“No one will miss you; they won’t even go looking for you.” The leather strap caught me on the side of my left temple. That’s all I remember.
This was my first beating. I woke up with the taste of blood in my mouth. I didn’t know how many hours, maybe even days, had passed. The infirmary had an eerie glow to it; moonlight filled the window and spilled an illuminated shaft across my bed. I knew enough not to move until morning. I knew my eyes were badly swollen.
The girl in the bed next to me took long, laborious breaths. The time between each breath grew longer through the greyness of daybreak. She wasn’t breathing by full light of day.
“Look away,” the voice said, and I obeyed. When I looked back, upon hearing the door slam shut, the shape of her body was gone. She was the same girl who had received a beating for ironing the cassock with an iron that was too hot, scorching the white fabric with a triangle of tan and black. I can still smell the burning cotton and starch. I can still see the iron striking her face. I tried to remember why I was here. When I was well enough I returned to work.
I imagined that there were no more boys and girls wandering the darkened streets of Irish towns. We were all inside now. Punishment for our sins. And what sins we had committed. The home was inaptly named. It wasn’t a home of charity at all; it was a prison of penance.
The girl who sat next to me for meals was here because she was too pretty.
“The priest said it was only a matter of time before I fell.” Preventative measures to save her from sinning with boys.
“Shh…,” I whispered, “They’ll see us talking.”
The girl who did the mangling beside me was twelve years old; she had to stand on a timber box to reach the machine. When the inspectors came she had to hide in a tunnel, she wasn’t supposed to be here doing labor.
Her parents sent her away for an education and training. She was promised an excellent education when her parents let her leave with the nun, but we never cracked a book. Detergent, starch, silence, and prayers filled the air. This was the second home for me. Mercy first, and then Charity, two things they knew nothing about.
Nothing mattered in here. No clocks, so time didn’t matter. We wore brown cotton dresses, clothes didn’t matter. Our hair was cut short, hair styles didn’t matter. There were no mirrors in here, looks didn’t matter. We weren’t treated like human beings, humanity didn’t matter.
Every morning I tied my calico bodice tightly around my breasts to flatten them. My shorn hair, once long and blonde, required no brush. I dressed in my shapeless brown uniform. We stood all day and washed and ironed sheets, table cloths, pillow cases, napkins, altar linens, surplices, and cassocks.
“Mary Magdalene was forgiven for her sins,” Mother said, “And one day, with the help of God, and much penance, you will be forgiven too.” I bowed to show respect to her wisdom.
There was frost on the window pane when the new girl arrived. She looked like a friend I had many years ago. No special friends in here. It wasn’t permitted. Her breasts, though bandaged with calico, were still visible, engorged with milk. We weren’t supposed to talk, but I wanted to know.
“Did you come from The Sisters of Mercy? Just nod if you did.”
She moved her head gently up and down, eying the nuns who patrolled up and down the laundry room.
“Was there a baby boy still there by the name of Brendan O’Brien?”
Again she nodded. And then she whispered.
“He was sent to an orphanage last week.”
She didn’t know.
Which thought was worse? Condemned to the brutal, loveless life of an orphanage, or that another woman would embrace him close to her and call him “son”…thoughts overwhelmed me.
“Tell me where?” I said aloud.
She looked frightened; I was drawing attention to us now. She shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, her eyes sad, she knew that in a few months she would be like me. But she didn’t know.
How could she know? They wouldn’t ever let us know.
He was sixteen months and 12 days old. I fell to my knees. The iron fell flat and sat hissing and spitting on the altar linen. I beat the ground, and then stood and kicked the ironing board. These sounds, the roars of a wild beast, they came from inside of me.
When mother approached, she began removing her leather strap from around her waist, wrapping one end of it around her right hand, and dragging the other end along the laundry room floor. It trailed behind her, warning me that it could come to life at any moment, should she will it.
“Number 27, compose yourself!” Mother said.
“I want my son!” I screamed. “I want to go home now, my family will miss me! I want my son!”
“No one will miss you; they won’t even come looking for you.” The leather strap caught me on the side of my left temple, and that’s all I remember.