Room for the Child
this is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild
for if mary had been filled with reason
there'd have been no room for the child
It was by accident, the first time Billy found the secret room on his own.
Of course, in a house of that size shared with that many children, there were no secrets; not an orphan among them didn't already know about it. The rain barrel in the yard was propped against the north wall for a reason, there beneath the dusty windowframe, though it offered only the barest glimpse for any curious eyes.
Billy, as the oldest, just fourteen, was the only one who had been in the room before. Primera had been much too young, even before their father left; then their mother carried the room's secret with her to the end. The things his mother might have said, the things he might have wished his father to say-- all their unspoken words moved restlessly through Billy's mind, salt-bitter like the sea wind that scoured Racquel Black's headstone where it stood, at the western end of the island.
It was simply a room, his Bishop said to him on the eve of his ordination, when Billy had thought to confide in him about such things. Four walls, a window, and a barren space; mere objects and items should hold no sway over his daily life, his faith. For those few years Billy let himself believe that, his days busy with his marksmanship and devotions; his nights long with dreams. Those were hard years, of training and of ministering to his sister's silence, and he allowed himself very little time to wonder about locked windows, or to grieve for things forgotten.
Then came the children, his orphans, making the big house bright and noisy once again-- making the room behind the bookcase more noticeable in its dimmness, in its aching neglect.
At the turning of the season, the last of the new orphans suggested jimmying open the window from the outside. Billy's unspoken response to that, chillier than the early spring rain, left them very little doubt as to his feelings on the matter. The subject was never broached again, at least not to Brother B's face.
If the children murmured about the secret room at night, under their covers, huddled nose to nose and shivering, even that was with a quiet reverence. Though they'd never been told, they all knew that someone had died in that house. More than just the locked room, or the little sister's speechless smile: there were stains in the woodboard floor that two years of spring cleaning could not remove. There were violets all the way from Nisan planted in a careful, untrained circle around a hand-hollowed grave.
It was no stretch for the imagination of an orphaned child to believe the place haunted.
Indeed, curled to sleep on a rainy night, the gentle presence of a mother ghost watching from a hidden room was not at all the least comforting thing they could think of. Had they spoken of it to Billy, he might have been surprised to understand his own thoughts a little better. There was something there, in the room behind the bookcase, something invisible; of that not one of them had any doubt.
It was not until the turning of the winter, that year, that Billy found his own way in.
He could name no rhyme or reason for leaving his hand on the third shelf ledge while thumbing the spines of the Genesis picture book and Mordecai's Theologia, none at all-- but Billy heard the catch giving, heard the quiet sound of wood shifting against wood. In a heartbeat, he entirely forgot his search for his solstice hymnal, forgot about his appointment to be at Ethos HQ by compline, or about Verlaine's narrowed eyes and the Bishop's smile.
Fading daylight was creeping along the edges of the bookcase, cast from the windows within the hidden room. A faint dusty smell met him through the slowly widening crevice, triggering dormant memories, things so buried he'd forgotten he'd forgotten them.
...There in the corner were his father's workboots, the well-oiled leather dingy with disuse; there pinned to the wall was his favorite red bandanna. Billy's hands found the back of a chair to steady himself, and his fingers left clean prints on the sturdy wood. The little room was chilly, a book's thickness of paper insulating it from the warmth of the kitchen. All the same, it felt headily-- alarmingly-- of home.
They'd sat here together, Billy Lee and Jesiah Black, his father balancing him on his knees while teaching him how to polish an unloaded rifle to that perfect shine. And there, by the window not too long after, Jessie stood at Billy's elbow and showed him how to load it.
For a long moment, Billy bowed his head, though he could not tell if it was reverence or grief that had him thus motionless, clutching the hand-carved chairback and swallowing hard.
Seven years old and sleepless, Billy had once peered into the back room, long after his mother had put him to bed. Lamplight flickered against long shadows on the floor: the bookcase had been left ajar, someone was rustling beyond the wall. The night beyond their door was winter-cold, but the kitchen held the lingering warmth from the hard-working oven, the scents of bread and tobacco, of wood varnish and gunpowder. Billy padded nearer, noiseless in his sock feet, to see what his parents might be up to--
"Can't sleep, son?"
And Billy, now fourteen, startled nearly as badly as he had then; in that place, with the smells and sights the same as they had been seven years ago, the memory of his father's voice... was not a memory.
A man stood in the orphanage, leaning on the bookcase with the ease of a man in his own home. He was scarred and grizzled, but the smile he flashed was alarmingly familiar. There was frost on his boots and the hem of his coat; obviously he had travelled a long way. With another shiver of shock, Billy noticed that his sister was there, and clinging to the man's hand, her whole small face alight with speechless content.
All of Billy's words wrestled themselves into silence, and he could only stare.
Five years old, and just as sleepless, Primera had been peeking into the back room when she saw her brother discovering the bookcase's secret.
Though she squinted in the fast-diminishing daylight, she could not see which books had opened the door. If pressed, she might have guessed the blue one on the second shelf... But at the last moment, hearing the catch in her brother's breath, she looked away, and then he slipped out of sight.
Without another few years or half a sharl in height, she wouldn't have been able to reach that book on her own, anyway. She tiptoed closer, small hands straightening a book edge that had shaken free with the movement.
She supposed she could knock, a deliberate clamor against the bookcase to get his attention-- but what was worth disturbing him? Fire, or wels, or worse; not the lonely thoughts of a little girl on a bittercold December evening.
Tucking her hands into her apron pockets, Primera put her back to the wall and watched a thin light appearing between the bookcase and the wall; her brother had lit a candle. Beeswax, by the scent of it, she thought. That meant Billy was praying. She resolved to keep her silence, learning something of the measure of her own strength, in that dark and waiting time.
And so it was Primera who first saw the man standing in the shadows beyond the back porch lamp, first heard the lift and click of the doorlatch being opened.
Her heart pounded in her throat, her whole self shivering, though not with fear.
And if she made out something else, a retreating shape in the candlelight, or the sound of a sigh-- she never made mention of it. But then, everything is a secret when you don't speak a word.