"But I don't want to stay here, Papa." I had to look down into his face, and it made him seem so much smaller.
"Be a good girl." He set me back on my feet and bowed down to meet me eye to eye. "Grow up to be a strong, smart young lady. And do not cry."
His admonishing finger, nail bitten to the quick and grimy from travel, staved off the prick of new tears. "Strong, I tell you."
"Are you coming back for me? After a time, after I've grown up a little? When I'm a lady?"
A weak smile played across his lips, and he cast a quick, nervous glace up to the nun. "Child," he said, gripping my shoulders, "I am delivering you into the hands of God, the same God who once gave you to me. Could you ask for anything better than to be in his loving care?"
I knew, instantly, how I should answer. Thinking back to our small, dark home, with rooms shut away to ward off the chill. My three older brothers crowded around the table, squabbling for the last bowl of stew, and taking mine when there wasn't enough. Now, with me gone, there would be more for everybody else. Not enough, but more.
Maybe the new mama would smile a bit and not stomp through the kitchen rattling pots like a thunderstorm. Maybe my brothers would stop stealing bread and making their papa lie to the red-faced baker when he came pounding on the door. There would be one less body to soak up the heat from the fire, and more space in the crowded bed.
I stood up straight and wiped my nose on my sleeve. "I'm ready now, Papa."
"That's my good girl." He kissed my forehead, my cheeks, then briefly, my lips. One kiss, he said, for each of my brothers, and one final from Mother watching from heaven. The nun kept her own silent watch until the end, when Papa handed me the small bundle he'd been carrying over his shoulder for the last mile of our walk.
"No." The sister's sturdy hand stretched from within the long black sleeve. "She comes with nothing."
"Sister Odile, reverend mother of the convent of Brehna."
"It's just a nightcap," Papa said, not mentioning that it was the cap Mama—my mama—had stitched with small purple flowers. "And clean stockings and an apron."
"Nothing." Sister Odile tightened her grip and dragged me to her side.
Head low, Papa shouldered the bag once again, saying, "As it should be, I suppose."
I noticed the quiver in his chin and knew it was one of those times when I would have to be strong in his place. I needed to stand straighter, fix my eyes above, and set my mind in obedience. A pinpoint of cold pierced my shoulder where the gold band on Sister Odile's finger touched my flesh. Ignoring the growing grayness of the sky and the imminent demise of Papa's resolve, I took a deep, cleansing breath.
"You should start for home, Papa. It will be dark soon."
"Yes," he said. And that was all. In the next instant, I was turned toward the gate, then marched through it. Sister Odile's robes flapped against her, an irregular rhythm in the growing wind. For all I knew, Papa remained behind the iron bars, watching every step. Counting them, maybe, as I did. I listened for his voice, waiting for him to call me back, but if he did, the words were lost to the crunching of the stones beneath Sister Odile's bearlike feet. I myself felt each one through the thin, patched leather of my shoes. When we came to a turn in the path, one sharp enough to afford a glance out of the corner of my eye, I saw the gate, with Papa nowhere to be found.
Then came the rush of tears.
"Stop that, now."
To emphasize her command, Sister Odile stopped in the middle of the path, leaving me no choice but to do the same. I scrunched my face, calculating the distance between the looming church and the empty gate. Both were within a few easy, running steps. And I was fast—faster than any other girl on my street, and some of the boys, too. I could outrun my brothers when I needed to avoid one of their senseless poundings, and I could cover the distance from our front door to the top of the street before Papa could finish calling out
my name in the evenings when he came home before dark. In an instant I could be free, back at the gate, squeezed through, and in Papa's arms before the nun would even realize I'd escaped. Or I could fly, straight and fast, right up the path to the looming church. Surely Sister Odile's cloddish feet and flapping sleeves would make her lag in pursuit. The height and breadth of the outer stone walls promised a labyrinth of dark corridors and twisting halls within. I could run away, hide away, lose myself in the shadows until morning, when the clouds might disperse and reveal a shining sun to direct me home.