An Indian girl drowned in the crook of the river where my sister and I swam when we were children. She was in a canoe and the spring rains were heavy that year. The waters ran high and excited. The girl paddled around the bend in the river and was caught in the rush of fast water. Suddenly she was upon the boulders that jutted out from the bank. The rushing waters smashing up against the rocks caused a whirlpool that sucked her under and held her there until she could breathe no more.
A farmer downstream pulled her canoe off a snag in the river two weeks later. He searched the river banks for nearly a mile but found no trace of the girl. Then he came upon the swirling vortex at the bend of the river. He threw a limb into its center, and he knew what had happened.
The Indians had been gone from that part of Pennsylvania for many years, but the story held us captive. Torrie and I never went to that spot by the river without thinking of the Indian girl who had died and wondering if this was the day we would find her bones. The water in summer was placid, yet in the deep part below the rapids it was always murky.
In more recent times a neighbor boy was struck by a copperhead in the woods opposite the swimming hole. He was wearing fancy cowboy boots at the time. The snake’s fangs went through both layers of leather. Only his sock protected him from the venom.
He killed the snake and counted himself lucky. His left boot thereafter had two symmetrical holes just above the ankle.
The boots were a source of infamy. When he went to town on Saturday nights, he would gladly show the marks of the snake to anyone who asked, and even to some who did not. He wore the boots until they began to hurt his feet.
The summer when I was twelve this same boy hit my brother in the face with a shovel. They’d been studying World War II in school. “I’m a Jap,” my brother said.
The war had been over for ten years, but for some, the memory of Pearl Harbor still festered.
My mother staunched the flow of blood and put a bandage over the cut where the shovel had sliced my brother’s forehead. She told him it would be better if he found a new playmate. The boy who lived across the meadow was not to be trusted.
The side of my brother’s face turned black and stayed that way for a week. Now he has a crooked eyebrow as a reminder of that day and those careless words.
A few years later this neighbor boy, this copperhead survivor, this shovel-wielding patriot, married my sister.
Torrie had a baby boy soon after, and she named him Levi. Then she began to miscarry, one child after another. The doctor packed her uterus again and again. Finally he shook his head.
“No more,” he said. “You’re what we call a chronic miscarrier. This is gonna happen every time you get pregnant.” He shook his head sorrowfully. “You can’t go on like this, Torrie,” he said. “You’ll kill yourself. One of these times you’ll start bleeding, and I won’t be able to stop it.”
But Torrie’s pregnancies were not entirely under her control. Her husband was a very demanding man, and he still wore cowboy boots.
By now he had a closet full of them. No two pairs were alike, Torrie told me, and I had no doubt it was true. I’d seen boots decorated with flowers, horses, panthers, bison, covered wagons, teepees, and campfire scenes. His boots were a marvel.
They all had heels on them, so they made him look several inches taller than he really was.
He seemed to care little for the son they had. “I could twist a baby’s head off and throw it in a corner,” he said to my sister after her fourth or fifth miscarriage.
Torrie wanted to believe he meant she shouldn’t care about the unformed babies she continually bled out. She tried to believe that. She tried to keep loving him. But it was easier to love the little boy who was a toddler now but who still clung to her skirts and fell asleep in her arms.
When I testified for my sister at her divorce hearing, I wanted to tell them what her husband had said about twisting babies’ heads off. I could have told them what he confided to my brother shortly after his marriage to Torrie: that he’d had a crush on me, but married my sister instead. Torrie, two years older than I, was of marriageable age, but I was not.
Torrie didn’t know about that, and I didn’t want her ever to know. It could only hurt her. Besides, it was all hearsay.
As the hearing progressed, I learned a few of the rules.
There were a dozen of us in that dark-paneled room, all sitting around a long, mirror-polished table. Heavy velvet drapes hung at the windows. Torrie and I were the only women.
Torrie’s husband sat just inside the door, his chair tipped up against the wall, one booted foot on the floor, the other resting on his knee. Torrie gasped when she saw him, but then she straightened her shoulders and walked past him to her chair.
We hadn’t expected him to be there. Why had he come, I wondered? Did he want to make things more difficult for my sister? There was no reason for him to be there, and plenty of reason for him to stay away.
It was Torrie who was suing for divorce. He was not contesting it. In truth, he’d wanted out of the marriage as much as she. He’d given her leave to say anything she wanted, anything at all in order to get the divorce. Allege any cruelty she cared to, he didn’t give a damn, he said.
Now it seemed that he did.
I stole glances at him from time to time, but he was always looking down at his hands or staring off into space.
I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. I had the power to blow him sky high, up out of the water like the battleship Arizona when the munitions inside her exploded.
The thing he’d said to Torrie about babies’ heads was beyond cruel. If I told what I knew, the judge would surely slam his gavel down and instantly grant my sister her divorce.
The men who sat around the table wore dark suits and ties. They spent a lot of time talking among themselves as if we weren’t there. They shuffled papers. They passed things to one another.
We could only sit there, my sister and I, listening to what they said and trying to figure out what it meant.
We wore dresses, Torrie and I. Things might have gone better if we’d visited the local men’s store and bought suits and worn those instead. Spats, maybe. Long, thick ties knotted at our throats. Derby hats. Black Charlie Chaplin mustaches.
But it was summertime, and we wore light-colored frocks, mine sleeveless and full-skirted. We were pretty girls, and we knew it, though we would never admit such a thing. “You’re the prettiest girls in the county,” our mother used to say. “Maybe in the whole state.”
On that day we were nervous, Torrie more than me because of her husband sitting there, listening to every word.
When the proceedings began, Torrie’s lawyer led her through a series of questions. She knew what he was going to ask, and she’d thought long and hard about what she would say. She spoke in the softest of voices, and she kept her eyes downcast.
She told of the time her husband had threatened her with a gun, the bullet hole in the bedroom wall she covered with a picture. She described the single earring she found in his car, an earring meant for pierced ears. At her lawyer’s request she pushed her hair back to show that her own ears were not pierced. Her hair was long and blonde, and the men watched her closely, some leaning forward to see if indeed her ears were pierced or not.
She told of the time her husband had overturned the kitchen dinette because she’d forgotten to put the salt and pepper shakers on the table. She told of trying to clean up the mess, of the butter smeared among the broken dishes and the silverware, the roast beef sitting in the water spilled from the vase of wildflowers that had been the centerpiece, and of his yelling at her all the while.
I knew of other things: how he berated her if he found a dead fly in the space between the windows and the screens. How she had once run to a neighbor’s house, Levi wrapped in a blanket, fearing for both their lives. How she mourned over her dead babies, wondering if she was being punished for something she’d done, and if she was, what was it? What sin had she committed?
The men sat listening. Occasionally they made notations on their papers, but mostly they watched Torrie over the tops of their reading glasses.
When Torrie’s lawyer was finished, another began to question her. This one kept the lower part of his face hidden behind a manila folder. Torrie had to look into eyes that were partly obscured by bushy gray eyebrows. I could tell it unnerved her, not knowing about his mouth, not being able to read his face, questions issuing out from behind that piece of cardboard.
One of the men at the table kept adjusting his glasses so they rode on the very tip of his nose. He had a way of tucking his chin back so he seemed to disapprove of everything my sister said.
Torrie tried to be flip in her answers, but no-face behind the manila folder would have none of it. He would sigh and repeat the question, as if she hadn’t answered.
She’s only trying to protect herself, I wanted to tell him. Can’t you see that? But I could only sit in that slat-back chair and listen.
“Please instruct the witness to answer the question,” he would say to the judge in a voice both exasperated and bored. I wanted to grab his folder and slap him across the face with it.
“Please answer the question,” the judge would say. Often he wouldn’t even look up from the documents in front of him. He couldn’t see or didn’t care that my sister had blanched white, all the blood gone out of her face. It didn’t matter that she was ready to faint, to walk out of that place, to give it all up just to be away from there.
I might have been the only one in that room who knew how awful she felt about what was happening. No one in our family had ever divorced before. She could never marry again. She had stood at the altar of St. Pius Catholic Church and married this man before God. For Torrie, it was the last of the three occasions a woman is allowed to step onto the altar. By the age of 17 she’d already been baptized, confirmed, and married. She could never go beyond the communion rail again.
Well, if she were to become a cleaning lady, she might be allowed to vacuum the rug and change the altar linens. She might carry vases of fresh flowers from behind the sanctuary and place them in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin.
But I couldn’t see Torrie ever doing that. She’d had her three visits to the altar. There would be no more. Not even when she died: corpses are brought to the bottom step at the end of the aisle, but no farther.
In the eyes of God, Torrie would always be married to this man, no matter what the court said. She could never be free of him. It seemed a heavy burden.
The no-face man put Torrie through hell, asking things he had no right to ask. Bedrooms have doors on them for good reasons.
“Did you deny your husband his marital rights?”
“Have you ever had sexual relations with anyone other than your husband?”
“Did you encourage your son to sleep in the bed you shared with your husband?”
“Did you do anything to cause the miscarriages you suffered? Did anyone ever instruct you in methods you could use to cause these spontaneous abortions? Your mother? Aunt? Grandmother? Did they ever tell you what to do if you didn’t want any more children?”
I looked at Torrie’s lawyer, pleading with my eyes for him to intervene. Why was this manila-faced man asking these things? Couldn’t he do something to stop this? Just because Torrie was seeking the divorce, did that mean she had to be at fault?
It went on and on. Torrie’s hands seemed to move of their own accord, jerking and twisting this way and that, as if she had no control over them. I wanted to put my arm around her, take her hands in mine and soothe them. I wanted to smash my fist into the copperhead’s face, kick the chair out from under him, see those cowboy boots go scrambling for purchase.
There were snakes on the boots he wore that day. Brown snakes, twined together, open-mouthed, hissing, laughing at what was happening.
In the end the judge granted the divorce. By then it felt as if all the air had gone out of the room. It was no victory.
There had been no opportunity for me to tell what he’d said about babies’ heads. In a way I was glad. He’d been married to my sister, and they had a son. Legal records are kept for a long time, and men are ingenious at finding ways to extend the life of those records beyond anything that is sensible and reasonable.
If I’d told what I knew, the court stenographer with his clackety machine would have written it down. It would have stayed written down for a hundred years until the paper became brittle. At some point they would have put it on microfilm, and that would last forever.
I wouldn’t want Levi to ever know what had happened that day, the things Torrie had said about his father. It was better for him to not know.
We walked from that room down to Melagikis Tavern on the Square, two young women in our pastel, summer dresses, Torrie’s pencil-thin and fitted, mine with its crinoline-wide skirt, both of us with tiny waists and perfumed wrists and purses we held close to our sides. Inside the darkened barroom we ordered sandwiches and draft beer. Why not? We were old enough. We had a right.
It felt good to sip the icy-cold beer. When we finally began to feel warm and comfortable in that close room, when we were acclimated to the smell of cigarette smoke, leather, and the sweat of hard-working men, when the bartender had brought our sandwiches and set them before us, we could finally begin to talk about what had happened in the courtroom. The conversation, in fits and starts, in jumbled pieces that moved around and hid themselves, and sometimes stuck up like jagged pieces of glass, would go on for years.
“He never once looked at us,” I said. “Did you notice that?”
She shook her head. No, she hadn’t noticed.
“He sat on that chair propped against the wall, and he never looked at us.” I watched my sister disassemble her sandwich, remove the tomato and onion, scrape away the mayonnaise, then close it up again.
I took a drink of my beer. “He kept looking down at his hands or at the floor. A few times I saw him glance over toward where the judge was sitting, but mostly he kept his eyes down.”
Torrie laughed when I told her how I kept hoping the chair would come crashing down, and he’d end up on the floor. She laughed so hard she sprayed beer on her sandwich, and I slapped her on her back so she wouldn’t choke.
We’d thought the hearing would be nothing more than a formality. Torrie would say some terrible things, his lawyer would admit the truth by his silence, and it would be over.
I told her about the boots he was wearing, the snakes that curled up the sides. She hadn’t noticed that, either. But she remembered seeing the boots in his closet. She began to cry.
It was okay that she cried, because there were Venetian blinds on the windows, and there weren’t many people in the room, just a few old men sitting at the bar.
We decided he’d come to the divorce proceedings because he wanted to know what was being said about him. Maybe he wanted to defend himself, but more likely, he simply wanted to hear what Torrie had to say.
Privately I wondered if he wanted to assess his chances of going out with me now that he was about to be divorced from my sister.
Two fresh mugs of beer appeared on our table. We looked up. One of the men at the bar tipped his hat to us. We nodded our thanks, took a few sips, then began pulling our purses close. For the sake of courtesy we waited a few more minutes. Then we got up and walked out of the tavern into the afternoon sunshine.
Annulments have always been shrouded in secrecy. We knew that Henry VIII, King of England and Defender of the Faith, had tried to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon set aside. The Pope would not allow it. Through all that messy business of heads rolling off chopping blocks and the great schism that forever separated England from Rome, the Pope did not relent.
The lesson was not lost on us. Annulments are not easy to get.
Then Torrie learned that Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, had been granted an annulment. We’d never before known of anyone who’d had their marriage annulled, but here was a woman, sister-in-law of the President of the United States, who had managed to do it. It was an intriguing piece of information.
Torrie began to wonder: could she do the same thing? Could she free herself from this man? She couldn’t imagine that she’d ever want to marry again, but what if she changed her mind?
A visit to the parish priest, and Torrie learned the grounds for which annulments can be granted. Henry VIII had argued that Catherine’s previous marriage to his brother created a dire impediment. That was no help. Other impediments might be consanguinity, impotency, or disparity of cult. These did not seem useful. A willful exclusion of children could not be argued. A lack of due discretion, an insufficient use of reason? Yes. Torrie had her grounds.
Thus began three years of interviews, correspondence, and depositions. It took that long for the diocese to gather the information they needed. There were investigations to be done, medical records to be examined, evidence to be weighed.
Several months after Torrie’s meeting with our pastor, she received a letter from a Diocesan lawyer who called himself “The Defender of the Bond.” He’d been appointed, he wrote, to gather evidence that might lead the parties to see the error of their ways. His client was the marriage bond itself.
His questions to her would, of necessity, be probing, he wrote. They might seem intrusive, and for that he apologized. But she should try to answer them to the best of her ability.
What was your mental state prior to your marriage?
Please list names, addresses, and phone numbers of friends/family members/others
who might have knowledge of your mental state.
What could you have done to preserve the sanctity of your marriage?
Did you attend Mass on a regular basis? Did you receive the sacraments?
Did you fulfill all the obligations of the wifely state?
Were you subservient to your husband?
Torrie read through the letter and the list of questions, then sat for a long
time in a chair by the window. The papers lay in her lap. Occasionally she would pick up one of the sheets, look at it, then lay it down again. Finally she rose from the chair, folded the several pages and put them in the drawer of the sideboard.
A week went by. Then another. I waited, wondering what she was going to do. Several times I saw her take the letter out, look at it, then put it back in the drawer. Like an ulcer on the inside of your mouth, the letter clearly worried her. I could see she needed help.
“Come on, Torrie, get the letter and sit down at the table. I’ll dictate, and you write down whatever I tell you.”
What was your mental state……
I was very young. I really had no idea what marriage was all about.
Please list names….
You may contact my sister and my brother. Their names & addresses are on reverse side.
What could you have done….. Did you attend…..
Yes, I went to Mass and Communion every week.
Were you subservient….
Can you give me an example of what it means to be subservient?
We sent the letter off and waited. Two weeks later a second letter arrived. More questions. Then a third, and we noticed something. This lawyer, this Defender of the Bond, was a tricky fellow. He asked the same things over and over, rephrasing, approaching from different angles, but always the same questions.
Have you ever seen a psychiatrist? Therapist? Marriage Counselor?
What medications have you taken?
Did you practice rhythm in order to limit/ prevent pregnancies? Did you cause your husband to use prophylactics?
I read the latest batch of questions and bit through the eraser on the end of my pencil. “He’s trying to trip us up,” I said.
“I can’t remember what I’ve already told him. If I write something different now, he’ll think I’m not telling the truth.”
“You can say you didn’t understand the question. From now on we’ll make a copy of every answer. ”
It became a game. The two of us would sit at the kitchen table after Levi had gone to bed, searching through old answers we could use for the Defender’s
re-worked questions. We considered cutting our answers into strips and pasting them at random beneath his questions. Never mind if Torrie’s responses didn’t exactly fit. All the better if the Defender thought she was a dimwit, a dumb Marilyn Monroe blonde. This was all a game.
Yet we realized it was deadly serious.
We resolved to answer the letters immediately. No shoving them into drawers; now we answered them fast, sending them off the day after they arrived, hoping to throw the Defender off his stride. We wanted to keep him busy thinking up new ways to ask his questions. We bounced the ball back to him every time he sent it over the net to us.
Take that, you Defender. And that and that and that.
Sometimes, of necessity, there was an interruption in the missives that flew back and forth. Torrie had to submit to an examination by a psychiatrist employed by the diocese; the appointment they set up for her was two months off. The Defender wrote that he would be in contact after he had reviewed the report from the doctor.
Canon law dictated that the respondent, the other party in the marriage, be made aware of the action brought by the petitioner. He must be given a chance to respond to the petitioner’s charges.
But the respondent had not responded to any of the letters the Defender had sent him; could he have moved? Did Torrie have another address where her husband might be reached?
No, she did not.
It dragged on.
The respondent was eventually located and he responded, and his response suggested new questions for the Defender to dip in legalese and send to Torrie.
The ball was in the air again.
The day came, as we knew it would, when I could no longer help my sister. She was to travel to Harrisburg, the seat of the diocese, to appear before a tribunal of black-skirted men who had never been married. She had to go alone. She would be sworn to secrecy; she must never reveal anything that happened in the room.
I helped her dress that morning: navy skirt that reached to mid-calf, white blouse, hair pulled back not in a pony tail, that would have been too sassy, but caught in a bun on the nape of her neck. No perfume, no jewelry, no makeup.
She looked in the hall mirror before she left, and she laughed. “Who would want to be married to such a plain-looking woman?” she asked.
“You’re beautiful, Torrie” I told her. “You could have any man you wanted.”
“No,” she said, hugging herself as if she were cold. “I won’t marry again. No
matter what happens today, I won’t ever marry again.”
“Wait till it’s over, Torrie. See how you feel then.”
She turned, kissed me on the cheek, picked up her purse and started out the front door. I followed her to the car.
Surely she’d change her mind. I think she knew that. Why else would she go through all this, if she never planned to marry again? She couldn’t see beyond this ordeal she was facing, and I shouldn’t expect her to.
“Is there a chance you’ll find out anything today? About the annulment?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “It could be months before they reach a decision.”
I watched her drive away, and I lingered there in the driveway for some minutes before I went back into the house. I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee when Levi, wiping sleep from his eyes, came down the stairs. He was dressed in khaki shorts, and he was carrying his swimming trunks.
We had plans for the day, Levi and I. It was summertime, and the temperature had been hovering near a hundred for the last few days. Levi had never seen the place where his mother and I swam when we were children. He was nine years old.
When the dishes were done and the house straightened, I packed a picnic lunch, and the two of us set off for the river. I held Levi’s hand as we walked across the meadow and entered the woods behind the house where the neighbor boy used to live.
The path had changed. There were side branches and forks I had no memory of. The trail narrowed, and I had to let go of Levi. Then we began to hear the sound of rushing water and feel cool air on our faces and arms. We saw swatches of blue through the tree trunks.
“There it is,” Levi shouted. He ran ahead.
The undergrowth thinned, and the path diverged into a half-dozen smaller ones. The woods opened up onto the wide expanse of water.
The river ran lazier than I remembered, but we’d had little rain that summer. Exposed rocks jutted up from the river bottom. Trash hung in trees, marking the high-water marks from spring floods. Logs and broken branches were piled in the curves of the river.
The boulder was there, jutting out into the river, forcing the current sharply to the west before it could resume its southerly flow. Sunlight flooded the area, sparking off the water, turning the air to spun crystal.
Levi had already scrambled up onto the rock and stood near the edge, looking down into the water.
I caught my breath. This was the deepest part of the river. He was close to the edge.
Torrie and I had done the same thing when we were not much older than he. On hot summer days we would lie on the flat part of the rock, looking down into the water, searching for bones that had long ago been washed out into the ocean.
I set the basket on the riverbank and climbed up beside Levi. I put my arm around him and drew him back from the edge.
“They say an Indian girl once drowned here,” I told him. “A long time ago.”
“Indians lived here?”
I nodded. “Lots of them. My brother used to find arrowheads in the fields when
he was a boy. He had quite a collection of them.”
“Was she swimming?”
“The Indian girl, you mean? No, she was in a canoe. When the spring rains are heavy, a whirlpool forms here. They say it caught her, flipped her canoe, and she died.”
“It doesn’t look deep enough,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s shallow, no more than three feet deep. Other times you can’t touch the bottom. It depends on how much snow we’ve had, how fast it melts, and how much it’s rained.”
I spread the blanket in the sunlit area of the boulder while Levi retrieved the basket. We ate our picnic lunch to the sound of the swirling waters in the background, and I fell to remembering. I told Levi how his mother and I would come here during the dog days of summer, how we would test the water to make certain we knew where it was safe to swim, and how we would jump off the boulder into the water.
“What are dog days?” he asked.
“The hottest days of the summer. Days when there’s no other way to cool off except to go for a swim in the river. Like today.”
“Why do I have to wait an hour to go swimming?”
“It takes that long to digest your food. Otherwise, you might get a cramp, and I’d have to come rescue you.”
“Will my mother be home when we get back?”
“I think so. Or shortly after. Don’t worry about her.”
When we’d finished our lunch, Levi set off to explore the riverbank. He used the stepping stones below the rapids to cross almost to the other side of the river. When he tired of that, he found a vine tied to a cottonwood poplar, and he began testing it, preparing to swing out and drop into the water.
I sat on the blanket on the rock, watching Levi, thinking of the man who was his father, and of things I would never reveal, to Levi or anyone.
When we were children we’d always felt safe here, Torrie and I. There were snakes, but from the rock we could see if they crawled out of the woods or came gliding down the river. We were careful to stay out of the water when we saw moccasins swimming by. Little, brown, sneaky snakes, they looked so harmless. But we knew otherwise.
When the neighbor boy wearing his fancy cowboy boots heard us splashing there in the swimming hole, he would often join us. He would suddenly appear from out of the woods, and he would joke about seeing Torrie and me skinny-dipping, though we did no such thing.
Creepy, creepy, copperhead.
I always thought he spied on us. I sensed, even back then, that he was interested in me. Me, more than Torrie, though I couldn’t have said why, or even how I knew.
When Torrie and I tired of swimming and wanted to bake in the warm sun, I would scan the riverbanks and the forest beyond, looking for him, before I would take down the top of my bathing suit. Though I was hardly more than a child, I knew his jokes about seeing us naked reflected his desire. It made me feel dirty, to know he wanted to see us with no clothes on.
Had the copperhead struck harder, the neighbor boy might have died. My brother would not have odd eyebrows. Torrie might be happily married with a house full of children. She could be at home this minute, baking a cake or making jam or sewing a Sunday dress for a little girl. Instead, she’s sitting in a dark room at the diocesan headquarters, recounting things she would rather forget.
When I thought of Torrie sitting at that tribunal hearing, Torrie in the midst of those inquisitors, I wished the snake had been bigger, jumped farther, stuck his fangs in deeper. I hated that neighbor boy with a venom at least as strong as that of the copperhead.
But there was Levi, swimming in the river where we once swam.
My brother will go to his grave with those odd eyebrows. In a way, I wore a scar too. I could have warned Torrie. And I didn’t.
Why did I never tell her how dirty he made me feel? What failing was there in me, that I let her marry him, knowing he wanted me?
At least she has Levi. I looked at him, that thin, blonde boy who was like his mother and like my brother and maybe even like me, and I wondered about the copperhead genes in him.
Levi emerged from the water, shivering. He climbed up onto the rock to show me a thin trickle of blood running down his leg.
“A leach,” I told him. “It’s just a leach. I should have warned you. They don’t hurt anything. Doctors use them to clean wounds.” I knocked it off and wiped away the blood. “Time to go home, Levi. Time to go see your mother.”
I would have liked to have carried him up the path, I felt such love for him. But he was nine years old and too heavy for me.
On the walk home I held his hand, though the path was narrow.
It was late afternoon when Torrie pulled into the driveway. She got out of the car, reached for a package on the passenger seat, and closed the door.
“How did it go, Torrie?” I stepped off the porch and began walking toward her.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it,” she said.
“You can tell me how it went, can’t you? Was it awful?”
“They made me swear an oath,” she said. “I can’t reveal anything that
“Torrie, it’s me. I helped you fill out those forms, remember? I read all the letters. I know about the tribunal, the priests who listen to cases and sit in judgment. Is that what happened? Was there something else?”
“No,” she said. Her lips were thin, her jaws clenched.
“Who else was there? The Defender of the Bond,” I tick them off on my
fingers, “the advocate. Anyone else?” I put my hand on her arm. “Someone to represent the respondent?”
“A whole row of spectators. Dressed in black. I don’t know who they were. They looked like blackbirds perched on a fence.”
She pushed open the gate and started up the walk.
I followed. “Levi’s father? Was he there? Did he show up?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “There was a lawyer who represented him. That didn’t bother me. Where’s Levi? Is he okay? I have to go change my clothes.”
“He’s in the backyard, in his tree house…”
But Levi had heard her car, and he came running around the side of the house.
Torrie dropped her package and held out her arms to him.
I filled the teapot and set it on the stove while Torrie was changing. When she came down the stairs, she looked relieved. She sat at the table and spooned sugar into her tea.
“I feel better now,” she said. “I can talk about some of it. Just not what questions they asked.”
There were three judges, she said, just as she expected. The Defender of the Bond, a canon lawyer, a respondents’ advocate. And the blackbirds: men who sat on benches in the back of the room.
“Who were they? What were they doing there?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea. I guess they were priests. They never said anything. They just sat there.”
The canon lawyer had acted as Torrie’s attorney, presenting a legal brief, arguing her case for the annulment. The Defender of the Bond argued against the dissolution of the marriage. The respondent’s advocate had defended against the charges.
“You had to sit and listen,” I said.
She nodded, sipped her tea. “If the annulment is denied, I can appeal,” she said. She took out the pins that held her hair in that tight knot and shook it free.
“There’s another tribunal I can go to,” she continued. “It’s called the Court of
Second Instance. And beyond that, I can appeal to Rome. Something called the Rota of Rome. I guess it’s like the Supreme Court.
“My monthly,” she said, her voice gone soft, almost a whisper. “I started getting cramps as soon as I got in the room. It was freezing cold, and I’d forgotten to take a sweater. I guess it was all the stress I’ve been under, worrying about the hearing, wondering what they’d ask me.”
I set my cup on the saucer more forcefully than I intended and leaned forward. “You got your period? During the hearing?”
She nodded. “I asked if I could be excused, but they just ignored me. I had to sit up on this platform while they questioned me. The chair was upholstered. Some kind of white brocade fabric. I wasn’t prepared. I never gave it a thought, that it was that time of the month.”
“And it came through? Thank God you were wearing navy.”
She closed her eyes. “Through my skirt onto the chair,” she said. “It came clear through.”
“You got your period there, at the tribunal hearing, and it came through on the chair?” I put my hand over my mouth to keep from giggling, but I couldn’t suppress it. I started to laugh. Torrie looked annoyed.
“Fine for you to laugh,” she said. “It didn’t happen to you.” She stirred her tea and was quiet for a moment. “When I realized what was happening,” she continued, “I told the Defender I had to be excused, but he just shook his head, motioned for me to be quiet. I thought of walking out, but I figured I’d never get the annulment if I did that. So I sat there.”
“Oh my God, Torrie, I can’t believe it.”
“The chair was up on this platform. It was like sitting on a throne,” she said. “I felt like I was on display,” she said. Then she began to laugh. She laughed so hard she shook, and we fell into each other’s arms.
Levi came in the back door. He started to say something, then stopped. We reached out to him, brought him into our circle, and he laughed with us, though he couldn’t have understood. Gales of laughter swept over us. We were three children, Torrie and Levi and I, lost in mirth, unable to stop ourselves, laughing uncontrollably.
“I stopped at a drugstore after I crossed the Susquehanna,” Torrie said, wiping her eyes. “I bought what I needed, and I was okay. Nothing showed on my skirt.”
She pulled Levi close against her. “All those questions,” she said. No longer laughing, she was looking over Levi’s head at some faraway point beyond the walls of the kitchen. “I answered every single one of them, and they still have no idea who I am. Not one of those judges or priests knows who I am or what kind of person I am. They never asked the right questions. They didn’t know what to ask.”
“They’re working from an old set of rules,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you feel. All that matters are the rules.”
Later that evening, when Levi was asleep in his bed and the light was nearly gone from the sky, Torrie and I sat on the front porch. The air had cooled and a breeze turned the leaves.
“It happened to Mother once,” Torrie said.
“I was in high school when it happened to me,” I said. “I was wearing a full skirt. I twisted it around so the spot was in front, then kept it folded over so nothing showed.”
“Mother was in the kitchen, making applesauce. All of the sudden she dropped her spoon and ran. There was blood on the floor where she’d been standing. I thought something terrible had happened to her.”
“I never heard that.”
“I was only seven or eight at the time. I didn’t know about the curse.”
“Don’t call it that, Torrie. It’s not a curse.”
She sighed. The breeze picked up. “I think he felt sorry for me,” she said.
“The Defender of the Bond. He’s the one who told me about the appeals process.”
“The person who sent you all those letters? He’s not a priest?”
“No, he’s a lawyer. Hired by the diocese to take cases like this one.”
I looked at my sister, wanting to read her face, but darkness was closing in.
“He caught up with me outside the hearing room, after it was over. He said he was certain the decision would be favorable. If it wasn’t, he offered to help with the appeal. He was so nice, so friendly. He wanted to buy me a cup of coffee, but I just had to get away from there. I kept thinking about the stain on the chair.”
“Remember some of the questions he asked in those letters? ‘Did you practice rhythm? Did you cause your husband to use prophylactics?’”
“I think he regretted that. He said he was sorry about some of the things he’d written. That it was his job, and sometimes he didn’t like it.”
“He said all that, out in the hallway?”
“No, he walked me to my car. When it was just the two of us, he was different.”
“He walked you to your car?”
“Torrie, was he flirting?”
“He was just being friendly,” she said. “I should go check on Levi.”
There were a dozen questions I wanted to ask, but they would have to wait. For now, I was content to sit on the porch and watch the last light go out of the sky.
I looked across the meadow toward the house where the copperhead used to live. For most of the years since he hit my brother and married my sister, the house had sat vacant. The trees that surrounded it had grown tall and rampant.
I tried to make out the outline of the house, but could not.