Santo Spirito, 1577

Portrait of Elena Anguissola, painted in 1551 by her sister, Sofonisba Anguissola

Santo Spirito, 1577
by Michele Finn Johnson

My parents consign my eldest sister, Paola, to Venice’s Santo Spirito convent. There is no dowry for Paola and so her duty is our salvation. When they took her away, Paola’s nails dragged across the front door’s casement, leaving ten tiny scratch marks.

To visit Paola, I have to walk through neighbourhoods where the prostitutes live. I wear my moretta; I clench its button between my teeth, but no one seems to notice me anyway. I am never mistaken for an unscrupulous woman.

Paola tells me to stop judging people, that it is not Christian-like. I don’t tell Paola that she looks like a stray dog with her nun hair chopped in uneven wedges.

The prostitutes wear yellow ribbons, but I can tell them apart from honest women by the cut of their gamurra, their scent of anise and smoke.

I ask Paola if she misses home. She will not answer me. I ask if the nuns have already removed her tongue, thinking Paola might laugh like she used to at jugglers and slow cows, but she stays silent for a long while. “I miss cigarettes,” she says, finally. “Will you bring me some?”

One day I forget my moretta, and a yellow-ribboned woman tells me I look just like my sister. I think she is just a crazy woman, but then she calls me tiny Paola.

There are only two more months before Paola takes her final vows. She says I can continue to visit, but we will have to be completely silent.

My last visit before Paola is to take her vows, I hand her the bundle of cigarettes that I’ve smuggled inside of my gamurra. Paola grabs the cigarettes and slides them under her habit; she looks around for others before she speaks in a flood of words. She tells me about a tunnel under the walls of Santo Spirito, how the nuns crawl through it in the evenings, spilling straight into the yellow-ribboned parish; how she smokes and drinks vino novella until she stumbles; how she is keeping the company of several men. When we say goodbye, Paola’s eyes close and her hands fold around themselves until they dissolve into her sleeves.

I walk home from the convent at dusk. I suck my moretta close to my face; I cannot be seen. The yellow-ribboned women look less like prostitutes and more like nuns with their hard eyes and raggedy hair.

I reach the edge of the yellow-ribbon parish, and I let the moretta drop into my hands. A strong breeze bangs against my naked face. It is dark when I get home—too dark to make out Paola’s scratch marks on the casement. I reach out with my open palm, try to find some trace of something that I know for certain, but all I feel is the curved warp of oak.

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Follow her @m_finn_johnson, or visit

Portrait of Elena Anguissola, painted in 1551 by her sister, Sofonisba Anguissola; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.