The Memory of Us(17)

by Camille Di Maio

I instructed Emily to find some cheesecloth. We’d try to create a makeshift bottle by dipping it into some goat’s milk and letting the baby suckle it. As she left the bedroom, I could hear the murmurings of the men coming from the other room.

The baby suddenly let out a desperate scream, demanding my attention. My nipples tingled in response, startling me, and my arms encircled them out of instinct. My own milk had dried up over two decades ago, never used. My breasts, once a gateway to intimacy, had not been seen by anyone since then. And yet, I knew they were still the most beautiful part of me, smooth and plump, spared the scars that had entombed the face of my youth.

The newest Campbell wailed again, and I broke myself away from thoughts of long ago. I dipped her into the now-warm water that had been prepared, and gently, gently rubbed her wrinkled skin. How many times had I done this? At least a hundred. It was common knowledge that babies didn’t need to be handled so delicately—they had just survived the trauma of the birth canal, so could certainly handle a decent scrubbing. But in my arms, this nearly motherless child felt especially fragile.

Behind me, the men entered the room—the dying woman’s husband, and the mysterious Father McCarthy. I heard the priest open his kit and place bottles on the side of the bed. Oil and holy water, if I remembered correctly.

“Pax huic domui. Et omnibus habitantibus in ea.”

A chill meandered down my spine, spreading through my body until I was covered in goose bumps. The name, the voice, the ritual—they stirred memories that I had thought to be permanently buried. Darkness surrounded me as I closed my eyes and recalled the explanation that the boy from my youth had given:

“This is called extreme unction. It helps to send the dying person along on their journey.”

Those words sounded hollow, as if they were said in a tunnel, a long tunnel that spanned the distance of decades and was devoid of light. Holding the baby in my right arm, I put my good hand on my temples and squeezed hard, banishing the visions.

I glanced to my side just enough to see the priest wrap a flat purple stole around his neck, but he turned before I could see his face. “Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. Gloria Patri, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” The damned dead language taunted me. I hadn’t set foot in a church since that Christmas morning when I became somebody else. The condemned don’t have any need for religion.

I returned to my task and laid the baby in a dry towel. Her cobalt eyes looked back at me through half-shut eyelids, still new to light. She relaxed in the comfort of my embrace as I rocked her gently. I was most at ease around babies. They didn’t take a second look at me, for they had not yet been taught what is beautiful and what is not. They were born into Eden, only to eat from the Tree of Knowledge shortly thereafter.

I put her tiny hands through the arms of the sleeper, much too big for her, and rolled the sleeves until they seemed to swallow her. I did the same with the legs. Snap, snap, snap. She was bundled well, but as I laid her in a nearby basket, I covered her with a blanket for extra measure.

“Exaudi nos, Domine, sanctae Pater, omnipotens, aeterne Deus: et mittere digneris sanctum Angelum tuum de caelis, qui custodiat, foveat, protegat, visitet atque defendat omnes habitantes in hoc habitaculo.”

The words were spoken with an excellent command. But maybe there was nothing special in that. Perhaps every priest could speak it as if it were his native tongue.

I heard him fiddle with the bottles of oils, and then whisper something to Mrs. Campbell. But the words that were audible to me were the ones from years ago. The scene not this remote farmhouse but a tiny flat near a train track. And the dying one is a man, the boy’s father, victim of old age and tuberculosis.

“This is the part where the priest hears the confession, Julianne. It is the last chance to unburden themselves of their sins.”

Julianne. No. I have no use for that name. Make it go away.

“Accipe, soror, Viaticum Corporis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, qui te custodiat ab hoste maligno, et perducat in vitam aeternam. Amen.” The priest behind me speaks. The boy in my head explains.

“Now the priest is anointing him,” Kyle says. “A cross on his head and one on each hand.” I recall a chipped teacup on the bureau.

“Ego facultate mihi ab Apostolic Sede tributa, indulgentiam plenariam et remissionem omnium peccatorum tibi concedo. Et benedico te . . .”

“The holy water blesses him.” I stand at the iron footboard and watch the ritual with awe. I do not know where I am. I clutch the baby and lean on a nearby table.

Go away. I do not want to remember this. Go away. I put my hand to my head.

Priest: “In nomine Patris . . .”

Boy: “He crosses his head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Priest: “Et Filii . . .”

Boy: “He’s calling on the intercession of the Trinity.”

Priest: “Et Spiritus Sancti.”

Both: “Amen.”

The words confuse me, and I cannot breathe. I do not know what is real, what is my imagination. The Latin. The English. The then. The now. The priest. The boy. The voice. They’re the same. They’re the same.

Chapter Six

The interior of the first-class cabin was unexpectedly shabby, and came with an apology from the porter, who said that this particular Pullman car was being taken out of service for refurbishment next month. Had Mother been sitting in my place, she might have threatened to write a letter to the president of the rail line. But I neither cared nor responded, and instead sunk into the green velvet seats with their unraveled gold embroidery, leaning my head against the window as I closed my eyes. The pane was cool against my flushed skin. This summer had been one of highs and lows, infatuation and disappointment. I was ready to leave that behind, and looked forward to starting school in London.

The train lurched, and I sat up straight. My seat faced the rear of the car, and no one had taken the one opposite me. I was relieved, as I was in no mood for making small talk. I watched the people who had come to see the passengers off. They trickled back in to the Lime Street station, and I thought I saw the back of Mother’s hat as she left with Lucille. Father had said good-bye back at home before heading to a meeting with some flower importers from Amsterdam who wanted to store their bulbs in the warehouse.

The abandoned, chateau-like building that bordered the station came into view as the train gained momentum. It had once been the celebrated North Western Hotel, but was now four years closed. Its gray slate roof towered five stories above me, and its windows were darkened from disuse. I felt a pang of empathy with the old landmark. Its exterior preserved a stately deportment, while I could only imagine the secrets that the now-vacant rooms must hold.