“How's Phimie?” Celestina asked, scrubbing fiercely at her hands and forearms.
“Dr. Lipscomb delivered the baby like two minutes ago. The afterbirth hasn't even been removed yet,” the nurse informed her.
“The baby's small but healthy. No deformity,” Sister Josephina promised.
Celestina's question had been about Phimie, but they had told her about the baby, and she was alarmed by their evasion.
“Enough,” said the nurse, and the nun reached through clouds of steam to crank off the water.
Celestina turned away from the deep sink, raising her dripping hands as she had seen surgeons do in movies, and she could almost believe that she was still at home, in bed, in the fevered throes of a terrible dream.
As the nurse slipped Celestina into a surgical gown and tied it be hind her back, Sister Josephina knelt before her and tugged a pair of elastic-trimmed cloth booties over her street shoes.
This extraordinary and urgent invitation into the sanctum of surgery said more-and worse-about Phimie's condition than all the words that these two women could have spoken.
The nurse tied a surgical mask over Celestina's nose and mouth, fitted a cap over her hair. “This way."
From prep along a short hallway. Bright fluorescent panels over head. Booties squeaking on the vinyl-tile floor.
The nurse pushed open a swinging door, held it for Celestina, and did not follow her into surgery.
Celestina's heart was knocking so hard that the reverberations of it in her bones, traveling down into her legs, seemed as though they would buckle her knees under her.
Here, now, the surgical team, heads bent as if in prayer rather than in the practice of medicine, and dear Phimie upon the operating table, in linens spattered with blood.
Celestina told herself not to be alarmed by the blood. Birth was a bloody business. This was probably an ordinary scene in that regard.
The baby was not in sight. In one corner, a heavyset nurse was attending something at another table, her body blocking whatever occupied her attention. A bundle of white cloth. Perhaps the infant.
Celestina hated the baby with such ferocity that a bitter taste rose into the back of her mouth. Though not deformed, the child was a monster nonetheless. The rapist's curse. Healthy, but healthy at the expense of Phimie.
In spite of the intensity and urgency with which the surgical team was working on the girl, a tall nurse stepped aside and motioned Celestina to the head of the operating table.
And finally, now to Phimie, Phimie alive, but-oh-changed in a way that made Celestina feel as though her rib cage were closing like a clamp around her thudding heart.
The right side of the girl's face appeared to be more strongly affected by gravity than the left: slack yet with a pulled look. The left eyelid drooped. That side of her mouth was turned down in half a frown. From the corner of her lips oozed a stream of drool. Her eyes rolled, wild with fear, and seemed not to be focused on anything in this room.
“Cerebral hemorrhage,” explained a doctor who might have been Lipscomb.
To remain standing, Celestina had to brace herself with one hand against the operating table. The lights had grown painfully bright, and the air had thickened with the odors of antiseptics and blood, until breathing required an effort.
Phimie turned her head, and her eyes stopped rolling wildly. She locked gazes with her sister, and for the first time, she seemed to know where she was.
She tried to raise her right hand, but it flopped uselessly and would not respond, so she reached across her body with her left hand, which Celestina gripped tightly.
The girl spoke, but her words were badly slurred, her speech incoherent.
She twisted her sweat-drenched face in what might have been frustration, closed her eyes, and tried again, getting out a single but intelligible word: “Baby."
“She's suffering only expressive aphasia,” the doctor said. “She can't get much out, but she understands you perfectly."
With the infant in her arms, the heavyset nurse pressed in beside Celestina, who almost recoiled in disgust. She held the newborn so that its mother could look into its face.
Phimie gazed upon the child briefly, then sought her sister's eyes again. Another word, slurred but made intelligible with much effort: “Angel."
This was no angel.
Unless it was the angel of death.
All right, yes, it had tiny hands and tiny feet, rather than hooked talons and cloven hooves. This was no demon child. Its father's evil was'nt visibly reflected in its small face.
Celestina wanted nothing to do with it, was offended by the very sight of it, and she couldn't understand why Phimie would so insistently call it an angel.
“Angel,” Phimie said thickly, searching her sister's eyes for a sign of understanding.
of understanding. “Don't strain yourself, honey."
“Don't strain yourself, honey."
“Angel,” Phimie said urgently, and then, with an effort that made a blood vessel swell in her left temple, “name.
“You want to name the baby Angel?"
The girl tried to say yes, but all that issued from her was “Yunh, yunh,” so she nodded as vigorously as she was able to do, and tightened her grip on Celestina's hand.
Perhaps she was afflicted with only expressive aphasia, but she must be confused to some degree. The baby, which would be placed for adoption, was not hers to name.
“Angel,” she repeated, close to desperation.
Angel. A less exotic synonym for her own name. Seraphim's angel. The angel of an angel.
“All right,” Celestina said, “yes, of course.” She could see no harm in humoring Phimie. “Angel. Angel White. Now, you calm down, you relax, don't stress yourself."
As the heavyset nurse retreated with the baby, Phimie's grip on her sister's hand relaxed, but then grew firm once more as her gaze also became more intense. “Love ... you."
“I love you, too, honey,” Celestina said shakily. “So much."
Phimie's eyes widened, her hand tightened painfully on her sister's hand, her entire body convulsed, thrashed, and she cried, “Unnn, unnn, unnn!"
When her hand went limp in Celestina's, her body sagged, too, and her eyes were no longer either focused or rolling wildly. They shimmered into stillness, darkled with death, as the cardiac monitor sang the one long note that signified flatline.
Celestina was maneuvered aside as the surgical team began resuscitation procedures. Stunned, she backed away from the table until she encountered a wall. In southern California, as dawn of this new momentous day looms nearer, Agnes Lampion still dreams of her newborn: Bartholomew in an incubator, watched over by a host of little angels hovering on white wings, seraphim and cherubim.
In Oregon, standing at Junior Cain's bedside, turning a quarter across the knuckles of his left hand, Thomas Vanadium asks about the name that his suspect had spoken in the grip of a nightmare.
In San Francisco, Seraphim Aethionema White lies beyond all hope of resuscitation. So beautiful and only sixteen.
With a tenderness that surprises and moves Celestina, the tall nurse closes the dead girl's eyes. She opens a fresh, clean sheet and places it over the body, from the feet up, covering the precious face last of all.
And now the stilled world starts turning again....
Lowering his surgical mask, Dr. Lipscomb approached Celestina, where she stood with her back pressed to the wall.
His homely face was long and narrow, as though pulled into that shape by the weight of his responsibilities. In other circumstances, however, his generous mouth might have shaped an appealing smile; and his green eyes had in them the compassion of someone who himself had known great loss.
“I'm so sorry, Miss White."
She blinked, nodded, but could not speak.
“You'll need time to ... adjust to this,” he said. “Perhaps you've got to call family.. . ."
Her mother and father still resided in a world where Phimie was alive. Bringing them from that old reality to this new one would be the second-hardest thing Celestina had ever done.
The hardest was being in this room at the very moment when Phimie had moved on. Celestina knew beyond doubt that this was the worst thing she would have to endure in all her life, worse than her own death when it came.
“And, of course, you'll need to make arrangements for the body,” said Dr. Lipscomb. “Sister Josephina will provide you with a room, a phone, privacy, whatever you need, and for however long you need."
She wasn't listening closely to him. Numb. She felt as though she were half anesthetized. She was looking past him, at nothing, and his Voice seemed to be coming to her through several layers of surgical masks, though he now wore none at all.
“But before you leave St. Mary's,” the physician said, “I'd like a few mutes of your time. It's very important to me. Personally."
Gradually, she perceived that Lipscomb was more troubled than he should have been, considering that his patient had died through no fault of his own.
When she met his eyes again, he said, “I'll wait for you. When you're ready to hear me. However long you need. But something ... something extraordinary happened here before you arrived."
Celestina almost begged off, almost told him that she had no interest in whatever curiosity of medicine or physiology he might have witnessed. The only miracle that would have mattered, Phimie's survival, had not been granted.
In the face of his kindness, however, she couldn't refuse his request. She nodded.
The newborn was no longer in the operating room.
Celestina hadn't noticed the infant being taken away. She had wanted to see it once more, even though she was sickened by the sight of it.
Evidently, her face was knotted with the effort to remember what the child had looked like, for the physician said, “Yes? What's wrong?"
“The baby ...
“She's been taken to the neonatal unit."
She. Heretofore, Celestina hadn't given a thought to the gender of the baby, because, to her, it had been less a person than a thing.
Lipscomb said, 'Miss White? Do you want me to show you the way?"
She shook her head. “No. Thank you, no. Neonatal unit. I'll find it later."
This consequence of rape, the baby, was less baby to Celestina than cancer, a malignancy excised rather than a life delivered. She had been no more impelled to study the child than she would have been, charmed to examine the glistening gnarls and oozing convolutions of a freshly plucked tumor. Consequently, she could remember nothing of its squinched face.
One detail, and one only, haunted her.
As shaken as she had been at Phimie's side, she couldn't trust her memory. Perhaps she hadn't seen what she thought she'd seen.
One detail. One only. It was a crucial detail, however, one that she absolutely must confirm before she left St. Mary's, even if she would be required to look at the child once more, this spawn of violence, this killer of her sister.
IN HOSPITALS, AS in farmhouses, breakfast comes soon after dawn, because both healing and growing are hard work, and long days of labor required to save the human species, which spends as mu& time earning its pain and hunger as it does trying to escape them.
Two soft-boiled eggs, one slice of bread neither toasted nor buttered, a glass of apple juice, and a dish of orange Jell-O were served to Agnes Lampion as, on farms farther inland from the coast, roosters still crowed and plump hens clucked contentedly atop their early layings.
Although she had slept well and though her hemorrhaging had been successfully arrested, Agnes was too weak to manage breakfast alone. A simple spoon was as heavy and as unwieldy as a shovel.
She didn't have an appetite, anyway. Joey was too much on her mind. The safe birth of a healthy child was a blessing, but it wasn't compensation for her loss. Although by nature resistant to depression, she now had a darkness in her heart that would not relent before a thousand dawns or ten thousand. If a mere nurse had insisted that she eat, Agnes would not have been persuaded, but she couldn't hold out against the insistent importuning of one special seamstress.
Maria Elena Gonzalez—such an imposing figure in spite of her diminutive stature that even three names seemed insufficient to identify her-was still present. Although the crisis had passed, she wasn't ready to trust that nurses and doctors, by themselves, could provide Agnes with adequate care.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Maria lightly salted the runny eggs and spooned them into Agnes's mouth. “Eggs is as chickens does."
“Eggs are as chickens do,” Agnes corrected. Que?"
Frowning, Agnes said, “No, that doesn't make any sense, either, does it? What were you trying to say, dear?"
“This woman be to ask me about chickens—"
“Doesn't matter. Silly woman making fan at my English, trying confuse me. She be to ask me whether chicken come around first or first be an egg."
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
“Si! Like that she say."
“She wasn't making fun of your English, dear. It's just an old riddle.” When Maria didn't understand that word, Agnes spelled and defined it. “No one can answer it, good English or not. That's the point."
'Point be to ask question without can have no answer? What sense that make?” She frowned with concern. “You not to be well yet, Mrs.
Lampion, your-head not clean."
“I answer to riddle."
“And what was your answer?"
“First chicken to be come with first egg inside already."
Agnes swallowed a spoonful of Jell-O and smiled. “Well, that is pretty simple, after all."
“Be what?” Agnes asked as she sucked up the last of the apple juice through a straw.
“Simple. People make things to be complicated when not. All world simple like sewing."
“Sewing?” Agnes wondered if, indeed, her head was not yet clean.
“Thread needle. Stitch, stitch, stitch,” Maria said earnestly as she removed Agnes's bed tray. “Tie off last stitch. Simple. Only to decide is color of thread and what is type stitch. Then stitch, stitch, stitch."
Into all this talk of stitchery came a nurse with the news that baby Lampion was out of danger and free of the incubator, and with the simplicity of a ring following the swing of a bell, a second nurse appeared, pushing a wheeled bassinet.
The first nurse beamed smiles into the bassinet and swept from it a pink treasure swaddled in a simple white receiving blanket.