All classes have some little lamb / Who loves to go to school
-written on a notecard found in the 1897 scrapbook of Katharine Shearer, Mt. Holyoke student
The year that Bertha Mellish disappeared was the happiest of Agnes’s life, and it continued to be, even though she had loved Bertha—even though Bertha had been the only one like her in the entire infernal college. That year Agnes had enough to eat every day and though it was November their rooms were warm enough that she didn’t wake to a skin of ice on her bowl of washing-water. She did not have to share her bed with anyone. The girls on her hall usually left her alone, as they had left Bertha alone, because they disliked her almost as much as they had disliked Bertha. They thought her pious and boring. They still disliked Bertha, in the midst of their fluttering about her mysterious fate, but their dull antipathy did not bother Agnes. Being alone meant that she could concentrate on her work.
Agnes had a narrow room on the third floor of Porter, a narrow desk, a slim little chair designed for the ministers’ daughters who thronged the college. Bertha had fit these chairs well. Agnes herself was not narrow. She was a wide, spare girl, tall and square-shouldered and square-hipped. She never drew self-portraits, though she was a fine draughtswoman. If she had cared for art the way she cared for anatomy, if she had been willing to look at herself long enough to see the truth of her body, she might have begun by sketching overlapping rectangles like bare fenced pastures on the page. Agnes Sullivan, all enclosure.
That morning she was drawing the cracked pelvis of a beaver. She had found it in the woods near the Upper Pond, where the men had been searching for Bertha. Usually there were only chipmunk bones, or rabbit, or squirrel. She had never drawn a beaver before.
The men were still searching for Bertha. Agnes had wondered, briefly, what else they might find in the ponds. Perhaps there were other girls who had vanished in the college woods, other bones tangled in the roots of the pines along the grassy edges of the water. The bow of the clavicle, the bowl of the pelvis. She had wanted to see. But it was habit now to keep to herself, to appear as unobjectionable as possible. Mute as the white cross hung upon her wall and banal as the cross-stitched hymns beside it. She had been spared freckles and red or black hair; hers was dark brown like soaked wood and lay flatter against her head than was fashionable. She and Bertha simply scraped their damp hair back after a washing, because dowdiness was permissible, even godly. Dowdiness was a shield for them both. Yet still Agnes feared that someone would look at her and know what she was and how she had lied to secure her place here. In three years at the college, no one had.
Bertha had been missing for one full day. Agnes bent closer to her sketch. Her pencil feathered in a shadow on the page: the fissure in the beaver’s bone, where its strength had failed.
While Agnes drew, the Reverend John Hyrcanus Mellish and Florence, his older daughter, came limping up the walk from the gazebo all the girls called the Pepper-Box, where the Reverend Mellish had stopped to catch his breath. Florence was as tall as Agnes but heavier, and her father was a husk beside her, gone frail and whispery, clinging to her round arm and puffing out weak steam into the crisp air. Once he had been an imposing man, though he had never been the sort of minister who thundered from the pulpit. Instead he merely looked at you with those pale eyes, looked and put his hand on your shoulder and pressed a firm thumb into the divot below your collarbone. He had been compelling, once; he had compelled even Florence. This sudden weakness was new. At home he walked the quiet roads by himself every evening, marching through Killingly and Dayville as if he were leading some band of congregants to a new Jerusalem, or perhaps to a new church, a younger sibling to Dayville Congregational, surpassing it in grace and goodwill just as Bertha surpassed Florence. But after one day here at Mt. Holyoke he had faded quickly.
Here he drew eyes only because he was a man and Bertha’s father. In the hours since they had learned that Bertha was gone, the girls had begun creeping around the cold campus with their books clasped to their quivering bosoms. When she saw Florence and the Reverend silhouetted by the morning sunlight at the top of the little hill, each girl paused for a moment, her footsteps faltering, and said a prayer just as Mary Lyon would have wanted. Attendance at the Sunday class prayer meeting was mandatory, as were church and Bible study and the YWCA session that concluded the day. But that Sunday’s prayers would have an unusual fervency and more clutching of hands than was common. The girls would pass a tremor around the chapel, transmitting it from palm to clammy palm.
Florence and the Reverend were not thinking of the other girls or of how they might appear to observers. They were tired, having taken the train up from Killingly shortly after dawn, and cold. The Reverend Mellish had dozed against the window while Florence sat straight beside him, her stockinged knees thick lumps under her skirt, and drummed her heels gently against one another to keep herself awake. They’d changed trains in Springfield, in a station astringent with the smell of urine even in the chill weather, and a filthy boy had tried to lift her purse and cried when she shoved him back, and Florence had thought, Nobody is getting what he wants today.
Just now they were making their slow way back to Porter after meeting with Mrs. Mead, the college president, in her quiet office with its dark and heavy drapes. After they’d discussed the dragging of the ponds and the teams of searchers in the woods she’d had little else to tell them. There were men walking the banks of the Connecticut River on the chance that Bertha had gone out on one of her long hikes alone and tumbled in. The police were trying to find a Parrott gun to fire over the water, to raise the corpse with the force of its concussion. Mrs. Mead was a hard woman, though very kind; she said “the corpse” quite calmly, with no gulping or quavering. “If indeed she has drowned, of course,” she added, “and there is still reason to hope that she has not.”
Florence was still thinking of those words in Mrs. Mead’s voice when they reached Porter Hall. The corpse, she thought, the corpse. She could think of few reasons to hope.
Agnes met them in the empty Porter drawing room. She had begun trembling when she stepped off the last stair, and now she felt shy and queasy. These were unfamiliar feelings, feelings she did not like.
Agnes shook Florence’s hand. Bertha’s sister had coarse skin and calloused fingers and she looked even older than Agnes had expected, but also strong, a workhorse of a woman. Agnes could see Bertha in the soft undercurve of her jaw and the pert angle of her nose. Otherwise, they barely resembled one another. Florence’s bones were broad and heavy, and Bertha’s had been so finely made that she seemed bird-light and fluttery until you saw the metal in her eyes and the tight crank of her determined smile.
Florence and the Reverend sat on the tufted green velveteen sofa, Agnes on the edge of a straight-backed chair across from them. The furnishings in the drawing room were all still painfully new, the upholstery unrubbed, the dark shining tables unscratched. For months the girls of Porter had been stepping over buckets of paint and piles of rags and boards bristling with nails. Now the building was finished, but Bertha’s disappearance had spoilt parts of it in some subtle and ineradicable way. The girls stayed away from the large, fine windows in the drawing room, away from Bertha’s end of the hallway, away from any hint that the dangers of the world might intrude here. They filled their rooms with noisy life and left the larger spaces of the house echoing and cold.
The Mellishes had not noticed the folded sheaf of paper Agnes held in her left hand. They were waiting for her to speak. Carefully, unobtrusively, she dropped the papers onto the glossy table beside her.
Agnes told them which recitations Bertha had liked best; how her preparations for the debate on vivisection had been proceeding; what she had eaten and what she had only picked at; how often she retired to her single room at the opposite end of the third floor and put up the “Engaged” sign to keep the other girls out. Agnes had her own “Engaged” sign. It was hanging from her room’s doorknob at that moment, and even now, even after Bertha’s disappearance, none of them were likely to brave Agnes’s empty room. They thought all she did inside her room was pray.
“Our Bertha,” the Reverend said. “Did she—” and then he stopped, tilting his gray head as if listening for a distant sound. Agnes wondered if he were suffering a stroke. She had never seen a person in the grips of one, though she had witnessed the aftermath frequently enough in the indigent elderly of her Boston tenement. But Florence did not seem too concerned, only spoke for him as if she knew precisely what he’d wanted to ask.
“In the days before, did she appear upset to you?” she said in a voice like Bertha’s but deeper and toughened by worry. She was a teacher. Agnes could imagine her at the front of a classroom, bellowing out questions to her shy pupils. It was not real work, of course, but it was honorable enough, especially for a woman like Florence, who had been too unwell to finish her education. Who knew what Florence might have accomplished had she not gotten ill? Anyone Bertha loved so well must have great reserves of talent. “About her studies, perhaps, or some other affair? Had she told you of anything that was worrying her?”
“No,” said Agnes. “She has been anxious about the debate, but she was excited, not upset.”
“There were no disputes with any of the other girls? Perhaps over a young man.” Florence’s eyelids tightened oddly. “She’s said nothing to us about it, but surely she would have told you.”
Agnes shook her head. “Nothing of that sort. No. Bertha doesn’t involve herself with the other girls much. And certainly not with their young men. She’s too busy with her studies. She doesn’t loll around cooking fudge in a dish when she could be doing real chemistry.”
“You are her good friend,” Florence said gently. “She involved herself with you.”
“I have my own studies. We study together.”
“Do you,” said Florence. “I’m glad to know that. She is always cheerful in her letters, but it is hard with Bertha to know—if she’s happy. Truly happy.”
Agnes did not know what to say. She did not let herself look at the sheaf of papers. After a moment Florence cleared her throat, half out of emotion and half, Agnes thought, due to an underlying ailment. Bronchitis or some other catarrh.
Florence asked, “Do you think—could she have had some reason to avoid the ceremony?”
“I don’t believe so. It’s tiresome but not very long. I left early myself. Nobody minds, if you have to. But Bertha didn’t—”
Florence reached out a little, awkwardly, as if to touch her hand, and Agnes did not pull away. But Florence’s fingers hovered over her own, not touching. Just waiting. Making her nervous. Agnes recited the tendons of the hand to keep her mind quiet—first dorsal interosseus, abductor pollicis, extensor pollicis longus, extensor digitorum communis—and soon enough Florence pulled her hand back, brisk again. Often when Agnes did that sort of thing people thought she was praying. She wondered what Florence thought.
Agnes drew a deep breath through her nostrils, thinking of her lungs filling, her heart slowing. “Bertha didn’t plan to go in the first place. She was working on her arguments for the debate, doing more research. She said there was always more to do if she wanted to be the best prepared.”
That made Florence exhale a little laugh. “Our Bertha,” she said, in a tone completely different from her father’s.
Yes, Agnes thought. Our Bertha.
“The girls say that no one saw her at the ceremony at all, but Mrs. Mead tells us that one girl did claim to have seen her elsewhere on the campus, walking to the west. Carrying books— she used to do that as a child, you know,” Florence said, pulling herself up short from whatever she had been about to say. “Go for a long walk with a book and get so lost in it I would have to go out in search of her for supper. We joked about calling out the police to search for her.” She breathed out heavily. “My God.”
“Florence,” barked the Reverend, and both women startled, Agnes so surprised she forgot to put on her own disapproving look. “The name of the Lord.”
“Yes, Reverend.” Florence turned her face away from him. “I am sorry.” Agnes wondered if she was sincere. But Bertha had told her little about Florence, in that protective way she had, afraid of saying too much about the things she really loved. It was one of the first things Agnes had recognized in her when they were freshmen and one of the deepest traits they shared.
“You never saw anything, or heard her say anything that seemed extraordinary, in the last few days?”
“Bertha is always extraordinary.” Agnes’s abruptness startled even her, as did the sudden surge of dislike she felt for them both, and the Reverend in particular. Agnes had seen him twice before, once in their first year after she and Bertha had been moved into Mrs. Drew’s cramped attic and once the year after, and both times he’d seemed perfectly unremarkable, a dull typification of the New England churchman. Today she had been surprised by the hunch of his shoulders and the uncertainty of his steps. If he had ever been exceptional, or dangerous, those qualities were gone. But Bertha had feared him and perhaps in a lesser way feared Florence. She’d prickled and hissed in their company like some of the cats in Dr. Clapp’s laboratory that fought even when they knew they were cornered.
The front door of Porter clanked open and shut. “Oh Mabel, Mabel!” trilled a girl from the entry hall—Carrie, maybe, or Eugenie. Agnes had trouble keeping them straight. She turned her head just slightly and caught a smudge of maroon at the edge of her vision as the girl slowed abruptly to observe the three of them as if they were figures in a stage play. For a moment Agnes could imagine how they must look, could picture the angles of their bodies, how Florence leaned toward her and how her own shoulders rounded as she pulled away, the Reverend tilting on the sofa like an Italian tower. Then she heard the girl move on, skirt murmuring and boot-heels tapping.
Florence was giving her a wet-eyed measuring stare and Agnes looked down at her lap in perturbation. She was used to turning that look on others, not to suffering it. She could see now why it made the other girls in Clapp’s lab flinch.
“She sent us a letter on Sunday,” Florence continued. “Full of news, about the debate and her other projects. It was all enthusiasm. Nothing that showed any distress. They are saying she was troubled, but you know her, Agnes,” Florence finished, leaning in again and huffing a little in agitation, “you know she was not. Not like that.”
Agnes thought she knew what they saw when they looked at her: the last person to see Bertha breathing. That was how everyone at the college thought of her now, even as they hoped that Bertha was alive. In a way it was better than before. They wouldn’t see anything else. But Florence and the Reverend were different.
She could tell them anything in this moment. But she had to be so careful.
“Bertha is not troubled. She is the smartest girl I know,” said Agnes, and she was telling the truth. “The most loyal, and the best.”
Florence understood, Agnes could see it. She understood that Agnes loved Bertha and the fact of it surprised her and her surprise made Agnes rage in silence. So Bertha was a quiet and peculiar girl. It was what all the girls were babbling to one another, what they would write to their shocked mothers and tell the newspapermen. Queer and strange, not known to make girl friends easily, never once accompanied to a party by a young man, not even a classmate from Danielson High School. All of that was true, but Florence ought to have known all the other truths about Bertha. The glories of her.
Agnes called Bertha to mind. She had been resisting this, because thinking of Bertha now caused her pain, though not like the pain of a bruise or a fracture. Like an incision. She had cut herself twice with her scalpel in freshman year so that she would know what it felt like, carved two cold-burning slices into the softness of the skin over her inner biceps. Bertha had helped her to bandage them. Her little fingers were nimbler and her eyes were knowing but kind. She had ghosted the edge of a fingernail along the cuts after cleaning them and smeared the tiniest bit of Agnes’s blood into the whorls of her fingertip and dabbed it, with a hint of a smile, into the center of her own palm.
Bertha knew, of course, that Agnes was a Catholic and that all her outward show of Protestant piety was a front. She had guessed when they were freshmen on the laundry circle together and, bless her fierce and hungry soul, had never said a word to anyone else, though she would declare herself an agnostic to any YWCA girl unfortunate enough to ask why she never went to the Congregational Church next to college to hear the new minister sermonize. She had nothing to protect, which meant that she could be honest. But she knew that Agnes couldn’t, not at Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke, only three years into its new life as a college rather than a seminary school and still dedicated to educating its girls to resist the blandishments of “Catholic Europe.” Not with Adelaide depending on her. Bertha knew how serious Agnes was about her studies, and she reveled in it. They were serious together.
Florence had run down; it seemed she did not know what else to ask. And the Reverend, Agnes thought scornfully, did not know anything. She knew she ought to be afraid of him, if Bertha had been. Bertha did not make up idle reasons to be frightened. Like Agnes, she put things out of mind if they were unworthy of her efforts or her worry. But Agnes could not coerce herself into fear. She felt emptied and jumbled at once.
Agnes picked up the papers from the side table.
“This was in her trunk,” she said. “I found no letters and the writing is not dated, but it is her hand.”
She unfolded the papers on her lap and smoothed them with her long smudged fingers. The ribbon was hers and the papers were a copy, though the Mellishes would never know it. The handwritten title page read, in large spidery print, La Petite: A Story of Mattawaugan Mill. Florence took it from her slowly, surprised again.
“It is the story—” Agnes stopped. “The story of an innocent, hardworking girl named Marie who is misled by a young mill worker with no prospects and forced to share his destitution. To live with him in shame. She bears him children, but she is terribly unhappy, and the girl—the one telling the story, a friend of Marie,—goes to visit her and interrupts her—”
Florence was staring at her.
“Interrupts her fleeing to the woods. She throws herself.” And again she had to stop, gasping around a knot in her throat. Her fingers had clenched tight. She remembered watching Bertha write with her white brow tense and her white teeth digging into her lower lip, and she wanted the papers back in her own hands, close to her. “I’m sorry. She throws herself to her death from a cliff. The cliff is called Mount Holly. Her friend tries to stop her but they tumble down together and they are broken by the fall, though the friend lives to tell the tale.”
“Why—” Florence’s mouth kept moving. The Reverend was watching them both, uncertain. Perhaps he had not heard all of what Agnes said, even though her voice was higher than usual. A constriction of the vocal cords. “You found this in her trunk.”
“It is badly written,” Agnes said tightly. “Marie is French, for some reason. Bertha thinks French is dull even though she is excellent at it. But it is here. Mount Holyoke, and the river, and the rocks near the pier. It is the mill, just as she described it to me, bless her dear heart.”
She was trembling again. She wished profoundly that she could cross herself.
“I know what they are all saying, and I would not have thought it possible. But I am afraid,” she said to Bertha’s father and sister, “that Bertha may have done herself harm.”
It had taken most of a day to find the Parrott rifle, which had been sheltering in the barn of a Northampton reservist tasked with maintaining it, and more time still to locate the limber that would carry the gun. The six horses had been easiest to obtain. They plodded along unsuspecting, hauling the cannon to the Connecticut River near Smith’s Ferry, where a brook entered the river and pooled under a small bridge. It was the considered opinion of Deputy Sheriff F. W. Brockway of the Holyoke police that if Bertha Mellish had gone into the water, whether willingly or not, she was most likely to have done so near this bridge and this pool. They believed her body might be trapped in the pool’s silty hollow or bogged down somewhere nearby in the curls of the river’s course.
A man had come to the Holyoke station claiming to have seen Bertha on the road to Mt. Holyoke the day she vanished. He said she looked determined. The police went out looking, and soon enough they found a series of boot prints marking out a perfect line from the road to the riverbank and vanishing there, no matching tracks beside them leading away from the river. The footprints were almost as diminutive as a child’s and not too far apart. It was difficult to tell how old the tracks were—the ground froze and softened daily, it seemed, in the oddly bright sun the valley had been enjoying that month—but it was clear that the girl, whenever she made them, hadn’t been in a hurry.
The gun was manned by an elderly ex-sergeant from the Tenth Mass Battery who talked to the horses as softly as he had at Ream’s Station and by four old cannoneers, one still a coal deliveryman, one a retired fireman, one a druggist, and one too shambling from years of drink to show any evidence of his profession. The ex-sergeant had been an insurance man, and he could not help but size them up in this way and regard the last man with a blunt professional pity, as someone to whom he would not, under any inducement, have sold a life policy.
As they were firing only one round and were not to be fired upon, they did without the men who carried ammunition and tended the limber. Three of them wormed out the bore and swabbed it, set the range and aimed the sight, and groaned at the druggist, who had been staring at the Firing Table for ten minutes trying to remember how to calculate the best fuse time.
“Been years, boys, my apologies,” he said to the vent man, who’d sounded most aggrieved.
They rammed the round home, and one shoved a pick into the powder bag, coughing a little at the smell. The gunner took away the sight. The vent man slipped the primer in and passed the lanyard to the ex-sergeant as they all moved back from the gun.
The ex-sergeant pulled the lanyard and sent the round crashing into the underbrush on the opposite side of the river. It wasn’t just a boom, that close to the cannon. The gun had a shrill top note, a ripping shriek and whistle, and a cavernous depth to its report that settled in the men’s bellies. They’d grown used to it during the war, and they did not flinch. But they sympathized with the shying horses and the terrified crows scattering from the woods on the near riverbank.
The sergeant wondered how many old men in the valley had just lifted their heads from their work and looked toward a window or the horizon, seeking out the danger that matched that sound. Marveling at the fear it struck in them three decades later, or cursing it. Maybe a few old women too. He’d met his own wife in the field hospital, and they had clung together during a fair few thunderstorms after the war ended. Sometimes it wasn’t exactly fear that the noise prompted, but a feeling of unbearable alertness, a pressing urge to go roust his fellows and haul out the gun and aim the gun and fire.
This was nothing like that. He couldn’t escape the feeling that he’d just commanded the sounding of the missing girl’s death knell. A tremendous echoing call along the floor of the valley, bigger in the ears than any church bell. Everyone at the college heard it. The Mellishes had left Agnes and were sitting in the anteroom outside Mrs. Mead’s office in Mary Lyon Hall, and still they heard it, even through the heavy muffling drapes. Agnes heard it from her room, where she had retreated behind her “Engaged” sign on the door, and the girl who had come into Porter Hall singing of Mabel—it was Eugenie Miller, a sophomore from Hartford—heard it, too.
The sergeant watched the policemen pick their way along the brown banks of the river and peer into its murkiness. The cannoneers weren’t needed any longer—they’d been told that one shot would have to be sufficient, as there were farms nearby and more might upset the livestock—but they stood around the rifle for a while, talking to each other and the horses, until it was clear that no bodies were going to rise up from the river’s depths. Then they packed up all the rifle’s gear, the sight and the swab and the wire, the lanyard and the Firing Table, and turned their backs on the river as eagerly as the horses did.
The police dragged chains up Batchelder Brook for several hours before being thwarted by ice and came up with nothing useful, some trash and a mess of branches and leaves, a deer’s half-consumed carcass. Later they would drag the river with grappling hooks, too, and stretch a net across it miles downstream. They drew down the lakes on campus and found a number of glinting hairpins, a smashed hat that might once have been blue, a belt buckle, a cluster of old bricks, half a teacup, the nickel-plated clasp from a handbag, and the sodden remains of several textbooks still bound together with a leather strap, probably thrown in jubilantly at the end of term.
There was no hint of Bertha among the wet weeds.
There are things no one can know about Agnes.
That she was born in a skip behind the factory where her mother Nora wove cloth. Early, because her mother had gone to work every day she could, because even then her husband Brian drank seven-eighths of their money and gambled the last part. As a baby Agnes had been silent and stiff in Nora’s arms, and she had never grown comfortable with being embraced by anyone other than her sister Adelaide, and she’d gotten used to that only because they slept together.
That her sister Adelaide was born in Agnes’s own small bed, not the one Nora sometimes shared with her sot of a husband, and that the stain the birth left seeped into the mattress ticking like the print of a massive spread-winged bird, and that when Agnes was alone in the room—which was hardly ever—she would on occasion strip back the thin sheet and curl herself into the stain and spread her fingers out upon it, because it was still parts of Adelaide and Nora together there, keeping her safe. She did this until she was quite old, thirteen or fourteen. Older than Adelaide when Adelaide went to work for the Allens. It was a good place, said all Nora’s friends, when Adelaide got it. A good place with a good family.
That their father died of his constant drunkenness when Agnes was seven and Adelaide four. (There were two babies born dead between them.) That her mother didn’t have the money to bury him, and so she made Agnes help her carry him down the stairs from their third-floor tenement room as she cursed silently with each thumping step until they could roll him into the gutter and pry his wallet from his grimy pocket and leave him for the early morning patrol, who took him away for burial on the city’s charity. Agnes learned, later, how long the city kept bodies waiting to be claimed. She had despised her father, but for four months she had nightmares about his round white belly puffing in some city morgue basement, his fingers swelling, his red beard inching out into tangles. Then the nightmares stopped and she hardly spared him a thought again, asleep or awake.
That Agnes learned on charity, just as her father was buried on it. She had been the best student in her grade in the local public school and won small scholarships for her recitations: nothing extravagant, but enough to pay for Sunday beef dinners during one cold winter and to buy her and her sister new boots in another.
That Miss Kelly, a once-Catholic Congregationalist who lived up the lane in the nicer part of their neighborhood, had read the tiny item about those scholarships in the Herald and had looked up Agnes’s mother to offer her guidance. Miss Kelly was plain and small and terribly freckled, but to Agnes she also seemed bright against the drab walls of their apartment, lit up by her calm certainty in her own talents, her earnest desire to better Agnes, to school her. It was Miss Kelly who thought of sending her to Mount Holyoke, her own alma mater. Miss Kelly taught her to polish the Irish from her speech and warned her that she’d have to hide her faith at the college. “But it will be worth it, Agnes dear, I promise you,” she said, clasping Agnes’s broad hand with her tiny fingers. “It is the best education you could receive. It will do everything for you.”
That her sister Adelaide fell pregnant while working as a housemaid for the Allens in the fall of ’95 and tried to hang herself when Mrs. Allen threw her out. When Nora found her she was half-strangled, her heart hardly beating. She lost the baby—poor lamb, said all Nora’s friends, though they were grateful too. Nora wouldn’t have to choose whether to feed herself or her grandchild, whether or not to abandon the little thing to Saint Mary’s Asylum, which was as good as killing it with her own hands. But Adelaide was, as a result, not quite herself. She could no longer manage anything more complicated than simple piecework done at their kitchen table, and she forgot how to read and almost how to walk, for a while. Miss Kelly no longer talked of recommending Adelaide for admission to Mount Holyoke as she had Agnes. So Agnes resolved to do everything for Adelaide herself, if the college could not. She worked harder than ever in her classes. She prayed in public; she developed a reputation for tiresome religiosity. On some Fridays, when she could slip from campus unnoticed, she rode Bertha’s wheel (far too small for her frame) to the tiny church in Hadley and made confession if the church was empty and rode back home repeating her prescribed penance in time with the pumping of her burning thighs. Once she had made a space in the drying room of the gymnasium wing in the old seminary building: a nest of sorts behind the piled towels, with beeswax candle stubs for votives, but that had ended horribly. Ever since the fire, she kept her prayers confined to the privacy of her mind, and in that vast domain she worshiped God just as she worshiped the earthly body and its mysteries, its strung tendons and ligaments, its stony structures.
That Adelaide’s “bad time,” as their mother called it, was during the busiest part of fall term in freshman year and Agnes couldn’t go home to see her for two weeks. She began writing letters to Adelaide then, though her mother could not read either. She never tried to discover whom Adelaide might have found to read them out to her. She knew Adelaide kept them. That was enough.
That her mother Nora still worked in the same factory to support herself and Adelaide, though she was forty-six and not hearty and surrounded by girls a third her age doing the same work faster and better.
That Agnes rarely had money to send home and prided herself on never asking for any. That she worked tirelessly on her drawings not only because she sought perfection for its own sake but because she thought she might be able to work as a medical draughtsman if she could train her hand to be precise enough. Her dream was to be a surgeon; she would apply to medical school, and she thought she might even earn a spot. But she had learned to be practical; she had learned always to have two routes of escape.
That she had only been kissed once, by a boy from her school who trapped her in an alley when she was walking home late from Miss Kelly’s and pressed her into the wall and put his dirty hand up her skirt and thrust his dirty fingers into her as if she were a glove. As if she were water, all give and no resistance. As if she were nothing. His mouth tasted of blood and rot. She cut the back of her head on the brick getting away from him, but she cut his cheek with her knife. That she was still prepared to marry, if she had to, to provide for her mother and Adelaide. But that she was determined it would not be necessary.
Bertha knew all these things.