Sipping watery coffee, Astrid stood beside her second floor kitchen window. Next to her head, the old electric wall clock ground ever on.
Off in the woods the yellow leaves of birch and poplar had grown weary of the year and were falling. Only elms were visible from her window. Their saw-toothed leaves were a tired dirty green which would soon turn a tired dirty yellow and drop to the ground. Astrid kept to the side of the window, where she could not be seen, she hoped, through the worn gauzy curtains that came with the apartment. It was 1:15, September 24, 1947. A Wednesday.
Little Annie was at school. Resilient, social, little Annie was thriving in first grade. Annie even loved her stern but skilled veteran teacher. Resiliency and sociability she inherited from her father. In the bedroom he shared with his mother, little Arnold was napping, lost, she hoped, in three-year-old dreams and not in nightmares. He had no nightmares. It was Astrid’s own nightmares that made her worry for her son, as if he could catch nightmares by sleeping close to her. She supposed one day that when little Arnold went off to school he would become Arnie. Astrid would accept the name but would not like it.
Astrid was watching and waiting. She was watching her laundry hanging in the backyard below her. She was waiting for a train, hoping it would not come, but if it did, she was ready. Trains came at the whim of the railroad, a railroad designed for only one purpose, to haul iron ore from the Vermilion and Mesabi Iron Ranges to the shipping port to which Astrid had moved, or been moved, a year ago. Most days a train rumbled into town between mid-morning and late afternoon. Many came at night. Sometimes, Astrid suspected, night trains triggered her nightmares, the steel-on-steel rumble of the heavy train wheels evoking the dreaded sound in her nightmares. No train had come today. Perhaps none would. Trains left town on a different track two miles to the west.
Wednesday had recently become Astrid’s laundry day. She did not intend to be an iconoclast who shattered the rigid Monday-Is-Washday rule of the era, when laundry required a morning of labor. Mondays were the second worst day of Astrid’s week. Sundays, because she had not been to Confession or worship for three years, were her worst days. Mondays she spent recovering from Sundays. Every woman on the alley, including her landlady Mildred in the apartment below, did laundry on Monday. Mildred, being a childless widow, had ample room on her lines to share with Astrid.
Monday washdays, were a social day for the women of the alley, including her sister Belinda, who lived diagonally across the alley, but not in the direction in which Astrid could see, for which Astrid was grateful. As the housewives toted out the heavy baskets and hung the damp laundry on Mondays, the women joked and laughed, bragged about their children by complaining about their children, and shared their husbands shortcomings, including their bedroom shortcomings. The women of the alley forgot or did not care that Astrid had no husband of which to complain. Most Monday mornings, with ears ever attuned for the sound of a train, the women gossiped. Being new to town, Astrid knew none of the subjects of their gossip. It was gossip itself, of any kind about anyone, that disturbed Astrid. Until she switched her washday to Wednesday, Monday was her worst night for nightmares. She wondered if the returned soldiers had nightmares as vivid and horrific as hers.
Belinda was left to explain Astrid’s Wednesday washday to the alley women. Glib Belinda no doubt found a good excuse, but the alley women gossiped about it whenever they were free of Pack Leader Belinda.
Astrid and Belinda were the first to be born. Then followed Carlton, Dewey, Eustace, and Fredericka. Their mother was prepared to go all the way to Marianna/Marvin. Their father was not. Their mother Edwina, the fifth of eleven children, made it clear that two traditions were to be continued: to give the children names slightly askew of the social norm and then wheedle approval for such names from the priest. And to alphabetize the children. Edwina died before Arnold was born and named.
Astrid-through-Fredericka were born into a good Catholic family, by which is meant only a compliment. Astrid had once loved the Mass with its choreographed ritual, slow pace, brocade, and high Latin, which she understood. It was a dependable way to worship a dependable God, in whom she had believed with little thought. However, Astrid had not been to church since before her sister helped her move last year. Helped Astrid considered too kind a verb to apply to her sister. Forced was too harsh a verb. Astrid was still searching for a verb somewhere in between, in either English or Latin. Belinda had moved north when her 4F husband, lame from a childhood farming accident, had taken a supervisory job for the railroad early in the war.
Belinda was part of Astrid’s Sunday burden. The verb for Belinda on Sundays was nag. Nagging was a skill Belinda learned at Edwina’s calloused knees. Astrid suspected she herself had also learned the skill, but she was granted only a short time to find out. Joseph and Astrid married on June 13, 1941. A Friday. A date which neither of them took as an omen. To Astrid he was Joseph; to everyone else he was Joe or Joey. She liked the Biblical heft of Joseph, even in their love-making. He enlisted on January 14, 1942. A Tuesday. Annie, short for Annamaria, was born on April 13, 1942. A Sunday. Joseph was killed on July 13, 1942. A Sunday. Not by an enemy bullet but in an accident, the nature of which Astrid was never told.
Astrid jerked back from the window. She had seen a man in black walking down the alley. Before 1944 she found the black garb of priests comforting, as it indicated they were men set apart for God’s sacred purpose. Now their black clothing was threatening and funereal. The Father had been sent before and would be sent again by Belinda. Because the entrance to her apartment was on the first floor, facing the alley, it was easy for Astrid to dodge callers, if she had not been seen at this window. She kept the door locked until shortly before Annie was due home. Mildred had a key to the door. Belinda had cajoled a key from Mildred. Soon, Astrid suspected, her sister would pass her key to Father Raddich. Listening for a train, she ignored his knock at the door downstairs.
The ore trains made a slow five-mile drift down to the rail yards. The fall of land was steeper than the eye could detect. Each of the hundred gondola cars carried many tons of red rock, which would be used for American recovery, as it had been used for two World Wars. When the trains came, the brakes squealed and stank of aggrieved metal. It was the massive Yellowstone mallet steam engines, among the largest ever built, which were the enemy of the housewives. As the engines held back the load, they spewed dark smoke, cinders, and soot across the town and onto the laundry of any inattentive woman. On Mondays the engineers sounded their steam engine as they came into town. Some engineers who had noticed not all washing was done on Mondays, sounded the whistle every day, except Sunday, of course.
With no other option, the town looked to a future free of post-war rationing and shortages, even of common goods such as sugar and coffee. In naivety they expected a return to prewar normalcy, forgetting somehow the prewar era was called the Great Depression. The scattered gaps in the families and in the ranks of railroaders were seldom mentioned. Most of the returning men did not talk of what they had seen and done during the war. Some would take their silence to the grave. Some would speak of the war only when they saw death finally drawing near fifty to sixty years later. Names were already being cast in bronze to be placed in granite next to the now forgotten names of World War I. The granite and bronze would endure longer than interest in the names.
When Arnold stirred, Astrid went to their shared bedroom to quiet him, lest the priest hear. Arnold fussed for a few seconds more and opened his gray-blue eyes. To what color would they turn? She bounced him in her arms walking around the bedroom talking quietly of the pictures on the wall. Her father had run a successful photography studio, successful enough for the birth of a Fredericka but not successful enough for a Marianna/Marvin. His real interest had been in documenting the beauty of the prairie on which they lived. He also captured the feel of the depression and the people who fought a different war to keep their farms, a war also with many casualties. Astrid had hung in this bedroom only images of the open prairie. Black and white, as befitting the Dirty Thirties. She avoided the woods on the north edge of the town. The woods constricted her breathing.
A steam whistle sounded a long plaintive wail, as if the engineer knew she forgot to listen.
Hoping the priest had gone, she rushed Arnold down the stairs. Astrid was grateful for Mildred coming out to open the slanted doors into the basement and to entertain Arnold while Astrid unpinned and folded her damp laundry. Before the soot began to fall, she had all three full baskets in the shared basement laundry, the baskets covered with a sacrificial sheet. In an hour she could hang it again. Perhaps it would dry before the dew came, or she would have to hang it again on Thursday.
She climbed back into the coal-bitten air to find Mildred sitting on her small stoop talking to Arnold, to whom she had given a cookie. She told Astrid, “I baked up a batch of vanilla sugar cookies for Arnold and Annie.” She held out a bowl of cookies, which Astrid did not take.
“Oh, my, no, Mildred,” Astrid said, trying not to use Belinda’s severe tone, “you should not waste your sugar on my children.”
“What else has an old woman got to do with her sugar, anyways?”
Astrid had quit the battle of telling Mildred she was not old. She was no more than forty-five by both Belinda’s and her estimate. In 1947 with the new crop of widows, a widow was by definition old and was expected to age before her time, which Mildred had done. Astrid was not going to let that be true of her. Nor was she expecting a second marriage to save her from early old age.
“Mildred, you should . . .”
Mildred interrupted her. “You hid from the priest again. Don’t deny it. I know you did. As a good Lutheran, I should thank God you did. Have I told you my father was a pastor?”
Instead of saying “many times,” she nodded her head. Astrid’s prairie hometown was almost all Catholic. Astrid was still adjusting to living among so many protestants and finding they were real people, not the cartoon characters portrayed by Father Mueller. Pastors marrying and having children—to that she was still unable to adjust.
Arnold was eating a second cookie, pieces of which dropped to the weathered stoop. When Astrid bent to pick them up, Mildred stopped her. “My two cats’ll gobble that up and lick the boards clean. Now back to Father Radish. You’re hiding and don’t go telling me you’re not.”
“His name is Father Raddich.”
“It ain’t good, young lady, when you hide from a man of the cloth.”
A strange term, Astrid decided, “man of the cloth,” considering how she now disliked his black clothing. “Arnold and I need to get upstairs. I need to set some beans to soak, start some bread, iron Annie’s clothes for tomorrow, and other chores. There’s always enough chores to keep me from worrying about the priest. There’s always more chores.”
Mildred shook her finger up in Astrid’s direction. “Your first chore is your soul, young lady. I might just ask Pastor Olson to come ’round, even though he’s kinda useless, if you’re not going to let Father Radish in. And don’t you go telling Pastor Olson I told you to see a priest. He’ll condemn me to hell right along with you.” She stood and smiled. “There, now, I said it. Got it off my chest, so to speak.” She padded Astrid on both biceps. “My, you’re all skin and bones. How do you get all them chores done? Two peas in a pod, you and me, except you being Catholic. Two old widows all alone.”
Astrid smiled down at her dough-ball landlady. Astrid was tall and wiry, a “dark German” her hometown town called her, until the war started and the word German became verboten. “I know you mean well, Mildred. I suppose one day you and Belinda will sneak Father Raddich into my apartment.”
They both laughed. Mildred forced the bowl of cookies into her hands, a chipped gray bowl with pale blue varicose veins. Astrid did not recognize the honor and trust in being handed the prized bowl, which was one of the few pieces left from her mother’s best china—simple and neutral-colored as befitted the home of a Swedish Lutheran pastor. The bowl had survived seven moves from parsonage to parsonage and one move by Mildred into this house.
Astrid and her son took four Arnold-sized steps from Mildred’s back stoop to her front door. In the kitchen they found Belinda waiting for them. She must have sneaked in while Astrid was in the basement and Mildred was getting the cookies. Belinda sat with the chair facing the door, her thin legs crossed severely at the knees, her arms folded across her breasts like a battlement, and her mouth turned down in a deep frown. No one could frown as deeply as Belinda, when she chose to, which she reserved for Astrid and her own three children. Astrid’s children, especially Arnold, were smiled upon with love and forgiveness.
After Arnold hugged his aunt, Astrid sent him to play in the small sitting room. She folded her arms at her waist, shifted her body weight to her left leg, leaned her back against the closed door, and crossed her right ankle behind her left ankle.
Belinda scanned Astrid from her feet, over her thin body, past the impassive mouth, to land on Astrid’s intense dark eyes. For two or three minutes their eyes locked on each other, not in anger, but in an old contest of wills, neither relenting. Without turning her eyes, Astrid nodded towards the clock on the wall between them. Belinda turned her eyes to look. She shook her head in disgust with herself for giving in. It would be half an hour at least before the children came home from school. She spoke. “I know I’m . . .”
Astrid interrupted. “Yes, you are younger. I’m A; you’re B.”
“Arnold is not baptized.” This jab always stopped Astrid. She knew she had to address the issue soon. To solve the problem she would have to meet the black-garbed priest. Arnold’s Baptism was her heaviest burden of guilt, linked to her doubled grief.
While Belinda waited for one of her sister’s usual defenses to this frequent challenge, cannons and bloody soldiers flashed in her brain like lightening bolts. Astrid also had daymares. She had not seen war; she could imagine it and did at random both day and night. She did not have to imagine hell; in their childhood they had been shown many graphic images of eternal torment.
Belinda was speaking. “. . . believe in God. You have not lost your faith, I can see that. You let us take Annamaria to church with us.”
“My . . . faith is . . . perhaps too strong.”
“What could that mean?”
“Remember when I wanted to join the sisters?”
“Well, we all wanted to be a nun at sometime.”
“It was at the convent in Mankato we visited with the other girls. It was so serene. The sisters had such white faces; they all smiled at us with genuine smiles. All of them. The older ones had faces like paper that glowed from inside.”
“I did not notice. I was waiting for the cake they promised to give us. You keep telling me about them, but you never tell why.”
“Some of them still study Latin.”
“I know you love Latin, which has nothing to do with Arnold’s baptism.”
“Your smile can be brighter than the sisters.”
Despite herself, Belinda gave her broad and glowing smile. She smiled with an inner energy, like from the Holy Ghost, Astrid thought, fearing it was sacrilege to think so.
“Dear sister Astrid, older sister Astrid, I will give you nothing but smiles forever, if you will meet with the priest.”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know; he’s a priest. I suppose fifty-five maybe.”
“What is he like?”
“I don’t know; he’s a priest. But he’s not like Father Mueller, if that’s what you mean.”
“No one is like Father Mueller.”
They both laughed.
“I still have nightmares about him,” Belinda said and hugged herself tightly with her crossed arms. “How scary he made hell sound!”
Astrid was surprised and touched by her sister’s new revelation. She was not yet ready to speak of her own nightmares.
“Smiles for a Baptism,” Belinda proposed. “How can you fudge that deal?”
“Yes, then. Yes, I will meet with him any day but Saturday or Monday. Don’t warn me when he is coming. If I have to think about it, I will fudge the deal.”
“You promise to have the lower door unlocked.”
Hearing it said made it harder to do. She nodded.
They hugged and separated to prepare for the return of their children. Belinda thought it was the smiles that had convinced her sister. Belinda would not have guessed it was the nightmares and the daymares.
Astrid set a large pot of navy beans to soak on a cold burner on the stove. Belinda had given her the bone from last Sunday’s shared ham dinner. She would return the favor by making baked beans to share on Friday at Belinda’s large house, not in her small apartment.
Back outside, she let Arnold play with Mildred’s cats while she brought up the laundry from the basement to rehang it. The sacrificial sheet had a fine dusting of soot on it. It would be dried with the rest of the laundry only to be put in the dirty clothes hamper. A steady drying breeze lifted the laundry, like angels’ wings, Astrid thought. She sat while Arnold ran through the yard, waiting for Annie to run down the alley with her three cousins. Belinda could be a trial, but one benefit was older cousins to walk Annie to and from school.
After they shared milk and Mildred’s cookies at the small round oilcloth-covered kitchen table, Astrid mixed, kneaded, and set bread to rise. She baked late intentionally hoping the smell of fresh bread would reduced the chance of nightmares, being wise enough about the human spirit to know she was hoping her hope would prevent nightmares. Then, too, the children would have fresh bread at breakfast, or she could cut a slice to calm herself if a nightmare came.
After their early dinner of boiled potatoes with ground beef gravy, Annie played with Arnold as their mother brought in the dried laundry. Astrid’s last task before going to bed every night was wiping the invasive soot from the windowsills. The soot dragged at her spirit. As a widow on military death benefits, raising her children and keeping her home were her only roles. Cleanliness, as her mother had taught her, was the barometer of her success with house and child. Astrid raged silently in anger at the soot and at the trains and the railroad, the only anger she allowed herself. “Creepy, Creeping Soot! The soot is a sin, pure and simple. Soot and Dirt! Sin, Sin, Sin!” her inner voice shouted to someone. She spoke to someone, she was unwilling to decide exactly whom. Quidquid was the name she gave her silent listener. Several times every day she raged to quidquid about the soot, Belinda, Mildred, and her other grievances. Her loud silent one-way conversations were her steam valve. Sometimes she thought she would blow her top and whistle like one of the Yellowstone mallet engines.
In the middle of the night something rumbled, either nightmare cannons or a real train. She willed herself onto her back and awoke. It was only an ore train. Despite being relieved it was not the thunder of a battle, she slowly beat on her thighs with clinched fists to the silent chant of “Soot, Dirt, Sin. Soot, Dirt, Sin. Soot, Dirt, Sin.”
Still on her back, she awoke to the alarm, her fists painfully clinched. After little Annie left with her cousins, Astrid left the door unlocked. “I may as well,” she told quidquid. “The soot and sin creep right on in through the cracks.”
Arnold, as always, was quick to fall asleep for his afternoon nap. Her blessings she did not tell quidquid. Today she would allow herself an hour at the kitchen table with a hot cup of water reading the book she had borrowed from the Carnegie Library, a building she admired for its stolid squatness, clearly the depository of the culture’s collected wisdom, wisdom which had not prevented the devastation of the war, which she thought of as a personal war still being fought. She yearned to bring a damp cloth and wipe the soot from the library’s many broad oak sills.
The war had taught her the trick of drinking hot water. Before the war’s rationing, she loved dark coffee with thick cream and sugar. Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays she drank hot water. The other days she drank weak coffee with a little sugar and no cream.
Emerging from her book, in which she had been to Bath, England, she poured a second cup of water still steaming hot on the stove. As she stepped back to the table, the gentle rap on the door startled her. She flinched. Her right hand, still sore from last night, spilled the hot water on her left forearm. She howled her pain, but only to quidquid. Grateful she had not spilled on the book, she pulled a towel from a rack above the sink. She wrapped it around her arm and opened the door, knowing it would be the priest in soot black.
“Are you Mrs. Gottlieb?” he asked, holding his black hat in his thick ghostly white hands.
Grimacing in pain, she only nodded. He mistook the meaning of her expression and did not step over her threshold. She held up the arm and towel and spoke quietly. “Your knock startled me. I spilled hot water on myself.”
He stepped in and flipped his hat on the table. “We must attend to your wound. Let me see it, please.”
His voice was gentle and as quiet as hers. She lifted the towel off her arm.
“It does not look too bad, but then I am not the one feeling the pain, now, am I? Sit, sit, please.”
He took the towel to the sink and made it damp with cold water. He lapped it gently over her arm outstretched on the faded checkered oilcloth. “I presume we have a baby sleeping somewhere in the home?”
She nodded towards a door standing ajar near them.
“Do you have ice?”
“The refrigerator has no freezer, but at least it is electric.”
“We’ll get by. We will use the real analgesic. Where do you keep your lard?”
She nodded to the counter by the stove. As he picked up the can of lard, he lifted the lid on the pot of soaking beans. “Drinking hot water and eating cold beans is a Spartan life.” His tone was light and conversational. He sat opposite her and gently sponged her arm.
“I am soaking the beans to soften them before baking them. Learning to drink hot water was a gift of the war. The taste is flat, but the heat is pleasant as I read.”
“You have to soak beans first? There are so many things I have to learn.” He picked up the book, “Persuasion. An ironic title, when we consider the purpose of my visit, don’t you think?”
She covered her frown with, “It is a Jane Austen book, which I have read before. It takes me away for awhile.”
“To Bath and all its orchestrated social encounters. Miss Austen’s women are such strong passive creatures. Let’s see the wound.”
They both looked down at a large glowing red spot on her arm. “Let’s try some more cold water before the lard.” He took the towel back to the sink for more cold water and brought it back to lay on her arm.
“I was in France with English soldiers who read and discussed Miss Austen’s book. The books took them back home for awhile.”
“You fought in the war?”
“I was a chaplain. But I saw enough of war.”
She waited for him to say how much was was enough. He did not.
“Your husband died in the war.”
“My husband Joseph died somewhere in the South in some kind of accident.”
“But, still, he died as a soldier.”
“A marine. I never put a Gold Star in my window or wore one.”
Gently patting her burn, he waited for her to say more. She studied his square Slavic face. He was not in his fifties.
She asked, “How old are you? I’m sorry. I have no right to ask such a question. It is that you are being so kind.”
“Thirty-seven. Does my age matter?”
“People think you are older, which is good for a priest, to look older and wiser.”
“My time in Europe makes me look older, I think. Sadder for sure. Wiser, I am not sure about.”
“Three years, half of it near the front lines. I have nightmares in which I give Last Rites to endless lines of walking dead soldiers.”
“I have nightmares about battles, even though I have never even seen a movie battle.”
“Let us try the lard, shall we?”
His short thick fingers gently daubed the lard over the burn. “How does that feel?”
“Better,” she lied.
“I see no blisters.” He sat back to study her face. “Your sister tells me you are a Latin whiz.”
“I studied it for six years and loved every moment of it. I studied two years of German, as well. Latin seemed so basic, the root of it all, even though it gets very complicated. Latin was an orderly world having nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Latin is for high, orderly, and clean things.”
“I hated Latin. I was reared in a German-speaking household. The borders of eastern Europe have always been shifty.”
“Would you like some coffee?” She had planned to offer him nothing.
“If you are not gun-shy, let us try some hot water. No, you sit. I will get it.”
When he sat down again facing her over their filled cups, he said, “Gottlieb. ‘God’s love.’ That is the topic I have come to discuss, of course. Since you do not attend Mass, I guess you do not believe yourself loved by God anymore?”
“My first name, Astrid, I always thought was related to Latin for stars. I have learned it is Swedish for divine strength.”
“‘Divine strength’ and ‘God’s love.’ Quite a name to carry. Why do you not come to Mass, Astrid Gottlieb?”
“I have not been to Confession for three years.”
“We could do Confession here, or you could come to church. Let us talk first. Why not Confession or Mass?”
Her expression was pained and not from her burn, which for the moment was forgotten.
“These are the questions we priests must ask. I assumed this would not be easy for you, or you would be at Confession and Mass. Nor would you hide from me. You have been hiding from me?”
“Yes, I have wasted your time. So many people must want your time, and I wasted it . . . I don’t want to be condemned again.”
”Tell me, why should I or God condemn you?”
“In that room,” she nodded at her bedroom door, “is my son Arnold, whom I do not regret.”
“Why should you?”
“Is this Confession?”
“To go to Confession,” she finally said, “I should be . . .”
“I am supposed to say ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.’ If I had said that to Father Mueller . . . well, I could not have said it. I mean, I do commit many sins for which I am contrite.”
A train whistle blew. She looked out the window. “Father, aren’t you tired of soot on your window sills?”
“Do I have soot on my window sills?”
“The trains, those monstrous steam engines spitting out black smoke and soot!”
“I an not the one who cleans my home. I do not see soot anywhere. I have so much to learn.”
“I see soot on everything.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “I belong back on the prairie south of here. But . . . “
Arnold was stirring. “Excuse me Father, I will be right back.” She went into the bedroom and gave the fussing boy a chance to clear the sleep from his eyes. She brought him out three minutes later.
“This is Arnold . . . Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” It was a statement made without condition.
“He does not look like a sin.”
She put him on the floor. “Arnold, you may go play in the sitting room.” But Arnold, afraid of this strange man all in black, clutched to her leg.
The priest told her, “Children are attracted to me. If you sit and talk, he will come to me. I do not want you to stop talking to me.”
She sat. Arnold crawled into her lap and buried his face into her neck. She continued, “Arnold was born January Seventh, 1945. A Sunday. My husband died on July Thirteenth, 1942. A Sunday.” Again, a statement without condition.
He waited for her to speak and Arnold to look at him.
“I do not regret Arnold.”
“After Europe, and also the Pacific, I do not think we should regret any new life.”
“I do not regret the moment he was created. There were, Father, several moments.”
Arnold lifted his head and turned to see if the man in black was looking at him.
“Where is the boy’s father?”
“In Europe . . . he will not be coming home. I read it in the local newspaper. October Sixteenth, 1944. A Monday. His parents do not want to see their grandson. They are afraid the secret will get out. My mother died on March Ninth, 1944. A Thursday. My father and three of my four siblings were ashamed of his birth, but forgave me, which I did not ask for. It is a small town, bigger than this one, but still small. My brother Carlton, when he came home from the Pacific at the end of the war, simply accepted both of us without any words of shame about Arnold and me . . . Arnold’s father had been home recovering from a wound. They sent him back.”
Arnold had turned and was sitting back sucking two fingers facing the man, who looked only at his mother’s face as he waited for her to speak more.
“I would not go to Confession. Father Mueller banned me from Mass. I felt like Hester Prynne. Belinda . . . found this apartment for the three of us.”
“War is . . . I have seen war from very close up. War changes things like time . . .time is different in war. It races. Then it crawls. You dwell on time because your time might be running out. You hold onto memories and worries and fears. You let go of things like memories and worries, but not ever fear. You forget the rules because war has no rules. Was it like that here at home?”
She thought. Arnold was now sitting up straight in her lap still staring at the priest.
“I lost my husband, whom I did not know well enough to nag or complain about or make my friend, as wives do. Time, after that, was a slow blur. I took care of children so their mothers could take jobs not being done by men. It was just chore after chore after chore. I helped take care of my dying mother. It took me a year to give Annamaria the attention I owed her. I feel guilty about that betrayal of my first child. Annie, like Joseph, is resilient. After my mother died, time sped back up. Then by accident it happened. I mean, we met by accident because I seldom went out. We knew each other in school. I was in a park with Annie. I saw a pale and thin man. He smiled at me. He knew who I was. I did not have any idea who he was, now thin as a rail. He did not ‘take advantage of me,’ as my father thinks, and wants it to be. I took advantage of him. Or we both took advantage of the time we had. We would have married if he came home.”
Arnold was standing on the floor.
“Was he named Arnold?”
“No, that would have betrayed the secret. I did not want his name to be shamed with mine. Sort of like the minister in Scarlet Letter. I forget his name.”
“Dimsdale. Arthur, I think, but Dimsdale.”
“Oh, how could I forget that dreadful dark name! And Arthur, with an A! He always wore black, I remember.”
Father Raddich did not make the connection between Arthur Dimsdale’s attire and his own. He was too busy not paying attention to Arnold, who had stepped two paces closer.
“Then why name him Arnold?”
“Astrid, Annie, Arnold. It was not a B name. My mother had died.”
“I do not understand.”
Arnold came to his side and smiled at him. Father Raddich smiled back. Arnold ran to bury his face in Astrid’s lap.
She gave him no more explanation of the name.
“Arnold is not a sin. But . . .” He gave a weary sigh. “But adultery is adultery. It is a sin. One of the heavy-duty sins. Is Arnold’s A-name for Hester’s A?”
“No, I only felt like Hester Prynne after I named him. I think a few of the women in town feared that his father was their husband. But he was not married.”
Arnold stood next to Father Raddich. “I have a choo-choo,” he said with pride.
“Where is it?”
Arnold ran off.
“Belinda’s husband John made the toy for Arnold, which was thoughtful, but why did it have to be a train!”
Arnold came back with his home-made train, in its way a relic of the war. Arnold crawled into the priest’s lap, who smiled at Astrid in triumph. She shook her head in disbelief. “He has never done that before. I don’t think he even sits in John’s lap, and he loves his uncle.”
“I have a way with children, despite being the youngest of seven. They are all still alive, blessings be!”
Arnold played with his train on the oilcloth.
“Father, I have told you the story. Everyone in this town who knows me thinks my husband died before Arnold was born. I mean just before Arnold was born.”
“I do not share secrets, even if not told them in Confession. You have not confessed as you need to because, as you say, you are not yet ready to confess to God and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness is there waiting for you, Astrid. Arnold is not the sin, so why withhold him from Baptism? You believe in God?”
“Yes, I do, but He is a different God, now. Does God change?”
“After my time in Europe, I serve a different God than the one I served before the war. Then I was young and naive. I would have been very judgmental of you. Arnold, I know a song. Shall I sing it?” As he sang Frere Jacques off-key, he bounced the boy on his knee.
After he had sung it three times, Astrid said. “You should have been a father, Father.”
“I have no regrets. I have a church full of children, who are being born left and right, making St. Gerard’s a church full of life, with room for one more child to come be baptized.”
“You are kind. I want him baptized.”
“I know what it is to be alone in war. I can imagine many at home were very lonely. I learned that soldiers are comrades, brothers. But yet, Priests were set apart for God’s use even more there than here.”
She waited, exhausted from the effort of her telling.
“The God I love after Europe is a more compassionate God. But confession and contrition still precede forgiveness. He did not change, of course, but you and I did.”
He sang and bounced Arnold through three more singings of the song.
“Why do I have nightmares about battles? I was not there.”
“I do not know other than we all felt loss and loneliness and fear. You say you feel no guilt. I have nightmares from guilt that I lived when others died. Many soldiers tell me they feel that guilt, too.”
She had no answer.
“But . . . I live. You live. Arnold here lives. Annamaria lives. You live, Astrid. What if we make an appointment for one week from today at 1:00 p.m. You can come for private Confession, if you are ready, or we could talk more. I suspect your sister will be glad to take care of Arnold when you come. And you have to help my get your Yellowstone mallet of a sister off my back.”
They both laughed.
“You are right, Father, I owe you that. Three years worth of sins will take awhile to confess.”
Annie burst through the door, stopped, looked at the priest, and ran to her mother to show her her artwork. Father Raddich watched them as he played trains with Arnold. Annie told about a mean little boy who hit another little boy right in the face and teacher had to put him in a corner and the other little boy cried. And could she have some bread and butter?
Astrid stood to cut bread.
“Father,“ Annie asked, “would you like some bread? You give out bread in church. Would you like some of our bread?”
For several seconds Father Raddich could not breathe. He fought for composure as Annie, full of expectation, looked at him in innocence. He set Arnold down on the floor. “I have other parishioners I need to visit today.”
In her own compassion Astrid asked him, “Please stay. Just to eat one piece of bread and to drink some milk with the three of us.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017