This short story was a semi-finalist in the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and is featured in our new special project:
Sister Magda leaves home before dawn, just in time to catch the first of the travelers at the bus park. There, with a flashlight directed at the faces, still barely visible at this hour, she tries to convince them to repent. The travelers are still going over the last bits of their morning rituals when she makes her way to them, and so she chats with them while they pry crust from their eyes or soften the heads of their chewing sticks. Their concerns are consistent. They worry about their stagnant shops. Arthritic knees that keep getting worse. Civil servant salaries that have not been paid for months. Sons or daughters who have refused, despite the best intentions, to go to school. Husbands who have left their homes and never returned. Wives who do not treat their men well. When there is a convenient pause, Sister Magda begins her preaching. She has become attuned to the potential uses of their sighs and silences, and in this way has come to know when to bring out her offering envelopes.
Their concerns are consistent. They worry about their stagnant shops. Arthritic knees that keep getting worse.
Years ago, she had the words “Evangelist Magdalena’s Light and Truth Ministries” printed on white envelopes in a bold blue arc bent over the graphic of a fruit basket. In this park, the bus boys treat her well. They let her take her time, the door of each bus kept wide open: a spatial pulpit. She is satisfied in the knowledge that only defiant first-time travelers insist on their disinterest, refusing to take the envelopes and tracts she shares after she has prayed for the people.
• • •
The old travelers have known Sister Magda since the early days, when she was the mistress of a big politician. After she has moved on to a new bus or retired to her corner to await the next, it is not unusual that the story of Chief will be brought up by these travelers and reexamined. “My sister,” someone will begin, “do you remember how rich that man was? All those imported cars?”
“Who can forget it?” another will add and maybe let the thought be tinged with the gloom of time’s passage.
Chief’s mansion on McIver Road with its white dwarf fence was still the most beautiful thing in town, they all agreed. This, even with the little boy fountain no longer pissing into a concrete bowl and the house, unoccupied for years, now mostly subdued by grass. Carried away with their recollections, a few of the travelers have been known to say that, in his heyday, Chief had kept a pet lion somewhere in his mansion—Sister Magda must have seen it at least once, surely.
After her preaching is done for the day, with nowhere pressing to go, Sister Magda likes to linger in the park until late morning. The park is never as busy then as it is at dawn. But as the women who sell biscuits and Coca-Cola and the local gin with drowned herbs begin to set up their shops, she likes to watch the leftover travelers and the blur of other preachers who arrive late.
For the most part she is bored by them and only a few of the travelers pique her interest. But the young girls with sleek looks and weaves and smart clothes engross her. She works herself up sometimes, just wondering about the details of their lives. Preoccupied with her observations, she never joins the women in their chatting and it is just as well because she does not want to encourage friendships. Unlike these women, who live in the cheap two-room houses that have mushroomed around the park, she lives in a house Chief got her, in a government-subsidized apartment complex.
• • •
On Mondays without fail, Sister Magda goes to the bank on McIver Street that is across from Chief’s old golf club, where he would sometimes take her on weekends. There, she deposits all of the money she has made from her preaching into an account opened for that purpose. She is faithful with this.
She wakes up earlier on this day, gathers the previous week’s offerings from the collection envelopes, and arranges them according to their denominations. When she is done, she prays on the small and separate piles with hands that she has anointed with olive oil. And then she puts the money, bound together neatly with rubber bands, in the innermost zip of her old Chanel handbag.
She imagines advertising the church with her name and face on one of the billboards that welcome travelers at the entrance into the town.
It is only after she has made the deposit that she takes a bus to the market to pray in the shops of the faithful who put money in her envelopes. Sister Magda has been doing this for as long as she has been preaching at the bus park. And she no longer minds sitting for long moments inside tight, badly lit shops. Or the way the grounds of the market become marshy and difficult to negotiate by August. Or the smell of produce as it starts to turn, mixing with the smell of gutters. The faithful consider the growth of their businesses a result of Sister Magda’s prayers and the fruits of the money they put in her envelopes. And she too has come to regard this fame as the natural consequence of God’s blessing on her ministry. Encouraged by this, from time to time she has considered opening a church. She imagines advertising the church with her name and face on one of the billboards that welcome travelers at the entrance into the town.
But a billboard is not an immediate need. What she has grown to long for lately, more than anything, is a megaphone. In the last year, young preachers have begun to flood the park, each armed with a sleek megaphone, selling their own CDs and making more in a day than she can make in a month. With a megaphone, she dreams of not having to raise her voice, roughened from overuse, to be heard above the noise in the park.
• • •
And so, after one of her Monday bank trips, she does not go to the market. Instead, she makes a trip to the biggest electronics shop in town. The man in the shop looks on as she admires and inspects the cartons. Observed in this way, Sister Magda becomes disillusioned with the many brands before her and increasingly irritated by the man’s thick bush of a mustache.
“Madam, are you going to just stand there looking or do you want to buy anything?” the man asks finally. His directness startles her. Not many people talk to her in this way.
Sister Magda has come with no intention of buying anything. She wants only to admire the arrangements of chrome and black devices. And to daydream about taking back her park. But the man’s question offends her. She turns to look at him. In her former life with Chief, a man like this would never have talked to her in such a way.
She decides there and then to return to the bank, where she makes a withdrawal, and then she buys a megaphone. After she hands the man the money, he asks her to sit while he places the megaphone in its carton. Sister Magda ignores him and continues to stand.
Home, she unpacks the megaphone and reads the manual, but she does not try it out. This, she saves for later, for the park. She looks at its black body and imagines her voice coming out of it, disembodied and loud.
• • •
Early the next day, she heads to the park but is stopped at the gate. A uniformed man she has never seen before tells her that preachers are now banned because a big man has bought the bus park and this is the new policy.
She looks at its black body and imagines her voice coming out of it, disembodied and loud.
Sister Magda stands outside the gate cradling her megaphone. None of her questions are met with answers. As dawn becomes morning, she migrates toward the small crowd of other park preachers gathered to one side of the gate conferring amongst themselves. There’s talk of going as a group to talk to the big man and talks of moving to a park in the next town.
Sister Magda feels very tired. She does not want to start all over again or compete with these preachers in a new park. She walks away holding the megaphone still cradled in her arms. But she does not go home or return to the shop. Instead, she visits Mrs. Ogan, an old friend of Chief. And as she nurses a drink, Sister Magda recounts the incidents of the morning.
Phone calls are made, and in no time a job has been arranged.
• • •
As a bus auntie, her job is to sit on an air-conditioned bus that brings students to school and takes them home. After the last of the students has been dropped off and Sister Magda has signed the register to close for the day, she usually has to walk a while before she finds a taxi to take her home. The lonesome duplexes that line the streets in this part of town are mostly the same, a blur of colors. But she likes to look at them, taking note of each feature in their elaborate facades. From time to time, she plucks a flower. She is certain that the day will come when she is rich enough to build a church bigger than these duplexes and plant as many flowers as she wants. For now, her bank account is credited automatically by the school. At the end of each month, she gets an alert on the cell phone she was given so that anxious parents can reach her.
The school principal sends for her one morning. In the office, Sister Magda sits while the principal takes a call. A cage with two parrots hangs from a corner near the wide window that overlooks the schoolyard. From where she is seated, Sister Magda has a view of tended flowers, frangipani trees, and the school bus, parked and waiting. She studies the birds, which ignore her, having decided she is not of interest. She is looking at the name plaque on the desk, golden with the name engraved in black, when the woman asks, “How long have you been here with us?”
“A full session, madam.”
The woman leafs through papers Sister Magda had not noticed before. “Before coming here, you were a bus park preacher?”
She ignores the sneer she hears in the woman’s question and says nothing. The woman continues to study the papers. Sister Magda has no idea how they came to be; Mrs. Ogan must have handled the process.
“You have been with us long enough.” The woman says, satisfied. “I have decided you will accompany the children on an excursion to the new airport in the state capital.”
Sister Magda cannot imagine why anyone would want to go to an airport simply to see how planes work, but then she cannot understand much of what goes on in this school. She simply listens and accepts this new responsibility. In the middle of their talk, another call comes in. After a while, she is excused.
On a day in March when the sky is a warm shade of blue, armed with a detailed letter, Sister Magda takes some of the older students to the state capital on the excursion. She sits, not in her usual place by the door, but beside the driver.
Sister Magda cannot imagine why anyone would want to go to an airport simply to see how planes work, but then she cannot understand much of what goes on in this school.
In this moment, she is happy to be away from her routine, away from anxious parents issuing last-minute instructions, worried about everything from kidnappers to the food their children should eat. Sister Magda is happy to be traveling. She cannot remember when she last went anywhere. Maybe a forgotten business trip with Chief?
He is dead now. She learned of his death at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. He’d moved out of the country with his family after the last coup and she’d heard nothing for a long time about him or his wife or his sons. And now he was dead.
She looks at the trees on either side of the road. Things have changed a lot. She says this aloud to herself. She wants to point out to the students just how much things have changed. How many more zinc-roofed houses have sprouted along the roads, where there used to be huts. But when Sister Magda turns to bring their attention to this, she sees that they all have their faces glued to their phones with earpieces in their ears. The moment is lost. She starts to tell the driver, but he continues to stare straight ahead at the road.
At the airport, they are told to wait. “You have come at a busy time,” a young lady in a smart blue suit says without lifting her face once from the computer screen. “You have to wait a while. You’ll have to wait.”
Sister Magda is left with nothing to do and twenty teenagers on her hands. She occupies herself watching the people unfolding themselves from posh cars. She tries to imagine herself among these people in pressed suits, smart trousers, skirts and gowns, walking within these glass halls. It crosses her mind to ask the smart young lady if there is some work here for someone like her, but the woman’s sleek impatience makes Sister Magda decide against it.
For a moment, she becomes distracted by the sound of a plane taking off. From her place in the front of the bus, she can clearly see it lifting into the air. She watches until it becomes a bird in the sky and she wonders what it must feel like to be inside it. Behind her, the students, preoccupied with their phones until now, have begun to clamor. “Like, this place is so boring,” a girl says. Forty-five minutes have stretched into one hour and then two. Now they want ice cream and shawarma. She has been instructed not to let them wander off but they are getting rowdier by the minute and her attempts to calm them down yield nothing.
Sister Magda reaches inside her bag for her Bible. She knows she will not concentrate, yet she makes the effort. But the movements around her, the continued chatter of the children, the coming and going of cars, of people, the sound of the planes lifting into the sky, push her over the edge.
She is not sure what she will do until she is hitting a boy with the Bible and instructing him to lead a hymn.
She is not sure what she will do until she is hitting a boy with the Bible and instructing him to lead a hymn. The boy looks at Sister Magda, momentarily confused and then afraid, before he slowly starts to sing in a stunned, shaky voice. One after the other, as Sister Magda marches up and down the aisle hitting anyone within reach, the children join in the singing. Their voices, sullen at first, soon become supple and loud. The song fills up the bus and the parking lot. They are still at it when the smart lady comes for them.
“You are lucky to go with two months’ pay,” a teacher Sister Magda has never liked says on Monday morning after news spreads that she has been fired. “We know we are dispensable,” the teacher says, “so we try to be careful, my sister.” Some of the other teachers nod their affirmation. They ask what she will do with her life now. What type of work she will find. But Sister Magda shares none of their concern. In the street, the sun is out. As she walks past the duplexes, she thinks how interesting this story will be when she tells it to her congregation. She imagines telling them that this was the day she finally answered God’s call.