By: Kathleen Renk
Working for God is never easy. I made my vows years ago, after being abandoned here at St. Brigid’s. The Laundry washed away my sin but I had nowhere to go so I started working for God. Chastity, obedience, and poverty were the vows that everyone took, but in time I also vowed vengeance. I couldn’t help myself. I’d been betrayed and no amount of penance would resolve the bitterness in my heart.
You’re probably thinking why would I want to hear a nun’s story? Think of it as a confession. I never did sort out that whole confession thing. Even as a child, I hated going into that dark coffin and whispering through a mesh partition into the ear of some man who claimed to speak for God. What gave him the right to hear all sorts of sordid stories of concupiscence, murder, and minor crimes of the heart? That box smelled dank with secrets, and I never knew what to confess. So I just invented something, like I stole the baby shoes that my neighbor hung on the fairy tree. That covered two sins – theft and covetousness. Or I made up some story about telling lies.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Since my last confession, I lied to me mother about going to mass to pray for me brother who’s sick with the fever. I didn’t go. Instead I hiked to the abbey.” I didn’t tell him that in reality I rambled past St. Brigid’s and sat on the cliff. To get there, I had to pass the well, where someone once saw the Virgin bless the water. For years, the crippled and deaf drank from its depths. But now no one came near it because once, when one of those desperate souls dragged himself to the well, the land around it puckered and the poor bastard was sucked right into hell. Surely, the Mother of God had abandoned the well; now the water was tainted. Miraculously, the hole disappeared and yet we were afraid that it could happen again. I gingerly skirted the well and made sure I was on firm ground before I sat down. It was worth the risk because the view was splendid. The sun peeked between the clouds. Giant plumes of seawater shot up and I watched seals climb the rocks below. Mother seals flapped their arms and bellowed as their babes clambered up the slippery stones. I imagined diving from that cliff and swimming away.
“Father, did you hear me? I said I lied.”
“Yes, I heard you.” I could see him nod, as if I had just woken him. “God despises liars, you know. Besides a young lass like yourself should not be wandering about alone. It’s not safe. For your penance, say one Our Father and five Hail Marys. Then seek our Holy Mother’s guidance.”
No matter what evil I revealed to the priest, who I swear always napped during my confession, he gave me the same sentence. Just say your prayers. No need to return the baby shoes or confess to your mother about your failure to care about your brother. No need to admit that you’re a liar. You are absolved. Go, sin no more.
On occasion, I sought the Virgin’s help, but she just looked at me. So, because she didn’t care about me, I racked up a pile of sins. I tallied them so that one day I could make a whopper of a confession, one that would wake that gnarly priest from his deathly sleep.
When those girls were left at our door, I saw each face as my own. They passed through our portal believing that we would save their wee ones that they carried beneath their hearts, some created by love, some begat by lust, some conceived from violence. Their families, like mine, believed they needed redemption. Their families, like mine, shunned them without condemning the young men who got them in the family way. Only the girls committed the crimes. And they trusted their lads to marry them. But their lovers betrayed them, just as their families had, and left them adrift with no one to see them safely to shore.
“What’s your name, lass?” I asked the tawny-haired waif standing in front of me.
“That’s not a saint’s name,” I remarked.
“Me full name is Sheila Clare Maloney. Named after Clare of Assisi, you know.”
“I know my saints’ names, thank you very much. Well, come in out of the rain. You need to confess. Then we’ll find you a bed.”
“Yes, Sister,” she replied as she wiped tears from her cheek.
“We don’t cry around here. Now gather your bag and follow me,” I said as I closed the door that shut out the world.
Sheila Clare Maloney was typical of the girls that God employed. She wore her shame on her torso with her little mound of a protruding belly that she cradled beneath her hand as she waddled down the hall. She seemed protective of that wee one even then and I could see that she knew that no matter how much we told her about how God despised her, she, like the others, thought that the child asleep in her womb was hers to keep. She was innocent, little more than a baby herself. She had no clue what was in store for her and her bairn.
“Must I, Sister?”
“Must you, what?”
“Confess. I confessed yesterday. I don’t want to have tell another.”
“We have rules here. You confess to our priest. Then you get a bed.” It was always the same with these girls. They weren’t afraid to sin but they never wanted to admit what they’d done. We had to break them of that, in order to scrub their souls.
I waited near the confessional, knowing her dread of baring her evil to a strange man.
Years ago, I felt sick to my stomach before I confessed, not because I was afraid of the priest, but because I was pregnant. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up in the confessional.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“Go ahead.” He sounded tired. It must be a burden to absorb the sins of others.
“My mum and da said I have to confess but I’m frightened.”
“Don’t fret, child. God forgives all.”
“I stole baby shoes from the fairy tree that my neighbor Mrs. McElroy placed there. Her womb is barren you see. She longs for a baby.”
He wasn’t impressed. “Is that all?”
“No.” I screwed up my courage and blurted out the rest, “I swiped the baby shoes because I’m with child.” There I said it. I wasn’t ashamed. I smiled, knowing that he couldn’t see that I was happy. I would be a good mum. They would all see that I was not a wicked girl but an upright one who got on in the world.
“And who is the young man?”
“Who is the father and has he promised to marry you?”
“No, Father. And I ain’t saying who he is. You can’t make me. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but you can just think of it as like what happened to the virgin who God got pregnant. Pretend it’s an immaculate conception.” Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut, but it was too late. I couldn’t take back the words, which were now out in the world.
Even though it was dark, I swear I could see the blood rush to the priest’s cheeks.
“You need to watch what you say, young lady, or you’ll find yourself slipping into hell. I’ll need to warn the sisters about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re sending you to work at St. Brigid’s, where the fallen girls go.”
“I won’t go.”
“You’ll do as I say.”
“I thought you said God forgives all.”
“He does. But you have to do your time. Clearly, young woman, you need to seek the Holy Mother’s guidance and learn that a virtuous woman remains silent, chaste, and obedient. You lack chastity and you’re quarrelsome and wicked.”
Bile rose in my throat.
Finally the priest doled out my penance. “Say one Our Father and five Hail Marys.”
“Yes, Father,” I said, as I felt a wave of nausea. I raced from the confessional. Once I outside the church, I threw up all over my shoes. Then my parents carried me to prison.
I heard whispers through the curtain even as our Blessed Mother looked down. She was too good to hear a sordid story. She, of course, remained a virgin, even when God lay with her and made her His Mother. She had no time for girls who let boys have their way with them.
His name was Brian O’Leary. He had a huge grin and clear blue eyes that looked just like the sea in the cove. I was sitting on my spot near St. Brigid’s when one day here came this boy trundling up the mountain. He suddenly looked a man; he was long and lanky; his shoulders broad. He looked like he could tote the world around on one arm.
“How’s youse on this brilliant day?” he asked, as he plopped his knapsack beside me.
“Grand. Where you off to?”
“Going to the next county over, to Boston, to find me pot of gold,” he laughed, as he pointed across the water.
“Can I go with you?” Even though I was 16, I knew that I was ready to get out of here before someone pulled me down into this grave of a land.
“Nah, I’m on me own. Maybe I’ll come back, if you promise to be right here waiting for me.” He broke his face into a giant grin.
“You’re fooling with me. I can’t wait here. I have places to go too.”
“Oh, yeah, and where’d that be?”
“Going to Canada,” I said, as easily as if it were true. With all of my confessional fluency, the lies just rolled out of my mouth like waves.
“That so. Well, maybe I’ll see you there, if you’re lucky,” he laughed as he ambled off.
Of course, neither of us intended to go anywhere. We were just dreaming of escaping this place that was trying to bury us in its blighted past. We both knew that we’d never leave but it didn’t hurt to dream about another world. It didn’t hurt to fancy a life of freedom and pleasure, not pain. But we never left, at least not together. Instead we met regularly on that cliff and grew close, just like two people made into one.
Sheila knelt next to me. In the candlelight, I saw the tears. That old man had gotten her to cry. That’s good, I thought, even though I told her we don’t cry around here. Sometimes tears wash the window of the soul clean so you can start again.
“Here’s your washtub and board; you do know how to scrub clothes, don’t you?” I asked as I sat her before her tub. I don’t know who figured that the laundry was the best mode of redemption for wayward girls. I suppose it was that cleanliness is next to godliness thing that we’d heard forever, but, of course, the Irish were always accused of being filthy by our conquerors who had the Puritan streak straight through their Anglican hearts. How would you like to try to keep ten children in fresh clothes, while running a tenant farm? My mother tried; she never succeeded. Nevertheless, we still believed that the soul could be made shiny and the laundry would do that.
“Of course, Sister, me mother taught me.” She commenced to scrub the linen.
“When you get done, I’ll show you how to scrub the floor.”
“Sister, when can I have me breakfast?”
“Work first, then chapel, then food. That’s the way we do things. This ain’t the lap of luxury, you know.”
“Oh, what was that? I felt a flutter, like butterfly wings.”
“You are a stupid girl. That’s your baby saying good morning. Now get busy so you can give her some food. The sooner you get that linen clean, the sooner you can eat.”
I saw a sly look on her face, as if the Holy Ghost himself had descended into her belly and fluttered about. But she was a stupid girl, as stupid as I was when I felt the flutter of those wings inside me.
“Brian, can you feel it? Put your hand here, she’s stirring about, letting me know she’s alive.”
I reached for my love’s hand; he pulled away.
“I can’t, if I touch it, it’ll be real and then …”
“And then what?” I panicked. “And then what would you do?”
We made sure those girls were good and tired and didn’t have time to think. The priests told us to work those girls until their knuckles were raw. The laundry wasn’t enough to cleanse them from top to bottom. They had to dig deep to scrub away the sins of the flesh and thereby get them back in a state of grace. It was hopeless. If they had one moment to themselves, they’d think of the face of their beloved and then they’d think of their sin. Then they’d have to scrub some more just to wash away their dirty thoughts.
I peered down into the water that beat itself hard against the stone. The water looked inviting and I thought about selkies who knew how to change themselves from mortal to animal. The night before I told me mum and da about my sin, I reflected on the story of the selkie who even when she found her skin didn’t want to return to the sea as she ought. I thought she was a fool. In those watery depths, there could be another world where you might find peace. Brian and I had wanted to run off at one time, but when he refused to touch me and didn’t want to know about the life growing inside of me, I knew he had betrayed me, even before he left in the middle of the night. He did leave me a note saying that he had loved me but that he wasn’t ready to be a da.
His face floated before me, riding along the sea. I wanted to jump to him and say, “And why did you do it, Brian? Why did you end up caring only about youseself? You selfish bastard.”
Sometimes those girls worked so hard that their water burst, flooding the floor. We had a devil of a time cleaning up the mess, and then, of course, some of the babes just slipped right onto the floor.
That’s what happened to Sheila’s babe who had made up her mind to enter the world before her time. Sheila had been careful with the little vixen inside of her, often cradling her stomach as if it was Baby Jesus himself.
“Sister, something’s happened. I felt a snap and then look.” The water gushed beneath her whenever her womb seized up. “Can we make it stop? It’s too early. The doctor said that baby would come in May; it’s only March.”
She was crying like a baby herself; I took charge, just like I always did with these fallen girls.
“God has decided that this baby will be born today. It’s not our role to question God’s plan.”
“But, Sister, I’m scared.”
I wish there had been one kind face looking at me as I pushed. Even the Virgin Mary who stood in the corner seemed to scowl. All they did was shout, “Push down hard.”
I screamed, “I can’t do this. Please, I want me mum.”
“Your mum left you here. She can’t help you,” Sister Evangelina remarked.
“I’m going to die!” I was out of my head.
“Don’t be silly. Girls just like you have been doing this ever since Eve.”
I pushed until Evangelina told me to stop.
“The head’s out. Now just pant.”
I felt a whoosh and the baby slipped out, like a slippery seal.
Evangelina held her up and showed me her sweet face. Her hair was wet and splattered with my blood; her hair was fair like mine. She struggled to open her eyes; they were as big and blue as the mighty ocean.
“You can look but not touch.”
“She’s God’s orphan. She’s promised to a young couple that cannot have children.”
“What do you mean? You can’t take my baby from me.” I tried to sit up but hands pushed me down.
“Yes, we can; you’re not a fit parent. The baby will have a proper home,” Evangelina said as she handed my daughter Rose to another sister who swaddled her and marched her through the door.
“Please, God, no, you never told me.” I looked around at all of their smug faces but they couldn’t look me in the eye. The Virgin Mary glanced at me and instead of standing in judgment, this time she looked like she might weep. I’d been tricked; she felt sorry for me.
“Sister, my breasts are hard like rocks. My baby needs me. Who’s feeding her?” I remembered those aching breasts that needed to be nursed once the milk filled them. They sometimes would gush and leak.
“It’s none of your business.”
“How’s it none of my business? She’s my child.”
“Not anymore. Your parents turned her over to us.”
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“You are just the vessel God uses to provide good people a child. Do you understand?”
“But she’s mine!”
“In time you’ll forget. I’ll bind your breasts so the milk will dry up.” Perhaps when they’re bound, you’ll forget and carry on.
I bound her breasts with the linen that she’d washed, wrapping her as if I swaddled her in her shroud.
When the child struggled to stay warm and breathe, I took one look at her face and felt a great pang in my heart. This child was my child’s twin. Her fair hair curled around her ears; her eyes were blue pools. I grabbed her little mitt and she held tightly to my finger. She rooted around. I heated bricks to place in her cradle. I gave her sugar water in a droplet. I sat by her cradle, listening for every breath that passed between her little lips. Even in the candle light, I could see that her lips were rosy and after a while, I drifted to sleep next to my child.
I often saw Sheila looking across the courtyard toward the nursery. I knew what she was thinking. She wanted to kidnap her baby. She had no idea that the child, who I called Rose after me own child, was already promised to a couple from Liverpool. I dreaded relinquishing the child who looked delighted whenever I placed her on my lap. She reached for my rosary and jiggled it, which made me laugh, although the other sisters scowled and told me to hand the child a rattle. I ignored them and acted deaf. I let Rosie play as she liked.
Sometimes I’d sing her the Cradle Song and her eyes would grow heavy:
Sleep, sleep grah mo chree
Here on your mama’s knee,
Angels are guarding
And they watch o’er thee
Her eyes closed. She melded into my body.
The English woman looked like she might blow away with a big wind. She wore a gaudy hat with a veil that covered her face and she donned white gloves all the way up to her elbows. Maybe she thought the baby would soil her clean hands.
The man was a stiff in his buttoned-up suit. He feigned interest as he looked around the nursery, saying, “Good morning, Sister, we’re the Gillespies, here to fetch our daughter.”
I decided right then and there that they weren’t right for my girl. They could have another child.
“Your daughter is here. We call her Frances, like the saint, but you can call her what you like.” I handed them a child that was not as bonny as my own.
I thought that no one would discover my trick but Sister Evangelina saw that I’d deceived the Gillespies. Of course, it didn’t matter much to them but Evangelina said that God knew what I’d done. A promise is a promise and I couldn’t be taking God’s will into my own hands. She said that I was forbidden to enter the nursery.
“But, who’ll take care of Rose?” I said.
“Sheila Maloney’s baby.”
“Oh, never you mind about that. I’ve assigned Brigid to the nursery. She’ll care for all the babes equally. No favorites.”
Months passed and still I couldn’t forget Rose. I imagined her toddling about on stout little legs. In my dreams, I saw her wandering near the well. I called out to her to stay clear. “Rosie, come here to mama,” I pleaded. She ignored me and kept circling that well. I was sure that she’d be swallowed up. I woke with a fright each night and when I lay my head on my pillow, I dreaded the sleep that would come, even though it allowed me to glimpse my girl.
Every time I saw Sheila scrubbing away her sin, I thought of my dear girl and I was reminded of Sheila’s grief, which was my own.
She looked a mess with her long hair knotted and unkempt, her hands blistered.
“Sheila, come with me.”
“Am I in trouble, Sister?”
I could see that she was afraid and thought that she might be punished, as if her punishment every day wasn’t enough.
We descended the steps that led to the catacombs that lay beneath the abbey. We passed the remains of mummified nuns. The place smelled moldy and rotten. Sheila reached for me when she heard a sound.
“What was that, Sister?”
“Some vermin. The place is crawling with ‘em,” I said as I tugged her arm and led her through the labyrinth. We were about to ascend the steps when I looked up and saw the figure carved into the wall. Those who built this place still believed the old ways. The Shelaagh-na-gig, with her legs spread wide giving birth to the world, stood over us. Sheila glanced at her namesake and she stumbled as we passed through the doorway. I bent to help her; we both walked through the door together.
When we finally ascended, we were at the nursery. We stood in great pools of light. Sheila’s face beamed like the sun itself, when she realized that she would soon see her sweet babe.
I slowly opened the door. The coast was clear and the two of us slipped into the room and headed for Rose’s crib.
I looked around and panicked.
“She’s not here,” I said to Sheila whose face was drained of blood and light.
“Sister, we have to find her.”
“Go back and return to work. I’ll find her. I promise,” I said as I shoved her out the door.
“Why are you helping me?”
I couldn’t tell her that her baby was mine.
The book was filled with countless names of mothers and their offspring. The entries were organized by year.
1950 Brenda Charlotte Finn, Baby X, adopted by Devlin and Marie O’Connor,
1952 Faye Anne McWilliams, Baby S, adopted by Cecil and Jane Morrow, Liverpool, England
I scanned 1952. No record. How could that be? She was gone. Surely she was adopted. Evangelina kept meticulous records. She would never make a mistake.
I flipped through the pages quickly. It was as if she never existed. I hurriedly dug through the desk. What had become of my girl? How would I find her when there was no record that she ever existed? .
If there were secrets to hide, they’d be buried in Evangelina’s cell. So when we were at Evensong, I feigned illness. I knew that I’d have no more than fifteen minutes. I practically ran down the hall. I dug under the bed and scoured the small nightstand. Nothing. My heart was pounding so hard that I heard it beat in my ears. What would the good sister do if she found me digging through her cell? I decided that I didn’t care. They could hang me. Excommunicate me. I was determined to find my girl.
I had nearly given up when I spied a small stone that had been pried from the wall. I pulled it out and saw a book. I thumbed through the pages and there it was. The other list. I recognized Evangelina’s elegant hand which had inscribed the names. Next to the Magdalene’s name a line had been drawn through the baby’s. There were pages and pages, going all the way back to the opening of the Laundry. My heart ached. I dared not look but I had to. I scrolled down. Nothing. I flipped the pages and nearly swooned when I saw my own name with a line that erased my child’s life.
The well was dark and murky; it stank like a cesspool. I was mortally scared but I had to look to confirm what had been revealed to me. When I saw the tiny bones floating at the bottom, I had to steady myself. I swear to God I saw the babes’ souls fluttering in the foul water. I struggled to reach in and help them but my arms weren’t long enough. I absolving them and myself of the sins of craven humanity.
“What can I do for you, Sister?” The fat constable sat behind a desk overflowing with papers and dirty tea cups.
“I’m here to expose a crime.”
“Now what might that be?” he smirked as if I was about to tell him about penny thievery.
“Someone has been murdering the babies at the abbey. I found their bones at the bottom of the old well,” I blurted.
He looked incredulous.
“Now that’s quite an accusation. And how did you discover this?”
“Our Holy Mother told me,” I said matter-of-factly.
“You mean the abbess?”
“Oh, God, no. The Mother of God told me. She told me to look in the well and I would see the truth.”
“The Mother of God told you.”
“That’s right. Are you deaf, man?”
“The Mother of God talks to you?”
“Of course, doesn’t she to you? What kind of Catholic are you?”
He ignored my question. “And how did the babies get in the well?” he asked.
“I told you. Evangelina and the others. They are all in it together. They threw the babies in there, so no one would know that they didn’t love them enough.”
The constable stared at me.
“They’ve been doing it for years. There are piles of bones. They need to be buried properly.”
“Perhaps you’re mistaken. Maybe they’re animal bones.”
“No, I could see they were baby bones and I heard them crying to me.”
“You heard the bones cry?”
“No, I heard the babes’ souls cry, fool.”
He fussed with papers on his desk. He took a sip of tea from a dirty mug. The man had no manners whatsoever. He never even offered me a cuppa.
“If you’ll just come with me, I’ll show you. Something must be done. The place needs to be closed. The girls need to be released. Oh, Mother of God, why was I so blind?” I felt hysterical.
“Now, Sister. I can see that you’re upset,” he said as he reached over and patted my hand.
“Don’t touch me,” I said as I yanked my hand away.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
I glared at him, letting him know that he didn’t scare me.
“Even though I have my doubts, we’ll look into it. For now, I’ll get my man to escort you home. Don’t you worry. We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he said without realizing his irony. I could see that he was a foolish, stupid, lying man.
No one investigated. I decided to tell Father Flynn. He was sensible; he despised treachery and had stood up to the archbishop on occasion. He’d see that justice was done. I felt tainted by the entire story. I’d make my confession.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I betrayed myself and all the young women who passed through these gates.”
“And how did you do that, Sister?”
“I had a hard heart.”
“I’m sure you were only doing your duty.”
“No, Father, I closed my eyes to what was going on around me. I let the Sisters kill the wee ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“I found dead babies in the well, Father. Their souls were crying to me. Oh, what have I done? I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“No, Father, I saw them with me own eyes. What will you do, Father? You must do something. Tell the bishop. The Pope. Shout it from the pulpit.”
“Sister, for God’s sake. You need some rest.”
“I don’t need rest. I need the church to wake up.”
“What are you saying? The church is always awake. It’s led by God himself.”
“Then God needs to wake up.”
“You go too far! You must examine your conscience.”
“But I have, Father, that’s why I’m here. I demand justice.”
“Justice will be served by God alone. Not here, not now. But first, I want you to say one Our Father and five Hail Marys. Then I want you to rest,” he said. “Do you understand, Sister Clare?”
“But, Father, you must believe me.”
“Of course, I believe you. Lying’s a sin. You’d never lie.”
The little ones sang to me. Rose sang the loudest. I looked deeper and saw the face of the poor soul, Sheila Clare Maloney, who cradled her wee one next to her heart.