Get thee to a nunnery!

Get thee to a nunnery! is a medieval fantasy roleplaying game set in the 11th century. 

  • You play as Aois, a directionless young woman cloistered away in a convent. You shape her life at the abbey through a series of in-game choices.
  • Will Aois grow into a disciplined abbess or a wild warrior nun? Will her talents endear her to the angels of the Biblical arts, or will she fall into the pulpy, pus-filled darkness of sin? Will she branch into the thorns and vines of medieval herbology? Will she unravel the fastidious lettering of tomes, scripts and secrets?
  • You decide, player! You equip her with a quill or sword. You dress her in sackcloth or in linens. You paint the 2-D planes of her face in the dirt of the gardens, the blood of the viper, the light of the Lord.

Daisy clicks impassively through the images accompanying this game description. Isometric perspective, countryside colors in soft, painterly tones, charmingly cartoonish character designs. She sits at the edge of the lumpy, unwashed bedspread, her legs extended, toes curled against the carpet. Her skin itches uncontrollably, possibly from the mildew in the carpet, the dust mites living in the sheets, or the goopy lotion she gets for free from her hotel job. Daisy scratches a chip of foundation off her forehead. She peels a press-on nail off her pinkie finger and lets it drop onto the bedspread.

The player reviews of Get thee to the nunnery! are largely positive, though some commentators mention that the endgame drags. She has a lot of time to kill, and a lot of feelings to drown out, so this doesn’t strike Daisy as an issue. She buys and downloads the game. She lets it boot up while she paces the kitchenette, opening and closing flimsy cabinet doors to pass the time. Teetering towers of instant ramen. Stray seasoning packets crowded around the packaged food like infantry defending the citadel. Yellow specks of mildew in the interior corners.

Aois, the central character, begins the game as a tight-lipped teenager with shoulder-length hair the color of pale cornsilk. She has peach-colored freckles across a snub nose. Her design has something of farmgirl about it, though Aois’  backstory, available to read in the corner of the screen when the player hovers over her body, describes her as an unwanted nobleman’s daughter. In the opening cutscene, the player looks down, as though from God’s perspective, on Aois’ dawn arrival at the abbey. A melancholy track, overlaid with the twittering of a pair of birds, plays as Aois is led by the hand to the tall, ornate doors. Aois’ body twitches like a rabbit, she blinks away tears—or is that just the stuttering framerate, as Daisy’s laptop groans under the strain of rendering graphics? She clicks impatiently through the dialogue between the abbess and Aois’ stepmother, finishing off the cutscene and advancing to the main storyline.

The next in-game day function as a discrete, semi-camouflaged tutorial, establishing the basic pattern of play. Aois wakes in a cot in the novice dormitory; the player accompanies her as she descends the winding stairs down the turret to the main hall, where Aois joins the crowd of women at mass. Before dawn, during this first mass, the room is full of flickering shadows, and illuminated only by firelight. She kneels on the stone, a cotton kerchief over her fair hair. The game plays a cutscene in which Aoid raises her eyes to the cross, the upward movement of her gaze happening in time with the crooning of the choir climbing the musical scale. As the choir leaps into the sustained high note, Aois’ teeth stop their chattering, and her lips begin to move in apparent prayer. Daisy scratches her thigh, where the itching is most pronounced, where her skin has transformed into a patch of welts.

After Matins and Compline, the player is able to pick Aois’ direction for the day. A gilded window opens up and the in-game advisor, archangel Gabriel, appears to offer divine counsel. The study of theology, as he informs Daisy, will sharpen Aois’ thinking and whet her appetite for Biblical arts, including, he muses theatrically, the darker and more ancient labors. Caring for the lambs in the barns will, in contrast, soften her nature. Swordplay with the gardener, a former Crusader, will develop her physical strength. Working with the nursemaid in the infirmary will increase her knowledge of poisons and antidotes. He gestures toward the top corner of the screen, where Aois’ progress in her skills is visually represented via a set of bars wrapped in grapevine. He reminds Daisy that no skill can progress without implied sacrifice in the improvement of her other skills. “Should Aois be well-rounded, or should she cultivate specific talents?” muses Gabriel leadingly, thumbing his dimpled chin. “Who can foresee her destiny?”

(more…)

Say goodbye

After thirty years of following the rules, I rebel. It’s not spirited disagreement that I feel with the status quo, but fatigue. It dogs me like a lump of flesh, like a shadow. I go to the supermarket in sunglasses and without a bra. I fight to get a word in. I stick out my tongue at the fluttering Fata Morgana on the horizon.

Why does everything end before I can say goodbye? I want to do more with my time. I forget to eat. I do my taxes. I rant and rave like someone chained to a metal ring in a hole. At night, I fall asleep thinking—

I—

I—

I drink red water and bleed green blood. No, that’s not right—

In Akihabara, that twilight wasteland, an ad pasted on a brick wall on the other side of the road catches my eye. I shift position to get a better look, to decipher its meaning. In capitals, the words “EAT ME” and, directly underneath, a bug-eyed, pale-faced girl with permed, sticky-looking hair and telescoping lashes. I do a full-180, turning around completely, and see, on my side of the road, directly parallel to the ad, a vending machine in garish colors with its own lettering: “FEED ME”.

Eat me and feed me. At eight in the evening, after a long day, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. In my ears, a throaty guitar-string sound that is like slitting something ancient open.

Planet of towers, waves, and claret-colored skies. This heart does not eat nor feed. These heart never felt like a home. I open your letter and see you wrote the wrong thing, and you know it, and I know it. No, that’s not right—

Hard to sleep and impossible to dream

I. Hard to sleep

I meet to talk with the cynic for the second time in as many years. In my first entry, she had no name, but today, let’s call her Magdalene. Previously, she was all about godly concern—but this time, we leave God outside, leashed by the ornate door. He looks at us through the windows with baleful eyes rimmed in purpling flesh.

We come to you live from the gory insides of a new-wave coffee shop in an upscale Tokyo neighborhood. Geopolitics like mold on the mind, destiny like damage on our parts. We stir thimblefuls of white-dyed cottonseed oil into lukewarm, six-dollar beverages. Our focus today is the moral life. That vaunted playground of the confused young woman.

“I want to do good,” Magdalene says, eyes glued to her plate as she pushes a wilted French fry around.

“What is good,” I reply, bitterly. “Is your definition of good what someone on social media told you to do?”

It was mostly meant in jest, but when Magdalene looks up, her face is contorted—in surprise, in fear, in anger?—and I immediately regret the impulse to wound her. Why do I crack jokes when what I really want is to argue? Wouldn’t it be more honest to just pick a fight?

We pick up our phones for the ten-millionth time. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The alliterative quality of these buried names, finished off by lugubrious gold, activates something barbed and bloody in me. Wipe collective responsibility off our screens. Scrape this fate off our knees. The Magi could not have devised more poetic, more perverse gifts.

“Have you watched the Good Place?” Magdalene asks, eagerly, but with a certain shyness, like a church girl asking if I go to confession, probing me for a penitent’s heart. I imagine pouring out a libation of holy water into the mouth of the dog outside.

“No,” I say, sourly, though I have watched it by proxy through Strawberry, who patiently conveyed, at my request, each plot point from the polyester pulpit of our living room while I lay on the carpet, groaning and writhing in mock torture.

Magdalene talks like immorality is a pollutant, and morality, a bleaching agent. Molecules of disease and of purity. But, she insists, their movements can be charted, and therefore the stuff of life is to work to avoid, or attract, the right habits. For a while, I indulge this perspective, and we discuss its chief doctrine, which is a form of abstinence from consumption. The main thing is to buy as little as possible, because no amount of consumer research can conclusively clear any product of wrongdoing. We’ve tried and we’ve failed, and we commiserate now about our every attempt to perform the grand feat of a moral purchase, standing waist-deep in web searches in the middle of a supermarket aisle, speed-reading annual reporting on forced labor, carbon emissions, animal cruelty, water use, health and safety violations, sex crimes. Amateur excavators, trapped in a desert of objects, we reach to extract—with exquisite tenderness—the product from its nest but never fail to crush the surrounding ecology in the process. Our hands come away black, blue, and red, fingers clasped around a Temu gadget first seen on Tiktok. Zarathustra picking a t-shirt with a sequined collar off a Zara rack. Artemis ordering a sacred fawn off Amazon.

II. Impossible to dream

Magdalene and I leave the coffee shop and cross the road, coming to a candle that towers above all else. Within the ring of its light, fully aware of the dog-shaped shadows at our backs, we stare at the flame at the top of the column, trying to gauge how far the fire can grow before we are forced to put it out.

“I think we’re bad,” Magdalene starts, tentatively. The flame flickers coral and orange. Then, feeling braver, gasoline on the tallow of her tastebuds: “I think we’re takers, and not givers.”

I nod in agreement, though I am privately unimpressed, because I’d phrase this more harshly, and failure to name cruelties cruelly registers to me as willful ignorance.

I think of my grandmother, born in a village at the edge of a crater. Her ten blue babies, the indigo ash in her part. She gave until there was nothing left to give. I think of the beaded necklace of her DNA, laced through her descendants, all clinging to the long, winding supply chain of remittances, cinder blocks, and diamonds shaped like teardrops. Notches on a black ladder to the underworld. They give until there is nothing left to give. And yet—following a wobble in the universe in which I played no part—I am the lucky one. I get to live a life of precise, precious, pernicious luxury. I get to eat rhinestones and pretend to be a visionary. No, of course it’s not fair, but it’s more than just unfair—it’s more than I can bear.

Smash-cut to the present to find that Magdalene and I have arrived at the crossroads. She drags a two-headed, tattooed body. The body is the girl we had to kill to become the woman, the spell we had to cast to survive the transition, the poison we had to drink to inoculate ourselves against the plague. The sky is crème de menthe. The skin comes off the body in pink flakes like chips of candy paint. The yellow brick road like a stream of sweat, piss and gold. La vie en rose.

“Magdalene,” I whisper. “I’m afraid.”

“Why?” she asks. She holds a grimoire of laws in her free hand. I, a sword. Neither, in this case, is any form of power, until it’s turned back on its user. I try to decide how to tell her that I think the moral life is dead, that it vanished forever in the freezing vacuum between the incandescent atoms that string us together.

“The problem is you think humans are skin and blood,” I say, finally. “But I’m convinced we’re only empty space.”

The candle goes out. In the next moment, the horizon is aflame. A dog howls. I take a sip of watery coffee. Lightweight ceramic cup with glazed edges. Laminated menu. Overly crisp photo of a hamburger, cheese pooling on the plate. Laminate tabletop. Potted fern. Spiked Nike sneakers in a stylish colorway. Dollar-store earrings. Uniqlo button-down with stitching that smells like iron. Deep red dissolving into pure white, then back into red, and then into white again.

Magdalene waits for my final blow. We act like this is a duel but in all honesty, I don’t even have the strength to fight myself, I say, my legs crumpling, and she breaks into tears.

Pantsuit

Suddenly, I am a high-powered career woman. A woman of disturbing industry. Heels clack on the floor. Fragrance—petrichor, patchouli—wafts into the room like a storm cloud.

I want to pound this out before my mind catches up to what I’m writing. I want to press the feelings onto the page like flowers. Seconds and minutes bubble up like a pox.

Can I make it, I think, can I make it. Can I run up this hill without leaving my body halfway up, strewn in pieces among the blades of grass. Lose myself. Can’t stop talking mad shit. Rolling around in the squelching mud and then getting up and sending my cream-and-iron ensemble to the dry cleaners.

To think that just two weeks ago my time was my own to kill. I don’t miss it, but I don’t know that I suit these new conditions. I need to relearn how to breathe underwater, how to say “synergy” without flinching. This was an ordinary room before they gave it a lavish name and stuck an elevated platform and microphone stand in one enameled corner. I sit in the audience, perfectly still, and feel the flame drain away through the hole in my head.

If I have but one regret, it’s that the demands of transformation have warped every stitch of skin, every latch of flesh. The only part of myself I still recognize is my anxiety. Chuck me back to a time where I could walk forever and never leave the radius of my desires.

Love it if we made it

We sit on a low stone bench and watch the dogs walk by, their owners caught tautly at the ends of leashes. Look up. The massive and purple evening, already hinting at the tearful stars. Look down. Along the rind of the world, the pines are growing in, gloved in dark green. I’m resigned to this situation; in fact, after nine months in the belly of the beast, I think I was born resigned. I blinked away the blood and came to terms with what I saw. The full moon is a maw. My emotions paw at the ground.

I vacillate. I travel between extremes. I think, feverishly, of the grand speech that could save us, and then, fed up, I abandon my plans. I’m tired, and we haven’t even started yet.

A quavering voice rises out from the crevice of my mind, in that place where I descended years ago, gloved and hatted, curled around a ratty rope, determined to consign my heart to the protective chill of the caves. An injury can live in the abyss forever, I thought, and while it would not heal, it would not continue to decay. That was, believe it or not, a gesture of hope. On the return journey, my ribcage ten ounces lighter, I stopped to etch our names on a bank of ice with a scout’s knife, below a sky so totally unblemished it could have been cut out of cornflower-blue construction paper. I sat underneath it and wished for better days. Some colors have a childlike glow to them—the playful insistence of red, the bashful innocence of blue. Know what I mean?

Flash-forward twenty years. Sitting on the couch with my feet up, drinking ice water from a PET bottle, a band-aid on my ankle. An ache in my head like a worm in the soil. I pluck it out and let it lie in my palm. An amulet of my segmented flesh. Do you remember the flavor of our mother’s voice as she spoke on the phone behind the locked door? Conversation that tasted of cigarette ash. The rain is like a car wash. I down a bright orange drink. Do you remember how our father, with the fanaticism of a cultist, would log the nutritional values of our meals in a spreadsheet? I wash my hands over and over. Then I cup my hands to rinse my mouth. My eyes in the mirror are red as carnations. Two blooms on a long windowsill of a face. Today, the pills they buried in the soil bear sour fruit.

Something crawls out of the crevice, blood-soaked. I had thought that by growing up we had managed to escape the worst. But now I realize that I relaxed my guard too soon. I ran a victory lap on the one track in my mind, ignoring the thousand sores on my tongue. I left you at the starting line. I turned around too late. Now, I watch you travel the same path I traveled, and I endure my punishment poorly.

I never saw them do anything together. Even when they were together, they were separate. Know what I mean? The only time I saw the power of their togetherness was in their final act as a couple, and it was almost a work of art. The kind of destruction they enacted took a team effort.

Break away, I beg, though I know this message, written in the stars, is lightyears away from getting to you. Wherever you left your own heart, take it back. A feeling is not forever. A feeling is not forever. A feeling is not forever.

Trust the process

Rainy Shibuya, my socks soaked through inside ragged sneakers. The body, more than ever a vessel, more than ever a target of distrust. I don’t like the twinges in my joints and the pangs in my heart; I don’t enjoy seeing my parents age into phantoms. In this weather, central Tokyo doesn’t seem real. The city, more than ever a fantasy, more than ever a house of illusions. I blink and see gems scattered across the pavement. Another half a heartbeat and they resolve into puddles reflecting the watery yellow of the traffic lights.

Trust the process, I think to myself. A mantra as I live out days chained together like plastic beads in a rosary. I ride the trains and observe hairstyles, clothing choices, shoes tapping against the sticky floor. I scroll through online stores. Waves lap ceaselessly at my shores. When I can’t find faith in myself, or the life I lead, or the choices I make, or the world I inhabit, I turn to the process. I have no religion; this is the closest I get. I see the process at work as I weave through crowds. I see it in the raindrop that travels from his tear duct into the burning bush of his brow. It speaks no language and therefore makes no promises. It feels no feelings and therefore holds no grievances.

Sunny Shibuya, my skin red and irritated underneath my clothes. The elastic band of my pants digging into my waist. The mind, one huge pustule. The hands, twitching at the ends of my arms. The process, following me around.

How can the treasure chest of time available to me be both so prized and so pointless? Nothing has meaning, I think, indulgently. I love to hate on everything, especially the usual maxims (truth, ego, despair, morality, amorality, the pursuit of anything). Nihilism is as decent a refuge as any. But I always come back to the process, revealing then the depths of my caprice, because no one as self-absorbed as I could not be steadfastly dedicated to the expectation that some of this will amount to something, that some of us will make it somewhere better than this.

Nighttime Shibuya, aflame with disappointment at my genuflection, at my earnest interest in a life lesson. Forgive me, city of swamp and terrors. It’s not exactly that I want to believe in a higher power, or a cosmic project, or a common destiny. I’ve tried, and I don’t. But I want to trust the process, and I want it to trust me.

What the nightmare knows

Last night, a man with an unspecified weapon followed me around an underground parking garage. Now, don’t panic—it was only a dream. In this dream, I turned away from him; I ran up a flight of gray stairs to a second level, searching for a place to hide among the exposed pillars and the featureless walls. My footsteps echoed on the concrete. His face never appeared, but I could hear him. I knew he could hear me.

I woke not with a start, but with a gradual, druggy reintroduction to the world. A slow fade-in. First, the tepid darkness stepped onto center stage. To the right, the living. To the left, a window. The camera traveled up, to a slender band of dim light taunting me from above the curtain rod. Then to the tangle of sheets trapping my body like an oil slick. My arms and legs were filled with pins and needles. The terror was a fever and it occupied me the way air does a room.

Go back to sleep? No, impossible. When I felt able, I went to the living room and tried to wipe my mind with the antiseptic light of the sunrise. Then I sat down to write, to commit to memory this thing of pain. It helped, though I couldn’t release the notion that a fear this strong would not be forgotten. Some symptom of it must linger, I thought, upset but perversely pleased, too. In the land bracketed by my body, the terror once owned it all; the ruins of its once-mighty civilization would never really be eroded away. Some part of it must leave a twisted mark behind.

But by late afternoon, the thing that was able to terrorize me in the early morning—so fully, so cuttingly—had dissipated entirely. I looked up at the scattered clouds and wondered where it had gone. It disturbed me, as it always has, how quickly I can forget pain, no matter the scale of it.

It disturbed me? Now, don’t panic.

I think about pain regularly—for me, it is a monthly, bodily function. But even the deepest forms of it, I can forget readily. I know this is a coping mechanism without which the human species could not continue to exist. But I hate it, because it makes every other feeling feel counterfeit. It makes life feel like an endless lesson with no true catharsis at its end. I think about gratification, mortification, flagellation, followed again by gratification, then mortification, then flagellation. Each step reoccurring in an infinite choreography. Could I be trapped in a cycle with no center, like an object in orbit with no knowledge of its star, like a dark speck floating in something fleshy and abyssal? I could fall forever and never reach the bottom of the future we’ve made.

I’ll confess. Sometimes I have this difficult feeling that can be imperfectly summarized as: I don’t want anyone to look at me, or think of me, or feel for me. Now, don’t panic—it’s only a feeling. I’ll go on—I want to exist inside a matte black sphere and be unknown. I want to travel the world and never register on any radar, never appear in any image, never disturb any space as I move within it. It’s not precisely invisibility that I want, and it’s not a desire to disappear. I do want to be visible, but rather than acting like an ordinary object in a landscape, the light bouncing off me, I want to be Vantablack. I want to be darker than dark. I want to exist outside this. I want to carry the pain like a souvenir. I want to put my gloved hands in the shadow box and rewrite the ending. I don’t want to be the girl in the nightmare, nor the man. I don’t want to be the weapon he holds, nor the towering blocks of concrete that box her in. I want to be somewhere in the corner, unnoticed. I want to stand with my back to the wall, arms crossed over my chest, and watch it unfold, or not.

Moral of the story

It’s finally warm enough outside that opening the windows is a pleasure. On the lap of the breeze, a trio arrive, fine gossamer against the window pane: light, warmth, and some third thing only circulating air can generate. Brio, maybe. There are three weeks between my birthday and my brother’s and, in that interim time, cool, blue spring becomes honeyed, temperate spring. Dogs nose at the ground. Insects return to their kingdom. I try to extract the big plastic box of summer clothing from the closet and clumsily tip over onto the bed in the process. In that pool of sheets, warmed by rays of light from the westerly path of the sun, I feel a bit like Thumbelina, aimless but not altogether lost, in her green-amber nest of barley.

I am deep in the contractual weeds with a possible new employer. While we trade emails across the ocean, I continue to spend the days freely. I try not to think about the cost of each labor hour in terms of lost salary. I try not to engage in hypotheticals or counterfactuals or any other instruments of speculation. Instead, I do my best to think of these developments with as much neutrality as possible. My life was not a bad life when I was gainfully employed. It was nevertheless the right choice to leave when I left. This sabbatical is not entirely stress-free. It is nevertheless a treasure, a pearl of time that is mine to use as I wish. I repeat these things like a prayer until they stick not on my skin, not on my soul, but some third surface in between.

I read. I don’t read. I write. I don’t write. Right, wrong, and some third thing. When the wind whistles through with the windows open, Strawberry’s windchime—a forest-green bell of cast iron, with a cerulean-blue tongue—cries out in a single clear note, and spring, invisible, blurry, inchoate, comes to distinctive, blushing life, signaling the true end of the frost. How easily noise filters into sound when we tune our ear in its favor.

Nighttime Routine (IV; last entry)

The last drop of violet-colored body oil gurgled loudly down the gunky gullet of her bathroom sink. She chased it with half a bottle of drain cleaner and then sat down, heavily, on the marble-patterned laminate. The temperature inside her felt like it had dropped by a hundred degrees, as though she herself were plummeting down a rockface, into an endless crevasse below. She pictured not-her, falling headfirst through freezing air, blue velvet heels abandoned on the ice. She pressed her closed eyes to the peeling paper of her bathroom cabinet. She counted each full breath.

That night, she dreamed of the products she had made disappear. The slimy, clinical-grade serums, the moisturizers that left a film of sparkle on her hairline, the potions for her persistent frizz, her boxcar scars, the broken veins visible across her neck. They spoke in her dead mother’s voice and told her dark family secrets that she did not remember upon waking but that lingered like grease on her hands. The smell in her apartment made her sick to her stomach as she took apart the instruments of the routine, scattering their remains on a piece of old newspaper. The imitation jade roller was mostly plastic. The Korean towel was easily cut into pieces with safety scissors. The UV light mask was impenetrable, even after significant prodding with a screwdriver; she left it whole, its eye holes staring up at her, its mouth hole aghast. She wrapped up the newspaper and hid the evidence in a corner of her closet.

She was unsure, at first, if by destroying her collection, her hand raised like a sword aflame, she had definitively killed the deal. But when night rolled around and she was still there, alone with her maze of thoughts, her skin a dry pelt over her face, she knew. Her time was hers again. Mind abuzz, hair uncombed, she climbed into the sheets. Her arms and legs felt like sweaty deli meat, which she tried her best to ignore. She could feel her curls matting at the nape of her neck. Something in her groaned like an Eldritch horror of the deep, and she choked it into submission.

(more…)

Nighttime Routine (III)

She took a week off work to search for the devil. (Technically, this was a violation of the PTO policy at her employer, but she knew Herbert in HR and she knew how to cry to him when necessary.) At the bus stop, her sunglasses flashing against the purpling light of the sunset, her arms crossed tightly over a cream-colored baby tee, she bared her teeth at the odious moon, the yellowing grass, the commuters who stared too long. Every gesture in her approximate direction seemed to her a provocation. Every stranger resembled an ex-boyfriend or an intolerable coworker. Her body itched uncontrollably.

Waiting for the devil at the bus stop failed to replicate their initial meeting-at-the-crossroads, so she turned to the digital crumb trail scattered across his Instagram stories. She followed him through a chain of venture capital-funded coworking spaces, then a suburban Walmart converted from an airplane hangar, then a Catholic seminary, where she was imprisoned for a full day and night after being mistaken for Satan’s accomplice (she ultimately escaped from a balconied window, teeth gritted, with the assistance of an undercover doctoral student posing as a nun and a rope of altar cloths knotted together like a rosary). She staked out the local DMV in a strip mall where the devil had an improbable appointment to renew his driver’s license. She hunted him around a tediously vapid nightclub, and then into a grimy alleyway across the street, where he dissolved into a pool of shadow, leaving her there in a cheap party dress, grasping only moonlight.

She finally pinned him down in the back of her city’s worst-rated Starbucks. He had a stickered MacBook balanced precariously on one knee. “Hey cool girl,” he said when he saw her, breezily, with real pleasure, as though they’d planned the rendezvous. He held her gaze as she slid into the seat opposite him.

(more…)