Don't look like that, Anna. You needn't worry: you have nothing of hers that you need fear. Your mother put me over the story a dozen times or more, and she read all the newspaper cuttings that I'd kept and many's the time she cried sore tears for her sister, Charlotte, that she never knew. She promised to take care of you better than any child was ever taken care of, and she did, for seven short years, for as long as she could. For as long as her lungs allowed her, before the TB took her. She fought hard to stay with you, Anna, she knew what it was to grow up motherless and she didn't want that for you, but she was no match for it. She said to me, after she got sick, that she'd always felt there was prison air in her lungs, damp and cold, on account of where she'd been born. She was only a wean o' days old when the master brought her back here to the castle; she couldn't have remembered anything about Grangegorman Prison, but she had that notion in her head. "Prison air," she said, trapped in her chest, and her body only then trying to cough it up. I'd have taken over from her, Anna, looked after you myself if I'd been able, and I did try for a while. But your father could see it was a struggle for me and that was when he hit on the idea of the Dominicans, and sent you away to school at Aquinas Hall. I think he was trying to do what your mother would have wanted for you.
You have her sweet nature, Anna. You've waited for a child nearly as long as Florence waited for you. You must be, thirty-two? Am I right? Not far off it. September babies, the pair of us. What does that make us? Virgo and Libra: that'd be right. I remember the night you were born, the Big Sunday, September the twenty-seventh, 1936. The place was full of day-trippers, pouring into the town from the crack of dawn, taking their last chance at the weather, putting a full stop at the end of the summer. The Parade crammed with stalls selling ice cream and minerals, and the spinning pierrots, and the bay full of dancing boats: green and yellow and blue. Your mother and father were living in the yellow house where you are now, at Victoria Terrace, only yards away from the harbor. The young fellas started as usual to push each other out onto the greasy pole, and every time one of them fell in, there was a splash in the water and a roar went up from the crowd, and poor Florence gave another groan out of her and another cry. Ten hours, she was in labor with you. Poor Mrs. Avery, the midwife, was exhausted. And your father, pacing up and down the hall outside, drinking one pot of tea after another, smoking a whole packet of Players, and then going down to switch on the wireless as if there'd be some news of you on there. The psalm music was coming up from below: the BBC Chorus and then "Hallelujah!" and one last cry, and there you were. Little Anna, with a rosy face and a smile that would melt an unlit candle. You were born into love the like of no other child I've known. You've heard that story before, Anna, but you never tire of it, do you? Everyone should have a person in their life to tell them stories of their birth.
Florence got shockin' upset, a month or so before you were born. A baby was got in the river, up at the Cutts in Coleraine. A baby girl, it was, or part of one: she'd been in the river a long time. The coroner couldn't tell if her lungs had ever drawn a breath, the paper said. Your mother walked about for days after it, cradling her belly, talking to you. She mourned for that baby like it was her own, took it severely to heart that someone could do such a thing to an innocent child. And I was thinking that somewhere up the country, near where the Bann runs fast, there was a girl, standing in a farmhouse kitchen maybe, or behind a counter in a shop, a girl who had been waiting for that news, a girl with the paper in her hands, reading, knowing that was her baby that was got in the fishing gates, a girl with the insides torn out of her.
Excerpted from The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. Copyright © 2011 by Bernie McGill. Excerpted by permission of Free Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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