If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he was annihilated, the universe would turn into a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.
~Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Mother Tongue (Lisa 1962)
Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.
“Are those…. are those cigarette burns?”
Of the adults staring in horrified silence at the disturbing sight before them, it is Miriam, the midwife, who speaks first. Her voice is flat, as if she does not realize she has posed the question aloud.
Father clears his throat. “I believe some of them are, yes.”
“That’s exactly what they are,” says Brother Cyril. He closes his eyes in prayer, or perhaps memory.
Father fiddles with his glasses. “I would need to, to make an examination to be certain.”
“Good luck with that, Pops,” says Devin. “It’s vicious.”
“It’s not an ‘it,’” corrects Vincent. “I told you, stop saying that.”
“And I told you to stop being a weevil, but you didn’t,” shoots back Devin, taking a swat at Vincent, who ducks out of reach with the ease of long practice. Father, who would ordinarily have put an end to this bickering by now, strangely says nothing, and Devin ponders the wisdom of throwing out another smart remark while he has the chance.
In fact everyone gathered here is waiting on Father now, but he is very focused on polishing his spectacles with the trailing end of his nightshirt. Of course everyone has come running, he is thinking, in spite of the solemn oath he had extracted from both boys to keep their discovery to themselves for the moment. Word travels fast down here.
Finally Father replaces his spectacles on his nose and fastens his gaze once again on the unprepossessing new arrival, who has not budged for many long moments.
Gürst, the carpenter, can’t take it anymore. “What the hell is that?”
“Gürst, language,” murmurs Father, indicating the presence in their midst of Vincent and Devin.
“It’s not an ‘it,’ though,” pipes up Vincent.
“Well what is it then?” insists Gürst.
“Though it grieves me to say so, it is a child,” says Father.
There’s a collective gasp.
“Like hell it is,” says Devin.
“Language, Devin, please. At least not in front of Vincent.”
“I don’t mind,” says Vincent; then, louder this time, “and it’s not an ‘it.’”
“And the smell?” presses Miriam.
“I am told the child was eating garbage, when found,” answers Father.
“Dog food,” corrects Devin.
“Indeed thank you Devin, as always. Apparently one of the senior citizens in the building feeds the strays. I understand a mother dog has been keeping, the ah, the, the child, alive. The maternal instinct. Quite extraordinary.”
Aghast, the small rag-tag group can only gape at the sight before them. Devin sees an opportunity.
“Watch this,” he says, and over Father’s protestations he kneels and holds out one hand toward the filthy tangle of hair and rags and dirt– or perhaps blood– that has flattened itself against the tunnel wall just inches from the ventilation shaft through which it has allowed itself to be coaxed this far.
At his movement a distinctly childlike growl emerges from the creature and it attempts to shrink itself even farther toward the vent and freedom.
Vincent and Father both speak at once.
“Stop it Devin!” squeaks Vincent, outraged. “You’re scaring her.”
“Devin please do stop, I forbid you to torment it,” orders Father, realizing all at once that he is almost too exhausted to stand.
“I’m not tormenting it, I’m just showing you,” argues Devin.
“Good Lord are those its teeth?” gasps Gem, the seamstress. “It looks dangerous.”
“It is, I told you,” says Devin.
“It’s not an ‘it,’ it’s a her, and she’s not dangerous.” Vincent glares at Devin. “She’s just scared. You’re scaring her.”
Devin has a comeback ready but Father interrupts.
“Enough. Enough. Vincent I’m afraid you have presented us with rather a quandary here—”
“She needs our help, Father,” pleads Vincent. “I thought you would want us to help her.”
“Vincent, Vincent, yes, yes I know,” soothes Father. “But she, she may have, very particular, problems that are simply beyond what we can offer her, here.”
“No she doesn’t,” insists Vincent. “She just needs a family.”
“Weevil she has a family. They’re Topside eating Alpo right now.”
Vincent rounds on Devin in a fury. “Devin you promised you would help me talk to Father so she can stay. You said it would be okay.”
“Well, maybe I was wrong,” shrugs Devin. There is a stunned silence while this sinks in, as it is a sentiment he has never before been heard to utter. He tries to look nonchalant.
But Vincent is not giving up. “Father, look,” he says, holding up a small grimy sandwich bag. He has been clutching it tightly in one hand and its contents have gone soft and slimy. “It’s cheese,” explains Vincent excitedly. “She really likes it. Watch, Father. Just watch.”
And before Father can protest he is down on all fours, edging toward the unwelcome guest still immobile against the tunnel wall, holding the baggie out in front of him. “Look,” he coos at her. “Cheese. You like this. You like this. Do you want some more?”
The creature growls again, eliciting murmurs of alarm from the small crowd. Father leans down and makes a wild swipe for the back of Vincent’s coveralls to pull him back but he’s not fast enough.
“No, Father, wait. Watch this.” Vincent crawls forward another foot, then stops and peels a cube of oily cheese from the depths of the baggie. It’s so soft now that it catches in his claws and the fine fur of his small fingers. “Shit,” he mutters, then quickly: “Sorry, Father.”
Father levels a look at Devin, who tsk-tsks, shaking his head as if commiserating, but is shushed by Vincent before he can retort.
The small creature is still growling, but softly now, keeping a bright eye fixed on Vincent and the baggie as he creeps yet a little closer. About six feet from her, he lightly tosses the sticky clot of cheese in her direction. With an oddly graceful hop the child snatches the flying cheese in mid-air and pops it into her mouth where it disappears without benefit of chewing.
“Ask him how much of that stuff it took to get it all the way down here,” whispers Devin in Father’s direction.
“As it happens I have some questions for you both,” Father hisses, not taking his eyes off Vincent as his younger son, now within a few feet of the child, tenderly feeds her the rest of the baggie’s contents. By the time she has delicately plucked the last cube of cheese, right from his outstretched fingers, Vincent has worked his way alongside her, sprawled out on his belly in the dirt. When he turns the baggie inside out to show the child that it’s empty, she politely takes it from him to inspect it. There is a collective intake of breath in anticipation of mayhem, but after licking the bag hopefully once or twice, the child seems resigned, and carefully folds the baggie into quarters before squirreling it away somewhere in the rags that barely cover her.
A moment passes; it seems no one present is willing to risk breaking the spell Vincent has woven around his wild foundling. He lies quite still there on his belly, studying her thoughtfully, his pointed chin resting serenely on one small fist. In the other, the tiny stranger has, miraculously, allowed him to loosely cradle her scabbed and muddy foot.
The mother dog must be really upset right now, crying and looking for her baby, realizes Vincent with a profound stab of remorse. His eyes fill with hot tears. Breaking up a family was not to be done lightly, not at all. He knows he must focus on the reality that the little girl needs things that a mother dog, no matter how loving, cannot give her.
“I think we should give her a name,” he says suddenly, keeping the fluted treble of his voice as low and lulling as he can so as not to alarm the child. “I think her name should be ‘Lisa.’”
At this Brother Cyril seems to choke on something and Gürst must pound him on the back several times until the good friar can get enough air to speak. “‘God’s Oath’ indeed,” he gasps, tears running down his pink face. “Perfect.”
“No, not the Hebrew,” says Vincent softly over his shoulder. “The Greek… ‘lily flower.’”
Father turns sharply, ready to squelch with one look any comment from Devin but the tunnels’ burly carpenter has beat him to it; Gürst has swiftly enfolded the lanky adolescent in a headlock that to judge from Devin’s expression may not be entirely as friendly as it appears. Father nods his gratitude, then directs his thoughts once again to the object of Vincent’s reverie.
Troubled, he watches as the ragged little girl hiccups, then begins to lick her fingers, secure for the moment in the gentle palm and tranquil gaze of her champion.
It’s impossible to mistake the intense emotions now transforming his son’s small face. Vincent is glowing, as if the child’s mere existence has turned on some light inside him, and he looks content to lie in the dirt indefinitely, asking nothing more of her, or of life, than to be allowed to continue holding her foot.
Father’s heart sinks. He recognizes the look on his son’s face all too well, and must give himself a little shake to banish memories of his own. So young! He had hoped it would be many, many years before this moment arrived. With any luck this is just a childish trifle, a perfectly reasonable fascination with novelty. He decides to cling to this hope, however flimsy he knows it to be. He must shake off a mental image of himself as a hapless shipwreck survivor– tempest-toss’d!– on the high seas of young love.
He clears his throat.
“Well you certainly appear to have had a civilizing influence on her,” he says uneasily.
Much relieved, the adults who have been holding their breath now allow themselves to laugh softly and relax somewhat; all except for Father, who is no stranger to foundlings, wild or otherwise.
And so it begins, he thinks.