The Last Day
By Nancy Toomey - Ordinary Time/All Saints 2011
Helen followed Mama from the road through the cold, iron gate and tripped on the curb where cobblestone ended and grassy lawn interrupted slabs of stone in rows. She tucked her hands up inside her cuffs, her coat’s sleeves now one long black arc swooping from shoulder to shoulder. It was here, above the cradle of that arc, that she felt her own heart pumping black in her veins, its heat pulsing to the ends of her fingers. She felt it, viscous, slow, trapped in there like she was trapped here, its insidious weight scraping along the coarsely textured insides of her arteries. Florence had had red blood and Helen had seen Jack’s blue through the pale skin on his forearms under his sleeves. Her blood too, had once been red. She’d seen it ooze through her knee once after a fall but that was long before she’d ever come here.
She lingered near a stone and traced its letters with her fingers. Smooth as glass. Her hand, hot within, felt cool relief. If Mama didn’t notice, she would just wait here. But Mama stopped at a small rise. With the bright sky behind her, she was a pale statue, like the sandstone angel just to the west, except for the lack of wings. Mama gestured with an impatient hand and became flesh and blood again, dark clothing wrapping her from head to foot, a fluttering kerchief tied tightly over her hair. Helen ran. Helen let her mother pull her into a cold hard embrace through layers of spun wool, a dry kiss to her hair through her tight hat, then a tug toward the tiny half sized slab where their family name, SAND, flickered while the sun flirted with an overhead branch.
Mama turned her back to the blue sky and tossing wind. Helen let Mama position her by her side although she would have preferred the sun on her face. Her eyes rested on the etched name, Florence. Helen calculated her dead sister’s age. Born 1904. Died 1908. Helen knew Mama thought she prayed when she stood there next to her. Like the black in her veins, the arithmetic was Helen’s secret. Florence would be eight this year. I was seven when she died. I am eleven.
Mama fell across the frozen earth and buried her face in dry yellow grass; her arms embraced the little granite slab. Helen looked toward the gate and the road and saw with relief there was nobody nearby. Helen heard “Flo, my little girl, my flower, my angel…”
Helen’s heart pumped her inky blood harder. She knelt down and felt a rock under her knee, then shifted until a tuft of dead grass cushioned her bony joint. She stroked her mother’s back. “Mama,” Helen whispered. “Let’s go home.” Florence. Florence always in Mama’s mind. Helen tried with all she did, all she said, her little gifts of flowers after she returned from school, her obedient attention to her chores, her studies; she kept her clothes spotless, ate without prompting, all her dinner, all of it a plea to her mother to turn her eyes to Helen and smile. After every failure the inky black darkened further in her veins and made it hard to muster joy of any kind, any remembrance of Florence except Mama’s sorrow. And, if Helen laughed, Mama’s frown quickly shut her down and returned her to obedient grief. Gladness was something that required forgiveness now.
Did Mama’s veins flow with black also? They must, mustn’t they, to make those dark circles under her eyes? Helen was not allowed to ask such questions at home, but at school, from the sisters, she took in every lesson, eager to find answers her mother’s silence denied her.
“Death is punishment for sin,” Sister Wilhelmina taught Helen’s sixth grade class. Sister Wilhelmina said, “Ask God for forgiveness every day of your life or God will take you too.” At her sister’s grave, Helen prayed fervently for forgiveness.
Mama wiped her nose with her gloved hand and lifted herself to a kneeling position. She made a sign of the cross. She held her hands in prayer. She glanced at Helen and waited until she took a similar pose next to her.
“We pray for the soul of Florence,” Mama recited. Helen didn’t dare shift even though her knees had found the rock again. She spoke her mother’s prayer, but in her heart, she prayed against Sister’s warning.
“Florence was too young to sin,” Mama said once, her only answer when Helen repeated Sister’s lesson. “Florence is in heaven with Jesus and the angels and God the Father, not hell, because Florence did not deserve punishment.”
Helen mumbled Mama’s prayers after her, the words digging further and further down, spinning with contradictions. She prayed that she would not sin. She prayed she wouldn’t die. She prayed she would be good so she, like Florence, would not deserve to die. Yet, Florence had died. Helen added a silent one that Mama would not punish her. She glanced over and flinched at the memory of the day of her punishment, and prayed that God would keep her good, would forgive her for whatever she had done to deserve the pain she had borne at Mama’s hand.
Helen had walked through her front door, a dry dusty day, that first September after the funeral, home from second grade, calling “Mama, I’m home.” She had dropped her bag on the floor and entered the kitchen, Mama’s usual place. The back door was open, a few leaves, brown and dead, had blown in unnoticed and lay there inside the screen door. Helen bent to pick them up and drop them outside. She descended eight steps to the grassy yard. The peach tree was empty, but the pear tree was ripening with green fruit. Helen picked one then saw Mama crawling towards her through the box hedge at the rear of the yard.
Mama brushed dirt off her skirt and dropped a bucket of water on the ground in front of her. Helen saw the wild white kitten, one of three Jack had found and saved from a deliberate drowning by the old grocer up the street. A fine trickle of blood had dried on its lips. It lay near the base of the barren peach tree, dead. In Mama’s hand, she saw its brother, a tabby, hanging by the skin on the back of its neck where its mother might have grasped it with her teeth. Helen saw its grey fur as it went down into the bucket. Mama held it there, pressing down, a grimace on her face. Helen screamed, “Mama, no!” She fell as she ran the length of the yard, got up and stumbled to her mother who pressed her away with an outstretched arm and did not look at her at all.
Helen begged, “Mama, no, please!”
When Mama’s hand came up, the kitten was limp, its mouth open, its eyes half shut, unseeing.
Mama’s eyes were liquid, black liquid. Helen drew back. “Mama, leave the other,” she begged.
“One more.” Mama practically shrieked.
Helen grabbed at her arm. “Stop! No! Not mine! That one is mine!”
Mama paid no attention. Helen prayed her brother, Jack, would come home early, that someone would come.
“Little rats, they are!” Mama said. “How long were they here? Did you let her near them? Look,” she pointed with her chin at the white one, “its throat, it died like Florence died. We can’t have them here.”
“Keep one,” Helen begged. “Keep the black one. I beg you. He’s mine.”
Mama ignored her. Helen fell on the ground across her mother’s feet. “Please!” she begged. “Leave one for me.”
Mama grabbed the black kitten by its scruff. Helen, on her knees, tried to tear it from her hand. Mama lifted it high and away, and then plunged it into the water. Helen stopped breathing. She tried to knock over the bucket. It sloshed over Mama’s feet. Still Mama prevailed. Helen buried her face in the grass, closed her eyes, and prayed. She could hear claws scratching at the metal bucket, then, she heard nothing. She looked up. In horror, Helen saw Mama lift the dead soggy kitten and throw it on the ground with the others. That was the moment Helen’s blood turned black. Mama tossed the water onto the grass and crawled through the box hedge and fence, dragging the bucket behind her.
Florence died this way? Did Mama say that? Helen tried to speak, to ask Mama what that meant. Mama cut her off. “No questions. Don’t touch them,” she said. “Go up to your room.”
Helen fled. Her tears unchecked, her sobs gave her hiccups and she tried to hold her breath to cure them, and slowly, her horror gave away to fear. She lay on her bed, waiting for Mama to come through the door. Helen knew only that she had woken on a summer morning to find Mama sponging Florence down with cool water. Later that day, Dr. Van Essel had taken Florence to Saint Joseph’s hospital. Mama had left Helen with Mrs. Degnan whose daughter Mildred was Helen’s age. Mama in the carriage with Florence. Helen lay on her bed, her hiccups calmed, and tried to picture Florence with gray mucous on her pink lips, or with her eyes rolled back, staring blankly. Helen trembled at the idea of her sister lying in a dead heap on the ground like the kittens. Florence had not died this way.
Finally, Mama appeared. “Helen,” she said. “You will have to be quarantined. No school for a week.” Mama quickly closed the door and left her.
Helen looked in the mirror; she saw deep circles under her eyes. She noted the black half moons there along the insides of her eye sockets. Yesterday they had been slightly blue, like the veins in Jack’s wrists. My blood is the stain of sin. Sister Wilhelmina said sin brought a stain on your soul. Our blood is our soul and mine is black, she thought. What sins have I done? She would ask Jack. Jack was sixteen and her brother. Surely Jack could explain things to her. Especially now that Mama had found the kittens. Why though, had she killed them? Sick? The kittens were sick? Sick like Florence? She lay down on her bed, watched the shadows fall on her bedroom walls and willed the afternoon to pass. She would not dare look out the window at her precious kitten, dead. The white one had been for Florence, the tabby Jack had named Mo, and the tuxedo, well Helen had called it Millie, after her friend Mildred. Gone, dead like her sister, except not in heaven. Jack had saved them but now they were dead.
Jack’s heavy steps on the front porch and his singsong greeting to Mama reached her; she sat up. She waited. Surely he’d come up to take off the clothes he wore to Mr. Wannamaker’s jewelry store where he had apprenticed these last two years. He usually changed so he could shovel coal for the furnace, chop wood for the stove or sweep the walk to help Mama. She opened the door just a crack and caught him passing. She swung the door wide and he brought up short before her.
“The kittens are dead, Jack,” she said. “Mama told me I was quarantined again. Why Jack? Why did she kill our kittens?” Helen couldn’t help the tears that rolled down her cheeks. She wiped at them, expecting them too to smear her hands with black. To her surprise her tears were just clear water, and salty when she put the tip of one wet finger to her tongue.
Jack pulled at his tie and unsnapped his collar. She prayed he would be the old Jack. The one who played pirate games and taught her to read and brought her books from the library, back when he still went to school. These days she was uncertain of everything. Jack had taken to imitating Papa, important now that he earned money and put it on the table every Thursday evening, now that he was an inventor for his boss and had a patent to his name. Jack studied her wet face, her puffy eyes. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and held it out for her. She smiled and shook her head no. He studied it, smiled, shoved it back into his trousers and said, “Yes, I had to use it earlier, sorry.”
“Am I going to die, Jack?” she whispered. “I’m quarantined again. Mama said.”
“You’re not going to die,” he said quickly.
“Mama said Florence died like the kittens.”
“Helen,” Jack said. “Diphtheria is what got Florence.”
She just stood there, staring at him, trying to understand him. “What’s that?”
“A sickness,” he said. “Florence caught a germ and it made her sick and the doctors couldn’t make her well.”
“Why didn’t I get it? Or you?”
“Because we’re just lucky. At least this time.” Jack stooped down on one knee so he was eye to eye with her. “You miss her, huh?”
Helen nodded and swallowed hard, trying to fight the urge to cry.
“Me too,” he said. “And now I’m sorry I ever brought those cats home.” He stood again. “Hungry? Mama says dinner in five minutes. Come on. Give me a minute. I’ll give you a ride down.” He stepped through the door to his room. Papa’s voice echoed up the stairs as the screen door slapped shut behind him. Helen felt a flood of relief. She didn’t wait for Jack to carry her on his back, but tiptoed down the stairs. Papa lifted her for a hug and a kiss on her cheek, placed her gently down while he hung up his hat and jacket.
At the table, Mama said nothing about the kittens. She said nothing at all, but silently served stew with a wide ladle and passed a basket of bread. After prayers, Papa and Jack talked about Mr. Wannamaker and the jewelry business. Papa had written the man’s insurance policy and lectured Jack on the proper way to stay in the man’s good graces.
Jack pulled a sample of a watchband from around his wrist and passed it to Papa, then Mama. Mama nodded silently and handed it back. “I designed this. Been working on it all week,” Jack said. “We may apply for a patent on it.” Helen waited until Jack passed it to her. She admired the silver shine of the metal. Jack said, “Pull on it.” He reached for it. “Like this.” He held it between his thumb and forefingers of each hand and pulled. It grew longer; as it did the width narrowed. He let go with one hand and it snapped back to its original size. “See?” he said. “It’s expandable. Better than the leather straps that have to be fit to size.”
“I like it,” Helen said. “Can you make a bracelet like that?”
“Ah,” Papa said. “Sounds like your sister has some good ideas too, Jack.” Papa smiled and winked at Helen. “Smart girl we’ve got, hey, Lena?”
Mama nodded and ate her stew. “Helen’s quarantined, Joe.”
“Again?” Papa asked.
Helen’s heart, which soared at Papa’s praise, shuddered and sank.
“Do we need to again, Lena? She’s suffered enough. She’s not showing signs of sickness is she?” Papa leaned over toward Helen. “Here,” he said. “Stick out your tongue.” Helen obeyed. Papa pressed her tongue with his teaspoon and said, “Say ahh.” She did and she heard Jack imitate her. She resisted the urge to giggle and tried to look at Mama. Papa pulled out the spoon. “Throat looks fine, Lena.”
Mama stood up. “Come to the yard, Joe.” She didn’t wait but disappeared through the kitchen. Papa followed, a frown nestling between his eyebrows. Jack helped himself to more stew and Helen sat, stared at him, and lifted her own spoon to her mouth.
“How does Mama know about the well?” she asked him.
“She knows,” Jack said. “I told her.”
“I thought it was our secret.” Helen chewed a tough chunk of beef. Helen saw Jack transform before her eyes. The remnants of her child playmate became Jack the adult. He sat up rigidly in his chair and lifted his glass of milk primly to his lips.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “We don’t need the secret dungeon anymore, Helen. We haven’t played that game in years. She found the cats herself after the white one died.” Helen stared at him. “Why did she kill the others?” Jack did not answer. She chewed and chewed at the stringy grisly meat. It was not getting any smaller, or softer. Rather, the more she chewed, the harder the chunk of beef became, until she knew it would be impossible to swallow it. Before she could take it out and hide it under the rim of her bowl, Mama and Papa returned from the yard.
Papa sat. “Helen, Mama’s right. You’ll have to miss a week of school.” The rest of the meal was eaten in silence. Helen resumed chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Finally, she attempted to swallow. The wad stuck in her throat. She gagged making a loud rude noise. The meat moved back to her mouth and she swallowed again. Once, twice, on the third try it went down. Helen gulped her milk to wash it down. Mama’s eyes were on her, her face chalk white, her hand at her own throat, her eyes filled with terror.
It was the loud bark of metal hitting stone that drew Helen from her scrapbook into which she’d been pasting pictures from a magazine Mama gave her. Through the window she saw workmen trounce through her yard and past the hedge, widening the tiny opening she and Jack had always crawled through for their pirate game. Now it was wide and no one would need to bend down at all to get through. She and Jack’s secret was now receiving the attention of a team of men bent on destroying it. One man, who reminded her of a bulldog with his short legs and strong round shoulders and almost no neck carried a great many pieces of flat wooden board. He tripped through the yard, back and forth, while she sat and watched. Papa stood just this side of the property line, speaking with Mr. Duffy, the man in whose yard she and Jack had found the well. The dead kittens were no longer under the tree. Where they’d gone she couldn’t say and knew no one else would say if she ventured to ask. Just like Florence, she thought. Gone. She comforted herself with the idea they were up in heaven with Florence and the thought rose up that Florence was perhaps having more fun than she right now. Through the hedge she saw the bulldog-like man swing a huge hammer to the brick wall that enclosed the well. Then he kicked the brick down into the hole where she and Jack had imagined the pirates hid after stealing their imaginary gold. Her eardrums reverberated with every whack of the giant hammer and she stuck her fingers in to dull the sound. That well, she knew, was no longer used. That was the fun of it. She and Jack were sure its history was a mysterious and exciting one. Only once had it proved useful for anything other than imagining.
It was the day of the kittens. Helen remembered it clearly, a hot August day with hazy sun. Mama had instructed her to stay in the yard and watch Florence while she lay down with a headache. Helen had chanted the words to a clapping game while slapping the flat palms of her younger sister’s chubby hands. The window to the kitchen was curtained and the shade pulled down. Florence grew tired of the clapping game.
The ground was littered with peaches, hard but good for pies and good for throwing against the wall of the shed that bordered the east side of the yard. She loved the wet round splat marks on the clapboard wall, the sound that echoed through the wood, the wrecked ovals, skins marred by impact, as they fell to the ground. Helen let Florence pick up the smaller pieces, to try again and again to hit the wall. They were magnets for ants. Florence tried to put pieces in her mouth. Helen said “No Florence” and took them away, remembering Mama’s admonishments to keep her little sister clean. All was fine, until the gate swung open and Jack carried in a basket. “Come look,” he shouted.
Helen abandoned the peaches. With a squeal, she lifted a black tuxedo kitten from the basket.
“The grocer was about to drown them,” Jack said. “I couldn’t let him do that. What do you think Mama will say?”
“Mama is still resting,” Helen said. “We can’t go inside.”
Florence sat on the dirt with a peach to her lips. Helen handed the tuxedo kitten to Jack and tossed the peach into the distance, brushed at Florence’s face with the back of her hand.
“Come let me wash you,” she said, annoyed, pulling Florence to her feet and dragging her away.
Mama must not see this. She would tell Helen she was lazy and neglectful. An ant marched slowly across Florence’s sticky cheek. Helen brushed at it a bit too hard and Florence let out a cry. A red welt formed between ear and nose.
“Shhh,” Helen begged. “Come with me. I have to clean you.”
Helen dragged Florence by the hand to the rear fence and crawled first through the opening, her skirt catching on a twig and tearing. Holding Florence by the hand, Helen lowered the gray bucket into the well and pulled it up. She dipped her hands and reached toward Florence’s sticky face. As she made contact with her sister’s pale skin with the red welt, she let the water run through her fingers, across Florence’s cheeks and down her chin. Helen rubbed at the dirt and the pear juice. She flicked a wandering black ant toward the ground. Florence’s clothes were a bit wet, but in the August heat, they would soon be dry. Florence said, “More.” She dipped her own hands in the bucket to clean them, and then before Helen could stop her, she sucked at her fingers. Helen sighed.
Florence said, “More.”
Helen said no and dumped the remaining water back down the well. She returned the bucket to its spot on the wall and lifted Florence into her arms. “We’re done here,” she whispered. “Want to see the kittens?”
Now, watching the men take down the well, Helen remembered how she felt at dinner last night, that Jack was changed, that she too could not be who she was before. That was the day before Florence’s fever. That had been the last day. Now, she was a different girl. Florence was gone. The kittens dead. The mystery of the deep dark hole she and Jack had peered into, shouted into, voices echoing down down into darkness was gone too along with ghosts of imagined pirates, dead and long gone. I know someone who is dead now, she realized. Florence is dead. The intrigue of the dead was no longer a source of curiosity. Now, she knew it only caused tears, her own, which spilled now, and silence, Mama’s silence.
The short bulldog of a man eventually stopped tramping across the yard. Papa shook Mr. Duffy’s hand, and to Helen’s surprise, Mr. Duffy embraced Papa while the bulldog man stood by rubbing his thick neck with a dirty hand and staring off in the distance. Papa put his hand on the man’s round shoulder, paid him for his labor with a wad of bills. Helen heard Papa’s voice rise and say to both. “Yes, Jack and his damned animals. They drank from that stink hole too. It’s what killed the first one. Otherwise we’d never know.” He turned his gaze toward the house and the window where Helen stood and caught her eye. What, Papa, she wanted to shout. What would we never know? But he quickly turned his back to her. Only Mr. Duffy, now with his hat off and placed gently against his chest, lifted his hand in a wave and smiled at her.
She went back to school for relief from Mama’s silence, finding comfort in the routine of learning to add and subtract, read and write and to ask as many questions as she wanted. Sister Wilhelmina’s lessons about sin swam in Helen’s head along with her admonitions. God will punish you with death if you disobey his commandments. Think kind thoughts. Cruel thoughts are cruel deeds, one and the same. Stay pure and without sin, girls and boys. Helen heard her whisper to the other sister. “That poor woman,” Sister said. “Pray God spares her any other grief.” The other sister whispered back, “God would not punish her by taking another daughter. Would he?” Seeing Helen listening, she said, “Diphtheria punishes indiscriminately. Pray for your mother, Helen. Pray that God spares her by sparing you.”
In spring, when Helen had just turned eight, she learned how to enter the little booth where the priest sat behind a screen. She knew to kneel and bless herself; what followed was between herself and God. But she stopped at the word ‘sins’ mute with bewilderment. She could make up some, but that would be the sin of lying. Helen said her penance feeling doubtful. She ran home and looked in the mirror. The black under her eyes, the black in her veins that made the circles, was still there, still stained. She asked, “Mama, do you know any sins I have done that I cannot remember?”
Mama said, “Helen, you are a good little girl.” She kissed Helen’s forehead while Helen felt the emptiness where Mama’s ‘no’ should have been.
Sister Wilhelmina told Helen she was ready to receive Christ in the Holy Bread. The sun, shining off the white of her communion dress blinded her. It made her feel clean but black still flowed in her veins, bringing her to despair. Her friend Mildred received the sacraments with her, and seemed buoyed with joy. She was beautiful in her white dress, her cheeks rosy, her smile wide, and a blue vein in her jaw prominent against her flushed skin. Helen asked Sister about how you feel when you are free from sin. Sister answered, “You are never free from sin. That is why you can go to confession as often as you need. God knows us better than we know ourselves.” Helen went every Saturday still unable to name her sin.
Time passed. Helen reached the age of twelve still doing penance in earnest at every opportunity. It was only at Florence’s grave that Helen heard her mother’s voice. At home, Mama’s silence was broken only by Jack’s talk at dinner, Papa’s soft goodbye as he left the house for business each morning. Helen learned to abide the silence, to honor her mother’s desire for quiet. To do otherwise would be to sin, to worsen her mother’s grief, to make herself more vulnerable to punishment by Mama’s hand or by the hand of God. She did not want to die. Mama and Papa never mentioned Florence’s name. It was hard work for Helen to recall memories from before when Florence was alive and Mama spoke of happy things and had been a comforting presence.
Helen lay in bed at night and tried to see Florence’s face, to remind herself of what was fading with every passing year. She and Jack only whispered Florence’s name to each other when their parents couldn’t hear. She cried for Florence and for the kittens before sleep some nights and all the while she waited for death where she would join Florence. The sisters at school reported her meticulous adherence to the rules on her report cards and Sister Wilhelmina called her Helen, the Good. She would not run in the playground. She would not climb trees with Mildred. She lived in fear her blood would spill and reveal the shame of her unnamed sin.
An early morning after Good Friday Mass, after her class had attended and returned to the classroom, Helen excused herself for the ladies room. Once inside the rough wooden door of the cubicle, an ugly black puddle of wetness threatened to reveal her shame. To her great relief, it did not leak through her school uniform. After several trips back there, and an odd stare from Sister Wilhelmina, she was unprepared for the sight of red dripping below her into the toilet. She wiped and wiped, but still, it kept coming. Her back ached. She could not decide what she should do…go to Sister Wilhelmina and say she was sick and go home…pull up her clothes and go back to her desk…no, this would stain her dress if she sat down. Finally, Sister came looking for her.
Helen said through the door, “I’m sick. Something awful. I can’t come back to my desk.” Something was happening. Her blood was returning to its clean and natural color. Despite the pain in her back, and the embarrassment she felt whispering what was happening to her, Helen felt something she took to be a lifting, finally, of the stain in her soul. Her mind worked fast, panicked as she was, imagining this color change a signal of God’s forgiveness. All her penance had finally won her a clean soul. What had she confessed yesterday in the confessional? She could not remember. Had God finally heard and forgiven her?
The nurse told Helen she was not dying. She gave Helen a medical book open to pages that explained her blood and told her to lie down on a cot and rest. Helen silently lay there, the lifting of that black in her soul, surely a sign of God’s love for her, filling her with a new radiant peace she had never known before. Mama came to walk her home. Helen felt herself glowing with renewed awareness of God and a feeling she’d just learned first hand about miracles despite the ache in her abdomen and the wet sensation between her legs. She whispered of it once they arrived at home.
“Ah,” Mama said, not looking at Helen, hurrying to stir whatever was cooking in the huge black pot on the stove, “The curse. You now have the curse like the rest of us.”
Helen’s glow flickered out. Mama chopped at an onion with a cleaver, eyes on her hands. Helen knew better than to ask her to explain. She climbed the stairs to her bedroom, lay down and curled her legs to her chest and waited for sleep to overcome the anxiety that had briefly left her but now roared back. Helen’s heart beat faster; her breathing intensified and panic settled over her as she waited for the curse to hurt her further, as surely it must. She slept, waking to find the sun setting and long shadows falling across her bedspread and walls. She sat up and found her way to the kitchen where she watched Mama wash dishes and picked at the plate of meatloaf and roasted potatoes. Then, she stood up and went to the secretary with deep drawers that held all the family papers. She pulled open the lowest drawer and lifted a pile of documents. There, she found a folder with a seal of the state prominent on the cover and Florence written in faded ink across the front. Cause of death, she read, neatly printed in the blank space, diphtheria.
There, under Florence’s birth certificate was a letter in Dr. Van Essel’s neat hand. Diphtheria again. Helen’s eyes scanned down. She tried to unfold the letter, to see the bottom half, to know how Florence might have caught it. To her surprise, the letter was torn, the bottom missing. Helen breathed deeply.
“Why did Florence die?” Helen called to Mama in the kitchen.
Through the doorway she watched Mama’s hands stop. A plate slipped into the water and Helen watched her fish it out and continue with her scrubbing. Maybe it was the blood. Maybe it was because she fervently believed she’d been transformed, despite Mama’s use of the word curse, but Helen was certain she had earned the right to an answer, finally. Helen felt like Jack. No longer a child, no longer a playmate to the young. Mama answered.
“Please,” Mama said. “Don’t talk about your dead sister. Let the dead stay dead.”
Mama’s eyes never left her hands. She said, “You should rest. Go lie down.”
Helen did not want to lie down. She studied her mother. Helen felt her silence now, not as a reproach, something Helen had always shrunk from in her past, but as a lock on the truth. Helen did not demur. “Mama,” she said, “I miss my sister. She would be eight this year.”
Mama said. “Eight…yes.”
“Why didn’t I catch it?”
“That I cannot answer. Just be glad you didn’t,” Mama said. She put down her last clean dish. She wiped her hands on a towel.
“What happened to the second half of Dr. Van’s letter?” Helen asked.
“Would you like to go to the cemetery with me?” Mama asked. “Put those old documents back where you got them.”
“I don’t want to go to the cemetery,” Helen answered. “Why is the letter torn?”
“Well, you were only just there yesterday. I’ll go alone then.” Mama turned and silently took her coat from the closet and her purse and hat. She left Helen standing in a slanted ray of sunlight. Helen moved to the back steps and felt a stirring of her sister’s presence; saw her on her stubby four-year-old legs. The scent in the yard was earthy, musty, like wet soil. She’d remembered that day before, but now, with the burden of her fear of sin and death lifted; memory was more than a desire to see her sister’s face, to hear her laughter. Helen remembered herself on that day, her obedient love for Florence and her longing for Mama’s approval, for her praise. Was there more? Mama had gone inside with a headache. While she remembered, Helen left the porch and at the far end of the yard she crawled through the box hedge into the next lot. A wide plank of wood covered the ground where the round stone wall once circled the well. Helen had used the well. She’d filled that bucket, not to kill her, to clean her. Mama had never asked where she washed her and now it was gone. The well was gone.
Helen breathed deeply. She let out a sigh and felt a gush of blood leave her. How thorough Mama was. That torn letter was part of her silence. Helen knew now, that by keeping Florence clean, she had stained herself with sin and her mother with grief on that last day. Mama never said so. Mama would never say so. Helen remembered the black liquid in Mama’s eyes, Mama with the bucket, killing the innocent kittens, drowning them in water from the well. She saw Papa turning his gaze from her in the window, from the unanswered plea in her eyes. Even Jack had evaded her questions. Mama would only suffer to reveal more, Papa too, their love for her greater than she, until now, could know. The stain of her sin flowed into the past, replaced with her knowledge that her penance perhaps could now be offered, and through the grace of God, accepted.