The Magic Touch
by Rachel Simon
A Promise Fulfilled
Celeste's mother had been dead two days when Celeste was born.
If, during those two days, Celeste could have looked down the
long road of the birth canal and seen the life that waited for her, she
might instead have backed away, chosen to remain in the womb, slowing
her own heartbeat and suckling death, growing blue and quiet,
until she and her mother were covered by sheets, laid in a coffin by
people she would never know, wept and mourned over, lowered into
the ground. There she could have drifted into darkness and silence.
There she could have savored oblivion.
Sure. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. Place your
bid before midnight and I'll throw in some mystic secrets for free.
Truth is, if the birth canal had been a periscope into Celeste’s life,
and her ears had been open, she might instead have felt her grandmother
Edwina Kipplebaum Runetoon Kelly babbling through her
like blood, and the words might have snapped the child to attention,
seized her with the responsibility of what she had to live. "Celeste!
Celeste!" her grandmother would have exhorted her. "Those lucky
enough to know themselves have an obligation to the world. Think
of the many people who never know who they are: squatting open-
handed, waiting for life to give them identities, certain they can do
nothing of importance. Or worse yet — my dear, are you listening? are
you looking? — worse yet are those people who know themselves but
can't do anything about it. This could happen to anyone — even someone
with a gift as wondrous as yours! Imagine: Einstein in a country
where math is laughed at when it goes beyond fingers and toes; Dickinson
in a house where Dad paddles anyone who scribbles a poem.
Often, those whom the Powers That Be don't want to speak lose the
ability to hear themselves. Oh, such a tragedy, to feel like the scraps
left over after life snipped away the true creation. But you, Celeste, are
lucky; you are a promise fulfilled. You know who you are, you have
room to grow — and you have a gift so special, so tailored for its era,
that the world doesn't just need you; the world must have you. So stop
diddle-dallying. You should come out already, don't you think?"
Think? Good golly, Miss Kelly, how could Celeste have thought it
through? Even if she could have heard your sales pitch. How could she
have understood the birth canal and the corpse? Let alone the life that
lay in wait after that day in the delivery room.
Sunbeams angled between the blinds, lining the delivery room with
long fingers of light. The unborn Celeste and her dead mother lay on
a bed. Around them stood nurses and Miss Kelly’s children, their feet
sore from the weight of their two-day vigil.
The three nurses knitted their brows. Among them was fifty years
experience, yet they trembled at what they’d never seen before. Sweat
outlined the underwear beneath their gowns: slips for the two women,
a T-shirt for the man. The male nurse stood off by himself, his brown
skin a sharp contrast to the paleness of the patient in front of him.
His eyes flitted to the other nurses, to the children, to the sun stripes,
but the place where his gaze kept coming to roost was the body of the
Clustered among the nurses stood Miss Kelly's children. Tall
and short, boys and girls, post-diaper to post-puberty, they wore a
hodgepodge of clothes that broke every fashion barrier: mod, macramé,
greaser, mini, rock star, migrant, Maoist, hoot-a-ninny, haute
couturist, cardigan allurist, black leather purist, American tourist,
spandexed, cross-sexed, Tex-Mex, and jeans. But despite the diverse
attire, in the delivery room they all seemed to look alike; every face
was equally strained with worry.
The pregnant woman lay on the bed, her brown hair loose down
the pillow. When she was alive, the sun’s rays had dived into her hair
and lit up the red curls like stashes of buried rubies. But death stole all
her color. Her red strands sank deep into brown. Her pink fingernails
flooded with blue. Her skin looked like frosted glass on which no life
had been written.
Only two days earlier, the nurses had thought the woman seemed
ageless. That was not what she told Nurse Molly Bee when she admitted
herself — "Seventeen," she answered on the forms—but Nurse Bee,
cocking an eyebrow beneath her supersprayed, foot-high coif, felt that
the patient carried herself closer to middle age. The girl seemed so
serious, dressed to the zeros in a plaid maternity dress and clogs, her
curls twisting free of a braid, her fingers clutching a knapsack that the
nurses later learned was full of students' tests. Her gray eyes seemed
haunted, as if layers of ghosts lived inside her. And when she spoke, it
was in the calm words of someone seasoned enough to tuck pain into
a back pocket. "I think I'm ready for my baby," she said.
Molly Bee had never seen this girl before, despite having worked
in the clinic for years. People in more populated areas could go to
hospitals, but the small mining town of Fossilfink Falls, Pennsylvania,
down on its luck since the bust in coal, was too poor and remote to
have a hospital. The clinic was it. Located in a converted farmhouse,
with gadgets more state of the hobby than state of the art, it was overseen
by a single doctor, who trudged into this black valley only once
every three days.
Molly Bee sat at the receiving desk, studying the girl. Plump yet
perpetually famished, Nurse Bee stuffed her soul with newspaper
gossip and fantasized about becoming a celebrity columnist: blissful
access to the pantheon of the famous! joyful nirvana of the A-list!
muscled hunks licking her every crevice in exchange for a smidgen of
But instead she was stuck in this boondock that had long ago been
strip-mined down to infertility, and all she could gossip about were
people as trapped as she. So she scrutinized this girl, and—aha!—
homed in on a naked ring finger. "Your husband," Nurse Bee asked
casually, "know you've made your way here? We can call and tell him."
The patient smiled politely. "I'm not married."
The thrill propelled Nurse Bee backward in her chair. She composed
herself, adjusting her uniform and her lacquered hairdo. "You've
been seeing Dr. Twitcox at another clinic? It'll take him a while to get
to us, but I can track him down."
The girl shrugged. "I've been doing my own doctoring. I'll just see
him when he comes in."
Nurse Bee regarded the young woman. No doctor! But she didn't
look poor. "All right," Bee said, struggling to remain efficient. "You
need to fill out forms. You are insured, hmmm?"
"I have money." The girl reached for a pen, and Nurse Bee mentally
paparazzied every detail — no jewelry, no cosmetics — so she could
broadcast this story later to any ear within drooling distance. It would
provide the local entertainment for at least a week; Nurse Bee had
friends all over the valley.
Little did she know how widespread her audience would eventually
People still ask me if I can remember my birth. I guess they figure
that since it made such headlines for a while, it should somehow be
imprinted on my mind. But of course I can't.
I wish I could. Was I scared in my mother's womb? Sad? Or too
preoccupied with myself to notice she'd died? I hate to think so, but
I've been intimate with lots of people, and I've learned that when we’re
caught up in our own mess, we don't often think of others. No one is
above this. Despite what your readers might believe, not even me.
—Interview with Celeste, SNM Today
Nurse Bee's eyes shifted focus. After all, the girl was breathing normally,
so once Bee freeze-framed the visual highlights, she didn't need
to concentrate on the here and now. It was more important to get
going on speculation: to spin herself a hypothesis that might encompass
this girl’s life story.
Maybe . . . she'd come from a city. Yes. That's it. Erie or Scranton
. . . in a car listed on a college ride board . . . Lacking family support
and the love of the . . . rogue who dumped her, this girl came
anonymous to these dismal Pennsylvania coal hills. Right. She’d be
challenged but would maintain her dignity. She'd battle the odds,
resist poverty, struggle against the uncertainties of a life lived without
a man . . .
Papers piled up on the desk. Nurse Bee glanced at one, and her
engine gagged: the address was not some city but the old school outside
town. It had been a school, Bee corrected herself, but closed ages
ago, after the Fink Coal Company went bankrupt and families packed
up in search of work and the remaining kids got bused down the single
road out of town to a school an hour away. For years, the old place
sat forgotten, with weeds of every nastiness growing high. Then the
property was bought by a stranger, Edwina Kipplebaum Runetoon
Kelly, a wealthy eccentric from New York City, who imported her utopian
ideas to Fossilfink Falls and turned the school into an orphanage.
She called it, natch, the Kelly Home. Children came from all over the
country, not only the truly orphaned but also kids whose parents had
other places to be or other people to love. Now pink and set behind an
iron gate, the orphanage was known as a place where kids ran about
unsweetened, unfiltered, and unpreserved, free of additives, religion,
and television. They were educated — in fact, the older kids taught
the younger. But they were also allowed — no, emboldened — to create
themselves: to pick their own names, develop their own talents.
And how outlandish were the talents they developed, or so went the
rumors: kids who could understand the language of animals, or catch
a piece of sky in a jar, or turn other people into trees.
To what end these "talents" were to be developed no one knew.
Speculation bubbled up from time to time but always simmered back
to the stock understanding that these were just rumors, possibly even
generated by Edwina Kelly herself — who was, as far as the locals were
concerned, a little cuckoo. After all, this was the lady who’d installed
an iron gate across her drive that declared: TO KNOW ONESELF AND BE A
SQUIRE, TO SERVE THE WORLD AND BE A KNIGHT. You have to be kind of
flaky to do that.
Locals had always steered clear of the orphanage. Though not
just because of Edwina Kelly. When the place first opened, years ago,
Edwina Kelly had marched the children into town one morning, a ragtag
menagerie dressed in oddball clothes. As they crossed the town
green, Gluper Flugel, who was working off his usual morning blur
at the coffee shop, peered out the window and proclaimed that they
looked like a circus from hell. "They give me a fear," he told everyone.
"Best stay away from them." The few who witnessed subsequent dawn
marches agreed with Glupe, but after only a month, Miss Kelly and her
orphans ceased the walks. Thereafter they rarely came to town except
to go to the clinic, and Gluper’s pronouncement held sway.
Nurse Bee, however, wasn't sure she concurred with Glupe. To
her eyes, the orphans seemed like decent kids. A little rambunctious
and sacrilegious, maybe. But they never displayed any of the rumored
weirdo talents, and though they were rather fast, at least they used
Until now, that is.
Nurse Bee squinted at the girl's face. "You're not one of the orphans
we've seen before," she said. "You new out there?"
"I'm not in the orphanage," the girl said. "I live at the orphanage.
My name is Marina Kelly. My mother is the director."
Nurse Bee blinked, and floated an image of Edwina Kelly on the
girl's face. The old double exposure trick; most effective genetic test
ever devised by gossipkind.
Well, what do you know: same rounded nose, same arched cheekbones,
same thick lips. The girl spoke the truth. Bee’s bangs fell flaccid
at the sight. She licked her fingers and swept them into place. "I didn't
know Miss Kelly had a child!"
"It's not exactly new news."
"Shouldn't she be here with you?"
"She's got a class to teach."
"A class! This is more important than a class!"
"The hospital will take care of me."
"Does she even know you're here?"
"I left her a note."
"You're about to have a baby!"
"A note should take care of things."
"Where did you leave it? How are you sure she'll see it?"
Marina set her hand flat on the desk. "I have been her assistant for
ten years. I know where she keeps her messages."
Nurse Bee said nothing, but her mind ticked off each person she'd
call, who would then call someone else, the news spreading across the
valley like the lighting of a giant Christmas tree.
"Okay?" Marina said. "Now can you show me to my room?"
Marina had spent her whole ninth month in the office, rushing to finish
work before the baby came. But in the Kelly Home, anything was
cool, even being a grind. Besides, she did one thing that was viewed
with awe. She had these incredible dreams, complete sagas of whole
countries, intricate tales from other times. She could spend hours
describing them, stories about Chinese peasants and Mexican farmers
and people from the Revolutionary War. We loved listening to them.
But then when she got pregnant, she stopped the dream telling to concentrate
on office work. This was a great disappointment! Some of us
tried to coax her out of work mode, but the only success was this boy
who knew how to sculpt bread. He made her sourdough flutes, and
even though she'd never been musical, she took to those flutes like
Bach to the organ. So no dream talk, but good tunes, which made
losing the dreams okay. You know, I'd forgotten about those flutes till
now. And I still can't remember the sculptor's name. I don't believe it.
This is going to drive me crazy.
—Iambia Teneye, as told to author
Nurse Regina Patchett, long of nose and long of legs, escorted Marina
down the hall of the second floor of the clinic toward the birthing
room. Light blazed with unusual passion through the open doors. "Oh
my, look at the sun!" she said to Marina, about whom the nurse knew
nothing. Not that it would have mattered; Patchett's experiences at the
clinic stayed corralled in her mind. She was married to the local minister
and never disclosed the slightest detail from the hospital to him,
even when she knew it would provide the perfect embellishment for
his sermons. She thought of her mind as a secretary-style desk, where
every event got its own pigeonhole. As she later explained, she had no
interest in being a messenger for scandal; she was only interested in
being a messenger for God.
"Your baby picked a lovely day to come," Patchett said, fanning her
arms outward. "The sun is so strong, I feel like I could touch it."
Marina's face lit, then darkened, lit, then darkened, as she passed in
front of successive doorways. "I hope it doesn't take too long," she said,
and then paused. "What’s normal?"
"That depends on a number of things," Nurse Patchett said. "How
close together are your contractions?"
The girl stopped. "My what?"
Nurse Patchett, a step ahead, turned. "Your contractions." When
that got no response, she added, "The things that feel like cramps."
Marina peered at the floor. "When was the last cramp?"
Eyes still down: "When I signed in downstairs."
"How long have you been having them?"
The girl's eyes ran back and forth, as if reading her recent past in
the floor. "I had one after dinner, and then I felt nauseous all night.
The second cramp came this morning." She looked up. "That's why I
figured it was time, so I walked here."
"And you didn't have problems walking? That's four miles!"
"I did feel a little tight in my chest."
"Your chest is not where you'd feel it. That was probably because
you hadn't walked in a while. Any more cramps?"
The nurse smiled. "I think you might be early. But you can relax in
your room while we wait. We have a TV."
"Do you have a calculator?"
"I said we have a TV."
"I heard you."
"It's color. We’ve even got remote control."
"I've never watched TV."
Nurse Patchett's voice retreated before her mouth could grab on.
Her trachea gave chase, finally rooting it out from the pigeonhole
labeled "Deprived," where it cowered beneath Life magazine images of
starving children. "Well, maybe it's time you did," she said, locking her
voice back into its box. "Let's get you settled in."
Marina continued down the hall. She sighed quietly and, as if
speaking to herself, mumbled, "At least it's during the day."
Patchett considered that the girl might be scared by the dark. After
all, their exchange so far indicated she was more sheltered—more a
child—than Patchett had expected. "Does the dark make you uncomfortable?"
Nurse Patchett asked.
"No," Marina said. "The fall term ends in a few days, and night is
the best time to tally up grades—"
A choke cut the sentence short. Marina's eyes grew wide, and she
clamped a hand on her chest.
"What's wrong?" the nurse asked.
The girl bent forward. "I—can't—br . . ." She sucked in air with a
heavy wheeze. "Uh! Uh!" Her face wrinkled in pain.
Nurse Patchett shot a look up the corridor for help. All she saw was
Marina let go of her knapsack. "Oh, no," she wailed. She grabbed
for the wall and leaned into it and gasped.
The nurse bolted to a room. "Urgent on two!" she buzzed into the
intercom. The sun was blasting onto her face. She shielded her eyes—
decided not to wait for a response — dropped the speaker — whirled
Less than five seconds had passed.
There, in the doorway, sprawled the pregnant girl, both hands on
her chest. She gasped wildly as panic stormed across her eyes, like a
drowning victim fighting for air.
"Inside you is growing a magic girl,"
Sang a man in my dream to me.
"Hurray! Hurrah! That's great!" I said.
"Let's hope," sang the man. "We'll see."
—Marina Kelly (Original in code)
The first to come running was Nurse Sammy Samson, who had been
lingering over his Marvel comic and morning coffee in the kitchen
when he heard the SOS. He screeched back from the table and flew
up the servants' stairway. "Labor?" he called out to Patchett as he tore
down the hall, the light flashing strobelike against the earthy color of
his skin, the mossy fuzz of his woolly hair, the sunflower height of his
"She was barely contracting! She just collapsed—"
He dropped to his knees and felt the girl's neck. No pulse. "Jesus!"
he cried. "Get help!" But even as he spit out the words, he knew it was
pointless: Dr. Twitcox wasn't due until tonight, and when he showed
up, he'd be crocked. Doctors in Anthracite County earned chicken
feed. All the clinic ever had were failures, drunks, and frauds. Dr.
Twitcox was no exception.
Samson spun the girl onto her back, grabbed for her wrist. Pulse
gone. Shit! He tilted the head back, clamped nostrils closed, dropped
his mouth onto hers. Somewhere at the edge of his consciousness, feet
pattered down the hall and voices droned. He blew inside her. Again.
Again. Felt her carotid arteries, but the beat was playing hooky. Christ!
Pregnant women do not go like this! He pushed—fifteen times—and
again: two breaths, fifteen compressions, two breaths . . . and as he
worked, his mind spiraled out from under him: Who the hell is this
Nurse Samson had gone to the same schools as everyone in
Anthracite County, and in his youth lived a life of loose pants, so he
recognized all the ladies around—he'd never fussed over color—and
sometime he would have seen this one, wouldn't he? No doubt about
it, with hair like that. What about her eyes? He opened his eyes—one
compression—looked at hers—five, six; her eyes were closed—twelve,
thirteen. Pulse still flat! He pounded at her chest, dropped his mouth
down again. Stay professional!
"How many rounds?" It was Bee. Samson held up five fingers and
continued. A moment later, he felt Bee's varnished bangs rake against
his arm and realized she was crouching beside him. "Come here," Bee
said, and then he felt Patchett there too.
Samson exhaled and gazed at the girl's face. Dammit, dammit,
dammit! He could see it—the pale tide of death rolling in, staining her
red lips blue, her red hair brown. One more time. Maybe . . . Maybe!
He covered her mouth—she was so cold he jumped. He pressed on
anyway, trying Dr. Twitcox's imaging techniques—if you visualize
life, you’ll get life: cherry blossoms, thawing mud, the spring Burpee
catalog, following the rhythm to the end of the cycle. But with
each breath there seemed further to go to grab onto warmth. He
breathed harder, clawing toward hope—newly hatched chicks! freshly
pressed forty-fives! or even . . . piss-poor cover versions of the rockingest
record I want my jockey to play!—but the warmth kept receding until
finally . . . finally . . . it was gone. Even with his scope trained on the
most distant horizon, he could not locate the faintest sign.
He threw himself against the wall and turned to the others.
But they had lowered their ears to the belly.
"I can't get her!" Samson moaned. "She won't come back." He
pounded the floor. The sunlight that had skittered so brightly had
faded, as if all the doors had just been closed.
On the edge of his mind he heard Patchett. "S-S-Sam?"
And then he felt Bee's palm on his shoulder, steering him toward
the body. "What are you doing?" he asked, following her lead as she
pressed his head below the navel. "I know she's pregnant!" But when
his ear touched the cold curve and Bee released him and said, "Listen"—
then, he stopped resisting.
He cupped his hands on the belly. "Hear it?" they asked.
He pulled his ear away and then lowered it again. He shifted to the
chest, then returned to that spot.
He sat up and met the nurses' gaze. "It can't be," he said.
"We know," Bee replied.
But there it was. They all heard it. In the body of a dead woman
pulsed the heart of a living child.
What made her come the way that she did?
What kept her breathing?
Gave us this kid?
In the womb
Wrapped in gloom.
Five, six, seven, eight—
You better come out before it’s too late.
—Jump rope song (Author unknown)
Above the clinic, a gang of storm clouds thundered across the tops
of the mountains. The powder puff cumulus that had been sunning
themselves cringed at the sight, and when the storm clouds began
shooting off ions, the powder puffs turned tail and scrammed out of
town. Swaggering triumphantly, the storm clouds took over the entire
sky. Then, pleased and bloated, they let loose in an orgy of rain.
As the first drops fell, Marina was moved to the room called intensive
care. This meant it had monitors, but otherwise it was as pitifully
equipped as the other rooms. Nurse Samson sat beside Marina, scrutinizing
medical journals and sipping caffeine. Every few minutes he
checked through his stethoscope and, unfailingly: in her chest, silence.
Then, lower, to the baby: a beat that could give Edgar Allan Poe a run
for his money.
Sam's logical faculties pshawed it. But over and over he listened,
and had the other nurses listen, and paced the floor, and listened
again. The rain pounded harder, the sky grew darker; while inside the
dead woman, the stubborn little beat drummed on.
Nurse Bee called the Kelly Home but was unable to reach Miss
Kelly. "She's in class," an orphan named Kit told her, and he took the
message that Marina was "very, very sick" and Miss Kelly should get
to the clinic at once. Bee then tried to reach Dr. Twitcox at home, only
to be told the doctor was on the road, which could mean he was visiting
another clinic, or was sitting in a bar, or was simply driving, his
only companions some self-help tapes and his ten-gallon feet. "Maybe
he's sleeping out the storm under a bridge," Nurse Patchett suggested,
drawing the blinds. Nurse Bee dialed her finger sore trying to get help,
but the doctors she reached cut her short before she'd finished pleading;
they were paid by the county, and county salaries were not worth
the risk of flash floods or falling trees. And the one helicopter within
flying range was in the shop. Bee bandaged her phone finger and conferred
with Patchett and Samson. But with malpractice lawyers poised
to snatch the last pennies off a dying town's eyes, the nurses wouldn't
dare attempt a C-section themselves. They had nothing to do but wait.
At about three, Samson left Marina with Nurse Patchett and went
to the kitchen. There he flipped up a few pancakes and ate and, beneath
the roar of the rain, wondered about the dead girl.
She was not married, he and Nurse Patchett had learned from
Nurse Bee. She was the daughter of the famous but seldom encountered
Edwina Kelly. She was supposedly seventeen.
All the facts he could believe except the last. That she was unmarried,
no big deal—it wasn't as if a contract was needed to grease the
faucet of sexuality. He laughed; he knew this better than anyone. Well,
his born-to-be-wild phase had ended long ago, no need to dwell on
it now; that was why he'd become a nurse: to save himself by saving
As for the second fact, that Marina was Edwina Kelly's kid, no big
deal again. Sure, Edwina Kelly could be as susceptible as anyone else
to sensual pleasure. Clearly, she once had been. He could see some of
her in Marina: their feet and hands were both small. Though Marina
was average height and slim, Edwina short and stout and oh so solid.
Occasionally, when Miss Kelly brought an orphan to the clinic,
Nurse Samson had tried to picture the woman in her youth. Through
his mental View-Master he'd imagined he could see her as she'd been
in New York: descending a grand stairway toward an elegant foyer,
making her entrance to some social gathering. A ball, perhaps. Edwina
would be in white, with bones so fine, guests would have trouble distinguishing
her arms from the slender spindles on the banister—No.
Not Edwina Kelly, not with her stiff-legged stride and stiff-faced
demeanor. Chuck that image. Samson dropped in a new and improved
disk. Now, in successive slides, Edwina emerged again, but this time
wearing her standard gray dress and work boots; stop-started her rigid
legs down the stairs; and, at the elegant foyer, stiffened right outside
the front door, in search of diversions more in keeping with her tastes
than a silly and pretentious ball.
He wondered how friendly she had been in those days, and how
dogmatic. It was hard to imagine her other than the way she was now:
severe as a general, coming out of the Kelly Home only to accompany
a child to the clinic or attend the firehouse auction. She came every
year, loaded pots and shoes and blankets into her jeep, and sped the
used necessities to the Home. A few times, however, she stunned people
by dropping wads on frivolous items: beaded gloves, pogo sticks,
music boxes, marionettes, an oversize teddy bear, an undersize carousel,
a fleet of unicycles, seven geriatric cars. Each time that happened,
the town's collective gasp hovered until someone remembered that the
firehouse had spiked the punch again. You could almost hear the gasp
melt into a Whew! once folks chalked up the aberration to that.
I wear no jewelry
Don’t own any silk
Walk stiff and fast
And drink only milk.
They say that I’m plain
Call my face poker
Think I can’t feel
Like a dancer or joker.
But I know my self.
When I want to, I grin
When I see a gift grow
See a knight’s work begin.
—Nursery rhyme, recalled by Kelly Home orphans
in We Are Here Together: Life at the Kelly Home
Now, when it came to the third fact, the fact of seventeen, that made
Nurse Samson shudder. Seventeen, pregnant—not so hard to believe.
They'd had girls that age before. But dead? Finis? Kaput? Right in the
goddamn clinic? Before their eyes? With pills and know-how and Sam's
own Please please! aching to the bottom of his mission? No. That could
not happen. Not in America. Not in this time. Seventeen! His own
mother'd been older than that!
The pounding of the rain hit rock concert decibel. He shoveled in
a soggy pancake. It tasted like silt.
He sloshed the sustenance around his mouth and peered out the
window. Already the parking lot was laking up. Beyond it, ribbons of
rivers writhed down Route 55, which was the single road that led past
the clinic, out of town, across Heecheemonkee Creek, and into the
treeless hills, where, miles away, it joined another two-lane wonder,
which was probably just as flooded.
Fog spread-eagled across the valley. Samson squinted through the
glass, trying to make out the center of Fossilfink Falls—once a town
and now more accurately a village. Misted over were the steeple of the
church; the peaked roof of the firehouse; the five-and-ten; the grocery;
the coffee shop; the houses. Though he couldn't see them, he knew
almost every one of the houses was empty. Most had been abandoned
when the mine closed, and now they sat, their windows dark, glaring
at a town that could no longer feed them families, vacant except for
the birds huddling under the eaves—blackbirds, the only kind of fowl
in town. And above the buildings, on both sides of the valley, towered
mountains coated with so much coal dust that not a single blade of
grass could grow. In fact, Sam had stopped thinking of them as mountains.
To him, they were simply enormous black dunes.
He swallowed his silt and was pivoting away from the window,
when he spied something moving across the parking lot. No—several
somethings. A corps of soldiers, it looked like. Marching beneath
Sam rubbed his eyes and stepped closer to the glass. He could not
hear them. They were not chanting. And their feet, even as they struck
the asphalt, did not make a sound.
But how could they? These soldiers were wearing sneakers.
"It's the Kelly kids!" he said, and bounded down the hall.
In the living room, he found Bee clucking into the phone. She
shooed him off — "I'm busy!" — and clapped a hand over her ear.
Sam continued past her to the window. The marchers were closer
now. He could make out the boy who broke his nose last month, the
girl he once treated for sunburn.
And that had to be Edwina Kelly in the lead. There they were, the
famous stiff legs of the head of the Kelly Home. Kids in Sam’s school
used to imitate her. To do an Edwina Kelly, one’s knees should bend
as little as possible, the arms should hang straight, even in the swing.
Orphans followed in formation. Samson counted: five across, four
deep. Was twenty the total? No one knew. The orphans weren’t enrolled
in school and never attended church. Once, the nurses had counted up
fourteen, but here were already more. Who knew how many existed?
Like other locals, Sam had never been to the Home. But not for Gluper
Flugel's reasons. It stung Sam just to give the place thought; he winced
when he realized how many children could go unwanted.
Most of us were proud of growing up in the Home. Miss Kelly gave us
lots of attention. She wanted to raise us to be what she called "Knights
of the World": people who went into the world—which she referred to
as a battlefield—to do good turns for others. To be a knight, you had
to master two things. One was the traditionally chivalrous qualities:
courtesy, charity, valor, respect, self-sacrifice, etc. The other was battle
skills—but not traditional battle skills; our weapons, Miss Kelly taught
us, are ourselves. In other words, the harder we strove to develop
ourselves, the more effective we'd be on the battlefield. Which meant,
practically speaking, that we had a freedom other kids would trade
their best toys for. I don't mean Miss Kelly was never judgmental. It
just wasn't in a way that restricted us. Her judgments came only when
we restricted ourselves.
"What are you doing?" I remember her asking once. Rick had
stolen some Disney coloring books from the five-and-ten. We froze,
thinking, Oh no, now we'll have to do time in the store.
Miss Kelly strode down the living room, eyeing us. We all held our
breath. At the far end, she said, "Coloring books are for people who
want walls. Do you want walls?" Rick said no. "Do you?" she asked
me. I said no too. One by one, we all did. Then she snatched the books
away and stacked them in her arms.
"Ach," she said, flipping the top one over so she wouldn't see the
front. "Disney? Maybe his crew was creative, but that doesn't mean
you should take on his ideas as your own. You are all you, not anyone
else." She sighed at us. We were sweating in our seats. "Get up," she
said, motioning with her chin. We rose, slouched and scared.
"Are you a Xerox machine?" she bellowed.
"No," we replied in unison.
"Well," she said, hitching the coloring books under her arm. "Then
stop acting like one."
She turned and marched out.
—Bop Mooney, letter to the editor, Vanity Fair
Nurse Samson watched until the phalanx disappeared under the front
awning, then he scrambled into the vestibule. The sneakers padded up
the marble steps like forty wet whispers, and when Samson reached
them, Miss Kelly was standing by the front door. Her gray coat was
wet, her gray hair curling, her face set hard.
"Edwina Kelly?" he said. "I'm one of the nurses involved with your
daughter's case. Please, may I have a word with you?"
Miss Kelly looked Samson over and then glanced at the orphans
under the awning. "You stay here," she told them.
Sam held the door for her. "I've just relieved the nurse on duty,"
he said, his head down, afraid his bloodshot eyes would betray his fib.
Though they'd met before, their conversation had been rather limited.
("Bactine," went the typical exchange.) Now, as she crossed the welcome
mat, her face was tight as a clenched fist and about as friendly
as one. "You do know your daughter is very ill," he said. Also a shading—
really, a complete blackening—of the truth.
"Yes." They stood in the front hall.
"And you know that she is . . ."
"In the family way?"
"Yes. You know this?"
"Do you take me for blind?"
"No, no—I didn't mean any offense, Miss Kelly. But things are a
little nutty here today, and I just got on shift—"
"So you said."
"And your daughter is . . . in intensive care now. Were you informed
"That's why we're here. To be with Marina."
"Ma'am, not many people are allowed into intensive care."
"Then we'll take turns. We need to give her our strength."
"I don't know if that'll be possible."
"I'll just have to clear that with the doctor, then."
Samson looked at his feet. "There's no doctor here yet."
Miss Kelly glared at him. Then she glanced away, and for a moment
Samson thought he saw her eyes widen, as if she'd just remembered
something, and a kind of darkness unfurl across her face. But then she
blinked away whatever she was feeling and looked back at him. "If no
doctor's around, and we're ready to care for her, I don't see how there
could be any problem."
"Why don't you show me the way?"
"Ma'am, I think there's something I should tell you," he said, and
before Miss Kelly replied, he thought he saw the darkness again. It
seemed to shudder up from deep within and to pass beneath her skin
like a tremor.
But then it was gone. And it stayed gone as he led Miss Kelly into
the alcove off the living room, where he cracked his knuckles and
faced her. It stayed gone as he explained, as best he could, what had
happened that day. And it stayed gone after he finished and stood
waiting to hear her grief. All he saw was a slow nodding of her head.
All he heard was her silence.
"Miss Kelly called us into the clinic living room and told us about
Marina, and we all just wailed our guts out. Except Miss Kelly. She
never cried in front of strangers. Or laughed. She was totally nonnonsense,
until you knew her. But her mouth was pulled into a tight
frown, and she kept wringing her hands, so even the nurses caught on
she was in agony. She told us there was hope for the baby, but it still
took us a while to calm down."
"Around five, we went into the room and stood around the bed.
The only sound was that baby monitor beeping. There was a male
nurse looking over Marina. Samson, of course. I thought he looked as
sad as any of us. Suddenly—maybe it was from being around nurses—
I felt embarrassed we'd come empty-handed. I told Kit we should have
brought her something—"
"And Samson must have overheard, because he gave us this look.
At first we thought he was pissed at us for talking, but then he nodded
slow, like he was mulling it over."
"Then later he ran home and brought back a tray of miniature
roses. Gorgeous red roses, with petals as small as fingernails. He called
us to the living room. He'd put pins through the stems so we could
wear them. We asked where he'd gotten them—a flower store? He said,
'That'll be the day. Bouquets from florists hose you into catatonia. I'm
a nurse; I know. But these babies just tickle the nasal passages. See?’
We took a whiff, and he was right; their fragrance was much less sweet.
He explained: He'd been breeding flowers for years, and these were his
own special genetic mix. I asked how come they smelled so different
from other roses. Was it because of their size?"
"Miss Kelly was pinning a rose to Bop's collar just then, and she
looked up to listen."
"And Sam said, 'These roses are further down the odor spectrum.
Didn't anyone ever tell you about the odor spectrum?' He caught Miss
Kelly watching and winked at her. 'It's like the light spectrum, but for
the nose.' We got a good giggle, and Miss Kelly smiled just enough to
show he had won her respect."
—Kit Lincoln and Caboodle Davis, two home residents,
as interviewed on Lifeline
At midnight, seven hours late, Dr. Twitcox docked at the clinic. Dr.
Twitcox was a bald sack of a man whose belly lopped like a swollen
abscess over the tourniquet of his belt, and who had such prominent
furrows in his brow, he seemed to have worms tunneling across his
forehead. In from the rain he shuffled his six-foot-four self, prepared
to do no more than culture a strep or bandage an arm. He was therefore
quite unprepared for what awaited: fifteen children sprawled around
the living room, and Nurse Bee, she of the daytime shift, drooping
blearily behind the front desk. But the doctor had no time to process;
his appearance in the vestibule jump-started Nurse Bee immediately.
"You're here!" she gushed. Children roused themselves as she effervesced
around the desk to meet him. "We've got an amazing situation,
Doctor, I can't even begin to describe it, you’ve got to see it, I mean her,
I mean them, come, this way."
"Hold on, woman," Dr. Twitcox said, but Nurse Bee tugged him
like a barge into the hallway. This was not exclusively due to reluctance;
Dr. Twitcox always moved as if his feet were made of cement. The
only off-the-shelf footwear that fit such mammoth feet was acrobat
slippers, which is what he wore, but Dr. Twitcox did not handspring
gracefully across the gymnasium of life; he lumbered, he stumbled, he
brooded, he sat. The only acrobatics he did were in his mind, where he
looped through slogans he had learned on self-help tapes, meditations
designed to combat a world he believed was conniving to do him in.
Twitcox shuffled his Frankensteinian feet toward intensive care as
Nurse Bee flapped her jaws. "She walked in, young girl all ready to
have a baby, well, not exactly ready but would be soon, and when we
were moving her upstairs, she just collapsed onto the floor, and we
tried to resuscitate, but it looks like heart failure, massive heart failure,
and Doctor, Doctor, the fetus held on, you can make out the heartbeat
"You can what?" Dr. Twitcox said. He couldn't have heard that
right, of course not; his ears were playing tricks on him. Couldn't she
give him a minute to clear the storm out of his auditory nerves so he
could hear? He'd been drinking in his car with rain pounding and it
was still pounding and he couldn't even picture what she was saying—
Small miracle you ever got through medical school, can't so much as find
the last fifth in your own back seat let alone make sense of a medical
emergen—What was he doing! Stop right now and repeat after me: You
are Dr. Fig Newton Twitcox, the son of a doctor, upright and sincere
slayer of sickness, hero of the helpless, keeper of the American way.
"Let me make sure I'm grasping this amazing situation." You dodge
a crisis artfully. "How old is the mother?"
"Seventeen. And was. She didn't make it."
You—"Was! Do you know what you're suggesting?"
"Yes! The girl had no history of heart trouble, no family precedent.
And now she's dead and the baby alive. It's very strange. Mystifying.
We moved her here—"
Nurse Bee pushed a door open. Inside stood five children, a squat
middle-aged lady, and Nurses Patchett and Samson, and every last one
of them was wearing a miniature rose.
"What's this?" Dr. Twitcox said—You bandage chaos, lance fear,
seize the bull by the horns—and then, looking back to Nurse Bee: "Are
these people sick?"
"No, no, they're family—well, sort of family."
Dr. Twitcox's gaze hopped from one pair of expectant eyes to the
next as the fetal monitor beep-beeped like a bouncing ball—You bribed
your way through med school, and the whole time they laughed at you,
moron, punybrain—and tried to employ some positive visualization,
but the only imaging he could squeeze out of his constipated mind
was the AMA glowering at him with hands planted firmly on its hips.
He hooked his finger inside his collar and shaved off a film of
sweat. Then he inserted "Advanced Self-Help" into his thoughts and
cranked up the volume—You are the pooh-pooher of snickering, the
paragon of placidity—and finally, back in control, prescribed, "Remove
The stout matron waved to the children, and the intruders departed,
closing the door behind them.
Dr. Twitcox turned to the nurses. "Now," he said, baritone coursing
authoritatively through his blood. "Explain."
Nurse Samson took a deep breath. "We can't. But the fetus is alive—
you can see for yourself." He motioned toward the monitor.
"The umbilical cord ceases operating postmortem," Twitcox said.
"Evidently your machine has malfunctioned."
"They do teach the umbilical cord in nursing school, yes?"
Nurse Samson held out a stethoscope. "Listen," he said.
Twitcox had never liked tests. Besides, he was tired from driving
and couldn't concentrate with all that damn rain, and was the
fifth in the back seat or had he finished it in Coalbelch—Assess the
situation. Right. You can do it, you can come out on top, best defense
is a good—
"Here, sir," Samson said, waving the stethoscope.
Twitcox reached for the limp instrument, fit it around his neck,
and clamped in the eartips. Then he dragged his feet to the patient and
pressed the stethoscope to the woman’s abdomen.
He sighed, and tapped his foot, and was about to roll his eyes, when
he heard it: Pump, pump. He picked up the instrument and landed it
again. Pump, pump. He glanced at the nurses. They were smirking. He
moved the stethoscope to the mother's chest. Flat sound of death. It
could not be! Remain calm at all times—"This is some kind of trick,"
"It's not," "It's not," he heard. He closed his eyes and popped in "Super
Self-Help," but with the pulse coming through the eartips and those
voices pelting him, he could barely hear—You bandage . . . ch . . . aos,
lance fear, seize . . . the boot by the corn—He sped it up—YouareDr.
FigNewtonTwitcoxsonofadoctor, blasted the volume, UPRIGHT AND SINCERE,
SLAYER OF SICKNESS—but when he opened his eyes and faced the
screaming nurses, the tape snapped and spun out of control—CREAM
OF THE CROOKS, KING OF THE KONG—
He threw down the stethoscope. "Don't do this to me!"
"It's not us," the male nurse said, and the lady nurses spat at him—
"It's true!"—and their tongues lashed out at him, their eyebrows
vibrated like cilia—"The baby's alive!"
Accusations! Lies! Fabrications of a situation that's an impersonation
of truth! Their voices swarmed around him like wasps. Just like
in medical school! Duncecap and dodo. A vivisection of his role! A
bleeding of his soul!
"Get away!" he shouted, flinging up his arms for a shield.
They lunged at him, talons out. "Wait!" they cried.
"It's not possible!" He backed up.
They ran after him, shouting. The conspiracy strikes! The coup d'etat
"Not possible!" He whirled around and dived for the door.
The doctor wasn't the only one who couldn't believe it, but at least we
didn't take off like him. A grown man crashing into kids to get down a
hallway! Last we saw of him was his car squealing into the rain. Great,
we thought. A hysterical Hippocratic. And people wondered why we
scoffed at authority.
—Broomcorn Jerry, as told to author
Nurse Bee buzzed back to phone duty, but with the storm peeling plywood
loose from windows and swatting cars into creeks like tin cans,
the few doctors she reached—she only bothered with well-paid ones
this time—had their hands full. "I got people stuck in cars, swept away
by rivers, screaming with broken legs—and you expect me to give a
shit about some dead woman?"
Meanwhile, the vigil persisted in shifts. Over the night, faces
became attached to names. Bee taught some kids her no-fail approach
to memorizing numbers (phone numbers were her specialty, but she
worked on times tables with them). Patchett taught the lankier girls
how to double-helix their legs when they sat ("We tall ladies must take
extra care to keep our knees together"). All Samson did was stay with
As for the baby, it seemed to be in no hurry. When Marina had
shown up at the clinic that sunny morning, she thought her baby was
primed for its grand debut, but with death and rain, the child had
ducked back into the dressing room.
And so orphans and nurses waited. Feet fell asleep, tears watered
the miniature flowers, hands were held, voices consoled. When the
orphans weren't near, Bee gabbled with her phone pals on one line,
while Patchett, on another, cooed velvet nothings to her husband.
When the nurses weren't near, the orphans distracted each other with
parlor tricks. Nobeline expertly folded herself into invisibility; Catnip
twisted her body into the most difficult of contortions; Bronto wrestled
color out of the carpet and then massaged it back in.
But the orphans had seen all these tricks before, and their attentiveness
soon dissolved into yawns. Something had to happen.
Finally, in late afternoon of the second day, the rain broke off. It
stopped as suddenly as if a sheriff had banged at the door to the storm
clouds' orgy: the clouds hauled on their skirts and zipped up their
flies, threw their amplifiers and light show into suitcases, and skedaddled
out of town, leaving a clear sky to the homecoming strut of the
radiant and victorious sunlight.
The end of the storm startled the orphans, who'd lived with the
black noise for two days; they peeked outside and reeled from the sun.
"Open the blinds," Samson said, and Kit and Caboodle screwed the
window wands until light stripes whiplashed the room.
And as the sun struck Marina, the baby decided to come.
The first sign was the quickening of the beep on the heart monitor.
Blip . . . blip . . . beep! beep! beep! Samson tore down the hallway,
alerting everyone. A stampede returned to intensive care. Instructions
were dispensed hastily, and the nurses, shot through with adrenaline,
wheeled the bed near new monitors and set up Marina for delivery.
Patchett and Samson stood between the legs. Bee planted herself at the
monitors. All around waited orphans, hands washed and ready.
"Now?" someone asked.
"Now," Sam said.
And wasting no time, he slipped his fingers into the cold inside
Marina’s body. It was soft still, but so very icy. He felt his way up the
birth canal, his marvel at what was happening fading beneath the
demands of the moment. When he came to her dilated cervix, he felt
the infant's head. "I've got it!" he said, and then worried how to get it
out. She's dead, she's dead: the thought stopped all logic. But before
he could ask for ideas, he felt the child, without benefit of contractions,
without the nudge of modern medicine, without even a pair of
forceps knocking at the front door, begin to creep out. "What the—"
Sam began, and then trailed off: because coming into his hands he
could feel the head. He cradled the tiny bulge and then felt the neck
surge forward. How was this happening? But he had no time to think;
this kid wasn't crawling out—this kid was going for the six-inch dash!
Sam backed down the birth canal as the infant tore pell-mell for the
finish line, then he yanked his hands into the room to clear the way,
and then, before he could blink, before he could breathe, into his arms
and the light of the room splashed the child: the head, bearing a regular
prune face; the body, small and slippery and red; the legs, skinny
and new; the feet. And when the last toe was out and she lay fully in
his hands, this child from a dead woman let loose a piercing scream.
He swung the howling infant up for all to see.
"It's a girl!" Bee said. Her hair had flopped into her eyes, and she
forgot to brush it off.
They all grabbed each other, laughing inside their crying inside
their laughing. Orphans and nurses flushed shades of red that to this
day have not been appropriated by valentine cards. Even Miss Kelly,
revealing to the nurses that she was not as mono-expressional as they
had thought, let herself go and wept.
In the midst of all the hoopla and whoopee, Nurse Patchett wiped
her tears and held out her hands. "I'll clean her."
"Not yet," Samson said. The child was bawling like all newborns,
and in every wa——size, appearance, gestures—she was just like a
newborn, except for one thing: she did not have a living mother. And
for some reason that Sammy Samson could not understand at that
moment, logic and medical training absconded for parts unknown,
and, abandoned by them, all he had left was his heart, and he said to
Nurse Patchett, "Let her touch her mother. Just this once."
The child still in his hands, Sam backed away from the stirrups. He
threaded himself through the orphans, who quieted as he passed, and
Miss Kelly, who watched, wiping her eyes. The orphans parted to let
him reach the bed, and by the time he stood before Marina, there was
barely a stray snuffle in the room.
On the bed lay Marina, motionless and white, eyes closed forever.
He held the child so the newborn faced her mother. The baby wiggled.
Sam tightened his grasp on the tiny waist and whispered, "This is your
mother." Then he brought the child down and pressed her between the
And when the child's skin touched the skin of the dead woman—
when the body of this new person came down on the corpse of the
old—that’s when it happened. The moment that’s since become a requisite
dot on history—book time lines. The moment we all think about
when we hear the name Fossilfink Falls. The moment that kicked off
the very reason you’re reading this book.
The baby stopped thrashing. The room grew completely quiet.
And as everyone froze—nurses gripping instruments, children hugging
each other, Sam's hands holding the child's waist—Marina's eyes
began to flicker.
"What's that?" Patchett said, and the group moved closer. Marina's
eyes fluttered clearly, and while the nurses stood spellbound, their
patient drew a breath.
Color rose into the white face, and the room burst into shouting
and tears. Marina inhaled a second time, and a third. Her heart
monitor began beeping. Sweat bloomed on her forehead, and Samson
rushed forward to pat it away.
"It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" he cried, looking into Marina's beautiful
So the child was named Celeste, to signify the heavenly wonder of
the moment. And that is how she became known by the world.
The Story of the Sea
Day One Morning
At a dock in New York City, on a glorious
sapphire morning, an ocean liner hauls up
its gangplank. The all aboard siren bellows
one last time, and the band on deck strikes
up a rollicking tune. On the ground, people
wave handkerchiefs to their departing loved
ones. "Lucky stiffs," grumble the wellwishers,
aching to flee their daily grind
and join the color and gaiety on the ship.
Up on deck, the lucky stiffs have forgotten
their daily grind. Wives in full skirts and
broad-brimmed hats clasp husbands to their
lips; men in freshly shined oxfords and
double-breasted suits pinch lovers on their
behinds. Sunlight bathes the deck. The passengers
rejoice at the three days ahead,
which seem as magical and full of hope as
the glittering ocean around them.
But one passenger does not rejoice. To
her, hope is just a four-letter word, a word
that makes her wince because it seems such a
lie. Her name is Edwina Kipplebaum Runetoon
Kelly. She is thirty-eight, married, childless,
and tired. She came on this cruise with
her husband, but John Kelly is nowhere to be
found among the white gloves and lipsticked
smiles. He can’t be bothered with formalities
like affection; champagne in the cabin
is too much for him. No, as the crew reels
up the anchor and the ship pulls out to sea,
John Kelly cavorts on a lower deck, cha-chaing
his fingers up the silk stockings of a
ship attendant. All around Edwina, people
feed their passions. Edwina, alone at the
railing, feeds a seagull circling above.
It is the first vacation she has had in
years. She pushed for it in desperation,
bribing John Kelly away from his office with
the promise of paid tickets. "I'll use the
rest of my inheritance," she told him, since
every penny she earned at the factory got
sucked up by necessities. It will be worth
it, she reasoned. Finally, she might get
rid of the empty feeling that life is no
more than a garment factory with green paint
over the windows and bosses who talk to her
breasts (when they talk to her at all) and a
home with two well-worn depressions on opposite
sides of the mattress.
Well, dream on. Because here she is, sitting
out the party once again. In front of
her, lovers toast the sea in joy, children
hold up pinwheels to the breeze, and Edwina
realizes that the only thing this trip will
get rid of is her bank account.
If she were one to pray, she would.
But Edwina doesn't believe in God. For
that matter, she doesn't believe in the
Devil. To Edwina, God is a pacifier, a story
created to steam the wrinkles out of night
mares. The Devil is a backup system; if the
desire for comfort doesn't control you, perhaps
the fear of evil will. They are real
only in movies and the minds of the devout.
Not in Edwina Kelly. She believes in them no
more than she believes in hope.
But this day, as she watches the ocean
ahead, monotonously flat for miles until it
slams against the sky, she thinks how much
the sea looks like her future.
And how she'd give anything to change that.