by Lauren Barbato

The patronesses are throwing a party for Petronilla, who’s spent the last three months in rehab recovering from an eating disorder. It was a hasty starvation. Petronilla had gone and locked herself up in her father’s attic for eight days. Her father called it mania; her ex-fiancé, hysteria. The doctors agreed it was mental. A crisis without a trigger. But isn’t everything spiritual these days?

This party isn’t going well for Petronilla, who can’t stop gnawing at the ends of her hair. Thérèse, not to be confused with Teresa, had tucked fresh daises between Petronilla’s blonde curls, which have gone limp from spiritual distress and a lack of electrolytes. Petronilla stands before the white farmhouse sink in the corner of Bernadette’s kitchen and stares out the octangular stained-glass window. What does Petronilla see? Each patroness has their own apparition, but they find little comfort in those images these days.

Petronilla would really be a lovely young woman if she just had some fresh air to clear her head and a good, honest man. The patronesses weren’t waiting for the latter. She needs a little care, says Bernadette.

A little body positivity, says Agatha.

Some radical self-love, says Agnes.

Teresa moves behind Petronilla and gently rearranges the daisies. My Lord, Teresa says. My Lord, Petronilla. It is time to move on.

Teresa and Agnes usher Petronilla to the living room, which the patronesses have decorated with crisscrossing paper chains of iridescent gold. They settle Petronilla on the sofa between Cecilia and Catherine, who roll their eyes at Lucy, who’s gesturing wildly in the middle of the living room in her dark-tinted aviators. Lucy wants everyone to know that she’s doing fine without her eyes. Clare might get her a gig on this new TV show about people coping with irreparable obstacles. (Don’t tell Jude, Cecilia whispers to Catherine, that Clare has cornered the market on lost causes.) Poor Clare has become Bougie Clare, all about that network money. From her perch in the winged-back armchair, Clare points her sparkly silver-tipped finger at the patronesses. How could we continue this way? She asks. With vows of poverty?

Is that another show of yours? Teresa asks.

Vow Wars, Agnes says.

Cecilia leans forward and puts on an echoing baritone voice. Who can do the most extreme?

The most brutal? Agnes mimics.

The bloodiest? Teresa adds.

Painful, Catherine drawls.

Selfless vow to end all vows, Cecilia finishes, and the patronesses all laugh.

Lucy straightens her aviators and crosses her arms. I would win that.

Not so fast, Cecilia says.

What about me? Agatha asks as she rolls out a shiny brass bar cart, on which sits three different kinds of cakes. She opens her cardigan to reveal her flat chest in a pale pink camisole. Look at this chest, Agatha says. These were once as big as Cat’s.

Please, Catherine says. Who here took the vows to end all vows?

And where is He now? Lucy asks.

That’s another show for you, Agatha nods to Clare. Take notes.

Catherine tosses her plate of tortilla chips like a frisbee, the chips scattering across the living-room floor. The plate smacks Agatha in the chest. Agnes pats Catherine’s knee and says, self-love, honey, self-love. Brigid, in her Kelly-green jacket with Planned Parenthood pins on the lapel, snorts into her Guinness from her spot on the floor cushion. At least y’all never got pregnant, Brigid says. None of this shit would matter then. None of it. 

Thérèse takes Catherine out to the back patio to bum a Marlboro Light from Bernadette, who’s taken up smoking again to the dislike of Thérèse, who also dislikes that Bernadette is aging so gracefully. She’s cheating, Thérèse insists to Catherine from the other side of the brick patio, ducking her head behind a ridiculous wooden ladder displaying impeccably arranged ferns and succulents. (Rustic chic, Thérèse muttered earlier. Rusted crap, Catherine replied.) I bet there’s nothing under that scarf, Catherine says, nodding to Bernadette’s charcoal headwrap. Catherine is also aging incorruptly, but not as elegantly as Bernadette, the decomposition speeding up since her divorce, which sent Catherine on one of those born-again-single-woman adventures through the Tuscan countryside. It did nothing for her, did not return her to Bernadette’s youth. Bernadette’s forehead really does look too smooth, the skin too taut, for someone who eschews injections for slick mineral water slapped with the Blessed Mother’s image.

Bernadette shakes the bottle labeled holy water in front of Catherine’s face. I swear on our Lord, Cat, Bernadette says. I swear. Would He sell us snake oil?

Catherine grabs the bottle from Bernadette and knocks it back in one gulp. She hands the empty bottle to Bernadette and says: He is an asshole.






Catherine has been in a mood since the last Sunday brunch. Or maybe it started the Sunday before, or the Sunday before that. The rest of the Mystical Seven had gotten used to it. How long would it take for Catherine to return to normal? They’d stopped thinking that way.

The Mystical Seven were the originators of Sunday brunch in the plaza. They would gather one by one around a blue-tiled table nestled between several stone archways. Perpetua and Felicity always arrived first, arms linked, followed by a chain-smoking Catherine in mauve lipstick and cat-eye sunglasses. Then came Agatha, slinking in her plunging ballet-pink halter top. Lucy, in her blacked-out aviators, and Agnes, finally, her brown hair wrapped in a tidy bun at the crown of her head.

They called themselves the Mystical Seven, but they were, more often than not, only six. Mary always had her excuses—a funeral, a wedding, a baby shower, another nameless woman in need. The (One Less) Mystical Seven would order Bloody Marys in her honor, watch the doves bathe themselves in the grand marble fountain, and smile until they ran out of Very Nice Things to say.

It’s a good thing Mary’s never here, Catherine says as she sucked down all the green olives from her toothpick, or else we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

Agatha stabbed her toothpick into a tiny block of brie. You know that’s why I keep coming. 

The (Almost) Mystical Seven knew how to order for each other. A feta cheese omelet for Catherine, ground lamb for Agnes. Just one slice of prosciutto for Agatha, on account of her diet, and just one fried egg and tomato for Lucy, on account of her diet. Perpetua and Felicity, they would share the meat platter, wave it before Agatha and Lucy and squeal, Give it up, girls. Give it up. But they would never give it up, these diets and three-hour-long brunches and high-pitched imitations of the Perfect One who they would like to topple from her rosy pedestal. Mary was the originator, don’t you know, Catherine said. She fucked it up for the rest of us. 

The plaza began to roll, sending doves scattering toward the cathedral spires. Dust fell from the ceiling—a trickle at first, then a rush of beige and black and brown. It coated their eggs like a broken pepper shaker. The (Somewhat) Mystical Seven leaned back and sipped their Bloody Marys as the other diners ducked beneath their tables and launched into their Hail Marys.

Don’t bother, Catherine balked. She ain’t coming.






This party is supposed to be for Petronilla, but Petronilla can’t keep still. She wanders from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room. She opens every hall closet, walks in on Brigid in the bathroom. Petronilla was a weird one, wasn’t she? She was always stealing keys at parties, locking herself into places where she had no business being. Remember that time she locked herself in Catherine’s Fiat with two bottles of Prosecco? The Advent Fiat-sco. Catherine had started a fire in the backyard, the entire grill consumed with flames. The patronesses found her swinging on the jungle gym, pitching an iron garden stake into the air and yelling, Kill yourself with the sword of hate and love! Brigid finally relieved Petronilla from the Fiat by throwing several empty Guinness bottles through the passenger-side window. Petronilla wouldn’t stop screaming. Neither would Catherine. They had to douse both of them in cold water. It’s a miracle the neighbors didn’t call the cops, Agatha said as Catherine convulsed in silent ecstasy on the wet grass. Yeah, Teresa said, but whose miracle?

Outside on the brick patio, Catherine pops open another bottle of holy water and pours it over the succulents. No! Bernadette bear hugs Catherine from behind. We have a limited stock!

Thérèse climbs onto the low brick wall and shines her iPhone over the two patronesses. Catherine tears Bernadette’s headscarf, revealing a mostly bald head with patches of wiry gray hair. Oh, Thérèse smirks, Clare better give me a good deal for this.






The patronesses really did have a beautiful time last year at Bernadette’s villa, nestled in the foothills of the south of France. It was late summer—that point in mid-September that already feels like fall—and streaks of coral splashed across the Pyrenees each evening. The patronesses bought chintzy Blessed Mother statues, the plastic, battery-operated kind that twinkle pink and purple at her crown. During the day, they trailed herds of tourists through the narrow cobblestone alleys. When the tourists thinned out, trading their healing mecca for overpriced mussels and frites on plastic checkered tablecloths, the patronesses sprawled across the flat rocks beneath Bernadette’s grotto. There, they etched scriptures into the smooth taupe rocks with their gold crucifixes.

This is sublime, Clare said, stretching her legs.

Divine, Agnes said, arms raised as if to envelope the twilight sky.

Thérèse hopped from rock to rock, sprinkling flower. The most perfect rain, she giggled.

Bernadette wrapped her arm around Catherine. You really must get a place up here, Cat, Bernadette said. Forget Italy.

Agatha kicked off her foam flip flops and crawled to the edge of the rocks. She gripped the edge of the grotto, knees and hips submerged in the silver water, and lingered there, suspended. Bernadette called to her from the center of the pond, where she had materialized, glowing like a centuries-old apparition.

There, in the center of the pond, her hair splayed like algae on the surface of the silver water, Agatha removed her blouse and bra. The long burgundy scars, curving from her armpits to her breastbone, were only slightly visible in the darkening water. Agatha remembered the day they came in, long before her first period. Her mother had cried and cried, Too young! Too young! They continued to grow well into her teens. The boys in her neighborhood gawked first; then, the men on the bus and trains. Once, in her early 20s, an older man groped her on the bus, quickly and without shame. The other passengers saw and did nothing. When she stepped off the bus, a man coughed Slut and flipped up her skirt.

Bernadette brought her hands above the surface and gesticulated for Agatha to lower herself. Purify, Bernadette said, and Agatha dipped her head beneath the surface and wanted to cry, but she did not feel a thing. Her chest was numb.

Bernadette anchored herself around Agatha’s waist and lifted her above the surface. What do you feel? She smiled.

Nothing, Agatha said. And then: This water is fucking filthy.






This party is for Petronilla, but the patronesses haven’t seen her for hours now. What’s the story with Petronilla? Her father claimed she locked herself up over a man.

The man probably locked her up, Agnes says.

But what haven’t we done for a man? Agatha says.

Too much, Cecilia says.

What isn’t about love these days? Teresa muses.

It’s not love. Catherine thrusts her body through the open patio door, a cigarette balancing between her lips. The girl needs some fucking. 

The living room is quiet. Clare, barely holding onto her wine glass, sloshes merlot onto the carpet. Agnes, on her knees with the dust pan, stops sweeping the crushed tortilla chips. Agatha clenches her flat chest. Brigid tips her Guinness bottle in Catherine’s direction and smirks.

Catherine enters the living room and goes straight for the chips. She prances her plum-red pumps in a circle, cracking each chip into dust. Agnes rolls out of the way. Catherine flings her left pump at her.

Bernadette slides open the glass patio door. Fucking what, Catherine? The patronesses gasp at her bald head, the remaining tufts loose and wilting.

You’re so sweet, Bernadette, Catherine says, mid-prance. She pauses to blow the most radiant ring of smoke in Bernadette’s face.

Ladies, please. Clare, her voice as leveled as a network TV anchor’s, steps between Catherine and Bernadette.

Catherine tosses her cigarette into Clare’s wine glass.

This is way too fucking much, Brigid says. She takes her six pack of Guinness and heads out onto the front porch, followed by Teresa. Gertrude, who no one ever invites but still shows up, distracts the rest of the patronesses by describing her wild tale of sea monsters off the coast of Belgium that no one else can confirm. She may be as blind as Lucy, Agatha says.

Agnes moves in to sweep the last of Catherine’s crushed tortilla chips. No one’s as blind as Lucy.

Agatha chuckles, softly but not so softly, Breasts were pretty easy. Eyes? She’s insane.

Lucy, living for so long without her eyesight, has developed hearing like a cat’s. She pauses outside the living room with her two cheese plates, one of which was for Agatha.

Like tearing out your eyes will stop them, Catherine howls. The sliding door slams behind her.

And the house shakes.

Lucy takes her plates of cheese and goes up, up, up to where Petronilla, poor Petronilla, has once again gone and locked herself in the attic. Petronilla sits cross-legged on the dormer window’s cushioned seat and blows cigarette smoke out the window. Don’t say you’ve seen me, Petronilla says.

Lucy smiles, That won’t be hard, Nilla.

Petronilla guides Lucy to the window. She trades her pack of Pall Malls for Lucy’s plates of cheese. She takes three small, slow bites of some cheddar jack before retching. Swallow, Lucy says, it’ll go away. They smoke Pall Malls together and eavesdrop on Catherine and Bernadette, below on the patio. We don’t need another breakdown, Bernadette yells. There’s a crash and some shattering: glass and ceramic. Then a rolling, rolling, rolling.

Shit! Bernadette screams.

The planters, Petronilla whispers to Lucy.

Kill yourself with the sword of hate and love! Catherine yells.

What does she have this time? Lucy asks.

Petronilla peers out the dormer window. A ladder.

Christ. Lucy swipes the floor with both palms. Where are your cigarettes?

Petronilla balances two cigarettes between her lips and lights them simultaneously. What did you see, Petronilla asks as she places the lit cigarette between Lucy’s parted lips, when you cut them out? 

Lucy exhales. She remembers when men used to write poetry about her lovely, lovely eyes. Oh, Lucy with the sapphire eyes. Better than diamonds. Lucy was born sick of the schmaltz.

Lucy had a steady stream of suitors since childhood. Take a number, her parents would say, the line goes around the corner. Her mother had tried to match Lucy with the wealthy neighborhood boy. She had the wedding dress picked out, the venue chosen—everything was in order until Lucy went out one evening to purchase a gallon of milk and instead drove 300 miles west, only stopping to buy black hair dye and cheap aviator sunglasses.

The men would show up at her apartment with bouquets of red roses. One man came every day; Lucy refused to let him inside. He would kneel on that hideous linoleum hallway carpet and raise the bouquet to her breasts. Look at me, he said. Look at me kneeling for you. Professing like a pussy.

Lucy removes her aviators. Blue, she says. The ugliest blue, a screaming blue that bleached my memory.

Your eyes were blue, weren’t they? Petronilla says. Now you’ll never forget.

Blind and starving, Lucy says. That’s all they have saved for us.

Downstairs, Catherine rushes out the front door, barefoot now. She trips over Teresa and Brigid, who sit stiff and unblinking at the bottom of the front porch stairs, an open Guinness in each hand. They watch Catherine flail, shouting, pitching bottles of holy water across the lawn. Sparkling streams shoot across the starless sky.

Brigid places a finger in each ear as Teresa keeps whispering, My Lord. My Lord, it is time to move on.

Lauren Barbato’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hopkins ReviewBlackbirdNorth American ReviewHobartXRAY Literary, and Ms. magazine, among others. She is a Ph.D. student in religion and gender studies at Temple University and holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from Rutgers University-Newark.