Page 4 of Dreadful Skin

I left a note, as courtesy demanded.



But I suspect, when my father discovered he was unexpectedly free of me, that he was so overwhelmed with relief that he did not read it.


I went to America. I sequestered myself on a cargo ship with supplies for tobacco farmers. I told them I was a missionary bound for the western colonies, and that after my experiences in Delhi, I wanted to help civilize and sedate the savages on the other end of the world. Whether they believed me or not, I cannot say.


Upon arrival, I found New England too much like Old England for my liking. My tastes wanted warmer weather, someplace moist and green—preferably with a few open spaces to let me leap up at the sky when the lunacy came over me.


I went south, and slightly west—a colony state at a time.


I had no single goal in mind beyond seeking out warmth and seclusion; I was led to understand that these things could be found in abundance down farther in the colonies, closer to the west, and to the ocean. I made my furtive way south, then. Border by border. County by county, and town by town.


It seemed faster and easier, really—more civilized, at least—to try the rivers instead of the ragged old horse ruts.


I went to a city called Knoxville, and then on south to the next stop down—where I was told I could purchase passage on a steamship called the Mary Byrd.


IV.


I will tell you how it happened.


It burned, and sank.


* * *


My name was Eileen Callaghan, though if I spoke softly people often didn't notice the Irish in my words, there in America. People thought that a woman in a habit was meant to be quiet and contemplative, so I was rarely asked to speak much, and that was fine.


No one answers that call for the social life.


I answered when I was a girl, still. I knelt in the church and bowed my head, and I asked for the convent because I believed—I still believe—that I heard Him asking me for my time, and my life. I agreed and I answered; because after all, I owed Him no less.


I spent many of those early years with the scriptures, then with other books in the library, then outside the walls when I could leave. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to under-stand. I wanted to breathe in all the truth.


After a while, I began to think that this was not all there was. There in the convent, with its quiet sisters and thick walls, I could find truth with the Virgin and her son. I filled myself up with prayers and piety; I lit my life with votives, and with the sun spilling warmly patterned through stained glass and screens.


And one day, I confessed in the dark little room: "There is more than this."


Because they did not understand, they were afraid I would try to renounce my vows out of boredom. So they gave me little assignments here and there—small responsibilities in the community, and in other cities sometimes too.


I found some meaning in the poor quarters in Dublin, Belfast, and later in London, where we fed and clothed the ones we could; but I found more meaning still when I followed the women I found in those places.


I followed them to the sticky streets where they waited on street corners and in alleys, behind pubs and in littered lots. I watched them, and watched out for them when I could. I brought them into the church and let them warm themselves with our small lights—with candles lit for themselves, their mothers, and their daughters.


I watched them come and go from the safety to the streets, back and forth each night like the tide.


Sometimes I would walk with them, if they wanted. Sometimes they did not want to be alone, or they wished for a respite. Having a woman like me there would chase away their customers—and sometimes, for an hour or so, this was good. The dirty men in their itching clothes would saunter forward and see me—they'd see my uniform and know me—and they would think about being boys in white. They would remember being small, and standing before the alter with their mouths open. They thought of communion wine and bland white wafers.


And some of them would be ashamed. They would turn on their heels and slink back into the dark.


Once or twice I was propositioned too, by men who maybe remembered things differently—or who had no upbringing in the church. Once or twice a man would ask me to lift my skirts.


But not often.


On one such night, I stood beside a girl who had the name of her birthday's saint—she was Barbara, and should have been home safe in her father's tower. At least, she was very beautiful and would never be married, so some of the story was preserved.


These stories, if you read enough of them you start to see—they come back around again. (I used to think, sometimes, that these stories are all one. And they are told over and over again; we are all drawn to the same ones, to the same lives, and we repeat ourselves incessantly.)


She interrupted me. "Have you heard about the jumping man? Jumping Jack, I think the girls want to call him, but the papers say his name is something else."


"Really? Have you read them?"


"No, I can't read. But the news boys tell us sometimes, if we ask them nice. We wanted to know if anyone had heard. Not like it'd matter. So long as it's just us being scared by him, no one cares. But he's started chasing finer prey than us, I guess, because they're talking about him now. He's working his way up, he is."


"Why do you say that?"


"Well he jumped a fine lady, I hear. Scared her senseless. Tore off her dress and scratched up her belly like an animal. She's been in bed since it happened, and she might not recover. They'll catch him now, I bet. They'll make him stop, now that he's chasing a better kind."


"Has he hurt anyone here yet—badly, I mean?" I asked her.


She shrugged like she wasn't sure how to answer that, or how to quantify what 'badly' meant. "A couple of girls, he scratched them up so they bled real bad. And he's scared 'em half to death, with his ugly yellow eyes and all that, but mostly they get back up again and go back to work in a few days."


I couldn't decide how it made me feel—if I was proud for Barbara and her sisters, or if I was sorry for them. Daily or weekly they'd seen enough and been hurt enough that assault was only an afterthought in a night's tally. The spring-heeled man was worth a mention because he didn't seem human, and that was worth talking about. That was worth a few minutes of gossip.


"He's only a fairy tale. You're making him into more." I meant to reassure her because I couldn't imagine what truth there might be in it. I had to assume that it was boredom that made them talk so, and put such stock in such wild stories.


"Not anymore. Not when the rich girls tell it. When the rich girls tell it, it's news."


She was right, of course.


I tried to guide her, and the rest of them too—I tried to lend them my support, and give them the sense that someone thought they were worthwhile, and that there was a God who would have them and hear them. In time, I found it best to simply be their friend as well as I could. I would like to say that I made a difference, but I came to doubt it.


And before long, there were incidents, as you might expect.


There were problems. There were deaths, and accusations, and hints of impropriety. Good women of God did not lurk in such places. It would raise questions. Well, I had my questions too. Didn't Christ himself walk with the prostitutes and the lepers? Times were troubled, yes, but that only meant they needed us more.


I think, I guess, that I came to believe my superiors. I think, I guess, that I started to believe the church. But by then, I had learned the difference between the Virgin and the Church. And I did not believe anymore that the two held hands more tightly than a vise.


"There is truth here," I said to the priest at my last confession. "But this is not all the truth there is to be found."


I told him I meant to leave, and he did not stop me.


I had half a mind to follow the crumbs of truth wherever they went. I opened my eyes, opened my ears, and opened my Bible. Piece by piece the trail became clear. A light beckoned across the ocean—it lured me onto a boat, and over the water. I followed it as best I could. I watched it flicker and dim, then flare and sizzle.


I went to America.


Didn't everyone, who needed a new start?


V.


I will tell you how it happened.


It fell apart.


She was my boat, and she was always meant to be my last. After our last run, down that little leg from Knoxville to Chattanooga—hardly a hundred miles—I was going home. My wife was waiting for me there, at her sister's place on Lookout Mountain. I was to lean hard on the whistle treadle three times when I passed between the hills. She would know to look outside and see me coming. The smoke from the big black stacks would show my progress even at a very great distance.


Her sister would bring her down to the landing.


We might stay in the valley for a while; the weather was good and there was no rush to head back home.


But we hadn't talked about that, yet—whether or not we'd really go home. We weren't certain anything was left of it. Last we heard, the Yankees hadn't burned it; but however Bellehurst was standing, word had it, the place wasn't doing so well.


Maybe we'd heard wrong. The news coming up was spotty and unreliable, or that's how we liked to think.


In Chattanooga, the war hadn't treated the city too bad. It was too important, with the river and the rails. Everyone needed to use it. It took some beating, sure—but nothing like what they got down in Georgia. Nothing like Chickamauga, maybe ten or twelve miles south.


I hear the mountains took the worst of it, but I don't know if it's true. I know soldiers and generals always try to take the highest ground, and there's nothing higher around there than Lookout and Signal.


But after it was over. . .after Appomattox, there was no going back to the way things were. Not in Tennessee, not in Georgia, and not anywhere else.


I did say they left the house standing, though, didn't I? Sherman went another way, and burned another stretched-out scar on someone else's land. But they didn't take our place—even though we left it for them.


I went into the service. They made me a major, because they couldn't expect a man with stature to enlist in the infantry. I pray I did them proud.

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