by KD Miller
Millen travels to a dangerous prison to meet his father. (Millen's POV 1911)(Long Chapter)
|Warning - The trigger warnings for this chapter are rape, attack, depression, child abuse, panic attack. and early 1900's views of abortion. Please don't read if these will upset you. This is an extremely long chapter.
Chapter Twenty Two
Trapani & Favignana, Sicily
With trembling fingers, I opened my jacket and slipped a silver cigarette case from the inside pocket. Removing one, I took a match from the box on the fireplace mantle and lit it. Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves, I inhaled and exhaled – a habit mother loathed and disgusted.
During the Christmas season, she’d caught Theodore, Dylan, and me smoking outside in the gardens. I remember her eyes squinting in disapproval, while her lips pressed as if she were sucking a lemon. There were no laws stating young men or women couldn’t smoke in public. Unlike men, when a woman smoked in public, she was looked down upon.
“I keep trying to tell them the tobacco will harm their lungs someday but do they listen? No!” Francis shrugged his shoulders and gave a retort. He refused to smoke along with us. “Dr. Alexander says inhaling tobacco smoke will eventually kill you,” Theodore responded to our brother’s lecture by purposely blowing smoke in Francis’s direction.
I tried not to smoke in front of my parents, or in the parlor where they could smell the lingering aroma. But, today was different - I’d earned it. Today, I would be traveling with my uncle to the prison island of Favignana to meet my father.
As I paced back and forth across the Turkish, hand-woven carpets in the parlor of our gorgeous hotel suite, I absentmindedly puffed away, while waiting for my uncle to return. The man left early this morning to make arrangements for a ferry to take us to the island that housed the jail. My parents, siblings, and grandfather were spending the day touring several museums and having lunch in the hills. Before departing Texas for Sicily, they decided not to accompany my uncle and me on our journey. A sharp knock echoed through the room, freezing me in my tracks. The door opened with a slight creak.
“Ready, Millen?” my uncle popped his head around the door.
“Y-yes,” I crushed out my cigarette on a silver ashtray on top of the fireplace mantle. “I mean, yes! I mean, no! I don’t know.” I let out a frustrated sigh and removed my hat from the rack. As grandfather always lectured, “Fashionable young men wear hats and gloves in public - and, despite the current fad, they never smoke in public!"
“Here, wear a scarf.” I watched my uncle remove the garment from the couch, where he expertly draped it over my neck. “It’s quite chilly on the island.”
I tasted bile in my throat, as my stomach turned over with queasiness.
“You mean my father is living in a cold prison cell? Or, do they give him enough clothes to wear? Does he have a fireplace?”
I remembered the days of living on the streets of Brooklyn and the freezing cold asylum of an orphanage before being adopted and having the luxury of living in a house with a fireplace in every room.
A tight smile appeared over my uncle’s face, as he reached out to tie the scarf, button my coat, and straighten my hat.
“He survives,” my uncle shrugged. “The prisoners don’t have a fireplace in their cells, but there is a coal stove that generates enough heat for the entire floor. There are about five cells on each floor. You’ll be fine. Stick close to me and nobody will bother you.”
I decided not to ask what would happen if I ventured on this journey alone. I could look in the mirror and see how gorgeous I turned out with my Irish and Sicilian features. I’d also grown another inch since my birthday in February.
Society seemed to frown over mixed-race children, but I didn’t care. My Sicilian, Irish, and unknown American ancestry caused me to be voted “Most beautiful male student” in my junior class. An honor that upset Theodore and caused my mother to roll her eyes when she thought I wasn’t looking. Nobody in Sherwood believed Dylan and me to be twins anymore, and we stopped trying to convince them otherwise.
“So, we will be in the jail cell, surrounded by other…prisoners?” I fearfully asked as I followed my uncle out of the hotel room. I watched him reach into his pocket, produce a key, insert it in the lock above the doorknob, and secure the room.
“He’s going to be transferred to a waiting room of sorts,” the man replied, leading us to the elevator. “The cellar of the prison holds a single cell with a small opening in the ceiling for natural sunlight to shine through,” he continued, turning the key for the first floor. “He will be there, and we will be outside of the cell. There will be two armed guards in the room with us. But, don’t worry, neither they nor your father ever caused trouble.”
A slight shiver shook my body at the possibility of danger. I stood beside my uncle for comfort and security. Underneath the man’s coat, he kept a revolver for protection. He never needed it, but one could never tell when a prison break would occur. I slipped my hand into my pocket and felt the ivory handle of a knife.
“For your protection,” Theo gave me the weapon after dinner the night before. “I purchased it this afternoon while we were shopping. You’re too beautiful - not to have it.”
Meditating on what could happen if I chose this dangerous journey alone, I settled in beside my uncle and together we rode in a carriage taxi to the docks, where a shabbily dressed man in a pair of filthy burlap pants and stained white shirt greeted us.
“Prison?” He pointed to the island in the distance.
My uncle answered in Sicilian. As the beautiful language flowed through my brain, I stepped back, trying to figure out what they were saying. I considered myself an expert in Latin and would be taking the exams in Austin before graduating high school – another step toward Valedictorian Status, and leaving my peasant past behind. The two men before me were talking too fast, and I didn’t know the slang words that I reluctantly stopped trying to decipher the conversation.
“Take my hand,” my uncle turned to me, holding out his own. “Don’t let go.”
I nodded and walked with my uncle onto the ferry. The smell of rotting fish and garbage went straight up my nose, my stomach turned over, and I let out a gagging sound that could only be described as a dying cat. With my free hand, I dug into my pocket, produced my handkerchief, and pressed it to my mouth. The bitter feeling of stomach acid felt tight against the back of my throat. I heard some unusual laughing and snorting behind me. Turning around, I spotted a group of sailors looking in our direction. My uncle glared at the men and guided me over to the front of the ferry.
“You’ve been pampered way too long, that you’ve forgotten how to be street smart,” he responded with a smile.
A slight chuckle escaped my mouth. “I was ten when the Muellers adopted us, well, make that nine,” I sighed. “The only things I can remember about my previous life were the cold, hungry nights, and the bedbug bites in the morning.”
I looked over the pristine water, as the island grew closer. “Theo would know what to say to the sailors.”
I felt my uncle’s hand on my back. “Your brother would never carry around a lace handkerchief to a prison full of murderers, mobsters, and thieves.”
I threw back my head in nervous laughter, as I flung my arm over the edge of the boat, letting go of the cloth. I watched it float in the air, before disappearing forever under the water. I regretted my decision when the boat docked a few minutes later and the vile aroma re-entered my nose.
I loved being the pampered, rich grandson of Cleo Woodrow, not the barefoot, little boy with holes in my threadbare clothes that I once was. Theo would always be street smart - nowadays, he just wore nicer clothes and didn’t carry around lace-covered handkerchiefs. His were the same cotton ones our adopted father purchased at Felix’s Department Store in Sherwood.
Our grandfather ordered the majority of my wardrobe from the international catalog in the expensive department stores in Dallas. Elegant boutiques in Rome, Paris, and London took the measurements, sewed the outfits, and shipped the orders. They arrived months later on the train, elegantly packed up in steamer trunks with foreign stamps plastered on the leather case. Grandfather wanted me to be the precise copy of his younger self. My siblings believed this gesture to be an atonement of sorts for the horrible way he first treated me but, I didn’t mind. I loved the attention and my grandfather. This is who I’d become.
“Uncle Joseph,” I said. It still felt odd calling the man my uncle. All my life, he’d been, “Mr. Tuscano,” now he was Uncle Joseph. It still felt foreign. I didn’t know if I could ever call the man I was about to meet “father.”
I felt his hand snake around my shoulder, as he escorted me from the boat, and up the stone pathway.
A slight crease appeared on my forehead, as I let my gaze wander to the massive prison looming in front of us. For the past fourteen years, my father lived in one of the old, crumbling buildings alone, cold and hungry.
“Last night,” I began. “Theo gave me a knife that he’d purchased at the bazaar. He told me to use it if necessary. But, I can’t help but think that a knife is a reason why my real father will be in jail for seventeen years.”
“Oh, my little, nipote,” My uncle sighed, as we continued to stumble across the rocky surface of the island. “Your father bought that knife for protection. Yes, he did kill a man with it, and he is paying the price. I’m quite positive you will use your common sense, no?”
I was puzzled over my uncle’s broken English. He knew how to speak the language, so why the confusion? But, I understood the meaning. Only use the knife if your life is in grave danger. Your father didn’t use his common sense and look at the outcome.
Unlike my father, I never drank alcohol. I knew Theodore and Francis snuck in a few sips during the holidays, but I chose to pass when a glass of wine was offered. The man I grew-up believing to be my real papa, Theodore Sr., drank from morning to night and was quite drunk when he fell off the Brooklyn Bridge ending his life. I didn’t want any reminders of the horrible man, so I shunned alcohol and spirits believing if I took one sip, it would cause me to be like him. I didn’t want any part of my former life creeping into my new one.
I shook my head at the memory of Theodore Sr.’s alcoholism, and my real father being drunk when he stabbed that poor young man to death in Sicily a few months before my birth in Brooklyn. Pulling my coat tighter around my body, I followed my uncle to an armed watchman standing beside a gate.
“Buongiorno, Signor Tuscano,” The man’s eyes widened in recognition, as he reached out to shake hands with my uncle.
I stepped back and once again listened in awe to my uncle chattering away - the words coming out fast and melting over one another. I made a decision right then and there to study Sicilian in college.
“Ah, hello, Mr. O’Connor, and Mueller?” The man reached his hand out to mine, puzzled over my new last name.
When my brothers and I were officially adopted, we had our last names legally changed to, O’Connor-Mueller. It was a mutual decision by the four of us to honor our deceased parents, as well as the wonderful husband and wife who chose to adopt us. I know Dylan and I mostly agreed to keep the surname of O’Connor in memory of mama. At the time, I had no plans to legally change my name to Tuscano.
“Hello,” I nodded back in respect, offering my gloved hand.
The guard gently took a hold of my hand, shook it, while tipping his head and fumbling with his poor English.
I smiled at the guard.
“Si,” I answered in one of the handfuls of Italian words I knew.
My uncle gave me a crash course in basic Italian and Sicilian on the two-week boat trip from New York to Sicily. “Yes,” “No,” “Stop,” “Hotel,” “Please,” “Thank you” “food” and my personal favorite, “How much does this outfit cost” were a few words and sentences that stuck in my memory.
“Ah” the guard let go of my hand and offered a ledger and pencil. “Write the name,” he said, still trying to conjure Basic English.
I took the ledger and wrote down, Millen O’Connor-Mueller underneath my uncle’s elegant handwriting and added my father’s name beside it. I couldn’t wait to start studying the Sicilian language. The guards possibly believed me to be an uneducated American. How foolish. Mother lectured many times about how important it was for Europeans to learn many languages. Grandfather mentioned a time or two that his brother learned Spanish from his servant, Jasper. A secret Alex Woodrow could never know.
I handed the ledger back and listened to the guard yell a few words to the men on the opposite side. The old machinery began to squeak and turn. My uncle and I stepped out of the way as the ancient doors opened just enough for us to cross over into the prison. My throat contracted and I felt ten million butterflies in my stomach, I grasped hold of my uncle’s hand and allowed him to lead me into the prison. The gate swiftly shut with a loud boom and locked behind us.
The prison seemed to surround and swallow us. On the ground were sewer grates, puddles of dirty water, soggy trash, and animal droppings. Dogs obviously roamed the yard. Memories of my poor, neglected, Brooklyn childhood came back. We continued to walk along a broken, paved walkway until they reached another door and guard.
“Tuscano” The man nodded, obviously recognizing my uncle.
“Si, and nipote,” My uncle nodded in my direction.
With a grunt, the guard stuck his dirty hand into his pocket, produced a ring of keys, and inserted one into the rusty, iron lock.
“The cellar,” my uncle said. “We will meet your father in the cellar.”
“The cellar,” I repeated, as a shiver raced through my body.
I imagined my father in a sinister way. The man had to be tall like me and Uncle Joseph, but years of living with minimal light caused his hair to fall out and his nose to grow long and rat-like. I became lost in my thoughts and didn’t hear what I guessed to be prisoners yelling down at my uncle and me from an open window in Sicilian. My uncle seemed to bristle at the words.
“Ignore them, Millen,” he hissed as we followed the guard down the poorly lit stairs. “This is why men like them are in jail. They’re crass, uneducated, contribute nothing to society, and will possibly spend the rest of eternity in hell. They’re not worth even looking at.”
The young prisoner’s insults were peppered with a large amount of Sicilian slang that I couldn’t even pick out the similar Latin words. I caught one word, “bella,” which meant, “beautiful.” I’m guessing the men weren’t telling me about the gloomy weather.
“What are they saying about me?” I cautiously asked as we descended further down the slimy tunnel.
“Something that would land me in jail and your father a life sentence,” My uncle responded as we continued on our way.
I pondered the meaning and guessed the men were shouting down sexual comments. I thought of Theo and knew that is why he gifted me the knife. My brother would have found a way to shut the men up. Theo took many beatings for us at the Boys Orphanage in Brooklyn. The snobby boys at Sherwood School knew not to mess with our “sister” after she punched a boy in the face upon overhearing him mocking Francis’s Irish accent.
The police were called to our home, along with the boy and his father. Theo calmly held out his hands and said, “Arrest me, the boy insulted my younger brother and I took up for him!” The officer laughed and said, “I would have done the same!”
As realization dawned on the father that his son was nothing but a cowardly bully, he grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling him from our home yelling, “How dare you to act like a poor piece of trash? I raised you better than this! Only people beneath our feet insult other people!” We later learned the real reason why the boy had to miss a week of school.
“Salut!” a voice called from the darkness.
We turned the last corner and entered a circular room.
“Salut”! My uncle responded, with a brisk nod.
They’re talking in Latin! How strange. I thought.
Blinking in bewilderment, I looked around the tiny room searching for my father. Two armed guards stood near a stove, their arms clutching rifles, their uniforms clean and neatly pressed.
My uncle began whispering in Sicilian to the guard who greeted us. Their heads bowed their voices low. Where is my father? I scanned the poorly lit room until I spotted metal bars on the far wall. I took a few cautious steps toward the cell, careful not to get my expensive boots wet. My father must be waiting in there.
“Father,” I heard myself call in a trembling tone.
My uncle reached out and grasped my arm. “Millen wait.”
I stopped and obeyed. Grasping hold of my uncle’s hand, the two of us continued to walk at a snail’s pace. My stomach turned over, and the fluttering of blood rushed in my ears, but I kept going. I couldn’t have a panic attack. I commanded myself to take deep breaths as Dr. Alexander taught me, he inhaled and exhaled: One...Two...Three…One...Two...Three…
“Millen” A tiny voice answered from the depths of the cell, followed by the sound of wheezing and coughing.
“Roberto?” My uncle answered. “We’ve come. I brought your son.”
I felt myself moving behind as my uncle crept forward. We reached the ancient iron bars and a shadow of a man appeared before us.
Slouching back, I pressed my head on my uncle’s shoulder for support. It wasn’t easy being as how we were the same height.
“Bella Millen,” the man rasped again.
A shiver ran through me, and I felt uncomfortable. After those nasty prisoners yelled that word at me, followed by other sexual comments, I knew I would never think of the translation of “beautiful” in a positive light again. My uncle must have sensed my discomfort. He took a hold of my hand and started a conversation in Sicilian with his brother about my encounter with the crass prisoners outside.
“It will be alright,” my uncle stepped aside. “Your father wishes to see you.”
I swallowed to prevent myself from vomiting, lowered my eyes, and crept forward. A gasp escaped my throat as two skeleton-like hands slipped through the bars.
“I…take care of you,” the voice called out. “No people…talk to my son…the way…again.”
Raising my head, I caught a glimpse of my father and almost passed out in disbelief. All thoughts of an ugly, dirty, ogre slipped from my mind. The person standing before me boasted freshly washed hair the color of steel; his face the same as in the photographs but etched with wrinkles. His eyes seemed to smile despite his surroundings. It was as if the nicest man in Sherwood had been jailed, and solemnly accepted his fate – a modern-day Old Testament Joseph if you will. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I fought the urge to succumb to the ugly cry.
“Come, here,” my father, stretched out his arms as far as he could between the bars.
My rich, sophisticated side screamed in my head, as the old Millen, who was used to sleeping in dirty surroundings, laid his forehead against the grimy metal, allowing my father to wrap his hands over my shoulders. I closed my eyes and felt his fingers in my hair.
“I…wait...so long,” he whispered in broken English, “I sorry.”
A few tears slipped from my eyes. My brothers would be shocked and disgusted if they could see me - shocked at me standing against a filthy, slime encrusted gate, and disgusted at me hugging the man who raped our mother.
I tried to say something, anything, but my mouth refused to form words. I slumped against my father and allowed the man to play with my hair. All thoughts of dirty fingernails in my pristine hair left my head. I didn’t care anymore.
“Thirty minutes,” One of the guards yelled in perfect English.
“Come, Millen, we must talk,” my uncle guided me from the bars, and onto a bench. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? In the cell, my father sat before us on a wooden crate.
“Here, my hand,” my father reached his hand out and grasped mine in his icy cold grip. I still couldn’t speak at the remarkable sight before me. My father! I heard my uncle clear his throat, breaking the silence.
“We made it safely to Sicily on Monday. But, as you know the prison is only open to visitors on Friday. Yesterday, we took Millen to our family church, where our old priest baptized him and gave him his royal title.”
“Ahh --- perfecto,” My father whispered - my father whose real name is, Count Roberto Viktor Salvador Tuscano.
I closed my eyes, feeling my father’s thumb rub up and down my gloved hand. The mole! I fought back tears, my father has a mole. I remembered the letters and how Dylan refused to read them. I knew my uncle wished for me to read them aloud to Dylan. My brother made it quite clear he didn’t wish to speak to or forgive the man. I wished and prayed someday that curiosity would get a hold of him
The morning after returning from my grandfather’s house for our real birthday celebration, I opened my father’s response to mama’s letter. The confession on why he attacked her and killed an innocent man in Sicily, caused me to race to my closet, locking myself under rows of expensive clothing and crying for hours. I didn’t need to read the letter mama wrote to my father to know what she’d written. That’s why I sat in front of my father, fully forgiving him with all my heart and soul, and hoping Dylan would read the letter someday, and do the same.
“I read all your letters,” I said, finding my voice. “I understand everything. My baptism, our family’s history, why mama took in Dylan, and eventually forgave you.”
“Eh?” My father answered, his forehead creasing in confusion.
“He forgives you, Roberto,” My uncle answered.
I felt my father tighten his grip on my hand. I learned this is how he showed affection.
“Grazie,” the man answered.
A moment of pristine silence filled the cold cellar. I wished to unlock the cell, jump in my father’s arms, and take him back to Sherwood. Everyone except Dylan forgave the man for raping my mother. He shouldn’t be punished anymore, and then I remembered the murder. How I wished I could find the family of the man that my father killed. I wanted to talk to them, and beg for my father’s forgiveness.
“When are you getting out?” I asked, looking up into the man’s eyes. He smiled back, resembling an older man, who spent his free time sitting at the drugstore, reading papers and drinking strong coffee. Every town had them. That’s what my father should be doing, not rotting away in prison.
“Two and a half years,” Roberto sniffed. “First thing…when I get out…buy a ticket to America…come…see you.”
I felt hot tears streaming down my face.
“I will buy you a first-class ticket with my early inheritance and we will live together.”
I used my fingers to brush away the stray tears, cursing tossing my handkerchief in the water. I felt my uncle taking a hold of my hand, and placing his handkerchief in mine.
“Thank you,” I grasped the cloth, and cleaned my face.
“I go live with you and Joseph,” my father nodded. “You go to a big college every day. I will be out…your last year of high school, you graduate?”
I let out a deep sigh and wadded the cloth.
“I’m graduating high school in the following year. Dylan and I decided to study business. I want to open a candy store afterward. Dylan wants to graduate college and hopefully get admitted to the air flight school in San Antonio. He wants to fly airplanes.”
“Soldier?” my father asked. “War no good - fights in Europe already.”
I shook my head.
“Dylan doesn’t want to be drafted. Hopefully, none of us do if war does break out someday. He wants to work on airplanes - a mechanic. Someday, he wants to use his business degree and open a flight school,” I felt a laugh escaping my throat. “My brother believes airplanes will be the main source of travel. No more boats and trains. Can you imagine?”
My uncle threw back his head in laughter. A sad smile crept over my father’s face.
“Flying no good - they crash and burn. Dylan needs a…good job. Flying is bad.”
I could only imagine my brother’s face turning red in anger. Mother and father also believed airplanes to be unstable, but they knew better than to try to talk Dylan out of a career. Talking anyone, especially your child, out of a career that they have their sights on is well, child abuse in their opinion. They believed and taught my brothers and me with God anything is possible.
It took our new parents years to retrain us to believe we could accomplish our dreams, how to handle rude people, how to turn an enemy into a friend, and no one has the right to talk down to you. Over the past six years, we read books on how to handle all types of people in the world, how to love and forgive.
In Brooklyn, our real parents inadvertently taught my brothers and me that we would always be poor, to take verbal and physical abuse, and getting an education past the eighth grade would be impossible. Dreams were useless and jobs were practical. I loved my real parents, including papa, but am extremely thankful God made other plans for us.
At that moment, I knew how to “handle” the crass men who were cat-calling me from the upstairs prison cells. In Sherwood, our father would have shown the men his gun and telephoned the sheriff. Theodore would have boldly tried to fight them. Dylan and Francis both walked around with a certain arrogance and demander, and rarely older students at our school bothered them. I remembered a book mother gifted the four of us during our first years of adjusting to high society, and found a solution to my problem.
“Millen, are you well?” My uncle asked.
Shaking my head, I turned to my father.
“I remembered the young prisoners calling me dirty names.”
A flush of anger spread across my father’s face.
“I take care. Don’t care if I get punished!”
“No, father,” I reached out to grasp his other hand. “Don’t fight them.”
“If I don’t, they will…win.” He protested.
I shook my head, feeling Theo’s knife shift around in my coat pocket. Fighting without thinking is how my father ended up in prison. The young men catcalled me without realizing my father is a murderer, and wouldn’t hesitate to kill again to protect his family. I felt it to be my job to prevent another attack on the young prisoners, or my father.
“Don’t fight them,” I pleaded. “Go to them and explain who you are. Talk to them about their behavior. Be firm. Ask them to go to church with you. Is there a church here at the prison?”
“Si,” my father answered, his face distorting in confusion over my demands.
“These boys are uneducated, young men,” I continued. “They will probably be released before you do and they have decades ahead of them. Explain that their behavior will land them back in jail. Ask them to attend church services with you, pray with them and they will be embarrassed by their actions. I’ve seen this work. I turned my grandfather from the meanest, richest, old man in Sherwood into a man who cries easily and boasts to everyone throughout Texas that I’m his grandson.”
“Senior Woodrow,” my father spat. “I received a letter from Joseph. He first adopts you…and brothers to be…servants! He cusses and spits on you at the train station! He makes you…cry! You-you have a royal title.”
“That’s all in the past, I love him,” I cried, praying my father would understand. “Remember in the Bible? Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and he stayed faithful to God and became the second-highest person in Egypt. I’ve studied this lesson repeatedly and never felt better in my entire life. It’s alright, father. It’s all in the past.”
I watched his eyes grow large in disbelief.
“You forgive this…man? Terrible man,” he asked.
“He’s changed,” I continued to plead my case. “I made him cry in remorse. He purchased Uncle Joseph a house so he could live beside us. We’ve all forgiven him, even Theodore.”
A tiny smile crept over my father’s face at the mention of my older brother. I wondered about my father’s opinions on Theodore’s abrupt gender change. He must have received the letter.
“It’s true, Roberto,” my uncle nodded, disrupting my thoughts. “Mr. Woodrow begged the boys to forgive him. He feels extremely ashamed of his past actions. He’s dedicated the remainder of his life to turning angry men into God. He teaches a Sunday Bible School Class at the church and all men of every social class are welcome. He uses Millen as an example of how anyone, of any age, can change a person’s life around.”
I noticed my father’s mouth move - when a voice called.
“The young men who spoke insulting things were severely punished.”
We all turned to the armed guard near the stove. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Word arrived that the men were taken from their rooms and will be locked in isolation for a month. They will have no contact with their families, including letters.”
“See father,” I grasped the man’s hands excitedly. “God’s already taken the first step! When they return from isolation, you will take them to church?”
My father blinked in confusion. I could sense him remembering his time in isolation.
“Isolation is bad,” he mumbled. “I locked in a pitch dark room for one month. Only eat bread and water. Once a week, a hole in the ceiling opened and sunlight streamed in for five minutes, blinding and torturing eyeballs.”
“I can guarantee you, Millen, they will never catcall anyone, male, or female, again.” My uncle said in a firm voice.
His hand patted the top of my head, as a smile spread across my face. I felt terrible for the boys but realized this was the punishment God wanted. Perhaps they would emerge as changed men, and whole-heartedly accept father’s invitation to attend church.
“I go…dark room once,” my father continued to whisper in broken English. “One month. No write or read letters. Sat and slept in darkness. One pot for privy. Push food in a slot once a day. Sunshine hurt eyes. Came out, found new opened letters from my brother in my cell.”
I remembered reading the letter my father wrote to his brother about the fight in the prison yard and the one month of isolation as punishment. Late at night, I would stay awake re-reading my father’s letters, memorizing the interesting way he taught himself Basic English and the way he used a ridiculous amount of unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Dylan would wake up, throw a pillow in my direction, mumble something about turning the kerosene light out, and fall back over. I’d offer to read the letters aloud as Uncle Joseph wished, and my brother responded with a fake snoring sound letting me know this conversation to be over.
I clasped my hands tighter around my father’s, closed my eyes, and said the transcribed letter aloud in my head. I’d memorized it, for it was one of my favorites.
I fought in the yard. A man tried to steal the boots you mailed me. I pushed him down and broke his front teeth. Before I knew it, all prisoners were fighting. I felt blows to my hands, legs, and the back of my head. I awoke in darkness and believed to be dead. I tearfully and fearfully lay on a rock hard pallet for hours, until a slot opened. Someone pushed a tray of bread and a pitcher of warm water inside. I knew that I was in isolation. Grasping for my feet, I noticed my boots missing.
Like prisoners of the past, once a day, during the hottest hour, the ceiling is raised for five minutes. I felt the brutal sun beating down on me like the gates of hell. I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t hide from it. I curled up in a ball and rested my head in my hands until it passed. I counted the sun thirty times and then a guard came to release me. I hobbled to my cell and found new letters from you, opened, on my bed. I had to smile, my boots sat on the floor. The first thing I did (after my eyes recovered) was to read your new letters then retrieve a piece of paper and a pencil to write you a letter explaining my absence.
I’ve read that my Millen is starting his Freshman Year at the school in Texas. My heart is happy for my son. God has plans for him. Every day I pray that I will see him someday and that he will forgive me for the cruel way he was brought into the world. I love him. Memories of your past letters are what kept me going while in isolation. I will never fight again unless it is to protect him.
“Don’t fight them father,” I pleaded. “Do what the Lord commanded and love one another. Let him cast judgment.”
My father let out a slight sigh. He removed one of his hands from my grip, reached forward, and grasped a hold of an iron bar.
“I won’t fight,” he nodded his head, as he pondered his words, trying to remember the English translation. “I promise only because you say so. I offer to take boys to church after isolation.”
“Thank you.” I jumped from the bench, lost in the moment, forgetting an iron gate separated me from my father. I slipped my hands through the slots and tried to hug him. Despite the dirty surroundings, the rich smell of coffee wafted off his worn prison clothes.
“Joseph wrote many letters about you for years,” my father continued. “He says you resemble your ancestors. You like desserts and expensive clothes.”
I felt a hot, itchy, flush spread across my face. Trying my best to hide, I turned and buried my face against the bars. I couldn’t tell if my uncle had been making fun of me in the letters, or simply telling the truth? I’d come to love the rich, Sicilian desserts Uncle Joseph and I cooked up in his cottage. To Dylan’s disgust, I took the train with my uncle to downtown Dallas and we spent Saturday mornings browsing the little Italian grocery stores tucked away far from the wealthy uptown areas where grandfather would take me to buy school clothing.
At home, my uncle opened the decades-old family cookbooks, and I excitedly read my great grandfather’s Sicilian handwriting. I loved the glamorous, curly penmanship and ancient drops of chocolate and oil staining the pages. My mind began to daydream about my ancestors in their kitchens back in Sicily as they expertly chopped vegetables from their gardens, milked the cows, and stirred the chocolate on the stove. It never crossed their minds that a descendant would be standing in his kitchen in Sherwood, Texas struggling to translate their handwriting.
It was also no secret I loved expensive, tailored clothing. My grandfather and I could sit for hours at the fashion shows that took place in the upscale boutiques. The majority of people who attended handed their invitations to the men guarding the doors. Grandfather and I didn’t need an invitation. Upon spotting us, the guard nodded and waved us through as if we were royalty. Months later, when the clothing arrived from abroad, packed in trunks, I felt my body trembling, and my hands shook as I watched father take a crowbar and pry off the heavy lids. I also caught Theodore rolling his eyes.
“Is falling in love with gourmet cooking and expensive clothing bad?” I whispered, running my gloved fingers down the cell bars, frowning at the bits of dirt staining the calf leather.
My father reached his fingers out, slipped them under my chin, tipping my face to meet his.
“You come from a long line of tailors, bakers, all the way to royalty” he smiled, showing a gap where he’d lost a bottom tooth. “You’re not a snob. You’re following your ancestors.”
“My family.” I shivered.
The mysterious American great grandfather intrigued me the most. Perhaps I could visit a library, or a church here in Trapani before departing back to New York? Or, maybe there would be ship records? A deep feeling of nostalgia and belonging swept over my body. I felt the same when I was reunited with my grandfather after him being on vacation for months.
“Si,” my father nodded, reminding me about the importance of a loving family. “I have a coat that grandpappy sewed. He…famous…tailor in Sicily. It is hidden in my cell. I wore it when I was arrested. I have and give it to you. Still good shape. I give to you…when I arrive in America. I wait. I will see you graduate school and give an important speech.”
The tears I’d been holding back, rushed forth. My knees grew soft as I grasped my father’s hands and sunk to the cobblestone floor, taking the man with me on the opposite side. I still couldn’t figure out why God wanted me to be born from rape, but I knew I’d forgiven my father.
“Father, I love you,” I rasped, a result of the unexpected crying spell. “When I return home, I will count down the days until I see you again! Until I can give you a proper hug! I want you to write to me, will you?” The words tumbled out of my mouth. I felt my father’s fingers glide through my hair. Out of the corner of my eye, one of the guards began to walk toward us signaling our time to be up.
“I write two letters every day,” my father’s voice shook with emotion. “One for you, and one for Joseph. I also count the days. You’re the best…thing…ever happened to me. I hope your mama forgive me?”
The tears streamed down my face, as the guard placed his hands upon his hips, impatiently clearing his throat.
“She did! She did,” I cried. “I know she forgave you! She loved me!”
“Visiting time is over,” The guard boomed, his voice void of all emotion. The man seemed to be used to the difficulties of ending a prison visit. The grumble coming from his stomach also indicated it to be lunchtime.
I leaned forward to kiss my father on the forehead.
“I love you,” I whispered, as we rose to our feet. My father seemed to gesture toward his brother as he kissed me back. I noticed the way his hand expertly maneuvered through the prison bars, slipped into my coat pocket, and back into the cell. The guard didn’t even see. Uncle Joseph distracted the man by pointing toward the staircase and asking several questions in Sicilian. My father risked a month in isolation by sneaking something into my coat pocket. All items must be examined by the guards before being mailed off, including letters.
“I love you, too,” my father smiled, as he reached forward to brush the tears from my face. “I wait out the rest of the punishment. I received a letter from the parents of the man I killed. They don't forgive me. When my parole comes every five years, they tell the judge I'm a bad man. They don't forgive me. Boys…” he gestured toward the window. “In isolation. They are cousins of the man I kill. They go to jail for robbing stores. They try many times to fight me. We are on separate floors. They talk bad to you because they know who I am.”
I felt the guard’s rough hands on my shoulders, pushing me toward Uncle Joseph.
“You must leave,” he growled. “The next prisoner arrived and his family was waiting. I will escort you two out.”
I tossed my head and slipped from the guard’s grip.
“Don’t fight them, father,” I yelled back, as my uncle took a hold of my hand and led me to the stairs. “They want you to get in more trouble. Set an example for them! Please! I love you so much!”
“I love you, too!” My father yelled back. “I write the first letter to you when I get back to the cell. It will wait for you when you arrive in Texas.”
“He has your address, dear,” my uncle whispered, as we were rushed up the stairs, the guards marching at our heels. “I mailed him a letter from the hotel yesterday. It should arrive tomorrow.”
I followed my uncle into the waiting room as the guard slammed the door behind us. My eyes settled on an elderly couple standing on the opposite side. They looked disheveled with their ratty clothing and snow-white hair.
“Come,” my uncle whispered as we left the cellar and emerged into the afternoon sun. “The man and woman waiting are Mr. and Mrs. Farra. Their son is in jail for life because he joined the mafia and helped murder several families. He’s been in here for almost thirty years with no chance of parole.”
“How terrible,” I whispered.
I pressed the sleeve of my coat against my nose to mask the stench of filth. We crossed the inspection gates, through the dirty pathways, out of the prison, and back to the docks in complete silence. I continuously glanced over my shoulder, hoping to see my father’s face peering from the gated windows, but nothing. I wished to slow down and travel at a snail’s pace, but Uncle Joseph kept a tight grip on my hand.
“You cannot stop.” My uncle said, seeming to read my thoughts. “You must keep moving. I will explain when we reach the hotel.”
I felt my knees buckle as I absentmindedly stumbled over a brick. Uncle Joseph grasped ahold of my arm and pulled me onto the boat.
“Ever since the guard told us to leave, we’ve been in a hurry,” he complained as the two of us collapsed on a bench.
I gasped and took a few breaths. Two months without swimming lessons caused my body to be slightly out of shape.
A sigh escaped my uncle’s mouth, as the boat began its journey back to shore.
“Not safe,” he shook his head and began to babble. “We must be in and out. No stopping. The cousins of the men your father killed are in isolation for catcalling you, and word will reach their families soon. There is too much danger, Millen. A riot could happen. We must return to America soon.”
A tremor spread through my body, and I grasped a hold of the bench to steady myself from toppling into the dirty ocean water.
“Is my life in danger?” I slipped my hand in my coat pocket and felt for the knife. “Did I do something wrong? I didn’t mean for those men to go into isolation! I didn’t even know they were saying bad things to me! I’m sorry -”
My uncle reached forward to place his hands upon my shoulders.
“Hush,” he commanded. “We’re not in danger, yet, and you did nothing wrong. The family of the man your father killed is extremely powerful, and the guards know this. That is why they rushed us out. I knew precisely what was happening. There are snitches all over the prison, and we had to leave before word reached the families. If you look at your pocket watch, you will see we were not in jail that long.”
I didn’t even have to look at my watch. I understood my uncle. During our weekly cooking sessions, Uncle Joseph taught me all about the powerful mafia families of Sicily. They were safe in Sherwood, but not in New York. My uncle sold his shop because of the mafia families in Brooklyn. The Tuscano Family left Sicily in the late 1800s because they were scared of the growing violence in their village.
“This is similar to Romeo and Juliet. “I slammed my cooking knife into the chopping board, expertly slicing the walnuts for the cookies.
“Oh, my little Millen,” my uncle replied. “This has been going on for centuries.”
“But, I don’t…” I started but stopped as my uncle raised a finger to his lips.
“I will explain more at the hotel.”
My uncle’s abrupt tone informed me the conversation was over. I sighed, and settled down, watching the island drift further and further away. Heaven permitting, I would see my father again in two years.
“I’m taking a nap. I want you to stay at the hotel and do not go outside unless I am with you, do you understand?” My uncle demanded.
I removed my scarf and turned toward my uncle, who was in the process of removing his coat, and gloves. The two of us would be alone for a bit longer until my parents and siblings returned from sightseeing with our grandfather.
“Yes, sir,” I draped my scarf neatly over the hat stand in the parlor. Slipping off my gloves, I tossed them in a dirty clothes basket. They were encrusted in a thin layer of dirt from the prison cell.
“Promise me,” my uncle’s voice sounded firm. “Your father may have a royal title, but he has many powerful enemies in Sicily.”
I nodded, and carelessly removed my dust-covered coat, and tossed it in the clothes basket. The maids would be around in an hour, or so, to collect them. As Theodore would say, how quickly you have forgotten.
“If you need anything ring the bell, and someone from the kitchen will send a note up in the dumbwaiter. Do not, under any circumstances, answer, or open the hotel room door unless your family is standing there.” Uncle Joseph placed his hands upon his hips and raised an eyebrow.
I stared blankly at my uncle and knew something to be wrong. Was it because of the royal title? Yesterday afternoon, Uncle Joseph took us all to the church so I could be baptized. The elderly priest spoke the prayer in Latin, pushing me under the icy cold water, where I emerged with the lace gown plastered to my body. Thankfully, my uncle handed me a pair of long underwear to slip under the gown beforehand. I bit my lip, when Theodore threw a half-smile in my direction as the priest announced, “Arise, Count Millen, son, of Count Roberto Viktor Salvador Tuscano and Molly O’Connor.”
The priest knew my brothers and I were adopted. What he didn’t know is that I’d been conceived from rape. After signing my name, age, and the current year, in the baptism book, my uncle turned the huge book, that seemed to be over a thousand pages, towards the front, and pointed out my father’s name: Count Roberto Tuscano – aged 10 - 1885. The year the Tuscano Family left Sicily and moved to Brooklyn.
I shook my head at the memory and watched my uncle silently slip his shoes off, and nudge them into the corner with his feet.
“I will tell you tonight,” he said in a tone indicating it to be pointless in arguing with him.
“All I will say is our family may have a royal title going back hundreds of years, but your father killed a man who came from a mafia family having ties in Brooklyn. Our title, and family history, is what kept him from being executed.”
My uncle unbuttoned his dress shirt and tossed it in the wicker clothes basket.
“The punishment for murder is the same as the crime,” he continued. “Hoscar Furbella’s family is deeply upset and set upon revenge because your father was given a twenty-year sentence, instead of the death penalty. They could care less about an ancient royal title that means nothing in today’s society. They’re set upon revenge, and you will not leave this hotel, unless I, or your father, or grandfather, are with you. Do you understand?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why we were even in Sicily if it were so dangerous. Why were my parents, siblings, and grandfather sightseeing in the country-side if there could be trouble? I took careful note of the dark smudges under my uncle’s eyes and decided to keep quiet. He would inform me later on.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, while slipping my shoes off, and stepping into my luxurious cashmere house shoes.
Uncle Joseph gave a curt nod and reached for the door handle of the suite he shared with my grandfather. His features seemed to scrunch as if he were pondering something. A deep sigh escaped his mouth; he gave a slight toss of his head, and opened the door, disappearing into the room. The groaning sounds of the mattress coils told me my uncle passed out on the bed. The familiar chimes of the grandfather clock in the parlor signaled one in the afternoon. My family would be returning to the hotel soon.
I headed toward the wood-burning stove, grasped a hold of the iron door, pulled it open, and took a match from the candy dish sitting on the Hoosier Cabinet. After a few tries of striking the match against the side of the stove, a little flame arose, and I lit the wood inside the stove. I settled the kettle of lukewarm warm on the burner and patiently waited for it to boil. The maids brought some kettles throughout the day and must have replenished them when my uncle and I were out. I might have been staying at the nicest hotel in the village, but running water hadn’t been installed.
After preparing a hot cup of jasmine tea from the leaves mother purchased yesterday at the markets, I decided to stand on the balcony. As the warm sun and cool ocean breeze hit my skin, my mouth opened in a sigh of happiness. Clutching at the iron railing with one hand, while holding my teacup in the other, I cautiously peered over.
My eyes swept over crowds of elegantly and shabbily dressed people swarming through the marketplace. Unlike the busy streets of Brooklyn with people shouting and pushing about, the crowds below didn’t seem to be in a hurry. The sound of laughter and cheerful playing of the children reached my ears, while vendors and customers yelled out in Sicilian, Italian, Latin, and English.
I caught a glimpse of what could have been a Sicilian version of my real mama purchasing bread while swatting at her misbehaving children. Across the cobblestone path, a well-dressed woman wearing a silk dress, with rows of pearls wrapped around her neck, examined a bolt of linen cloth. Despite her social status, she kept throwing her hands in the air, arguing the price.
People in the markets loved to haggle, including the wealthy, so don't be afraid to ask for a lower price. The vendors will expect it and pretend to be shocked. My mother tried the trick yesterday and purchased her tea leaves for half what the seller originally asked.
I swallowed the remaining sips of my tea, placed the cup down on a tiny outside table, and turned my attention over to the food vendors. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine my ancestors preparing food in the Sicilian Court. I conjured an image of my distant grandfather elbow deep in flour and olive oil, rolling out the pastry dough for fig pies.
I remembered my uncle pointing at the recipe in the family cookbook. Uncle Joseph translated: “flour, sugar, dates, figs, butter, cinnamon…” I could taste the words rising from the pages.
A vendor seemed to sense someone watching him. He glanced up at the balcony and waved. I waved back and gestured towards the figs, and pointed downwards towards the hotel door. Perhaps the man could come to the hotel so I could pay him? I remembered my uncle’s stern warning about leaving.
The man nodded and reached for two figs, wrapped them in cloth, and walked away from the stall towards the hotel. I raced from the balcony back into the hotel room, grabbing my hat and scarf from the rack, felt in my pocket for coins, and carefully slipped from the room. Halfway down the staircase to the lobby, I’d forgotten to lock the door and take the key. It wouldn’t matter; I would be back in less than five minutes.
Stepping out into the afternoon sun, I met the man at the entrance. After paying him several coins, I accepted the warm pastries.
“More.. more..chocolat?” The vendor pointed to his stall across the street.
I knew I wanted more. The craving for figs, dates, and cinnamon hitting my tongue conjured memories I never knew I had. I could see my ancestors in the kitchens; taste the food they were making. It was in my blood. I craved this. The vendor was a short walk across the street. I would purchase more, and be back in the room before Uncle Joseph awoke.
“Si,” I whispered, and followed the man, ignoring the queasiness in my stomach. For what could happen in only a short time?
I hurriedly pointed out what I wanted: more fig pastries, lemon cookies, chocolate stuffed rolls, and a sugar-coated loaf of bread. The vendor’s eyes grew large as I hastily reached into my pocket, and slapped the coins on the stall. I must have given him more than the asking price.
“Grazie,” I whispered, and glanced up at the hotel balcony expecting to see my uncle glaring in furry, instead I saw the table and empty teacup. I took the cloth bag full of food and was about to head across the street when a gush of unexpected wind snatched my hat and sent it flying across the road into an alley. I knew I should have left it, but my uncle would ask questions. I let out a disgruntled sigh, and raced across the street opposite the hotel, and turned down the alley.
I caught sight of the hat dancing in the wind, as it continued to sail through the air. I knew my body was out of shape from lounging around all summer, instead of practicing swimming as I should. I huffed and stumbled over to a dirty pool of water where the hat elegantly splashed and landed in.
“Gross,” I snatched it up and tried to shake the water from the elegant fabric. I became so focused on trying in vain to clean the cloth that I failed to see the shadow coming up behind me until it was too late.
“Bella,” the words cut through the air, and I felt a chill sweeping to my bones. My stomach twisted in knots, my body began to tremble, and I dropped my bag of pastries. Slipping my hands into my pocket for Theodore’s knife, instead, I felt only the inside of my wool pants. I’d left my coat, and knife behind in the hotel! Of course, I had.
The man’s rough hands grasped my shoulders, and I felt myself being pushed against the stucco wall.
“Please…” I gasped, the palms of my hands making contact with the stone. “No money. Gave to the vendor. Food.” I tried to explain.
“Foolish boy,” the man hissed back in perfect English. “I saw the whole thing. Stupid boy for leaving the hotel room.”
I felt lines of hot water race down my face, as the man’s clammy fingers slipped under my shirt.
“I’m not going to kill, or abduct you,” the man hissed. “You think you sent me to isolation? Stupid boy. I’m no prisoner. I visiting my uncle, who is a cousin to the man your stupid, stupid father murdered.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I felt the man’s weight pressing against my backside, and I knew what was about to happen. I should have listened to my uncle. He knew the boy wasn’t a prisoner, but a visitor. That had to be the secret Uncle Joseph kept from me. It all made sense. The prison guard sent the boy’s uncle to isolation, not the visitor, and I was going to pay for it.
Before departing, the man spat on the ground and demanded I count to one-hundred before rising. I heard the footsteps growing fainting away before cautiously opening my eyes. God only knows how long I lay on the cold ground, my eyes open, and yet closed to the world around me. Did my mama feel this way after Papi Roberto ran from her in the Brooklyn Alley? Didn’t Uncle Joseph find her in a state of shock?
"Millen? Millen?" A frantic voice could be heard in the distance. "My baby!"
The voice sounded familiar: Papa, Father, Uncle Joseph, Papi Roberto?
Another shadow crossed my path.
"Oh, Lord," the voice screamed.
I closed my eyes and felt a pair of arms gently helping me to my bare feet. Where were my slippers?
"Baby, do you know who did this to you?" The arms gently circled my body, not like the horrible ones that were on me only moments ago.
But, that voice? Who was it? The world seemed to swim around. I couldn’t tell anyone apart.
“Frank, over here,” the man screamed. “I found Millen! Someone attacked him.”
In the distance, I could hear heavy footsteps racing over the ancient cobblestones. How old were the stones? I could imagine my ancestors laying the brick in the days of Ancient Rome. But, wait, my ancestors were cooks, and tailors, with royal titles. They weren’t brick makers.
“Is it?” the man’s funny-sounding voice came out of nowhere. Yet, it was familiar. He wasn’t from Sicily. Did I live in Sicily? Was my name Millen Tuscano, or Millen O’Connor, or perhaps Millen Mueller?
“He’s been… just like his mama.” The man with the accent gasped in fury. “Sixteen-years to the damn day he was conceived in that Brooklyn alley behind the Catholic Church. They knew this!”
Here,” the funny-sounding man took his coat off and wrapped it around my body. “He’s too tall for me to carry home.”
“Baby, you’re going to have to walk,” the other man whispered. “You can do it. The hotel is only two blocks away.”
“Praise to the Lord, the vendor ran back to the hotel,” the funny-sounding man whispered back, as we began to slowly move down the street. I could hear the anguish in his tone.
“He knew something had to be wrong when Millen’s attacker came rushing from the alleyway. He saw Millen chasing after his hat, and never returned.”
“Two blocks away… two blocks away… my son was attacked two blocks away…”
I tuned the voices out, and continued to walk, feeling the smooth stones across the bottoms of my bare feet, then wood, and carpet. On the journey back to the hotel, I overheard voices yelling in many languages, but paid them no attention. I was going home, and when I awoke this would be a bad dream: the evil man pushing me against the alley wall, the rough stone scraping my stomach, as the man snapped open the buttons to my trousers. Grandfather had them tailor-made before the trip. How dare the man destroy something grandfather purchased? My scarf somehow made its way into my mouth, and I bit into it, and cried as the man…
“Millen,” a female voice screamed. Who was that woman, and why did she sound so familiar? Did she own a fur wrap? Why did I associate her voice with an expensive fur wrap?
A jumble of other voices filled the air, as I felt arms guiding me into another room. I heard the click of the door closing behind me.
“Is there fresh water in the basin?” That funny voice called again.
I closed my eyes to the world around me and allowed the voices to envelop me in a fog. For the life of me, I still couldn’t remember who they belonged to. Yet, I didn’t worry. Should I be worried? Only time would tell if my brain would recognize the strange men who helped me to my hotel room.
“He’s in shock, but not having a panic attack. If he did, he probably already had it before we found him.”
“Where is the pastry vendor?” An aristocratic, elderly sounding voice boomed across the room. “He saved my grandson’s life. Millen could have been lying on the ground all night.”
“Hush, Cleo! We would have eventually found him.”
The older man helped me onto a bed and perched beside me. One of the men took to washing my feet. Shivers raced down my body, as the cold water pierced my bare skin.
“Catrina and the boys are going crazy in the parlor. I best go check on them,” the voice with the odd accent called. It dawned on me that he spoke with a Southern drawl. The man must be my adopted father, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name.
Far off in my memories, a sweet-sounding voice began to sing. I absentmindedly fell back into the feather pillows. Where was I? I could feel a woman’s cold arm wrapping around my small body. Her reddish hair plastered to her pale face, as her green eyes sparkled with tears. Her chapped lips moved silently as she sang a beautiful song in a foreign language. Who was this woman?
The flashback began to unfold. I couldn’t have been but a small child. Dylan, my unofficial twin, slumped beside me on the broken bed. We had nothing but a patchwork quilt, and a thin sheet to cover with. Francis and Anna sat at the foot of the bed. Anna wore a dress that she’d long outgrown. I could see the tears in the shoulders and hem. Francis reached out to clasp the woman’s hands. I sensed the fear in his eyes. Don’t let the twins be separated. She whispered.
The door to the bedroom opened, and a tired, portly man in a police officer’s uniform walked in with a man dressed in white.
The children are to be taken to the Polish couple across the street. The woman gasped. Don’t place them in the orphanage! She cried.
The officer gathered me and my siblings together and took us down the street where an ugly woman who smelled like onions and roasted garlic opened the door. Molly O’Connor will be better, I assume? She spat at us.
I remember the officer removing his hat, scratching his bald head, and with a shrug of his shoulders. Don’t rightly know, ma’am. Some survive, and some don’t.
The woman let out an annoyed growl. Let’s hope she does. These four don’t look like they can do much housework.
She let us in and showed us the tiny closet where we would all be sleeping on a stained mattress. A voice filled the room. Woman, where’s my dinner! Where’s my scotch!
The portly woman grasped a broom and swatted at Francis and Anna to hurry and cook dinner in the kitchen. She then shooed Dylan and me to start cleaning.
Mama died in the tuberculosis hospital a few weeks later, and the Polish couple threw us out onto the snow-covered streets like we were garbage. They didn’t care if we starved, or froze to death.
I opened my eyes, and my vision refocused on grandfather sitting on the edge of the hotel bed, expertly wrapping my bare feet in cloth bandages. The woman’s singing - my mama’s singing, recharged my memory. Since being adopted by a wealthy couple, I thought I could change my past, bury it, and never return. I was wrong. Both my mama and I were attacked and raped in an alley. I couldn’t escape my past - it had caught up with me.
“The cobblestone made a few cuts, but nothing serious-” Grandfather whispered.
The hotel room door opened, and my father’s head poked around. “The doctor will be in soon.” He said.
The door opened wider, and Uncle Joseph and Dylan crept into the room. Dylan wasn’t my real twin - he wasn’t even my real brother. Uncle Joseph found him like a baby in a basket at the candy shop. Some eccentric woman must have abandoned him in the basket. I wondered if it were the same woman who tried to kidnap me six-years prior in Brooklyn? She’d thought I was Dylan because we’d been raised as twins - so silly. Mama fed and took Dylan in. Papa never knew Dylan wasn’t his real son.
“Millen,” my fake twin whispered as he settled on the bed. “My God…I’m never going to leave you again. I take back everything I said about marrying and having children. I swear! I will be beside you forever!”
I felt the corners of my lips tug upward into a smile, as Dylan removed his cotton handkerchief and pressed it to his mouth. The evil man who’d attacked me ripped my scarf from my mouth and flung it on the ground. Perhaps, it was a good thing? I never wanted to see it again. I could still taste the cotton on my tongue as he pressed me against the stucco wall.
The door opened again, and a man carrying a doctor’s bag sailed into the room. I could see my mother in the distance gesturing frantically to an unknown person.
“Everyone out,” he said, placing his bag at the foot of the bed. “I have to examine Millen, he may need stitches.”
No… I grew panicky. My palms damp with sweat. Dylan couldn’t leave. No… I reached out to grasp my brother’s hand.
“He’s moving,” father’s voice called out. “Thank God!”
“Dylan…” I rasped. The first words I’d spoken since telling the evil man that I didn’t have any money on me. I felt Dylan squeeze my hand in reassurance.
“Dylan can stay,” the doctor nodded. “Good for therapy.”
“My baby,” I heard myself whisper in confusion. My baby? I shifted a bit on the bed, and a bright burning pain raced through my body. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I shuddered as the realization hit me of what happened. This is why my uncle commanded me to stay inside. He knew of the evil men who wandered the streets. He knew the prison was full of snitches. He knew the family of the man my father murdered would do anything for revenge.
Dylan reached out to take me into his arms. I responded by burrowing my head on my brother’s shoulder. Another razor-blade, sharp pain rose from my lower back and spread up and across my shoulders. I could feel the sticky sensation of blood.
“I’ll be here, I promise,” Dylan’s voice reassured me. “I will always be here.”
I heard the sounds of glass bottles clinking together as the doctor rummaged through his bag. The events of the past hour were slowly coming back. The man roughly pushed me against the wall, stuffing my scarf in my mouth so I wouldn’t cry. His fat fingers fumbling with the buttons on my trousers. Uncle Joseph’s stern warning about not leaving the hotel, but I disobeyed him. I only wanted food from the vendor. The man was only less than ten steps from the hotel door.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered into my brother’s shoulder. “Uncle Joseph told me to stay in the room.”
Dylan’s long arms wrapped tighter around my body. I could feel his body heat.
“Don’t worry about it,” he answered. “The only thing we care about right now is that you’re safe. Grandfather is down in the lobby with the police and the vendor. They will find who did this to you.”
“I’m so – so –“ I trailed off as a sharp piercing spread in my lower back.
“He’ll be out all night,” the doctor’s thick accent hung in the air. “The boy’s going to need stitches, there is blood. The shot should numb the pain.”
“Would you hold him, Dylan,” the voice called out again. “I need him rolled on his stomach.”
My head felt as if it were filled with cement, as my brother ever so gently wrapped his arms around me, and maneuvered my body onto my stomach. I felt the cool cotton sheets brush against my skin. Shivers raced through my body and I knew I would never sleep on such a plain fabric again. When I arrived back in Texas I would ask my parents if they would buy silk, satin, or linen sheets. They wouldn’t mind. The feel of cotton against my bare skin, the murmuring of the doctor as he settled on the bed, and the soft crying from Dylan would always remind me of the terrible day when I disobeyed my uncle and was raped in the alleyway behind the hotel.
I didn’t know how long I’d slept, but I groggily awoke to the sounds of my brother snoring beside me in the hotel bed, and my grandfather sitting in an armchair holding my hand. The weak light shining from the Tiffany Lamp cast shadows on the man’s face illuminating every wrinkle and smudge.
“My baby,” the man whispered. “You’re safe. Your father and uncle are in the lobby trying to get us home as quickly as possible.”
My head felt full of cotton and cement, as I haphazardly rolled over. “We just arrived,” I whispered, my lips dry as sand.
I felt my grandfather’s soft hand squeezing mine.
“Baby, it’s time to go home.” He said.
I closed my eyes, and a slight mumble escaped my mouth. This was all my fault. I was being punished for making my uncle cry at my birthday party. I disobeyed him, snuck out of the hotel, and was attacked in broad daylight. The families control Sicily, not the law. He lectured me on the ship over to the island.
I remember nodding at his lecture, as I ran my fingers over the silk shirt I bought during our two days wait in Rome. I should have paid better attention.
Beside me, grandfather kept continuously rubbing his thumb along my hand as if he were afraid to let go as if it would erase the events of this afternoon.
“I do have news,” grandfather smiled. “The young man who did this to you has been captured at his parent’s home. He confessed, and was taken into custody.”
I felt the young man grasping the back of my head, and forcing me to kiss him before dropping me to the ground. He spat near my bare feet and raced off. I remembered being pushed against the wall, my stomach rubbing against the ancient brick. The young man’s breath in my ear, “Sorry,” he sighed. Sorry for raping me! I screamed in my head. Tears sprung to my eyes as I lay in the hotel bed. Dylan snored beside me. I knew my brother would make good on his promise to always be near.
“What’s going to happen to him,” I whispered. “Do I have to attend a trial?”
“No baby,” grandfather reassured with a smile. “It’s all being taken care of. The young man confessed, and since you have a royal title, he will be executed in the morning. That title is what kept your own father from a rope being wrapped around his neck.”
A murmur escaped my dry lips as flashbacks of the boy leaning over came back. The way his eyes looked down in remorse, the curve of his lips, his wet eyelashes told me he’d cried throughout the entire incident.
“Grandfather, he forced me to kiss him.” I heard myself say.
The grip from the older man’s hand grew stronger. “Pardon me?” He snapped his tone like ice.
I opened my eyes and met grandfather’s own, burning like coals.
“He apologized in remorse.” I continued. “After he finished, he reached down and pulled my clothes back on. I felt his hand in my hair, as he tilted his face. His lips met mine. I think he was apologizing.”
A few choice swear words spat from grandfather’s lips as we both realized the young man had been paid to attack me. His parents probably needed the money, and he knew he would be executed. Another icy pain shot through my stomach. The young man wasn’t crying because he raped me, he was crying because he knew he’d be caught and executed.
“Your father and I are attending the execution in the morning,” grandfather continued. “I will inform the police that there are possibly more people involved.”
“Wait,” I reached up to grasp grandfather’s hands and a sudden race of searing pain cut across my lower body. I let out a startled cry, and fell back on the sheets. Dylan let out a snort and continued to sleep.
“Baby,” grandfather repeated a look of concern in his eyes. “You have stitches… please, lay down. Dylan and I will be here beside you. Your parents and uncle are in the parlor with your siblings, and they will be in to sleep in an hour, or so.”
I knew it to be pointless to argue. I also knew I wouldn’t be disobeying anyone anytime soon. My uncle’s muffled tone floated in from the parlor and my body gave a slight shiver at the events to come. I was quite positive Uncle Joseph would be letting me have it tomorrow while grandfather and father were attending the man’s execution.
“What’s the commotion?” Dylan muttered, as he sat up in bed, his hair sticking up like a rooster. “Is it morning? I’m ready to head home, and never return to this awful place.”
“Aren’t we all.” Grandfather smiled, as he let go of my hand, and pulled open the drawer on the bedside table.
“It’s only nine o’clock at night,” I said, my eyes traveling to the grandfather clock in the corner. The soft light from the Tiffany’s lamp shone on the face, telling me the time. “Francis and Theodore are still in the parlor.”
“Here,” grandfather removed a medicine bottle. I watched as he pulled open the cover and shook out two pills. “Take these.”
I felt Dylan settling beside me. He head pressed close to my own. I hoped he would make good on his promise. I needed my brother beside me. Francis and Theodore would be here as well, but nothing could replace Dylan. We’d been together since they day I was born.
My first memory was of him wrapping my arms around me in the apartment while mama was taken away. The time the headmaster at the orphanage picked up my bowl of oatmeal and dumped it on my head because I’d complained of a rat racing across the table. Dylan piped up, and the headmaster did the same to him. The long, cold journey from Brooklyn to Texas, Dylan slept beside me even during the last few days when my mind dissolved to the fever. When I awoke, I was lying in a feather bed, with mountains of pillows and blankets. I had no memory of stumbling off the train, sleeping in mother’s lap, or taking a bath. Dylan was beside me when I awoke to gleefully inform me a wealthy couple had taken us in for the holidays. We were to live like the Irish kings and queens in mama’s stories.
I felt Dylan’s hand under the blankets reach over and grasp my knee. A startled gasp escaped my mouth.
“Sorry,” he whispered, as grandfather handed me the medicine and a glass of water.
I cautiously reached for the medicine and glass of water. The pills tasted like chalk and my throat contracted as the bitterness swished down. I felt my face twist in disgust. Grandfather let out a chuckle and took back the glass of water.
“They will help you sleep.” He placed the glass back on the table. “You’ve had a long day. I wish the pills somehow had the power to erase the horrible events, but unfortunately they do not. “
“Don’t worry, grandfather,” Dylan called out. “I’ll take care of Millen.”
A warm rush floated through my body, and I blamed the medicine.
“I know you will.” Grandfather smiled, and reached into his pocket and removed an old envelope. “Frank found this in your coat. Mr. Tuscano said your real father slipped it to you.” A look of distress crossed over his face. “It’s the letter your mama wrote to your father before she passed away. He wanted you to have it. He wanted to personally hand it to you.”
“Mama,” I gasped. Underneath the blankets, I felt Dylan’s body vibrate in anger. It thrilled me that I could sense his emotions without looking him in the eye.
“I don’t think this is the time to…” Dylan started to protest, but I gently overruled him.
“Please read it to me,” I whispered. “This is the only item I have of hers.”
“Tonight?” Grandfather asked, his eyes rose in disbelief. “I was hoping you would wait until the ship ride back to America.”
Dylan’s grip tightened. I bit my bottom lip.
“Please, grandfather.” I repeated. “I would rather you read it to me.”
I watched his eyelashes flutter in surprise.
“As you wish, my dear.”
Grandfather reached into his pocket, removed his reading glasses, slipped them on his face, carefully opened the flap of the envelope and removed a worn, wrinkled letter. The calming effects of the medicine began to swarm through my bloodstream. I felt light headed. The handwritten label on the bottle read, opium.
“I swear.” Dylan hissed in my ear.
I settled back into the pillows, closed my eyes and listened to grandfather talk.
Mr. Roberto Tuscano,
My name is Molly O’Connor and I wish to write you a letter. Your brother wrote down your address for me. I wish to first apologize for my bad spelling and grammar. I didn’t graduate grammar school.
Your brother says you know who I am. I have raised Millen as Dylan’s twin for almost nine years. I wish to ask you why you did it. Why did you follow and chase me? When I first discovered I would be having your child, my husband demanded I see a doctor to kill the baby in an abortion. Your brother stepped in and saved the day. He wished to pay my husband to change his mind. I refused the money and said I wasn’t a whore. Your brother asked that he would give us enough food and spare coins until Millen reached fifteen. I agreed on that. I knew we couldn’t afford the baby. I took the food, and coins for extra coal. I refused the fifty dollars to keep my husband from taking me to an evil doctor.
There is something I will say. I don’t know if your brother has already told you about Dylan? He is not my child. He is a foundling. Your brother found him in a vegetable crate in the store one day after closing. His wife had gone up to New York State to visit her sister and husband for two months, so he was alone and has no witnesses.
The poor baby came with a note in an elegant handwriting giving the birthday of February 12, 1894 at 10 in the morning. He determined the baby to possibly be the child of a to-do woman who found herself in trouble. He took the baby to my apartment so I could feed him. My husband was at work, and Anna and Francis too young to understand.
I fed the baby and he settled down in my arms. A miracle happened. I fell in love with the child. He reached up and curled his fingers around my hand. I asked your brother if I could have him as my own. He responded that he would try to convince my husband that I had come over to his shop in terrible pain and he helped me deliver a baby boy. It would work because I didn’t know I was having Francis until he arrived. I had no signs. The midwife said it was normal in poor women who worked hard and had no time to relax like wealthy women upon learning they would be having babies.
We waited an hour. Your brother boiled a pot of water and washed perfectly clean rags to give the allusion I’d given birth. He went to the butcher’s shop, and snuck a discarded slab of meat from the tin can to use as evidence of afterbirth. He wrapped it in a rag and threw it in our tin can. I knew my husband would refuse to see my body. He didn’t see me until months after giving birth to Anna and Francis. Then your brother made the sign of the cross, wished me luck and went to fetch my husband.
They returned half an hour later. My husband joyful and shouting with glee he had another son. Your brother stood in the kitchen of our flat drinking the celebratory beer the butcher brought over. The neighbors were happy with us. We received food, diapers, fresh milk and baby items for a week. In Brooklyn when a baby is born, we all celebrate. The following day, my husband crafted a basket out of drift wood. It was beautiful and I felt awful lying to him. He kept saying the baby had his brown hair. He named the child, Dylan Jakob O’Connor after his own papa in Scotland. That was the first and last time he told me his papa’s name.
The day of the attack, your brother took me back to my flat. Anna and Francis were old enough to understand, but baby Dylan cried and cried in his basket. I saw Anna take the child and hide behind the sofa bed with Francis. My husband drank and drank and went down to the streets to find you. Your brother had to chase after him so he wouldn’t be arrested.”
I always believed good happened from taking baby Dylan in. Your brother was going to take him to the orphanage after I finished feeding him. I never thought I kidnapped someone’s child. After the attack I lay in bed in confusion. My church and parents would tell me God was punishing me for taking Dylan and lying to my husband. A month or so later I knew I would be having your baby and the thoughts came back. I was being punished. Dylan wasn’t my real baby and I lied to my husband. He had two sons, Francis who was named after my own father and Dylan who was named after his papa. I lied to my husband, and now God was punishing me.
After the arrangement was made between my husband and your brother, I peacefully gave birth to the baby. Your brother says my child will have a royal title. My husband says to him “This is America! I don’t cares about your damn foolish royal title! No child under my roof will act as if he were better than me!” So, that was that. Your brother did pay for a Jewish doctor.
My husband did say he would be throwing Dylan and Millen out when they reached sixteen, as he also plans to do with Anna and Francis. He will start finding Anna a suitable Irish husband when the girl is roughly fifteen.
Another miracle happened the night of Millen’s birth. He arrived at ten in the night the same day, a year later, after Dylan was born. Your brother and I assume the note found in the produce crate to be true. We looked at one another and saw the babies curled up against one another in my lap. I knew we had to raise them as twins. Baby Dylan had his fingers wrapped around Millen’s tiny wrist the same way he did to me the day I fed him. Anna came up with the name after a gypsy in the park. My husband rolled his eyes at the name, but we couldn’t think of any other name to be suitable.
That is my story. A few days ago, I started coughing up blood and I grew scared. The Polish couple down the street told me they would take in the children until Anna came to be sixteen and could work in the factories to support the others. I don’t wish the children to go to the orphanage in fear they will be separated and sent on the Orphan Train to be adopted by farmers for labor. The children need one another, and they need to stay in the neighborhood because of Millen.
I asked your brother for your address and he gave it. I hope you will reply to my questions and send your response to your brother’s store. Please don’t put my name on the envelope in fears his wife will destroy it, or use it for retaliation. I ask that you draw a star on the back envelope to let your brother know the letter is for me - that is if I am alive to read it. If not, your brother has agreed to keep the letter and give it to Millen on his sixteenth birthday, which will really be his fifteenth.
I just want to know why you done it? Why me? I don’t wish to die believing I am being punished for taking in baby Dylan and lying to my husband. I wish to hear your side. Your brother tells me you’re sorry for what you done. I want to hear why.
Good day and Best of luck to you,
“That’s the letter.” I folded the paper, slipped it back in the envelope, and faced Francis and Theodore sitting at the end of the bed. Outside, From an open window, I heard the gentle waves brushing against the side of the ship. We finally made it back to England from a two-week journey from Sicily. I decided my two oldest brothers needed to hear mama’s letter when we were safely on our way home.
Theodore let out a sigh, crushed his cigarette out on an ashtray perched on the bed, and tossed back his short hair. During our month and a half trip abroad, nobody guessed him to be a girl. I knew he was enjoying it, and dreading our return to Sherwood where he would reluctantly go back to being, “Miss Annabelle O’Connor-Mueller, adopted granddaughter of Cleo Woodrow, and presumably the future wife of Conrad Hicks.”
“I cannot fathom the idea that you requested grandfather to read that letter to you and Dylan only mere hours after…” he paused, bit his bottom lip as if he were debating a scathing retort.
“I’m well aware of the contents of the letter and wished to hear mama’s voice when I needed her the most,” I answered. “I thought about her as I lay in the hotel bed. I knew she was in the room with me.”
I felt Dylan move beside me. My fingers trembled at the announcement to come. How would my brothers accept it? Would our father and mother forbid it? Theodore was wrong about their assumed reaction when he announced he believed himself to be male and not female. It was best to inform my siblings before them.
“Good deal.” Francis piped up. “I have no doubt her spirit was with you.”
“Thank you.” I reached over and placed the letter on my nightstand table underneath my reading glasses.
Dylan shifted beside me on the bed, and we caught one another’s eye. He raised an eyebrow at the bold announcement we had to make. We’d been keeping it a secret since the night of my attack. After we convinced grandfather to go back to his hotel room, the two of us lay in bed until sleep overtook us. The following morning, I believed myself to be dreaming about Dylan’s confession, but when he awoke, I knew it happened. But, how to tell our brothers, and most importantly our parents, grandfather, Uncle Joseph, Uncle Jasper, and Clinton?
“What are the two of you smiling about?” Francis asked from the foot of the bed. He leaned back to rest his head upon the pillows he’d gathered from his bed.
“They’re always plotting something.” Theodore pulled a small throw blanket around his shoulders. “Remember the time they pulled off a massive anniversary dinner for our parents? Nobody knew. Not even our grandfather, or our two uncles. Mr. Tuscano came down from New York not knowing anything.”
A slight laugh escaped my throat. Before any of this happened, before the disaster of a birthday party, before Sicily, before Dylan found out he was a foundling, the two of us planned the perfect anniversary dinner for our parents. We saved our allowance for weeks and reserved a private dining room at the Hotel Denison where mother and father had their first date almost fifteen years ago. We invited our uncles, grandfather, and my Uncle Joseph, of course then I didn’t know he was my uncle. We all met at the hotel, and were taken to the room, and were in awe at the decorations and family photos that were displayed all over. A few months after that wonderful night, we took our trip to Ireland and that’s when our lives began to change.
“We do have something wonderful to share with the two of you,” Dylan announced with a smile. “But, we don’t know how you will take it?”
A puzzled expression flashed over Francis’s face. He reached up to brush back a flop of auburn hair that fell into his eyes.
“Is it shocking?” He asked.
I slipped a bit down under the blankets, and a tiny pinch of pain spread on my backside. The scars and bruises were slowly healing, and my stitches wouldn’t be removed until we returned home. Thankfully, Dr. Alexander wouldn’t babble across town. Nothing infuriated Francis more than doctors, or nurses who told their patient’s stories at dinner parties. Sometimes, I would open the newspaper and read such scandalous gossip like, “Mrs. Benedict toppled off her bicycle and bruised up her body. She is as purple as a grape - and currently recovering at St. Paul’s.” Or, “Mr. Johnston has been diagnosed with TB and is quite contagious.”
In my opinion, a person’s health was their own business. Unfortunately, no law says a doctor; or nurse can’t report their patient’s diagnosis to the newspaper. I know Francis would never stoop that low once he graduated and opened his practice.
After my incident, grandfather made damn sure it wasn’t in the newspaper. Uncle Joseph and my father helped me back to the hotel as swiftly as possible. Grandfather questioned the pastry owner, and he swore he wouldn’t go to the media. The boy who attacked me was executed a short time after he was arrested. There was no write-up. It was as if he never existed. On our way off the island, I noticed the cemetery overlooking the sea. There were a group of mourners huddled near a recent burial. I assumed it to be the person who attacked me.
“Define shocking.” Dylan casually asked. “What Millen and I have to say is life-changing, not shocking.”
Theodore let out a snort. “Life-changing is when I tried to overdose on sleeping pills.”
Francis turned and smirked. “You took six pills. You weren’t on the verge of death, you were in a deep sleep. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Now, that I’ve been in medical school for almost a year--”
Francis trailed off, as Theodore reached out and hit him.
“Are we finished acting childish?” Dylan asked. “Millen and I are ready for our announcement. We decided to inform you two first, then grandfather, Uncle Joseph, our parents, and so forth.”
“Lord,” Theodore dropped his head back. “You two are just babies who are still grasping the truth of your real parents. What could this announcement be?”
I felt my body boil with anger at the retort. No matter what I accomplished, Dylan and I would still be children to Theodore. Thanks to the “incident” as I called it, everyone, except Dylan, had been babying me, and I was sick of it. I wasn’t an orphaned, uneducated child anymore, I was fifteen, on my way to becoming Valedictorian and legally an adult in The State of Texas.
In only five months, I’d had two bold announcements revealed to me. Theodore seemed to think I was handling the situation like a child, and I knew he was telling our parents to treat me as such. I was a grown man. I could handle everything God sent my way. These events weren’t destroying me, they were making me into the person I always knew I was.
“We’re in a relationship.” Dylan and I answered together.
Another snort escaped Theodore’s mouth. “Relationship with who? Is there a girl waiting for the both of you in Sherwood?”
I caught Francis staring, his deep eyes seemed to cut through my body. Was it that difficult? I knew I was attracted to the same sex for about a year now, ever since I came of age in Ireland. Thankfully, mother and father were liberals, and Dr. Alexander wasn’t one of those evil doctors who believed homosexuality to be a mark of the devil.
A shudder spread through my body. I knew the asylums in Dallas were filled with men and women who were caught in same-sex relationships, and their family shipped them off, their names erased from their family trees. As if they never existed.
“Are you serious?” Francis asked. He’d obviously understood.
“Well, why not?” I crossed my arms. “It’s not like Dylan and I are blood-related.”
Theodore rose-up, clasping his hands to his knees. He looked like a vampire emerging from a daytime slumber.
“The two of you can’t be serious?” He asked. His forehead creasing. He gestured toward me. “I can understand Millen here. I knew he’d confess to the family someday. All of the signs were always there. Theodore spread his hand, pointing everything out on his fingers, “Millen’s love of expensive clothing, manicure in Dallas, cooking lessons, hatred of sports, then --”
“That’s such a ridiculous stereotype, Theodore.” Dylan spat. “Look at me. I love sports. I’d be on the football team, but I didn’t want Millen to be on the swim team by himself. I hate designer clothing, and ---”
“There is no way you’re attracted to men.” Theodore pressed on, deliberately interrupting Dylan. “Take me for example. I was giving this entire family signs since our days in Brooklyn. Papa overheard me protesting wearing a dress once, and he threatened to spank me because I wanted to wear pants. When I first started living as a boy during our time staying in Mr. Tuscano’s attic, I didn’t hide it. I cut my hair, took the men’s clothes from the church donation bin, and didn’t care one bit of anyone’s opinion. My only regret is when I led Conrad on before he left for Cornell. I have three years to think of an excuse that I’m not interested in him.”
Francis turned to glare at Theodore. “You led that poor boy on?” He hissed. “Conrad’s a good person, and he’ll be a damn good husband and father someday. I can’t believe you-”
“Oh, shut-up,” Theodore hissed. “I said I regretted it. I haven’t mailed one letter or called him once in the year he’s been away. I know mother and father call him once a month from the private, long-distance telephone at the electric company. Perhaps, he’s taken the hint?”
Francis let out a grunt of disgust. “Seriously, Theodore? Not one letter? Not even a holiday postcard!”
Theodore turned back to face his audience. “What am I supposed to say?” he shrugged. “My dearest Conrad, I, like everyone else in Sherwood, have noticed your growing feelings for me. I’m quite positive you will be a devoted husband, and father, but it simply cannot be. For about a year now, I’ve been living as a man. I had both breast removal surgery and a hysterectomy. I pray to God every night he will finish the job during my sleep, and everyone will awake with no memory of Anna, and that I was a male the entire time. I deeply regret hurting your feelings, but I simply cannot pull this charade any longer. Especially since our last --”
“Oh, shut-up,” Francis laughed, as he toppled over. “I understand your point. I’m just confused over Dylan. Not once in my entire life have I ever sensed any vibes from you,” he pointed to his brother, “that you’re attracted to men. This is quite a shock for me.”
Dylan raised an eyebrow. His eyelashes fluttered. “I’m not attracted to men.” He responded. I leaned back against my mound of feather pillows and listened to him give Francis and Theodore the same speech he gave me two weeks prior.
“I’m attracted to women, and I spent many hours thinking of them.” He continued. “I always believed myself to be the first of Francis and me to marry. I know Theodore would never marry--” Dylan trailed off as Theodore let out a long snort. “And, I knew Francis would make medical school a priority before walking down the aisle. Millen confessed to me a few months ago that he would never marry. It didn’t seem right to him, and I knew what he meant. A deep emptiness pierced my stomach and I imagined having Millen living with me and my future wife and children, but it wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t dedicate my life to a spouse, and children while also putting him first. I felt confused about what to do.”
Dylan paused, and I turned to study my brothers. They seemed interested in Dylan’s speech. Could it be possible to be attracted to both sexes? It never crossed any of our minds.
“The night of the incident in Sicily, I sat beside Millen on that hotel bed and watched a doctor who spoke little English give him twelve stitches. I held his hand the entire time and felt something I never felt while daydreaming about a future spouse. I knew at that moment I couldn’t leave him, and he needed me in his life in this one and for eternity. I wasn’t choosing to be with him, I knew I needed him. For how can you choose to fall in love with someone?” Dylan paused to study our siblings, and I could see the look of interest on their faces. They’d never heard him speak this way before.
Dylan spread his hands over the blanket that he’d pulled over his lap. “I knew I loved him, and only him. In answer to your unasked question, I don’t have feelings for men. I love Millen and only Millen. I can’t explain it. I can’t put him second if I marry a woman-”
“I informed him of this the night after grandfather left us and went to bed. I knew it only to be a short amount of time before the opium hit his bloodstream, so I confessed my love to him. Millen responded by reaching up to kiss me, then he fell asleep. In the morning, he opened his eyes and found me already awake. He whispered, ‘I dreamt you asked me to be in a life-long relationship? Did I dream about it?’ He seemed to be apprehensive about what to say as if I would laugh and say, ‘You had a silly dream.’ I reached out and kissed him again, answering his question.”
Dylan paused, leaving us to savor his confession. The ticking of the bedside clock echoed throughout the silent room. Through the open window, the salty sea air hit my nose, and I felt at peace as the ship was gently rocked by the waves. I was going home, and I had a husband. Wouldn’t that be the correct word?
“That was beautiful.” Francis pulled his knees to his chest. “I love it.”
Dylan mouthed thanks. Theodore tilted his head as he searched for a few more questions to toss out.
“The two of you have decided to dedicate your lives to one another,” he paused, bit his lip, and continued. “Is this going to be a consummated relationship?”
“Theodore!” Francis yelled, his eyes enlarged in disbelief, as Dylan and I fell back against the pillows in shock. “I cannot believe you asked such a bold question at this time.”
Theodore shrugged. He was used to asking probing questions. Nothing fazed him. Francis looked as if he were going to faint in shock.
“I’m only saying,” he continued. “If the two of them are going to dedicate their lives to one another, there has to be a -”
“I’m well aware of what is expected of me,” Dylan interrupted, a slight smile on his lips, “and, when the time comes, I will be ready.”
Theodore crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s all I wanted to know.”
I closed my eyes and felt Dylan’s hand on mine. Theodore had always been bold and blunt. But, goodness! I cracked an eye open and tuned out Dylan and Francis’s chattering. I caught Theodore stretching back on the bed, his gaze out the window. His hand rested upon his flat stomach. It had taken him almost a year to lose the weight he’d gained before the surgery. I noticed the look of melancholy on his face, and it hit me. Since Theodore’s surgery and decision to live as a man, he never said who he was attracted to? We assumed it to be men, but would it be?
I remembered him talking about not being interested in Conrad, but I couldn’t help but notice the way his eyelashes cast downward as he finished his speech. Could it be that he was attracted to Conrad, but knew he couldn’t be in a relationship with the man because of his decision? Did Conrad want a typical Edwardian wife? A socialite who was the complete opposite of our mother? A wife who would bear him ten children? That didn’t sound like Conrad. At that moment I felt sorry for our brother. We were both hiding our secrets, but unfortunately, his secret was far too dangerous.
A few moments later, I eased myself off the bed, pulled a robe over the nightgown I was forced to wear until my stitches were removed, and opened the door that led down a short hallway to the suite grandfather shared with Uncle Joseph. The sun was starting its descent on the water, soon we would be gathered in our parent’s suite for dinner. With my condition, we passed on eating in the large dining room with the captain every night.
My velvet slippers made a shhh sound as I seemed to glide over the polished marble. My body filled with anticipation at the announcement I was to make to grandfather. I planned on telling my parents and Uncle Joseph at dinner time.
Creeping up to the bathroom door that both suites shared, I grasped a hold of the doorknob and was about to enter when I heard the swish of water hitting the porcelain tub. I was amazed at how toilets and bathtubs worked on a ship! Was the dirty water being emptied into the ocean? Would the alligators, and sharks drink it? How funny.
My mouth began to form a greeting when I overheard my grandfather’s voice. He seemed to be talking to someone. Uncle Joseph, perhaps?
“I loved him.” Grandfather’s voice shook with emotion.
I slunk back into the small enclosed hallway. Behind me, I could hear the muffled sounds of Francis’s laughter from the other room. I tried to tune it out, and focus on my grandfather.
“Is this punishment for lying to my father?”
I peeked my head into the room, and spotted grandfather dressed in a robe perched on the edge of the bathtub, his head in his hands, his back towards me. I know I should leave, but I stayed still. He couldn’t see me.
“I only lied because he treated Jasper with more respect than me. I never meant to hurt him.” Grandfather raised one hand, and fumbled at the brass faucet, turning the water off.
“You’re punishing me, aren’t you?” Grandfather continued. “All these years, all of the thousands of dollars I spent hiring the best private detectives in Texas, and nothing. I even hired one of President Roosevelt’s lawyers, and he came back empty-handed. The only clue to my brother’s disappearance is my Uncle William’s abandoned wagon that was found at a hotel in Greenville and his empty home in Kentucky.”
A choked sob threatened to escape my throat. Grandfather was crying over his brother. I watched the man trail a finger through the bathwater as if he were testing the temperature.
“I made my brother disappear because I was jealous over a jade ring, a stupid ring!”
Grandfather’s hand hit the water in anger, and I saw droplets cascade through the air.
“Look what I’ve done.” His voice cracked with emotion and took on a lower octave. “My baby Millen has been attacked. Is this my punishment for lying? Is this my punishment for treating him so cruelly on the train station platform several years ago? I love him so much!”
In a daze, I stumbled from the door, and softly closed it. My body trembling in fear, my hands shaking so bad I slipped them in my robe pocket. Grandfather believed himself to be the cause of my attack because he lied about his brother.
Francis’s laughter continued from our suite, and I knew my brothers were dressing for dinner. I looked down at my robe, and the long, flannel nightgown the doctor told me to wear until the stitches were removed. Was this my fault? Did God choose me to punish my grandfather? Ridiculous. I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes in prayer.
“Father in Heaven,” I whispered. “Please comfort my grandfather. Please give him a sign his brother is still alive or passed on. The torment and anguish he continues to feel every day will eventually cause him to die of heartache.”
I squeezed my eyes and felt hot water gathering in the corners.
“You know I love him so much, and I forgive him for everything he has done. He is remorseful, I know it. Please God, send Uncle Jasper back to my grandfather.”
Raising my head, I removed my handkerchief from my robe pocket, patted my eyes, and composed myself. The announcement that Dylan I was to make to the family had to wait until we returned home.