Year We Sailed the Sun
September Chapter 1
I suppose I will go to hell for biting the nun.
Mary says it’s a mortal sin, for certain.
Never mind. It was worth it. I would bite her again, if I got the chance.
Bill says Pop’s down there frying already, so I won’t be lonesome.
“JULIA CATHERINE DELANEY!”
It was Aunt Gert who started it, and that’s the God’s truth. I never planned on biting a soul at the time. I was out by the back stoop, shooting marbles and minding my own business, when the back door opened—bang!—and the hollering commenced.
“Oh, for shame, for shame, Julia! Get up out of that dirt this instant! What do you think you’re doing, you bad girl?”
And what did it look like? I knuckled down and closed one eye, taking aim at a fat purple immy. I was winning, that was what, shooting straight as an arrow just the way Bill had taught me, and beating the pants off Snotty Otto, Aunt Gert’s scourge of a kid.
“Julia’s cheatin’ again, Mama!” he went to whining the second he saw her. “She stole my good nickel!” Which was a flat-out lie. And the whole world knew it, too, including his own mother. But you think she’d let on?
“Dirty little guttersnipe!” she hissed, just like a great nasty cobra. So I figured now was the time to run, but I couldn’t leave my marbles with Otto, and while I was trying to get ’em gathered up safe in the bag, Aunt Gert came charging down the steps and yanked me by the hair. “Saint Chris on a crutch, will you look at you? Wallowing in the filth in your Sunday best, and your poor grandma not two hours in her grave!”
A lot you care, I wanted to tell her. I tried, but the words stuck in my throat. Aunt Gert didn’t give a hang about Gran. She wasn’t even our aunt, really, only dead Uncle Somebody’s second wife, and the landlady on top of it, and a meddling old sourpuss, to boot.
“Don’t you growl at me, you dirty girl! Come along, now; there’s someone here to see you.” She gave my hair another jerk and started dragging me inside, stopping long enough at the kitchen pump to grab a wet cabbage-smelling rag and rub my face till it burned. “And don’t be giving me that evil eye, neither, Miss High-and-Mighty. You got something to say, then say it. You think it’s my pleasure, playing nursemaid to the likes of you?”
I craned my neck toward the door that opened on the parlor, trying to catch a glimpse of the visitors. I could halfway hear murmuring, but I couldn’t make it out. I’d had the fever when I was little, and now one ear didn’t work so well.
Someone to see me?
There’d been a pack of freeloaders traipsing through the house for the past two days, crying by the coffin and eating the funeral pies, but so far none of them had looked my way twice. Which suited me fine.
“Who is it—ow!—that’s here?” I asked.
“Your betters, that’s who. Stop your scowling. And mind your manners, or I’ll give you something to scowl about.”
Bill would show her what’s what, soon as he got back. Bill wouldn’t take that kind of guff off nobody.
And what was keeping him all this time, anyhow? He’d been standing right by me at the graveyard—him and Mary both; they let you out half a day from the shoe factory when your kinfolk got buried. But once the praying was over, I saw him going off somewhere with Mickey Doyle and that crowd. “Can’t I go with you, Bill?” I ran quick and asked him, but he shook his head and said, “Go home, J.” And then he gave me a wink. “You stick with Mary. I’ll only be a minute.”
Except it wasn’t any minute. That was ages ago. They’d been ringing the Angelus bell at Saint Pat’s, so it must have been noon. And now the ferry this side of the Eads Bridge was blowing its three o’clock whistle, and Egan’s Saloon would have been open for hours and I didn’t trust that Mickey and—
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Aunt Gert said to somebody, pulling me after her through the parlor door.
That’s when I saw ’em.
Not Bill or Mickey or any of the others neither, but a pair of nuns—a big one with a face like George Washington on a dollar bill, and a little-bitty plump one, like a pigeon with spectacles—sitting up prim on Gran’s purple settee, talking to Mary.
“Ah,” said the first, when she saw me staring. “Here’s the younger girl now. What’s her name again?”
“Julia,” said Aunt Gert, sweet as syrup, hauling me closer. “Say hello to the Sisters,” she hissed in my good ear, “and stand up straight, for the love of Mike.”
I’d have been out of there that minute, except the old bat was pinching my arm so tight, I couldn’t exactly move.
“Oh!” The pigeon’s eyes lit up. Even her dimples had dimples. “Julia Delaney—like the fiddle tune?”
Aunt Gert sighed. “The father was some sort of a musician.” She might just as well have said he was some sort of a toad fryer, for all the feeling she put into it.
“Oh my,” said the pigeon. “Julia Delaney . . . isn’t that lovely? I danced to it once in Dublin. And what a lovely little girl!”
Where? I wondered, looking over my shoulder. There wasn’t any lovely girl behind me. Only that snake Otto, leering at me with his little snake eyes.
Aunt Gert made a sound halfway between a sniff and a snort. “You’re too kind, Sister Gabriel. You’ll be turning her head. Shake hands with the nice Sister, Julia.” She gave my arm a twist. “Don’t you know a compliment when you hear one? What do you say?”
But I kept my hands to myself, and I didn’t say a word, because there was something fishy going on around here. I looked at Mary for some sort of a signal—she was nearly fourteen and understood these things—but Mary only looked back with her green eyes round as quarters and gave me the tiniest wag of her head, like a warning. And while Aunt Gert was pulling one way and I was pulling the other, and trying to think where I had seen this brand of nun before, George Washington spoke up:
“Never mind, Mrs.—”
“Mrs. Bocklebrink,” the nun repeated. You could hardly say it without laughing, but not a nose hair quivered. “It’s perfectly natural, under the circumstances.” And then she fixed me with a smile that sent shivers down my spine. “Come here, dear,” she said.
I wouldn’t. I wasn’t budging.
But Mary was still over there, nodding at me like it mattered, so I took one step.
“That’s better. Now, then. I’m Sister Maclovius. You’re not afraid of me, are you, Julia?”
Afraid? Ha! I stuck out my chin. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.
I’d have said it out loud, too, if only my mouth had been working.
“Well, of course you’re not. A big girl like you! Eleven years old already—two weeks ago today, isn’t that right?”
And how would this Sister Mac-Whatsit know a thing like that? I wondered. But then nuns were friends with God, who knew everything. A fine birthday it had been, too, with Gran hardly sick at all that evening and Mary’s famous dumplings for supper and Bill getting home just in time for the cake and candles. I still had the marble he had given me out of his own bag—his moonstone, no less, with magic in it—not mixed in with my others, but hidden away for emergencies, tucked in the secret pocket of my scratchy woolen undershirt. It would bring me good luck and good looks, he had promised, and a husband with pots of money. Which was more than this pair could ever hope for, even if they had a hundred birthdays.
So why were they looking at me like I was the one to be pitied?
“It’s a terrible thing to lose a loved one,” said Sister Maclovius. “But your granny isn’t really lost, now is she? Our Blessed Lord has taken her to heaven with himself and his Blessed Mother—and your own dear mother, too, and all your relatives and the holy angels—where you’ll be seeing her by and by, if you’re a good girl.”
I frowned at my muddy boots. I wasn’t any good girl. That was Mary; she was the good one. Just ask Aunt Gert. Mary slept with her rosary under her pillow and knew the Apostles’ Creed by heart; they’d let her into heaven for sure. And there’d be Gran, sitting up there waiting by the teakettle, same as always, with her soft lap and tapping foot and crinkled-up twinkly eyes. “Where’s Julia? Late again?” she’d ask. “Three guesses,” Mary would answer. “Ah, well.” Gran would sigh. “God knows she was warned.”
I hadn’t so much as sniffled this whole day, but now my throat ached all of a sudden. I’d never be good enough, would I? I’d swapped my rosary for a ten-cent ticket to the House of Wax.
“You believe that, don’t you, Julia Delaney?” the littler Sister asked gently.
“Well, of course she does,” said the big one, waving away the silly question. “And in the meantime, he hasn’t forgotten you and Mary. Not for a minute. He’s sent us here to be your friends. We have his own word for it: ‘I will not leave ye orphans.’?”
My stomach gave a terrible lurch, like I’d come down hard on the wrong side of a see-saw. Ah, sure, what a thickhead I was! They were orphan nuns, weren’t they? From that scurvy neighborhood west of here—the Bad Lands, Bill always called it—that was where I’d seen ’em, marching their charges to church on Sunday mornings. Drab-looking girls in brown-and-white uniforms, each one homelier than the last, trudging down Morgan Street with their eyes straight in front of ’em, past the pool halls and the whiskey bars and the ramshackle floozy houses, tramping along in lockstep, two by two.
O bless the orphans of the storm;
Sweet angels send to guide them. . . .
Saint Chris on a crutch. We’d stepped in it now.
“Run!” I hollered to Mary, wrenching free from Aunt Gert with one last desperate wriggle. “They’re tryin’ to take us to their damn orphanage! Come on, Mary! Run!”
But Mary never budged an inch, just stood there gaping like a ninny, while Aunt Gert got all red in the face and came lunging and sputtering after me. “Come back here, you ungrateful . . . Catch her!” she gasped, looking wild-eyed at the startled Sisters. But they were as old and fat as she was, and slower than molasses, and Bill always said I was fast as a fox. I dodged left around the purple couch and right under the table between the wooden lion’s paws and was out the other side in half a heartbeat, while the others were still creaking to their feet and reaching for my skirt tail and closing their claws on air. Ha! I told myself as I scrambled through the front door. They’ll never catch me. Never!
And then I was flying down the porch steps and bolting into the sunlight; in another ten seconds I’d be free as any bird. . . .
“Stop that girl!” George Washington shouted. “Get her, Sister Bridget!”
They’d left her outside to mind their horse and buggy. Ah, hell. I should have beaten it out the back. And didn’t I know her somehow or other? An interfering freckle-face, that’s what she was—wearing white, not black like the old ones. Which meant she was still just a trainee and really only half a nun, though she looked twice as tall as the other two put together.
“Whoa, girlie!” she said, and before I could blink, Sister Bridget had caught me by the collar and would have dragged me into the buggy itself, if I hadn’t grabbed hold of the lamppost in the nick of time.
“Let go, Julia,” they all kept telling me, till it made me sick to hear it, the old ones clomping down to circle like buzzards, while the half-a-nun tugged away. The sleeves of her habit had fallen back, and you could see that her arms were just as pink and freckly and baby-fied as her face, but they had some string in ’em for all that. So I held on tighter, that’s what, though it felt as if my own arms were getting yanked right out of their sockets. I wrapped them around that post and gritted my teeth and shook my head no, no, no!
“Come on, now, pet, there’s no use fighting,” said Sister Bridget, just as smooth as apple butter. As if she wasn’t squeezing the life out of anybody in particular, only sitting in some meadow, picking daisies. “I’ve got eight brothers at home, and not a one of ’em’s bested me yet. So let’s just take it nice and slow, why don’t we? Easy does it, now. . . . That’s right. . . . That’s better. . . . Nobody’s going to hurt you, not in a million—ow!”
“Merciful heaven!” cried the head nun. “She’s bitten Sister Bridget!”
And then everybody was tugging and talking at once, and a crowd was gathering on the sidewalk:
“It’s all right; it’s nothing. . . .”
“Your hand is bleeding!”
“. . . barely broke the skin . . .”
“Come and lie down, Sister. . . .”
“No, really, I’m fine. . . .”
“. . . like a mad dog entirely . . .”
“She’ll have to be tied. . . .”
“It’s nothing. . . .”
“You want me to fetch the clothesline, Mama?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Julia, stop it!” This time it was Mary talking. Looked like she’d got back her powers of speech and movement, finally, and had joined the others at the lamppost. “That’s enough, now. Just let go.”
“No! They ain’t takin’ me to that place! They’ll have to shoot me first!”
“Don’t tempt me.” Aunt Gert’s eyes shrunk up to mean little pinpoints. “Yes, Otto, get the clothesline, please.”
“Yes’m. . . .”
“Oh, no, surely not! That won’t be necessary, will it, dear?” Was that the pigeon cooing? And who was it trying to peel my fingers from their death grip, one by one? I didn’t know for sure; I’d shut my own eyes tight now and was kicking out blind as a bat and shaking my head harder. No, no, no. . . .
“Stop that, Julia!” Mary again, no question. “Look at poor Sister limping. Do you want ’em to put you in the loony bin?”
“Now there’s an idea. . . .”
“Possibly we should come back tomorrow. . . .”
“Don’t just stand there, Otto!”
“I AIN’T GOIN’ TO THEIR DAMN ORPHANAGE!”
“Julia? Mary—what the devil is this?”