November Web Feature by Robin Blackburn McBride
Robin Blackburn McBride holds degrees in English, Drama, and Education from the University of Toronto. She is a member of Amnesty International Canada and PEN Canada and an active supporter of environmental causes, including the preservation of old-growth forests.
A Shock of Blue by Robin Blackburn McBride
Dust lingered everywhere—on the chalkboard and tablets, on sweaty fingers rubbing out answers and rewriting them, and on the sun-seared window ledge, where a set of last term’s atlases baked. On that same shelf, a solitary Christmas cactus had long ago left its body. Throughout seventh-grade algebra class, the teacher spoke in turkey-gobble, and I turned my head to the left, where a single window was open about six inches. I could see the sky and hear birdsong.
Even before the sound of the birds was broken by Florence’s screams, I understood why the motor car idling outside the maternity home had worried me. She’d had the baby.
“Florence!” I hollered it twice and bolted from the room and down four flights of stairs. For several seconds, all I heard were my own footfalls and panting within the dark, wood-paneled hall. I ran with my skirt hiked to my knees. Teachers opened their doors and stared. On the ground floor, one of them lunged and grabbed me by the sleeve, but I yanked myself free.
Out on the street in front of the maternity home, the driver stood with his cap in his hands, while the matron and Florence tugged in opposite directions on a suitcase handle. When I
shouted my friend’s name, the woman released her hold, and Florence looked at me, stumbling backward. Dropping the bag, which sprang open with a creak like a trapdoor, she ran to meet me in the middle of the road. We flung our arms around each other.
Even though Florence was two and a half years older than I, fifteen, we’d become friends for the last three months of her pregnancy. On the days when I’d skipped school to go and sit with her by the river, she’d often rested her favorite book, The Great Galleries of Europe, on her huge belly, and she showed me the museums in her namesake city, a place she hoped one day to see. Once her baby was old enough. Although everyone at the home had told Florence that her parents were doing the right thing by putting the baby up for adoption, she refused to believe it would happen. Each time we met, holding the book open with one hand, with the other Florence patted the blue baby blanket that she’d snuck into the home in her underwear, and spread over her belly every chance she got. Like a charm. Somehow, she kept telling me, when everyone saw how much Florence loved her baby, how they fit, and what a natural mother she was, no one could separate them. That’s why I was worried. I knew what was coming.
The baby was gone.
Like a person who’d just been thrown from a moving cart, Florence was shivering. I squeezed her with everything I had.
Her face was flushed and blotchy, and her glazed eyes only half met mine when she pulled back and spoke. “They’ve given her away, and now they’re sending me home without her!” Shrieking, Florence doubled over, shaking her fists, beating them on her thighs, and crossing them on her chest. “My baby’s hungry!” She was moaning. The front of her dress was wet with milk.
What could I do? I hugged her shuddering body again, and this time I held on.
Near the suitcase, amongst her scattered clothing was a shock of blue blanket on the pavement. The Great Galleries of Europe lay beside it, splayed open on its spine. I watched the pages flutter and closed my eyes, wishing for a Da Vinci angel. Without knowing what was happening, I saw a vision of an older Florence seated alone at the side of a tidy, narrow bed. In her room, the floor had been swept clean, the desk cleared, and the wardrobe closed. Through the bars of a single window, daylight reached with pale fingers to touch her vacant face.
What did that mean? Where had it come from? No, no. That couldn’t happen.
Gripping her shoulders, I focused on my friend. “Florence. Listen to me—”
“I called her Sarah.” Florence’s teeth were chattering. I could smell her sweat, and the side of my neck was wet with her tears. “Now she won’t know her name!” Florence was bawling again.
The principal and a few teachers had come out and gathered at the edge of the playground, yet on both sides of the street, the adults hung back. It was as though Florence’s wails had cast a spell on them. They were stone people. I didn’t want to look at them, or up at the school, where I knew every window would be filled with staring faces. Taking a breath, I held my grip and gaze steady. “Florence.”
Only the driver moved. He kept turning his cap in his hands. “She’s hysterical.”
As the principal headed toward us, a woman with a medical bag, maybe the same midwife who’d delivered Florence’s baby the night before, crossed the lawn of the home and stepped beside us. “Please, let them alone for a minute. This girl has just had to give her baby away. Let her cry with her friend.”
At the sound of that last word, the principal’s chest puffed up as he stopped. Looking first at the midwife, and then at the matron, he pushed his glasses higher on his nose. The matron
backed away. At that, he turned and headed toward the school gate, where by now the secretary had joined the few teachers, and several younger boys in drill clothes had gravitated from the field to the iron fence, keeping their snickering low. Holding his hand up, the head of the school motioned for the drillmaster to take the boys back inside. Then, only the secretary and the few teachers without classes remained at the gate, standing behind the principal, staring at us.
“Florence!” Shaking her shoulders, I studied her glistening, wan face. “Listen.”
She blinked at me.
“You can see Sarah again.”
“With your mind.” Keeping hold of her made sense. But the words? Where were they coming from? And why was I smiling? “Remember like we talked about that day at the river? Just close your eyes.”
Florence flashed me a bloodshot scowl. Then she took a double breath and wiped her nose with the back of her wrist. She closed her eyes.
“Can you see her?”
Her shoulders and chest were heaving. Florence was frowning.
“Now I want you to see her surrounded by people who love her. Can you do that?”
“But I love her.” Her brow was puckered, and she was still whimpering.
“Yes.” I grasped her cold hands. “Yes, you do. You love her and you always will. Love is big, Florence. You love her, and nothing—and no one can ever change that. Take some deep breaths.”
She was moaning, trembling. “She’s just a little baby.” Florence took one deep breath.
“Yes. You gave her life. No one else did that. You. And you can keep on loving her now,
Florence. Picture Sarah in a big, beautiful bubble of your love. It’s pure sunshine light. Can you see it?”
Tears were leaking from the corners of her eyes.
“Your love is so important, Florence, because it helps make Sarah’s bubble strong—so strong, and bright, that she’ll always feel the protection of it. Can you sense that?”
She bit her lower lip. More tears.
“A bright, strong bubble needs lots of love, Florence. There’s no limit. So—would it be all right if, in Sarah’s life, lots of people love her and help to keep her safe and happy?”
She wiped the tears off her cheeks with her sleeve. “Do you really believe this?”
“I do.” Did I say that? “I feel it, Florence. The parents who are raising her—they love her too. They know she’s a little baby, just like you said, and she needs to be held. She needs to be fed. See her being picked up and bundled, all snug in her bubble. Can you see her being held?”
“She’s being given a warm bottle. As you watch her, just love her, Florence. Send her all that love, even though she can’t see you right now. She can feel you. You can touch her soft head and, in your mind, give her your finger to squeeze. Can you do that?” What was going on? Where were the words coming from? Did I have the right to say them? Was I making it worse? But I couldn’t seem to stop. Somehow, I needed to tell her what I was seeing.
Florence’s eyes remained closed, and she kept hold of my hands. “Maybe I can do it. Maybe I can squeeze her finger.”
Holy cow. She was trying. “Now, Florence, keep with me.” Oh please. “Stay with me.” Standing there, I felt the sun on my arms, and they were tingling along with the chickadees’ chitters. From up above us on a wire, a house finch chirruped its jumbly song. My body went
calm, even my toes. “Imagine she’s a little older. She has a room that smells like sheets all fresh from the clothesline. She’s got a comfy old stuffed bear, and picture books, and the parents raising her are taking good care of her, Florence. They’re having a birthday party for her on the lawn. The mother raising her sets down a big chocolate cake with five candles right in front of her. Can you see her smiling at her birthday party?”
“She’s got my hair.”
I took a breath. “She does.”
“It tangles easily.” Florence swallowed. “It needs to be kept in braids or it’ll turn to mats. Most people don’t know how to brush that kind of hair.”
I squeezed her hands. “The mother raising her knows just how to brush it, Florence.”
“You have to be patient. You have to be gentle.” A few more tears came down. She was shaking her head.
My throat and chest began to tighten. “The mother raising her is patient. She’s very gentle.” I saw my own adoptive mother’s hands lengthening the hem on my skirt in delicate stitches. I felt them braiding my hair for the studio portrait, and I cleared my throat. “Can you see careful hands brushing Sarah’s hair, Florence?”
Rubbing her inner arm across her damp chest, she let go, smoothing her dress with her palms. “Okay.”
“That’s good.” I retook her hands. “Now, imagine her growing up in a nice house, with friends who come over, and piano lessons, and trips to the beach in summer. See her with people who look after her and love her, knowing how special she is. Can you feel all that love going to her?”
Florence nodded. Her closed eyelids were fluttering, and she looked like she was
dreaming. Her palms were warm.
“Anytime, you can hold her and send her your love. Hold her just like a little baby, even when she’s big. She’ll feel it. And, Florence—” Tears were wobbling at the edges of my own eyes now. “You can stop holding her too.” I swallowed. “It’s okay.” I let a few run down my cheeks. “She’ll still feel your love.”
Florence nodded. “Avery.” Her trembling had stopped. “I want her to know me.”
I gave her hands a firm shake. “She’ll know, Florence.”
Florence opened her eyes.
For several seconds we stayed together like that in the center of the road.
The sound of approaching footsteps on the asphalt marked the end of the spell. “Avery Conlon.” The principal pronounced my name like he was reading it from a roster. I didn’t care. I didn’t look at him.
From her side of the street, the matron took a few steps toward us too. The midwife had gone. This was it.
I turned and walked in the matron’s direction, brushing past her as I headed for the fallen luggage, and bent down, picking up Florence’s blue blanket and folding it, with her clothes and the book, into the bag. I brought her suitcase back to her. “I think you’re going to go to Europe, Florence.”
“Really? Do you see that too?”
I saw several things. I saw Florence standing in a vast gallery before the gilt-framed Madonna of the Rocks. I saw her in the desert with the wind beating her face and her hair tied
back under a safari hat. She wore trousers and she was kneeling in the sand, digging, concentrating. I saw a young woman’s hand knock twice on a door in Cobourg. She whispered Florence’s name. The door opened.
For a moment, a faint smile appeared and faded on Florence’s face. “Write to me.”
“I will. I’ll send my letters to your parents’ hardware store.”
Her chest rose. “Yes!” For the first time she gave my hands a squeeze and shook them. “It’s on the Main Street. Fieldstone’s in Cobourg. That’s all you need on the envelope. I’ll write you back.”
The principal was beside us now, speaking over his shoulder and waving again, this time to the teachers. “We’ll have order. Back to your classrooms, ladies.” Off they went. When I looked at him, his face was red, and his eyes goggled at me above his big mustache.
The matron took Florence’s bag. She handed it to the driver, who set it in the trunk and cranked the engine twice before the machine engaged, sputtering into a steady rhythm.
Turning back to face Florence, I memorized where we stood as we had a last hug. “I’ll write tonight.”
“Enough, now.” The principal took me by the arm as the matron did the same with Florence, packing her into the car and, in a controlled voice, wishing her well. My arm hurt where the principal’s fingers dug in. I kept craning my head over my shoulder, even as he muscled me back, so I could watch her for a few seconds more, in the car. Through the window, Florence looked at me, cradling an invisible baby in her arms. Then Florence blew me a kiss, and the car pulled away.
Something had stirred awake in me in the middle of that road. The message I’d spoken had come through me on its own. But where had it come from? I had no idea.
In the principal’s office, I closed my eyes and hugged Florence again in my mind, making sure she could feel me and would know that when she cried again, I was right there for her. Staying with her like that, I had a hope that she’d remember to send Sarah love and see her being cared for, just like in the message. Tonight, in my letter, I’d tell her to pay attention to her dreams. She might see Sarah there. But for now, “Just send her love” were the words I kept muttering under my breath as the principal explained what a danger I’d been to the community, and how he’d apologize to the matron on behalf of the school. I wasn’t to write any letters. Those girls were no business of ours.
Through the caning, ten times on each palm, I closed my eyes and saw Florence in her own bubble of light in the taxi. I won’t lie. The welts stung, and part of me wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I didn’t care if I got beaten. I didn’t care what people would say about me. I didn’t care how they’d stare and whisper when I walked into a room, or how they’d laugh. The images of Sarah and Florence in their light told me what I was going to do with my life.
As the secretary led me back into the outer office, I gazed down at my scuffed shoes with half-closed eyes. I heard the principal’s voice on the telephone to my parents. A minute later, he poked his head around the door as though he hadn’t just whipped me, assuring me that my mother would soon be coming to pick me up.
How I wished that were true.
I closed my eyes and did my best to imagine my real mother holding me like Florence holding Sarah, not ever wanting to let me go.