The O'Briens

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Authors: Peter Behrens
lived in the Thatcher Hotel, between the woollen mill and the railway station. Her parents never said anything about them, just as they never mentioned the scrawny, unkempt children Iseult saw sitting on stoops along Textile Street. Often enough, walking past those ruthless three-deckers, she had overheard men and women inside, screaming at each other.
    Ferme ta gueule, tu, putain de cochon!
    They had sounded like people losing their minds, and she used to wonder if her father made a practice of hiring crazy people. Or did tending power looms cause people to lose their minds? It was Patrick Dubois, not her parents, who told her of a famous battle between Irish mechanics and foremen and French-Canadian factory hands on the bridge over the falls: one man thrown into the river, another kicked to death in the road. She’d wanted to ask her father what he remembered, but her curiosity would only have annoyed him.
    The spry little river was the reason her great-grand-father had come up to New Hampshire in the 1820 s, and in the early days the mill machinery was geared directly to the speed of the wild stream. Her grandfather had tamed and scheduled the river, first by damming it, then by installing steam turbines. A business doesn’t like wild things.
    At the precinct house on 35 th Street, Iseult and Mother Power prayed decades of the rosary with kneeling policemen, then visited the lock-up. The cells were relatively quiet on Saturday afternoon, awaiting the weekly bacchanal between Times Square and the river, although anything like real silence could not exist in such place, with drunks and morphine addicts snoring and whimpering, someone muttering crazy nonsense, someone else weeping. Iseult helped Mother Power hand prayer beads, missals, and holy pictures between the bars, and the cutting, violent stink of bodies was almost overpowering.
    Iseult knelt beside the nun as she led the inmates in a novena, then stayed close, watching her comfort a German prostitute named Flossie, who had stabbed a man the night before. Clinging to the iron bars, Flossie was pretty in a demolished way. She might have been eighteen or thirty. Her yellow dress was torn at the shoulder, and whatever happened to her, she didn’t want her mother finding out.
    â€œIn Brooklyn my mother lives. I shall write a letter, say I go to Germany, home.”
    All her life Iseult had been handled like a carefully wrapped package. When the nun touched Flossie’s hands, knuckled around the bars, and the girl began sobbing, Iseult, absorbing Flossie’s noise and scent and the plainness of her despair, felt an almost sickening awareness of her own privilege.
    Prostitutes. Raw rivers. Secrets, drunks. Broken glass, bodily violence, dirt, and various forms of hunger. It was curiosity that drew her to the Kitchen, not religious feeling. She had never been able to feel that God was close. Her notion of having found her vocation had been a delusion, a conceit, a fantasy.
    Flossie let go the bars and started coughing and wheezing. Mother Power sent the female jailer for a jug of cold water and tried to get Flossie to drink, but it didn’t do much good — cold water never did, in Iseult’s experience. She could still hear the girl coughing as they left the precinct house.
    She would never be a nun like Mother Power, but she would try seeing herself in others, others in herself. She went to the Kitchen with Mother Power every Saturday for the rest of the term. Mother Superior must have known but for some reason never again tried to stop her from going. Mother Superior made fun of Mother Power behind her back but, like everyone else, she was also scared of her.
    The first Saturday in June was graduation day at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Iseult and her classmates, all in white and carrying nosegays, entered the chapel where their parents were already seated. Cardinal Farley celebrated the High Mass and afterwards there was a strawberry tea.

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