Youll be a beautiful corpse, I told her. And she perked up. If she wasnt bleaching her freckles with borax in rose water, she was applying solutions of corrosive sublimate, prussic acid, and caustic potash to her complexion. There was a tin of Poudre Rajeunissante containing ratsbane in her room, for Kitty had been an arsenic-eater since the age of seventeen. She stayed pretty nimble despite this habit. But shed experience the fatal symptoms and be carried off should she stop. Once begun, an arsenic-eater is tied to that unnatural diet all her days. I never let the children visit her upstairs for fear theyd get into her poisons and destroy their lives.
I followed her eyes to six-year-old Charlotte. She was standing with her arms spread like wings and her head wrenched back toward the sky.
Thats cross prayers, Edna told us. Sister Honoraria showed her. Edna was my eldest, an independent girl of eight years.
The nun in the garden, Ill warrant, Kitty whispered. That child has the most charming buck teeth.
The Hill of Torture was lined with peddlers pitching miraculous medals and phony relics, and I just then spotted our Brides of Christ standing in full poverty by a vendors cart. Nuns had such dignity and difference, I always thought they should be introduced by a loud gust of trumpets. By the same token, ours were something of a Mutt and Jeff. Sister Immaculata was stately as a steeple, while Adelaide was jolly and stocky. Each had her hand concealed up its opposite batwing sleeve, and no hucksters were rushing them. Those men knew better than to pester a nun. I ran over to grab the little black satchels leaning against their hems.
Good day, my dears. God be with you, Sister Immaculata said. The woman had a voice in her like a velvet counterpane. Adelaide was making an ado over the kiddies.
We saw the procession forming then for the march up the Hill of Torture to the park where Katherine Tekakwitha had been born and saints had been martyred in days of old. We fell in with the other parishioners on the upwards trudge, saying the rosary and singing Aves aloud. Before long, we were wiping the dust off our eyes with holy water passed hand to hand.
Everyone had been fasting since midnight, and Id all but lost interest in human sacrifice by the time we got to the top. The nuns were still full of tallyho, of course. The procession followed a dirt path through the Seven Dolors and the Stations of the Cross to the Martyrs Chapel. This was a rough-hewn log pavilion, open on all sides so overflowing pilgrims could hear Mass from the lawnthough being with two Mercy Sisters guaranteed us seats inside. Baby Dorothy was asleep, my Joseph was hoping for a sermon full of tomahawks, and the girls were busy with the pictures in my missal. Seeing as I could not confess my ill health to anyone alive, I roosted on the kneeler, eager to air my secret shame and hearts desire before Gods saints.
I knew Katherine Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, had recovered from smallpox. She had been an orphan. And she had been Godly without being martyred. I respected her for that. My prayer went: If I was not worn out by the white plague, I would not worry about adding again to our household. But as I am poorly, I am sincerely sorry for it. I cannot go to a resort where the air is Adirondack and sleep on a screened-in porch. But help me be fit enough to give the child its life. Give me gumption. My spirit is gaunt. I told Katherine that if I died, my children would be half-orphans, halfway to St. Cierans Home. As an orphan herself, shed know that when a mother goes to bed and dies, her little children stand crying because no one is minding them. The father might try, but he is too discouraged and new to the work to be useful.
Since a feeble mother will have a weak infant, I prayed mine would not be a blue baby or an idiot. Let it be born modern, a twentieth-century child, with no muck or mire, no caul or purple mothers marks upon it, I prayed. Lily of the Mohawks, I said, let this baby have a decent, not a blind-alley life. I would not mind this baby being a saint, but I would not like it to be a martyr or a lost soul. A saint wasnt much of a livelihood, but it was better than farming. Farm life was what I did not want for the baby most of all. Last, I prayed it would be an ordinary child and have happy luck all its days.
Reprinted from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton. Copyright (c) 2008. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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