by Jessica Simpkiss
No one believed me, when I was little and told them that they had buried the babies together in a room in the cellar. They’d say, Edith, you’re young and dumb, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I remember the sound of the nun’s footsteps clicking down the hall late at night, when the rest of us children, still alive, laid awake in our beds and cribs wondering if we would make it another day. There were so many of us it was hard to tell when one died, but we knew that another one was gone when we heard the footsteps at night. But what did I know? I was young and dumb. Sometimes at night, even in my early twenties, I’d wake in the dead of night to the sound of faint footsteps. I lived alone in a second-story flat. The neighbors were noisy, but I knew their sounds, and the steps did not belong to them. They were heavy with sin, two-fold because they’d sworn an allegiance to God to protect the unprotected and here they were, discarding the starved and sickly bodies of children not meant for this world. I often wondered why I never remembered the sound of their cries, but I didn’t. Us older ones knew what cries in the night got you, but the babies, they were just babies; hungry or cold or wet, unable to make sense of the hand the world had dealt them. They couldn’t be blamed, not like we could. But maybe even as babies, they knew, following our lead perhaps to keep it inside and pray that they’d make it out alive.I have few memories, outside of the sound of the nun’s shoes clicking in the hallways at night doing the home’s dirty work. But there are some. Those that I managed to hang on to were vivid images painted on the underside of my eyelids; holes in the soles of my shoes, thin sheets on the beds in winter, the long walk to and from the local school where the legitimate children of the world teased as for being home babies. To them, we were a different species, dogs scavenging in the streets, and they treated us thusly.I knew nothing of my mother, other than she’d arrived at the home after becoming pregnant outside of marriage. I’d seen a copy of the register. I knew her name. She was at least five months gone by the time she arrived. She’d hidden me away under thick sweaters and loose house coats until there was no questioning her conditioning anymore. I’ve lived with the guilt of knowing that I’d given her secret away. It was just what happened. Girls who found themselves with child and no husband were harlots, temptresses who’d gotten what they deserved for their societal and ungodly immortality. They were ushered away to the mother and baby home after the yellow glow of city streets lights faded, giving their impropriety the cover of darkness. Their families would say that the girl had gotten a job as a domestic or had been sent off to learn a trade, like weaving. The lie perpetuated when, or better, if they returned home, belly-less and baby-less and life continued as if new life had not been created. When I’d tried to find my mother the first time, I learned little else about her than that.There was a woman, a mother of one of the home babies, who had been forced to leave without her child like all of them had been. She would walk by the home twice a day, on her way to and from work, and every day, she would climb the stone entrance steps and beat her fists against the arched doorway. She would scream, loud enough that her voice carried away down the halls and into our rooms as we played as best we knew how. She yelled for the nuns, begging them to give her back her child. At night, I would pretend she was my mother, come back to claim me as her own. I suspected most of the home babies had the same dream.At seven, I was adopted by a childless couple who’d been unable to have children of their own thus far. Having nothing to compare them to other than the loveless nuns that had been both mother and father to me, I revered them as the kindest and loving people in the world. But a year in, my mother found herself pregnant contrary to everything the doctors had told her. I must have been the good luck charm.When Charlotte was born, I almost begged to be sent back to the home even though I knew it was an impossibility. There must have been a no return clause in the adoption paperwork because no one ever came back. Watching her come into this world showed me what real love looked like and made me a fool for thinking that I had ever been the recipient of it. I was young and dumb then.It was late March. Winter was beginning to relent and give way to the milder temperatures of early spring. April was always a difficult month, bringing with it my birthday and reminders of my interloper status within my adopted family. Charlotte had already texted me a handful of times to ask what my plans were instead of offering to make them for me and telling me that we should get together soon for lunch or coffee. I was sure we’d end up at the same awkward family dinner, where the three of them talked like I might not even exist.I always found myself on trains I didn’t belong on, but somehow in my daily travels in and out of Limerick, I’d find myself in a window seat staring at the bleak countryside spinning by the window. There was no conscious plan to do it, but as my birthday neared, it always happened. I’d never made it as far as Tuam, always detraining after recognizing the mistake I knew it to be. Nothing good would come of it, I told myself. Nothing good had come from it.Charlotte’s text became incessant, asking for my participation in a long overdue lunch date between two sisters who might as well be strangers. I ignored them all, some without even reading the messages entirely. Her need to feel like she was a good sister could not have mattered less to me.At home, late at night, I sit on the floor next to my bed and pull from the nightstand the only thing of my mother’s I have. It’s a copy of her name in the register. I trace the letters of her name as if she’d written them herself and not the intake nurse at the home. In the beginning, I told myself it was her handwriting, convinced myself that it must be hers, so I could have a piece of her. As I aged, I realized the possibility of it being her name being written in her own hand was unlikely. But I still trace the letters like they might be. Days fell away, and Charlotte’s incessant texting continued. Her unavoidable insertion into my life only made me feel more alone, more out of place, knowing that she only reached out to me because she felt obligated to do so out of guilt. She knew the strain that her unexpected existence had put on my own. She tried to make up for it with niceties and pleasantries, but they did little in the way of making up for the love I’d been promised, found, and then lost again. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t asked to be born to her parents any more than I had asked to be born to my unwed mother. The least she could do was believe me when I told her about the other babies, but she couldn’t even be bothered to do that.A week to go until my birthday, until I was granted relief from my sordid past for another year. I knew it was all self-inflicted torture, but it was uncontrollable. My therapist, two therapists ago, had suggested that I embrace the pain, live in it, relish it, and grow from it. The one before her only seemed interested in the insecurities my adoptive status left me with and only for his own betterment and agenda. Broken girls must make for easy bedding, I thought one time, as I watched his hand slide up the skin of my thigh and under the plaid skirt I’d worn that day.We sat at the table, pretending to be a family of four. Knives and forks tinkered away on the china plates and the small television in the corner of the living room hummed at a low volume. The man I hated calling my father because he wasn’t and had almost never even tried to be, insisted that it be left on during meals, even during my birthday dinner. He said it gave him comfort, like he wasn’t alone in the room. I had to laugh. He was such a thoughtless man.Charlotte droned on between bird sized bites about the things in her life that had gone right; her new job and loving boyfriend who she was sure would propose any day, garden flat in the most desirable part of town. I tried to remind myself that it wasn’t her fault, but that only made me blame her mother more.“Oh, dear, I forgot to tell you,” she interrupted, wiping the remains of chicken pot pie from the corner of her mouth. “Tuam was in the news this morning. Did you see?”I’d seen enough of Tuan for a lifetime, I wanted to say, but bit my tongue instead. I didn’t want to be rude.“Turns out someone found a mass grave in the septic system under where the old home used to be.”She spoke as if she were relaying a message about a sale on socks at the Tesco down the road. “Who knew?” she continued in the same, uncaring, unapologetic tone.I did, I almost said, but didn’t. I might still just be young and dumb. I laid in bed that night, reading the article online about the discovery at Tuam. After the building was demolished, the city erected low-income housing and a community playground in its place in some type of conscious-cleansing gesture, but they’d forgotten to get rid of the evidence. There were pictures of disenfranchised children standing at the gate, hands woven through the mesh—sad faces, waiting to be let in so they could play, the ghosts of those buried and left behind playing quietly alongside them.