The Memory of Us(6)

by Camille Di Maio

I tried to recall a long-ago course in science, but came up with nothing.

“The chrysalis stage. That’s where it curls up into itself and its skin is hardened into something like a shell,” he offered.

“That sounds unpleasant.”

“Not at all. Not when you know what’s happening underneath.”

“Can Charles understand the changes in the plants?” I found myself hoping desperately that he could.

“I wouldn’t know. Maybe he does. But he does enjoy having them in his room. Miss Ellis told me that she often walks by and sees him holding them.”

“Why, that’s wonderful!”

“I agree. It’s at least something different for him, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

I glanced at the book on the table. I pulled mine out of my bag slightly, making sure that the title was visible. He was not reading detective stories, however, which was just as well, since I wasn’t, either. I was two chapters away from finishing Gone with the Wind. He closed his book, and I saw, with some trepidation, that it was titled Advanced Latin II.

He caught me staring at it. “Not exactly light reading, is it?” he said. “It’s for school. I’m just getting a head start on next term.”

“Aren’t you the smart one?”

“I had better be. I’m on scholarship, and I don’t want to take any chances.”

My mind raced back to Miss Ellis’s single word, the one that had plagued my thoughts for a fortnight. Priest. Could she be mistaken? She must have seen him reading this colossal tome and jumped to conclusions. Surely, lots of people studied Latin besides priests. That had to be it. Just a misunderstanding.

“And I don’t want to disappoint my father.”

“Your father?”

“Yes. It’s all he lives for, to see me become a priest.”

My heart sank, though I’d known all along that this was the truth of the matter. “Yes, I’d heard something like that. A—a priest.” I could barely say the word, and I felt my face prickle with emotion. Dogs are flying, Lucille, I thought. Monkeys are talking.

“Yes. Two years down and six to go.”

“So many?” I asked. “That’s how long it takes to become a doctor.”

“Well, I will be one, in a certain way. My father says it’s like being a doctor for the soul.” He paused, placing his elbows on the table. “What about you?”

Archie dropped a pot at the sink, and the clamor echoed in my ears. But not as shrilly as Ethel’s voice: “Archibald Smythe, you had better pick that up and get to the potatoes before I—”

“You’d never believe that they were married, would you?” Kyle had leaned in so close that I could feel his breath in my ear, and I became light-headed.

“I beg your pardon?” I couldn’t decide if he was joking. But his face looked sincere enough.

“For better or worse!”

“In dishes and in grease.”

“’Til dinner do they part.”

“Quite so.”

“A fine example of wedded bliss,” Kyle said. “Makes the seminary look all the more attractive.” He grinned, and I pulled away and looked out the window, afraid of what my expression might reveal. “What about you?” he said. “Are you going to university?”

“Yes. In September. I’m going to London. To study nursing.”

“Well, how about that? I’ll be tending to people’s souls, and you’ll be tending to their bodies. Together, we’re a full service shop.”

Like a fool, I couldn’t help but like the way he said together. “Yes, I suppose we are.” I glanced at my hands, my nails painted a champagne color just for the occasion. “Well, I should go see Charles now. It’s been nice talking with you.”

“You, too, Miss Westcott.”

“You can call me Julianne.”

“Julianne.”

My name lingered there between us, like a musical note whose exquisite sound lingers at the end of a song.

“Let me walk you to that wing. Somebody’s got to protect you from the creature with the wooden spoon.”

I did my best impression of a damsel in distress. “I would be ever so grateful, Sir McCarthy. It seems that I am forever in your debt.” I touched my fingertips to my heart for effect, but stopped short at batting my lashes.

“That’s Kyle to you, m’lady. And I don’t think the throne will be knighting Irishmen anytime soon, no matter how long I’ve lived here.”

His laugh put me at ease, and I followed him out the door. I would have followed him to the moon.

As he escorted me down the hall, I thought I saw Miss Ellis wink at me.

Abertillery

I quickly forgot the name spoken naïvely by the Campbell boy. It was of no consequence anyway, for its significance belonged to another woman, another life. We approached the farm, easily recognizable by its drooping fences and yards of clotheslines, sagging in the dead of night from abandoned shirts and blouses, skirts and trousers of various sizes, all colors muted by the well-worn thriftiness of hand-me-downs.

I had been here twice before, and had been duly impressed by the efficiency of the large family, if not by their condition. The wash was done by two of the girls and folded by another, while the smallest played hide-and-seek underneath the freshly laundered piles. Most of the boys worked in the field, although one was handy with tools, and brought in a small income repairing furniture.

But tonight was different. Even in the dark, I could see that the chores lay forgotten, foreboding like a canopy hung over the land.

The boy got out of the truck and was at my side before I knew it. He opened my door and offered me his hand. It was a touching gesture, one that took me by surprise. It had been some time since I was treated like a lady, and I couldn’t help but be moved.

“She’s this way.”

He led me through the front door. I expected to find the downstairs empty, as it was well past anyone’s bedtime, but the children were scattered across its corners. Most of the younger ones had fallen asleep. Those who were awake were fidgeting. Only the oldest three were alert, aware of the drama unfolding in the next room.

The tallest girl stood up and held out her hand. I did not recognize her, and I thought that she must have been otherwise occupied when I had called here previously. “Thank you for coming,” she said, as if I had popped in for a spot of tea. “I’m Emily. Please let me know how I can help.”