Martha’s repetition of the painter’s identity brought Philip and Margaret to my side, vying for the closest look at the portrait, before Martha’s mouth closed upon the final syllable.
“Papa, did you paint our mama’s picture?”
“Did you make a silhouette?”
“Did you paint a picture of yourself?”
Thrilled as I was to see this remnant of Kit’s artistry, I was also thick of thought. The painting was too much of a surprise. It was some moments before I asked Suzanne, “Who did you say gave this to you?”
“I have always had it,” she wrote. “I cannot remember never having it. I grew up wearing it. I kiss it before I lie down at night. This is all I know of my mother. I am grateful to my father for having painted it. I wish I had a picture of him, too.”
Her face glowed like an ember as she added and then showed me the last sentence.
Kit might have lacked the full complement of facial features that would have allowed most people to read his emotions, but during the course of fifteen years I had come to recognize his slightest shifts of sentiment. As the children and I perused the portrait, and as his offspring blurted their carefree interrogation, he maneuvered his food about the plate with a light, deft ballet of knife point and fork, yet refrained from bringing any of the products of that ballet to his mouth. His lips crinkled together like the spot one misses when ironing linen. The absence of the rise and fall of his chest denoted the presence of the sort of weighty concerns that tend to grip the breath out of us.
To me at that instant, he was strung tighter than a badly tuned violin. Either he had no idea what to say, or he preferred to ignore the issue at hand.
It is never a good thing to hesitate when answering a child’s question. The child is bound to supply his own answer, a remedy that often has no foundation in fact. A parent has to say something, so I volunteered my own assessment of why there was no picture of Kit: “I never knew him to indulge in self-portraiture.”
At the same time, while I bravely plowed ahead, Kit offered his own version of the matter: “I had none of the vanity required to sit for a portrait by myself or by anybody else.”
He might have spoken honestly about the want of vanity, but there was no truth to the hint about the want of pictures. His parents preserved two miniatures of him, one from when he was a boy, and one from when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The latter was to be a gift to his mother’s mother, who lived in New York, but the elderly lady died soon before it was completed. His parents had wanted to give me the portraits, but I preferred not to take the images away from them. I told them it was enough for me to remember Kit as he once had been, and I had no right to enjoy something which he himself could no longer see. At heart, though, I was afraid to see the pictures. I would wish he had never gone to France. And I would waste too much of his life and mine pining for what never could be.
I wondered if he had abandoned all memory of the portraits. Surely, he could not have meant to lie. Lying was against his nature and calling. I studied the entirety of his demeanor and what remained of his countenance but detected nothing to suggest he would fear I knew his story was a fraud.
As the meal concluded, Kit proposed that he and Philip go for a walk while the ladies tended to the dishes and acquainted themselves with each other.
The boy was already sidling toward the hallway. “With all respect, Papa, I’d like to stay and talk with Suzanne about what France was like while Bonaparte was emperor.”
“All you need to know is that Bonaparte was a despot and a murderer. He had no more right to a lofty title than any man. Suzanne is in America now. You’d do best to occupy your time with what’s happening in the back yard, not half a world away.”
“But I like learning about faraway places! Please, Father Father?”
Kit often exerted his authority over a rambunctious child by withholding an immediate reply. The tactic usually quelled the offender by shifting his or her thoughts away from the subject of the argument and onto what Papa could possibly be thinking. Assured that Philip had stopped whining and was now paying attention, Kit said, “You do realize she has only a limited amount of paper on which to write.”
“Yes. We can use what we have around the house if she runs out.”
“I do hope you mean to ask me or your mother if you may borrow some of that paper when the time comes.”
“Perhaps she’ll have no need of it. If she does, then she’ll have to ask for it herself. She’s not a guest; she’s family, and you’re not her servant. And, Philip?”
The boy, who had dashed out of the dining room, looked back from where he pulled up in the hallway.
“Philip, you mustn’t let her write while you and your sisters do all the work. Everyone needs to help. Including Suzanne.”
“Yes, Papa. What about Lizzie?”
“What about Lizzie.”
The littlest one was now on Kit’s lap, lumped against him in the stupor that stifles small bodies when they eat too much.
“Shouldn’t she help in the kitchen, too?”
“Surely, if you’d like to pay for new plates to replace the ones she drops.”
“But she must be able to do something, if you want us all to help.”
Philip attended to Kit’s silence and wisely continued to the kitchen where, in their eagerness to know all about the fashions in Paris, Martha and Margaret spoke over each other. Brief silences ended in spurts of giggles as I presumed they read what Suzanne wrote in response to their questions. The sporadic clash of plates and pots and pans assured me that someone was getting on with the chores. I peeked into the kitchen to see Evvie drying crockery while Philip and his sisters read over Suzanne’s shoulder as she scrawled away in her notebook. The way she was going, I feared Philip’s foresight about the need for more paper would too soon prove too accurate.
The children were, in the manner of all children, seeking to know each other with the curiosity natural to all children: spontaneous, without artifice, fearless of what could be revealed. I had no heart to remind them about the housework. The novelty of their meeting was bound to wear down. They would settle into the daily doings.
“No, they won’t,” Kit said when I told him what I had seen. “The girl’s not here a day and she’s already causing discord.”
“Causing discord! How? By amusing her sisters?”
“You saw . . . ” Lizzie on his lap was sleeping. Either fearing to wake her or fearing that any of the others would hear, he lowered his voice, compelling me to sit beside him so that I myself might hear. “You saw how Philip acted with me.”
“He’s growing up. That sort of thing happens to children. Along the way, they test everyone. You know this, Kit. You’re a teacher. Your students test you every day.”
He made a noise between acknowledgement and derision. “Arrows in the hand of the giant.”
The remark was so removed from our discussion that I begged his pardon.
“Psalm One Twenty-Seven. ‘Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant, even so are the young children. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.’ Clearly, the man who wrote that had no idea what he was talking about.”
“Yes, he did. He knew that the world is a dangerous place; that the more family we have, the better we are to withstand whatever the world throws at us.”
Kit found and kissed my hand. A smile flickered, enticing me to think an endearment would follow. I heard, instead, a whispered exhortation: “Watch her, Jan. Watch her closely.”
By “her” I understood “Suzanne.” “Whatever for?”
“For any word or act that would expose her as a fraud.”
There is little as disquieting as a spouse in the grip of a notion that runs afoul of reality. Though I had no doubt Suzanne was Kit’s daughter, I also had no doubt that nothing I said would persuade him to join me in this belief. I promised to do as he asked, confident that my reports alone would be enough to convince him of the girl’s authenticity.
I perceived neither smugness nor cleverness about Suzanne. Nor did I see any stiffness or exaggeration that would suggest she was not what she claimed to be. I saw only a child striving to become acquainted with her brother and sisters, and with her mother. She made no overtures to her father. Later in the evening, as Philip and Martha took turns reading him the papers, I noted how often she looked at him. I wondered if she hoped her father would speak to her, or if she was fascinated by his appearance. When he did not address her, she looked at me and then, seeing me already looking at her, averted her eyes as if ashamed I had caught her staring at him.
Her manner bolstered my trust in her innocence, for I still believed shame was a lesson beyond the reach of false hearts.
A visitor arriving at that instant would have thought we were waiting for someone to die, our conduct was so melancholy. Neither of us could make sense of the matter. Nearly fifteen years had passed since those horrific days in France. Why wait so long to reveal the girl’s presence? And why send her to America now? The country was in the second year of war with England, a war many were calling the Second War of Independence. British troops were said to be advancing from the northernmost regions of New York State. Kit had always believed they meant to take Philadelphia. Though the city was no longer our nation’s capital, it was still the place where America had declared freedom from Great Britain. Seizing Philadelphia would be akin to exacting revenge.
“It may be that whoever was taking care of her grew tired of her,” I offered, though sensing I must be wrong. “Or perhaps he couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. The French Empire is done with. The nation is as poor now as it was when we were there in the last months of the Revolution. Whoever had her probably couldn’t afford to feed his own children. Why should he care for the child of a mere stranger?”
Kit’s reply was a sound of contempt. “I was not a mere stranger. If I were, I wouldn’t be as you see me, and we would be living in a parish somewhere out in the country, ministering to people who aspire for nothing grander than a peaceful life and a happy death.”
“You can’t speak about what might have been,” I said. “It could not have been, else it would have been.”
“And what we are dealing with is something that should not have been and should not be. That child was dead to me, and now she’s alive, and she’s being foisted upon us. You won’t abide her, Jan. You might look at her and speak to her and treat her as one of your own, but when you see her, all you’ll think of is her mother, and France, and what happened in France.”
What I thought at the moment was that this was a strange rationalization from a man who carried the souvenir of that time on his face. “Haven’t you ever once considered that all I have to do to think of France and what happened in France is to look at you? Do you think I can’t abide you yourself for it? You once told me that what happened in France had been worth it, if only because it brought us together. I think you owe Suzanne’s mother gratitude greater than you’ll ever allow yourself to say. Or have you convinced yourself that your current union is every bit as unfortunate as the first?”
I had meant to comfort him by making him see the flaw in his argument. The shocked pause and the teary whisper of my name that followed persuaded me of the foulness of the cleverness I had just harvested. “Good God, Jan, I would never think that. Never! What must you think of me to imagine I could?”
I begged him to forgive me and confessed I could hardly account for my reasoning. Most likely I was more stricken by the blow of Bishop White’s revelation than I had suspected. And I was exhausted: by its effect on my husband, by the anticipation of meeting the girl, by the inability to understand why indeed she should be sent to us at that time.
Kit, meanwhile, was astew in the errors of his own ways, the least of which were self-pity and remorse for making me suspect our marriage was a gross error. Once their friends went home, we gathered the children around the table and told them told them about their big sister. Their father was both parish priest and teacher, so they were accustomed to hearing about all phases of life, including the death of wives and husbands. They accepted the news of their sibling with the insouciance of their station. As Kit led us in Compline before bedtime, they reminded him to include a prayer of thanksgiving for their new sister. Though he readily did so, his delivery throughout Compline was contemplative, sometimes removed. I sensed he wasn’t leading us in prayer as much as he was seeking answers for himself.
We retired as was our custom, too caught up in the possibilities of the following day to sleep. After listening to every church clock in Philadelphia strike hours that denoted both late night and early morn, we abandoned words as a mode of solace and undertook the form of expression whose depth is best proved by glistening moonlit limbs and the silent witness of cast-off nightclothes on the floor. We stayed as one until daybreak, unwilling to part because we were more unwilling to confront whatever Suzanne DeWaere was about to bring into our home.
She was to arrive in time to help us prepare the midday dinner. Kit and I had decided it would be best if she not be coddled like a guest. If she wanted to belong, then she must participate, not be entertained.
As the hour drew near, the children debated what their sister would look like and listed all the games they could play and the places they could visit with her. Kit stood apart, head bowed, hands clasped behind his back. I put my arm around him. “All will be well. It’s got to be well! There’s no turning back.”
“It’s not that,” he replied. “I’m listening. They’re so eager to meet her.”
“The children? You should be glad.”
“I should be, but I’m not. To tell you the truth, I have no paternal feelings for the creature. I’ll welcome her into our home, but I want her to understand I’m no sentimental fool of a paterfamilias. Ergo, please don’t be surprised if I refrain from weeping and singing a Te Deum the instant I meet her. This is no adaptation of The Prodigal Son. I will doubt her identity until my last conscious instant upon the earth.”
As Kit foretold, the meeting was indeed no incarnation of The Prodigal Son. Though our children betrayed their excitement through giggles and whispers, there was no father or progeny weeping with the joy, relief, contrition, and forgiveness understood in the parable. There was no momentum to inspire such an outburst. The girl that Bishop White escorted across our threshold was small and ordinary in appearance; she had her mother’s pale skin and curly brunette hair, but not her lively disposition or her beauty. She looked at the floor, not at us.
As the bishop introduced her, she curtsied. Without embellishment, Kit said, “Welcome to our home, Suzanne,” and the girl, pale, perhaps ill with the urge to flee and, perhaps, with the attempt to not become ill, looked from him to the bishop to me, as if begging someone to tell her what she should do. Perhaps, too, she sensed her father’s lack of enthusiasm and understood she was not wanted.
It hurt to see her so wretched. I hoped to make her more at ease by embracing her as a mother and introducing her brother, who bowed as serious as someone twice his age, and her sisters, who curtsied and flitted around her, welcoming her with kisses.
She took a notebook from her reticule and hastily wrote a brief passage, which I read aloud. “What shall I call you?” She had shown me the notebook so that I could read the words aloud but was looking at Kit.
“Sometimes we call him Father Father, because he’s a papa and a priest,” Philip intervened. “That’s what he called his own father.”
“Thank you, Master DeWaere” Kit said, silencing his son, who giggled at the disguised reprimand. “You may call me what you hear the other children calling me, whether it be Papa or Father Father.”
“But will it matter, Father, if . . . ”
I glared the rest of Philip’s question into silence. Yes, I knew what the apple of my eye was going to say because I was thinking the same: Does it matter what she calls Kit if she cannot speak to him and he can’t see what she writes?
She scribbled a second note: “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome,” Kit said with no pretense of the familiarity that suggests to the uninitiated that a conversation is taking place between two people who are of the same blood and residence.
Not long after, Bishop White instructed his driver to place Suzanne’s portmanteau in the room we kept for visitors, and left us to get on with our day.
The latest member of our family helped the girls set the table and did other small things as asked, but she failed to shed the wide eyes and furrowed brow that had marked her distress upon entering the house. I noted her appearance to Kit, who I found sitting in the parlor. “You really should make her feel like one of the brood.”
“She is not one of the brood.”
“She’s your child!”
He raised his head toward my voice. “What do you feel when the stranger you’ve harbored inside you for nine months suddenly appears?”
“Exhaustion and relief, not to mention thanks for a safe delivery.”
“I was inferring the sentiments that come over you as a mother seeing her child for the first time. Affection rises in you, unbidden, doesn’t it? So it does with me. But not on this occasion. I sense this child has come from another set of parents, not from me and Donatienne. I tell you, I have more affection for the beggar children in the marketplace than I have for that girl. I cannot pretend she is what she is not.”
Fortunately, the children were not of a mind to imitate their father’s reserve. At dinner, our eldest girl, Martha, chatted about clothing and sewing and needlepoint. “Which do you prefer?” She asked Suzanne, who wrote, “Embroidery.”
Margaret, the seven-year-old, pointed out that Martha had sewn many of the flowers on the tablecloth.
For the first time that afternoon, Suzanne sparked with interest over something. She scrawled, “Did you sew them freely or did you use a stencil?”
Martha blushed to admit she had used a stencil.
“I sew freely. I imagine the design, and it comes out of me. My guardians told me I was an artist. I got the ability from my . . . ”
Her spirits receded. After sitting a moment with her hands at her sides, with no enthusiasm for what lay on her plate, she lifted the delicate chain around her neck, revealing the pendant that lay out of sight within the scarf atop her bodice.
The item, which she handed to me across the table, proved to be the miniature oil painting of a pretty young woman with black curls and the kind of eyes that endear us to vulnerable small mammals. The piece was painted on linen and framed in an oval of thin but sturdy silver.
“Who is that?” I knew, but I wanted Suzanne to tell us.
“My mother,” she wrote, “Donatienne DeWaere, née Bellavance de Sainte-Colombe.”
Kit showed neither an interest in nor an awareness of the identification of the subject.
“She was a lovely woman,” I said. “Who gave you this portrait?”
“I have always had it.”
“Who painted it?”
Martha, looking over her shoulder, clapped her hands in delight.
Suzanne turned the notebook so I too could read, though I already knew her answer:
The memory of a child’s laugh gilds the loss of that child, but the memory of a child’s silence is a celebration of blame.
Whenever anybody dares to speak about the events that turned my family into something we had never intended, I remember the laughter first. It was on a fresh, bright afternoon in May, not long after our two eldest daughters had argued over which was prettier, a rose bush sparkling in the dew or a delicate leaf filled with sunlight. Half a dozen giggling girls, none older than nine, were leading a blindfolded man in a black suit around the yard. Every now and then they stopped, spun the man around and pulled him in another direction, according to the orders of a boy who shouted from the side.
When the boy called “Now!” the girls skittered away and watched, laughing into their sleeves as if not daring to be heard. Giggles turned into shrieks as their human toy appeared to head straight into the nearest tree. But stop he did, and tossed the girls a grin that betrayed an eagerness to laugh and to make others laugh. “Thought I was going to keep walking, didn’t you?”
“Tell us what it is!” a young voice cried out atop the fresh round of hilarity.
“I assure you, ladies, that nothing escapes me. I can hear grass grow and paint dry. This fine impediment to my progress is, I avow . . . ” He swept his hand across the smooth bark. “A sycamore.”
As her friends applauded, one little grump folded her arms across her plump chest. “Not fair, Father Kit! You’ve done this thousands of times. You already knew it was the sycamore!”
“No, no, it’s good to doubt,” he said as Philip, our eldest, groused about the display of skepticism. “Doubt is a path to learning. How can I convince you this was no dog’s trick, Henrietta?”
“Tell us who’s at the door.”
“Certainly. It’s Bishop White.”
Henrietta gasped. None of us was about to ruin her astonishment by telling her that the bishop’s driver always said “whoa” rather loudly when he reached his destination. Kit and I and our own children had heard him, but Henrietta was from a family in which listening to one’s surroundings instead of looking at them was not a customary practice.
I hailed the bishop from where we stood. Kit, with black silk scarf of a blindfold still firmly in place, walked toward the sound of the gate creaking as it opened, engulfed by his little admirers.
“What’s this, a party?” our visitor called. “Have I missed someone’s birthday?”
William White at sixty-six years of age was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and had been chaplain of the senate before the Congress left Philadelphia for its new home in the District of Columbia. But more than all this, he was a grandfather many times over who treated everyone as though they were members of his own family. As he spoke, he looked from child to child as if ready to make amends for his neglect.
The youngest of the mob, Elizabeth, our four-year-old, was clinging to her father’s coat, wailing, “Mentaloops!”
“Mentaloops?” the bishop said in all seriousness.
Kit found and lifted Lizzie to his shoulder, coaxing, “Tell Bishop White about the mentaloops. He hasn’t played the game.” The child shoved her fist in her face and looked away, suddenly bashful, leaving her father to explain it all by himself.
“I can’t very well roll wooden hoops with the clan, so we engage in what we’ve come to call mental hoops. My darling perpetrators set me up and I have to identify the first object I come upon.”
“They’re a demanding lot,” the bishop observed.
“The worst. If I’m wrong, they don’t let me live it down.”
“Would you like to play too, Bishop?” asked Philip. “I bet you could give Papa bushels of things that he wouldn’t know.”
The good man paid no heed to the children’s lusty disregard of the rule against putting stumbling blocks before the blind—even if it was their own cherished parent who fulfilled the description. “I wish I could oblige, but I fear I must borrow your father for a few moments.”
As I reached to take Lizzie from Kit, the bishop whispered, “You too, Janet,” and I entrusted the smallest of the lot to the rest of the lot.
We sat at the kitchen table. Evvie, the young woman who helped me with the daily chores, needed no prodding to see that the bishop’s driver was sustained in his wait but was already preparing to bring him a tray of tea and toast.
The bishop chatted with Kit about the weather while I poured tea for the three of us. It was not until I sat that he revealed why he needed to see us. He carried news so astounding, he said, that his knees quaked whenever he thought about it. “I assure you, it’s so far beyond what anyone could have expected that I sought out and consulted people who could vouch for its credibility. I had to be certain of the facts. I couldn’t offer you a thing of such extravagant happiness that could be proved false or premature.”
Kit was wary. “If I may say so, sir, I sense a bit of extravagance in your assessment. I can’t possibly imagine the source. Neither, I think, can Janet.”
I put my hand in his and grew more uneasy upon finding it colder than mine. There was no comfort in Bishop White’s claim that he knew of no other joy to emerge from so joyless a beginning.
He referred, he said, to events in Paris fifteen years ago, in the summer of 1799; and as his narrative charged forward, I heard of matters that I had either witnessed or had long known but that should have been the decayed fragments of a fiction consigned to a drawer for a thousand years: how Kit’s first wife, a refugee from the French Revolution, had tricked authorities into returning her family’s manor, which had been confiscated by the state during the Terror. How she took her life when they discovered the truth and sent soldiers to arrest her. How her unborn child died with her. How her subterfuge earned Kit debasement at the hands of a government destined to be overthrown.
Here the bishop paused, and after what struck me as a long period of reflection, went to the other side of the table, sat close to Kit, and leaning forward, spoke with the self-conscious discretion of someone imparting a secret in the midst of a noisy gathering.
“Late last year, I received news that the child, a girl, had lived. Furthermore: she lives still.”
Little wonder the bishop’s knees quaked. I could think of no greater shock than if my father was at the door, though he himself had died in 1798. Yet I couldn’t believe what I heard. This was not an age of miracles. All the dead I that had ever known when they were alive remained dead and were likely to dwell in that condition until the Last Trumpet. Until then, no faith or pretense of faith was going to bring them forth. I might have been a priest’s wife, ready to cite chapter and verse and a singer of psalms, but this was an occasion that demanded reason, not dogma. I adhered to the truth of the world I saw and touched around me. “That can’t be.”
“But it can be and is,” the bishop insisted. “She appeared at my door with documents attesting to the truth of her identity, documents that were signed and sealed by former and present representatives of the French government.”
If the bishop in sitting by Kit and speaking with such restraint had anticipated that Kit would be unable to withstand the shock of the news, he was mistaken. Kit was as cool and reasonable as I. “You’re telling me that this girl—”
“Her name is Suzanne.”
“. . . this girl, who must be no more than fifteen—”
“She’ll be fifteen in August.”
“. . . traveled by herself from France to America and appeared on your doorstep.”
“She carried letters from officials and witnesses in Paris. Two of those witnesses were brothers of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte is a criminal, and I don’t trust his brothers, either. I suspected the documents, but emissaries who had dealt with the French at the time of Bonaparte’s ascent and had continued to observe the nation ever since concluded there was no reason to doubt their authenticity.”
“And you have no doubt that this girl is my daughter.”
“I believe she’s your daughter.”
“Where is she now?” I asked, fearing the girl had been made to linger in the carriage for what I saw as an excruciatingly delayed meeting with her father.
I confess, I dearly wanted to see her. There were so many things I needed to know about her. Did she look like her mother? Did she look like Kit? Did she look like both, perhaps with her mother’s hair and Kit’s eyes? It would have been lovely if at least one of his children had his eyes. So far, all I saw was the likeness of my own, which recalled my own father’s eyes.
I was so taken with my imaginings that I hardly heard the bishop say, “She’s been staying with one of my daughters and her family at their home in the country. She can be here tomorrow, if you wish. Would you like that, Kit? You must be anxious to see her.”
“Forgive me, but I can’t deny I’m nowhere near out of my mind with bliss and thanksgiving,” Kit said speedily. “Her end was final. Her mother’s end was final. I’ve lived more than a dozen years resigned to their loss. To have one of them return is beyond reason, let alone against the natural order of things.”
“I assure you, the natural order of things has not progressed perfectly,” the bishop debated. “Wondrous as it is, Suzanne’s presence is not without its own tragedy. She can’t speak. She communicates only through writing. She told me, in writing, that her throat was cut when she was still an infant to prevent her from crying aloud and being discovered by the people who wanted others to know she was dead.”
“The obscenity!” I cried, repulsed by the brutalization.
Kit, however, was more bitter than tender of heart. “’She communicates only through writing,’” he repeated. “Did you tell her that her father can’t see to read what she writes?”
“Yes. She said she already knew. She knows all there is to know about you. Never has she been ignorant of her origins. She said she looks forward to meeting you. She would rather hear about you and her mother from you yourself, not from strangers. I have no doubt that, though she’s never met you, she has a daughter’s love for you. That’s quite a legacy your wife left you.”
“No.” Kit removed the pin that held the silken scarf in place. The fabric dropped like a theatre curtain, leaving in its wake the two empty bowls, made of ravaged flesh, wrought nearly fifteen years ago by a single pistol shot. “This is my wife’s legacy, not a foreign girl who decked herself out in a fairy tale and pretentious documents signed by people with pretentious names.”
Another priest might have chastised Kit for his lack of faith and charity. After a moment in which the color fled and then returned to his face, the bishop lifted the scarf from the floor and pinned it back where it belonged on Kit’s brow. Upon finishing, he thanked me for the hospitality and took up his hat.
“May I bring Suzanne tomorrow?” He directed the question to me, not Kit. Lovely. Which do I honor, my bishop or my husband, who was still seated at the table?
I tapped Kit’s shoulder. “Bishop White is leaving.” The news brought him to his feet with apologies. He said he hadn’t heard.
The bishop took Kit by the arm and walked with him to the front door. “I’ll bring Suzanne tomorrow,” he said, leaving no room for protest. “She’s a dear child. Not lively and charming, but respectful, helpful, hopeful. She has a natural yearning to belong to someone. I sense she’s too aware of the oddity of her circumstances—and yours. All I ask is that you meet her and discover for yourself that she merits your name as well as your heart.”
A request from the bishop was as good as an order. Kit arranged for Suzanne to arrive in time for a midday meal.
“I don’t want her here,” he said as the bishop drove away. “I will never want her here.”
JOAN was about to be punished. Still, she sat on her bed, writing in an artist’s sketchpad. She wasn’t allowed to write. Her sister was the writer. She, Joan, was the artist. The sister was already going to college on a writing scholarship, and Joan, who would start in September, had won a scholarship for art. The scholarship would pay her tuition so long as she was an art major.
But Joan didn’t want to study art. She wanted to be a journalist. She didn’t care that it would mean losing the scholarship. Her mother cared, though. She refused to let Joan change majors and emphasized her displeasure by ransacking Joan’s bedroom and destroying all the stories and drafts that Joan had hidden in the lingerie drawer and the cedar chest. She then made Joan atone for her rebellion by drawing at least one picture a day and posting it in the kitchen. It didn’t matter what the subject was, but her mother ripped it up if she didn’t like it and had Joan draw another, usually a portrait of herself based on one of the many selfies that usurped space on her social media page. Joan usually retaliated by painting a pastels copy of a famous portrait and substituting her mother’s for the face of the original sitter. True, her mother’s visage on Henry VIII’s body was a bit of a stretch for which she probably truly actually did deserve that thrashing. But her mother’s features on Botticelli’s Venus should have been seen as a compliment.
Joan flinched as the door slammed open against the wall.
No, that was me, not the door, hitting the wall, she thought. Guess a chair propped under a doorknob doesn’t work the way it does in the movies . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
SILENCE. To most people, it’s the absence of sound. Look in a thesaurus, and you’ll see words like quiet, hush and stillness that mean the same as silence. But to Thaniel Teer, silence was never the lack of sound. It wasn’t even a hush or quiet or stillness. To Thaniel, silence was a place—a violent, loud, confusing place, where new things burst into the world in a kind of spontaneous combustion. Things that never should happen. Things that could hurt. Things that could kill. Things that had to be dispelled, if not destroyed. Thaniel heard them all.
He was hearing them that morning, beneath the delicate crackle of the sleet, as he loosened the dead squirrel’s grip on the chain link fence. The little creature’s paws must have gotten stuck on the icy metal. Unable to escape, it had frozen to death in mid-climb. To Thaniel’s surprise, the body was still light and soft and limp, like a stuffed toy. The squirrel hadn’t been dead for long.
As Thaniel lifted it from the fence, the contrast of his black gloves against the streaked silvery fur struck him as sinister. He supposed it was his fault that the animal had died. He would have been there sooner, in time to save it, if he hadn’t had to shovel the snow off the drive, or feed the horses, or do any of the thousand other chores his landlord expected in exchange for lodgings over the old carriage house. They were chores that needed to be done, and he had gladly agreed to do them as part of his rent. But if he hadn’t done them—if he had run off to investigate the mess exploding from that place called silence—he would have rescued the squirrel.
No. He might have rescued it. He could never be on time for anything. There was always that one excuse: the reason he could never change.
“So you are to marry. Should I be surprised, recalling what I have witnessed this past year? Perhaps you know by now that nothing in this world surprises me anymore. After a life of privileged responsibility, I have had no choice but to accept that life equals change, especially in matters of the heart. As children, we settle our affections on small, furry creatures that please the eye and rob our hearts through purrs and silly ways. By twenty, our attachment moves to human beauty, trusting that whatever pleases the eye must lead to perfect contentment.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. I am become a man but cannot put away all childish things. I refuse to relinquish that spark of ignorance called ‘hope’ that carries children through their daily trials and throws adults headlong into the immovable wall of life’s realities. Anything is possible for any possible reason.
“When I understood that I was free from the delusion that had imprisoned me since my youth, I hoped, however briefly, that I would at last become the son your father never had but always wanted. I now must hope that the man who takes the place once presumed for me may exceed his expectations, and you both will be happy.
“It’s good that I’m become a man with puny ability to sustain himself, let alone a wife and family. Strength and affluence would encourage me to steal another man’s treasure. That would be wrong. Now more than ever, I take comfort in knowing that our treasures truly are stored in heaven. The gems we find here on earth serve to remind us of the greater goodness from whence they come.
“That said, I beg you to forgive my asking you to write this letter. I needed to know that, if I frightened you, you didn’t immediately throw my words into the fire. I’ll joyfully marry you to George with whatever authority my blessing holds. I confess, though, that it would be enough for me to kiss your hand, if I may. Forgive me if I hit it with my nose. I’ve always made an awkward bow.”
Hance was glad when he didn’t see Emmy among the crowd gathering in the pews of Renato’s church the night of the concert. Her absence implied that she at last realized her plan was unrealistic; she had cast aside her fixation.
Celeste Warren, who had helped set up the orchestra’s music stands before the musicians went out on the floor, caught him peeking through the door.
“Nice tux, John,” she quipped, gesturing to the black suit with the Roman collar. “You should wear black more often. You look like a rock star.”
He still smarted from the “You’re young and you’ve got hair” remark with which she had forced Emmy upon him as a voice student. The look he granted her for this one said, “Thanks, but no more of that, eh?”
She smacked him lightly on the arm with a roll of sheet music. “Lighten up. It’s a Christmas party, not a funeral.”
“Yes, Cel,” he grumbled, but Celeste was smiling.
Though conscious of the work at hand, Hance during the performance was disappointed that Emmy wasn’t there. For all her delusions, she was the kind of person who should have been there: the kind who had a heart, not a self-serving reason to be in the public eye. Most of the audience, he knew, lived in houses the size of small department stores, bought more of what they wanted than what they needed, and supported causes and events because it made them look good, not because they cared about the recipients of their funds. From the rousing opener, “Happy Solomon,” from Handel’s oratorio Solomon, through the Mozart c minor Mass, to the medley of Christmas carols at the end, they gave his musicians ovations that signified they didn’t care if a soloist sang off-key or if the execution of some instrumental passages was not as precise as it should have been. They were there for one reason: to be seen doing something that was nice to be seen doing.
But they were not the only audience. There was another, a group of listeners who gathered beneath the windows, listening to the music that reached them through the panes of leaded stained glass. They were the people for whom the party was being held. And they were not allowed to go inside. Hance saw them as he stood at the door, thanking the paying crowd for coming out on a winter’s night. It was a lovely night, too. Dry. Crisp. Seasoned with flurries that sometimes grew into a teasing, more-earnest snow shower.
Shadowy clumps were moving into the woods behind the church. Several of the clumps broke away, waving their arms toward Hance.
“That was beautiful, man!”
“God bless you!”
“This is the best Christmas ever!”
Drunk, on drugs or demented, Hance thought as the men melted into the woods.
A girl the cut and coloring of Emmy Kydd straggled behind, carrying a small child and leading three more at her side. Was it really Emmy?
Hance excused himself from the receiving line and strode after her. She turned around before he spoke. “Come on! We’re having a party.”
“Where else? In the camp!”
Why was he wary? He had just given a concert for the people she so ingenuously wanted to help. How could he refuse to go? He motioned behind him. “My coat—”
“You won’t need your coat. You’ll see.” Like censer smoke curling into the ceiling, she slipped into the woods.
Hance stepped lively to keep up with her, knowing he needed his coat and probably wouldn’t find her if he went back for it. “What are these children still doing here? I thought social services would have taken them away by now.”
“They don’t stay in the woods at night, if that’s what you’re thinking. They sleep in the rectory.”
“Where are they during the day?
“In the rectory. Volunteers from the church mind them. I mind them, too. And I teach them.”
“Even the ones who don’t speak English?”
“There’s always someone around to translate. Besides, most of them already know some English. They’re teaching me Spanish. And Creole.”
Hance was about to ask her, in French, if she spoke French. But if she knew he was fluent in French, she might try to persuade him to help her teach the Creole speakers.
The camp was a haggard layout of sheets and tarps thrown over shrubs, branches, construction refuse. Hamburgers seethed on a propane grill tended by a bloated hooded parka with fingerless mittens.
“Some of the people here work for restaurants,” Emmy said, as if guessing Hance was wondering where people who had nothing could have appropriated raw ground beef. “I think it’s old meat. But it’s okay. If it was bad, they wouldn’t be cooking it.”
She didn’t seem to consider that cooked meat really could be bad, but Hance decided not to press the point. Emmy was confident, and he wouldn’t have let the stuff pass between his own lips, anyway.
Still, the sight of that bloated parka and its occupant, whose gender could not be discerned, and the camp’s overall sense of deprivation and dilapidation made him queasy. Why did he come here? Was it because of Emmy, or was it because he wanted more people to thank him for the concert, and to tell him how beautiful the music was?
People who had attended the concert were already calling for him to sit on one of the low metal folding chairs that had been set around an oil barrel brimming with flaming branches and paper refuse. As Emmy had promised, he didn’t need his overcoat; he’d have been too warm. Sit any closer, and the air from the homemade conflagration would have seared his face.
Some of the homeless were American; some, Hispanic and Haitian. Hance made small talk with those who spoke English and smiled a lot with those who did not. He was almost grateful that not everyone was fascinated by him: A couple of young women who seemed to have no interest in him sat on the other side of the barrel, painting their nails from the same bottle of polish. Funny, how women could still be enslaved to fashion despite their poverty, when money was better spent on food, fuel, clothing.
True, they were sharing a bottle, and that bottle must have been bought, if not lifted, from the kind of store that charged only a dollar or less for merchandise that was old or expired or made of substances that escaped regulation by the proper agencies. But why were they bothering? To make themselves pretty? Why would they want to make themselves pretty? To flirt with the men? To find a mate? What kind of a mate could they find out in the woods, in a makeshift camp inhabited by makeshift people?
Did it matter? People were really animals—mammals with teats for suckling, nails for clawing, toes for climbing, and openings through which offspring were made and born. Their physical attributes meant they were created for doing what all animals do: run around naked, copulating at whim. No woman needed glitter to enhance what happened in the region below her waist. A woman’s beauty lay on the inside. Not “inside” as in sweet or noble sentiments, but actually within her body: in the silky, wet, hot passage between her legs. In the ability to sustain the force of a man’s repeated, rabid incursions into that passage. In the desire to withstand the explosions that marked the end of those incursions. Paint was color on a surface. No body ever shivered in ecstasy over a facade.
The arrival of the hamburgers dampened the speed of the conversation around him, but not the good intentions behind it. Nobody took offense as Hance politely refused the meat; he was instead offered hot chocolate, and cupcakes that must have been donated to a food pantry because they were too old to serve at a local eatery or were too old to sell at the supermarket. The children sang Christmas carols in Spanish as well as English.
One of the children who had been dancing around Emmy on the way into the woods, a boy of perhaps nine, held a guinea pig out to Hance, and Hance, not knowing what else to do, took the little animal between his hands. As soon as he touched it, the guinea pig started squealing, squirming, and kicking its little legs. The boy gasped and scolded the pet, but Hance, saying, “No, no, no, it’s all right,” presumed the pet sensed what he was and his former penchant for benefiting from the blood of small mammals. He held the rodent out to the boy, thinking to give it back, but it was Emmy who took it, and held it to her chest, and stroked the top of its head.
“Be nice to Father John; he doesn’t have any pets,” she said, and once again the animal was placed in the guest of honor’s hands. This time, however, the guinea pig made no fuss. Hance followed Emmy’s directions and held it against his shoulder as if he were holding an infant. Emmy scritched its head. Its legs straightened; it started to purr. She backed away, telling Hance, “Pet him! He won’t bite.”
So she thinks I’m afraid of animals? Perhaps she doesn’t know about me, after all.
He did as commanded. (Why was it so easy to do as she commanded?) The purring continued.
Tired by a long day of teaching that ended with conducting a full-length concert, Hance stopped analyzing his surroundings and gave in to the benign heat of the fire and the contented creature at his shoulder. The goings-on, he perceived, were the stuff of happy gatherings among people everywhere. Food was cooked and consumed. Children played and were corrected when they became too raucous. Adults kidded each other, counseled each other, consoled each other.
Amid it all, Hance experienced something he had always decried as a device found only in fiction: an epiphany. It occurred to him, without searching, that the homeless lived every day knowing they were reviled and that someone wanted to punish them and make them suffer for what they were, as he too had been punished and reviled and made to suffer for what he himself was.
But the homeless didn’t reject or revile him, just as Renato, Evarista, and Celeste Warren didn’t reject or revile him. They accepted him as a dog accepts its master. They looked to him for help. And who did he himself look to for help? Nobody. He wanted no help. No man or woman could help him. To help him, people would have to know the truth about him. He was in no position to be helped. That too was part of the punishment.
Why? If people, who the Catechism stated were made in God’s image, could treat him as one of their own, why, then, couldn’t the representatives of God on earth? Weren’t they too made in God’s image? Or had they come to love and honor their own images, as false as the things the Israelites had worshiped in the desert during the Exodus? What could Emmy and Cel and Renato and all the people in the camp that night see that the Vatican could not? Or were they all as damned as he, and knew they could never attain the peace, the happiness, the perfection of soul they all desired?
A blast of childish giggles slapped open his eyes.
The guinea pig’s owner was pointing at him, saying something excitedly to a woman Hance presumed was the boy’s mother.
“He says the guinea pig has put a spell on you,” said Renato, who was standing over him with his overcoat.
It took Hance a moment to understand that he’d been so lost in thoughts and fatigue that he never heard Renato join the party. He’d never noticed himself nodding off, either. But he couldn’t have been that far gone: he was still holding the guinea pig; its hind legs were still stretched down his chest. He gave the animal to the boy, who swept it to his own shoulder, smiling broadly. “Guess I should go. I’ve got classes in the morning.”
The campers were sorry to see him leave so early. He thanked them for their hospitality, and they again thanked him for the concert.
With no trace of shyness, Emmy asked him if he’d be driving by the college.
His home at the rectory was two towns over, but she didn’t have to know. “Do you need a ride back?”
“Would that be okay?”
He pulled the keys from the inner pocket of his overcoat. “Come on.”
She said nothing until they were underway, and the woeful little vehicle clanked along the sleepy streets. “Funny, isn’t it? Here people live in families, with roofs over their heads and heat within their walls. But it’s so dark and empty. It’s the people back in the camp, the people who have nothing, who are spending the night amid light and music and each other. You’d think the people in these houses would want to stay awake and enjoy what they have. I wonder: are they sleeping, or are they huddling in fear, hiding from something they don’t understand and that they couldn’t name even if they knew what it was?”
Uncertainty over what she knew about him wormed its way through Hance’s psyche on a string of nausea. “What do you think?”
“I think they’re frightened.” Emmy replied right away. “They don’t want to lose everything they have. They don’t want to become the people in the camp.”
She should know. She herself had had a home. She herself had lost everything. But did she consider herself among the people of that camp? From the corner of his eye, Hance could tell she was looking out the passenger window, pensive yet undefeated. “Did you ever speak to Mother Evarista about setting up a school?”
“I’d like to start a school, but after speaking with you, I thought maybe it’s not the time. I’ll do what I’m doing at Father Renato’s church. Something will come of it. I know. Just as I knew someone would give me a ride home tonight.”
“It was an educated calculation. You knew people from the college were going to be there. Why didn’t you get a ride back with one of the sisters?”
“They were gone before I could ask.”
“Why didn’t you make plans with any of them before this evening?”
The answer was a sigh and a glum confession: “I’m stupid, you know.”
Did she want him to say she was too clever to be stupid? He was too weary to indulge false modesty. He reminded her, instead, that all good teachers had a streak of stupidity. Instead of dwelling upon it, they strove to learn as much as they could and become better teachers.
She embellished yet another sigh with words. “I’ll be learning until the end of the world.”
“That’s how it is with teachers. All of them. Even me.”
He felt the long look upon him. “You’re not saying that to make me feel better?”
“Lying is unethical. For professors . . .for priests . . . for anyone, really.”
Emmy was silent but far from still. Something was going on. She thought she was hiding it, but she wasn’t. He could tell. He could always tell. But he could never guess the cause. Was it something about him? Something about herself? Should he ask? No. Not while he was driving. The last thing he needed was to cause an accident and be found with a young student in his car. Better to wait until he pulled into the convent’s driveway.
He realized he’d lost his chance to say anything when Emmy opened the door before the car came to a complete stop. “You went out of the way to bring me home. I’m sorry. But I’m grateful. Strange, isn’t it, how we can be sorry and thankful at the same time? Is there a name for that sort of feeling?”
“I don’t know,” Hance said, wondering if this is what Emmy had been ruminating about.
“If there isn’t, then we’ve got to invent one. G’night!”
A car that had passed them as they approached the convent came up behind them. Hance, finding the timing curious, opened the door and half stepped out. The car screeched to a stop, and out came Ev and Sister Margaret. They both dashed to Emmy, whose face proclaimed to him, “I told you so.”
Hance had seen that look before, in all the paintings of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple with the Teachers. He waited for Emmy to say what the boy Jesus had told his parents: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?’” But he heard nothing. That look alone sufficed.
He drove home and was asleep before his head hit the pillow, entranced by the memory of Emmy’s quietly defiant face.
– Salutaris, by Gev Sweeney, copyright 2013
Priest. Professor. Musician. Vampire. John Hance is damned to life everlasting drinking the Blood of Christ instead of the blood of humans, sealed within a pact that no saint, pope, philosopher or Doctor of the Church had the imagination to include among the punishments of Hell. Until an enigmatic homeless girl becomes his student. She knows too much about him. Is she insane, ingenuous, or a divine emissary on a mission?
Salutaris. On Kindle, available through Amazon.com
Hance wasn’t going to say anything. He sat back, listening, watching, as men and women stood before the board and proclaimed with derisive modifiers and predictions of crime and disease why the church had no right to build a retreat house that really would be used as a homeless shelter. It was nearly eleven and the board’s curfew that the line ended at last, and there was a moment left for one more opinion.
Hance didn’t know why he did it. He might have been out of patience. He might have been offended at the speakers’ lack of reasonableness. He might have been too tired not to restrain himself. But he was so moved to talk he actually did move and stood before the board.
“Look,” he began, after identifying himself for the record. “When we see students running around campus with long hair and ratty clothes, we shrug it off, saying, ‘They’re students; they don’t have enough money to get their hair styled or to go shopping for new clothes.’ But when we see adults running around with unkempt hair and ratty clothes, we recoil. We sense they’re homeless. There’s something wrong with them if they’re homeless. They’ve allowed themselves to be homeless. They’re drunks. They’re on drugs. They’re crazy.
But if we ask them how they became homeless, we might be surprised, because they might tell us things we don’t want to hear. Things that refute whatever we thought about them. Normal things. Things that could happen to any of us. ‘I lost my job.’ ‘I’m working, but I can’t afford a place to live.’ ‘The bank foreclosed on our house.’ ‘My unemployment benefits ended.’ ‘My company fired me and refused to let me collect unemployment.’”
A woman groaned. “Sounds like he’s revving up for a sermon.” Approval egged her on. “This isn’t church, mister, Father, whatever they call you. Keep religion out of this!”
“Religion has nothing to do with this. This is about not doing to others what you don’t want others to do to you. None of us is different.” Hance restrained himself from shouting as people in the front row put their heads together, muttering and smirking. “We’re all the same. We have the same emotions, wants, and physical needs. The same things happen to each of us, only at different times, like a great big canon, a musical canon. Do you all know what a canon is? It’s a song sung by a number of people who sing that same song only at different times. Like the child’s tune,’ Row, row, row your boat.’ Life is a canon, the same song sung by different singers who enter at different times. We work, we laugh, we celebrate, we mourn, each in our own time and according to our own circumstances, but within the scope of life.”
“Shut up. We want to go home.”
The chairman brought down the gavel. Hance knew it was for the woman, not for him, but he hung back, silent, caving in to the hostility. It didn’t help that a young man standing in the back reminded him of Marsden. But that was to be expected of anybody in the room. Marsden was the craven image of all who couldn’t see beyond themselves. Not because they were self-centered, but because their concept of what they were, their self, was a prison cell. They could no more escape into the world than they could travel beyond the reach of their conceit.
“Doctor Hance?” the chairman nudged.
Hance looked upon the faces in the crowd, faces that were bright with smugness, fouled by suspicion, cracked by ridicule, and brimming with the love of all three. “I hope you never need the services you argue against. But if you do, then I pray you never remember this night, because the memory of how you damned yourselves would be impossible to bear.”
Hance was aware of the uproar but not much else as two policemen rushed him into an office deep in the municipal building, away from the angry crowd. He wasn’t surprised by the onslaught. That lot would stone Christ if he came back on a cloud of glory. And there was no denying he had brought it on himself. Another mea culpa. Another day in the neverending life of John Hance.