William Eng woke to the sound of a snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs that supported the threadbare mattress of his army surplus bed. He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor. He heard the popping and billowing of sheets being pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail. And so he drifted, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else—anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed wetters.
He would have sat up if he could, stood at attention at the footof his bunk, like the others, but his hands were tied—literally—to the bed frame.
“I told you it would work,” Sister Briganti said to a pair of orderlieswhose dark skin looked even darker against their starched white uniforms.
Sister Briganti’s theory was that bed-wetting was caused by boysillicitly touching themselves. So at bedtime she began tying the boys’ shoes to their wrists. When that failed, she tied their wrists to their beds.
“It’s a miracle,” she said as she poked and prodded the dry sheets between William’s legs. He watched as she crossed herself, then paused, sniffing her fingers, as though seeking evidence her eyes and hands might not reveal. Amen, William thought when he realized his bedding was dry. He knew that, like an orphaned child, Sister Briganti had learned to expect the worst. And she was rarely, if ever, disappointed.
After the boys were untied, the last offending child punished, and the crying abated, William was finally allowed to wash before breakfast. He stared at the long row of identical toothbrushes and washcloths that hung from matching hooks. Last night there had been forty, but now one set was missing and rumors immediately spread among the boys as to who the runaway might be.
Tommy Yuen. William knew the answer as he scanned the washroomand didn’t see another matching face. Tommy must have fled in the night. That makes me the only Chinese boy left at SacredHeart.
The sadness and isolation he might have felt was muted by a morning free from the belt, replaced by the hopeful smiles the other boys made as they washed their faces.
“Happy birthday, Willie,” a freckle-faced boy said as he passedby. Others sang or whistled the birthday song. It was September 28, 1934, William’s twelfth birthday—everyone’s birthday, in fact— apparently it was much easier to keep track of this way.
Armistice Day might be more fitting, William thought. Sincesome of the older kids at Sacred Heart had lost their fathers in the Great War, or October 29—Black Tuesday, when the entire country had fallen on hard times.Since the Crash, the number of orphanshad tripled. But Sister Briganti had chosen the coronation of Venerable Pope Leo XII as everyone’s new day of celebration—a collective birthday, which meant a trolley ride from Laurelhurst to downtown, where the boys would be given buffalo nickels to spend at the candy butcher before being treated to a talking picture at the Moore Theatre.
But best of all, William thought, on our birthdays and, only on our birthdays, are we allowed to ask about our mothers.
Birthday mass was always the longest of the year, even longerthan the Christmas Vigil—for the boys anyway. William sat trying not to fidget, listening to Father Bartholomew go on and on and on and on and on about the Blessed Virgin, as if she could distract the boys from their big day. The girls sat on their side of the church, either oblivious to the boys’ one day out each year or achingly jealous. But either way, talks about the Holy Mother only confused the younger, newer residents, most of whom weren’t real orphans—at least not in the way Little Orphan Annie was depicted on the radio or in the Sunday funnies. Unlike the little mop-haired girl who gleefully squealed “Gee whiskers!” at any calamity, most of the boys and girls at Sacred Heart still had parents out there— somewhere—but wherever they were, they’d been unable to put food in their children’s mouths or shoes on their feet. That’s how Dante Grimaldicame to us, William reflected as he looked around the chapel. After Dante’s father was killed in a logging accident, his mother had let him play in the toy department of the Wonder Store— the big Woolworth’s on Third Avenue—and she never came back. Sunny Sixkiller last saw his ma in the children’s section of the new Carnegie Library in Snohomish, while Charlotte Rigg was found sitting in the rain on the marble steps of St. James Cathedral. Rumor was that her grandmother had lit a candle for her and even went to confession before slipping out a side door. Then there were others— the fortunate ones. Their mothers came and signed manifolds of carbon paper,
entrusting their children to the sisters of Sacred Heart, or St. Paul Infants’ Home next door. There were always promises to come back in a week for a visit, and sometimes they did, but more often than not, that week stretched into a month, sometimes a year, sometimes forever. And yet, all of their moms had pledged (in front of Sister Briganti and God) to return one day.
After communion William stood with a tasteless wafer still stuck to the roof of his mouth, waiting in line with the other boys outside the school office. Each year, Mother Angelini, the prioress of Sacred Heart, would assess the boys physically and spiritually. If they passed muster, they’d be allowed out in public. William tried not to twitch or act too anxious. He attempted to look happy and presentable, mimicking the hopeful, joyful smiles of the others. But then he remembered the last time he saw his mother. She was in the bathtub of their apartment in the old Bush Hotel. William had woken up, wandered down the hall for a glass of water, and realized that she’d been in there for hours. He waited a few minutes more, but then at 12:01 a.m. he finally peeked through the rusty keyhole. It looked as though she were sleeping in the claw-foot tub, her face tilted toward the door; a strand of wet black hair clung to her pale cheek, the curl of a question mark. One arm lazily dangled over the edge, water slowly dripping from her fingertip. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling, flickering on and off as the wind blew. After shouting and pounding on the door to no avail, William ran across the street to Dr. Luke, who lived above his office. The doctor jimmied the lock and wrapped towels around William’s mother, carrying her down two flights of stairs and into a waiting taxi, bound for Providence Hospital.
He left me alone, William thought, remembering the pinkish bathwater that gurgled and swirled down the drain. On the bottom of the tub he’d found a bar of Ivory soap and a single lacquered chopstick. The wide end had been inlaid with shimmering layers of abalone. But the pointed end looked sharp, and he wondered what it was doing there.
“You can go in now, Willie,” Sister Briganti said, snapping herfingers.
William held the door as Sunny walked out; his cheeks werecherry red and his sleeves were wet and shiny from wiping his nose.
“Your turn, Will,” he half-sniffled, half-grumbled. He gripped a letter in his hand, then crumpled the envelope as if to throw it away,then paused, stuffing the letter in his back pocket.
“What’d it say?” another boy asked, but Sunny shook his headand walked down the hallway, staring at the floor. Letters from parents were rare, not because they didn’t come—they did— but because the sisters didn’t let the boys have them. They were saved and doled out as rewards for good behavior or as precious gifts on birthdays and religious holidays, though some gifts were better than others. Some were hopeful reminders of a family that still wanted them. Others were written confirmations of another lonely year.
Mother Angelini was all smiles as William walked in and sat down, but the stained-glass window behind her oaken desk wasopen and the room felt cold and drafty. The only warmth that William felt came from the seat of the padded leather chair that had moments before been occupied, weighed down by the expectations of another boy.
“Happy birthday,” she said as her spidery, wrinkled fingerspaged through a thick ledger as though searching for his name.
“How are you today . . . William?” She looked up, over her dustyspectacles. “This is your fifth birthday with us, isn’t it? Which makes you how old in the canon?”
Mother Angelini always asked the boys’ ages in relation to books
from the Septuagint. William quickly rattled off, “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus . . .” on up to Second Kings. He’d memorized his way only to the Book of Judith, when he’d turn eighteen and take his leave from the orphanage. Because the Book of Judith represented his own personal exodus, he’d read it over and over, until he imagined Judith as his forebear—a heroic, tragic widow, courted by many, who remained unmarried for the rest of her life. But he also read it because that particular book was semiofficial, semicanonical—more parable than truth, like the stories he’d heard about his own, long lost parent.
“Well done, Master William,” Mother Angelini said. “Well done.Twelve is a marvelous age—the precipice of adult responsibility. Don’t think of yourself as a teenager. Think of yourself as a young man. That’s more fitting, don’t you think?”
He nodded, inhaling the smell of rain-soaked wool and Mentholatum,trying not to hope for a letter or even a lousy postcard. He failed miserably in the attempt.
“Well, I know that most of you are anxious for word from theoutside—that God’s mysteries have blessed your parents with work, and a roof, and bread, and a warm fi re, and that someone might come back for you,” the old nun said with a delicate voice, shaking her head as the skin beneath her chin shook like a turkey’s wattle. “But . . .” She glanced at her ledger. “We know that’s not possible in your situation, don’t we, dear?”
It seems that’s all I know. “Yes, Mother Angelini.” William swallowedhard, nodding. “I suppose, since this is my birthday, I’d just like to know more. I have so many memories from when I was little, but no one’s ever told me what happened to her.”
The last time he saw her he’d been seven years old. His motherhad half-whispered, half-slurred, “I’ll be right back,” as she had been carried out the door, though he might have imagined this. But he didn’t imagine the police officer, an enormous mountain of a man who showed up the next day. William remembered him eating a handful of his mother’s butter-almond cookies and being very patient while he packed. Then William had climbed into the sidecar of the policeman’s motorcycle and they drove to a receiving home. William had waved to his old friends, like he was riding a float in Seattle’s Golden Potlatch Parade, not realizing that he was waving goodbye. A week later the sisters came and took him in. If I hadknown I’d never see my apartment again, I’d have taken some of my toys, or at least a photo.
William tried not to stare as Mother Angelini’s tongue darted atthe corner of her mouth. She read the ledger and a note card with an official-looking seal that had been glued to the page. “William, because you are old enough, I will tell you what I can, even though it pains me to do so.”
That my mother is dead, William thought, absently. He’d acceptedthat as a likely outcome years ago, when they told him her condition had worsened and that she was never coming back. Just as he accepted that his father would always be unknown. In fact, William had been forbidden to ever speak of him.
“From what we know, your mother was a dancer at the WahMee Club—and quite popular. But one day she made herself sick with bitter melon and carrot-seed soup. When that didn’t work, she retired to the bath and tried performing . . .”
Performing? His mother had been a singer and a dancer. “I don’tunderstand,” he whispered, unsure if he wanted to know more.
“William, your dear mother was rushed to the hospital, but shehad to wait for hours and, when they did get around to her, the admitting physician wasn’t entirely comfortable treating an Oriental woman, especially one with her reputation. So he had her remanded to the old Perry Hotel.”
William blinked and vaguely understood. He knew the location.In fact he used to play kick the can on the corner of Boren and Madison. He remembered being frightened by the ominous-looking building, even before bars were added to the windows and the place was renamed the Cabrini Sanitarium.
Mother Angelini closed her ledger. “I’m afraid she never left.”
When William finally arrived at the Moore Theatre on SecondAvenue, the younger boys had forgotten about their mothers and fathers in the rush to spend their nickels on Clark bars or handfuls of Mary Janes. Within minutes their lips were smeared and they were licking melted chocolate off their fingertips, one by one.
Meanwhile, William struggled to shake the thought of his motherspending her final years locked away in a nuthouse—a laughing academy, a funny farm. Sister Briganti had once said that if he daydreamed too much he’d end up in a place like that. Maybe that’swhat happened to her. He missed his mother as he wandered the lobby, looking at the movie posters, remembering her taking him to old photoplays and silent films in tiny second-run theaters. He recalled her arm around him, as she’d whisper in his ear, regaling him with tales of his grandparents, who were stars in Chinese operas.
As he lingered near the marble columns in the lobby, he tried toenjoy the moment, greedily palming the silver coin he’d been given. He’d learned from previous years to save it and follow the smell of melting butter and the sound of popcorn popping. He found Sunny, and they put their money together, splitting a large tub and an Orange Crush. As William waited to be seated, he noticed hundreds of other boys from various mission homes, institutions, and reformatories. In their dingy, graying uniforms they looked shrunken and sallow, frozen in line, a fresco of ragpickers. The prisonlike uniforms the other boys wore made William feel awkward and overdressed, even in his ill-fitting jacket and hand-me-down knickerbockers that hung eight inches past his knees. And as he sipped his drink his gullet pressed against the knot of black silk that barely passed for a bow tie. But despite their differences, they all had the same expectant look in their eyes as they crowded the entrance, buzzing with excitement. Like most of the boys at Sacred Heart, William had been hoping to see Animal Crackers or a scary movie like WhiteZombie—especially after he heard that the Broadway Theatre had offered ten dollars to any woman who could sit through a midnight showing without screaming. Unfortunately, the sisters had decided that Cimarron was better fodder for their impressionable young minds.
Gee whiskers, William thought. I’m just happy to get away,happy to see anything, even a silent two-reeler.But Sunny was lessenthusiastic.
When the bright red doors finally swept open, Sister Briganti puther hand on his shoulder and rushed Sunny and him to their seats.
“Be good boys and whatever you do be quiet, keep to yourselves,and don’t make eye contact with the ushers,” she whispered.
William nodded but didn’t understand until he glanced up andsaw that the balcony was filled with colored boys and a few Indian kids like Sunny. There must have been a separate entrance in the alley. Am I colored? William wondered. And if so, what color am I? They shared the popcorn and he sat lower, sinking into the purple velvet.
As the footlights dimmed and the plush curtains were drawn, aplayer piano came to life, accompanying black-and-white cartoons with Betty Boop and Barnacle Bill. William knew that, for the little boys, this was the best part. Some would barely make it through the previews, or the Movietone Follies. They’d end up sleeping through most of the feature film, dreaming in Technicolor.
When the Follies reel finally began, William managed to singalong with the rest, to musical numbers by Jackie Cooper and the Lane Sisters, and he laughed at the antics of Stepin Fetchit, who had everyone in stitches. He laughed even harder than the kids in the balcony. But silence swept the audience as a new performer crooned “Dream a Little Dream of Me”—staring wistfully into the camera. At first William thought, She looks like Myrna Loy in The Black Watch. But she wasn’t just wearing makeup, she was Chinese like Anna May Wong, the only Oriental star he’d ever seen. Her distinctive looks and honeyed voice drew wolf whistles from the older boys, which drew reprimands from Sister Briganti, who cursed in Latin and Italian. But as William stared at the flickering screen, he was stunned silent, mouth agape, popcorn spilling. The singer was introduced as Willow Frost—a stage name, William almost said out loud, it had to be. And best of all, Willow and Stepin and a host of Movietone performers would be appearing LIVE AT A THEATER NEAR YOU, in VANCOUVER, PORTLAND, SPOKANE, and SEATTLE. Tickets available NOW! GET ’EM BEFORE THEY’RE ALL SOLD OUT!
Sunny elbowed William and said, “Boy, I’d do anything to seethat show.”
“I . . . have to go” was all William could manage to say, still staringat the afterimage on the dark screen while listening to the opening score of Cimarron, which sounded farther and farther away, like Oklahoma.
“Keep on wishing, Willie.”
Maybe it was his imagination. Or perhaps he was daydreamingonce again. But William knew he had to meet her in person, because he had once known her by another name—he was sure of it. With his next-door neighbors in Chinatown, she went by Liu Song, but he’d simply called her Ah-ma. He had to say those words again. He had to know if she’d hear his voice—if she’d recognize him from five long years away.
Because Willow Frost is a lot of things, William thought, a singer,a dancer, a movie star, but most of all, Willow Frost is my mother.
Feeling Is Believing
When the movie ended William clapped politely; everyonedid—all but the little boys who startled awake, blinking and rubbing their eyes as the houselights flickered. Sunshine spilled in as ushers opened the double doors. William and Sunny followed the rest as they wandered out, two by two, huddling on a nearby streetcar platform, beneath a rare blue Seattle sky. The temperature had dropped, and clouds drifted over the Olympic Mountains on the horizon. William laughed as Sunny found an old cigarette butt and pretended to puff away, trying to blow smoke rings with his breath as older kids squeezed into the middle of the pack, hoping to find shelter from the wind that blew discarded leaflets and handbills down the street like tumbleweeds and thistledown.
William could smell seaweed drying on the mudflats of PugetSound, but he also detected the aroma of shellfish and broth. His mouth watered as he looked around, noticing Sister Briganti arguing with a bootblack across the street who was passing out newspapers to men who stood in line for free bread and soup. William counted at least eighty souls before the line reached the corner and snaked around the building. The silent men looked as though they were dressed for church, in wool suits and knit ties, but beneath their hats and scarves he could see that most hadn’t shaved in days, or weeks. I wonder if any of our fathers are in that line, William
“That was the best movie ever,” Sunny said, looking up at thelighted marquee, calling William’s attention away from Sister Briganti’s polite bickering.
Aside from the prairie scenes with thousands of men on horseback,he’d been utterly bored with the movie, distracted by thoughts of Willow and his ah-ma. He struggled to remember her face, sleeping in the bathtub, or singing on the silver screen, fearful that he’d forget one or the other. His mother was like a ghost, like Sunny’s water-vapor smoke. William could see her clearly, but there was nothing to grasp.
“It was okay, I guess,” he mumbled, then recalled that Sunny hadonce mentioned that he was part Cherokee, like some of the characters in the film. But how could he like a movie in which Irene Dunne called the Indians “dirty, filthy savages”? Then William vaguely remembered the movie’s hero, Yancey, defending the tribe and their stolen land.
“I’m glad you found something you liked,” William told himand nodded absently as a piece of yellow paper stuck to his shoe. The handbill was for the Movietone Follies and featured pictures of Stepin, Willow, and some comedian, Asa Berger, with dates for their northwest road show, including Seattle appearances in two weeks. Since both of his coat pockets had holes in them, William folded the paper and tucked it into a rip in the lining of his coat. He remembered his mother’s cheerful voice, the sound of her heels on the wooden floor, the sweet-smelling perfume his ah-ma used to wear. His memories were suddenly present and alive, and if this were a dream, he mused, he didn’t want to wake up.
William blinked when he heard a trolley bell ringing somewheredown the hill. He watched as Sister Briganti tromped back across the street, newspaper in hand. She slapped the cigarette butt from Sunny’s mouth and swore, shaking her head, glaring at the newspaper as though she were witnessing some mortal sin. She tore the newspaper in half again and again, then tossed the scraps into an overflowing garbage can. “Judas Priest!” she snapped. “First the unions, now the communists—I never thought things would get this ba—”
William turned to follow Sister Briganti’s line of sight as shelooked past him toward a paperhanger in tattered coveralls. The workman had unrolled a huge four-sheet poster of Willow and Stepin and was gluing the panels with wheat paste to the side of a boarded-up brick building. The two of them stared at the man and the giant advertisement featuring a Negro and a Chinese woman. Then William turned, his eyes met hers, and she looked away, as though embarrassed. She quickly clapped her hands and snapped her fingers, ordering everyone to line up single file to board the streetcar.
On the ride home, William watched Seattle roll by, house byhouse, block by block. He ignored the vacant buildings and the squatters in the park. Instead he longed for his mother, he longed for Willow, as he noted all of the movie houses and storefront theaters along the way—counting sixteen before they left downtown proper. The marquees were so inviting, so majestic, so dazzlingly colorful, like gateways to magical worlds, where the flicker of a cinema projector had brought the spirit of his mother back to life. He was so captivated, so lost in the neon reverie, that he hardly noticed all the shantytowns, the billboards calling for strikes and protests, or the missionary kitchens in between, handing out free bread to bearded skeletons.
“Welcome home, boys,” the motorman said as he slowed todrop everyone off near the end of the North Seattle Interurban Line. He rang a brass bell, eliciting a palpable groan from nearly everyone onboard, drowning out the whir of the electric motor and the crackle of blue sparks that flickered from the trolley pole overhead.
As William descended the muddy steps of the streetcar, he joinedSunny and the others and glumly walked past the convent and the sacred grotto, up the lane toward the five-story brick-clad villa of Sacred Heart. He trudged along with everyone else, knowing that the best part of his birthday was officially over. But something else, something new, was just beginning.
“Back to the Villa on the Hilla,” Sunny joked.
William didn’t laugh, still lost in his thoughts. In reality he knewthat his stately home was a kindly, loving, flower-adorned prison even though there were no guard towers— no barbed wire or barking dogs at Sacred Heart. Some of the older kids even lived on their own in quaint rows of Craftsman-style cottages with porch swings and hummingbird feeders. From atop Scottish Heights, he could smell the coal fires to the south, he could hear the boat horns and train whistles, see the city, appearing through the morning fog and disappearing in the Moorish twilight. But on any given day, the panoramic views of Puget Sound and Lake Washington were William’s only access to Seattle. And if Sister Briganti has her way, he thought, it will be another year before we set foot outside of these wooded acres.
As William walked past the hedgerow and white picket fencethat was all that separated him from the outside world, from Willow, he couldn’t help but notice how scalable the palings were, even for the scrawniest of boys. But the gates were never locked. It was the words of parents that kept most of the orphans here—the silken bondage of a mother’s promise, “I’ll be back by Christmas, if you’re a good boy.” Those mythic words, laced with happy-ever-afters, became millstones come January, when ice deckled the windows and the new boys stopped counting the days and began crying themselves to sleep, once again. After five winters at Sacred Heart, he’d learned not to hope for Christmas miracles—at least for nothing greater than a pair of hand-me-down shoes, a book of catechism, and a stocking filled with peanuts and a ripe tangerine.
As he approached the villa, the girls of Sacred Heart came pouringout of their cottages and barracks to greet them. They’d spent the afternoon decorating the common areas with crepe paper and hand-painted signs, and he could see (and smell) fresh angel food cakes cooling on the windowsills. The boys would do the same for them on July 15, when the girls all celebrated their collective birthday in honor of Mother Francesca Cabrini. The intrepid nun who founded the orphanage had once longed to serve a mission in the Orient. But she died somewhere in the Midwest, almost twenty years ago, long before William had even been born.
Following them in a wheelchair was the one boy who’d been leftbehind. His name was Mark something, but everyone called him Marco Polio, even though his matchstick legs had been malformed by rickets.
Marco and the girls all wanted to know what the movie waslike—many had never been to one. They wanted to know about everything out there.
“Did you go to the Curiosity Shop at Colman Dock and see thejawbone of a whale?” a girl with long braids asked.
“Did you see the window displays at Frederick and Nelson?”Marco chimed in, “Did you try a Frango milk shake?” The question drew excited oohs and aahs from the girls, who’d been given Frangos last year from a kindly docent who always came bearing chocolate and flowers.
“What about the totem pole in Pioneer Square?” a girl in theback asked while waving her hand, prompting Sunny to frown and retell the story of the stolen icon, though no one cared to listen.
William noticed that everyone continued asking questions exceptfor Charlotte, who stood on the porch of her cottage and held on to the banister. In her other hand was a white cane she’d been given by the Seattle Lions Club. She cocked her head toward the setting sun, her ear turned to the chatter of boys and girls mingling on the wet, grassy courtyard.
“I wish I could have been there,” she said, still looking at the sunas William approached, her freckled cheeks turning pink in the cool breeze. “I’d do anything to get out of this place—to feel the city up close.”
William stared at the faded blue of her milky eyes as her hairswept back and forth. “There was a player piano that worked like magic and a huge Wurlitzer organ—the music was tops,” he said.
“You’d have liked it.”
He watched as she smiled and nodded in agreement. How Charlottealways recognized him was something of a mystery. He wore shoes virtually identical to those of the other boys, bathed with the same soap, but perhaps something about his walk, his gait, gave him away. William had even tried sneaking up on her once in the grotto, but she called his name before he got close. Maybe it was because the other boys were so hesitant—her damaged eyes spooked most of them. Or maybe it was because the other boys rarely spoke to her at all.
“I brought you something.”
She turned to the sound of his voice, holding out her hand as heplaced a bag of fresh saltwater taffy in her grasp, folding her fingers around it. She crinkled the bag, brought it to her nose. “Peppermint,” she said.
William smiled and nodded. “It’s your favorite.” He’d playedjingles with the other boys last week and had won enough pennies to buy her a small taste of the outside world.
“Happy birthday,” she said, shrugging. “You know what Imean . . .”
“I don’t even remember when my real birthday is anymore,”William confessed, remembering a party with his mother, long ago.
“Sister Briganti won’t tell—she says that when I’m adopted, I’llwant to celebrate that day as my new birthday.”
“You don’t sound like you believe her,” Charlotte said. “She’s aholy vessel, she’s not supposed to lie.” Charlotte unwrapped a piece of taffy and offered it to him.
He thanked her and popped it into his mouth, tasting the sweet,chewy mint, feeling guilty for having already eaten three pieces in a fit of nervous tension on the ride back from Second Avenue. He’d spent the last few years resigned to the fact that he would never be adopted. A white family would never have me, William almost said.And it’s doubtful that a Chinese family would adopt a child so unlucky. No one is coming for me.
“How was your birthday visit with Mother Angelini?” Charlotteblinked as she asked him.
William looked up, noticing that the blue sky had turned into amash of thick, gray rain clouds. “No letters,” he sighed, but Charlotte knew he wasn’t expecting one. “Though I did hear a story about my mother.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment as a whistle blew from thesteam plant next door. Charlotte paused, and he knew she was giving him an out—an opportunity to change the subject or to speak about something more pleasant.
“She means well,” William said.
Charlotte frowned wearily. “This year she told me how I lost myeyesight.” She shook her head slowly and tucked her hair behind each ear. “I always thought I’d been born this way, but Mother Angelini told me about how the nurses accidentally put fifty-one percent silver nitrate into my eyes after my mother gave birth to me, instead of the normal one percent. They were trying to prevent some kind of illness, I guess, but instead they burned my eyes. But at least that explains why I dream of colors, and light, and tears. It’s weird to know that I saw the world once, if only for a few minutes, then shadows for a few years, before everything went dark. That also explains why I can never cry, no matter how sad I feel. Because my tear ducts were seared shut.”
William knew that Charlotte and he had both been here for morethan five years and both lived with similar expectations—that is to say, neither of them had any. They’d been pinned down with thumbscrews of truth, preferring the monotony of melancholy to the nauseating highs and lows of hope and inevitable disappointment.
“Mother Angelini told me my mom was taken to a sanitarium—an asylum. She didn’t come out and say it, but I guess that’s whereshe’s supposed to have died.”
Charlotte stopped chewing for a moment. For a girl without thebenefit of eyesight, she was terribly perceptive.
“But . . . you don’t believe her, do you?”
How can I?William scratched his head and furrowed his brow.
“I . . . I sawher today—well, not in person, but I saw someone atthe movie—on the screen, that looked just like her,” he said. “I know how it sounds—totally crazy. I wanted to tell Sunny, anyone—even Sister Briganti. But no one would ever believe me.”
“I believe you, William.”
“How can you?”
“Seeing isn’t believing. Feeling is believing.”
She reached out and patted his coat, finding the space above hisheart, where the handbill was safely tucked away. “I feel you.”