Deep into the shadow-night
I fling my plea;
the empty silence echoes back
to me. . .
I strain against the blackness, seeking
one small hope,
For any star, real or imagined,
is better than
October 28, 1960
St. Jude the Martyr & St. Simon the Zealot
Dark. It was so dark. The blackness closed in around her, pressing upon her with a palpable fear. Her nostrils filled with dust, and with the musty smell of dank wool coats and mildewed boots. But she dared not sneeze. To sneeze would be a blasphemy, an affront to the Almighty.
She held her breath and tried to stifle the urge. Silence, like the darkness, pushed at her from all sides, the only sounds the pulsing of blood in her ears and, whenever she shifted the slightest bit, the dull chinking of the cut-glass rosary beads on the hard wooden floor.
How long had she knelt here? Hours? Days, even? Her bare legs and feet stung with a thousand needle pricks–a lack of circulation, perhaps, or the cuts in her skin from the sharp glass rosaries upon which she knelt.
Her empty stomach grumbled; she willed it into a dutiful silence. The cold pierced her thin cotton nightgown. The weakness, the lightheadedness came again. The walls closed in; she swayed and almost fell. Even though it was forbidden, she reached out a hand to steady herself and tried to resume her prayers. “Blessed St. Jude, patron of desperate situations, I beseech thee–”
She stopped and listened. Heavy footsteps coming toward the door. A metallic jangling sound, the sorting of keys on a ring. The scrape of a lock, the creak of a hinge. Light poured in through the open doorway, painful in its brightness after so long in the dark. She craned her neck upward and squinted.
“Have you repented your sins?”
“Then to your room. Go and sin no more.”
Brigid hesitated. “Without dinner, Father?”
He gazed down at her, the crevice between his eyebrows carved even deeper by his displeasure. “Fasting is good for the soul.”
Brigid lowered her eyes. “Yes, Father. I just need to go to the bathroom, and–”
“You will go to your room now.”
Eyes downcast, Brigid obeyed. She climbed the stairs, sensing his eyes upon her, but did not look back. As she reached the top step, she felt a tiny trickle of warmth slide down the inside of her leg. She bolted for her room, shut the door, and flung herself toward the closet.
There, hidden behind a box of old sweaters, her hands located it–a large tin coffee can with a lid that snapped on. She tugged at the lid, cutting her hands on the rough metal. When at last it opened she flung the lid aside, squatted hastily over the can, and let go.
An uncensored sigh of relief escaped her before she could call it back. A wave of odor and shame crested over her–the vile scent of urine and excrement filling the room. She shut the can, stashed it back in the closet, and offered up a fleeting prayer that she might find an opportunity to empty it before Father discovered her secret.
It was a prayer she doubted anyone would answer. Not even St. Jude, whose own feast day it was.
Brigid knew the calendar of saints by heart–their feast days, solemnities, memorials. Father made her memorize them all, a punishment for some long-ago sin, real or imagined. Had he known they would bring a glimpse of welcome light and warmth into her cold dark world, he would never have offered such a gift. The Blessed Virgin and her host of saints gave Brigid comfort and solace in a way her father’s angry, penance-hungry God could never do.
The saints were human, after all. Most had suffered, some had even died. And although they, unlike Brigid herself, had discovered their truth and found their light, she could still relate to them. The flesh and blood reality of them, the tears and anguish and torment. Even when they did not answer her prayers, they were present, hovering, just out of reach. With the eye of imagination she could see them around her, looking down, understanding.
She tried not to think about the urine can and what might happen if Father found it. There was no one to help in a case like this. No Patron Saint of Small Deceptions. Besides, Father would say that no deception was trivial, no lie necessary, no pretense acceptable. Even the suggestion would warrant a lengthy confession and another stint in the penance closet.
She opened the window wide to let the stench escape. The night air was chilly and raised goose bumps on her unprotected arms, but she stood there anyway, breathing in the freshness, cleansing both lungs and soul. Somewhere someone had built a fire, and the hint of wood smoke in the air made her smile.
A faint long-ago memory drifted into her mind on that scent–another night, just like this one, when she and Mommy and Daddy lit a fire and popped popcorn. The popcorn wasn’t very good–Daddy held it over the flame too long, and most of it was burned into tiny lumps of charcoal. But it didn’t matter. They laughed a lot and cuddled on the rug and told her once again the story of how they had chosen her to be their very own little girl. She had been happy then.
It was one of the last happy memories. Daddy died, and after a while Mommy married Simon Landry, who insisted that Brigid call him Father. He brought his son Vincent to live with them too, and he went to court and adopted Brigid so that she would have to take his last name and be legally his.
Father wasn’t too bad as long as Mommy was around. He was very religious and made Brigid pray all the time, and kept reminding her what happened to bad little girls. But he didn’t do the penance closet until after Mommy went to heaven to be with Daddy. Then, when he came home from his job as custodian at the convent school, he would put on the priest’s collar and hear Brigid’s daily confession and dole out penance for her sins.
And she had many, many sins.
She inhaled one last deep breath of the crisp night air, closed the window, and went to the small dressing table that stood in the corner. As she unbraided her hair and brushed it, she considered her reflection in the cracked mirror–splintered images of her narrow face, captured in the center of a spider’s web.
The hollows around her eyes were almost as dark as the eyes themselves. Fatigue settled over her like a wet wool blanket, a weight that grew heavier every day. She wondered briefly what time it was. She needed sleep–blessed, uninterrupted sleep. But sleep did not come easily, and because of the dreams, what few hours she managed to get brought her no peace.
At last Brigid turned off the light and got into bed. The sand and salt Father sprinkled between the sheets burned her legs, burrowing into the open cuts from the rosaries as if each grain had a will of its own. A reminder, Father said, of her habitual sins, and of the need to be vigilant against the snares of the devil.
She pulled a rosary from under her pillow and began to finger the beads. “Blessed St. Jude,” she whispered, “patron of hopeless situations–”
If she could just lie still, the salt and sand wouldn’t sting so. But she couldn’t seem to keep from moving, just as she couldn’t seem to keep from sinning, and with her legs on fire and desperation filling her heart, she fell into a restless, troubled sleep.
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