The Dogeared Corner: Sarah Domet’s “The Guineveres”

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Sarah Domet’s childhood spent in Catholic school is fodder for her first novel, The Guineveres, which dives into the secret lives of four girls, all named Guinevere, who reluctantly call a convent home. We sat down with Sarah for a little tete-a-tete to introduce us to her debut novel. Photographed at E. Shaver, Bookseller

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “Catholic school girl?”

I instantly think of uniform skirts. Stiff, scratchy, plaid uniform skirts.

Why did you transplant yourself in Savannah?

I moved to the South with my (now) husband in 2010 for a job. Whenever we’d visit Savannah, we always felt as though we’d stumbled upon some magical place. It’s stunningly beautiful. Everyone is friendly. The city feels artsy and cultured and genteel and gritty. Savannah became the de facto place we’d come to celebrate momentous occasions in our lives. Every time we’d visit, we’d stroll through downtown, sit on a bench in one of the squares, admire an enormous live oak with dangling Spanish moss, and say, “Why can’t we live somewhere like here?”

How much of your story makes it into the pages of The Guineveres?

Certainly, a lot of observational detail made its way into The Guineveres. I went to Catholic school from first grade through high school. Who needs fiction when you have the colorful stories of a Catholic upbringing?

Back then, even the smallest diversions from the rules felt like a huge rebellion. I once wrote an article for my high school newspaper titled “Shirttails Pose Danger,” mocking our strict dress code, and this rebellion earned me a visit to the principal’s office. My sister was one of the first altar girls in our diocese back in the late 1980s. At the time, this had an almost renegade feel to it, and even though she wasn’t breaking any rules, she sure seemed like a rebel up there on the altar.

Like The Guineveres, my friends and I were always trying to carve out a space for our own identity within the context of the institution in which we were imbedded. I was also one of 7 or so Sarahs in my class, so this didn’t help matters much.  I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of female friendships and ways in which young girls empower or disempower themselves. The Guineveres are a composite of nearly every young girl I’ve ever known.

Share a secret with us!

I was a member of my school’s math team.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Aside from coffee, these days my young daughter gets me out of bed, and not only because she is quite literally crying. I delight in watching her intense curiosity of the world. She’s made me re-examine the world in a new way, too—a gift for a writer.

 

Read the first chapter below. 

 

Chapter 1 – The Assumption

 

We were known as The Guineveres to the other girls at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration because our parents all named us Guinevere at birth, a coincidence that bound us together from the moment we met. We arrived over the course of two years, one by one, delivered unto the cool foyer of the convent and into the care of Sister Fran. Each of us had our own story. Usually, our parents whispered that they loved us; they told us to behave. Our mothers gave us lipstick kisses on our cheeks, or our fathers said they hoped someday we’d understand. Then they drove away for good, up the one lane drive and into a world that was easier without children. They all had their reasons.

But The Guineveres had our reasons for wanting to run away, which is how we found ourselves stowed inside the cramped quarters of a parade float, wheels whirring beneath us, gravel bumping us like unpredictable hiccups so that we had to brace ourselves against the chicken- wire frame that cut into our skin. Inside the float, the air was suffocating, a thick blanket thrown over us. Through tiny gaps in the tissue paper, we could see Sister Monica, the handle of our fl oat thrown over her shoulder as though she were heaving a giant cross up that graveled hill. Half- circle sweat marks appeared at her armpits; she grunted as she struggled with the weight of us.

Soon we heard Sister Fran’s voice snap from behind, “Keep with the pace. This is a parade, not a pilgrimage.” She appeared in our line of vision, her whistle swinging around her neck in place of the cross pendant that the other sisters wore. Sister Fran looked almost translucent in the sunlight, her arms and legs exposed and her veins appearing like little road maps beneath her pale skin.

“It’s quite heavy,” Sister Monica said between short breaths.

“Sin is heavy,” Sister Fran said. She trilled the whistle three quick times into a wincing Sister Monica’s ear, then marched ahead toward the front of the parade. Our float was the largest entry in the parade, and for good reason.

We’d designed it to hide us. Eight feet at its tallest point, it was shaped like a hand of benediction— two perpendicular fingers set closer than a victory sign, resembling a double- barreled, gun- shaped hand pointed toward the air. Win and I stood crouched in the upright fi n gers, Ginny had curled her tiny body into the thumb, and Gwen pancaked herself inside the narrow hollow of the plywood base. Outside we could hear the cheering of onlookers, some squealing and hooting. The band boomed in the distance, not the slow, haunting organ music we normally heard in the chapel during mass, but something infinitely more upbeat, with horns and guitars.

The parade itself capped off the Sisters’ annual August festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary, her earthly departure. At the end of her life, Mary was carried up to heaven on the wings of angels, her body too sacred to remain on earth, succumbing to dust like the rest of us.

To be certain, The Guineveres didn’t believe we were perfect, not like Mary. How could we, with Sister Fran’s constant reminders of our waywardness or the sins of our bodies that shamed us for the simple fact that they were bodies and thus subject to the laws of biology? “The Flesh, girls, the Flesh,” Sister Fran warned, her habit swaddled tightly against her face so she appeared to have no ears, though she always seemed to hear us, to overhear us, and so we often found ourselves whispering, even when we were alone. For The Guineveres, the festival marked not Mary’s departure but our departure, our freedom. We refused to wait until we were eighteen; we were leaving the convent for good.

Of course, this was nearly two decades ago, and some of the details I’ve since forgotten. Call it willful amnesia or an act of forgiveness. I’m not sure which. I gave up writing in my notebook a long time ago— life got in the way, and I grew out of the habit. Besides, after everything that happened that year, there were some things I didn’t wish to remember, some questions I couldn’t bring myself ask. Back then, I hadn’t yet realized that time had a way of providing the answers. Back then, I believed The Guineveres were all I had.

I was the first Guinevere to arrive at the convent, the only Guinevere that summer when my mother left me there. Almost thirteen then, I shared my name with Saint Guinevere, who, at my very age, was martyred for her faith. Beheaded by a vengeful suitor after resisting his advances, she miraculously rose from the dead. She lived on as a nun for many years after, her head apparently functioning just fine. I could understand how she must have suffered—to have her head severed from her body, but then be forced to go on living. That’s how I felt when my mother left me. But I wasn’t as wise as Saint Guinevere, and I wasn’t a saint. They called me Vere. I was a sensitive young girl, a girl who still had faith. I prayed often, as I’d been taught to do. I prayed for someone to come rescue me.

And eight months later, during Morning Roll, my prayers were answered. Sister Fran stood at the head of the Bunk Room, yelling out names like insults, and when she hollered “Guinevere,” her voice rising as she spoke that last syllable, another voice joined mine in response.

“Here,” we both said in harmonious unison, like the opening chord of a song. Our eyes locked. There stood Ginny, arms akimbo, her skirt twisted on her skinny waist, pleats askew.

Ginny resembled a bird only in that she was a delicate creature, as prone to unpredictability as the spring that ushered her in. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds tidy,” Sister Fran would say, motioning for Ginny to tuck in her shirt or tame the wild red hair that framed her face like a lion’s mane. After learning about stigmata wounds during Morning Instruction, she’d sit mesmerized by her palms, tracing her thin fingers along invisible sores. Ginny liked to think of herself as an artist— not so much a person who created art as a person who was misunderstood. When she felt things, she felt them deeply.

Winnie—we called her Win— arrived another eight months later, near Christmastime, when the hallways were strung with pine rope and holly. When Sister Fran called out roll and hollered “Guinevere,” sternly this time, as though we were in trouble, three clear voices answered back. “Here,” we said, a triumvirate chorus. We scanned the room and located the owner of the smoky alto that had joined us. We found olive skinned Win, her arms folded in front of her, her skirt low on her hips, her bold, broad smile revealing a slight gap between her front teeth. At breakfast, we motioned her toward our table, and she skeptically slurped her Cream of Wheat as we explained the extraordinary coincidence of our trinity.

To pass the hours during Rec Time that winter, Win practiced braiding our hair, which we grew down past our shoulders. We were allowed to wash our hair only once a week, so braiding helped it appear less greasy. Despite her dexterity, Win had knotty knuckles, big hands that when balled into fists made an impression on the other girls who, if they were afraid of us, were afraid of her the most. Sometimes the younger girls pressed their backs against the wall as we passed them in the hallway, so The Guineveres could walk side by side.

Gwen was the last of us to arrive, late one fall, after the Sisters brought out our sweaters that smelled of must and mothballs. The night before, we had witnessed the new girl changing into her nightgown without even pretending to turn her back to the Bunk Room. Her eyes were glassy, a startling blue, and as she undressed, neatly folding her uniform, we noticed a heart- shaped birthmark right above the bone of her hip. In the morning, she leaned despondently against her bunk, her long blond hair appearing smooth, even after a night of sleep. Sister Fran rattled off the roll, pausing as she neared our name, her beady eyes scrutinizing her clipboard.

“Guinevere,” she finally said. We rose to our tiptoes as though lifted by the spirit. “Here,” we sang in our most gleeful voices, and when we recognized Gwen had joined our song, we tried to contain our excitement but could not. “Here,” we answered as dozens of other girls swiveled in their skirts, looking on in disbelief. “Here! Here!”

“An abundance of Guineveres,” Sister Fran said, clicking her tongue, which we took as acknowledgment that Gwen’s arrival was no coincidence but a miracle indeed. That morning at breakfast, over stewed prunes and dry toast, we sat together, the four of us, now with Gwen, complete.

Of The Guineveres, Gwen was the prettiest, and she understood this as fact, not opinion. Someday she hoped to become an actress. She clipped out photos of beautiful people from the only magazines she could find in the library, and she tacked them to her bunk, staring at the images while she sat up in bed brushing her hair— exactly one hundred strokes every night before Lights Out.

It was Gwen, herself longing to wear lipstick, who taught us to stain our lips with the beets we were served for dinner or the berries we picked out of the fruit salad. It was Gwen who instructed us to stuff our bras with tissues, not by wadding but by folding so as not to create lumps. It was Gwen who demonstrated how to do toe touches to slenderize our middles or how to perform the pencil test that we all passed, except Win, or how to roll up the tops of our gray uniform skirts so we didn’t look old- fashioned. It was Gwen who showed us how to steal butter from the dinner table— “It’s borrowing,” she explained, as she tucked a pat into the cuff of her sleeve—so that we could later massage it into our hair and skin made brittle by the dry air of the convent. She dedicated herself devoutly to grooming.

And it was Gwen who, after living at the convent for less than a year, devised our hollow-floated plan to leave it.

“We’re running away,” she had said. She was reclining on one of the plaid couches in the Rec Room, propped up on pillows like Cleopatra awaiting hand- fed grapes. “And I know just how to do it.” She smiled with one corner of her mouth, for dramatic effect, the way she sometimes did. The rest of us sat on the hard ground beside her and leaned in to listen.

She had gotten the idea from a movie she’d once seen back home, in her Unholy Life. In it, a giant cake was wheeled into a party at a mansion—an executive’s house— and a chorus girl popped out of it, her arms raised in a V. Gwen soon demonstrated the scene for us, jumping up from behind one of the couches and putting her arms toward the ceiling as Father James sometimes did during mass. In the movie, everyone gazed upon the beautiful woman as she burst through the cardboard cake, including the man who would eventually fall in love with her. This was Gwen’s favorite part, the marveled, amorous expression on the man’s face.

We worked on our float for weeks, every evening in the courtyard, right after dinner until Lights Out. Win, whose grandfather had taught her to use tools, built the frame for us, a wooden base supporting chicken wire that we all helped bend into shape: a giant hand offering the victory sign. It was a universal symbol, The Guineveres agreed, and only one finger away from the other universal symbol we wished to offer the convent upon our departure. We painstakingly covered the frame with yellow tissue paper, twisting each piece around the wire and flaying it out at the ends until the frame was completely covered and our fingers numbed. The end product looked primitive, at best; the oversized fingers were set too vertically together to look much like a victory sign.

“Victory?” Sister Fran had questioned when she came to assess our creation. “A rather secular theme, don’t you think?”

“The victory of our souls,” one of us said. After all, she reminded us daily about the battle between good and evil that raged inside our young bodies.

“This won’t do.” As parade master, Sister Fran made it her earnest duty to ensure every float met a particular standard. The prior year, some girls weren’t allowed to enter their Holy Chalice because she said it looked too similar to a martini glass. “Quality, like cleanliness, is a sign of godliness, girls,” Sister Fran muttered as she circled our float.

Her nose was an equilateral triangle, and she tapped the tip of it while thinking. A few tedious moments of contemplation passed, and then she spoke again. “Ah, a hand of benediction. Yes, yes. A hand of benediction.”

“Whose hand?” Ginny had said. Win elbowed her.

“Yes, Sister,” Gwen said. “A hand of benediction.”

“It’s settled,” Sister Fran said. She turned toward Ginny. “It’s a hand of blessing. That’s what this”— and here she paused to wave in the general direction of our float— “will be announced as in the parade.” She made some markings on a clipboard. “You’ll need to add the papal ring,” she’d said without looking up. “You can’t very well have a hand of benediction without the papal ring.”

To complete our Hand of Benediction, we cut out an oval from poster board and painted it. We didn’t have any gold paint, so we mixed brown and white together to form a color closer to beige, but it looked okay. Finally, we glued the oblong ring to the float, somewhere near where the knuckle would be. It wasn’t perfect, but Sister Fran agreed to let it march in the parade. She did like to reward hard work, she had said. Of course, The Guineveres would not pop out of our Hand of Benediction. No party awaited; no dazzled lover’s eyes would gaze upon us.

We knew that once the floats were paraded up the long driveway of the convent and, farther, into the courtyard of the church, they’d be left there until Sunday mass to help commemorate the Assumption. They’d be left alone. Overnight. Unguarded.

In the empty quiet of the church courtyard, once the sun had sunk and the sky turned to shadow, we planned to unfurl ourselves from our hiding spots. We’d stand on firm ground again and stretch our limbs, free to set about our lives that didn’t involve the Sisters or their rules.

Lives that didn’t involve rising early every morning to Sister Fran’s whistle and dressing in our monochrome uniforms— gray skirt, white blouse, white knee socks, black loafers. Lives that didn’t involve single filing to the kitchen, where we were served oatmeal and a piece of peaked fruit for breakfast. “We must be modest in our wants,” Sister Fran would say when we asked for something more substantive, like eggs or waffles or a cream cheese Danish, the things we’d been accustomed to at home. We had little awe for the routine of convent life. After breakfast, we endured an hour of silent prayer, three hours of Morning Instruction, a break for lunch, chapel, more Instruction, and then Rec Time after dinner. We simply wanted to be ordinary girls.

During the two blissfully unstructured festival days, under a canopy of tents, we could at least pretend we were ordinary girls, like before our parents left us here. When we weren’t working the booths or cleaning the trash from the courtyard, where the garbage cans overflowed with grilled corn husks and sticky paper cups, we ate sugary foods, played tear- off s with names like Bars and Bells, and watched as the local parishioners aimed for the target on the dunking booth where

Father James sat beneath a handmade sign that read dunk- a- priest. We placed bets at Turtle Downs, a booth run by Sister Tabitha, Sister Fran’s second in command. She gripped a microphone and held it close to her reedy lips as the creatures ambled across the track in a leisurely race to the finish. Sister Tabitha had a stutter that she bore proudly, perhaps to demonstrate how God loves us despite our flaws.

“Sc- c- c- scales of Justice takes the lead,” she called out, rattling off the names of the creatures as she called the race. “The Holy Sn- n- n- snail is close on his tail. Though Sh- sh- sh- sh- Shell Fire is making a si- sisignificant comeback from behind. ”

For these two short days, the Sisters possessed a sense of, if not lightness, then at least not their usual costume of pressed lips and tight faces. They dressed in pink skirts and white cotton shirts, a drastic departure from their usual black habits, but they still covered their heads with veils. Without their tunics, they looked gaunt; their thin frames resembled a prairie animal we’d seen in a National Geographic in the library.

It was our favorite magazine, and we turned those pages especially slowly when they featured photos of naked men and women.

“It’s like they’re not embarrassed or anything,” Ginny said.

“It’s like Eden before the Fall,” I noted.

 

For further reading, The Guineveres is available for purchase here or at E. Shaver, Bookseller

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