Manual Dolores

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Etymology[edit]. From dolores (“sorrows”), shortened from María (de los) Dolores, a Roman Catholic epithet of the Virgin Mary as "Our Lady of Sorrows".
Table of contents

Her eyes adjust. There are sleeping bodies all around her. Some of the nuns are snoring.

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She studies the outline of their bodies, the different colours of their hair. White, brown, red, speckled black and grey. She feels something heavy at the end of the bed, resting on her feet. Someone has left a pile of clothes. Long-sleeved cotton shirts and two loose smocks. One woollen jumper.

Some kind of cape. A veil. Stockings, socks, and underwear. She buries her nose in the clothing.

It smells of mothballs, stale soap, and onions. She remembers the backpack she arrived with and gets up to look for it. Someone has placed it on the chest at the end of her bed. There are things missing — her clothes, her passport. She climbs back into bed and closes her eyes.

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The nuns never wash themselves. They have yellow-green gunk in the corners of their eyes, their tongues are brownish-pink, and there are flakes of dead skin on their noses. Their breath is bad. They have wild hairs that curl at the bottom of their chins. She keeps her head down and her eyes lowered. The only time she can look closely at their faces is during prayer in the chapel or at night while they sleep.

In the mornings, the nuns kneel in the chapel, the first light enters the room, and Dolores looks around at their scrunched-up faces, deep in thought. By now, she knows that the nun who spoke to her in dialect, inside the chapel, is the mother superior and must be obeyed. To eat something, she must ask the mother. To write a letter, drink an extra glass of water, or collect the eggs from the garden — the mother must give permission.

But the mother is kind. She often gives permission with a small nod and a smile. And Dolores spends most of her time with the mother — they study the Bible together for two hours each day, sitting side by side at an old wooden desk in the study room. She repeats certain phrases. Here are the words she most often says: sin, hell, redemption, saved, sister. And then: Do you understand?

Everyone in the convent still calls her Dolores. So why does it sound so different in the mouth of the mother superior? When the mother superior says her name, it sounds as though it were travelling down a slide.

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Do-lor-es, the mother says, with the es finishing nice and low. At the convent, among the group of nuns, there are just three who are yet to take their first vows. Three who wear the same button-up blouse and loose brown smock as Dolores.

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  • Battered leather shoes and a light blue veil. Two are tall and one is short. One has green eyes and dimpled cheeks. One has an extra-large tooth that hangs outside of her lip. One has a large, round, and translucent face, like the moon. They are always together. They walk through the corridors of the convent in a triangular shape — one at the front and two at the back — their long smocks swishing.

    And when they say her name, they do so in unison, lingering on the middle syllable each time.

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    Do-lorrr-es, they say. On the rare occasion that Dolores encounters one of them alone, everything about them changes: their walk, their posture, even their voices. The beautiful one chews her nails down to stubs. Sometimes, the moonfaced one secretly smiles at Dolores. Dolores wakes from the sound and sits up slowly. The girl is kneeling on the floor with her head inside the chest. She looks up and their eyes meet. For a moment, the hang-toothed girl looks shocked but then her face twists into a snarl.

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    • She spits, then walks back to her bed. Dolores pulls the covers up to her neck and watches the slither of light from the moon edge across the wall. She waits to hear the sound of the morning bells. Dolores prays. Her prayers are different to the ones she says throughout the day, in the chapel, and in unison with the other nuns. Those prayers are for the world. But alone, in bed, in the shadowy night while the other nuns sleep, Dolores can privately ask for what she wants.

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      She knows no one else is listening. Her mother once told her that prayers are wishes. In bed, at the convent, Dolores makes private wishes. After each prayer, she pre-emptively thanks the Lord for granting her wish. Only then does she fall asleep. In August, Dolores adjusts to the rhythm of the days at the convent. She knows, only from the calendar that hangs on the wall in the corner of the kitchen, that eight weeks have passed since she was carried in through the iron gates. When the bells ring at five-thirty in the morning, everyone wakes, dresses, and makes their way to chapel for morning prayer.

      Afterwards they make their beds and clean the bathrooms. At eight, they meet again for prayer.