Ververe 23, 1013
“Well, lass, here we are,” Kata said, stretching to relieve her aching back. Maybe she didn’t have much of a right — Glenna had walked all the way she had, with almost seven months worth of baby in front of her besides — but Kata wasn’t as young as she used to be. Perhaps Glenna’s pregnancy and Kata’s age merely put them on the same level when it came to long walks.
When Glenna didn’t reply, Kata shot her a reproving glance and a raised eyebrow. “Ye did say ye wanted ter see this place.”
“I know.” That was two more words than she had said during the course of the journey, after greetings were exchanged. Still, Kata couldn’t exactly blame her.
It wasn’t every day that a young woman went to an orphanage for the sole purpose of determining if this was where she wanted to send her baby.
“We can always go back, ye know,” Kata replied. “If this ain’t what ye want.”
“The nuns –”
“Don’t ye worry none about the nuns. Sister Margery is the understandingest soul I’ve ever met. She won’t mind none. I’ll explain everythin’.”
“No,” Glenna replied. “No. I want ter see. Before … before I decide anythin’, I want ter see.”
“All right, lass. Ye won’t get no argument from me on that.” Kata patted her shoulder. “Besides, unless me eyes mistake me, that’s Sister Vyn right there. We might as well go say hello.”
With that, the two women headed across the lane at their equally slow pace.
As they walked, Kata thought. It wasn’t a long walk, but Kata was a fast thinker — you had to be, in her line of work. She wondered just what was going through Glenna’s mind. She had been absolutely insistent that she see the orphanage before she made any decisions about her baby. While on the one hand, Kata couldn’t blame her for it, on the other, it was … odd. She had brought more babies than she cared to contemplate to this very place, and none of the mothers — not Wei Li, not Tambu, not Mirelle, not even Erin — had ever wanted to know anything about the orphanage.The only one who had found out anything was Erin, and that was after her baby was taken away from her by force. An’ she got ‘im back, Kata forced herself to remember. That was the only reason why she was bringing Glenna here. If Sister Margery was involved from the beginning, then she would see to it that whatever happened would be what was best for everybody. She’d already done much for Erin. Unfortunately, involving Sister Margery meant involving Sister Vyn. The lemon-faced old woman looked up at Kata and Glenna with her familiar scowl. “Good morrow,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind my shoveling. Unfortunately, with all of these loose dogs about, the front garden doesn’t stay presentable for very long. And Sister Margery does insist that the place try to look …” Sister Vyn stabbed her shovel into the pile of dirt, took up a pile of dirt, and dumped into the shrinking hole. “Cheerful,” she concluded. “It’s wonderful ter see ye, too, Sister Vyn,” replied Kata, so Glenna didn’t have to. That didn’t do anything to Sister Vyn’s scowl. Kata made her smile wider in response. That always did get the old nun’s goat. She replied by attacking the dirt pile with even more ferocity, acting as if nothing was more important than obliterating it. Well, Kata had a quarrel with that, and she thought that Sister Margery just might, too. Still, she would fight that battle later. When Sister Vyn was done, she leaned the shovel against the steps, wiped her hands off on her skirt (the nice thing about black: it didn’t show the dirt), and looked over her shoulder at Kata and Glenna. “Well? Aren’t you coming?” Rolling her eyes as soon as Sister Vyn’s back was turned, Kata waved Glenna forward, then followed the two of them into the orphanage. As soon as they were inside, Glenna peeked into the main room and began to wander toward it. No wonder — it had a nice, comfortable bench in clear view of the door. Kata herself was thinking of it rather longingly. But Sister Vyn stopped that with a word. “You’ll want to see the upstairs, of course. That’s the nursery, where the children are to stay.” “Wait,” Kata interrupted. “Ye an’ Glenna ain’t been introduced yet.” Sister Vyn did not flinch; she and Kata had sparred together too often for that. But when she turned around, there was an extra hint of sourness to her scowl. Sister Vyn nodded once to Glenna. “Good morrow. I am Sister Vyn.” “I’m — Glenna Ruskin, Sister. Pleased ter –“ Sister Vyn didn’t wait for her to finish the sentence, instead beginning to stomp up the stairs. Glenna shot Kata a plaintive look — Is she always like this? Kata sighed. She had brought too many babies here and had the misfortune of having Sister Vyn be the one to receive them to have any illusions on this score. Yes, she replied with a nod. Yes, she is. They started up the stairs, Glenna keeping pace with Sister Vyn — perhaps out of spite. It would have been spite, if it was Kata. “S-Sister Vyn?” asked Glenna. “Yes?” “How come there ain’t no railins? Won’t — won’t the wee ones fall?” “If the children stay in the nursery, as they are supposed to,” replied Sister Vyn, “then they won’t fall.” “But — but there’s toys in the front room.” When Sister Vyn turned her glare on Glenna, Glenna quavered, but kept talking. “I saw.” Sister Vyn sighed. “Sometimes Sister Margery will take one or two the children downstairs if they refuse to take their naps. She should not — they should be kept to their schedule — but she seems to be afraid that some restless children will disturb the others.” Unfortunately, both sides of that argument made sense to Kata. Babies did do better when there was a routine to their days. And one crying or whining child could prevent others from sleeping. Probably what was called for, as it was in so many other times in life, was flexibility — but good luck getting Sister Vyn to see that. “Have — have any o’ ’em fallen?” asked Glenna. “Oh, don’t ye worry none about that!” Kata interrupted. “Most kids are hardy enough ter be fine after a tumble down some stairs.” She patted Glenna’s shoulder, now that they had reached the top of the stairs and said shoulder was much easier to reach. “An’ ye can’t protect yer kid from everythin’, no matter … what ye decide.” What she wanted to say, but couldn’t with the nun in earshot, was, Don’t let Sister Vyn decide ye, one way or the other. Sister Vyn didn’t make any reply to any of that, instead choosing to throw open the door to the left of the stairs and usher them inside. “This is the nursery.” Kata followed Glenna inside, having a look around herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she had come up here. She had last brought a baby in Imsdyn, but that didn’t mean anything. If Sister Margery was the one who greeted her at the door, then she rushed upstairs to give the baby a look over, make sure he or she was fed and changed, and settle him or down — then she came downstairs and was sure to offer Kata tea or a snack. If it was Sister Vyn, then the baby and all pertinent information were taken from Kata and the door closed on her, and that was an end of the matter. Still, Kata hoped that Glenna would see the good of this place. The cheerful yellow walls, dotted with paintings judged to be stimulating for children and smaller drawing presumably done by the children themselves. The clean floors with rugs carefully thrown just where the little ones were likely to be playing. The little ones themselves — a dark skinned lad with curly hair who Kata judged to be Tambu’s get, and a black-haired girl with eyes that marked her for Wei Li’s. The little girl, who seemed a bit older than the boy, looked up and grinned at them. “Heyoo!” “Hello, lass,” Kata replied, taking a step closer to the little girl. But a step was all she took, because that was when Glenna decided to mark what she had noticed. “Has — when’s the last time this little guy were changed?” Kata got closer to Glenna and smelled it herself. Goodness gracious! How had she not noticed it before. Sister Vyn sighed. “We change the babes when we can.” “But — but ye can’t jest –“ “Glenna.” Sister Vyn’s voice cut through Glenna’s protest like a knight’s sharpest sword. “We have, at the moment, four children under the age of four to look after. It used to be more. It will probably be more again. We also have this house to care for, the outside, the vegetable garden that helps to provide food for both the monastery and the nunnery as well as ourselves. We simply cannot change every dirty diaper every time it is soiled. The babies must wait until one of us has a moment. That is simply a fact of our life here.” “But –“ “No ‘buts,’ Glenna. That is the way this place is run. If you have an issue with that …” She shrugged. “Well, I’m sure you know what you ought to do if you have an issue with that.” She meant keep the baby. Bloody hell. Of course Sister Vyn was going to do everything she could to get Glenna to keep that baby, whether it was the best thing for Glenna and the baby or not. Sister Vyn hadn’t wanted to become a nun at all, had she? And she hadn’t wanted, if she had to become a nun, to spend her twilight years wiping the bottoms of what she would doubtless see as other people’s mistakes. But Sister Vyn’s husband had died, and she didn’t have any children who were capable of taking care of her, and her choices had been to throw herself on the mercy of the nunnery or starve. So she had taken the choice that meant life, but everything her bearing and her expression suggested that she had no intention of being happy about it. Bitch. If only Kata could explain to Glenna that Sister Vyn’s picture of the orphanage wasn’t how things usually ran, that Sister Vyn was exaggerating for effect, that — “My goodness! Sister Vyn! Why didn’t you tell me that Widow Thatcher and Goody Ruskin were here?” An’ here comes the cavalry! Hallelujah for Sister Margery! Sister Margery had a warm smile for Glenna upon entry, one that was big enough to engulf Kata even if it wasn’t precisely aimed for her. It was one that only dropped when Sister Vyn sniffed. “Goody, Sister Margery? I hardly think–“ “We don’t judge here,” Sister Margery interrupted, trying to make her face as stern as she could. Then she caught sight of Glenna’s face. “Not that there’s anything to judge you on! Oh, goodness, no! But — but even if there was –” Sister Margery turned a glare onto Sister Vyn. “This is why we don’t judge.” Kata wasn’t sure what “this” was, but as Sister Margery hurried to put the girl in her arms into her little bed — the girl was blonde, so Kata guessed she was Mirelle’s get — she could only applaud the sentiment. However, she wondered how much good it would do. Sister Vyn had gotten her hooks good into Glenna already; Kata could see that in the girl’s eyes. And that remark about not deserving “Goody” — oh, that would sting. That would sting her for days, weeks — maybe even months. Glenna was too sensitive to remarks like that for her own good, given how often she’d have to hear them, poor thing. Then again — anyone who wasn’t sensitive to remarks like that probably had a vital piece missing from her soul. Sister Margery bustled back as soon as the little girl was put to bed. She clapped at the other two children. “Come now, Rachel, Harry! Get ready! It’s nap time!” “Sister –” Sister Vyn started. Sister Margery shot her a look as she bustled around. “Now, children, let me get –” She stopped suddenly, sniffing. Then she looked at the crib occupied by the littlest baby. “Sister, didn’t you notice that Denno needed to be changed?” she asked, bending over the crib. “I was occupied with other duties.” “And so you let him lie –” Sister Margery started, but then she glanced at Kata and Glenna. She stopped. Kata wished she would have gone on. It might have done Glenna good to hear it. This way, only damage would be done. Glenna would see that there were serious disagreements between Sister Margery and Sister Vyn. But she wouldn’t know who was the stronger of the two sisters. Hell — how was she to know, never having met Sister Margery before, that the only reason she didn’t take Sister Vyn to task for this was that she was either too polite or too prudent to argue in front of guests? For all Glenna would know, the reason why Sister Margery wasn’t arguing was because she knew she would lose. Kata watched Sister Margery take Denno out to the changing table, laughing to him and talking all kinds of baby nonsense to him. She wished Glenna could see this. She wished she would turn around and stop her questioning Sister Vyn for one minute. She wished — oh, how she wished! — that she would stop trying to think about this and just see. If Glenna would just let herself see, she would be in such a better position to make her decision. She wouldn’t let herself be prejudiced by Sister Vyn into keeping a baby that she might not have been ready for after what had been done to her to get her pregnant in the first place. For Kata had seen other women who were forced to keep the babies forced upon them. Most of those women were able to love those babies — they were able to take care of them as they should be taken care of, for what other choice did they have? But there was always that scar. Glenna had a choice, a chance to divest herself of some of the harm that had been done to her. Maybe, when her baby was born, she’d decide that the baby was worth the pain. But in order to be truly able to make that choice, she’d have to see, really see, what her options were. And Kata was afraid — sore afraid — that Glenna was letting herself see only half of the real picture. *** “So, my dear — what did you think?” The children were all down for their naps, including little Denno, who, Kata presumed, was changed and clean and happy. Sister Margery had cleverly dispatched Sister Vyn to do some light work in the vegetable garden. The stage was set, Kata thought, for Glenna to finally get an honest look at this place, starting with the nun who was actually in charge. She just hoped Glenna would be able to see it. “Well, I …” Glenna gulped. “Sister — I — I don’t know what ter think.” Glenna looked down at her stomach. “He’s still me baby.” Kata patted Glenna’s knee, but she said nothing. Still, she noted the “he.” Glenna had been calling her baby “he” for … goodness, some time now. Since Seryl, or was it Tyves? The baby hadn’t been an “it” for a long time. That had to be a sign of something. “Of course he is, dear.” “An’ I’m afraid … he’s jest gonna get … lost here …” “No, no, Glenna! That won’t happen; I promise! Our … we view all children as a gift here, a gift from the Lord. And it’s our sacred duty to care for those gifts as best we might. That — that has always been the underlying philosophy of the Sisters of St. Coral, even if sometimes we can’t always live up to it as well as we might like.” “But what about the monks?” Glenna asked. “That’s — that’s where he’d go next, aye? If — if the baby is a boy, that is.” “He might not be,” Kata interrupted, before any horror stories about Brother Tuck could reach Glenna’s ears — although, to Brother Tuck’s credit, Kata hadn’t heard anything about him treating the male orphans who had been sent to live with the monks badly. And she thought that Father Hugh might not stand for that sort of thing. Still, Father Hugh couldn’t live forever. “A boy, that is. More likely ter be a girl, if ye axe me.” But Sister Margery didn’t take that as an opportunity to talk up how well Mother Julian treated the girls in her charge. “The — the monks will make sure that your son grows up as healthy and happy as possible,” Sister Margery replied. Well, that was about as convincing as a snowman’s claim of loving the Twikkiis. Glenna hung her head. “They … they’ll make him feel less, won’t they? Like … like there’s somethin’ wrong with him fer bein’ … born out o’ wedlock.” “Goody Ruskin –“ “It’s bad enough, that folk want ter make me feel like — like — a loose woman,” Glenna sighed. “But I don’t want him ter feel that. He — he can’t help how he came inter the world. He can’t help what his pa were.” She looked up at Sister Margery. “Is it so bad, ter not want him ter feel bad fer that?” “Of course not! And you may rest assured, if you entrust him — or her! — to my care, that I will do everything in my power to ensure that he never feels that way!” “But how much is in yer power, Sister?” Sister Margery gaped. She blinked. She swallowed a couple of times. But she didn’t answer. It took Kata changing the subject to get any conversation going again — and even that was stilted and awkward until they were finally able to take their leave. Yes, Kata thought as they left the orphanage, today Glenna had only let herself see half of what there was to be seen. But they had more than two months before the baby was born. Maybe — just maybe — in those two months, Kata could get Glenna to see everything. It was the only hope Kata had of being sure that Glenna had made the right decision, for herself as well as for her baby.