I found it in Witches Woods, Easter morning on the way to my fort. Just a wee bright glimmer whispering to the sun. A diamond-like laser beam poking through the decaying leaves from last fall. I knelt down in the damp layer of leaves and dug it to surface. The earth was still cold, my hands were shaking. Cellophane tape dangled like shedding skin around this hidden treasure. It was a metal box of sorts. Not like the metal boxes I was accustomed to seeing. This metal box was elegantly monogrammed in cursive script. A present for my mom I thought, to make up for running away. However, it was permanently etched with someone else in mind. I cleared away the tape and black dirt. I was determined to break inside, but bruising it in any way would be disrespectful, so I acquainted myself with the box face-to-face, and that’s when I noticed the tiny notch waiting to align with its tiny notch mate. The dirt cemented in the notched crevices held tight, but once aligned, the box opened effortlessly. I tore away at the plastic covering to reveal a diary of sorts, with a key dangling by a thread to a six-holed penny whistle. I hunkered down on my favorite tree stump, opened the diary and squinted at the sun before entering another world.
1956, May 12
I’ve been avoiding my growing stomach but today when I walked the labyrinth I noticed the twelve o’clock shadow of my protruding belly. I’m staying with Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sisters are elderly and wise. They promise me that when the baby comes, they will find a loving Catholic family to nurture it. Al doesn’t know. His own daughter, 28 in July, will never know that she is about to have a half-sibling. I pray I give birth freely. I would love to see My Fair Lady.
1956, June 16
I’m sorry I haven’t written in over a month, but I’ve been repenting for my sins in ways that make life livable amidst my shame. I heard from Al through a postcard that last month’s opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much was a smashing success. He once promised me that I could meet Doris Day, and I’m still waiting. He said to “notice the profile of Day on the front of the card, your pal, Al.” I’m thinking I might never meet Miss Doris Day.
1956, July 7
I thought this morning that I would have the baby today. Now here it is almost midnight and everything and everyone is asleep. I look out my rear window and stare into the infinite darkness thinking how much clearer things appeared when shadows are a distant memory. Good evening, dear friend. Did I mention the world is sleeping?
1956, August 13
Today is my pal Al’s birthday, but I haven’t seen hide nor hair from him for months on my own accord, ever since I started to show. Last month I freely gave birth to a baby girl. I caught her profile as she was whisked from the room. Soon she would feel the embrace of Catholicism, and then she would spend the rest of her life repenting. I am responsible for the next three generations. Such an overwhelming thought.
This morning I dug out this picture, my favorite photo ever; Al and me in Oakland, four years ago on his birthday. We were watching the children ride the Llamas in Redwood Park. Their laughter rang in my ears. The forest and energy of the redwoods was intoxicating, and to experience the llamas, to feel and share their energy and message of love; I believe this was the happiest moment of my life. It’s the only picture I have of him smiling, showing the world his crisscrossed teeth, and I loved him down to my marrow. I felt joy, I presumed, for the first time. He looked me directly in the eye, the one and only time he’d ever been that forthcoming. I prayed he would ask me to marry him on the spot. Right there amidst the laughter, the llamas, and the redwoods. Instead he pulled from his back pocket a penny whistle he’d saved since childhood. He wanted me to have it, he said, to save it for a special day when I yearned for the innocence of childhood.
I’m thankful I did not have you, dear friend, at the time, as I would have needed to pull words from your spine in order to walk upright again. Time has a funny way of remembering what we’d most likely tend to forget. I recently read in Life magazine that Alfred and Alma will be celebrating Mrs. Hitchcock’s 57th birthday (tomorrow) in Bolivia on a llama farm. “It is what Mrs. Hitchcock has always wanted to do ever since her husband’s lone excursion hiking in the redwoods with whistling llamas a few years back,” Life said. I always knew about Alma and their joint venture with film making. He told me the day he met me out of habit. My pre-cloistered clothes were worn, not blessed by my mother superior, and I was wandering with every free-spirited intention in mind. The sky was powder blue; the air wet and sticky as I watched his profile staring out beyond the tide, Coney Island of all places. He asked if I would join him for a hot dog with kraut. Later we rode the Cyclone. He told me it was his birthday. His wife was in London visiting family. I knew who he was, but he had no way of knowing who I was. And it stayed this way.
1956, September’s end
I am leaving the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet this evening. The sisters tell me I’ve been forgiven, and I am still a child of god. Perhaps they have no other response being married to god and all. To tell you the truth I have never believed in god. I have never believed in good Catholic families that nurture illegitimate babies that grow into good Catholic families that nurture illegitimate babies. It won’t go away; just yesterday the lobotomy became an semi-elected surgery. I read it in Life. Did I tell you Life is the only secular magazine the sisters will subscribe to? Someday I’d like to be on the cover of Life. I confess, it’s just another wandering thought. I’m so grateful I’ve had this beautiful spot, this rock-solid tree stump to rest and write to you like no other. I will take a bus West, to California, the redwoods to be exact. I hope to pack you up, but I’m afraid it might stifle your very own wandering. I’ve got three hours to decide.
And that was it. That was all she wrote. And I happened upon it. I spread the leaves evenly with the palms of my hands, no leaf unturned, smoothing the earth’s blanket of any disturbance. The sky had dimmed. I smelled the earth within the pages of the journal. Do I leave the journal here for someone else? Who was she? I thought as I walked back home my fingers circled the holes of the penny whistle in my childish hand. I liked how the metal felt, how the wood vibrated in my hand. In no time I would learn to play "Funeral March of a Marionette.” The key attached would open many doors for me, I knew it. It was like having the key to Oz, and all its magic meandering through the obstacle course along the yellow brick road.
I knew the lights would be off as I got to the house. I won’t bother to tell my mom. She thinks I harbor figments of imagination, then she makes circles with her pointer finger close to her ear. “You have one crazy mind,” she’ll say. “You can make stories seem so real that we must turn the lights off and pretend no one’s home.”
I don’t want to go inside. I feel like I should atone for my sins. I go back to my fort, no walls but a roof. Maybe I’m that girl. Maybe I’m the girl that was saved by a Catholic intervention, predestined to return the deed. In my veins I will search for the joy I know I’ve inherited. Good evening, my dear friend.
Suzanne Nielsen, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, teaches writing at Metropolitan State University. Her poetry, fiction and essays appear in literary journals nationally and internationally; some of these include Mid-America Poetry Review, Identity Theory, The Pedestal, Word Riot and 580 Split. Nielsen holds a Doctorate in Education from Hamline University.