Note: While I'm normally not that fond of Esther as a character, this story is about her, and it comes from a song. I always loved the song "Once Upon a December" from the animated film ANASTASIA, and in a way, the song as it originally stands makes for a great character song for Esther. But we're not allowed to quote lyrics on here, so I decided to slightly rewrite them... and ended up rewriting them for Johanna (the song becomes "Once Upon a September" as that is when my anniversary is).
This story references events in "Unexpected Results II: In All the Empty Places."
The lyrics you read here all came out in a single burst of inspiration while listening to the song, with no edits.
Once Upon a September
Sister Esther sighed and determinedly stared at the book she had open in front of her. As part of her AX studies, Father Havel had her doing research in the library, but ever since her conversation with Father Wordsworth the other day, she hadn't been able to concentrate.
"Is it that you're jealous of Sister Johanna?"
At the time, Esther had blurted out a denial, but even then, she'd wondered if maybe she was. After all, Johanna was just as new to the AX as she was, and yet Johanna had been sent out on an important assignment, while Esther was kept in the Vatican. But even after Father Wordsworth's explanation, she still couldn't quite put her finger on what was bothering her.
With another sigh, Esther closed the book and set it to one side, then rested her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, frowning in thought.
In a way, Father Wordsworth was right about Johanna's abilities. Johanna's almost old enough to be my mother, so naturally she's a bit more savvy about life in general. And then there's her knowledge of Lost Technology, a rare commodity these days in people. Not to mention that ability to do... whatever she did in Borghese Park.
But as Esther considered each of these, none of them really gave her that sinking feeling in her stomach that she often got when around the other nun, so she changed the direction of her thoughts.
Is it that Cardinal Caterina trusts her? No... and she didn't seem particularly close to Sister Kate or Sister Noelle, either, although she's usually friendly enough around them.
Then in her mind, Esther pictured Johanna with each of the priests, and the sinking feeling in her stomach returned when she imagined Johanna with Father Nightroad.
"Why?" she whispered aloud. "Why does the idea of her working with Father Nightroad bother me?"
Her mind flashed back to Ishtvan, and standing outside of St. Matthias.
"Why are you doing this?"
"You have to ask, really? Well, it's because... I am your friend."
He had looked at her with such tenderness then, such affection. And Esther unconsciously tensed at the idea of him looking at Sister Johanna in the same fashion.
But then another image came to her mind, unbidden... Johanna, the other day, sitting with Father Wordsworth in the warehouse.
"I had a life... a family... a husband... friends... a career... and then, one day I found myself here, in Father William's containment unit, with no explanation and no warning. And with no way home. Now the AX is all I have."
The other Sister had been matter-of-fact about her circumstances, but there was no mistaking the sadness in her voice.
"Is... is that what Father Nightroad saw in her?" she wondered aloud. "That sadness?"
Drawn by an impulse she didn't understand, Esther got to her feet and went looking for Sister Johanna. But she wasn't in her room, nor was she in the medical wing. Eventually, however, Esther became aware of the sound of music coming from the large, comfortable chamber that had been assigned as the AX's common room, and sure enough, there was Johanna seated at the piano, playing her way with enthusiasm through a classical piece that sounded vaguely familiar.
"Sister Johanna?" Esther called out tentatively, and Johanna stopped to look over her shoulder.
"Sister Esther, hi! What can I do for you?" Immediately she frowned. "Was I playing too loud again?"
"What? Oh, no." Esther crossed the room to stand beside the piano. "I didn't know you played."
"For..." Johanna paused to consider. "Wow... it'll be thirty years soon."
"Really?!" The younger Sister's mouth fell open.
The dark-haired nun nodded and lightly ran her fingers over the keys. "My father taught me how when I was four. When I was younger, I wanted to study music, but my parents forbade me to do so."
"What?! Why?" Esther was shocked. "With your talent-"
"No money in it. It's a tough life, being a professional musician, and a competitive one. That's why I went into linguistics and research. So now, I only play for myself." Johanna looked somber for a moment, and Esther caught the same sense of sadness she'd glimpsed the other night. But then Johanna brightened again with an effort. "But enough about me, what brings you here?"
"Oh, I, um... well..." Esther drew a deep breath. "I wanted to apologize if I seemed rude the other night."
Johanna waved away the apology. "It was no big deal, don't worry about it."
"Oh... well..." The red-haired nun was lost for words, having half-expected to explain herself, but Johanna seemed genuinely unconcerned. "That... that was it, really. I'll let you get back to your practice."
She turned to go, but then she turned back. "Do you mind if I listen to you play?"
"Not at all," Johanna said with a grin, "just don't mind me if I stop in mid-piece to go on to something else." She played a quick scale with a flourish. "Any requests?"
Esther shook her head and took a seat in an armchair near the fireplace, watching the other woman at the piano, and saw Johanna rest her elbows on the keys and put her chin in her hands as she considered. For a moment, the younger nun was startled to see Johanna doing the same thing as herself earlier.
Johanna, on the other hand, was studying Esther intently, and then a slow smile crossed her face.
"I know," she said slowly, then she lifted her hands and began to play a lilting waltz, almost like something Esther would hear in a music box. Esther was enchanted not only by the delicate tones that the other woman was coaxing from the piano, but by the look of pure rapture on Johanna's face as she played.
Then Johanna began to softly sing along to her playing in a slightly husky alto.
"From my life long ago
I still fondly remember
A sweet love so few know
Once upon a September...
Teasing smiles on his face
Sleeping safely in his embrace
Simple joys he'd shared with me
Now only memory..."
Esther went absolutely still at the other nun's song as Johanna seemed lost in her music. She wasn't sure what stunned her more - that Johanna wasn't even looking at the keyboard, the absolute longing and wistfulness in her voice as she sang... or the tears that were slowly sliding down Johanna's face.
"Teasing smiles on his face
Sleeping safely in his embrace
Simple joys he'd shared with me
Now only memory...
Words I wish I could say
Things I need to remember
Over time fade away
Growing dim as an ember..."
Johanna's playing slowed as she neared the end of the song, and Esther felt herself grow cold at the other nun's choice of song. For as long as she could remember, she had been haunted by how much she didn't know about her own past, but she had always clung to the fragile hope that maybe one day, she would be able to learn the truth.
I have the chance to rediscover my past... but Johanna can only watch hers fade away.
"All but one perfect day
Once upon a September..."
Miraculously managing to get through the entire song without her voice breaking, Johanna played the last few notes, then she rested her arms on the edge of the piano, lowered her forehead to her arms, and quietly began to cry.
And in that instant, Esther understood.
This was what Father Nightroad had seen... both in Johanna... and in herself.
Unaware of the tears on her own face, Esther got up and sat next to Johanna, putting her arms around her. And together the two Sisters wept for all they had lost, united in silent communion.