She posted a letter that took years to compose, and just minutes to write.
Made love in a Mini and damaged her neck.
And walked a screaming stairway to the smile of her first social worker.
And so it began.
In the month Abby turned forty.
The twelve months that followed delivered her to today, climbing an ancient oak tree, searching and hoping, seeking and floundering. Her arms are tired and her legs are straining as she pulls and pushes her way through the branches. She catches her red scarf in gnarly pieces of belligerent twig and blinks away tears from her probing eyes.
From midway up her oak tree she can now view cropped fields and borders of trees that draw her eyes to the horizon, smoke twirls into the patterned sky from chimneys of farmhouses, and electricity wires, stretched upon their pylons, fence off the clouds that are beginning to cluster. Husband waits in her Mini, reading his novel as his knees cramp up and the windows steam, the rural sounds of the country making him jumpy and nervous.
But what Abby seeks is not in the clouds, nor in the horizon or in the pastured land below, it’s not in the love of her husband’s eyes that peer from the viewing circles he now makes on the fogged up car window, but in Mother Nature herself and the inches of wooden growth year after year that she now climbs. And the irony of it isn’t lost on Abby, Mother Nature, now the keeper of her past.
The undiplomatic protest of an oak branch returns her mind to the creaking steps of the twisting dilapidated stairs that a year ago signaled the beginning of the end of her journey. Abby hesitates and steps back from the offending branch and sits in the safety of where bough meets trunk. She rests a little and her mind returns to the stairs of the Social Workers office and the steps that had screamed like babies as she walked towards the womb that had rejected her and the search for the woman that had left her behind. It was the day her seeking officially commenced, three weeks after her fortieth birthday, but a search that had begun forty years earlier, when climbing was how Abby seemed to live her life, where no matter what she achieved, she never felt she was reaching her summit.
Today is her forty first birthday and Abby hopes she can stop climbing soon.
The social worker had greeted her warmly that day, but Abby had cynically resisted the meaningful tones from the practiced eyes of those who were paid to care. She smiled dutifully at the young whipper-snapper who advised on the process and procedures to follow and the various outcomes of the path she was taking. The social worker asked Abby did she have any questions. And Abby asked how old she was.
‘I don’t know yet Abby we haven’t begun the search’
‘I meant you, not my birth mother”
And the social worker had whispered ‘twenty four’ and teared up with embarrassment. Abby hugged her and suggested they go for coffee and her cynicism turned to friendship over a mocha and a latte that was sprinkled with freedom as the words that Abby had bottled, exploded like the steam from the coffee machine the sullen waitress cleaned in the background.
There were many conversations over that year, drop in type chats and emotional check in’s. But then a week ago, five days before her forty first birthday, her social worker called and said
“Abby pet, we found her. And she’s sent you a letter’
The leaves of the oak tree return her to the moment. The cows bellow as they return from chewing and await a milking in the nearby farm and Abby shifts slightly in the middle of the tree to hide from view. She takes the letter, now crumpled and water marked with tears, from her coat pocket. The ink is smudging and she regrets not making a copy, but touching the paper that her mother had touched was more important than saving its content’s somehow. She knows it by heart anyway.
I’m sorry but I don’t know what to call you.
The nuns wouldn’t allow me give you a name when you were born, there were a lot of rules about that, ‘all for our own good’ they said.
But when I think of you, which is often, I remember you as Gretel.
I was called Maria when I had you, but I have a different name now. Everything changed after you were born and I was forced to begin a life without you, as far away as I could, the boat to Australia becoming my escape. I tried to return home after they stole you but the man who is your birth father smiled at me and I knew I had no choice but to run.
You don’t need to know about him Gretel, they found me in a field where he left me, some of my clothes missing, but you were born out of my love and that is all I will say.
But back then it was very different to how things are now, it was a world you wouldn’t recognise, particularly for an eighteen year old woman, common as ditchwater and yet to be valued in the rural Ireland of the sixties, a place where religion wore society’s moral compass on the pulpit-pumping fist of the clergy, the omnipotent beings that dispensed wisdom and solution to all, and were beyond the scrutiny of us mere mortals.
And unfortunately that’s where my father brought me when my ‘trouble’ became known to him, to the priests of our parish, with a hastily packed case and a red scarf my mother threw around my neck.
It was the last time I saw my family.
My father didn’t speak to me as he brought me to the priest’s sacristy, the room at the back of the church where clerical vestments were stored in closets that smelled of incense and money was counted in wicker baskets lined with velvet. He nodded to the priest, who knew we were coming, waiting at the door and checking his watch. Father simply handed me over and put my case on the ground beside me, he put his hands behind a back that seemed to stoop lower than normal and then pulled his cap more snugly over his eyes. The priest suggested I pray for forgiveness as he brushed his wax hair across his head and smiled at me. He touched my fathers patched elbow with a nod and I then watched the head of my family turn and walk the road away from me.
I stared at his neck, but he never looked back and the clouds became darker and began to spit their rain.
I was almost thankful when the puttering engine of the village bus could be heard coming to take me away. My priest didn’t hesitate and walked to the drivers window as the bus came to a jerking stop, out of earshot of the passengers that stared at me from their elevated seats of judgment and shields of rain spattered glass. The driver moved two of them to the back of the bus, I recognised them both, Mrs. Flanagan the Undertakers wife and Mrs. Collins, the woman who once put a plaster on my ear after her hawk nipped it. I knew them both well, but they didn’t bid me good day. The driver pointed me to their seats, directly behind him and in the view of his mirror, but more importantly, away from the remaining passengers, the people of my village that were now shunning me, the ‘Harlot from Kelly’s field”
I don’t remember much about the journey other than I cried for my mammy and my young sisters. I was alone when the bus finally edged up the long and winding gravel driveway and turned in the carriage circle before it stopped. We had arrived in the sanctified grounds of the convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who were tasked by the priests of the parish, and on behalf of my village, to save my soul and cure me of my shameful ‘trouble’
My dearest Gretel I cannot, even now, begin to tell you of the punishment they enjoyed to visit upon me, the humiliation and servitude that I was to believe I deserved, and the shocking interpretation of Gods words that these so called brides of Christ governed us by.
The days were long and work was never ending, a sacrifice we were told to offer up to our Lord where laundry from six am to ten presented an opportunity to cleanse our souls as we washed the shit from the soiled bedclothes of the city asylum and the vomit of the dying who had paid their dues. Purity was further improved when from eleven until mid afternoon we were tasked with making ‘the blessed sacrament of communion hosts’ as we lifted the heavy sacks of flour and hauled the splashing tin buckets of water across the cobbled yard until our backs were numb and the mixing and kneading of communion host dough caused many to faint, for I was not the only one in ‘trouble’ little Gretel, there were sixteen beds in the open dormitory, each of us at various stages of our pregnancy, but all of one terrified and beaten mind.
It occurs to me that at this point you may think I’m feeling sorry for myself. I do, but not because of the nuns and their treatment of me, many faired worse than I, particularly a Kerry girl we called Anne, the nuns would hit her with the wet towels and rap her ankles with the poker from the laundry fire, beneath the sock line and away from view. But they did tie flour sacks around my neck and I suffer from such treatment to this very day. I don’t even blame the villagers or my family, I have long ago forgiven them and banished the taunts of ‘ the Harlot from Kelly’s field’ from my everyday memory.
But I feel a deep sorrow that I can never elevate, only because I am, and will always remain, inconsolably incomplete.
We had an hour of rest in the afternoon where we were then encouraged to our knees for many decades of the Rosary and plenary indulgences to keep our souls from Purgatory and the all too regular stillborn babies from languishing in Limbo. After afternoon mass we then filed into the pantry to cook the dinners for our kindly nuns and the select few they fed daily, the policeman on duty, the local doctor, and of course the priests who’s housekeepers didn’t work late in the evening. Anne from Kerry spat into the stew pots on a daily basis and I must admit to doing it once myself. But I was warned not to align myself with her, she was the ‘devil incarnate’ we were told.
You were born on a Friday, my labour pains beginning on hearing that Anne, the Kerry girl, had fallen down the stairs, probably with some help. My waters broke in the chapel and the youngest of the nuns, the one less polluted with their cruelty, ushered me gently into their birth rooms and called the midwife, a large round woman with a crucifix that dangled from her neck and stuck in my nose as she leaned over me and pressed my belly. You were an easy delivery little Gretel and as you were swaddled in sheets that I had most likely laundered, they put me in a bath of salted water and took you away.
I then remember being hurriedly dressed and then given a shilling and told to join the other fourteen girls in the courtyard where we were told we would be escorted to the local picture house to see a film. I thought I heard you cry from one of the open windows of the convent building that stared down at me, but hollering their delight at their first trip outside the walls of their pregnancy prison, the other girls drowned your voice and your cry was lost into the sky.
And my incompleteness began.
I cried throughout the movie they sent us to see, The Sound of Music, where I felt further punished by the fact the lead character was called Maria just like me. I sobbed as I watched the children, particularly the little one, Gretel, fall in love with their new mother. However I feel sure the nuns didn’t know what the movie was about, love conquering religion, an alien thought in the Ireland of the sixties.
When we returned that evening we passed an ambulance exiting the convent driveway and my heart stopped with fright, but it wasn’t you Gretel, it was poor Anne from Kerry and her baby, both dead from their ‘accident’. I wanted to see you but they said you were gone, ‘to a family that would offer you more than I ever could’, they told me a woman with my past would never see happiness and God wouldn’t want me to drag my child down with me. I do hope you’re happy Gretel, Are you happy?
I left the brides of Christ to their husband that week and slapped away the hand of the nun that dared touch my shoulder in restraint. Their God and their habits were now a symbol of the world that was trying to disown me. I stole their silver cutlery, the set reserved for the bishops visit, and sold it in the markets as I cadged numerous rides homeward, as only ‘harlots’ can do.
I eventually returned to my village some days later as dusk was falling on the working day. I pulled my bonnet over my eyes and wrapped the red scarf my mother had given me tight against my face to hide my shame.
Your father saw me as I got off the bus. He was locking his sacristy and he brushed his wax hair with his hands. He smiled at me and fingered his collar as he walked towards me and my legs knew I couldn’t stay. I cried as I ran, deep down realising that the village and my family were lost to me forever.
I ran blindly into the countryside and found myself in the field where he had driven me nine months ago. I walked to the tree that stood in its centre where he had told me he loved me and I was his ‘princess’. I was eighteen and a woman, common as ditchwater and about to be valued by the most important man in the village, I was powerless and smitten, naïve and innocent, and I beg your forgiveness dearest Gretel.
When I sat down I shuddered at the memory, of how he took my skirt when we finished and told me to rest a while ‘like a good girl’. He promised to return after he called to the sick but he never did. Farmer Kelly found me asleep as he herded the cows in for their morning milk and my new name was born. I then became ‘the Harlot’.
But it was a different harlot that now sat at the base of the old oak tree, sucking in air to my lungs and feeling a fury build within me.
I climbed up her branches and watched as the paraffin lamps were light and the turf smoke smelled the air and I tried to ignore the smiling wax head that intruded on my mind. Some of the farmers worked late as they toiled their land and I cried as I fidgeted with the silver knife, the last piece of cutlery I had stolen from the convent. I cannot deny that I felt its coldness against my wrists throughout that night and wondered at the peace that would come with a slice of my flesh. But as I watched the slumbering village from my tree, a village that had ostracised me, banished me from their tongues unless in gossip, and subjected my family to a living shame in the eyes of their beloved priest, I vowed they would not beat me.
I put the knife to a better use and carved my name on the tree that night, I also carved yours.
Maria loves Gretel – Forever
I did, and I do. But I cannot go any further.
I must stay where I am, in the new life I have made and where my secrets are safe. I am no longer common as ditchwater, and I value myself for what I am. I still have some health and the arthritis in my neck bears well in this sunshine. This is my home now and I am no longer Maria. The village cannot beat me here.
And I must remain incomplete, for that is my punishment.
Live well my beautiful daughter, for you have a piece of my heart that I can never take back
Abby folds the letter away and wipes her eyes in her red scarf. Her bottom is stiffening against the seat of bough meeting trunk and she can see the clouds gathering for an argument as they roll across the electricity pylons. She reaches above her and begins to climb again. Another bird startles from a nest higher up and Abbey looks skyward instinctively, and notices something yards above her head. She scrambles with excitement and almost slips. She laughs out loud like a child playing hide and seek. She removes her scarf from around her neck and rubs the moss away from the trunk. She takes the silver knife her mother had sent her and scrapes away the dirt. And then there it is. Etched into eternity.
Maria loves Gretel – Forever
Abby smiles and traces her fingers in the letters. She is now alone with her mother. The sounds of the countryside subside and they talk a while about life, about their dreams and their lovers, their ambitions and their worries. About love and contentment, children and God. They talk forgiveness and beauty, redemption and revenge. And they ease each other’s heart with understanding and acceptance.
It’s getting dark when Abby finally descends. Her husband is standing at the car, anxiously looking at her face.
‘Did we find the right place’, he asks her
Abby runs to him and hugs him tightly. Over her shoulder he notices the red scarf tied around a branch high up in the old oak tree, there’s a silver weight hanging from its tassles, preventing it from getting snagged as it proudly hangs in the air above what the locals had told them was once known as Kelly’s field.
‘Fancy a quickie in the backseat again? Just mind my neck, I think I’m getting arthritis in it’, Abby laughs.
She closes her eyes as he squeezes her close and ignores her jovial commentary, knowing it masks the depth of her anguish. Abby sobs and catches her breath as she buries her face in his shoulder and feels his arms envelope her safely.
‘No more climbing my love, no more climbing’ she whispers in his ear. ‘I found her’
She wipes her eyes and turns to look at the red scarf with its silver knife, blowing in the wind of Mother Nature, in the middle of Kelly’s field.
She pauses and hears the church bell ring for evening mass and the cows bellow against their full udders.
Abby walks away, with her husband’s hand interlocked in hers, and leaves her scarf to flutter in the old oak tree, now part of a history she was never born in to.
‘Happy birthday Abby’ Her husband squeezes her fingers in his.
‘Maybe you can call me Gretel on my birthday’ she replies.
Another in the series exploring why people left Ireland and emigrated to far off lands. In Bye Bye Baby we explored the politics, the Segregated Fields of Aran explored the hardship and the famine, and this one, The Harlot from Kelly’s Field, I hope explores a snapshot of a society.
It is too easy to blame one specific group, but like all marginalisations of the vulnerable, society as a whole, quietly allows it to happen.
The Missus doesn’t read what I write, but those of you who read my journal will know she’s under the weather at the moment, so I dedicate it to her. I’m sure she’d be delighted that the story of a ’Harlot" was written in her honour :) She climbs a lot too.
I hope you enjoy it, and thanks for reading it.