Lord God Almighty seems angry… angry at me.
Dark clouds look like demon faces jeerin’ at me from a nightmare, an’ the shriekin’ wind lashes the icy salt spray of the Atlantic intae my eyes, addin’ tae the sting of my tears. My heart—I see half of it bleedin’ on them bonnie green shores while Ireland slips away, swallowed by fog as the clipper Narcissus dashes westward.
My petticoats freeze tae my legs an’ ankles. I shiver. Through the dark mists a tall hatless shape paces the starboard deck. He looks at them black waves that churn the hull, an’ he curses. They look back at him, an’ they laugh. He walks, but he walks in a cage.
Am I Jonah, or is he?
The vessel lurches on a roarin’ breaker. I clutch the iron railin’ but my hands slip. I tear off my plaid shawl an’ lay it ’cross the iron tae get a grip, an’ I tell my heart that the cold don’t matter when the pain’s so great.
Yet guilt is a vulture. It sweeps down an’ snatches me. I struggle. I tell myself I wasnae cruel; I had nae choice but tae leave. Just a common, unmarried midwife. Och! How could the Lord ’spect a body like me tae care for the wee bairns of an adulteress?
But my conscience fashes me still, an’ each rush of black water stabs the pain down. My thoughts go four years back—back tae the Magdalene Asylum. There I stood afore the gates beneath her window, my face pressed against them icy bars, listenin’ helpless tae her cries of pain in childbirth. Only minutes afore the wee lass had stood afore me on the other side of the iron fence. For nine months she’d been locked in there—an’ ’twas hell. Nothin’ was left of her poor wee body. Her wee face—blanched like death! Her bonnie flaxen locks—matted an’ tangled! Her chill, raw-boned hands clutchin’ mine as she pressed her weddin’ ring intae my palm.
“They would take it from me and sell it for money if they knew I’d kept it!” she had whispered, in tears. “Och! Take it now—hide it for me—an’ if I die ye must give it tae my wee bairn!” She pressed her swollen belly.
Lookin’ past her tortured face, I seen two dark shapes stalkin’ up behind her through the gloom.
The nuns, comin’ tae take her away. An’ she kept cryin’.
“He won’t forgive me! Och! My dear, precious Johnny won’t forgive me! I beg him! I beg, beg, beg. And the dirty nappies of other women’s bairns I wash, and wash, and wash until my hands are raw and my heart is sick to death… But it’s not good enough for him! Not good enough for Johnny! It will never be good enough! Never good enough for him!” Bowin’ against the fence, she sobbed, scarce able to draw breath. “I love him still! I love him still… I do! I never thought he’d learn of it. Oh! But now I’m sorry. Sorry! Oh so sorry because I sinned against him and against heaven! God forgive me! O gracious God… forgive me!” She gripped my hands through the bars as though she knew the nuns were stalkin’ her. I felt the strength of a contraction shudder through her body, an’ she gasped, sayin’ desperately against the pangs, “Pray tae God for my poor wee bairns. God in heaven hears ye when ye pray—I know he does—and he knows my wee bairns need ye now. Och! Won’t ye help tae save them from this hell?”
Tears burned my eyes an’ I nodded. I took the wee gold ring an’ slipped it intae my dress pocket.
The women came. One clamped her steely hand ’round my lassie’s spare arm, then wrenched her back as my lass cried out.
“Who are you?” the woman snarled at me.
“A servant of the lassie’s family; a midwife, ma’am,” said I. “This woman is in labour, she ain’t well. Ow, please, ma’am, please! Allow me tae come in an’ help her!”
The second woman stepped close tae the fence, blocked my view. Her look was dirty. “We know how to deliver children here,” she said, then turned an’ walked away, draggin’ my lassie with them till they disappeared inside the dark walls of the asylum.
’Twas the last time I saw her face.
Five hours I had stood there. Midnight, an’ the whimper of a wee babe from the window told the child came safe from God. But the next day my lassie was gone. They say she bled tae death.
Four years rolled by. Each Monday I passed those gates on my way home from market. My heart prayed an’ my eyes searched for the wee face of the bairn I knew would look jist like my lassie—aye, they said the babe was a lass, an’ told me her name. Then one day I saw her. She was playin’ with her ball outside in the stark brown yard with three others, all stick-thin, too. I went tae the part of the fence shaded by a spreadin’ ash tree, an’ with my basket on my arm I beckoned the lass. She saw me an’ came near.
“Can ye keep a secret, lass?” said I, stealin’ the ring from my pocket.
She blinked her cornflower-blue eyes an’ nodded.
“Don’t tell naebody, ye hear? It’s from yer own mother, lass. ’Tis her weddin’ ring. Hide it safe—there in yer stockin’, see? Never tell a soul, promise?”
She gaped at me, then at the ring glitterin’ in the sun. “In my stockin’?” she whispered, leanin’ closer.
“Aye, lass, for now,” said I, then turned. If I tarried, ’twould be danger. “Run along now, lass. Aye, run!”
I hastened up the street, with one glance back. She was playin’ with the other children. But she watched me, too, like she wished tae follow.
It happened scarce two weeks ago, but weeks turn tae years for me now. My lassie’s face—her words, tears, cold hands, an’ my promise tae nae leave her bairns in that hellish place—aye, how an empty promise will turn tormentor!
“Lord God Almighty! Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!” Sweat an’ tears stream down my face. “Rattle the cage, O God! Rattle the cage!”
Can he hear me? Can he see?
I lift my voice an’ scream intae the chill blast. “Ye’re the first an’ the last! Ye were dead, but now ye live! Ye hide from us, an’ yet ye know the thoughts of men! Ye hold the keys tae hell an’ death! The body of Jesus Christ was sacrificed once for all—I know it! I know it, an’ I thank thee! I thank thee! Now help us, Lord! Oh, help us tae understand it an’ believe ye will turn this evil for the good! O God, my God! Ye say ye give good things tae them who ask! Ye say ye open doors tae them who knock, an’ I’m knockin’ now! Och! I’m knockin’ knockin’ knockin’ like I nae have knocked afore! Hear prayer, O Lord! Hear prayer! Hear prayer!”
I bow over the railin’, bawlin’ fit tae die. But somethin’ draws me through the tempest.
I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron.
I look behind me. My russet hair snaps my cheeks, lances my eyes… I’m alone. But that voice I know like I know the beat of my own pulse. I lift my face intae the rain an’ taste sweet an’ bitter waters. “Och! Then, Lord God, look! Look down from heaven upon these sparrows! Alone, alone, alone! Draw them tae ye! Their poor mother died in that cage… I know ye forgave her, but— Och! Break the fowler’s snare! Make it so these precious bairns may escape it, an’ make them a testimony for Jesus!”
The ship tosses on a long wave. It roars. It peaks. It seems tae hang from a noose. Shadow waters swirl below. I feel sick. Then… then… Is it a touch on my shoulder? Aye, a warm touch… a hand? I strain my eyes but cannae see— jist that dizziness stirrin’ everythin’ ’round intae a midden.
Then I’m fallin’: down, down, down. All I see is black, black, black, an’ nae more.