By Cheryl Barghout
Down East Maine 1959
Convent of the Holy Spirit
“Are you there God? It’s me, Elizabeth,” she gasped as shiny trickles of sweat dripped down her brow and between her heavy breasts while she labored. Except for a few short unavoidable shrieks, she kept her distress to a series of panting breaths interspersed with low groans. Warm, humid air inside the bathroom stall added to her discomfort. But the floor, made up of tiny grey and black tiles, felt mercifully cool against her bare skin while she sat with knees drawn up to her chest, back against the wall.
Outside, the rain fell in torrents, transforming the convent grounds into a giant mud puddle as a fierce wind blew in from the sea. Angry waves roared, crashing onto the rocky pier below. Together, they helped drown out the teenager’s cries as she gave birth high up on the fourth floor—alone.
She was secured in one of four toilet stalls along the rear of the bathroom. The metal walls surrounding her were painted pale pink, an unexpected indulgence in the otherwise drab utilitarian space. White porcelain sinks were bolted onto the opposite wall, and two modest shower stalls squeezed into the back corner. A group of three narrow windows faced west towards the rectory, allowing only a modest amount of natural light during the day. But now, blackened with night, they were like grim, malevolent eyes reflecting the girl’s immorality—her sin.
The baby arrived just before three in the morning—the witching hour, according to her superstitious mother.
“No good can come from being up at this hour, Elizabeth, when evil witches and black-eyed demons prowl about peddling their wares,” her mother declared before giving birth to a stillborn son last year. It had been a home birth, as had all the others, during the wee small hours of a frigid January morning. Since she was the eldest and a girl, Elizabeth was expected to help her mother through the difficult process.
“Thank God,” her mother had said when they couldn’t get the limp, mottled infant to take a breath of air. “One less child for your father to whip.” He took turns beating the children with a worn leather belt and his wife with his fists if she tried to intervene.
Last fall, when she had turned seventeen, Elizabeth’s mother and the local parish priest arranged for the convent to take her in. “You’ll be safe there, far away from your father,” said her mother with relief in her voice. After a quick kiss and brief hug, she was packed into the priest’s car with one meager bag of clothes and personal items, and the two-hour journey to the coast commenced. It all happened so fast, she didn’t have time to think. But just like that, her new life had begun.
Lying in the clammy cubicle, Elizabeth whispered a thank you to God her baby had come when it did—witching hour or not—when everyone else was asleep. God was merciful in so many ways, even for sinners like herself. Bless me, father, for I have sinned…
She let the baby nurse before hauling herself up off the hard floor to give the signal. She did as instructed: three quick flicks of the light switch on the bathroom wall, followed by three more but with longer pauses in between—like morse code. Wait five minutes and repeat. Five minutes after that—repeat a third time.
Now she had to work fast. Cleaning the baby as thoroughly as possible, Elizabeth spent a moment marveling at the ten tiny fingers and toes—how exquisite she was—before swaddling her in a simple white sheet. The bloody afterbirth was wrapped tightly in old cleaning rags pilfered from the first-floor storage closet, then placed under the existing trash at the bottom of a covered metal wastebasket. Finally, she washed, put on a clean, nightgown and bulky flannel robe. She was ready.
Despite the fury of the storm, Elizabeth thought she heard a faint mechanical whine. Placing an ear to the bathroom door, she listened carefully before feeling a series of quivering vibrations under her feet—the elevator was in motion! It was a modern convenience that only her superiors were allowed to use, but it made quite a racket as it wheezed and shuddered up and down between the convent floors.
A quick one, two knock on the bathroom door announced his arrival a few minutes later. Elizabeth cracked opened the door, letting out a sigh of relief when she saw his face. Father Francis stood tall and handsome, dressed in a long black cassock, wet hair slicked back off a broad forehead. His warm, musky scent filled her nostrils, creating a flutter in her heart.
“God has tested you, my child, and you have triumphed,” he whispered, reaching up to tuck a strand of silky blonde hair behind her ear. He glanced down at the sleeping bundle held tightly in Elizabeth’s arms and smiled.
“Thank you, Father. Y-y-you will keep her safe like you promised?"
“A baby girl, how wonderful, Sister! She is indeed a beauty like her mother,” he said, stroking the baby’s soft pink cheek with his long, elegant fingers as she slept.
“You assured me you have found her a good home…,” Elizabeth said a bit too loudly.
“Shh, Sister, you needn’t fear. I have everything worked out.”
Elizabeth nodded before kissing the baby’s forehead and handing her to him.
“I have named her Leia, Father. It means Child of Heaven.”
“Ah, a beautiful name. I quite like it. Leia, come to your father,” he said as he took the baby, cradling her gently in his arms, and then, without another word, walked down the hallway toward the elevator, away from Elizabeth.
A single tear slid down her cheek as she stood silently watching him take their daughter away. Father Francis stopped at the door to the dumbwaiter halfway between the bathroom and the alcove that housed the stairway and elevator. Pulling open the small wooden door, he placed the baby inside, laying her on the device’s flat metal surface.
Elizabeth hurried over, heart pounding with fear.
“Father, what are you doing?” she hissed.
“Relax, Sister, we discussed this, remember?”
“I thought you were joking. It isn’t safe for the baby to be in that thing!”
Father Francis gave a low chuckle. “Have faith, dear Sister. Do you think I would do anything to harm our child? It is the only way to get her past your night guard, Sister Agnes. She’ll see me with the baby if I take the stairs or the elevator.”
Sister Agnes was a rotund little nun with insomnia who volunteered as night watchman on the novitiate’s floor without so much as a night off unless she was quite ill. The fact that she was hard of hearing was a blessing to her young charges since it meant they could giggle and tell stories after lights out without a harsh reprimand.
Father Francis, on the other hand, could do no wrong. His arrival at the convent five years earlier caused quite a stir. Unlike their former priests, he was young and witty, quickly charming the nuns, even the grumpy ones, bringing them under his spell. Good looks and powerful sermons elevated him to junior god status despite his nightly prowls around the convent grounds—in search of inspiration and solitude, was his claim which no one challenged.
“I want you to count to twenty, Sister Elizabeth, and then start slowly pulling on the rope inside the dumbwaiter while I ask Sister Agnes about her arthritis. Then I’ll take the elevator to the ground floor and retrieve Leia.”
“You promise, Father?”
“You have no reason to doubt me. I am a man of God—a man of my word.”
After giving Elizabeth a quick kiss, he was off down the hall, the skirts of his robe swirling about him like low black storm clouds. She watched as he pulled open the door to the niche where Sister Agnes sat quietly doing crossword puzzles by the light of a small table lamp.
She counted one, two, three…. twenty before whispering, “Good-bye, my sweetheart. You are my little piece of heaven.” Elizabeth touched her fingers to her lips and then pressed them to the baby’s in a silent kiss of farewell. Mouthing a brief Hail Mary, she pulled the rope. By this time, Leia had awoken. She heard her little whimpers and soft cries echoing down the shaft of the dumbwaiter as it was lowered inch by inch.
The storm had finally subsided, and a gentle rain pitter patted on the clay roof tiles. Hearing the muffled hum of the elevator coming to life, she let out a breath. Father Francis would collect the baby any minute now and before morning’s first light, deposit her safely into the arms of the adoptive parents.
She continued to pull the rope and when it refused to give one more inch, she knew Leia must have reached the bottom. Leaning over into the shaft of the dumbwaiter, Elizabeth could see nothing but blackness. She closed her eyes, listening intently. No more cries or coos from the baby—nothing but eerie silence. Suddenly there was a click and a little whoosh of cool air rushed up against her cheeks followed a moment later by a final tiny click.
She closed the dumbwaiter door and rested the back of her head against it.
There—it was done. The plan had worked. No one except herself and Father Francis would ever know the truth. Thank God!
Elizabeth was flooded with an unexpected wave of panic—I’ll never see Leia again— ever! She needed to get one more glimpse of her child, just one more to sustain her for a lifetime.
She rushed to the other end of the long hallway. Past the small classrooms devoted to the study of scripture, past the tiny chapel that heard her prayers each evening, until she reached the communal bedroom.
Opening the door just enough to squeeze through, Elizabeth saw the familiar line of thirteen cots. In the dim, grey light of early morning, all was silent. Twelve nuns in training tucked in like little maids all in a row. Her bed was empty. I’m no longer one of them, thought Elizabeth sadly.
She crept noiselessly over the wooden floorboards and climbed onto her bed, kneeling on top of the pillow to face the tall casement window behind. Pulling back thin cotton drapes, she looked out, eager to catch a glimpse of Father Francis and their baby heading to the rectory.
The rain had ended, and a half-moon peeked out beneath shadowy clouds, bathing the landscape below in an other-worldly light. There was movement down by the water. A lone figure, highlighted by moonglow, walked on the sand, past the dunes, stomping through the wetness that must feel like quicksand after the storm. Elizabeth could see the long robes of a priest with a tail of flapping white fabric trailing from his arms.
What was he doing down on the beach? Why wasn’t he headed toward the safety of the rectory? He should be driving the baby to her home—that’s what he had promised!
Elizabeth continued to watch, eyes wide with fear, both hands pressed tight over her open mouth. Was that her baby crying or just the wail of the wind? Oh God, she couldn’t be sure. The figure stopped abruptly and turned to face the open sea. In a frenzied battle with the wind, savage waves crested and broke before hurtling toward the shore in an unrelenting pattern of feverish motion.
He started moving again, but instead of continuing the trek parallel to the water, he changed course and headed straight into the treacherous ocean, still clutching the white bundle in his arms.
The clock in the nearby bell tower struck four, chiming in unison with Elizabeth’s shrieks as she watched Father Francis and their baby disappear into the raging Atlantic.