RACHEL McCOLLIN

Fiction and Technical Writer

Climb Every Mountain – A Comedy about Nuns, Cats and Hippopotami

Twice a year, my writers’ group runs a short story competition. This winter the theme was ‘Nuns! Nuns! Nuns!’ (don’t ask). I couldn’t come up with a dystopian or post-apocalyptic story idea about nuns so wrote a comedy instead. And now you can read it:

Climb Every Mountain

“Dear God.” Mother Superior crossed herself.

Sister Serena blushed. “Mother Superior, I really don’t think that’s the kind of–”

Her colleague grunted. “In these circumstances, it is.”

Sister Serena looked perplexed. She was a thin waspish woman, who frequently irritated the Mother Superior. Mother Superior let out a huge, gusty sigh, almost as voluptuous as one of her farts.

“Read it,” she snapped, and tossed the telegraph onto the table.

Sister Serena’s eyes lit up. “Oh but that’s wonderful news!”

Mother Superior narrowed her eyes. I really must promote someone more intelligent. She sighed again, waving a hand in front of her face as it turned into a belch. Dinner had been rich: venison and roast potatoes. She rubbed her stomach and smiled.

She turned to Serena. “It’s not wonderful at all. Her and those damned children.”

Serena’s hands shot up to her pale face. “Mother!”

Mother Superior frowned. “Sorry. But I hate children.”

Sister Abigail knocked loudly and breezed in, not waiting to be permitted entrance. Mother Superior grunted, cursing her insubordination.

“What’s happening?” she asked, spotting the look on the other two nuns’ faces.

Serena’s face sank into a gap-toothed smile. She looks more like a witch than I do, thought Mother Superior.

“Maria’s coming to visit. With her family.”

Abigail’s eyes shot to her superior. “Oh.”

“Exactly.”

“She can’t find out-”

“Can’t find out what? About the circumstances of her marriage?”

Abigail put a trembling hand to her chest. “No.”

Mother Superior snorted. “Maybe it would do her good. Stuck-up little ninny, since she landed the Baron.”

Serena was sobbing. “But Mother Superior,” she wailed. “You personally blessed their marriage!”

Mother Superior dug a finger into her nostril. What she pulled out was heavy and dripping. She wiped it on her habit and sniffed.

“Of course I did,” she said. “It would never have happened without me.”

Serena’s face softened. “Oh,” she exclaimed, clasping her hands together. “The singing. Climb every mountain. You were inspirational!”

Abigail shuffled her feet.

Mother Superior laughed. “You could say that.” She brought a hand to her face, whispering behind it to Abigail. “And the spell I put on the poor man.”

Abigail licked her lips. “What are we going to do?” she asked, her voice strangled.

“Don’t know,” replied Mother Superior. “This is a problem.”

Serena laughed. “Oh, yes!” she cried. Mother Superior narrowed her eyes. I swear it, you do that one more time and I’ll turn you into a frog.

Serena didn’t spot the look of contempt. “It’s simple,” she said. “How do we solve a problem like-”

Mother Superior drew herself up to her full height, considerable when she added a touch of magic to the equation. “Don’t,” she bellowed. “Just don’t.”

Serena shrank back, trembling. For once she was silent. Must do that more often.

She smiled to herself, an idea fermenting.

“It’s fine,” she said. “Let them come. Pay their little visit.”

Abigail blanched. “Are you sure?”

She grinned. “Yes. We’ll sort them — solve the problem,” she gave Serena a patronising smile, “ — when they arrive.”

“And the singing?” Abigail asked.

Serena clapped her hands together. “Oh, the singing!” she cried, her eyes glistening. Mother Superior glared at her. That’s it, she thought. She blinked three times and made for the door, leaving Serena standing paralysed in the centre of the room.

***

A week later, the nuns were assembled in the courtyard, awaiting the arrival of their famous guests. Mother Superior watched from her eyrie, glad she’d chosen the highest, most inaccessible room in the building. The previous postholder had enjoyed a sumptuous apartment on the first floor: velvet hangings, plush rugs, the works. Very fitting for a woman of the cloth. But she liked it up here, where she could talk to the birds.

There was a flutter below as a car approached. No, a fleet of cars. She sighed, remembering just how many children there were. Surely half of them will have grown up by now? Fled the nest? But no, all seven of them emerged one by one, lining up as if they were tots again, dressed in nothing but their late mother’s curtains.

Silly little squirts, she thought. She’d never liked children. It was the only reason she’d become a nun. That, and the cover it gave her.

They lined up, Maria flitting between them like a nervous bird, checking they were presentable. Children. Never presentable. She scratched her head under her wimple and pulled out a clump of hair. She’d have to do something about that.

The nuns were looking up now, trying to spot her among the reflections from the top floor windows. She sighed and clumped out of the room, wishing she could fly down instead.

***

Dinner was over, a feast of roast duck making up for the company a little. Mother Superior leaned back in her carved chair and belched, rubbing her chin with the napkin that only she was allowed. The others had to make do with their wimples, poor things. She smiled.

Maria sat on one side of her and the baron on the other. He had hardly spoken throughout the meal. Dull things, men, she thought. This one, still under the influence of her spell so many years ago, had become even dimmer.

Maria, on the other hand, had barely shut up. Beaming out at the nuns, she gabbled about her life since leaving the convent. The hasty marriage, flight across the Alps, blah blah blah. Well now she was back and for some reason Mother Superior couldn’t fathom, she’d come here. If she knew the half of what had been done to get rid of her, she wouldn’t have set foot near the place.

Once the plates were cleared away and wine had been poured, it was time for the evening’s nadir.

“Excuse me,” Maria smiled, her fluid tones making the Mother Superior wince. Should have left out that part of the spell. Still, it helped to charm him. “I must get the children ready.”

The children. Those godforsaken little oiks that Maria believed she had tamed. Mother Superior had been watching it all, hidden in a tree while they ran through the fields and chirruped to each other. None would have been able to hold a note without her.

She nodded, preparing herself for what she would have to do. Maria rounded them up, whispering in each one’s ear with what to the casual observer would pass for genuine affection. Not magic.

In moments they were lined up in age order – even the fully grown ones, how stupid did they look? The Baron rose from his seat, patting his mouth with his napkin and nodding at the Mother Superior. She gave him a thin smile. Poor man.

The Baron took his place at the end of the row next to the eldest – the only pretty one, she really was a loss to the Nazis – and opened his mouth to sing. Maria raised her arms.

The nuns held their breath and Mother Superior blinked three times.

The Baron closed his mouth and opened it again. He frowned and tried again.

Nothing was coming out of his mouth. No words, no tune, no ‘doe-ray-me’.

The girl next to him touched his arm lightly as if to say I’ve got this, and opened her own mouth to sing.

Mother Superior blinked again.

A gasp spread through the nuns. Instead of the dulcet tones of a young woman, there was only the strangled mewling of a cat.

She stifled a laugh, hiding her face behind her hand.

Maria froze with her arms in mid-air, her mouth hanging open. She screamed.

Oh shut up, thought Mother Superior. And blinked again. Maria’s voice was silenced and her body stopped moving. Her husband stared at her, his eyes like saucers.

Mother Superior blinked once, twice, how many of them were there? – seven times.

The nuns shrieked. The noise was deafening, like a city rooftop in the middle of the night. In front of them all, a row of smelly, ugly animals shrieked, barked and yowled their way through something intended to be a song. The girls had become cats and the boys dogs. They looked awful – not even fit for the pound. Only Maria and the Baron were still in human form.

In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought, and waved a hand in the direction of the Baron. He shook himself out and transformed into a magnificent hippopotamus. He opened his mouth, staring at his wife. But all that came out was a horrified bellow.

“Good gracious!” Maria cried. She turned to Mother Superior. “What’s happened?” she whimpered, her face a picture of terror.

Mother Superior laughed. This was the most fun she’d had since making Sister Serena levitate in the courtyard, and that was ten years ago. She sat back in her chair and let the tears of joy roll down her cheeks.

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