There was a room in the convent of Saint Odilia that was never used, or so Sister Emily had been told. The door had been locked for years, the key mislaid by a novice, its innards—dust-clad, ridden with dun-legged spiders—long forgotten, as many such chambers were in the labyrinthine bowels of the nunnery.
Emily might never have paid the room any notice had she not stopped by it one afternoon to roll up a stocking that had pooled at her ankle, the cheap elastic functionally useless. To think that she’d once been glad of such shapeless garments to cloak her thinness, a sin Emily could not yield, even to God.
Now she found the clothing a nuisance, highlighting the very thing it had once swallowed in its volume. Tugging the stocking up through her tunic, Emily was glad of the quiet corridor, a protector of embarrassing secrets.
A sudden rattling from her left made her jump. Abandoning the nylon, Emily turned to see the door handle of the forgotten room jiggling insistently, up and down, as if pulled about by someone on the other side of it. The noise echoed along the hallway, and Emily looked nervously about, suddenly afraid of being discovered here, as if entangled in some sordid act.
“Hello?” she said, in a low voice, approaching the door. “Who is it? Are you stuck in there? How did you get in?”
The door handle stopped moving with such an abruptness that Emily jolted again, her hand flitting to the rosary at her throat. Immediately she felt stupid, an archetype from some lurid film. Shaking her head briskly, Emily approached the door and pushed her ear against a dark wooden panel. From behind it she heard the whispering shuffle of some material brushing against against the walls– a dress, perhaps, although the sound seemed to come from many directions at once, and there was surely no one in the convent wearing so large a gown.
“Are you alright?” asked Emily, timidly. “If you’d rather be left alone, I’ll go away–”
She’d been told that some Sisters were so very religious that they locked themselves up in seclusion for years, accepting only the plainest meals through small grates, speaking to no one but God. Yet, if that was so, why had the person in this room tugged that door handle so insistently, clearly seeking to be noticed?
Still no answer came from within, no call for help, only the noisesome semi-silence of fabric brushing the door.
Emily dithered, running her hands over and over each other in fractious indecision. Was there some way of getting the door open from this side? Perhaps someone had found thei way in and now was trapped, the door hinges beyond old, and hopelessly stiff– still, there might be a way of forcing it, only Emily doubted herself quite strong enough. She’d never been hale, and now, in this dreary building—crawling with eyes, and Holy omniscience—she was frailer still from the agitation of living in such a place, so far from home.
“Please,” said Emily, resting her forehead against the door. “Answer me. I want to help you. Can you speak?”
This last thinking of the occasional mute that arrived at the convent, or those who’d taken on a vow of silence.
Balling her courage like cotton, Emily rapped her knuckles softly upon the door, uncertain as to whether she truly wanted a reply. The rustling seemed to increase, like a flock of pigeons disturbed in a bell tower, or beetles beneath a log. Emily sensed, suddenly, an air of hostility, and wondered if her question had somehow angered the person in that wretched room.
“I just want to help you,” she whispered, urgently. “To let you out. Did someone lock you in?”
Bending slightly, Emily put her eye to the keyhole and squinted into the gloom within. From the little daylight shining through from the corridor she saw what seemed to be a quantity of red hair; someone was standing on the other side of the door, their head pressed against its panels.
As she deduced this Emily felt something whisk about her ankles and glanced down. At once she shrieked and sprung back across the hallway, batting at herself with both hands as though besieged by insects. Yet all she saw on the floor where she had stood were twisting strands of crimson hair, emerging from underneath the door.
There was too much of it, surely, to belong to a single head, and yet Emily knew from the dimensions of the building that the storeroom itself was particularly small, little more than a large cupboard.
Only one person was within, Emily felt certain of that. How, then, could she explain that abundance of hair, creeping beneath the door like moss along a hill?
Again the handle began to jiggle, this time with a squeaking violence. Then, from the first time there came a voice, rough, a haggard bark, each word timed with a yank at the door.
“LET. ME. OUT. LET. ME. OUT.”
Emily crumpled back against the opposite wall, scraping clammy hands across flaking paintwork in a cumbersome attempt to pull herself upright. As she watched, the little door at last burst open, thrust outwards by a torrent of scarlet strands. They appeared to grow from the body of some wan creature, small and skinny as a corn doll at the heart of that foul mass. Every aperture of that fell figure sprung with hair, as did a myriad of pores in its sallow frame, as bristles might emerge from some coarse brush.
“Where are you?” rasped the pale thing, through a mouthful of hair. “Where? Where?”
It writhed in the swell of its own mane, which had begun to feel its way about the corridor in blind search of Emily, bruising the storeroom door against the wall in repetitive bangs. Emily might have screamed, had her throat not seemed to prickle drily with a thousand such filaments.
Gasping, she edged along the hallway, pulling herself by her fingernails, her legs scarcely seeming to work. She dared make no sound, her chest throbbing with the strain of holding her breath. The hair, probing sightlessly from floor to ceiling, did not follow, perhaps could not; as Emily threw herself around a corner she heard the swishing whisper of its retreat, the creak and thud of the door pulled home again.
Only then did she run, her habit trailing like a magpie’s plumage in her wake.
Emily kept what she had seen quite to herself, at first, trusting no one with so morbid a miracle. Either the other Sisters would believe her, and think her wicked for dabbling with spirits and beings unclean, or they’d think her a babbling liar, and punish her under the guise of care. Thus Emily nursed her silence, wondering how many others knew of the penned-in creature with its fumbling hair, or if she, alone, had perceived it. She hoped this was not so.
Every quiet place that had once been solace to her was now possessed by the character of dread, each shadow a noose of ebony, the smallest sound the ushering in of foullest strands. Often Emily found red hairs upon her person—upon her tongue, in her food, upon her pillow—although her own was short and dark. The presence had found a way to follow her, as far from its wing she’d kept herself thereafter.
At last Emily could contain herself no more. One afternoon—while gardening with another young nun, Sister Ellen—Lily set down her soil-clotted trowel and asked, abruptly, “Was there ever a girl here with long, red hair? Maybe– maybe sent here, for reform? You’ve been here for a while, now. I thought you might know.”
Ellen looked up sharply, her pale face guarded.
“We’re not meant to talk about the ones who go away.”
The ones who passed on, she meant, or the ones that were sent to even more dire establishments than St Odilia’s. To speak of those unfortunate girls was to imply shameful things of the convent, and the Mother Superior would not allow it.
“I won’t tell a soul,” said Emily. “I swear on the baby Jesus Himself. I just want to know what happened to the girl, is all.”
Ellen looked at the windows overlooking the garden, each as opaque as as a dead man’s eye. Fiddling with a bit of twine, she muttered, “Greta, her name was. She was older than me, sixteen or so. A Protestant, so I heard, though she always said she never believed in God, or the like. She would swear and fight the other girls, even the Sisters, and one time I saw her drawing pictures on herself with a sewing needle and a bit of ink she’d stolen from a classroom. We all secretly wanted to be her. Don’t tell anyone I said that. But it’s true.”
A smile flitted across Ellen’s mouth, then was gone again, quick as a dream of falling.
“But you know how it is here with girls who don’t behave. Poor Greta– she was always being hit with something, or starved, or locked away. And still she just carried on being herself… the worst thing I can remember was when the Mother Superior cut all her hair off in front of all of us. She said that Greta was vain, that red hair was for whores, and witches, and such. It grew back, but I’ll tell you, she looked a sight.”
With a quaking hand Emily touched her habit, the thin locks beneath with their pitiful growth.
“There was no making Greta behave, after that,” said Ellen, softly. “There was talk of having her sent away; I heard them, the Sisters, through the walls. Sort of a prison for young people, I think it was. Greta would never have gone, she would have run away– but then something else happened.”
Cold fell over Emily like a pauper’s shroud, and she thought to stand up, to walk away from what she was to hear, but she remained, kneeling in the grass, and the damp.
“One day Greta was just– gone,” said Ellen. “We all thought, well, there goes another one of us. Perhaps they sent her away early, packed her off in the night. It’d happened before. We were used to it. But then I was lying awake one night again– couldn’t sleep. Some of the other girls were whispering. I heard Greta’s name.”
“And?” asked Emily, anxiously, stabbing at the dirt with her trowel. “What did they say?”
Ellen looked down at a hole in the soil and quietly covered it over with a loose pile beside her.
“They said they were tired of Greta getting them all into trouble. That they’d had enough of her. So some of them played a trick, pushed Greta into a storeroom somewhere and locked her in. They all ran off and left her there, banging on the door, shouting, and all sorts– they must have thought someone would find her and let her out, because they left the key behind. But nobody did, and when they went back to look a week or so later the key was still there, on the floor, all dusty. Forgotten. “
Thunder rolled softly overhead, and as the first few raindrops fell the air smelled suddenly of damp earth and wet hair.
“Don’t tell me,” said Emily, in a small voice, but Ellen seemed to have warmed to the story the way people often do to awful things that have never happened to them, like vehicle accidents and stabbings in grimy underpasses, so close to home, and yet a world away.
“The girls said they started arguing amongst themselves,” murmured Ellen. “Over who’d open the door, whose fault it was– I don’t know who did it, in the end. Anyway, they got the door open, just a little bit, just a crack—they were all scared, you see, because Greta was so quiet, they knew what must have happened to her, by now. It was winter, so there was no smell, but they knew–”
The rain began to hammer at the ground in silvery fists, and both Sisters sprang up, staring at each other, as though struck awake from some enchantment.
Then Ellen said, over the rain, “These girls, they said they didn’t see anything much before they ran away. But there was something there, all curled up behind the door, and it had masses and masses of bright red hair. Can you believe that?”
Thunder bellowed again, and Ellen ran ahead of Emily, shrieking, ducking into the shelter of the convent, the horror of her nasty little story forgotten.