Winter came without word from Winnie and with it came an old coldness I had fought before. A cold longing that cannot be requited without sight or touch. And one that swelled into a weight in my chest. I reasoned with myself that I should go to Rome and defy every bone in my body that told me to wait. I lied to myself that she was in danger and needed to be rescued. But I refused to think of Winnie as wrong for not making contact. I refused to become bitter. She had warned me there was a possibility that wouldn’t be able to call. But most of all I worried. No knowing became an all-consuming thought. I tried to push it from my mind but as Sila danced around the Christmas tree in delight I hid me suffering and tortured myself with what-ifs.
The new year came and went and the days seemed to fall back into that old horrible slush of woe. Sila was growing so fast and every other week she would ask about Winnie and each time it broke my heart. It hurt to not be able to give my daughter an answer and it hurt to be reminded of the solitude and rejection that had overtaken my thoughts. I poured over An Examination of early Restoration Techniques and bought all of Winnie’s other books so I could reread them too. But it was all a fog of longing that slowly began to poison my memory of the beautiful creature who had captured my broken heart. I used to check if she was there each morning when I dropped Sila to school but by the new year I had stopped. I would just pull up and bring Sila into the school and not even look up while I walked to the car.
Then, out of nowhere, one morning a knock on our door woke me. It was a bitter February morning and a strong wind shoved the door in on top of me when I opened it. Soaked, barefoot and bleeding from her nose, Winnie stood there in rags sobbing. She didn’t look up at me. She didn’t speak. She just stood there shivering violently and bleeding. I stepped out into the cold and put my arm around her and she flinched in fear.
“Christ, Winnie what the hell happened to you. Are you injured. Come in to the kitchen.”
As I led her inside Sila called down from her room and ask who it was and I lied and told her to go back to sleep. She sighed loud enough for me to hear from downstairs and then I heard her bedroom door close and her bed squeak as she threw the herself onto it.
“Winnie, look at me… look at me… can you talk? I need you to tell me what happened. Who did this to you? Get undressed… I’ll get clean clothes.”
As quietly as I could without waking Sila I pulled the latch on the attic door and took down a suitcase full of Ola’s old clothes. The smell of her perfume had remained on them even after six years and as I opened it on my bed I could see Ola in all her glory. She wasn’t angry. She smiled and gently waved to me. Then I was back downstairs just as Winnie removed her torn robe and placed it beside her filthy socks and sandals. She was emaciated, covered in cuts and bruises and as she clung to herself I took a large towel from the radiator under the kitchen window, draped it around her shoulders and rubbed her arms. It was then that she looked up and me, tears in her eyes, blood caked onto her nose, lips and chin. She was in a sorry state. I wrapped the towel tight around her front then lifted one of her hands and placed the folds of the towel in it. Then I turned and wet a dishcloth and began to clean her face. I lifted her chin and wiped her cheeks and as I did she looked into my eyes and her tears and trembling stopped. I paused and in one motion she opened her arms and grabbed my neck, hugging me so tight that it hurt.
“I told you to be safe, Sister. Look at you.”
As I hugged her back and held her safe in my arms she began to fall asleep. When she finally slumped I carried her to my bedroom and put her in my bed and left her a note. Then I woke Sila and me went through our usual morning routine. After I dropped her to school I came home and found Winnie still asleep. I didn’t have the heart to wake her so I cooked breakfast and ran a bath. Then, once everything was ready I went upstairs and call her gently while holding the breakfast tray. She smiled as she roused before grimacing from the pain of stretching but she looked like a vision of heaven. Such beauty.
“Easy, Winnie. You’ve some awful bruising on your back. Here, eat. There’s a bath waiting for you when you’ve finished. I’ll be downstairs.”
She nodded as she ate crispy bacon with her hands and I went back to the kitchen. I didn’t want to overload her. I had so many questions but I cared more about her than about satisfying my own curiosity. As I tidied up and found my first aid kit I heard her move into the bath and strained my imagination to figure out what could have happened to her. Who would hurt a nun? And to what end? How did she even get back to Ireland? And when? I didn’t care about the latter though. She was there with me again. She was safe.
I turned around and there she was in the doorway. Ola’s old sweatpants hung off of her and a small ratty t-shirt hung loose on her underfed frame. Her hair was still wet and brushed back off of her face exposing the cuts on her forehead and cheeks that I hadn’t noticed earlier for the grime all over her. Her eyes had dark rings beneath them and her hands fidgeted, but she looked at me with a certainty that was unmistakable.
“I’ve never said this to anyone in my life… but I need you.”
I felt her bravery on the air and I was humbled by it.
“I mean it, James. I haven’t a stich of clothing to my name and no money. I have nowhere I can go. You’re the only person I can turn to.”
“No matter if you had everyone in the world to turn to, Winnie, I’m the one person that you should turn to. I’m with you all the way. You’re safe here.”
With that she half marched and half ran to throw herself into my arms with tears streaming down her face. Her hold on me was so tight that I couldn’t believe such a beat down waif could be so strong, but I had never been more at peace than I was in that moment. Her breathing was rough and caught in her throat as she cried into my chest. I could feel her tears and her breath through my shirt and I rubbed her back between her shoulder blades trying to calm her. After what felt like only seconds but was easily half an hour I told her to sit down at the kitchen table.
“Let me get you cleaned up. You’ve cuts all over you.”
“Thank you, James.”
“You’d do the same for me.”
“James?” She put her hand on mine and took a deep breath, “I was born Mary Elizabeth Dean, daughter to Earl Daniel Dean. Our family took lands here centuries ago and rose to be prominent so-called landowners. My ancestors were so bloodthirsty that they amassed a fortune and became traders in anything that would bring them profit. My father is still a wealthy man but my grandfather moved the family to America when the Irish Civil War began. I was raised in comfort and given a first class education, but I had never been told my real family history. When I started to ask questions as a teenager I was offered a role in the family business which had grown to include starting wars in third world countries to boost family holdings in the arms trade. And the trafficking of people from those countries. I couldn’t believe it when they told me. My family had seemed normal. Worse still I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t already figured it out for myself. I fled to Ireland and roamed around the country until eight years ago when I was admitted into the convent of St. James. I thought that I was safe, James. That I was hidden from my family. But their reach is enormous and I am a threat to them because I know their secrets. When I was on my way back from Rome I was taken at the airport and brought to a house in Galway where my Mother questioned me and then handed me over to a man called Clipper. He extracts information from people against their will… ”
“He held me for a month in a barn on the coast. James, he raped and beat me every day for that month. I can’t even remember half of what I knew about my family’s business now. I don’t know what I told him. It’s all a blur, I… ”
“… it’s ok, Winnie. I’m here.”
She had been speaking plainly but once she paused she crumbled. I’ve never seen someone in so much pain. There were no tears. Just a droning agony pouring from her. I held her and let her take strength from me but she shook so violently that the chairs we were sitting on rattled on the floor. After a while she settled and asked to be put to bed. I carried her and sat on the bed next to her while she slept. Nightmares made her kick and punch in her sleep and while I watched over her I saw the rawness of her soul in the scrunching of her face. It was horrifying to witness the aftermath of her torture.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey