My heart shrinks into a knot.
I am leaving the convent. [Read more…]
My heart shrinks into a knot.
I am leaving the convent. [Read more…]
“Twenty minutes, Saul. You promised,” she says from the other room. A weak cry follows and then her weary voice again, “Hush now, hush… Daddy’s going any minute. Belly’ll be all swollen soon, then sleep, sleep.”
Eighty push-ups. Not too bad. Saul rises to his feet and faces the mirror. Only the table lamp is on because he looks more chiseled that way, his skin smooth again. He brings his wiry arms in toward his bare chest, admiring the oily sheen that clings to his body. He bites his lip, clenches his fists, then holds his hands loose by his side. Try to be loose tonight. Jaw loose, fingers trembling. [Read more…]
The dust had never bothered her before, except perhaps in an abstract way on weekends. But now, as she sat in her pajamas and looked around the living room, Ellen realized that it was everywhere—on the lamps, the baby grand piano, a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry she’d started to read last month and forgotten about. Ordinarily on Monday afternoons, she’d sit in front of Laurel Savings Bank on her lunch break and stare at the trees along Main Street, the coffee shop across the road, the white station wagon always parked on the next block. But this Monday there were no trees, no jobs at the bank. There was just Ellen, alone and unemployed in a living room coated with dust. [Read more…]
For three weeks, Warner had been in a wake-up-around-5a.m.-and-yell-for-Mom-from-his-bed phase. The phases changed, but Abby had already grown so accustomed to this newest routine that she’d woken in anticipation, lying in wait for her son’s shrill cry to come about an hour before her phone’s alarm was set to ding. Her husband’s mouth breathing ticked off the seconds.
She yawned and swung her feet to the floor, but with the movement a flutter of nausea passed through her stomach. Day three of whatever bug she’d picked up. Abby fell back to her pillow.
“Jeff, go get Warner,” she said to the ceiling.
Her husband didn’t respond.
Abby tried again, “Warner’s awake. It’s your turn.”
“What?” His voice managed to fit the question into complaint.
“Your son is yelling, and I can’t this morning. Please go.”
He let out an angry sigh, but moved out of the bed and grabbed a pair of shorts from the floor. “What do I do with him?”
Abby mentally rolled her eyes. He should know this by now. “Give him some milk to quiet him down.” She turned to her side and squeezed a pillow into her body, “Lay in there with him if you have to. I really need another hour.”
Fifteen minutes later she could hear Warner in the playroom banging wooden train tracks together like rhythm sticks, singing his version of Old MacDonald, mumbling through the words, booming for the animal sounds and e-i-e-i-o’s.
She shuffled to the bathroom, splashed water on her face, and attempted to wish away the sunken pockets around her eyes. She’d been losing weight recently. When this happened, it fell from her face first, leaving her gaunt. She didn’t feel lighter or leaner but stripped down, as though stress were eroding her one cell at a time. Abby knew she needed to force down more food today, but at the thought, her stomach rumbled its complaint. She hoped she could keep it down.
At least they didn’t need to leave the house. No school for President’s Day meant the neighbor boys would be dropped off after 7am, on their mother’s way to work. Perhaps, for once, the boys would entertain each other so she could take it easy.
She rumpled Warner’s hair. “Want breakfast?” she asked.
He didn’t answer but followed her into the kitchen. Through Warner’s open bedroom door, she could see her husband asleep on her son’s twin bed, flannel snowflake sheets pulled up so high they practically covered his face. “Thanks for the help this morning; so sweet of you to take care of Warner for me,” she mumbled toward the open door.
Moving into the kitchen, she grabbed a banana, and began slicing it onto a plate, mindful to keep the knife high above Warner’s fingers fluttering up to snatch the fruit as it fell.
“One bite and wait,” she reminded him. He would stuff his mouth so full she worried he’d choke.
“One bite,” he repeated before grabbing three slices, jamming them all into his mouth.
“Mommy said slow down, Monkey Boy.”
“One bite,” he attempted again but his mouth, too full, only managed a thick, two-syllable grunt.
Abby popped the final nub of banana into her own mouth and waited, seeing how her body would react. Nothing. Taking this as a positive sign, she reached for a second banana and began to peel.
After turning on Warner’s favorite movie, Abby grabbed a throw blanket and curled herself onto the couch, facing inward.
“One more hour,” she prayed, pulling the chenille fabric tightly around her shoulders.
They played inside through morning snack then Abby wiped peanut-buttered-fingers before releasing her son and the two neighbor boys, Max and Mason, through the dark garage to the front yard. Within seconds their silhouettes disappeared into the blinding morning sunlight. She followed after them slowly, still tired and stomach queasy, but she inched forward to pull out the sidewalk chalk and bubbles, pausing for a moment where the sharp line of shadow ended, allowing her eyes time to adjust, and set these things in the middle of the driveway. She bent her neck back taking in the sunlight on her face, thankful for nonexistent Florida winters. Mason and Max, already tumbling summersaults in the front lawn returned for the play tools. Max, the smallest of the three boys, made two quick slashes on the concrete with a piece of yellow chalk before holding it in front of him.
“Light saber!” he shouted.
In response, Mason dropped the container of bubbles to pull a piece of blue chalk from the pile. He displayed it in his own defense and began making a buzzing sound before Max jumped forward in attack. The two bounced around, slashing the air. making stabbing gestures, sometimes leaving chalky lines on each others clothes and arms.
Abby picked up the bottle of bubbles, its partially unscrewed cap leaking onto her fingers, and walked to where her son crouched at the end of the driveway inspecting a row of ants. Warner watched for a few seconds, flicked away some of the ants from the row, then watched as they reorganized and straightened the line, only to wait a few more seconds before again disrupting their order. Abby took the bubble wand and sent a soapy shower over his head, the small orbs leaving their circular marks on his clothes and on the concrete around him, but Warner ignored her, not to be distracted from the ants.
She knelt in front of him, “Mason and Max are playing light sabers. Do you want to play?”
But he ignored her, instead squashing two ants with his thumb and concentrating as their successors scurried to fill the gap left in the line.
She charged a day rate to watch neighbor kids. Keeping them only on days they were out of school still provided her with enough “mad money” for pedicures or lunches with girlfriends. But she couldn’t remember her last pedicure or lunch with a friend that didn’t involve a fast food location featuring a play place. The idea being to sit at a table in sight of the indoor playground while their kids romped so the women could talk in peace, but even this arrangement rarely worked. It always seemed her friends’ sons or daughters could entertain themselves endlessly, running through the maze of plastic tubing, racing and chasing, shrieking their glee. But Warner would only sit off to the side, hands over his ears, or stand at the glass slowly thumping his head in the same spot. When Abby gave up and brought him back to the table beside her, he might last another five minutes before his impatience manifested in darting away or slinking to the floor and lying there pressing his smooth, chubby face on the grime-skinned tiles. These behaviors, on repeat, punctuated by attacks with whatever food or trash remained at the table, left Abby empty. Drained of all energy, emotion, or hope she gave up the idea of trying again to rouse his interest in the fun so accessible to the other children but for him mysterious and alien.
Abby become well-practiced at quick, apologetic goodbyes before gathering up her things, including Warner, particularly Warner. His limbs jerked and punched his own frustration of the hour poorly spent, and she struggled to confine him as they fled.
By the time he was three she’d given up on indoor playdates where the volume of play magnified by too many children in one space trapped itself inside her son’s head. En route he would be happy. Alone in the car, watching the passing everything and listening to the soundtrack of his favorite show, Warner giggled and clapped, but once inside he transformed quickly into one of two possible reactions: shock-frozen clump or rage-lashing beast. All in the name of “fun”? She’d had enough.
In their own home Warner accepted his peers. Enjoyed? No, but it was a step above toleration. He might not engage directly in the same play, but he stayed in the room. After Max and Mason or Jace and Lacy, twins from down the street, had left for the day, he would snatch up the toys that had most interested them and begin his best mimicry of their play.
Only when Abby began to make changes to suit Warner did she feel the hope seep back, melting through the cracks left behind in the wake of broken expectations.
She turned to watch Mason pulling a fallen palm frond out of the landscaped beds, sweeping its brown, lacy leaves over his brother’s head.
“No fair!” shouted Max in protest, his eyes already scanning the shrubbery for a weapon larger than the chalk he still held.
“Boys, out of the bushes, please,” Abby called across the yard, but Max ignored her, stepping on an oyster plant to reach for a stick.
“Off the plants, Max!”
He hopped back quickly, his prize already retrieved, and held it up to Mason who promptly brushed it aside with the palm frond, knocking it back into the plants. Abby glanced at Warner who now watched the boys. He jumped up and ran to the scrub oak across the yard, his gate uneven but determined, and found a thin stick the length of his arm, a tuft of leaves still dangling off the end.
“Hi-ya!” Warner yelled, charging forward with his
own weapon. Mason turned, holding his palm frond up right
as Warner attacked, poking through the leaves, reaching
Mason hopped back and growled, attempted a spin kick, but lost his balance and fell to the grass. Max, who hadn’t been able to find his stick again, rushed forward, snatching up the palm frond, waving it in front of him.
“Hi-ya! Hi-ya! Hi-YA!” Warner danced through the brothers poking and swatting.
Abby wrestled with an urge to break up the fighting before it escalated or letting her son continue now that he’d shown interest in the other boys. She bit down on her bottom lip, unable to make up her mind.
Mason remained on the ground, laying on his back and kicking out, eventually tripping Warner so that he fell on top of the boy. Abby took this as her cue to separate them, but Mason screamed before she got there.
“He’s pinching me!” Tears filled Mason’s eyes. “Let go!” he yelled, his little fist coming down on Warner’s back.
Abby understood those tears, she had felt those pinches, locking in deep. She pulled Warner’s hand away and grabbed him into her, rubbing the spot where he’d been punched.
“No pinching,” she said, as his chest heaved, the excitement of the tussle still bouncing in his breaths.
She squeezed him tightly before applying smaller squeezes down his arms—she’d been told by one occupational therapist that the pressure could be stabilizing—before making a show of putting him in time out in a rocking chair on the front patio. The show and time out were for Mason’s sense of justice as well as a chance for Warner to settle and receive steady input through his body as it forced the heavy chair back and forth, back and forth. “Input” was another word she’d picked up from the occupational therapist. She knew Warner’s pinches weren’t malicious, that his actions were protective, instinctive. Bodies colliding sent Warner’s fragile nerves into overdrive.
She’d learned a lot once she’d finally agreed to testing.
Warner had never been easy. At his birth, the midwife remarked she’d never seen a baby so angry, as though he considered the sounds and smells of the world outside the womb a personal affront. But on the birth records, under temperament, she’d simply written, “dramatic, spirited.” Abby soon discovered that before he’d holler out one of his “spirited” cries, Warner would hold his breath for a few seconds as though taking the time to build his fury. Abby wondered if he was in pain, questioning the doctor if his frustrations could have anything to do with a small hernia present at birth, but the doctor assured her this bubble of flesh was normal, non-painful, would heal on its own.
As Warner appeared to accept life on the outside, their next battle came over nursing. Determined to breast feed, Abby had read and prepared, but after the first month tossed the books. Her reading insisted specific lengths at each breast every three hours, but the longer feeds caused horrible reflux and Warner steadily lost weight. Only once she allowed him shorter, snack-like feeds every hour and a half did the milk stay down. During the day this was easily done as she’d taken to carrying him in a sling, but, for four months, he kept to the same schedule at night. In that time, Abby didn’t leave the house much. She didn’t feel safe to drive.
Slowly, Abby discovered more ways to please him. Toys with rattles or bells—no. A blue lion that made a crinkly sound when you squeezed his body—yes. When Warner wasn’t crunching the lion’s body he sucked its ears, a rather disgusting habit, so Abby bought two more lions, keeping a steady rotation between their washings.
He liked the carrier and being held. He would tolerate his swing for up to ten minutes, barely enough time to get a full basket of laundry folded but not put away. She couldn’t even think about leaving him on a play mat or in the pack and play. Not unless she wanted to listen to his “spirited” temperament challenging her decision at full volume.
As he grew, Warner had been a little late on everything—crawling, walking and first words—but he’d always kept just inside the outer reaches of the timelines, the gray blurs that still meant okay. At his one year check up the doctor didn’t seemed concerned, but at eighteen months he used the words “low tone” to describe Warner’s muscles and recommended Warner be seen by an occupational therapist.
The whole drive home she’d cried thinking how a specialist needed to see her child, blaming herself for holding him too much, not enforcing the muscle building tummy time he’d needed as an infant. At home she Googled, “low muscle tone in toddlers” expecting to find a few articles on exercises she could do, but the first link she clicked on began by discussing causes such as hypermobile joints common in children with down syndrome or autism. She’d slammed closed her laptop in frustration. Didn’t children have to be two before autism was even a consideration? Warner had his own timeline and temperament. Why did every child have to fit a certain mold?
But once Warner turned two, she changed her mind about the testing. Jace and Lacy had come over many times by then, but they were almost three years older so she never compared them to Warner. Her uncertainty only grew when she’d begun watching Max and Mason from next door, who at one and three should have been an indicator of where Warner had come and would soon be going. Instead she marveled when Max could hold and manipulate objects more deftly than her son 10 months older, and stood incredulous when Mason spoke a clear and complete sentence, knowing that her own son, who constantly spouted mumbled ramblings that only occasionally bubbled up a clear word, was not seven months out from this ability.
After a full assessment with early child intervention, Warner qualified for speech and occupational therapy. No one seemed too concerned about a diagnosis. Therapists quelled her fears tossing out phrases such as, “general delays more common in boys,” which Abby, satisfied, would repeat at home to Jeff. For another year they continued this way—Abby making adjustments, such as dropping out of play dates, buying a small indoor trampoline because the occupational therapist had said it would provide more joint stimulation, working in a few signs the speech therapist had taught her to give Warner more tools for communicating. But with every birthday came more questions.
Shouldn’t he be brushing his own teeth, now? How long are you going to spoon feed him? Couldn’t he get dressed on his own? Are you ever going to start potty training? Jeff’s concerns buzzed in her thoughts through her days, but it was so much easier to help Warner, to alleviate his frustrations quickly, doing his tasks for him.
There was another line of questions Jeff brought up more and more, but she ignored these completely, wouldn’t allow the words to enter her rotation of worry. Maybe it’s time to have another one? Wouldn’t it be better if you couldn’t spoil him so much? Don’t you think a sibling would push him?
No, Abby didn’t think it was time to have another
child, couldn’t consider a brother or sister pushing Warner forward. Because what if whatever was happening to Warner, happened again?
As Warner rocked in time out, Abby drew a hopscotch path down the driveway. Mason, joining her, insisted on adding the numbers to the boxes, so she let him finish, watching as he pressed cautiously, considering each line. His numbers, aside from the backwards five, were perfect. Warner had no interest in writing or even drawing, only succeeding at a straight line when forced. Number and letters, even a decent circle, were beyond him.
Max and Mason jumped through the squares, taking turns tossing a chunk of chalk on the board to determine which
square to skip. Abby called to Warner, announcing the end of his time out. He hopped from the chair, but ran past the hopscotch game to the line of ants at the end of the driveway, back to inspecting their steady progress, back to finding ways to impede their small strides.
The sun, directly in front of their house, blared down on his dark shirt. Abby could feel sweat at her temples. She began tossing the chalk into its plastic tub, ready to call the boys
She announced TV time and all the boys cheered as she chose an episode of Sesame Street from their digital recordings. Max and Mason sprawled at opposite ends of the large couch, settling in to watch the show, while Warner bounced on the small couch, twisting in every direction until his head rested on the floor, his legs in the air.
“Warner looks funny,” Max giggled.
Abby appreciated that the neighbor kids seemed to like Warner, were entertained by, rather than fearful of or mean-spirited about, his differences. They might comment on his unusual behaviors, but that was it. They were used to him.
She filled three sippy cups with juice and brought them to the boys, Mason complaining he was too big for a sippy cup, as she handed it to him.
“Sippy cups in the living room, big boy cups at the table.” Abby sang the reminder.
Warner flopped his legs to the ground before sitting up to take his cup. He would chug it dry, giving Abby about five minutes of his guaranteed immobility during which she could run to the bathroom. Her stomach had resumed churning and she felt like she might throw up. Whatever it was that had taken over her body had outstayed its welcome. She needed her energy back.
Before they’d married, Jeff and Abby had agreed to the most average of family pictures: two children spaced two or three years apart. Warner approached three and even though it was clear they’d stretched their original timeline, Abby knew Jeff still wanted another child. But with each month she refilled her pill prescription anyway. Eventually Jeff pieced together the clues surrounding her inaction, finding within them her fear of a genetic repeat, and he scheduled Warner’s blood test without asking her. He took the morning of the blood draw off from work, in an act of support or fear that she might not go through with it, Abby wasn’t sure, but the going together felt right.
Jeff helped the nurse hold Warner to the table while Abby leaned over him, reassuring him, Just a second, baby. Almost done. Mommy hold you soon. Once released, she hugged him against her body as tightly as she could, but he continued raging. With vaccinations, he’d always calmed quickly after a hug and a sucker, but this day was different. As though the act of withdrawing blood from him created a deeper pain, his parents keeping him in place the ultimate betrayal. Maybe he was fighting the extraction of his blood secrets. The ringing in her ears lasted through the ride home, a dreary drive as both she and Warner sat stonily, their eyes still blooming a steady stream of tears.
Two weeks later a nurse called. Abby felt immediate comfort in hearing a nurse over the phone ready to give the results. She assumed bad news would be done in person by the doctor himself. This cheerful voice who said, “Mrs. Anders? I’ve got the test results for Warner’s blood work,” could only be ready to utter an “all clear” or “everything looks normal.”
Abby was not prepared for, “Warner tested positive for Fragile X Syndrome,” with a question in the nurse’s voice making it sound as though she had no idea what this syndrome could be. Abby surely did not. “Dr. Stickle wanted me to schedule you for a follow-up consult with a geneticist who could go over this with you. Is there a time this week when you and your husband can come in?”
Abby couldn’t recollect anything she’d said after that, but later when she tried to relay the conversation to Jeff, she noticed a doctor’s name and appointment details written in her handwriting on the notepad by the phone.
She spent the next three days crying and reading everything she could find online about the syndrome this glib nurse had pronounced applicable to her son. Warner would find her at the computer and pat her back before wandering off again, mumbling to himself, “Mommy sad. No wagon, no TV, no snack time. Mommy sad.” Once she picked up the words of his monologue, heard within them his worry that every small thing he held important could be slipping out of his day, Abby banned herself from the computer until after his bedtime, willing herself to see Warner as he’d been before the phone call. A little different, a little harder to please, but a boy with general delays on the cusp of catching up, and beyond that? Anything. Everything.
She would not look at him and see the words from the computer screen: a small gene slippage the cause of missing
protein, weak dendrites, possible seizures, anxiety, physical characteristics brought forth with puberty, hyperactivity, aggression—words that swam through her brain slicking her thoughts with worry. She would serve the snack, start the movie, pull the wagon, and read Harold and the Purple Crayon for the 87th time. All with a calm face, a face that told her son Mommy could let go of her sad.
None of the boys napped anymore, but after a walk, Abby pulling Warner and Max in the wagon, Mason peddling furiously on a training-wheel heavy bike beside them, she implemented “quiet book time.” She set the boys up in three different areas with books around them, turned on a timer, and told them all she wasn’t to be disturbed until they heard it ring. She needed fifteen minutes to herself on the couch, a small pocket of rest to carry her through Max and Mason’s pickup.
She heard Max and Mason giggling, but she knew she had more time before the timer beeped her back to reality, so she lay still, willing them to settle down, until Max sang out, “Mrs. Ab-by! Warner’s na-ked!”
Abby sighed and looked around for her son before hearing him in the bathroom. With kindergarten getting closer, they had starting potty training about a month ago, but she still couldn’t convince him to wait to undress. As soon as Warner realized he needed to go, he’d strip completely down and dash to the nearest toilet. She also didn’t understand why he needed to take his shirt off, but that was Warner. Not the easiest to understand. Better to laugh and decide if you could accept the behavior or needed to adapt it. In the case of semi-public streaking, she planned to work on it.
“Boys, gather up your books. Put them back in the bin.” She called out the instructions on her way to the bathroom. Sometimes Warner could manage fine on his own. Sometimes he decided to unravel the entire roll of toilet paper. It was best to check. She reminded Warner to wash his hands before scooting him to his room to dress him in his bathing suit.
“How about sprinkler time?” she asked him. Turning on the sprinklers in the backyard meant happy, busy boys not in need of much attention.
“Max! Mason! Find your bag and get your suits on.”
She walked out to find them both by the front door where she’d left the bag their mother had packed, their clothes already tossed on the floor nearby, giggling as they pulled on their swim trunks. Apparently Warner wasn’t the only little boy who liked to be naked outside the bathroom.
After Warner’s diagnosis it was almost funny how inept her friends were in knowing what to say, but a woman she didn’t even know, who must have noticed Abby’s arrival on an online forum, sent her a direct message that read, “One small act of love at a time = a beautiful life. My Fragile X guys are 18 and 22. You can do this!”
With this comment in mind, Abby bought a journal and simply began numbering, writing her list of small beautiful things. On the first day she wrote:
The boys splashed, ran, and played in the mud puddles created in the spots where their old lab had worn down the grass. Abby sat on the patio, the dog covering her feet, sometimes reading, sometimes closing her eyes and tilting her face to the sun, listening to the boys. Max and Mason had dug out a hole in the dirt, pronouncing it their frog pool and turned their sights around the yard for an occupant. Warner followed eagerly behind them giggling the words, “Frog hunters!” only to be shushed by the other boys attempting stealth as they crept along.
When it came close to Max and Mason’s time to go home Abby dragged a plastic pool from the storage shed, instructing the boys to stand in it while she hosed them down. She was fetching a plastic bag for their wet suits when the doorbell rang.
Abby recounted the events of their day to the boys’ mother who thanked her and reached in her purse for her wallet.
Max and Mason ran past to their car, but Mason stopped mid-step and sprung back to the door shouting into the house, “Bye, Warner!” before grabbing Abby around her middle and yelling out again, “Bye, baby!”
Her neighbor arched her eyebrows and smiled, “Are you—”
Mason released Abby and skipped off to the car. She laughed, “No. I don’t know where that came from!”
“My sister’s pregnant again and he keeps asking if I’m going to have a baby too. He must be applying it to everyone now.”
“That must be it,” Abby said and excused herself to find Warner who’d never come to the door to say goodbye.
Abby laughed again at the silliness of the five year old. She couldn’t be pregnant. When the geneticist told them the odds, right at fifty/fifty of passing on the same defective X chromosome, Abby decided they were done, telling Jeff that if he didn’t get the surgery, she would.
After his procedure, she thought she would be sad, but instead of mourning the children she’d never have, her mind was on the future—Warner starting kindergarten with the best possible services in place, her chance to go back to work. Abby felt as though she’d finally been set on the right course. The geneticist told them about specialized clinics and ground breaking drug trials. Abby made lists, phone calls, and started files. It had taken her too long to come to this diagnosis. She would bury her guilt with action.
But Mason’s words tickled at her thoughts the rest of the day, thoughts reeling with timelines. His words lodged in her stomach when she couldn’t eat her dinner, deepened the shadows around her eyes when she inspected them again in the mirror before bed.
Before she slipped into bed she added to her list, writing about the easy play of chalk and sticks. The entertainment of ants at work. Of sprinklers, mud, and frogs. That Jeff had taken over after dinner, promising to clean dishes, and oversee bath time play and bed time readings.
Her body churned and her fingers stopped to rub her stomach before adding her last entry of the day:
E. R. Womelsduff
Knowledge is not power, knowledge is paralysis, is crippling. Knowledge is reaction, is indirect, is change. I threw away my curling iron. I found people with names like Roxie and Ash. I rubbed my hands against the greasy tattoo parlor vinyl so I could see the dirt, so I could touch it, so I could wash it away. I asked the man to mark me, to set down the time in my skin, and he did so without anyone’s consent but mine. I kissed him on the lips and he smelled like disinfectant. I came back time and time again to lift my shirt over my shoulder blades so he could trace with his blue latex finger what he had left on me.
I thought about Jenny. My other, the dead one.
Jenny. [Read more…]
He could still hear the sound of her screams. It had been the day the long nightmare had begun, but he had not known it as he strapped her into the pushchair and took her out for a walk. It was a warm spring day and he had not bothered to fight with her to get her mittens on–there was really no need for them now–and they had walked towards the seafront because little Liljana liked looking out to sea at the distant boats and the little white tips of the waves when the wind ruffled the surface of the water. It had been mercifully quiet, too early in the year for the tourists who would soon invade the beach like giant, beer-scented lobsters, and too early in the day for the children to start pouring out of their classrooms. [Read more…]
It was an orange hour, nearly seven o’clock, when I arrived. That time of day has always been the most beautiful season for me, when the neon starts to burn and line the edges of houses and hedgerows. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. In the middle distance there was a roar of traffic by the main road but it was intermittent, irregular, and did not intrude upon my reverie.
The houses were small and brown, little bungalows almost, and draped with trees. The streets were all named for men. I saw the signs for “Henry Close” and “Andrew Estate” in the half-light. The smell of laundry and cooking dressed the air, here Persil, there faint Indian spices. I could see the shimmer of women moving in headscarves in the low balconies. [Read more…]
Filijee turned out to be my driver. He was a tall Wolof man who spoke French fluently and worked for UNICEF. My day off in Dakar was made possible by the fact he had to go into the capital to pick up supplies for our mobile, make-shift medical station out here in the village—and the fact that Astrid, the team’s lead midwife, said I needed it.
We were taking the Jeep. He took the wheel as I slid into the passenger side. I pulled my dark hair up into a pony-tail, rolled my sleeves up, and took my sandals off. It was already hot. I felt Filijee watching me as I did these things, things modest Muslim women did not do but which Americans and Europeans in Sénégal did all the time. Surely he was used to it since he worked for UNICEF.
As soon as we were on the road, Filijee started asking me questions.
“As-tu un marié, Gia?” he asked me, using my nickname, short for Giovanna—the Italian name I inherited from my grandmother on the day I was born in Chicago twenty-four years ago.
I looked at him guardedly. He could see I wasn’t married. I wore no ring.
“No,” I said.
“As-tu un ami?” He wanted to know if I had a boyfriend. He was smiling, and his dark eyes were bright—flirtatious.
I was tempted to say yes. Inventing an ami might put an end to the direction of this conversation. Then again, it might not. Truth?
“No,” I said, and then, struck with sudden inspiration, I added, “Je suis Catholique.” My religion sometimes stopped further inquiry. Most Wolof men I knew were devout Muslims. Muslims could marry Christians, and sometimes did in the larger Islamic world, usually with the expectation that they convert. But Christianity was not popular in Sénégal. Only five percent of the population was Christian, most of them Catholic, and they tended to live in the coastal region near Dakar where the French presence had been the strongest during the colonial era.
“Catholique?” Filijee repeated. He nodded, and then he said something I did not expect. “Je voudrais te dire quelquechose—un secret.”
“Je suis chrétien,” he said firmly.
I stared at him. Was he being serious? He considered himself a Christian? I briefly considered the possibility that he was trying by saying this to make himself look, in my eyes, like a man I could marry. But I discarded that idea quickly. For I had learned that a Muslim who converts to Christianity in Sénégal is not like someone whose family has been Christian there for generations—conversion could lead to rejection by family and friends, sometimes violent forms of retribution, even death.
The Jeep rolled through a shallow ditch in the road, and Filijee gripped the steering wheel more tightly, saying as he did, “Priez pour moi . . . parce que je veux dire ma famille, mais j’ai puer.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t praying much these days. I had just said I was Catholic. The concept of “Catholic, non-practicing,” so prevalent in the States, meant nothing in Sénégal. So, half-heartedly, I nodded and said, “Okay.”
Then he changed the subject and asked me about the birth I attended the night before.
“Qu’est-que ce passé pendant la accouchement de Kurukemeh?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I looked away from him and out at the landscape. We were passing another village. Girls were carrying water jars on their heads as they walked along the side of the road.
His question forced me to remember every painful detail of the night before.
I was supporting the mother on her right side as she squatted to give birth when I saw the baby’s dark little head emerge with the cord wrapped around his neck. I had seen that many times, so it didn’t worry me. I watched Astrid get her long, white, gloved fingers under the cord to begin to unwrap it as she always did. But it was tight.
“Short cord,” she murmured to me in English. When she said it, its significance didn’t really register with me. The mother had been in labor for twenty-four hours, and I was tired. In another thirty seconds, I knew Astrid would ask me to take the baby’s one minute APGAR.
Since I’d arrived in Sénégal as a UNICEF intern, she’d deputized me to do work only a labor and delivery nurse or another midwife would do in the States. I knew I could do it: I was a trained childbirth doula. I’d worked for families that gave birth in hospitals, homes, and birth centers for two years after I graduated from college.
I glanced at the exhausted mother, her brown brow covered in sweat, as she pushed hard with the next contraction. The baby’s shoulders and body slid the rest of the way out and into Astrid’s arms. The cord tore, but Astrid immediately clamped close to the baby’s umbilicus to keep the newborn from bleeding out. Gently, I helped his mother come to rest on the sheet laid down over the dirt floor. Then I listened as Awa and Alamuta, the traditional birth attendants—now UNICEF-trained lay midwives—reassured her in Wolof. I wished I knew the language. My college French worked all right to communicate the basics, but when a woman was in labor, she wanted to hear comfort in her mother tongue.
For a moment, my eyes rested on the two African women, crouched together on the mother’s other side, wiping the sweat from her face. They were dressed like other Sénégalese Sufi Muslims I had seen since arriving—not in the burkas of Afghani women that flashed across TV screens in news stories back home, but still modestly: colorful head scarves that showed only their faces while long dresses covered their bodies from neck to foot and shoulder to wrist. The dresses were made of cotton, but I knew they had to be warm in this small, round hut on this humid, summer night.
A mosquito buzzed in my ear, and angrily, I snatched at it. I was happy to see it crushed between my fingers. The last thing I wanted was for an infected mosquito to bite this newborn baby and give him malaria before he even took his first breath. I wiped the bloody bit of insect body on my pants. I hate mosquitos.
APGAR, I thought to myself.
I immediately turned my attention back to the baby. Astrid was rubbing the baby down vigorously with a towel. My brow immediately crinkled with concern. Usually she put the baby skin-to-skin with the mother to initiate breastfeeding.
Unlike most babies immediately after birth, this baby wasn’t still getting oxygen through the blood in his cord. He needed to breathe. Now. Was he going to? Mentally, I started his one minute evaluation.
Using the AGPAR system, I assigned points—0, 1 or 2—for the baby’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration. As I did so for this baby on this night, I felt my heartbeat slowing, and my head getting light.
Appearance: 0. The baby was limp as a rag doll in Astrid’s hands. Not moving. She was flicking his feet, then checking his femoral pulses in his thighs. She shook her head. No pulse? Pulse: 0.
I checked the baby’s face for some kind of grimace. Nothing. Another zero. Was there a flicker of movement anywhere in his body? I assessed the baby’s lack of activity in a daze. Not good. Activity: 0.
What about respiration? He wasn’t crying. A gasp, a cough, a sneeze—anything would be good. If there were amniotic fluid or meconium in his lungs, he should be struggling to get it out.The mother’s amniotic fluid had been clear when her water broke, but there was terminal meconium—I could see it—that came out behind the baby’s body. That meant the baby had become stressed inside, deprived of oxygen, and made a bowel movement before birth. Now this baby wasn’t breathing. Respiration: 0.
Astrid was already beginning neonatal resuscitation. She leaned the baby’s body over her downwardly-extending forearm and vigorously rubbed the baby on the back to stimulate him while clearing the airway. Using the delee I handed her, she cleared out mucus and amniotic fluid from his mouth. Then she put the baby on a clean towel on the flat, hard, plastic board we had for neonatal resuscitation, and she moved his head into the so-called sniffing position. “Ambu bag,” she said calmly to me, and I grabbed it from our emergency kit. Fitting it to the baby’s face, checking the seal to make sure no air would escape, I began to gently squeeze the bag to force air into the baby’s lungs—while Astrid listened to his heart with a stethoscope. I could tell from the look on her face that something was wrong with this baby’s heart. She began chest compressions. We alternated: air, chest compressions, air, chest compressions. We paused to assess with the steth: still no heartbeat, no chest movement. No change. We resumed. We paused to assess. No change. Minutes passed. The baby wasn’t breathing. He had never taken his first breath—never cried at all.
This baby was stillborn.
“Astrid,” I said softly, nearly choking.
Astrid glanced at me with her young face and old eyes, blond hair matted against her forehead.
“I know,” she said and stopped chest compressions, looking up at the mother and the African midwives.
Alamuta looked at the baby in Astrid’s hands. Her expression was resigned. She turned away from Astrid and back to the mother, whispering to her in Wolof. In another minute, the woman lying on the floor began weeping.
The baby had been born dead, and nothing we did changed that.
So now here I was, on the road to Dakar with Filijee, who was repeating his question: What happened at the birth? How did the baby die? Of course he knew. Everyone in the village knew by now.
“Je ne sais pas,” I said, and that was the truth. I didn’t know.
I’d seen the short cord, and when I went over the birth afterward with Astrid, we both agreed it had been compressed in utero and oxygen had stopped flowing to the baby. We’d heard heart decelerations with the Doppler during labor, but we had no access to an operating room for a cesarean out here in the village. Then the Doppler battery went dead, and by the time we got the fetoscope, we couldn’t find heart tones. Dilation was complete, however, so we urged Kurukemeh to push harder to facilitate a faster birth. Like so many West African women, this mother was infibulated—badly scarred from what the Wolof call “cutting” and what most people in the west call “female genital mutilation.” Astrid cut an episiotomy to help deliver the baby’s head quickly, but it was already too late.
So I understood, at some level, what had happened. But at the most fundamental level imaginable, at the level of being a tiny human in a universe of enormous suffering, I didn’t know why the baby died—and I certainly couldn’t explain it in French if I did.
“I don’t know,” I said again. Then I added—who knows why?—“Dieu sait.”
“Dieu sait tout,” Filijee agreed.
Yes, God certainly does know everything, but he rarely explains it.
Then Filijee started to tell a story—and I was glad—because I didn’t want to think about the night before. My eyes were as dry as desert sand. I hadn’t cried about what I’d seen, but I didn’t want to start now.
Filijee told me that he was his mother’s third-born child. Before him, there were two others: a boy and a girl. Both died. So when he was born, his mother named him Filijee, which literally means “leave it there”: a warning to evil spirits to stay away from him and let him grow up with his mother. I wondered if his mother was one of many Wolof who mixed a bit of animist religious practice in with her Muslim faith, but I didn’t say what I was thinking.
Then Filijee said an odd thing, and I wasn’t sure I understood him perfectly. French spoken with a Wolof accent, in a Jeep on an open African road, isn’t always the easiest thing to interpret—especially when the listener is tired. And I was tired.
But I thought he said his mother wouldn’t want to lose a third child, wouldn’t want to lose him just because he had become a Christian, so maybe she would accept him when he told her he had converted. He said something else, something about Yesu, but I don’t know what it was.
I decided to change the subject and asked him what Kurukemeh meant. I’d noticed that every African name I heard had a meaning, and I tried to learn those meanings because each name was a step that led more deeply into the Wolof language and culture. But when I asked about this name, Filijee laughed.
“One hundred kola nuts!” he shouted—in English!
I stared at him. What was his problem? He was smiling again as if I had asked him a delightful question.
“So what?” I asked, startled into speaking English myself and puzzled by his use of my native tongue. I hadn’t thought he spoke English, but maybe he knew a few phrases. Maybe he didn’t let on that he knew so that he could listen in on conversations among UNICEF workers that switched from Wolof to French to English, depending on the subject.
Filijee explained in French. Traditionally, in Sénégal, a bridegroom’s family brings kola nuts to the bride’s family when he wants to marry her. He brings many other gifts, too, for a woman is valuable, and her family must be compensated for losing her. Filijee smiled at me with his dark-bright eyes as he said this, and I realized we were right back where we had begun our conversation in the first place. Flirting. But he was not finished.
Kola nuts are also given when a baby is born, he said, when the baby is a week old and the imam whispers the baby’s name into the baby’s ear for the first time. Then a family member declares the name aloud to all the people present to celebrate the new life. Filijee was smiling broadly now.
The Wolof, I thought as he said this, are so careful about their babies. The little ones die so often that the parents try to protect them from evil spirits by rarely saying aloud that they are pregnant—which had made providing pre-natal care quite difficult for Astrid, as I had learned. But not to name the baby until the baby was a week old? Perhaps it was another magical way of protecting the baby. If the spirits didn’t know the baby’s name, maybe they couldn’t call the baby’s spirit out of his body as easily. Who knows? Maybe it was a way of trying to protect the hearts of the family members. If he died without a name, had he ever been fully human, fully a part of his Wolof family? So many Sénégalese babies died. Then it occurred to me that the baby I had left behind with Kurukemeh would be buried without a name.
But Filijee was still not finished. He said that when someone dies, the body is washed and perfumed and wrapped in a percale cloth. It is usually buried within six hours. Then, at the funeral, kola nuts are distributed by the bereaved family to all the mourners.
I wondered if the life of a Wolof baby who died nameless was honored by the giving of kola nuts or not, but I did not get the chance to ask Filijee, who was suddenly yelling at a young herder who had blocked our way with a hardened little flock of sheep stumbling along the dirt road toward Dakar.
I wanted to see the Cathedral de Notre Dame des Victoires, so after collecting supplies from our headquarters in Dakar, Filijee took us there. I did not expect him go in with me, but he did. He parked the Jeep and walked toward the church right by my side. I didn’t complain.
Growing up in Chicago, I had always been interested in architecture. I had learned from African friends in UNICEF that the foundation for this church was laid in 1922, and the cathedral was completed in 1936. It was made of white stone, and the main entrance consisted of two tall towers and a cupola nested behind them like a woman’s breast facing up toward the sky with a cross placed upright on it. Four carytids, four stone angels carved in gray—two looking distinctly like African women, two like French women—looked down on us from the tops off our pillars at the entrance. Words above their heads written in French dedicated the church to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but Filijee told me that before the church was restored the words at the entrance used to be: “À ses morts d’Afrique la France reconnaissante.” To her dead in Africa, France is grateful . . .
We went in. Once in the sanctuary, I automatically dipped my fingers in holy water and crossed myself. I sat down in one of the pews facing the altar, and Filijee sat beside me.
“Sais-tu que il y a les obséques pour le president de Sénégal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, ici en 2001?” he asked me.
I shook my head. I knew the Cathedral was the seat of the Archbishop, and thus the foremost Catholic church in the country, but I hadn’t known that President Senghor had been honored here after his death. Always something new to learn in Sénégal, I thought to myself, things that are obvious to everyone—but not to me.
“Oui, c’est vrai,” Filijee said. “Il n’etait pas seulement le president mais un poete aussi.”
Yes, I knew that the past President had been a poet. That much I did know. Then Filijee surprised me again by reciting a poem, a poem the president wrote. These are some of the words he said:
Femme nue, femme obscure
Fruit mûr à la chair ferme,
Sombres extases du vin noir,
bouche qui fais lyrique ma bouche
Savane aux horizons purs, savane qui frémis
aux caresses ferventes du Vent d’Est
Tamtam sculpté, tamtam tendu qui gronde
sous les doigts du vainqueur
Ta voix grave de contralto
est le chant spirituel de l’Aimée.
I stared at him. His voice was low, and he was looking into my eyes, but we weren’t alone in the sanctuary. Other people could certainly see us. Could they hear him? I thought it was bold of him to recite a love poem to me in a Catholic cathedral—so bold, in fact, that it might even be crazy. And the words! Naked woman . . . black wine . . . ardent caresses . . . your voice . . . is the spiritual song of the Beloved. Part of me wanted to tell him to stop. I hadn’t come here for this. Another part of me wondered, distracted, if the gray angels on the wall outside at the entrance were listening, too.
Then Filijee said an odd thing, softly. He said, “La vie et la mort sont la langue de Dieu.”
I didn’t say anything in reply. Instead, I got up to go light a candle and pray for Filijee like he asked me to in the Jeep. Then I prayed for the baby without a name, and I felt the tears I hadn’t cried the night before finally fall down my face.
Driving back, the wind blowing through my hair, I watched the light fade from the sky as the sun went down. I was looking forward to seeing the stars because they are so bright here, far from city lights, and they shine like diamonds spilled extravagantly across the night. As I was waiting for them to come out, Filijee reached over and took my hand. Life and death are the language of God. I turned and looked at him, not certain at first why he was touching me, but I did not withdraw my fingers from his as they intertwined. His hand was warm and comforting. At that moment, I felt like his hand rooted me deeper into myself and deeper into Africa.
He did not let go until we were entering the village. But even after he did, I could still feel him—as if he had not let go at all.
Jane Beal, Ph.D. is a writer, educator, and midwife. Her fiction appears in Crux Literary Journal, Pacific Review and Literature Today, in Main Street Rag’s Law & Disorder anthology, and in her book, Short Stories from Undiscovered Countries (Lulu Press, 2009). She also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic studies of literature and culture. To learn more, visit sanctuarypoet.net.
11 June 1580 Naples
All talk here is of Fr. Campion and Fr. Persons since their recent departure for England—the much debated great Enterprise to minister to our poor and most wretched recusant cousins in England is underweigh! In all good faith, we hope, furthermore, those fallen apostatizers among them may yet be saved from doom. Rumor has it that Fr. Campion had hesitated because he had been cautioned not to be found in the company of boys and women in order that he may better avoid suspicion. But how can he “help souls” if he is not to have contact with those most in need? We hear that there are spies everywhere and that somehow (the post is not safe!) a letter was intercepted that has alerted the English authorities to their imminent arrival. All the ports are now closely watched by pursuivants. We hear they will attempt entry, at separate places and times, disguised as jewel Merchants. The coded language to be used in any correspondence about the Mission will adopt this guise as well, especially between England and the Continent. We are all eager to hear of their safe arrival. I will write to Robert, still in Rome, later.
12 June 1580
I have just dispatched my letter to Robert at the English College. I know how in need of friendship he is at this difficult time—difficult for all of us concerned about the Mission, but he most especially because of his dear family ever long in danger. And his admittance into the Society has been put off again. How I long to be at his side to cheer him; that I might render to him the sympathy for which his most delicate soul pines. I have been reading over again the poem he sent me in his last letter and feel much affected by the closing lines:
Favour my wish, well-wishing works no ill;
I move the suit, the grant rests in your will.
We have just received word: our Merchants arrived safely on English soil 24 June—the Lord be praised! I wonder how Fr. Campion must feel to finally return to England after being absent for more than a decade? If only his homecoming were under more auspicious and felicitous circumstances! It must—in many ways how can it not?—seem to him a bittersweet time, the isle more hostile than welcoming; a place almost unknown to him, so dangerous it has become. To think that after his celebrated tenure at Oxford that he must now conceal his famed identity is certainly lamentable. Does England not understand he is one of Her own and a most precious Jewel at that?
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
We pray for their success constantly. And daily, I expect to receive a letter from Robert. I continue my studies and look forward to taking Orders in the fall—God willing! Would that Robert were here with me to share this journey; but he must make his own way. May Christ strengthen him!
10 August 1580
Robert writes to me that he continues to feel anxious about admittance into the Society. He has been, at least, able in Rome, to partake of the art there—something he cannot but help as it surrounds one so completely—this, I know, is more than a comfort to him; yet it seems equally to torment him in some way that I, being less poetic than he, am neither able to capture nor to understand fully. England has been so starved: not only for the Blessed Sacrament, but also for Art. The destruction of the Holy Houses there and all their treasures is a trespass not soon to be forgiven by Heaven! Perhaps to someone like Robert, that is among the saddest and most cruel aspect of Reform—the loss of such beauty and its ties to England’s past. He writes,
I do not always have time, but when I do, I am more filled with amazement than I can communicate to you when I feast on the paintings and sculptures that surround one in Rome. In keeping with the directives of the Council of Trent, some of the treasures have been removed to elsewhere to reduce what even many of our brethren in Rome had begun to consider ostentatious. And yet, it is still almost too much—like an excess of beauty that threatens to sicken the beholder! Like gorging oneself on too many sweetmeats! Such beauty hurts the eyes though one cannot help but look! Even so, Michelangelo’s Adam is a wonder to behold, as is his David, in his cold, hard perfection. Can he really be made of marble or do those fine veins pulse with warm human blood as do our own? Could a man be so perfect? And yet how like a god; how God-like! I feel moved to write about it, but I do not think that prose is the best mode of expression; only poesy might capture such depth of feeling and connect it to some other meaning, something better and beyond these volatile emotions. I have told you before, my friend and confessor: these feelings frighten me. My feeble attempt is enclosed herein, with love from your most devoted friend; I am, as ever yours, in Christ, R—
I will save the poem to read later, after Compline, when I may expect adequate time for contemplation.
11 August 1580
O Robert! Perhaps you are mistaken in seeking a life in the priesthood. You have a peculiar talent—though as yet like a diamond in need of the fire that hardens it and perfects it—which may be better realized, put to better use, elsewhere. What is it about that island, the England of the Southwells and Campions, that has the power to produce such sensibility, such poetic minds? England needs you more than you know, my fine, talented friend. If you are anything like Fr. Campion, your skill with the pen may be highly valued to shelter souls from this Tempest.
Reflections on David Composed for J.D.—My Dear and Most Valued Friend in NaplesFair shepherd boy you tend your flock, Yet little do you know: That God above will call on you His strength through you to show. To trust in Him as He chose you, Is but to choose His Love; To face the foe, Goliath vile, Fulfills God’s will above. As David did not lonely toil But placed his faith in God So in Him I will all my days— Make Him my staff, my rod. For no one walks the path alone Though pilgrims all are we; And helping souls along the way Brings comfort now to me. Just as each talent He bestows To Him it must return; To glorify the One True God Should each devout soul burn. Whether it be in words or deeds In ink or marble cold; We all must render back to God His greatness to behold!
25 August 1580
We have had a visit from Milan, from Archbishop Borromeo, and he tells us that the Church is now printing Spiritual Testaments to be secreted into England, along with waxen Agnus Dei, a number of small Crucifixes, and most important: The Consecrated Host. These are the “gems” of the “trade.” Though I hail from Brussels, I feel closely connected to the struggle in England—perhaps even more so with my affinity, my brotherly affection for Dear Robert and a desire to help his people; most specifically his family. I am to be ordained in October and will pray to God that I may be an instrument of grace, wherever He sees fit to send me; though, should it be His will, I will gladly travel to England. As our great founder, Ignatius of Loyola, sought ever to do Godly deeds—in putting on Christ’s Mantle (just as Saint Paul and Augustine before him), to come to the aid of his fellow man, ever dreaming of Knightly Adventure—so I long to be a Soldier for Christ! God grant that Robert may be my brother-in-arms if such an Election he eventually makes!
17 September 1580
Today is Saint Lambert’s Day, which used to be, Robert tells me, one of the favorite feast days of the English, but that was long before his time, before his grandfather, Richard, and great-uncle, Robert (my dear friend’s namesake), began the Southwell family pattern of betrayal, “introducing not a few bars sinister into the House.” In remembering and then praying about this Blessed Feast Day, I thought it ironic that Lambert was martyred for upholding marital fidelity—run through the heart with a javelin in the Church while he prayed at the altar—all for challenging his adulterous king and attempting to maintain the sanctity of marriage. England has by and large outlawed the great Feast Days, except where they may be secretly observed in some of the more remote shires, but they would do well to pay heed to this one in particular, since their present struggle is the result of “The King’s Matter” and the black desires of a man who not only turned his back on so many earthly wives, but on Christ’s Sacred Wife: The Church. As the King severed heads, so too, did he cut off his own Head! And where is the Body now? In commemoration of Saint Lambert’s sacrifice for “true love over false,” Robert sent me a poem he calls “Love’s Servile Lot.” I particularly admire these early stanzas,
Love mistress is of many minds,
Yet few know whom they serve;
They reckon least how little love
Their service doth deserve.
The will she robbeth from the wit,
The sense from reason’s lore;
She is delightful in the rind
Corrupted in the core.
She shroudeth Vice in Virtue’s veil,
Pretending good in ill;
She offreth joy, affordeth grief,
A kiss, where she doth kill.
A honey-shower rains from her lips,
Sweet lights shine from her face;
She hath the blush of virgin maid,
The mind of viper’s race.
She makes thee seek yet fear to find,
To find but not enjoy;
In many frowns some gliding smiles
She yields, to more annoy.
With each new verse he sends me—“trifles” he calls them—I see him firing his poetic talents!
1 October 1580
Clearly cognizant of my upcoming Ordination in the Society, Robert writes to me that he feels increasingly lost. In his grief over rejection, he feels like “a widow” for having been passed over for his intended “espousal” and feels himself “shunned as an abortion.” He tells me that if he cannot join the Society that it would be better for him if Christ would just let him die. I fear he is too melancholy for his own good! It comes of his poetic nature I am certain, but he must be coaxed away from such dark and dangerous despair. I have written to beseech him to stay the course. Christ is testing his faith and he must rise to the challenge; he must remember Ignatius! His letter closed with an appeal to Christ:
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!
Perhaps I should write to the Superior General in Rome with an appeal of my own that my troubled friend be watched closely as he continues his novitiate.
13 October 1580
Today I received a letter from Robert in reply to mine. He yet seems very much affected by my having concluded my novitiate, especially as he seems ever frustrated in his own attempts to enter the Society. But perhaps it is best that he is made to wait. This is not a commitment to be taken lightly—or rashly and for the wrong reasons—and we must place our deepest trust in both God and His ministers to know what is right for us in His own time. And, as I suspect, God may have other plans for Robert’s talents.
We had, in fact, first been brought together for “devout conversation” under the guidance of Robert’s Spiritual Director, Fr. Columb, a countryman of Robert’s who hails from Devonshire.
I recall Robert confiding in me, on one of our earliest meetings at Douai, and among those intimate conversations we regularly enjoyed about our dreams and fears, that he, at that time, had felt torn between the Jesuits and the Carthusians, the order which the poet in him has deemed fit to call “the bark of Bruno.” The indecision caused him “to be worn out by the incessant struggle.” As I reflect on it now, this seems to mirror the paradox of Robert: the Carthusians in their way of living, with their contemplative isolation, could not be more antithetical to the very public life of the Jesuits! Perhaps, however, as he told me on another occasion, he is thinking of the sacrifices of Houghton, Lawrence, and Webster in their resistance to the Henrician monastic ruination; they are not typical, but then Reform has taken its toll on all God’s servants. I also know that Robert was raised in the family home that had once been a monastery and it could be that regardless of which order he finally chooses, he wishes to atone for his family’s participation in the wretched confiscation of Church property; that by the holiness and innocence of his life he might make up for the faults of his predecessors.
Knowing Robert as I do, I can see the reasons for these seemingly different attractions on several planes. His forefathers have been so unable to stay the course of religious devotion (unlike those braver men of faith such as Houghton)—in this long and painful time of rupture, when Robert’s own beloved England is especially racked by the Storm of Christendom—that he must needs still feel not a little conflicted about joining the Jesuits, knowing that he will likely be sent to England to aid the Mission in his homeland—and mayhap wondering if he can submit to God’s will to accept that. Though we know we should embrace martyrdom, it is yet a frightening prospect! Sometimes, however, martyrdom of the heart is the more difficult. The Carthusian life here on the Continent would indeed be very much safer and easier by comparison; but Robert is not one to take the easy path in anything—indeed, he seems often to complicate matters well beyond what is necessary! And for a man like Robert, the contemplative life would not suit him entirely; he needs human companionship and human sympathy. I think he wants very much the opportunity to realize the Jesuit Mission “to help souls”—especially if it means saving some of his family and achieving at least a modicum of reconciliation. If anything, his anxiety will only fuel his desire to enter the Society. I must reply to him at once.
15 October 1580
Before I was able to send my intended reply to Robert, I received word that my father has fallen gravely ill. Most immediately, I am to Brussels to be at his side, and, if need be—since they tell me he is at Death’s door—to administer the last rites, Extreme Unction. Viaticum—food for the journey. I pray I will not be too late arriving! One of the difficulties in making such a trip now is the continued unrest in Brussels and throughout the Low Countries. While my status as a priest is not a problem there as in England, the way Fr. Campion and his party are continuously threatened, it seems that the grim and far-reaching schism means no one’s safety is assured. As the rainy-season fast approaches, travel will be difficult regardless. Post-haste, I will send word to Robert to alert him of my change in circumstances and request his prayers.
22 November 1580 Brussels
My father struggles for life, but the struggle is over for our governor, Willem Van Hoorn, who was executed yesterday. As yet, no one has said why, though it is suspected that he had conspired with the Northern rebels and was thus a threat to securing peace, though this is tenuous at best. As he has not sons to immediately replace him, a new governor will be chosen from among the Burghers. I have had no missives from Robert, though I have sent him two letters in spite of my sickbed vigil over my failing father. I will hope something awaits me on my return to Naples, which I anticipate will happen soon. If only my father would pull through! I fear the worst, though; his vague eyes seem to look into mine as those of a man already gone.
3 December 1580 Naples
Having buried my father, I am back in Naples, still under a cloud of grief. I try to console myself knowing that he will one day see our Heavenly Father, but realize more that the loss is mine and I must steel myself against such sorrows if I am to serve God rightly, for it was His will and my father died a good death, faithful to the last. Furthermore, he has left my mother and youngest sister in comfort with the town house, his business shares from the diamond trade, and few debts. I know, too, that part of my melancholy is the result of being cut off from regular conversations with Robert. We have not exchanged any letters in a month-and-a-half and I long to know his situation. And, I must admit, I hunger for another poem! When we were at Douai, our daily talks, first in Latin, as it was then our common tongue, were precious to us both and our time together seemed all too short. Though I no longer know the same mortifications we once practiced as part of our ascetical existence, my flesh seems yet to feel the sting and irritation of the haircloth shirt. At the time it gave us secret pleasure, perhaps because we knew that we each felt the same thing, that the burden of our physical suffering was shared.
10 December 1580
The long-awaited letter from Robert has arrived! He sends his condolences for my loss, wishing he could be in Naples to comfort me, to share in my grief. He also tells me that my loss makes his own heart-sick worry for his family ever more immediate, especially as his father has been lost in the Tempest, “his bark tossing relentlessly, threatening to capsize.” But he sends a poem, a most beautiful one, of consolation. It is aptly titled, “Life’s Death, Love’s Life,” and exhorts me in the final stanza,
Mourn, therefore, no true lover’s death,
Life only him annoys;
And when he taketh leave of life,
Then love begins his joys.
No words could ring more true! And in thinking of death, though we will leave this “darksome dungeon of the body,” Robert anticipates that when we two die, we will reunite in the world hereafter, prompting him to ask, “Why should not the result of our common desires put the finishing touch to our friendship?” How shall I answer him? They should! They should! But as he has already been dismissed once and his acceptance into the Society again deferred and uncertain, I wonder that he is not more careful. We have all along been warned of giving any reason for being suspected of “certain sins intolerable to the Society.” He reminds me that in the words of Christ in the Gospel of John, we are philos not doulos. Yet while we serve Christ, we do so through the friendship of the Society, by serving others, and denying the self. We must remember this. Ours, I shall tell him, must be a mission to help “cleanse the faith from ignominy and to restore it to its pristine glory.” But doesn’t even Cicero teach us about “the responsibilities incumbent upon friends”? I will make my appeal to God for the wisdom to know how to answer my friend.
15 December 1580
After praying about it for several days, I have sent Robert a reply, thanking him most heartily for the beautiful poem and the consoling sentiments. I try to assuage his worries about the welfare of his father. I then quote to him from Cicero’s De Amicitia about the ways that the bond of friendship is an illuminating force:
Virtue both forms and preserves friendships. . . . When it has put itself forth and shown its light, and it has seen and recognized the same light in another, it draws near to that light and receives in return what the other has to give; and it is from this intercourse that love, or friendship—call it what you will—is kindled.
But I also remind him of the dangers, for as Cicero warns,
Friendship is given by nature, not as a companion to the vices, but as a helper of the virtues, that, as solitary virtue might not be able to attain the summit of excellence, united and associated with another it might reach that eminence.
Furthermore, I tell him that as Christ is The Light of the world—the Way, the Truth, and the Light—that we might find comfort in knowing that, above all, we serve Him because he has befriended us first and that for all He gave for us, we must, in turn, in order to truly live like Him, be prepared to give our all for others, too. As a Society member, I remind him (taunt him?), I must follow the Jesuit motto to Love and Live, just as the title of his beautiful poem suggests.
But did I do right to also tell him that perhaps he was correct to be frightened by his feelings—for I know them, too—and that through the gift of Conscience God plays on our will, always giving us the push to do what we know to be right even as we seek Him. As Saint Augustine’s mother, the Blessed Monica, told her beloved son, “He who has given the will, will always provide the ability. He always does.” I hope my suggestion that we cease our conversations for a spell, as part of a new ascetic, will not come as too harsh, but I think Robert must make some decisions for himself, without my influencing him. I suspect, however, that my signing the letter “Fr. Deckers” might have hurt him not a little. O, Robert! What else could I say? We must be so careful—matters of great moment are upon us! We must not jeopardize the Mission!
24 December 1580
Two days ago I received from Robert his reply: “Dear Fr. Deckers,” he writes, “I agree with the wisdom of your suggestion and submit myself to your sage guidance. (Does he mock me?) Enclosed you will find two poems, my Christmas gift to you. Your servant in Christ, Robert.” One is titled, “The Burning Babe;” the other, “A Child My Choice.” They are both perfect! I have never received such a gift and I weep to read them. I long to hear how he is, to know his hurts and joys, to thank him for such a precious offering, but I have made that impossible, at least for a time—and yet I fear it will be forever. I should be rejoicing, it is Christmastide, the first coming of Christ remembered, God’s prophecy realized, The Word made Flesh—but instead I hear requiems and have not felt so melancholy since my father’s funeral.
31 July 1581
I have not had the heart to record many of my days since Christmas, but today we learned terrible news: on everyone’s lips is the capture of Fr. Campion. He was saying Mass at Lyford Grange and as he had been there the day before, on 14 July, the authorities had lain in wait. He is rumored to have hid himself in the dovecote. O precious Dove! Why did you not fly from that place? Now more than ever I feel the need to confide in Robert. I must break this silence and contact him. Is he still in Rome?
17 September 1581
I receive no word. But as my letters have not been returned, I will hope Robert has them. It is again Saint Lambert’s Day—how well I recall what a different day this felt last year. I will read again “Love’s Servile Lot” as a remembrance. I will pray for patience. I wonder if Robert has read Fr. Campion’s “Brag,” by which not one of us is not greatly moved. It was printed on one of the secret Jesuit presses in the North. It closes thusly, a part I have committed to memory as with any sacred text:
There will never want in England men that will have care of their own salvation, nor such as shall advance other men’s; neither shall this Church here ever fail so long as priests and pastors shall be found for their sheep, rage man nor devil never so much.
And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.
We have had dreadful reports of Fr. Campion’s imprisonment and unspeakable torture. That any human being could do this to another is beyond my poor powers of comprehension. And to such a man as he! But to any man! Who would do this to a dog? In Nature, do animals treat each other thus? No, only Man is such a Beast! I shudder to think what our Dear Merchant endures. God help him! God help us all!
His public conferences went badly with the officials; how could they not? They all fear him and thus he received no fair debate—the thing we all desire most, that battle for which we have long been preparing. What a travesty of Justice! Though she is blindfolded, they now see fit to stop her mouth, and bind her scales! But by secret accounts, Fr. Campion still put them to shame anyway, with no books, no preparation, just his own brilliant mind and his sadly broken body—and Christ as his witness! He admitted his love for his Sovereign Queen, but refusing Her Royal Majesty’s bribes of wealth, title, and lands to renounce his “popish ways,” he is becoming an increasing threat to authority. Anyone who hears him speak is pierced to the heart by his eloquence and the Truth of his words. We have already heard rumors of several conversions in those who have witnessed this Noble Soul in his public defense. By one account, though he has been so severely abused, he still holds his head high with dignity and retains the bearing of a Great Man, that of the scholar—the Flower of Oxford, the Gentleman, the Soldier of Christ our Lord. My soul now burns with keen desire to join the Mission in England! O Robert! Write to me! I must know your mind!
We hear Fr. Campion made his end with Grace and Dignity, in spite of the monstrous attempts to strip him of these. When sentenced he reportedly said, “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England— the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter,” and received his sentence with the Te Deum Laudemus. This is most fitting as it is the Ambrosian Hymn, the Saint whom Fr. Campion made the center of his eponymous Neo-Latin Drama: Ambrosia, which was performed in Prague but a few years past. Our brothers there were much moved by it. It was thought to have been secretly copied and sent to England, but we have as yet had no reports confirming its presence there. And now, like Saint Ambrose, Fr. Campion has also been made to stand witness for the Faith. How many gathered in hopes of touching the blood of this Martyr—to leave the site of martyrdom with a precious relic! A young man, standing very near, was baptized with the sacred blood as he remained looking on during Campion’s horrid dismemberment. It is reported that he converted on the spot, vowing to become a Jesuit! In death, Campion has become even more powerful to the Enterprise. O Pearl of Great Price!
I have received a small parcel from Robert. No epistle, only this poem—
Campion in Memoriam
I pray to you, most Holy One
In Heaven high above,
And contemplate Rare Campion
Dismembered all for Love.
How well he pleased his Majesty
When first she heard him speak;
Though bounty on his head she laid—
He turned his Blessed cheek.
Hunted was this Jesuit,
A Merchant in his Order,
Who secretly had served the Host
And baptized souls with water.
To Lyford Grange he took himself,
Hid in the dovecote bower,
From thence was prized this Holy Wight
And thrown into the Tower.
For many a day and lonely night
He languished sore with hunger;
Till torture bent him front to back
His steadfast will to sunder.
A shadow of a stronger self
The Traitor took the stand
With Truth and Justice as his aims
And only Christ to hand.
Far from the parley he had sought,
The Flower held his ground
And shamed sly Fortune’s subtlety
With words that still resound.
Yet though he was all humbleness,
Eloquence and wisdom,
The Missionary fought in vain:
The Bench ne’er would heed him.
Execution was his sentence!
By lowly hurdle mean
Through muddy streets he traveled thence:
To Tyburn’s scaffold lean.
And woe the sight a gruesome one
’Neath Winter sun’s cold glare
The faithful Briton, Campion,
Hung turning in the air.
They cut him down, that Saintly Soul,
While life within yet ranged;
The people watched, both young and old,
And many minds were changed—
When there, as if by Alchemy,
They mined the Precious Gold:
The still-beating Purest Heart
Of faithful Martyr bold!
Aeterna Christi munera
Et Martyrum victorias,
Laudes canentes debitas
Laetis canamus mentibus.
Robert and I have resumed correspondence, and for this I am greatly relieved; but we are more guarded, more careful than we once were. It will not do to be impetuous! And our letters now must employ the code, especially if we write about the Mission in England. Robert has written to me greatly anxious for his family,
Merchants, at one time, may rejoice over the amassing of wealth, at another to bear patiently the loss of some small bark. A strong suspicion for fearing that they may have withdrawn from this line of business is occasioned by my never hearing of their having the same success as some others have had, who have persevered and still persevere, even with occasional loss, knowing full well that in the end it is more lucrative than any other sort of enterprise.
Moreover, he tells me that certain “gems” and “jewels” have again been secreted over for the benefit of his family and others. He specifically wrote to Fr. Persons that he might endeavor to “enrich” the Southwells at his first opportunity and then apprise him of their success in the business. There is a new urgency to Robert’s desire to enter the Society. I know every day of waiting is a torment to him, especially as the delay occasions also the greater delay in helping his family and kinsmen when every moment seems to speak of doom. But he seems to have come to terms with his test and is meeting it with all necessary reserve and dedication. Fr. Agazzari, Robert tells me, has been much impressed with what he calls his “steadfastness” of late and a “quieting” of his spirit. Robert feels nearer to achieving his goal. Time will tell.
Robert sends word that he has been assured Orders in the Society by this time next year. He sounds jubilant, though still guarded—I think he worries that if he is too ecstatic that he may again be put off, and at this stage such, I fear, would be the end of him. The poem he sends mirrors his happy state. It is called “Content and Rich.” These two stanzas, especially, sound hope-filled—
In lowly vales I mount
To Pleasure’s highest pitch;
My silly shroud true honors brings,
My poor estate is rich.
My conscience is my crown,
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself,
My bliss is in my breast.
He continues in his studies at the English College there; he will be more than ready to assume a post once he is ordained. My prayers seem nearly answered! I will offer praise and Thanksgiving unto the Lord!
Robert’s letters now frequently mention Robert Bellarmine, who has caused such a stir in England that the Queen has arranged for a group of scholars from Cambridge to prepare refutations to his works. As with Fr. Campion, it is his intellect and great wit that will aid the Mission. Robert continues, however, to worry about the role of Art in the face of the challenges to it from Reform. He told me once that he sees poesy as another way of both meditating on Christ and praying. Because all Art is from God, nothing can come into existence without God being in it. He has intimated to me on more than one occasion his plan to write verse that mirrors our Ignatian Spiritual Exercises—that in this way he might use his talents for the Mission and bring the experience of the meditation and intense visualization of the Exercises to England by allowing the reader to Feel the Life of Christ—His Nativity, His Passion, and His Ascension. Robert tells me, “God, who delivering many parts of scripture in verse, and by his Apostle willing us to exercise our devotion in Hymns and Spiritual Sonnets, warrants the Art to be good, and the use allowable.” I have no doubt as to his ability to realize such a project. God verily calls him to it!
Robert has been Ordained and is now a fellow member of the Society of Jesus! After briefly serving as Repetitor, he has taken the position of Prefect at the English College in Rome and will begin his new life helping souls by tending their minds. But I know how he aches to return to England and join the Mission there among his fellow Jesuits and his kinsmen. His letters are filled with code! He says that his great work we discussed for The Exercises (he has made this an Election!) must begin with the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; he says Christ cannot be conceived without the Sacred Vessel, the Mother of God. He thus sends me the first in his series, “The Conception of Our Lady.” It is but three lovely stanzas, only eighteen lines in all, yet it is a work of art indeed, that offers to the reader Mary, who “Shall bring the good that shall our evil mend.”
The news from the Mission in England is that by Act of Parliament, anyone who is ordained abroad may not return to English soil—on pain of death. If this has only just been made law, how is it that Campion, et al. were equally condemned previously? It seems everything is treasonous now. Nothing and no one is safe.
2 April 1586
Robert writes to me that his request to return to England has been granted. Reinforcements are most needed as the persecution and suffering increases. This is the moment for which we have both prayed and longed, but inwardly dreaded! Fr. Weston, one of our newer Merchants with whom Robert became acquainted in Rome, is already in England as the new Superior, having arrived last year. He has reported on those fellow priests who were recently discovered, arrested and imprisoned for their participation in exorcisms, which the State deems a “popish superstition.” But we have heard credible accounts that “out of many persons demons were cast. The intervention of heaven was undoubted, and incredulous onlookers were astounded.” Fr. Weston reports that on several occasions he witnessed this with his own eyes, but, of course, Cecil the Evil would not publicly believe any of it and blames it on “fraud perpetrated by the wily priests to trick the innocent.” Nonetheless, Cecil is reported to have been duly frightened by the accounts; furthermore, many who have either witnessed the exorcisms or hear tell of them have been reconciled to the Faith.
The greatest trouble Robert will face is spies. As Fr. Weston has repeatedly confirmed, pursuivants are a hazard everywhere—one can never tell who the honest folk are; one must trust wholly in God. Fr. Weston, in a published letter, writes that under the control of Cecil and the Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s most feared officials,
Catholics now see their own country, the country of their birth, turned into a ruthless and unloving land. All men fasten their hatred on them. They lay in ambush for them, betray them, attack them with violence and without warning. They plunder them at night, confiscate their possessions, drive away their flocks, steal their cattle. Every prison, no matter how foul and dark, is made glorious by the noble and great-hearted protestations of saintly confessors and even martyrs. In the common thoroughfares and crossways watchmen are abruptly posted, so that no traveler can pass peacefully on his way or escape stringent scrutiny.
It is into this danger that Robert flies. He goes not blindly, but bravely with open eyes, and not alone but, like David, with God at his side to battle Goliath!
25 April 1586
In less than a fortnight, Robert and Fr. Garnet will begin their journey for England. I will dispatch later today what will more than likely be the last letter Robert will be able to receive from me for some while. I hope to yet receive some final message from him as well, but as he and Fr. Garnet busy themselves with plans, this may be too great a hope. How I wish I were going with them, but I have not yet had any orders of transfer. I had long hoped we would be brothers-in-arms, and now it is Robert who will travel on without me. Waiting for news of the Mission will be even more anxious now that I know Robert will find himself ever in harm’s way. God protect him!
Robert and Fr. Garnet left for England 8 May. I do not know if Robert received my letter, his having been composed at roughly the same date as my own, I will hope they crossed paths. Enclosed I found a precious offering, the next in Robert’s poesy sequence: “The Nativity of Christ.” This treasure begins,
Behold the father in His daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatched therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The Word is dumb, the Mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and Force doth faintly creep.
How I fear for your safety, Robert! May God watch over you as you minister to your dear, beleaguered England!
We have just had news of the Babington Plot. Fr. Ballard and some twelve others were arrested for plotting against the English Queen in supposed conspiracy with the imprisoned Scottish Mary, in whom for so long the Catholic hope for the crown and respite had lain. They have all been executed and Mary is to stand trial for the conspiracy at Fotheringhay Castle. This does not bode well for the Mission! The last I heard any news of Robert, he was in London; perhaps he is safest there.
20 February 1587
Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay on 8 February; all Catholics mourn her loss; she was England’s dearest hope. A manuscript is circulating of a poem, written in her memory, by none other than Robert Southwell. It is called “Decease, Release.” Here, an excerpt—
Some things more perfect are in their decay,
Like spark that going out gives clearest light;
Such was my hap, whose doleful dying day
Began my joy and termed Fortune’s spite.
Making matters worse, Fr. Weston has been arrested and imprisoned. We hear that Fr. Garnet will assume the position of Superior in his stead. Fr. Weston had ministered to Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, a cousin of the Queen, and he, too, has been imprisoned for the past two years in the Tower. Robert now serves as the Countess of Arundel’s Chaplain and for her husband, as part of his careful work, he has written An Epistle of Comfort.
We hear nothing but whispers about the possibility of help from Spain. I pray that it be so, that they may indeed come to the rescue. Robert, somehow, has managed to send me something curious. It is an especial sonnet, not the Petrarchan sort, but a bit different. He says this form is being made popular in private circles by a young poet named William Shakespeare, reportedly from a recusant household in Warwickshire, and, by marriage, a distant cousin of Robert’s. It is also rumored that he made the acquaintance of Fr. Campion whilst tutoring Catholic children in the same area. As far as the Protestants are concerned, it is a hotbed of papist activity. Robert says this is but an imitation of the promising young Bard, but I find it yet another treasure; a dear part of my long absent friend. It is a kind of coded appeal for Spain’s aid!
Is this the same moon that you look upon
With plastered face all decked in whitest robe?
These borrowed beams does Cynthia now don
With grave attempts to shine on all the Globe.
Yet those on distant shores are free to gaze
On fair Apollo’s steady burning face
That does but truest hearts ever amaze
To fill them with eternal saving grace.
So think on us who live in Winter’s grip
Who long for Summer though it be denied
To stand in brilliance and with warmth equip
Our frigid frames make suffering subside.
Should you but chance to travel to our aid
With hearty welcome you shall be repaid.
Woe unto us: The Spanish Armada has been defeated—another hope dashed! The English Queen is making known to her realm that the Protestants believe God’s hand defeated the Spanish; that it was God’s will the Armada was destroyed. Never! The State is now harsher than ever to her Catholic subjects. Word came from Rome that Aquaviva received a cautious letter from Robert in which he speaks of the increasingly ill treatment of his countrymen. Copies have been distributed to all the Jesuit forces.
The constancy of the Catholics is such as is always admired in a people naturally inclined to piety, but the fury and cruelty of the enemy is not to be regarded as a disgrace on the nation, but as the outcome of the pestilent heresy, which does violence not only to religion, but to the laws and restraints of nature.
We have just received a copy of a long poem by Robert’s cousin-friend, Shakespeare, called Venus and Adonis, but rumor has it that the Merchant has chastised his coz and challenged him to use his talent for a higher purpose and more serious matter. I have not yet seen this copy, but my Brothers say it is quite bold and lust-filled. I wonder that it has not been burned, but some say it is a coded account that speaks of England’s plight, someone of the Old Faith subject to seduction and abuse by the Mistress of Love, Venus, who is meant to be Queen Elizabeth or perhaps her church. They call her the “Virgin Queen,” but no one believes it for a moment! I am curious to see this poem; surely this is not the same code of the Mission.
What I have long feared: Robert has been arrested, betrayed by his friend Bellamy’s daughter, Anne, who it is believed was arrested and then raped by the vile animal Topcliffe and tortured to extract the information about Robert’s whereabouts. O Robert! Yet I treasure the last missive he was able to get off to me, in which he says bravely,
I am devoting myself to sermons, hearing confessions, and other priestly duties. Hemmed in by daily perils, never safe for even the smallest space of time. But, I derive fresh courage from my very difficulties: and the multitude of terrors, which keep following each other, prevent any from lasting long, and blunts them almost all.
Six years and now this! But that is thrice longer than Fr. Campion and others have had. I will not give up hope!
We have no news of Robert except that he is kept in solitude. But we have heard that cousin Shakespeare has, it seems, responded to Robert’s challenge with another long poem called The Rape of Lucrece. Though it looks back to antiquity and crisis in Rome, some say it is a mirror of England’s struggle. The fair, chaste bride Lucrece being a symbol of the Church, raped by the foul and dreaded Tarquin, who betrays his host, before taking her own life in shame. It is the shame of the ravaged Bride; Truth rent by the Tempest of Reform. A far more serious story than the erotic Venus and Adonis, I wonder if Robert has heard of this; if he knows (should the rumors prove honest) that even in prison, he has so influenced the Mission. Perhaps the Queen may repent and free him yet. O Robert, do you hear my prayers?
Three years Robert held out; three years of God knows what! It does not bear thinking on, though it has haunted me since I learned of his arrest. Robert’s An Humble Supplication to Her Majesty—the last, best hope for the Queen’s mercy on his blessed soul—was perhaps never seen by the Queen. But like Campion and their fellows, in death these brave Soldiers of Christ have become more powerful, as they are ever more precious! O pray for us in Heaven!
I am reminded now of the curious account Robert told me of his youth. As if to rival a fanciful fairy-story, he was, when a very small boy, captured by Gypsies! What frights he knew he scarce remembered save the painful longing to return to his rightful home. It seems his life began in captivity just as it ended. It was his kind, devoted Nurse who made his rescue; just as Christ, our Rescuer, now nurses Robert in Heaven: he has made his Homecoming; we all await our own. I feel certain now that Robert was right when he spoke of the Afterlife. My heart’s dearest friend, you are yourself evermore—
Like spark that going out gives clearest light!
Without a word, or even a glance at me, the spindly fi gure mounted the porch steps with rigid urgency, collapsed his long legs into a squat, and raising my dog’s bowl of water to his lips, drained it in one prolonged draft, the knot of his Adam’s apple pulsing like a dwarf heart in the slender, sinewy throat.
Too stunned to be startled, I found the book I’d been reading seemed to have drifted into my lap, as the arm that held it before me had deflated. Odd that I hadn’t even caught a peripheral glimpse of his approach, alerted only by the determined thud of feet upon the hollow treads. [Read more…]