Distant thunder reached into her dreams and she struggled to wake up wondering why it was so important that she did. She had been so comfortable, sunk deep in sleep for the first time in months. A breeze gusted over the divan on the back porch where she lay and her apron flipped up over her face and she woke with a start even before the next and more ominous rumble.
The sky was coming dark in the wrong direction for night and she struggled to her feet, the puffs of wind laden with ozone. Out in the yard, the clotheslines were lifting and straining, the sheets and pillowcases belling out and starting to crack. She’d save what she could, moving out across the yard at the best pace she could muster. The real problem would be carrying the basket inside. Her belly so much in the way now that she couldn’t get her arms around anything enough to lift it. She had carried the wet sheets from the porch two at a time, slung dripping over her shoulders, the cooling dampness had been welcome then; she was always hot. Now she was chilled and stiff with it.
The sheets shoved and slapped her as she fought to pull the wooden pins and keep the cloth from touching the ground at the same time. A second rinse in the rain was one thing, but she’d be damned if she was going to wash any of these over again. As she freed the third sheet and draped it doubled over her left shoulder, another gust of wind almost knocked her down and a bolt of lightning struck in the field across the road. She couldn’t even hear herself shriek the thunder was so deafening. Only three. Shit.
A fat bullet of rain struck her between her shoulder blades another on the nape of her neck as she reached the porch. Counting on the depth of the porch to keep her dry, she backed up to the divan and sat heavily. The starkly white sheets over both her shoulders and across her enormous stomach made her look like a Roman senator. “Did they wear white?” Hera wondered as she looked out across the wild laundry being subdued by the rain. A fresh but farther away peal of thunder startled her and a cramp in her leg brought her thoughts back to her body and it’s alien occupation.
She pointed her toes skyward to relieve the cramp and wrapped her arms around her belly for leverage before the tension and pain spread up to her thigh and butt. That’s when she realized that, for the first time in six or seven months, the plucking and churning inside of her had ceased. Complete and blessed stillness. Before she had time to be concerned, she leaned back on the divan, closed her eyes and waited for the internal assault to start back up and fell back into a sleep which fell off the edge into unconsciousness so profound that she was absent for the labor and delivery of the child. A soul vacation.
“Well, well. Look who’s back from the dead,” Brownie said as he held a cup with a glass straw to her lips. Hera struggled to swallow a mouthful of stale water. She couldn’t speak to ask the question and tried unsuccessfully to sit up. The strange bed was too soft and she was tucked in like a tick. He made no move to help her and sat back in the chair beside the bed and said, “Looks like you screwed this up too, Hera.” He paused long enough to take a pull from a flask he'd hidden in his greasy jacket. “It’s a girl. Eight pounds of beaver. I'll never hear the end of it down at the bar.”
There was a stained and crumpled paper sack at her feet on the coverlet. In it, one of his old handkerchiefs over which he’d poured a healthy squirt of gas while he was filling up the bike. All during the pregnancy, she’d craved the smell of gasoline the way other women went for ice cream and pickles. The fumes reached her from the bag and she threw up what little there was loose inside her sending Brownie retching and scrambling for a nurse.
She didn’t see him again until they kicked her and the baby out a week later and he was slightly drunk when he got there. The orderly wheeled her through the last doors out into the parking lot where she saw the Indian with the borrowed sidecar parked in the NO PARKING zone, Brownie leaning against the sign casually, having a smoke like he was waiting for the bus. She looked down at the swaddled baby sleeping in her arms.
Baby Brown looked like an oversize grub with a red face. Did babies know what kind of world they'd come into? What sort of people they were in the care of? She wanted to say to the orderly “Wait. Take her back inside with you,” but what kind of people did that? What kind of mother? As things turned out, no kind.
It was seven in the morning and already hotter than hell. How appropriate, Bridget thought, for surely, she was headed for hell. She was exhausted from the stress of concealing her condition. The only time when she might be able to have some relief was in the dark in her own bed at night, but the baby wouldn’t permit it. Not that it kicked and tumbled all night like she heard most did. This baby hid itself. Long periods, hours on end of stillness and she was in a panic that something was wrong, that it had died inside her. Died of her shame and fear of getting caught.
Wishing it away hadn’t worked. She had no plan for months, only the driving need to keep it all a secret. She had long given up hope that the child's father would make good on his promise to come for her on his next leave and, now that she thought the baby was coming, she made the irrational decision that it would be a good idea to go to confession before going to the hospital.
Why were those friggin’ dago boys so damned attractive? she wondered bitterly, and this one hardly speaking English. He was Angie's cousin, here on leave from the Italian navy, of all damned things. Who knew they had a navy?
“My name is Joey,” was about the longest string of English words he could put together, but what she clung to was the memory of how he had bent down from his six-foot and kissed her and touched her body so boldly. His black hair, wide brown eyes, and full lips made her weak-kneed and soft, but with that memory came a pain in her belly that expanded like the fireworks at Orchard Beach forcing her to lean against the brick wall with her hands spread and her knees locked or she would crumple to the dirty pavement.
They all went dancing and he had said “Ti amerò per sempre.” Angie laughed and said, “He says that to all the girls.” Still, she let him have his way and, even as another pain took hold of her body right on the heels of the last one, she didn't regret a minute of it.
Joey was long gone. There had been one postcard in hen-scratched Italian that Angie read aloud, doing her best to interpret. “Wish you were here with me and your pink titties?” Bridget had snatched the postcard from her fingers and ran.
A passing shower floated back off the pavement as steam and she was soaked through as she pulled the door of Holy Spirit open wide enough to allow her and her belly inside for some shelter, rest and confession where no one knew her. Her plan was to go to the hospital, have the baby, play the idiot and slip away when no one was looking, leaving the baby behind. Girls did it all the time.
Her water broke as she closed the massive wooden door of the church with her body weight and the pain that came with the action brought her to her knees. She crawled to an inner door and pulled herself up by the wrought iron door handle, and crouched in the darkness of the coat closet. Under a row of old wooden hangers, she slumped on the floor with the corner of an abandoned wool overcoat clenched in her teeth as she pushed the baby out onto the cool slate. He didn't cry and it was all she could do to scoop the slimy, bloody body into the hem of her dress and pass out.
Sister Ag arrived to see to preparations for early mass. She slipped in the puddle of fluid on the floor and fell flat on her back, cracking her head on the slate floor. Father Morelli found her minutes later and helped her to her feet. Together they followed the trail of liquid to the closet and made the discovery. The boy child quietly alive, still linked to his young mother who was still warm, barely.
The priest cut the cord with his pocket knife while he murmured the last rites. The nun wrapped the baby in a worn alter cloth and took him through the sanctuary to the convent kitchen next door while the priest finished the ritual and then called the police. The girl was gone long before they got there.
“Father Morelli, the EMT tells me that she had recently given birth.
"Where’s the baby, Father?” The officer was a parishioner at St.Ignatius. He was well aware that Holy Spirit had a long-standing reputation with hookers and street people as a safe haven for unwanted infants.
“Now Michael, you know very well that the child is safe and in good hands.”
The officer shrugged. “Just doing my paperwork Father, you know how it is.”
Normally, abandoned infants were placed in foster homes and the authorities contacted. This time was different. The church and city networks of foster homes were stretched to breaking. There was no one else to take on an infant at a moment’s notice. The baby could languish for weeks in a hospital nursery. The child appeared healthy. Silent, but alert. He was born in sanctuary and in sanctuary he would stay. Father Morelli and Sister Ag made an unspoken pact when they took the baby from the dead girl’s lap and the nun tied off the cord with a bit yarn pulled from the girl’s sweater. He belonged to the church. The convent’s cook had four at home, one still nursing. What was one more here?
He was kept in the motherhouse, everyone's pet. A utility closet just off the kitchen had room for a crib. In a house full of holy women, he was their dreamed of child. Passed from arm to arm to the housekeeper’s breast and back to another waiting nun. Their beautiful bastard boy. He was put into a playpen in the corner of the kitchen. Over his head, a little clock radio played softly, the station and music changing depending upon which nun was working in the kitchen that day. The novices and young sisters became his sisters, his first loves.
When all arms were busy he was tied in a sling across the lap of Mother Briganda. A stroke years before had taken her speech, but she could rock herself and her charge, her good right hand cupping his head. His round, bright eyes held hers as she crooned French lullabies from her own childhood as he fell asleep.
A few months passed and one day, she knew she was nearly out of time. The old nun stopped rocking, a bright beam of sunlight filtered down through a row of filthy glass panes set high in the front wall of the tiny library. The light flowed over the old woman and the baby in her lap. He opened his eyes and regarded her a moment and then went back to sleep.
I know you can hear me, Jack, and I know you’ll remember and understand. Never tell Jack. Never let them know what we can do. They won't hurt you. They'll hurt the people you love. Never tell. And if you can help it, never love.
Briganda hung on until Jack was taking his first steps. A novice went to get him from his crib one morning and found him in bed with the old nun, her arm around him securely, the covers clutched tight in her hand, his head tucked under her chin, thumb in his mouth.
They both needed a diaper change. St. Briganda’s soul had slipped away sometime before dawn. They were worried that Jack would be inconsolable. Instead, he would go into the front room, climb into her rocking chair and get it going at a gentle pace. There, he would hum to himself and be content as if she was still there beneath him.