The Wonder By Emma Donoghue: Book Review
This is Emma Donoghue’s next book after her hit novel, Room.
Set in Victorian Ireland, news is spreading of a “manna from heaven” – a pious 11-year-old girl called Anna O’Donnell, who has been starving herself for four months, yet appears to be healthy.
The local priest and her family – farmworkers and devout Catholics – desperately want Anna declared a saint. English nurse Lib Wright is summoned.
Fresh from the bloody battlefields of the Crimean War and the tutelage of Florence Nightingale, Lib is an atheist trained in hard medical facts – and doesn’t believe in miracles.
Donoghue writes a cracking good yarn and, even if you’re a big fan of Room, like I am, and don't think she'll be able to match it, you won't be disappointed.
The Wonder By Emma Donoghue: Book Extract
The journey was no worse than she expected. A train from London to Liverpool; the steam packet overnight to Dublin; a slow Sunday train west to a town called Athlone.
A driver was waiting. “Mrs. Wright?”
Lib had known many Irishmen, soldiers. But that was some years ago, so her ear strained now to make out the driver’s words. He carried her trunk to what he called the jaunting car. An Irish misnomer; nothing jaunty about this bare cart. Lib settled herself on the single bench down the middle, her boots hanging closer to the right-hand wheel than she liked. She put up her steel-frame umbrella against the drizzle. This was better than the stuffy train, at least.
On the other side of the bench, slouching so his back almost touched hers, the driver flicked his whip. “Go on, now!”
The shaggy pony stirred.
The few people on the macadamised road out of Athlone seemed wan, which Lib attributed to the infamous diet of potatoes and little else. Perhaps that was responsible for the driver’s missing teeth too.
He made some remark about the dead.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The dead centre, ma’am.”
Lib waited, braced against the juddering of the cart.
He pointed down. “We’re in the exact middle of the country here.”
Flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat; wasn’t bogland known to harbour disease? The occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over. Nothing that struck Lib as picturesque. Clearly the Irish Midlands were a depression where wet pooled, the little circle in a saucer.
The jaunting car turned off the road onto a narrower gravel way. The pattering on her umbrella’s canvas became a continuous thrum. Windowless cabins; Lib imagined a family with its animals in each, huddling in out of the rain.
At intervals a lane led off towards a jumble of roofs that probably constituted a village. But never the right village, evidently. Lib should have asked the driver how long the journey was likely to take. She didn’t put the question to him now in case the answer was Still a long time yet.
All Matron at the hospital had said was that an experienced nurse was required for two weeks, in a private capacity. The costs of keep and travel to and from Ireland to be furnished, as well as a daily consideration. Lib knew nothing about the O’Donnells except that they had to be a family of means if they were cosmopolitan enough to send all the way to England for a better class of nurse. It occurred to her only now to wonder how they could know that the patient would need her services for no more nor less than a fortnight. Perhaps Lib was a temporary replacement for another nurse.
In any case, she’d be quite well paid for her trouble, and the novelty of the thing held some interest. At the hospital, Lib’s training was resented as much as it was appreciated, and only the more basic of her skills were required: feeding, changing dressings, bed-making.
She resisted the impulse to reach under her cloak and pull out her watch; it wouldn’t make the time go any faster, and the rain might get into the mechanism.
Another roofless cabin now, turned away from the road, its gabled walls accusing the sky. Weeds had had no success at covering up this ruin yet. Lib glimpsed a mess of black through the door-shaped hole; a recent conflagration, then. (But how did anything manage to catch fire in this waterlogged country?) Nobody had taken the trouble to clear away the charred rafters, let alone frame and thatch a new roof. Was it true that the Irish were impervious to improvement?
A woman in a filthy frilled cap was stationed on the verge, a knot of children in the hedge behind her. The rattle of the cart brought them forward with hands cupped high as if to catch the rain. Lib looked away, awkward.
“The hungry season,” muttered the driver.
But this was high summer. How could food be scarce now, of all times?
Her boots were speckled with mud and gravel spat up by the wheel. Several times the jaunting car lurched into a dun puddle deep enough that she had to cling to the bench so as not to be flung out.
More cabins, some with three or four windows. Barns, sheds. A two-storey farmhouse, then another. Two men turned from loading a wagon, and one said something to the other. Lib looked down at herself: Was there something odd about her travelling costume? Perhaps the locals were so shiftless, they’d break off work to goggle at any stranger.
Up ahead, whitewash glared from a building with a pointed roof and a cross on top, which meant a Roman Catholic chapel. Only when the driver reined in did Lib realize that they’d arrived at the village, although by English standards it was no more than a sorry-looking cluster of buildings.
She checked her watch now: almost nine, and the sun hadn’t set yet. The pony dropped its head and chewed a tuft. This appeared to be the sole street.
“You’re to put up at the spirit grocery.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ryan’s.” The driver nodded left to a building with no sign.
This couldn’t be right. Stiff after the journey, Lib let the man hand her down. She shook her umbrella at arm’s length, rolled the waxy canvas, and buttoned it tight. She dried her hand on the inside of her cloak before she stepped into the low-beamed shop.
The reek of burning peat hit her. Apart from the fire smouldering under a massive chimney, only a couple of lamps lit the room, where a girl was nudging a canister into its row on a high shelf.
“Good evening,” said Lib. “I believe I may have been brought to the wrong place.”
“You’ll be the Englishwoman,” said the girl slightly too loudly, as if Lib were deaf. “Would you care to step into the back for a bit of supper?”
Lib held her temper. If there was no proper inn, and if the O’Donnell family couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate the nurse they’d hired, then complaining would be no use.
She went through the door beside the chimney and found herself in a small, windowless room with two tables. One was occupied by a nun whose face was almost invisible behind the starched layers of her headdress. If Lib inched a little, it was because she hadn’t seen the like for years; in England religious sisters didn’t go about in such garb for fear of provoking anti-Romish sentiment. “Good evening,” she said civilly.
The nun answered with a deep bow. Perhaps members of her order were discouraged from speaking to those not of their creed, or vowed to silence, even?
Lib sat at the other table, facing away from the nun, and waited. Her stomach growled — she hoped not loudly enough to be heard. There was a faint clicking that had to be coming from under the woman’s black folds: the famous rosary beads.
When at last the girl brought in the tray, the nun bent her head and whispered; saying grace before the meal. She was in her forties or fifties, Lib guessed, with slightly prominent eyes, and the meaty hands of a peasant.
An odd assortment of dishes: oat bread, cabbage, some kind of fish. “I was rather expecting potatoes,” Lib told the girl.
“’Tis another month you’ll be waiting for them.”
Ah, now Lib understood why this was Ireland’s hungry season— potatoes weren’t harvested until the autumn.
Everything tasted of peat, but she set about clearing her plate. Since Scutari, where the nurses’ rations had been as short as the men’s, Lib had found herself incapable of wasting a bite.
Noise out in the grocery, and then a party of four squeezed into the dining room. “God save all here,” said the first man.
Not knowing the appropriate response, Lib nodded.
“And ye too.” It was the nun who murmured that, making the sign of the cross by touching her forehead, chest, left and right shoulders. Then she left the room — whether because she’d had all she wanted of her meagre portion or to surrender the second table to the newcomers, Lib couldn’t tell.
They were a raucous lot, these farmers and their wives. Had they already been drinking elsewhere all Sunday afternoon? Spirit grocery; now she understood the driver’s phrase. Not a haunted grocery, but one that served liquor.
From their chatter, which touched on some extraordinary wonder they could hardly believe although they’d seen it with their own eyes, Lib decided they must have been to a fair.
“’Tis the other crowd are behind it, I’d say,” said a bearded man. His wife elbowed him, but he persisted. “Waiting on her hand and foot!”
She turned her head.
The stranger in the doorway tapped his waistcoat. “Dr. McBrearty.”
That was the name of the O’Donnells’ physician, Lib remembered. She stood to shake his hand. Straggly white side-whiskers, very little hair above. A shabby jacket, shoulders flecked with dandruff, and a knob-headed walking stick. Seventy, perhaps?
The farmers and their wives were eyeing them with interest.
“Good of you to travel all this way,” the doctor remarked, as if Lib were paying a visit rather than taking up employment. “Was the crossing awful? If you’ve quite finished?” he went on, without giving her a chance to answer.
She followed him out into the shop. The girl, lifting a lamp, beckoned them up the narrow staircase. Next chapter
The bedroom was poky. Lib’s trunk took up much of the floor. Was she expected to have a tête-à-tête with Dr. McBrearty here? Had the premises no other room free, or was the girl too uncouth to arrange things more politely?
“Very good, Maggie,” he told the girl. “How’s your father’s cough?”
“Now, Mrs. Wright,” he said as soon as the girl was gone, and he gestured for her to take the single rush chair.
Lib would have given a great deal for ten minutes alone first to use the chamber pot and the washstand. The Irish were notorious for neglecting the niceties.
The doctor leaned on his cane. “You’re of what age, if I may ask?”
So she had to submit to an interview on the spot, although she’d been given to understand that the job was already hers. “Not yet thirty, Doctor.”
“A widow, yes? You took up nursing when you found yourself, ah, thrown on your own resources?”
Was McBrearty checking Matron’s account of her? She nodded. “Less than a year after I was married.”
She’d happened on an article about the thousands of soldiers suffering from gunshot wounds or cholera, and no one to tend them. The Times had announced that seven thousand pounds had been raised to send a party of Englishwomen to the Crimea as nurses. That, Lib had thought, with dread but also a sense of daring, I believe I could do that. She’d lost so much already, she was reckless.
All she told the doctor now was “I was twenty-five.”
“A Nightingale!” he marvelled.
Ah, so Matron had told him that much. Lib was always shy of introducing the great lady’s name into conversation and loathed the whimsical title that had come to be attached to all those Miss N. had trained, as if they were dolls cast in her heroic mould. “Yes, I had the honour of serving under her at Scutari.”
It seemed perverse to answer no, arrogant to say yes. It struck Lib now that the name of Nightingale was why the O’Donnell family had taken the trouble to bring a nurse all the way across the Irish Sea. She could tell the old Irishman would like to hear more about her teacher’s beauty, sternness, righteous indignation. “I was a lady nurse,” she said instead.
She’d meant to clarify, but he’d taken her up wrong, and her face heated. Really, though, why feel the least embarrassment? Miss N. always reminded them that the fact of being paid didn’t lessen their altruism. “No, I mean that I was one of the educated nursing sisters rather than the ordinary nurses. My father was a gentleman,” she added, a little foolishly. Not a wealthy one, but still.
“Ah, very good. How long have you been at the hospital?”
“Three years come September.” Remarkable in itself, as most of the nurses stayed no more than a matter of months; irresponsible scrubbers, Mrs. Gamps in the old mould, whining for their rations of porter. Not that Lib was particularly appreciated there. She’d heard Matron describe veterans of Miss N.’s Crimean campaign as uppish. “After Scutari I worked in several families,” she added, “and saw my own parents through their final illnesses.”
“Have you ever nursed a child, Mrs. Wright?”
Lib was thrown, but only for a moment. “I would expect the principles to be the same. Is my patient a child?”
“Mm, Anna O’Donnell.”
“I’ve not been told her complaint.”
Something fatal, then, Lib deduced. But slow enough that it hadn’t killed the child yet. Consumption, most likely, in this wet climate.
“She’s not exactly ill. Your only duty will be to watch her.”
A curious verb. That awful nurse in Jane Eyre, charged with keeping the lunatic hidden away in the attic. “I’ve been brought here to...stand guard?”
“No, no, simply to observe.”
But observation was only the first piece of the puzzle. Miss N. had taught her nurses to watch carefully in order to understand what the ill required and provide it. Not medicine—that was the doctors’ domain—but the things she argued were equally crucial to recovery: light, air, warmth, cleanliness, rest, comfort, nourishment, and conversation. “If I understand you—”
“I doubt you do yet, and the fault’s mine.” McBrearty leaned on the edge of the washstand as if his strength were failing.
Lib would have liked to offer the old man the chair if she could have done it without insult.
“I don’t want to prejudice you in any way,” he went on, “but what I may say is that it’s a most unusual case. Anna O’Donnell claims — or, rather, her parents claim — that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday.”
Lib frowned. “She must be ill, then.”
“Not with any known disease. Known to me, that is,” said McBrearty, correcting himself. “She simply doesn’t eat.”
“You mean, no solids?” Lib had heard of that affectation of refined modern misses, to live off boiled arrowroot or beef tea for days on end.
“No sustenance of any kind,” the doctor corrected her. “She can’t take a thing but clear water.”
Can’t means won’t, as the nursery saying went. Unless . . . “Has the poor child some gastric obstruction?”
“None that I’ve been able to find.”
Lib was at a loss. “Severe nausea?” She’d known pregnant women too sick to stomach food.
The doctor shook his head.
“Is she melancholic?”
“I wouldn’t say that. A quiet, pious girl.”
Ah, so this was a religious enthusiasm, perhaps, not a medical matter at all. “Roman Catholic?”
The flick of his hand seemed to say What else?
She supposed they were virtually all Catholics, this far from Dublin. The doctor might well be one himself. “I’m sure you’ve impressed on her the dangers of fasting,” said Lib.
“I have, of course. So did her parents, at the start. But Anna’s immoveable.”
Had Lib been dragged across the sea for this, a child’s whim? The O’Donnells must have panicked the first day their daughter turned up her nose at her breakfast and shot off a telegram to London demanding not just any nurse, but one of the new, irreproachable kind: Send a Nightingale!
“How long has it been since her birthday?” she asked.
McBrearty plucked at his whiskers. “April, this was. Four months ago today!”
Lib would have laughed aloud if it weren’t for her training. “Doctor, the child would be dead by now.” She waited for some sign that they agreed on the absurdity: a knowing wink, a tap of the nose.
He only nodded. “It’s a great mystery.”
That wasn’t the word Lib would have chosen. “Is she . . . bedridden, at least?”
He shook his head. “Anna walks around like any other girl.”
“She’s always been a mite of a thing, but no, she seems hardly to have altered since April.”
He spoke sincerely, but this was ludicrous. Were they half blind, his rheumy eyes?
“And she’s in full possession of all her faculties,” added McBrearty. “In fact, the vital force burns so strong in Anna that the O’Donnells have become convinced she can live without food.”
“Incredible.” The word came out too caustic.
“I’m not surprised you’re sceptical, Mrs. Wright. I was too.”
Was? “Are you telling me, in all seriousness, that—”
He interrupted, his papery hands shooting up. “The obvious interpretation is that it’s a hoax.”
“Yes,” said Lib in relief.
“But this child...she’s not like other children.”
She waited for more.
“I can tell you nothing, Mrs. Wright. I have only questions. For the past four months I’ve been burning with curiosity, as I’m sure you are now.”
No, what Lib burnt with was a desire to end this interview and get the man out of her room. “Doctor, science tells us that to live without food is impossible.”
“But haven’t most new discoveries in the history of civilization seemed uncanny at first, almost magical?” His voice shook a little with excitement. “From Archimedes to Newton, all the greats have achieved their breakthroughs by examining the evidence of their senses without prejudice. So all I ask is for you to keep an open mind when you meet Anna O’Donnell tomorrow.”
Lib lowered her eyes, mortified for McBrearty. How could a physician let himself be snared in a little girl’s game and fancy himself among the greats as a consequence? “May I ask, is the child under your sole care?” She phrased it politely, but what she meant was, had no better authority been called in?
“She is,” said McBrearty reassuringly. “In fact, it was I who took a notion to work up an account of the case and send it to the Irish Times.”
Lib had never heard of it. “A national paper?”
“Mm, the most lately established one, so I hoped its proprietors might be somewhat less blinded by sectarian prejudice,” he added, wistful. “More open to the new and the extraordinary, wherever it may arise. I thought to share the facts with a broader public, don’t you know, in the hope that someone could explain them.”
“And has anyone done so?”
A stifled sigh. “There’ve been several fervent letters proclaiming Anna’s case to be an out-and-out miracle. Also a few intriguing suggestions that she might be drawing on some as-yet-undiscovered nutritive qualities of, say, magnetism, or scent.”
Scent? Lib sucked in her cheeks so as not to smile.
“One bold correspondent proposed that she might be converting sunlight into energy, as vegetation does. Or living on air, even, as certain plants do,” he added, his wrinkled face brightening. “Remember that crew of shipwrecked sailors said to have subsisted for several months on tobacco?”
Lib looked down so he wouldn’t read the scorn in her eyes.
McBrearty found his thread again. “But the vast majority of the replies have consisted of personal abuse.”
“Of the child?”
“The child, the family, and myself. Comments not just in the Irish Times but in various British publications that seem to have taken up the case for the sole purpose of satire.”
Lib saw it now. She’d travelled a long way to hire herself out as a nursemaid-cum-gaoler, all because of a provincial doctor’s injured pride. Why hadn’t she pressed Matron for more details before she accepted the job?
“Most correspondents presume that the O’Donnells are cheats, conspiring to feed their daughter secretly and make fools of the world.” McBrearty’s voice was shrill. “The name of our village has become a byword for credulous backwardness. Several of the important men hereabouts feel that the honour of the county— possibly of the whole Irish nation—is at stake.”
Had the doctor’s gullibility spread like a fever among these important men?
“So a committee’s been formed and a decision taken to mount a watch.”
Ah, then it wasn’t the O’Donnells who’d sent for Lib at all. “With a view to proving that the child subsists by some extraordinary means?” She tried to keep even a hint of the sardonic out of her voice.
“No, no,” McBrearty assured her, “simply to bring the truth to light, whatever the truth may be. Two scrupulous attendants will stay by Anna turn and turnabout, night and day, for a fortnight.”
So it wasn’t Lib’s experience of surgical or infectious cases that was called for here, only the rigour of her training. Clearly the committee hoped, by importing one of the scrupulous new breed of nurses, to give some credence to the O’Donnells’ mad story. To make this primitive backwater a wonder to the world. Anger throbbed in Lib’s jaw.
Fellow feeling, too, for the other woman lured into this morass. “The second nurse, I don’t suppose I know her?”
The doctor frowned. “Didn’t you make Sister Michael’s acquaintance at supper?”
The almost speechless nun; Lib should have guessed. Strange how they took the names of male saints, as if giving up womanhood itself. But why hadn’t the nun introduced herself properly? Was that what that deep bow had been supposed to signify — that she and the Englishwoman were in this mess together? “Was she trained in the Crimea too?”
“No, no, I’ve just had her sent up from the House of Mercy in Tullamore,” said McBrearty.
One of the walking nuns. Lib had served alongside others of that order in Scutari. They were reliable workers, at least, she told herself.
“The parents requested that at least one of you be of their own, ah...”
So the O’Donnells had asked for a Roman Catholic. “Denomination.”
“And nationality,” he added, as if to soften it.
“I’m quite aware that there’s no love for the English in this country,” said Lib, summoning a tight smile.
McBrearty demurred: “You put it too strongly.”
What about the faces that had turned towards the jaunting car as Lib was driven down the village street? But those men had spoken about her because she was expected, she realized now. She wasn’t just any Englishwoman; she was the one being shipped in to watch over their squire’s pet.
“Sister Michael will provide a certain sense of familiarity for the child, that’s all,” said McBrearty.
The very idea that familiarity was a necessary or even helpful qualification for a watcher! But for the other nurse, he’d picked one of Miss N.’s own famous brigade, she thought, to make this watch look sufficiently scrupulous, especially in the eyes of the British press.
Lib thought of saying, in a very cool voice, Doctor, I see that I’ve been brought here in hopes that my association with a very great lady might cast a veneer of respectability over an outrageous fraud. I’ll have no part in it. If she set off in the morning, she could be back at the hospital in two days.
The prospect filled her with gloom. She imagined herself trying to explain that the Irish job had proved objectionable on moral grounds. How Matron would snort.
So Lib suppressed her feelings, for now, and concentrated on the practicalities. Simply to observe, McBrearty had said. “If at any point our charge were to express the slightest wish, even in veiled terms, for something to eat —” she began.
“Then bring it to her.” The doctor sounded shocked. “We’re not in the business of starving children.”
She nodded. “We nurses are to report to you, then, in two weeks?”
He shook his head. “As Anna’s physician—and having been dragged into this unpleasantness in the papers — I could be considered an interested party. So it’s to the assembled committee that you’re to testify on oath.”
Lib looked forward to it.
“Yourself and Sister Michael separately,” he added, holding up one knobby finger, “without any conferring. We wish to hear to what view each of you comes, quite independently of the other.”
“Very good. May I ask, why is this watch not being conducted in the local hospital?” Unless there was none in this all too dead centre of the island.
“Oh, the O’Donnells balked at the very idea of their little one being taken off to the county infirmary.”
That clinched it for Lib; the squire and his lady wanted to keep their daughter at home so they could carry on slipping food to her. It wouldn’t take two weeks of supervision to catch them out.
She chose her words tactfully because the doctor was clearly fond of the young faker. “If, before the fortnight’s up, I were to find evidence indicating that Anna has taken nourishment covertly— should I make my report to the committee straightaway?”
His whiskery cheeks crumpled. “I suppose, in that case, it would be a waste of everyone’s time and money to carry on any longer.”
Lib could be on the ship back to England in a matter of days, then, but with this eccentric episode closed to her satisfaction.
What’s more, if newspapers across the kingdom were to give Nurse Elizabeth Wright the credit for exposing the hoax, the whole staff of the hospital would have to sit up and take notice. Who’d call her uppish then? Perhaps better things might come of it; a position more suited to Lib’s talents, more interesting. A less narrow life.
Her hand shot up to cover a sudden yawn.
“I’d better leave you now,” said McBrearty. “It must be almost ten.”
Lib pulled the chain at her waist and turned her watch up. “I make it ten eighteen.”
“Ah, we’re twenty-five minutes behind here. You’re still on English time.” Next chapter
Lib slept well, considering.
The sun came up just before six. By then she was in her uniform from the hospital: grey tweed dress, worsted jacket, white cap. (At least it fit. One of the many indignities of Scutari had been the standard-issue costume; short nurses had waded around in theirs, whereas Lib had looked like some pauper grown out of her sleeves.)
She breakfasted alone in the room behind the grocery. The eggs were fresh, yolks sun yellow.
Ryan’s girl—Mary? Meg?—wore the same stained apron as the evening before. When she came back to clear away, she said Mr. Thaddeus was waiting. She was out of the room again before Lib could tell her she knew no one by that name.
Lib stepped into the shop. “You wished to speak to me?” she asked the man standing there. She wasn’t quite sure whether to add sir.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wright, I hope you slept well.” This Mr. Thaddeus was more well-spoken than she’d have expected from his faded coat. A pink, not quite youthful snub-nosed face; a shock of black hair sprang out as he lifted his hat. “I’m to bring you over to the O’Donnells’ now, if you’re ready.”
But he must have heard the query in her voice, because he added, “The good doctor thought maybe a trusted friend of the family should make the introductions.”
Lib was confused. “I had the impression Dr. McBrearty was such a friend.”
“That he is,” said Mr. Thaddeus, “but I suppose the O’Donnells repose a special confidence in their priest.”
A priest? This man was in mufti. “I beg your pardon. Should it be Father Thaddeus?”
A shrug. “Well, that’s the new style, but we don’t bother our heads much about it in these parts.”
It was hard to imagine this amiable fellow as the confessor of the village, the holder of secrets. “You don’t wear a clerical collar, or —” Lib gestured at his chest, not knowing the name of the buttoned black robe.
“I’ve all the gear in my trunk for holy days, of course,” said Mr. Thaddeus with a smile.
The girl hurried back in, wiping her hands. “There’s your tobacco now,” she told him, twisting the ends of a paper package and sliding it over the counter.
“Bless you, Maggie, and a box of matches too. Right, so, Sister?”
He was looking past Lib. She spun around and found the nun hovering; when had she crept in?
Sister Michael nodded at the priest and then at Lib with a twitch of the lips that could have been meant for a smile. Crippled by shyness, Lib supposed.
Why couldn’t McBrearty have sent for two Nightingales while he was at it? It occurred to Lib now that perhaps none of the fifty-odd others—lay or religious—had been available at such short notice. Was Lib the only Crimean nurse who’d failed to find her niche half a decade on? The only one sufficiently at loose ends to take the poisoned bait of this job?
The three of them turned left down the street through a watery sunlight. Ill at ease between the priest and the nun, Lib gripped her leather bag.
Buildings turned different ways, giving one another the cold shoulder. An old woman in a window at a table stacked with baskets—a huckster peddling produce of some sort out of her front room? There was none of the Monday-morning bustle Lib would have expected in England. They passed one man laden with a sack who exchanged blessings with Mr. Thaddeus and Sister Michael.
“Mrs. Wright worked with Miss Nightingale,” the priest remarked in the nun’s direction.
“So I heard.” After a moment Sister Michael said to Lib, “You must have a power of experience with surgical cases.”
Lib nodded as modestly as she could. “We also dealt with a great deal of cholera, dysentery, malaria. Frostbite in the winter, of course.” In fact the English nurses had spent much of their time stuffing mattresses, stirring gruel, and standing at washtubs, but Lib didn’t want the nun to mistake her for an ignorant menial. That was what nobody understood: saving lives often came down to getting a latrine pipe unplugged.
No sign of a market square or green, as any English village would have possessed. The garish white chapel was the only new-looking building. Mr. Thaddeus cut right just before it, taking a muddy lane that led around a graveyard. The mossy, skewed tombstones seemed to have been planted not in rows but at random. “Is the O’Donnells’ house outside the village?” Lib asked, curious as to why the family hadn’t been courteous enough to send a driver, let alone put the nurses up themselves.
“A little way,” said the nun in her whispery voice.
“Malachy keeps shorthorns,” added the priest.
There was more power to this weak sun than Lib would have thought; she was perspiring under her cloak. “How many children have they at home?”
“Just the girl now, since Pat’s gone over, God bless him,” said Mr. Thaddeus.
Gone where? America seemed most likely to Lib, or Britain, or the Colonies. Ireland, an improvident mother, seemed to ship half her skinny brood abroad. Two children only for the O’Donnells, then; that seemed a paltry total to Lib.
They passed a shabby cabin with a smoking chimney. A path slanted off the lane towards another cottage. Lib’s eyes scanned the bogland ahead for any sign of the O’Donnells’ estate. Was she allowed to ask the priest for more than plain facts? Each of the nurses had been hired to form her own impressions. But then it struck Lib that this walk might be the only chance she’d get to talk to this trusted friend of the family. “Mr. Thaddeus, if I may — can you attest to the honesty of the O’Donnells?”
A moment went by. “Sure I’ve no reason to doubt it.”
Lib had never had a conversation with a Roman Catholic priest before and couldn’t read this one’s politic tone.
The nun’s eyes stayed on the green horizon.
“Malachy’s a man of few words,” Mr. Thaddeus went on. “A teetotaler.”
That surprised Lib.
“Not a drop since he took the Pledge, before the children were born. His wife’s a leading light of the parish, very active in the Sodality of Our Lady.”
These details meant little to Lib, but she got the drift. “And Anna O’Donnell?”
“A wonderful little girl.”
In what sense? Virtuous? Or exceptional? Clearly the chit had them all charmed. Lib looked hard at the priest’s curved profile. “Have you ever advised her to refuse nourishment, perhaps as some sort of spiritual exercise?”
His hands spread in protest. “Mrs. Wright. I don’t think you’re of our faith?”
Picking her words, Lib said, “I was baptized in the Church of England.”
The nun seemed to be watching a passing crow. Avoiding contamination by staying out of the conversation?
“Well,” said Mr. Thaddeus, “let me assure you that Catholics are required to do without food for only a matter of hours, for instance from midnight to the taking of Holy Communion the following morning. We also abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Lent. Moderate fasting mortifies the cravings of the body, you see,” he added as easily as if he were speaking of the weather.
“Meaning the appetite for food?”
Lib moved her eyes to the muddy ground in front of her boots.
“We also express sorrow over the agonies of Our Lord by sharing them even a little,” he continued, “so fasting can be a useful penance.”
“Meaning that if one punishes oneself, one’s sins will be forgiven?” asked Lib.
“Or those of others,” said the nun under her breath.
“Just as Sister says,” the priest answered, “if we offer up our suffering in a generous spirit to be set to another’s account.”
Lib pictured a gigantic ledger filled with inky debits and credits.
“But the key is, fasting is never to be carried to an extreme or to the point of harming the health.”
Hard to spear this slippery fish. “Then why do you think Anna O’Donnell has gone against the rules of her own church?”
The priest’s broad shoulders heaved into a shrug. “Many’s the time I’ve reasoned with her over the past months, pleaded with her to take a bite of something. But she’s deaf to all persuasion.”
What was it about this spoiled miss that she’d managed to enrol all the grown-ups around her in this charade?
“Here we are,” murmured Sister Michael, gesturing towards the end of a faint track.
This couldn’t be their destination, surely? The cabin was in need of a fresh coat of whitewash; pitched thatch brooded over three small squares of glass. At the far end, a cow byre stooped under the same roof.
Lib saw all at once the foolishness of her assumptions. If the committee had hired the nurses, then Malachy O’Donnell was not necessarily prosperous. It seemed that all that marked the family out from the other peasants scratching a living around here was their claim that their little girl could live on air.
She stared at the O’Donnells’ low roofline. If Dr. McBrearty hadn’t been so rash as to write to the Irish Times, she saw now, word would never have spread beyond these sodden fields. How many important friends of his were investing their hard cash, as well as their names, in this bizarre enterprise? Were they betting that after the fortnight, both nurses would obediently swear to the miracle and make this puny hamlet a marvel of Christendom? Did they think to buy the endorsement, the combined reputability, of a Sister of Mercy and a Nightingale?
The three walked up the path—right past a dung heap, Lib noticed with a quiver of disapproval. The thick walls of the cabin sloped outwards to the ground. A broken pane in the nearest window was stopped up with a rag. There was a half-door, gaping at the top like a horse’s stall. Mr. Thaddeus pushed the bottom open with a dull scrape and gestured for Lib to go first. Next chapter
She stepped into darkness. A woman cried out in a language Lib didn’t know.
Her eyes started to adjust. A floor of beaten earth under her boots. Two females in the frilled caps that Irishwomen always seemed to wear were clearing away a drying rack that stood before the fire. After piling the clothes into the younger, slighter woman’s arms, the elder ran forward to shake hands with the priest.
He answered her in the same tongue—Gaelic, it had to be— then moved into English. “Rosaleen O’Donnell, I know you met Sister Michael yesterday.”
“Sister, good morning to you.” The woman squeezed the nun’s hands.
“And this is Mrs. Wright, one of the famous nurses from the Crimea.”
“My!” Mrs. O’Donnell had broad, bony shoulders, stone-grey eyes, and a smile holed with dark. “Heaven bless you for coming such a distance, ma’am.”
Could she really be ignorant enough to think that war still raged in that peninsula and that Lib had just arrived, bloody from the battlefront?
“’Tis in the good room I’d have ye this minute”—Rosaleen O’Donnell nodded towards a door to the right of the fire—“if it wasn’t for the visitors.”
Now Lib was listening, she could make out the faint sound of singing.
“We’re grand here,” Mr. Thaddeus assured her.
“Let ye sit down till we have a cup of tea, at least,” Mrs. O’Donnell insisted. “The chairs are all within, so I’ve nothing but creepies for you. Mister’s off digging turf for Séamus O’Lalor.”
Creepies had to mean the log stools the woman was shoving practically into the ames for her guests. Lib chose one and tried to inch it farther away from the hearth. But the mother looked offended; clearly, right by the fire was the position of honour. So Lib sat, putting down her bag on the cooler side so her ointments wouldn’t melt into puddles.
Rosaleen O’Donnell crossed herself as she sat down and so did the priest and the nun. Lib thought of following suit. But no, it would be ridiculous to start aping the locals.
The singing from the so-called good room seemed to swell. The replace opened into both parts of the cabin, Lib realized, so sounds leaked through.
While the maid winched the hissing kettle off the fire, Mrs. O’Donnell and the priest chatted about yesterday’s drop of rain and how unusually warm the summer was proving on the whole. The nun listened and occasionally murmured assent. Not a word about the daughter.
Lib’s uniform was sticking to her sides. For an observant nurse, she reminded herself, time need never be wasted. She noted a plain table, pushed against the windowless back wall. A painted dresser, the lower section barred, like a cage. Some tiny doors set into the walls; recessed cupboards? A curtain of old our sacks nailed up. All rather primitive, but neat, at least; not quite squalid. The blackened chimney hood was woven of wattle. There was a square hollow on either side of the fire, and what Lib guessed was a salt box nailed high up. A shelf over the fire held a pair of brass candlesticks, a crucifix, and what looked like a small daguerreotype behind glass in a black lacquer case.
“And how’s Anna today?” Mr. Thaddeus finally asked when they were all sipping the strong tea, the maid included.
“Well enough in herself, thanks be to God.” Mrs. O’Donnell cast another anxious glance towards the good room.
Was the girl in there singing hymns with these visitors?
“Perhaps you could tell the nurses her history,” suggested Mr. Thaddeus.
The woman looked blank. “Sure what history has a child?”
Lib met Sister Michael’s eyes and took the lead. “Until this year, Mrs. O’Donnell, how would you have described your daughter’s health?”
A blink. “Well, she’s always been a delicate flower, but not a sniveller or tetchy. If ever she had a scrape or a stye, she’d make it a little offering to heaven.”
“What about her appetite?” asked Lib.
“Ah, she’s never been greedy or clamoured for treats. Good as gold.”
“And her spirits?” asked the nun.
“No cause for complaint,” said Mrs. O’Donnell.
These ambiguous answers didn’t satisfy Lib. “Does Anna go to school?”
“Oh, Mr. O’Flaherty only doted on her.”
“Didn’t she win the medal, sure?” The maid pointed at the mantel so suddenly that the tea sloshed in her cup.
“That’s right, Kitty,” said the mother, nodding like a pecking hen.
Lib looked for a medal and found it, a small bronzed disc in a presentation case beside the photograph.
“But after she caught the whooping cough when it came through the school last year,” Mrs. O’Donnell went on, “we thought to keep our little colleen home, considering the dirt up there and the windows that do be always getting broken and letting draughts in.”
Colleen; that was what the Irish seemed to call every young female.
“Doesn’t she study just as hard at home anyway, with all her books around her? The nest is enough for the wren, as they say.”
Lib didn’t know that maxim. She pushed on, because it had occurred to her that Anna’s preposterous lie might be rooted in truth. “Since her illness, has she suffered from disturbances of the stomach?” She wondered if violent coughing might have ruptured the child internally.
But Mrs. O’Donnell shook her head with a fixed smile.
“Vomiting, blockages, loose stools?”
“No more than once in a while in the ordinary course of growing.”
“So until she turned eleven,” Lib asked, “you’d have described your daughter as delicate, nothing more?”
The woman’s flaking lips pressed together. “The seventh of April, four months ago yesterday. Overnight, Anna wouldn’t take bite nor sup, nothing but God’s own water.”
Lib felt a surge of dislike. If this were actually true, what kind of mother would report it with such excitement?
But of course it wasn’t true, she reminded herself. Either Rosaleen O’Donnell had had a hand in the hoax or the daughter had managed to pull the wool over the mother’s eyes, but in any case, cynical or gullible, the woman had no reason to feel afraid for her child.
“Before her birthday, had she choked on a morsel? Eaten anything rancid?”
Mrs. O’Donnell bristled. “There does be nothing rancid in this kitchen.”
“Did you plead with her to eat?” asked Lib.
“I might as well have saved my breath.”
“And Anna gave no reason for her refusal?”
The woman leaned a little closer, as if imparting a secret. “No need.”
“She didn’t need to give a reason?” asked Lib.
“She doesn’t need it,” said Rosaleen O’Donnell, her smile revealing her missing teeth.
“Food, you mean?” asked the nun, barely audible.
“Not a crumb. She’s a living marvel.”
This had to be a well-rehearsed performance. Except that the gleam in the woman’s eyes looked remarkably like conviction to Lib. “And you claim that during the last four months, your daughter’s continued in good health?”
Rosaleen O’Donnell straightened her frame, and her sparse eyelashes uttered. “No false claims, no impostures, will be found in this house, Mrs. Wright. ’Tis a humble home, but so was the stable.”
Lib was puzzled, thinking of horses, until she realized what the woman meant: Bethlehem.
“We’re simple people, himself and myself,” said Rosaleen O’Donnell. “We can’t explain it, but our little girl is thriving by special providence of the Almighty. Sure aren’t all things possible to him?” She appealed to the nun.
Sister Michael nodded. Faintly: “He moves in mysterious ways.”
This was why the O’Donnells had asked for a nun, Lib was almost sure of it. And why the doctor had gone along with their request. They were all assuming that a spinster consecrated to Christ would be more likely than most people to believe in miracles. More blinkered by superstition, Lib would call it.
Mr. Thaddeus’s eyes were watchful. “But you and Malachy are willing to let these good nurses sit with Anna for the full fortnight, aren’t you, Rosaleen, so they can testify before the committee?”
Mrs. O’Donnell flung her skinny arms so wide, her plaid shawl almost fell. “Willing and more than willing, so we’ll have our characters vindicated that are as good as any from Cork to Belfast.”
Lib almost laughed. To be as concerned for reputation in this meagre cabin as in any mansion...
“What have we to hide?” the woman went on. “Haven’t we already thrown our doors open to well-wishers from the four corners of the earth?”
Her grandiloquence put Lib’s back up.
“Speaking of which,” said the priest, “I believe your guests may be leaving.”
The singing had ended without Lib noticing. The inner door hung open a crack, shifting in the draught. She walked over and looked through the gap.
The good room was distinguished from the kitchen mostly by its bareness. Apart from a cupboard with a few plates and jugs behind glass and a cluster of rope chairs, there was nothing in it. Half a dozen people were turned towards the corner of the room that Lib couldn’t see, their eyes wide, lit as if they were watching some dazzling display. She strained to catch their murmurs.
“Thank you, miss.”
“A couple of holy cards for your collection.”
“Let me leave you this vial of oil our cousin had blessed by His Holiness in Rome.”
“A few flowers is all, cut in my garden this morning.”
“A thousand thank-yous, and would you ever kiss the baby before we go?” That last woman hurried towards the corner with her bundle.
Lib found it tantalizing not to be able to glimpse the extraordinary wonder — wasn’t that the phrase the farmers had used at the spirit grocery last night? Yes, this must have been what they were raving about: not some two-headed calf but Anna O’Donnell, the living marvel. Evidently hordes were let in every day to grovel at the child’s feet; the vulgarity of it!
There was that one farmer who’d said something malign about the other crowd, how they were waiting on her hand and foot. He must have meant the visitors who were so eager to caress the child. What did they think they were doing, setting a little girl up for a saint because they imagined her to have risen above ordinary human needs? It reminded Lib of parades on the Continent, statues in fancy dress promenaded through the reeking alleys.
Though in fact the visitors’ voices all sounded Irish to Lib; Mrs. O’Donnell had to be exaggerating about the four corners of the earth. The door swung wide now, so Lib stepped back.
The visitors shuffled out. “Missus, for your trouble.” A man in a round hat was offering a coin to Rosaleen O’Donnell.
Aha. The root of all evil. Like those well-heeled tourists who paid a peasant to pose with a half-strung fiddle by the door of his mud cabin. The O’Donnells had to be party to this fraud, Lib decided, and for the most predictable of motives: cash.
But the mother flung her hands behind her back. “Sure hospitality’s no trouble.”
“For the sweet girleen,” said the visitor.
Rosaleen O’Donnell kept shaking her head.
“I insist,” he said.
“Put it in the box for the poor, sir, if you must leave it.” She nodded at an iron safe set on a stool by the door.
Lib rebuked herself for not having spotted that earlier.
The visitors all slipped their tips into its slot on their way out.
Some of those coins sounded heavy to Lib. Clearly the minx was as much of a paying attraction as any carved cross or standing stone. Lib very much doubted that the O’Donnells would pass a penny on to those even less fortunate than themselves.
Waiting for the crowd to clear, Lib found herself close enough to the mantelpiece to study the daguerreotype. Murky-toned and taken before the son had emigrated. Rosaleen O’Donnell, like some imposing totem. The skinny adolescent boy rather incongruously leaning back in her lap. A small girl sitting upright on the father’s. Lib squinted through the glare of the glass. Anna O’Donnell had hair about as dark as Lib’s own, down to the shoulders. Nothing to distinguish her from any other child. Next chapter
“Go on into her room now till I fetch her,” Rosaleen O’Donnell was telling Sister Michael.
Lib stiffened. How was the woman planning to prepare her daughter for their scrutiny?
All at once she couldn’t bear the smoulder of turf. She muttered something about needing a breath of air and stepped out into the farmyard.
Putting her shoulders back, Lib breathed in and smelled dung. If she did stay, it would be to accept the challenge: to expose this pitiful swindle. The cabin couldn’t have more than four rooms; she doubted it would take her more than one night here to catch the girl sneaking food, whether Anna was doing it alone or with help. (Mrs. O’Donnell? Her husband? The slavey, who seemed to be their only servant? Or all of them, of course.) That meant the whole trip would earn Lib just one day’s wage. Of course, a less honest nurse wouldn’t speak up till the fortnight was gone, to be sure of being paid for all fourteen. Whereas Lib’s reward would be seeing it through, making sure sense prevailed over nonsense.
“I’d better be looking in on some others of my flock,” said the pink-cheeked priest behind her. “Sister Michael’s offered to take the first watch, as you must be feeling the effects of your journey.”
“No,” said Lib, “I’m quite ready to begin.” Itching to meet the girl, in fact.
“As you prefer, Mrs. Wright,” said the nun in her whispery voice behind him.
“You’ll come back in eight hours, then, Sister?” asked Mr. Thaddeus.
“Twelve,” Lib corrected him.
“I believe McBrearty proposed shifts of eight hours, as less tiring,” he said.
“Then Sister and I would both be up and down at irregular hours,” Lib pointed out. “In my experience of ward nursing, two shifts are more conducive to sleep than three.”
“But to fulfil the terms of the watch, you’ll be obliged to stay by Anna’s side every single minute of the time,” said Mr. Thaddeus. “Eight hours sounds long enough.”
Just then Lib realized something else: if they worked twelve-hour shifts and she took the first, it would always be Sister Michael on duty during the night, when the girl would have more opportunity to steal food. How could Lib rely on a nun who’d spent most of her life in some provincial convent to be quite as attentive as herself? “Very well, eight hours, then.” Calculating in her head. “We might change over at, say, nine in the evening, five in the morning, one in the afternoon, Sister? Those times would seem rather less disruptive to the household.”
“Until one o’clock, then?” asked the nun.
“Oh, as we’re only beginning now, midmorning, I’m happy to stay with the girl until nine tonight,” Lib told her. A long first day would allow her to set up the room and establish the procedures of the watch to her liking.
Sister Michael nodded and glided away down the path back towards the village. How did nuns learn that distinctive walk? Lib wondered. Perhaps it was just an illusion created by the black robes brushing the grass.
“Good luck, Mrs. Wright,” said Mr. Thaddeus, tipping his hat.
Luck? As if she were off to the races.
Lib gathered her forces and stepped back inside the house, where Mrs. O’Donnell and the maid were lifting what looked like a massive grey gnome onto a hook. Lib’s eyes puzzled it out: an iron crock.
The mother swivelled the pot over the fire and jerked her head towards a half-open door to Lib’s left. “I’ve told Anna all about you.” Told her what, that Mrs. Wright was a spy from across the sea? Coached the brat in the best means of hoodwinking the Englishwoman as she had so many other grown-ups?
The bedroom was an unadorned square. A tiny girl in grey sat on a straight-backed chair between the window and the bed as if listening to some private music. The hair a dark red that hadn’t shown in the photograph. At the creak of the door, she looked up, and a smile split her face.
A humbug, Lib reminded herself.
The girl stood and held out her hand.
Lib shook it. Plump fingers cool to the touch. “How are you feeling today, Anna?”
“Very well, missus,” said the girl in a small, clear voice.
“Nurse,” Lib corrected her, “or Mrs. Wright, or ma’am, if you prefer.” She found she couldn’t think of anything else to say. She reached into her bag for her miniature memorandum book and measuring tape. She began making notes, to impose something of the systematic on this incongruous situation.
Monday, August 8, 1859, 10:07 a.m.
Length of body: 46 inches.
Arm span: 47 inches.
Girth of skull measured above brows: 22 inches.
Head from crown to chin: 8 inches.
Anna O’Donnell was perfectly obliging. Standing very straight in her plain dress and curiously large boots, she held each position for Lib to measure her, as if learning the steps of a foreign dance. Her face could almost have been described as chubby, which put paid to the fasting story right away. Large hazel eyes bulging a little under puffy eyelids. The whites were porcelain, the pupils dilated, although that could be explained by the faintness of the light coming in. (At least the small pane was open to the summer air. At the hospital, no matter what Lib said, Matron clung to the antiquated notion that windows had to be kept closed against noxious effluvia.)
The girl was very pale, but then Irish skin was generally so, especially on redheads, until the weather coarsened it. Now there was an oddity: a very fine, colourless down on the cheeks. And after all, the girl’s lie about not eating didn’t preclude her from having some real disorder. Lib wrote it all down.
Miss N. thought some nurses relied on note-taking too much, laming their powers of recall. However, she never went so far as to forbid an aide-mémoire. Lib didn’t mistrust her own memory, but on this occasion, she’d been hired more as a witness, which called for impeccable case notes.
Something else: Anna’s earlobes and lips had a bluish tint to them, and so did the beds of the fingernails. She was chilly to the touch, as if she’d just come in from walking in a snowstorm. “Do you feel cold?” Lib asked.
Breadth of chest across level of mammae: 10 inches.
Girth of ribs: 24 inches.
The girl’s eyes followed her. “What’s your name?”
“As I mentioned, it’s Mrs. Wright, but you may address me as Nurse.”
“Your Christian name, I mean.”
Lib ignored that bit of cheek and continued writing.
Girth of hips: 25 inches.
Girth of waist: 21 inches.
Girth of middle of arm: 5 inches.
“What are the numbers for?”
“They’re...so we can be sure you’re in good health,” said Lib. An absurd answer, but the question had flustered her. Surely it was a breach of protocol to discuss the nature of her surveillance with its object?
So far, as Lib had expected, the data in her notebook indicated that Anna O’Donnell was a false little baggage. Yes, she was thin in places, shoulder blades like the stubs of missing wings. But not the way a child would be after a month without food, let alone four. Lib knew what starvation looked like; at Scutari, skeletal refugees had been toted in, bones stretching the skin like tent poles under canvas. No, this girl’s belly was rounded, if anything. Fashionable belles tight-laced these days in hopes of a sixteen-inch waist, and Anna’s was five more than that.
What Lib really would have liked to know was the child’s weight, because if it went up even an ounce over the course of the fortnight, that would constitute proof of covert feeding. She took two steps towards the kitchen to fetch a weighing scales before she remembered that she was obliged to keep this child in sight at all times until nine o’clock tonight.
A strange sensation of imprisonment. Lib thought of calling to Mrs. O’Donnell from inside the bedroom, but she didn’t want to come off as high-handed, especially so early in her first shift.
“Beware of spurious imitations,” murmured Anna.
“I beg your pardon?” Lib said.
One round fingertip traced the words stamped into the ribbed leather cover of the memorandum book.
Lib gave the girl a hard look. Spurious imitations, indeed. “The manufacturers are claiming that their velvet paper is unlike any other.”
“What’s velvet paper?”
“It’s been coated to take the mark of a metallic pencil.”
The girl stroked the tiny page.
“Anything written on that will be indelible, like ink,” said Lib. “Do you know what indelible means?”
“A stain that won’t come off.”
“Correct.” Lib took back the memorandum book and tried to think of what other information she needed to extract from the girl. “Are you troubled by any pain, Anna?”
“Maybe the odd time,” Anna admitted.
“Does your pulse pause or skip?”
“Some days it might utter a bit.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Nervous of what?”
Being found out, you swindler. But what Lib said was “Sister Michael and myself, perhaps. Strangers in your home.”
Anna shook her head. “You seem kind. I don’t think you’d do me any harm.”
“Quite right.” But Lib felt uncomfortable, as if she’d promised more than she ought. She wasn’t here to be kind.
The child had her eyes shut now and was whispering. After a moment Lib realized it had to be a prayer. A show of piety, to make this fast of Anna’s more plausible?
The girl finished and looked up, her expression as placid as ever.
“Open your mouth, please,” said Lib.
Mostly milk teeth; one or two large adult ones, and several gaps where a replacement had not yet come through. Like the mouth of a much younger child.
Several carious? Breath a little sour.
Clean tongue, rather red and smooth.
Tonsils slightly enlarged.
No cap covered Anna’s dark auburn hair, parted in the centre and pulled back in a small bun. Lib undid it now and worked her fingers through the strands, dry and frizzy to the touch. She felt the scalp for anything hidden but found nothing except a scaly patch behind one ear. “You may put it up again.”
Anna’s fingers fumbled with the hairpins.
Lib went to help—then held back. She wasn’t here to tend the girl or be her maid. She was being paid just to stare.
Reflexes normal, if a little slow.
Fingernails rather ridged, spotted with white.
Palms and fingers distinctly swollen.
“Step out of your boots for me, please.”
“They were my brother’s,” said Anna as she obeyed.
Feet, ankles, and lower legs very swollen, Lib recorded; no wonder Anna had resorted to the emigrant’s discarded boots. Possibly dropsy, water collecting in the tissues? “How long have your legs been so?”
The girl shrugged.
Where the stockings had been tied below Anna’s knees, the marks stayed concave. The same with the backs of her heels. Lib had seen this kind of swelling in pregnant women and the occasional old soldier. She pushed her finger into the girl’s calf, like a sculptor forming a child out of clay. The pit remained when she removed her finger. “Does that pain you?”
Anna shook her head.
Lib stared at the indented leg. Perhaps it wasn’t too serious, but something was wrong with this child.
She carried on lifting one piece of clothing at a time. Even if Anna was a fraud, there was no need to mortify her. The girl shivered, but not as if embarrassed, only as if it were January rather than August. Few signs of maturity, Lib jotted down; Anna seemed more like eight or nine than eleven. Smallpox vaccination on upper arm. The milk-white skin was dry to the touch, brownish and rough in places. Bruises on the knees, typical in children. But those tiny spots on the girl’s shins, blue-red—Lib had never encountered them before. She noticed that same fine down on the girl’s forearms, back, belly, legs; like a baby monkey. Was this hairiness common among the Irish, by any chance? Lib recalled cartoons in the popular press depicting them as apish pygmies.
She remembered to check the calf again, the left one. It was as at as the other now.
Lib glanced through her notes. A few troubling anomalies, yes, but nothing that lent weight to the O’Donnells’ grandiose claims of a four-month fast.
Now, where could the child be hiding her food? Lib compressed every seam of Anna’s dress and petticoat, feeling for pockets. The clothes had been darned often but well; a decent kind of poverty. She checked each part of the girl’s body that could possibly hold the tiniest store, from the armpits down to the crevices (cracked in places) between the swollen toes. Not a crumb.
Anna made no protest. She was whispering to herself again now, lashes resting on cheeks. Lib couldn’t make out any of the words except for one that came up over and over and sounded like...Dorothy, could it be? Roman Catholics were always begging various intermediaries to take up their petty causes with God. Was there a Saint Dorothy?
“What’s that you’re reciting?” Lib asked when the girl seemed to have finished.
A shake of the head.
“Come now, Anna, aren’t we to be friends?”
Lib regretted her choice of word at once, because the round face lit up. “I’d like that.”
“Then tell me about this prayer I hear you muttering on and off.”
“That one, ’tis...not for talking about,” said Anna.
“Ah. A secret prayer.”
“Private,” she corrected Lib.
Little girls—even honest ones—did love their secrets. Lib remembered her own sister keeping a diary hidden under their mattress. (Not that it stopped Lib reading every anodyne word of it.)
Lib screwed the sections of her stethoscope together. She pressed the flat base to the left side of the child’s chest, between the fifth and sixth rib, and put the other end to her own right ear. Lub-dub, lub-dub; she listened for the minutest variation in the sounds of the heart. Then for a full minute, by the watch that hung at her waist, she counted. Pulse distinct, she wrote, 89 beats per minute. That was within the expected range. Lib moved the stethoscope to different positions on the child’s back. Lungs healthy, 17 respirations per minute, she recorded. No crackles or wheezes; despite her odd symptoms, Anna seemed healthier than half her compatriots.
Sitting down on the chair — Miss N. always began by breaking her trainees of the habit of perching on a patient’s bed—Lib put the device on the child’s belly. She listened for the least gurgle that would betray the presence of food. Tried another spot. Silence. Digestive cavity hard, tympanitic, drumlike, she wrote. She percussed the belly lightly. “How does that feel?”
“Full,” said Anna.
Lib stared. Full, when the belly sounded so empty? Was this defiance? “Uncomfortably full?”
“You may dress yourself now.”
Anna did, slowly and a little awkwardly.
Reports sleeping well at night, seven to nine hours.
Intellectual faculties seem unimpaired.
“Do you miss going to school, child?”
A shake of the head.
The O’Donnells’ pet apparently wasn’t expected to help with the housework, Lib noticed. “Perhaps you prefer to be idle?”
“I read and sew and sing and pray.” The child’s voice undefensive.
Confrontation was beyond Lib’s remit. But she might at least be frank, she decided. Miss N. always recommended it, since nothing preyed on a patient’s health like uncertainty. Lib could do this little faker real good by setting an example of candour, holding up a lamp for the girl to follow out of the wilderness into which she’d strayed. Snapping shut her memorandum book, Lib asked, “Do you know why I’m here?”
“To make sure I don’t eat.”
Of all the skewed ways of putting it… “Not at all, Anna. My job is to find out whether it’s true that you aren’t eating. But I would be most relieved if you’d take your meals as other children — other people—do.”
“Is there anything at all you could fancy? Broth, sago pudding, something sweet?” Lib was only putting a neutral question to the child, she told herself, not pressing food on her in such a way as to influence the outcome of the watch.
“No, thank you.”
“Why not, do you suppose?”
A trace of a smile. “I can’t say, Mrs. — ma’am,” Anna corrected herself.
“Why? Is that private too?”
The girl looked back at her mildly. Sharp as a pin, Lib decided. Anna must have realized that giving any explanation would get her into difficulties. If she claimed that her Maker had ordered her not to eat, she’d be comparing herself to a saint. But if she boasted of living by any particular natural means, then she’d be obliged to prove it to the satisfaction of science. I’m going to crack you like a nut, missy.