Glittership. “The Saint of Witches”, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).