"I'll wash your mouth out with soap," Sister Claire threatened. She had lots of threats, actually, but this one was a favourite. She was the meanest nun and had a tight, fierce rat face.
"Watch your tongue, or I'll wash out your mouth!"
The tricky part was her definition of bad language. One day when I used the word 'stupid' she hurled chalk at me in fury. "Do you want the soap?" she shouted.
Yes. Yes, actually. I wanted the soap.
I was curious about this threat. Why didn't she threaten to cut off my tongue? Or something actually scary? Soap wasn't scary. It was ordinary.
I wanted the soap.
But I didn't want Sister Claire touching me with her impatient bony hands, swabbing at my lips with the chalky bar of Ivory sitting by the arts-and-crafts clean-up sink. Embarrassing me. Liking it.
One morning at home I looked at the soap in the dish. A melty green bar of Irish Spring. How could this picayune object sitting peacefully in a puddle of its own slime be a thing of torture? I touched it to my lips. I licked it. It tasted like my dad's Sunday-washed face. It tasted fearful.
I sucked on the bar experimentally, like a candy bar. My tongue curled away and my mouth watered sickly. Bad, but not so bad. I watched myself in the mirror, washing out my mouth.
It seemed important to administer this punishment personally, to banish the power of Sister's threat even if I couldn't banish her shrill voice that splintered the air and made everyone feel sick.
Red sores appeared on each side of my mouth and the 'Irish clean' flavour clung to my tongue like algae.
Despite this I felt virtuous. Was this the punishment's purpose? (less)