YOU YOURSELF are a holy mother,” Father Canevin was saying. He was speaking to Miss Dunn’s mother. He sat back in a leather chair that gave a short cough and squeak each time he moved, like an old, brittle bellows. Toom-beeph. Toom-beeph. Miss Dunn listened intensely to such sounds. They were like voices from a hidden world. “Vocation is not salvation,” Father Canevin said.
“Yet you yourself chose a vocation,” Miss Dunn’s mother said. “You heard God’s call.”
The priest shut his eyes humbly and bowed his head, but there was a grimace on his face. “It has been a blessing for me,” he said after opening his eyes.
“And for Katharine?” she asked. Mrs. Dunn was perched on the edge of her seat, her legs pressed tightly together beneath the bell of her skirt. Her chair matched the one her daughter sat in next to her, with thick wooden arms curving out from the rust-colored leather. The ends were carved dragon’s heads, like the mastheads of a boat. Miss Dunn let her fingertips linger in their open mouths.
“Miss Dunn cannot answer a call she has not heard,” Father Canevin said.
“God speaks to all of us,” Mrs. Dunn said.
“As priest,” he said, “or, in your case, as a mother.” He slowed the last words down and gestured toward Mrs. Dunn, to remind her he had already said this. She was about to speak again when he turned deliberately from her and stretched a smile toward her daughter. The fingertips of each of his hands touched before his face at a sharp angle, like a cathedral roof, or a steeple. “You attended business school?” he asked.
“That was before she considered the sisters,” Mrs. Dunn said, but Father Canevin ignored her.
“In the commercial department,” Miss Dunn said.
The priest let his hands fall and leaned forward over his desk. Outside the muffled tap of hoofbeats struck the window, as if the waiting horse were impatient for Father Canevin to hurry up. “But you’re seeking something more,” he said. “To show your faith.”
Miss Dunn was not sure, at least not sure she would put it that way. This conversation with Father Canevin was her mother’s idea. After she had finished her studies at the commercial department, Miss Dunn had told her parents that she was considering entering the convent. “It would make us proud,” her father had said, and then given his newspaper a snap before returning to read it. Her mother was beaming. “An answer to my prayers,” she had said.
But Miss Dunn hadn’t entered. In the room at the convent, with the Reverend Mother, she could barely breathe, suffocated by the smell of soap and old flowers and beeswax. On the other side of a wall of blocks of colored glass, shadows wavered, like bodies drowning. From time to time came the dried whispers of shuffling feet: sss-chtch, sss-chtch-chtch. “But why?” her mother had said when Miss Dunn had told her. “What do you think you’ll do with your life now?”
“I have my job,” Miss Dunn had said. She had not told her mother about the boy, Thomas, but she had not thought of him once during the interview with Sister Agatha. Now she certainly couldn’t tell her. She had gone walking with him twice, and then spent an afternoon at a trolley park with him, and finally had taken a car ride. To do it she had told her mother that she was meeting schoolmates at Kaufmann’s so that her friend Beatrice could shop for dresses.
And anyway she would not see Thomas again. He wasn’t who she thought he was.
“And you still want to serve the church in some way?” Father Canevin was saying. He nodded, his eyes wide open, as if saying Miss Dunn’s words for her.
Miss Dunn had faded from the room, to think of Thomas and the car and the way the wind felt on her face, of her mother’s own pale face receiving the news that her daughter had decided not to join the sisters. She remembered the way the Reverend Mother’s fleshy lips had worked over themselves during their conversation, and how they’d flinch each time Miss Dunn mentioned the devil. Why was the nun so upset about this? What did she have to fear?
“Yes,” Miss Dunn said quickly now to Father Canevin.
“Perhaps it will help her reconsider the sisters,” Mrs. Dunn said.
Father Canevin ignored her again. His grimace returned. “I have something for you,” he said to Miss Dunn.
Miss Dunn was to go to Cecil, a short train ride from Pittsburgh. She would be going with a Miss Conway. Mrs. Sweeney had arranged it. She couldn’t believe her good luck, Mrs. Sweeney had said, to find two such perfect candidates, young, caring ladies. “We’re perfect!” Miss Conway said later with a laugh, shaking Miss Dunn by the arms.
Mrs. Sweeney was the president of Saint John’s Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. She looked exactly like Mrs. Dunn, in billowing dark striped skirts, but without the frown. Miss Dunn and Miss Conway were to go to Cecil beginning in two Sundays to teach the catechism to the children of the town. The idea, Father Canevin had said, came all the way from the pope. Mrs. Sweeney’s son would take them. There was a man from Cecil, a Mr. Doyle, involved somehow, and a priest from the diocese, a Father Quinn, but Miss Dunn only understood what she was to do: teach the catechism. It didn’t sound bad. It was a bit of an adventure. She had nobody to tell how exciting the car ride with Thomas had been before they had stopped, and maybe the train to Cecil would be just as exciting.
For two weeks she brushed up on her catechism. She read a little on the trolley to work each day, and each night at home she sat at her desk and memorized what she could. The answers about the Holy Spirit enflaming one’s heart caught her by surprise. She had read them before, but hadn’t thought what that must actually feel like, the breath of God, the divine fire. She had felt, talking at the convent, that old, brittle paper, dry as kindling, was being crushed inside her. She had touched her own chest above her heart but quickly drew it away when it reminded her of what Thomas had tried to do. On one Saturday she and Miss Conway got together and tested each other. Miss Dunn was especially good on the characters, God and the saints and the devil and angels. Miss Conway knew the gifts, counsel and understanding and wisdom.
“Do you know they’re sending us because there’s not enough priests?” Miss Conway said.
“I wonder they don’t send the nuns,” Miss Dunn said. She couldn’t help it. It was like a woman who bit her nails, even as they were bleeding. She really had thought she would be a nun. She had said a rosary every night for a week afterwards, terrified of her decision.
“Not enough nuns either,” Miss Conway said. Then she tilted her head. “Why are you doing this?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Miss Dunn said. “Father Canevin mentioned it. He said the church had a need.”
“We should be priests,” Miss Conway said. “What do priests have that we don’t?” Miss Dunn stared back solemnly, considering the question. Then Miss Conway burst out laughing. But what was the joke? Then just as quickly Miss Conway’s face became serious again. She looked away, up at a blank corner of her dining room where they were studying. From another room Miss Dunn could hear a clock ticking. It didn’t say tick-tock, tick-tock. It said tot-tip, tot-tip. “I’ve never been as far as Cecil,” Miss Conway said. Then she snapped her head around to look at Miss Dunn. She was like that, like a bird, with a quick flick of her head like the sparrows had. “How about you?”
“No,” Miss Dunn said. “Once, I guess. Not Cecil, though.”
“Where?” Miss Conway said.
“I don’t know,” Miss Dunn said.
“You don’t know?”
“I went for a drive,” Miss Dunn said. She wasn’t going to say more but then she had to. She wanted to gloat. “With a boy.”
Miss Conway wasn’t a bird now but a cat. She lay her arms and chest perfectly still across the top of the table, but her face moved slowly into a sly grin. Not a cat then. Cats didn’t grin. “A boy,” she said dreamily.
“We were to be married,” Miss Dunn said. Why did she say this? It was a lie.
“Married!” Miss Conway said.
Now that she said it there was a wedding in Miss Dunn’s mind as real as a memory. All was white—her dress, Thomas’s coat, the priest’s alb, the altar cloth. Miss Dunn ducked her head from the rice. Her father had tears in his eyes. Even her mother smiled.
“What happened?” Miss Conway said.
“He drowned,” Miss Dunn said.
He didn’t drown. She would see him from time to time when he visited the office. She wondered if Thomas was afraid she would tell his uncle, her boss, what he had tried to do. She kept her back turned and pretended he wasn’t there. If he came over and apologized, what would she do? She practiced the words, the tone she might use. “I forgive you, Thomas,” she’d say, very formal-like. Then she would refuse his offer to go out again. She would let him know who she was.
She had first met him there, at the office. The windows, so dirty they looked bronze, siphoned light from the occasional sun. Her boss, Mr. Confrere, had introduced him, his hand spread on Thomas’s back. “My favorite nephew,” he had said.
“One of his nine favorite nephews,” Thomas joked. He was dressed in a dark suit and held his round, black hat in his hand. His hair was like straw, if straw could be supple like grass. You could see its thick, separate strands on his head. He worked for one of the boating companies and helped arrange shipments for his uncle’s clothing line. From time to time Miss Dunn would see payments made to the company from Mr. Confrere.
On his third visit Thomas had left Mr. Confrere’s office and looked across the desks toward Miss Dunn. She had glanced up when she heard the office door open. Thomas had smiled, then strode deliberately across the room. “Would you like to go walking?” he said.
Miss Dunn didn’t know what to say. At night she would fluff her sheets and let them fall as softly as possible against her. She would pull up her nightgown so her legs would be bare and she would do it again, feel the soft touch of the sheets, like a feather, and the small breeze they stirred up her legs as they fell. She knew she would have to stop once she entered the convent. She felt that way now, that strange tension in her back, the sense of her own skin, the way she heard her breath come strongly, as she looked up at Thomas, except that he wasn’t touching her. Nothing was touching her. “Now?” Miss Dunn finally said to Thomas.
Thomas laughed, as if she had intended to be funny.
Miss Dunn had dressed too nicely, as had Miss Conway. They tripped in their thin boots as they made their way down the hillside. Once Miss Dunn slipped, sending a spit of pebbles tumbling. Thirty or so children sat on the ground below, a few on hand-hewn benches. There were about six or seven adults, some standing silently by the children, others huddled in a small group talking. Mr. Sweeney had disappeared, but the two women followed Mr. Doyle, who owned the farm, down before his grape arbor. He had set up a table and two chairs before the vines, brown and curled and withered on the trellis. The children grew quiet as the women and Mr. Doyle approached. He gestured to the arbor behind them. “I thought the grapes might be a nice background,” he said, then introduced them to the children and stepped aside.
Miss Dunn felt her breath catch. Why had she agreed to this? The children stared at her. “Where should we start?” Miss Conway whispered to her.
They had worked so hard on knowing the catechism that Miss Dunn hadn’t thought about what to do with it. In a panic she yelled out, “So, who would like to tell us what you know about the Catholic Church?” Each word came out more quietly than the prior one, the sentence dying in the air. It was like a flag snapping loudly in a breeze before ruffling into stillness. What a ridiculous question. But the children shouted out answers about loving God and getting to heaven and honoring your mother and father.
“One at a time,” one of the mothers shouted.
“There’s no churches where we live,” one of the kids said.
“Yes, there is, there’s James Chapel.”
“That’s not Catholic, stupid,” one said.
“That’s thirty miles away,” a girl shouted.
Miss Conway clapped her hands together. “Quiet now,” she said. “Let’s start at the beginning. The end of man.”
“Is that the beginning or the end?” a student cried out.
Another child said, “My father always says that no matter where you start, it’s always the beginning.”
Miss Conway ignored them. She opened up her arms, as if welcoming them all. “Who made the world?” she asked. It was the first question of the catechism, and Miss Dunn suddenly realized the long march before them, the hundreds of pages of questions and answers. In their rooms it had been simple, inquiry and response, all written out. Here it was scattered, distracted, the air snatching their words and blowing them away. Behind her she heard the wind scratch the vines against the trellis: chitch, chichitch, chitch.
While they talked Mr. Sweeney came down from the farmhouse and stood behind the group of children, leaning against a tree with his hands in his pockets. Miss Dunn couldn’t see his eyes in the shadow of his hat and the branches. On the train to Cecil, she had entered the cabin last of the three. Mr. Sweeney had been on one bench, Miss Conway on the other. She had sat across from Mr. Sweeney. “A beautiful view,” he had said, looking at the two women.
Miss Conway had leaned forward, as if peering out the window. “The trees are lovely,” she said, smirking at him, and Mr. Sweeney had smiled back. When he had left the car Miss Conway turned to Miss Dunn. “A beautiful view,” she said, mocking Mr. Sweeney, with that laugh that fell so oddly fast into a serious look. She lifted her finger and tucked a curl that had fallen from Miss Dunn’s hair behind her ear. Miss Dunn hadn’t noticed it but now she felt it, felt her hair pressed tightly against her temple where Miss Conway had pinned it.
On their second visit they decided not to go in order through the questions. Instead, they picked what they liked, what they were good at, Miss Conway on the gifts, Miss Dunn on the angels and saints. The children had grown bored on the first day. Miss Dunn had felt their disappointment like a weight insider her, dragging down her heart. It went better with the new plan, the children catching the young women’s enthusiasm. Miss Dunn herself was learning ideas anew. When she explained that the devil was a bad angel, she considered for the first time his special nature, how he was holy in a way, an angel, more blessed than a human.
“There’s a devil in Cecil,” one child said.
“Don’t be saying that, Cyrus,” another said.
“We saw him,” one of the boys said. It was a student named Roger. He turned toward Miss Dunn and Miss Conway. Throughout the classes he had watched them both intently, his eyes pressed narrow in concentration. “You want to see him?” he asked.
“The devil is everywhere,” Miss Dunn said, and the children leaned back for a second, some with terrified looks. It wasn’t the right thing to say.
“He’s in the mine,” Cyrus said.
“Is not,” one child said.
“Is too,” said another.
“Those are just ordinary ghosts,” one of the girls said.
Mr. Doyle moved in close to the women. “The refreshments are here,” he said, and nodded to a table the adults had set up, a board stretched across two barrels with lemonade and cookies atop it. The students all turned also, and a few stood up and started to head that way. “Not yet,” Mr. Doyle said. “When your teachers say so.”
Miss Dunn turned to Miss Conway and nodded. She had lost where they had been, what they were discussing, so they adjourned and the children rushed over to the table to eat. The adults corralled them into a line, but Roger came over to the two women. “Cyrus is afraid to go into the mine because the devil’s there,” he said.
“It’s good to be afraid of the devil,” Miss Conway said.
“Would you like to see him?”
“Of course not,” Miss Conway said. “You’re supposed to avoid the devil. Plus there’s no devil in the mine.”
Roger turned to Miss Dunn. “I’m not lying,” he said. “Would you like to go see him?”
Miss Dunn had always thought the devil sought you. When she was little, she would press her ear to her pillow at night. In it, or through it, she could hear a thrumming, a little march of steady steps. In her half-sleep, she saw a large figure trailed by smaller ones, a Santa Claus with his elves. It was their feet that made the thrumming, their march as they sang off to work. But it was dwarves or elves who sang, she thought, dwarves working underground, mining, so it couldn’t be Santa Claus. Then who was this big man leading the march? A troll or ogre maybe, someone who lives in mines or caves. But she could not escape the color red, the suit of Santa Claus, so it was a devil in her pillow, or devils, a big and some little ones.
“Will I find the devil here?” she had asked the Reverend Mother during their interview.
The nun’s face inside its wimple squeezed in on itself, like an old grape. “Why do you ask that?” she finally said. Miss Dunn didn’t know how to answer. She had been thinking of the sounds she had heard in her pillow at night. All the churches had pictures of God, or Jesus, or Mary, or the saints, but not the devil. All Miss Dunn could say was, “There just seem too many pictures of God,” and the old nun flinched again. Now she looked down at Roger, still staring at her. How long had he been watching her? She could feel Miss Conway close beside her. “Nobody said you’re lying,” Miss Dunn finally said.
“I’ve seen him,” Roger said. “He’s in the mine. Cyrus was afraid to go but I wasn’t. Now Cyrus’s dad is going to make him work in the mine. Cyrus says he’s going to run away.”
The two women glanced quickly at each other. When Miss Dunn looked back, Roger let the smile drop from his face. “Why don’t you go get some lemonade?” Miss Conway said, and when he left, she said to Miss Dunn, “Imagine that!” She made one of those funny faces of hers, curious and comical, like a silly squirrel trying to be serious. “At least they’re interested,” she said, and then her face curled up again and she grasped Miss Dunn’s arm. “You don’t believe him, do you?” she said.
“No,” she said, but then said, “Why not?”
But it was true. There was an old mine, its best days behind it. A few families had gone in over the years, imagining they might find some coal to use or sell. Mr. Doyle knew the children said it was haunted. “Some of their parents, too,” he said as he drove them to the station. He thought some people had died in there, that maybe that’s where the stories of the ghosts came from. He seemed so serious that Miss Dunn didn’t want to ask him whether he believed it or not. “I’m not a miner myself,” he said, unhelpfully.
On the train ride home Miss Conway said they should have a séance in the mine. “Whatever for?” Mr. Sweeney said, startled by the idea. They were seated as they had been before, with Mr. Sweeney across from them.
“To get rid of the devil,” Miss Conway said.
“I think it’s an exorcism you want,” Miss Dunn said. She pictured the mine, a big dark cave, and a large brown cross held up by a man in brown robes before torches.
Miss Conway turned to Miss Dunn. “Exorcisms are for people,” she said. “At least I think so.”
But no, Miss Dunn thought, mines aren’t big caves. They’re narrow tunnels, wet and confusing and full of dust. Bats hang from their ceilings. Gripping what? she wondered.
“And you have to be a priest,” Mr. Sweeney added. He shook his head and leaned over and with a big laugh slapped each of the women gently on their thighs. “What’s all this talk of the devil?” he said. “Look outside. It’s a beautiful Sunday.” He stood up awkwardly in the middle of the car, then plopped back down again in his seat.
The three fell into silence and Miss Dunn followed Mr. Sweeney’s suggestion and looked out the window. From time to time her arm brushed against Miss Conway’s arm beside her and she thought she could feel the small hairs on Miss Conway’s skin. Once, when they were studying, Miss Conway had reached out and dragged her fingernail absently down Miss Dunn’s arm and then had opened up her face into one of those unexpected, silent laughs of hers.
The hillsides and pastures and creeks went by faster than they had on the car ride with Thomas. But it wasn’t as much fun. You couldn’t feel the wind. You couldn’t sense speed on the skin. Before that ride in the car she and Thomas had gone to Kennywood, the trolley park. This was when she was still going to join the nuns, and she wondered if she should tell him. Her heart beat so fast she had to stop and gasp when she thought about breaking a young man’s heart.
She told her parents she was going to Kennywood with Lydia and another girl from the office. There really was a Lydia, but they barely spoke. What if her parents ever met her and asked about Kennywood? That, too, made Miss Dunn lightheaded, imagining her parents’ faces when Lydia said she had no idea what they were talking about.
At Kennywood she and Thomas had ridden the merry-go-round and rowed out on the lake and watched a baseball game and taken a walk through the grove. It was hard for Miss Dunn to find something to talk to him about. She pretended to care about his shipping business. “Do you sail to Europe?” she asked once.
“Europe?” he said. “No, we’re domestic. New Orleans mostly. Or New York.”
New Orleans was almost as good as Europe, though. Miss Dunn wanted to conjure it up with her senses but didn’t know what it might smell like, what spices they put on their food or how the sea smelled different from the rivers in Pittsburgh. Mr. Confrere’s name was French. Maybe he was from there.
As they walked through the grove Thomas lifted up one of her hands and had her hold his arm. Once, in grade school, she had been cajoled behind the building by a group of friends and stood facing Patrick Dorsey. He had quickly grabbed her hand, squeezed hard, though he hadn’t meant to hurt her, then run away. She noticed other boys, huddled at the fence, watching, and saw Patrick glance back at her as he ran toward them. It had been a dare, to hold her hand, but she hadn’t minded. It made her feel exotic. They hadn’t wanted to hold her friend Amelia’s hand, or any other girl’s. She could still recall Patrick’s look, the shock on his face that he had touched her. Now she was holding a man, walking through the trees.
The trolley back to Pittsburgh was crowded, and she and Thomas had to stand. When more people climbed on he moved behind her, and she could feel her heels up against his toes and his shoulder pressing her back. She felt something in her hair but didn’t want to turn around. Perhaps it was his coat, bobbing as they moved. Or his hand. Soon the press of the crowd grew too much and she was sure she was going to faint. As the next stop approached she started to push her way toward the door. “Where are you going?” Thomas yelled.
“I’ll get off here,” she yelled. The people who had parted for her were closing up again behind her as she worked her way forward.
“How about a car ride?” he yelled over them.
“A car ride!” someone yelled. They were all in a happy mood, mostly young, coming back from the park.
“I’ll go,” someone said.
“Go with him,” another said. “Take the car ride!”
It was like a game she was playing, at a circus or bazaar. She could pick a prize. “In a car?” Miss Dunn said as the trolley slowed.
“No, a train,” someone said, and everyone laughed.
“Okay,” Miss Dunn said as she stepped down from the trolley. She saw Thomas looking back and she waved, widening her face to let him know how happy she was. For a moment she forgot she was going to join the nuns. He lifted his hat. He had seen her wave. Then he might have put his hat back on but the trolley was too far and the crowd hid him.
Once again Mr. Doyle picked them up at the train station. Mr. Sweeney was with them again. “Really, Mr. Sweeney,” Miss Conway had said, “I think Miss Dunn and I can make it on our own.”
“You sound like you don’t want me,” Mr. Sweeney said.
“Oh, not at all,” Miss Conway said. “I just can’t imagine these trips are enjoyable for you.”
“Exactly the opposite,” Mr. Sweeney said. “I enjoy them very much.” He smiled as if he had a secret they all shared.
After their last trip to Cecil, when they got off the train, Mr. Sweeney had leaned in to Miss Dunn. “Do you think she’s serious about the séance?” he asked her.
“Maybe just for the children,” she had said. “So they won’t be afraid.”
Mr. Doyle had fashioned a bench in the bed of his wagon, and Mr. Sweeney had climbed up onto it and now held his hand out to the two women. Miss Dunn felt a nudge in her side from Miss Conway, so she held out her hand and let herself be pulled up beside him. Miss Conway sat up front, next to Mr. Doyle. The roads were pitted from the spring rains, and the wagon rocked roughly along its route. Mr. Sweeney apologized often for jostling her, bumping into her when the wagon took an unexpected bounce. Once he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling, but she hadn’t been falling. “Saved you!” he said.
At one point Miss Conway shot out her arm and grabbed Mr. Doyle’s and asked him to stop the wagon. “Is that it?” she said, pointing to a dark hole in the side of a faraway hillside.
“That’s an old entrance,” Mr. Doyle said. “Closed up, I think.”
Miss Conway turned around. “The mine,” she said, and then rolled her eyes.
Mr. Doyle flicked the reins and started moving again. “I don’t like that place myself,” he said.
They were planning on taking the kids into the fields. Once again at the previous class they saw that they had lost the children’s attention. Miss Conway had announced toward the end that they should bring some food and clothes for a walk the next week. Miss Dunn smiled as if she thought this a great idea, though it was the first she had ever heard of it. “What do you plan to do?” she had asked Miss Conway later.
Miss Conway drew in her shoulders and threw up her hands in a way that made Miss Dunn laugh. She seemed like a child at times, her body was so limber and expressive. Once, when one of the parents had started to play the fiddle after class, Miss Conway had taken Miss Dunn’s arms and tried to get her to skip dance, but Miss Dunn had pulled back. She had no idea what to do, and felt her chest beating hard from how ridiculous she looked.
They climbed to the top of a nearby hillside for their field trip. Roger was in the lead with Miss Conway, and two of the mothers came along with the group. Miss Dunn was in the back, making sure all the children stayed together. The hill grew steeper as they got higher, and near the top they sat down to have their lunch, scattered among the boulders and dried wallows. The children began exploring, and Miss Dunn went with them, making sure they didn’t go far, asking them to return to the main group when they wandered out of sight of the others. At one point a little girl came hurrying over the hillside. She wore a dirty gingham dress, and her face was covered with fig from her lunch. “Miss Dunn, Miss Dunn,” she cried. “Hurry up. Miss Conway has fallen into the mine!”
Miss Dunn cried out and followed the little girl back over the hill. In the distance she saw two boys kneeling on the ground. As she got closer, she recognized Roger and Cyrus, both staring down into a hole. They had uncoiled a large rope, knotted every few feet, and tied it to a tree trunk. “Cyrus is afraid to go in but I’m not,” Roger said. He was hunched over, his eyebrows lifted in excitement. Miss Dunn confused him for a moment with the dwarves in her pillows, or maybe she didn’t really. Maybe he was what she heard in there: little children tramping along.
“Where’s Miss Conway?” Miss Dunn asked.
Roger nodded to the hole. “Down there,” he said.
“It’s a toad hole,” the girl said.
“A toad hole?” Miss Dunn said.
“Part of the mine,” Roger said. “They blow up like that. Miss Conway fell in.”
“Is she okay?” Miss Dunn felt sick to her stomach. Why had she ever agreed to this walk? She wanted to be back by the grapes, forcing the students to recite the answers to the catechism questions. “Roger, go tell the other parents,” she said.
“I’m going in,” he said. “I have to see if she’s okay.”
“You can’t let him in there,” Cyrus said.
“Cyrus, there is no devil in there,” Miss Dunn said.
“She might have broken her back,” Roger said. “I’m going to see if she’s okay.”
“You can’t let him go down,” Cyrus said again.
“I’ll go,” Miss Dunn said. “Roger, you go get Mrs. Harth.”
“Okay,” Roger said, “but I’ll help you first. Hold on to the rope.”
Miss Dunn started forward but then stopped. “How deep is it?” she asked.
“Ten feet, I’d guess,” Roger said. “When the sun’s high you can see the bottom.”
Miss Dunn took hold of the rope above one of the knots and let her feet dangle into the hole. Slowly she lowered herself in. She had never had to hold her own weight before, and her feet flailed in the open air. As soon as her head passed the ground level she felt her breath catch, as if she were being squeezed. Because her arms ached so much she lowered herself quickly into the darkness, down onto a soft dirt floor. Above her she could make out dimly the heads of the three children against the sky, like cherubs painted on a cupola. “See if you can find her,” Roger said. His voice seemed far off, floating away.
Miss Dunn extended her arm and could barely see its end in the dark. “Miss Conway,” she yelled. “Anna!”
“Perhaps she’s knocked out,” Roger said from above. “Should I come down, too?”
“No, go get the parents like I said,” Miss Dunn said. She shouldn’t have come down. She wanted out. It struck her suddenly to wonder where the rope had come from. No one in the group had had a rope. But she couldn’t let Miss Conway down, after all they had done together, how kind she had been. Miss Dunn took a few steps forward, still holding onto the rope, groping with her hand at the air. At last she had to let go. She could see only a few inches in front of her. She kept a foot on the ground, slid it forward, then brought up the other one. She kept her hands before her. “Anna,” she said again. For some reason she was whispering. She looked behind her and saw the soft glow from the toad hole entrance. She had never heard of a toad hole before. She took a few more steps forward, and this time when she turned around she could not see the light and started to hurry back. She tripped once but caught herself. She kept reaching for the walls but never felt them and began to feel dizzy. At last she saw the light again and decided she’d get out before she got lost. But she saw the rope moving, sliding upward, and then the giggles of children and the light going away. Barely she saw the rope disappearing at the top, a snake returning to its den, as something covered the hole and muffled the laughter. “Roger! Cyrus!” she yelled, but the mine swallowed her voice.
Miss Dunn reached out in a panic, scratching at the black emptiness around her, until she felt the rough edge of the mine wall. It stilled the dizziness that had overtaken her, blind and lost in the middle of space. She called a few more times for the children, then started moving closer to where she thought the hole had been. Surely the little girl would tell on them, or the parents or Miss Conway would begin to worry. She should wait. She sat down. She told herself to remain calm. She started to say a rosary but didn’t get past the first few words. She grew furious at the children who had done this to her, humiliated enough that she started to cry. The children were bad angels, just like the devil. Little devils!
After a few minutes—it was hard to say how much time had passed—she saw a light off to her right, and she stood up. She thought of the children’s stories about the devils and ghosts but told herself not to be ridiculous. “I’m here,” she yelled to the light. “This way.” She kept her fingers brushing the wall as she moved forward. But then the light was gone. “Anna?” she yelled. “Cyrus?” Maybe there hadn’t been a light. Maybe it was all in her mind. All around her was dark again, and she had no idea in which direction she had come. Her breath came in short heaves, like a dog hoarse with barking. She pressed her back against the wall and slid down in the dirt. She was going to drown, she thought. Maybe it’s what she deserved, for lying about Thomas. Soon there would be no air. She cried but when nothing changed, when it was still completely dark, she stopped crying. What was the point? Nothing she did mattered.
At some point she was no longer afraid. Or at least not panicked. There was nothing she could do but wait. She often kept her eyes shut because looking into absolute darkness made her ill. But she hadn’t drowned, or whatever one did in a cave. Had she fallen asleep? She was no longer mad at Roger, or Cyrus, or the little girl least of all. Miss Dunn would be a cross to all of them, a guilt they would carry forever.
She thought she saw a light again and stood to go but it just as quickly collapsed into the darkness. When another light appeared, she called out but stayed still. Then it, too, went away. She moved forward, stopped, sat, stood, moved a little, figuring each place was as lost as another. Lights came and went. Perhaps there were insects in the mine, like lightning bugs, or they were the distant lamps of the parents searching for her. Maybe they were devils, like Roger claimed, or the ordinary ghosts the girl said lived here. The lights did not fade as she approached but blew out, as if extinguished, pressed closed by the enveloping darkness. Maybe there were little people here then, as her grandmother used to believe, the little people who lived under the land. What struck her was the silence, she who always heard the world’s talking. Here the earth was stolid, keeping its secrets.
The lights kept coming, and then she heard sounds, too. They were drawing her somewhere, through the cave. She was afraid a little again but also lightheaded now, giddy, as if she were drunk. There were mysteries here, and she of all people would know them. She wondered what she might find, whether she could share them, who would believe them. It was as if she had been chosen. When she saw the silhouette of a body before a light she no longer wanted to see it. She had been on the edge of a discovery, of finding the mystery in the cave. She found herself in a grid of tunnels and cross-tunnels, and people were moving about with lamps, calling her name. But she didn’t want to go back out now, didn’t want to face their questions, the punished faces of the children who had tricked her. She wanted to know what those first lights had been. Surely they were gone now, had fled when they saw the others with their lamps. They had been calling only her. She had been at the edge of a mystery.
Down a short tunnel she saw Mr. Sweeney leading Miss Conway, and she tucked up tightly against the wall and shut her eyes to hide from them. But in a minute Miss Conway was whispering her name, not far away, and Miss Dunn opened her eyes. Mr. Sweeney was no longer with her. “Katherine?” Miss Conway said.
“Shh!” Miss Dunn said.
“Katherine?” Miss Conway said again.
“Shh!” Miss Dunn said again, leaning into the light a little. She put her finger to her lips. Mr. Sweeney had gone on into another tunnel.
Miss Conway made sure she wasn’t being followed and moved forward slowly. “What are you doing?” she said.
“I don’t want to be found yet,” Miss Dunn said.
“You don’t want to be found?” Miss Conway said. Miss Dunn took her by the hand and led her around the corner where they couldn’t be seen. “Why don’t you want to be found?” Miss Conway said. “What’s the matter? We found out what those nasty brats did! Look, you’re crying,” she said, and she lifted a finger to stab at a tear on Miss Dunn’s cheek.
“You should come with me,” Miss Dunn said. “It’s absolutely dark in there. And you can’t see anything or hear anything and from time to time you see these lights, like bugs, or candles, or flames.”
“That was us,” Miss Conway said. “We’ve been looking for you for an hour.” She put her hand on Miss Dunn’s arm and raised her lamp to see her face better. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Miss Dunn noticed the smell of Miss Conway’s breath. The whole time in the cave she had been enveloped in its smell only, the dirt of the cave, the tight air of the tunnels. She could feel, too, the heat of Miss Conway’s body, so different from the constant cool of the mines. “What is that?” Miss Dunn asked. “That smell.”
Miss Conway put her hand to her mouth and giggled. “A mint,” she said, and she blew on Miss Dunn’s face. “I had a cigarette.”
“A cigarette?” Miss Dunn said.
“Mr. Sweeney let me have one if I kissed him,” she said.
“You kissed him?”
“For the cigarette,” she said. “But that’s it. It’s like he has no lips. It wasn’t a real kiss.” They were standing directly before each other now, Miss Conway’s hand on Miss Dunn’s arm. Miss Conway lowered her lamp. They could not hear anyone now. Neither of them moved. “What was it like with Thomas?” Miss Conway asked, but Miss Dunn didn’t answer. “Did you ever do more with him?” she said. “You know, more than kiss. Let him have his way with you.”
“No,” Miss Dunn said, then, lying again, said, “Once. One time. Before he died.”
Miss Dunn heard Miss Conway swallow. She no longer seemed as she had been, flighty and light, but heavy and immutable as a statue, carved out of the cave walls themselves, as moist and earthy as they were. “What was it like?” Miss Conway said.
Miss Dunn thought of the sheets she let fall against her bare legs at night. Would it be like that? Then she thought of Thomas’s rough hand on her chest, against her neck, his blunt fingers, the smell of his own cigarette, the panic that ran like a little rabbit up and down her spine as she flailed at him in the car. She did not know what it would be like. She couldn’t answer. She only felt the silence and the solidity and heat of Miss Conway and smelled the mint on her breath. “Do you have any more mints?” Miss Dunn asked.
“No,” Miss Conway said, shuffling closer, “but open your mouth.” Miss Dunn shut her eyes and opened her mouth but then opened her eyes again. Miss Conway was staring back at her. She opened her own mouth and leaned in, so their lips were almost touching, and she let out a long, slow breath. It was like a sigh, full of satisfaction. Miss Dunn tasted the mint, and then the bitter tinge of the tobacco. But Miss Conway’s breath was warm. Miss Dunn had not expected that with the mint. She shut her mouth, trapping the breath inside, trying to taste what Miss Conway had. Then with her mouth shut she drew the air into her lungs, the warmth and the mint and the smoke. It was as if she burned with a cool fire, spreading through her heart and lungs and limbs. She felt as hollow and chilled as the cave, empty but full of ghosts, and the breath she had swallowed was the light that would descend to reveal them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.