The small girl held her hands high above her head, spinning round and round as if in a hypnotic trance. Her nimble lean form gyrating with movements brewing up from beneath the flesh. Joy, freedom, an end to her captivity. Sarah opened her eyes, which had been tightly closed, and watched the clouds in the sky above her head spinning and twirling, melting into each other. She had but one thought--home.
Winter had come early to Boston that year, blanketing the town with a thick quilt of snow. Her toes were numb but now were filling fast with a hot prickly sensation; still she danced on. She pulled her right hand to her heart, clutching a Teletype note Sister Maria had given her before breakfast tightly to her chest. The tears she choked back for the last year all seemed to come at once and this time she did not object.
"Sarah! Come in at once, you'll catch your death of cold." Sister Francis Mary stood at the arched entranceway to the St. Elizabeth's Home for Girls. She waved a chubby hand, beckoning the child inside.
"I'm going home, Sister!" Sarah ran to her and frantically pushed the crumpled piece of paper into her face.
"What? Oh, come inside at once, my dear!" She ushered the girl inside, took the paper from the child and, eyes failing her, held it out at arms length to read it.
DATE: October 24th, 1933
Dear Mother Superior...STOP
I want to express my undying gratitude for taking care of Sarah during our time of need. STOP
I have settled my husband's estate (what there was of it) and have taken up residence with my sister in California. STOP
I will be coming to Boston to take Sarah back with me November 2nd . STOP
Please have all necessary documents waiting for me. STOP
I will be arriving four o'clock a.m. Sunday morning. STOP
Yours in God and faith, STOP
Ellen Hudson STOP
"That's wonderful Sarah." She handed the note back and patted Sarah's head lightly. She had been fond of the child and felt sorry for her. Most of the girls at the home were there because they were illegitimate or unwanted, which made the lot of them unruly at times, but Sarah had come to them because of the death of her father. Her mother's inability to gain employment as even a maid had put the two of them precariously on the edge of starvation. The depression had touched everyone, some harsher than others.
"Do go and put your uniform on, your nightgown is not appropriate attire for school. And remember to wash up first."
Sarah bounded up the long staircase that led to the lavatory and dormitory rooms upstairs, weaving her way between the throng of girls descending the stairs for morning classes. "I'll miss you Sister!" she called back exuberantly.
The next week crawled by slowly. Every moment painfully announcing its arrival, its presence, then finally its departure. She was sure that by the time her mother arrived, she would be absolutely mad. She had not intended to stay at the Girl's Home for more than a few weeks, maybe a month or two at the most, while her mother got settled, so she had not made any friends. It had been a very lonely year.
She stood in the long line up at the confessionals, fidgeting with her gray flannel skirt and tapping her toe impatiently. Father Patrick must be getting a real earful tonight, she thought absently. Most Wednesday night confessions only took an hour, but tonight it seemed as though every girl was taking twice as long.
"I hear you're leaving." A small mousy girl whispered from behind.
"Yes, I am. My mother will be here Sunday." Sarah put her hand to her mouth and whispered back, drawing a warning look from Sister Margaret Jean, or Sister Margaret Mean, as the girls referred to her.
"You're lucky. I wish I had a home." The girl was younger than Sarah, maybe eight or so, and spoke with a slight lisp that the older girls teased her relentlessly for.
"I'll be home before Christmas!" Sara whispered excitedly as the line advanced closer to the confessional.
"Hurry." The small girl nudged her on. "It's your turn."
Sarah went through the motions of confession, admitting to such things as disobeying Sister Margaret Jean once, lying to Sister Francis Mary twice. They were only white lies so did they count? Yes, they did, 10 Hail Mary's and 10 Our Fathers along with a speech on the importance of truth.
After confession, the girls were paraded out of the church and back to the Home across the street. The mousy girl came up from behind Sarah calling out to her to wait. Sarah turned around and gave her time to catch up.
"My name is Beth." The girl said, trying to catch her breath.
"I'm Sarah." Sarah put her hand out; Beth shook it vigorously.
"Yes, I know. I, well, everyone knows your name. Well, they talk about you. They say there must be something wrong with you because you stay so much to yourself. Jenny, she's thirteen, she thinks you're crazy." The pair walked onward, following the line up outside the front doors.
Sarah smiled down at the pixie. Beth was plain and small and would likely never leave St. E's. "I'm not crazy! I didn't think I'd be here long enough to make friends. I never thought it would take my mother so long to find a job in California. We heard that everything was better in the west least that's what my auntie said. I didn't think anyone liked me here anyway." She was different. Someone outside loved her. One day soon, she would leave.
"I don't think you're crazy. My mother was crazy, I remember how she looked, her eyes all wild and mouth full of drool. I know exactly what crazy looks like." She had been four when the state placed her mother in The Funny Farm - as the other girls had teased her. She had been placed at St. E's.
Sarah's new friend took to following her everywhere over the next couple of days, asking all sorts of questions. Where are you going to live? What does your ma look like? What happened to your dad? Where's California? Thankfully, they were not in the same grade, so Sarah got some relief from her; but as much as she did not want the extra attention, she allowed Beth to follow her about.
Saturday night drew to a close; the girls being chased to bed by Sister Margaret Mean and her stinging willow branch. Sarah was too excited to sleep. She had barely slept a wink the night before though, and sometime, in the early morning, her eyes betrayed her and she fell asleep, dreaming of her mothers face, and fingers over keys playing Bach's The Old Year Has Passed.
Six o'clock had arrived and so had the morning duties for the Sisters of St. Elizabeth's. The three nuns entered the small drawing room downstairs, already in the middle of a heated debate over who would be waxing the hardwood floors downstairs, when the milkman knocked on the large oak door.
"Morning Sisters." He called in as he unloaded the first of several jugs of milk.
"Good Morning Peter. And how are you?" Sister Francis Mary reached down and picked up the first two jugs. They were a little too heavy for her this morning so she put one back down.
"Oh me, I'm fine." He pulled the cap from his head and scratched the top of a balding crown. "Did you hear the noise last night?"
"What noise?" Sister Mean demanded.
"It-I suppose I live out in the country a ways, anyway, um, the train," he cleared his throat. "was a big crash. Went right over the cliff near the harbor."
The nuns murmured a quick sign of the cross. Sister Francis Mary drew in a large breath, her eyes wide with horror. "Do you know if there are there any survivors?" She thought about Sarah, knowing that from what the Teletype had said, her mother was arriving on that train.
"Don't think so. They're still cleanin' it up. Damn shame." He looked up quickly, catching himself. "Oh, sorry Sisters."
Francis Mary walked out into the cool frost bitten morning. The sun was beginning to peek up through the darkness of the night sky with brilliant streaks of pink and red. She closed her eyes tightly and summoned every last hope. Dear God, she prayed, let one live.