The Whore''s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  Late that evening they arrived at a hospital and were taken to the charity ward, only to learn that Sister Ursula’s mother had expired just after they had left the convent that morning. A nun dressed all in white informed Sister Veronique that it would be far better for the child not to see the deceased, and a look passed between them. All that was left by way of a keepsake was a brittle, curling, scallop-edged photograph, which the white nun gave to Sister Ursula, who had offered no reaction to the news that her mother was dead. Since arriving at the hospital, Sister Ursula had lapsed into a state of paralytic fear that it was her father who had fallen ill there. Instead, it seemed at least one of her prayers had been answered: her father was free.

  But where was he? When she summoned the courage to ask, the two nuns exchanged another glance, in which it was plain that the white nun shared Sister Veronique’s belief that she had no father, and Sister Ursula saw, too, that it would be useless for her, a child, to try to convince the white nun otherwise. Her fury supported her during their train ride, but then, when the convent came into view from the carriage, Sister Ursula broke down and began to sob. To her surprise, if not comfort, Sister Veronique placed a rough, callused hand on her shoulder and said softly, “Never mind, child. You will become one of us now.” In response Sister Ursula slid as far away from the old nun as she could and sobbed even harder, knowing it must be true.

  “Are we ever going to meet the father?” one student wanted to know. “I mean, she yearns for him, and he gets compared to Christ, but we never see him directly. We’re, like, told how to feel about him. If he doesn’t ever show up, I’m going to feel cheated.”

  Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was not going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.

  The day after Sister Ursula’s second workshop, my doorbell rang at seven-thirty in the morning. I struggled out of bed, put on a robe and went to the door. Sister Ursula stood on the porch, clearly agitated. The forlorn station wagon idled at the curb with its full cargo of curious, myopic nuns, returning, I guessed, from morning Mass. The yard was strewn with dry, unraked November leaves, several of which had attached themselves to the bottom of Sister Ursula’s flowing habit.

  “Must he be in the story? Must he return?” Sister Ursula wanted to know. As badly as she had wanted her father to appear in life, she needed, for some reason, to exclude him from the narrative version.

  “He’s already in the story,” I pointed out, cinching my robe tightly at the waist.

  “But I never saw him after she died. This is what my story is about.”

  “How about a flashback?” I suggested. “You mentioned there was one Christmas holiday . . .”

  But she was no longer listening. Her eyes, slate gray, had gone hard. “She died of syphilis.”

  I nodded, feeling something harden in me too. Behind me I heard the bathroom door open and close, and I thought I saw Sister Ursula’s gaze flicker for an instant. She might have caught a glimpse of Jane, the woman I was involved with, and I found myself hoping she had.

  “My father’s heart was broken.”

  “How do you know that, if you never saw him again?”

  “He loved her,” she explained. “She was his ruin.”

  It was my hatred that drew me deeper into the Church, began Sister Ursula’s third installment, the words cramped even more tightly on exactly twenty-five pages, and this elicited my now standard comment in the margin. As a writer of opening sentences, Sister Ursula was without peer among my students.

  In the months following her mother’s death, an explanation had occurred to Sister Ursula. Her father, most likely, had booked passage to America to search for work. Such journeys, she knew, were fraught with unimaginable peril, and perhaps he now lay at the bottom of the ocean. So it was that she gradually came to accept the inevitability of Sister Veronique’s cruel prophecy. She would become one of those whom she detested. Ironically, this fate was hastened by the prophet’s untimely death when she was kicked by a horse, not in the head as Sister Ursula had prayed, but in the chest, causing severe internal hemorrhaging and creating an opening in the stable. During her long sojourn at the convent, Sister Ursula had learned to prefer the company of animals to that of humans, and so at the age of sixteen, already a large, full woman like her mother, she became herself a bride of Christ.

  Sister Ursula’s chronicle of the years following her vows, largely a description of her duties in the stable, featured several brief recollections of the single week she’d spent at home in the city during the Christmas holiday of that first year she entered the convent school. During that holiday she’d seen very little of her mother—a relief, since Sister Ursula dreaded the heat of her mother’s embrace and the cloying stench of her whore’s perfume. Rather, her beloved father took her with him on his rounds, placing her on a convenient bench outside the dark buildings he entered, telling her how long he would be, how high a number she would have to count to before he would return. Only a few times did she have to count higher. “Did you find work, Father?” she asked each time he reappeared. It seemed to Sister Ursula that in buildings as large and dark as the ones he entered, with so many other men entering and exiting, there should have been work in one of them, but there was none. Still, that they were together was joy enough. Her father took her to the wharf to see the boats, to a small carnival where a man her father knew let her ride a pony for free and finally to a bitter cold picnic in the country where they ate warm bread and cheese. At the end of each of these excursions her father promised again that she would not have to remain much longer in the convent school, that another Christmas would find them together.

  The installment ended with Sister Ursula taking her final vows in the same chapel that for years had been her refuge from the taunts of children for whom she would always be the whore’s child. There, at the very altar of God, Sister Ursula, like a reluctant bride at an arranged marriage, indulged her fantasy of rescue right up to the last moment. When asked to proclaim her irrevocable devotion to God and the one true Church, she paused and turned toward the side door of the chapel, the one she’d always imagined her father would throw open, and willed her father’s shadow to emerge from the blinding light and scatter these useless women and hateful children before him.

  But the door remained shut, the chapel dark except for the flickering of a hundred candles, and so Sister Ursula became a bride.

  “Isn’t there a lot of misogyny in this story?” observed a male student who I happened to know was taking a course with the English department’s sole radical feminist, and was therefore alert to all of misogyny’s insidious manifestations. By stating this opinion in the form of a question, perhaps he was indicating that the distrust and even hatred of women evident in Sister Ursula’s memoir might be okay in this instance because the author was, sort of, a woman.

  At any rate, he was right to be cautious. What would you expect, a chorus of his female classmates sang out. The whole thing takes place in a girls’ school. There were only two men in the story and one was Jesus, so the statistical sample was bound to be skewed. No, read correctly, Sister Ursula was clearly a feminist.

  “I would like to see more of the mother, though,” one young woman conceded. “It was a major cop-out for her to die before they could get to the hospital.”

  “You wanted a deathbed scene?” said another. “Wouldn’t that be sort of melodramatic?”

  Here the discussion faltered. Melodrama was a bad thing, almost as bad as misogyny.

  “Why was the daughter sent for?” wondered someone else. “If the mother didn’t love her, why send for her?”

  “Maybe the father sent for her?”

  “Then why wasn’t he there himself?”

  “I know I was the one,” interrupted another, “who wanted to see more of the father after the last submission, but now I think I was wrong. All that stuff with her father over the Chris
tmas holiday? It was like we kept hearing what we already knew. And then he’s not there at the hospital when the mother dies. I’m confused.” He turned to me. “Aren’t you?”

  “Maybe somebody in the hospital contacted the convent,” another student suggested, letting me off the hook.

  “For a dying prostitute in a charity ward? How would they even know where the daughter was unless the mother told them?”

  Everyone now turned to Sister Ursula, who under this barrage of questions seemed to have slipped into a trance.

  “I don’t care,” said another student, one of the loners in the back of the room. “I like this story. It feels real.”

  The fourth and final installment of Sister Ursula’s story was only six and a half pages long with regular margins, normal fonts and standard double-spacing.

  My life as a nun has been one of terrible hatred and bitterness, it began. I considered writing, You don’t mean that, in the margin, but refrained. Sister Ursula always meant what she said. It was now late November, and she hadn’t veered a centimeter from literal truth since Labor Day. These last, perfunctory pages summarized her remaining years in the convent until the school was partially destroyed by fire. It was then that Sister Ursula came to America. Still a relatively young woman, she nonetheless entertained no thoughts of leaving the order she had always despised. She had become, as Sister Veronique predicted, one of them.

  Once, in her late forties, she had returned to Belgium to search for her father, but she had little money and found no trace of him. It was as if, as Sister Veronique had always maintained, the man had never existed. When her funds were exhausted, Sister Ursula gave up and returned to America to live out what remained of her life among the other orphans of her order. This was her first college course, she explained, and she wanted the other students to know that she had enjoyed meeting them and reading their stories, and thanked them for helping her with hers. All of this was contained in the final paragraph of the story, an unconsciously postmodern gesture.

  “This last part sort of fizzled out,” one student admitted, clearly pained to say this after its author had thanked her readers for their help. “But it’s one of the best stories we’ve read all semester.”

  “I liked it too,” said another, whose voice didn’t fall quite right.

  Everyone seemed to understand that there was more to say, but no one knew what it might be. Sister Ursula stopped taking notes and silence descended on the room. For some time I’d been watching a young woman who’d said next to nothing all term, but who wrote long, detailed reports on all the stories. She’d caught my attention now because her eyes were brimming with tears. I sent her an urgent telepathic plea. No. Please don’t.

  “But the girl in the story never got it,” she protested.

  The other students, including Sister Ursula, all turned toward her. “Got what?”

  I confess, my own heart was in my throat.

  “About the father,” she said. “He was the mother’s pimp, right? Is there another explanation?”

  “So,” Sister Ursula said sadly, “I was writing what you call a fictional story after all.”

  It was now mid-December, my grades were due, and I was puzzling over what to do about Sister Ursula’s. She had not turned in a final portfolio of revised work to be evaluated, nor had she returned to class after her final workshop, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t erase from my memory the image of the old nun that had haunted me for weeks, of her face coming apart in terrible recognition of the willful lie she’d told herself over a lifetime.

  So I’d decided to pay her a visit at the old house where she and five other elderly nuns had been quartered now for nearly a decade in anticipation of their order’s dissolution. I had brought the gift of a Christmas tree ornament, only to discover that they had no tree, unless you counted the nine-inch plastic one on the mantel in the living room. Talk about failures of imagination. In a house inhabited by infirm, elderly women, who did I suppose would have put up and decorated a tree?

  Sister Ursula seemed surprised to see me standing there on her sloping porch, but she led me into a small parlor off the main hall. “We must be very still,” she said softly. “Sister Patrice has fallen ill. I am her nurse, you see. I am nurse to all of them.”

  In the little room we took seats opposite each other across a small gateleg table. I must have looked uncomfortable, because Sister Ursula said, “You have always been very nervous of me, and you should not. What harm was in me has wasted away with my flesh.”

  “It’s just that I was bitten by a nun as a child,” I explained.

  Sister Ursula, who’d said so many horrible things about nuns, looked momentarily shocked. Then she smiled. “Oh, I understand that you made a joke,” she said. “I thought that you might be . . . what was that word the boy in our class used to describe those like me?”

  I had to think a minute. “Oh, a misogynist?”

  “Yes, that. Would you tell me the truth if I asked you do you like women?”

  “Yes, I do. Very much.”

  “And I men, so we are the same. We each like the opposite from us.”

  Which made me smile. And perhaps because she had confided so much about herself, I felt a sudden, irrational urge to confide something in return. Something terrible, perhaps. Something I believed to be true. That my wife had left because she had discovered my involvement with a woman I did not love, who I had taken up with, I now realized, because I felt cheated when the book I’d published in the spring had not done well, cheated because my publisher had been irresponsibly optimistic, claiming the book would make me rich and famous, and because I’d been irresponsibly willing to believe it, so that when it provided neither fame nor fortune, I began to look around for a consolation prize and found her. I am not a good man, I might have told Sister Ursula. I have not only failed but also betrayed those I love. If I said such things to Sister Ursula, maybe she would find some inconsistency in my tale, some flaw. Maybe she’d conclude that I was judging myself too harshly and find it in her heart to say, “You don’t mean that.”

  But I kept my truths to myself, because she was right. I was “nervous of her.”

  After an awkward moment of silence, she said, “I would like to show you something, if you would like to see it?”

  Sister Ursula struggled heavily to her feet and left the room, returning almost immediately. The old photograph was pretty much as described—brown and curled at its scalloped edges, the womanly image at its center faded nearly into white. But still beautiful. It might have been the photo of a young Sister Ursula, but of course it wasn’t. Since there was nothing to say, I said nothing, merely put it down on the small table between us.

  “You? You had loving parents?”

  I nodded. “Yes.”

  “You are kind. This visit is to make sure that I am all right, I understand. But I am wondering for a long time. You also knew the meaning of my story?”

  I nodded.

  “From the beginning?”

  “No, not from the beginning.”

  “But the young woman was correct? Based on the things that I wrote, there could be no other . . . interpretation?”

  “Not that I could see.”

  “And yet I could not see.”

  There was a sound then, a small, dull thud from directly overhead. “Sister Patrice,” Sister Ursula informed me, and we got to our feet. “I am needed. Even a hateful nun is sometimes needed.”

  At the front door, I decided to ask. “One thing,” I said. “The fire . . . that destroyed the school?”

  Sister Ursula smiled and took my hand. “No,” she assured me. “All I did was pray.”

  She looked off across the years, though, remembering. “Ah, but the flames,” she said, her old eyes bright with a young woman’s fire. “They reached almost to heaven.”

  Monhegan Light

  Well, he’d been wrong, Martin had to admit as Monhegan began to take shape on the horizon. Wrong about the i
sland, about the ferry. Maybe even wrong to make this journey in the first place. Joyce, Laura’s sister, had implied as much, not that he’d paid much attention to her, cunt that she was. Imagine, still trying to make him feel guilty so long after the fact of Laura’s death, as if he was the one who’d been living a lie for twenty-five years. He could still see her smirking at him. “Poor Martin,” she’d said after telling him, with surprisingly little reluctance, where Robert Trevor was to be found. Almost as if she wanted Martin to meet the man. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

  Of all the things that Joyce’s sort of woman said about men, Martin disliked the he-just-doesn’t-get-it riff most of all. For one thing it presupposed there was something to get, usually something obvious, something you’d have to be blind not to see. And of course the reason you couldn’t see it—as women were happy to explain—was that you had a dick, as if that poor, maligned appendage were constantly in a man’s line of sight, blocking his view of what women, who were not similarly encumbered, wanted him to take notice of, something subtle or delicate or beautiful, at least to their way of thinking. If you didn’t agree that it was subtle or delicate or beautiful, it was because you had a dick. You just didn’t get it.

 
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