from Order in the desert

Order in the desert 
Sister Parsimonia washes her hair 
in a mouthful of sand. 
Her eyes flicker. The earth 
shifts with a hiss. 
She can never relax for the snakes. 
She has learned what not to eat 
and how to survive on less, 
but not how to live with the dry 
horror of serpents. St Patrick, 
she breathes, and grips the stick 
the others call the priest. 


Sister Parsimonia’s first lesson 
Water is a mineral, deep 
inside the scabby earth. 
Diggers prospect for it 
in one-man mines, 
using percussion to try 
to beat it out. Fool’s water 
is a problem. Salinity 
can drive a man insane. 


Sister Brigid visits the diggings 
Sister Brigid walks gingerly 
through the fields. The dust settles 
in her seams. They die young 
in the desert, men falling into their own 
wells in the dark, or caving in 
to the drink. Sister Brigid doesn’t judge. 
When she goes visiting, she takes 
a long stick and a mirror. 
She keeps each grave tidy. 


Each has their own annoying habit. Sister Parsimonia 
likes to tidy things away before the meal is finished. 
Sister Brigid whistles – fuzzy hymns and Broadway hits 
in a one-two rhythm. Sister Mary likes comforting 
the sore in spirit, of whom there are happily 
always sufficient around her. Even Father Simeon, 
who would prefer to be cheerful to a fault, has 
a tendency to flag in the face of adversity – or, as 
Sister Parsimonia thinks, to droop like a sunflower 
under the weight of his own head. 


St Barbara’s 
St Barbara’s Church is the only one 
Father Simeon has known where 
thieves take the holy water 
and leave the wine. 
His insomnia is fuelled by his fear 
of devotional candles and 
what could be done in a fire. 
He doesn’t need a test of faith. 
See, he dusts the Virgin tenderly 
each morning, brushes the crumbs of 
earth from the altar, leaves the door 
open for anyone who passes. 

Listen to Kerry Hines read from ‘Order in the desert’


Kerry Hines lives in Wellington. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and in the joint collection Millionaire’s Shortbread (Otago University Press, 2003).