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The Wonder

Emma Donoghue

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  For our daughter, Una, an old Irish blessing:

  Nár mille an sioc do chuid prátaí,

  Go raibh duilleoga do chabáiste slán ó chnuimheanna.

  May there be no frost on your potatoes,

  nor worms in your cabbage.




  to suckle an infant

  to bring up a child

  to take care of the sick

  The journey was no worse than she expected. A train from London to Liverpool; the steam packet overnight to Dublin; a slow Sunday train west to a town called Athlone.

  A driver was waiting. “Mrs. Wright?”

  Lib had known many Irishmen, soldiers. But that was some years ago, so her ear strained now to make out the driver’s words.

  He carried her trunk to what he called the jaunting car. An Irish misnomer; nothing jaunty about this bare cart. Lib settled herself on the single bench down the middle, her boots hanging closer to the right-hand wheel than she liked. She put up her steel-frame umbrella against the drizzle. This was better than the stuffy train, at least.

  On the other side of the bench, slouching so his back almost touched hers, the driver flicked his whip. “Go on, now!”

  The shaggy pony stirred.

  The few people on the macadamised road out of Athlone seemed wan, which Lib attributed to the infamous diet of potatoes and little else. Perhaps that was responsible for the driver’s missing teeth too.

  He made some remark about the dead.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “The dead centre, ma’am.”

  Lib waited, braced against the juddering of the cart.

  He pointed down. “We’re in the exact middle of the country here.”

  Flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat; wasn’t bogland known to harbour disease? The occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over. Nothing that struck Lib as picturesque. Clearly the Irish Midlands were a depression where wet pooled, the little circle in a saucer.

  The jaunting car turned off the road onto a narrower gravel way. The pattering on her umbrella’s canvas became a continuous thrum. Windowless cabins; Lib imagined a family with its animals in each, huddling in out of the rain.

  At intervals a lane led off towards a jumble of roofs that probably constituted a village. But never the right village, evidently. Lib should have asked the driver how long the journey was likely to take. She didn’t put the question to him now in case the answer was Still a long time yet.

  All Matron at the hospital had said was that an experienced nurse was required for two weeks, in a private capacity. The costs of keep and travel to and from Ireland to be furnished, as well as a daily consideration. Lib knew nothing about the O’Donnells except that they had to be a family of means if they were cosmopolitan enough to send all the way to England for a better class of nurse. It occurred to her only now to wonder how they could know that the patient would need her services for no more nor less than a fortnight. Perhaps Lib was a temporary replacement for another nurse.

  In any case, she’d be quite well paid for her trouble, and the novelty of the thing held some interest. At the hospital, Lib’s training was resented as much as it was appreciated, and only the more basic of her skills were required: feeding, changing dressings, bed-making.

  She resisted the impulse to reach under her cloak and pull out her watch; it wouldn’t make the time go any faster, and the rain might get into the mechanism.

  Another roofless cabin now, turned away from the road, its gabled walls accusing the sky. Weeds had had no success at covering up this ruin yet. Lib glimpsed a mess of black through the door-shaped hole; a recent conflagration, then. (But how did anything manage to catch fire in this waterlogged country?) Nobody had taken the trouble to clear away the charred rafters, let alone frame and thatch a new roof. Was it true that the Irish were impervious to improvement?

  A woman in a filthy frilled cap was stationed on the verge, a knot of children in the hedge behind her. The rattle of the cart brought them forward with hands cupped high as if to catch the rain. Lib looked away, awkward.

  “The hungry season,” muttered the driver.

  But this was high summer. How could food be scarce now, of all times?

  Her boots were speckled with mud and gravel spat up by the wheel. Several times the jaunting car lurched into a dun puddle deep enough that she had to cling to the bench so as not to be flung out.

  More cabins, some with three or four windows. Barns, sheds. A two-storey farmhouse, then another. Two men turned from loading a wagon, and one said something to the other. Lib looked down at herself: Was there something odd about her travelling costume? Perhaps the locals were so shiftless, they’d break off work to goggle at any stranger.

  Up ahead, whitewash glared from a building with a pointed roof and a cross on top, which meant a Roman Catholic chapel. Only when the driver reined in did Lib realize that they’d arrived at the village, although by English standards it was no more than a sorry-looking cluster of buildings.

  She checked her watch now: almost nine, and the sun hadn’t set yet. The pony dropped its head and chewed a tuft. This appeared to be the sole street.

  “You’re to put up at the spirit grocery.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Ryan’s.” The driver nodded left to a building with no sign.

  This couldn’t be right. Stiff after the journey, Lib let the man hand her down. She shook her umbrella at arm’s length, rolled the waxy canvas, and buttoned it tight. She dried her hand on the inside of her cloak before she stepped into the low-beamed shop.

  The reek of burning peat hit her. Apart from the fire smouldering under a massive chimney, only a couple of lamps lit the room, where a girl was nudging a canister into its row on a high shelf.

  “Good evening,” said Lib. “I believe I may have been brought to the wrong place.”

  “You’ll be the Englishwoman,” said the girl slightly too loudly, as if Lib were deaf. “Would you care to step into the back for a bit of supper?”

  Lib held her temper. If there was no proper inn, and if the O’Donnell family couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate the nurse they’d hired, then complaining would be no use.

  She went through the door beside the chimney and found herself in a small, windowless room with two tables. One was occupied by a nun whose face was almost invisible behind the starched layers of her headdress. If Lib flinched a little, it was because she hadn’t seen the like for years; in England religious sisters didn’t go about in such garb for fear of provoking anti-Romish sentiment. “Good evening,” she said civilly.

  The nun answered with a deep bow. Perhaps members of her order were discouraged from speaking to those not of their creed, or vowed to silence, even?

  Lib sat at the other table, facing away from the nun, and waited. Her stomach growled—she hoped not loudly enough to be heard. There was a faint clicking that had to be coming from under the woman’s black folds: the famous rosary beads.

  When at last the girl brought in the tray, the nun bent her head and whispered; saying grace before the meal.
She was in her forties or fifties, Lib guessed, with slightly prominent eyes, and the meaty hands of a peasant.

  An odd assortment of dishes: oat bread, cabbage, some kind of fish. “I was rather expecting potatoes,” Lib told the girl.

  “’Tis another month you’ll be waiting for them.”

  Ah, now Lib understood why this was Ireland’s hungry season—potatoes weren’t harvested until the autumn.

  Everything tasted of peat, but she set about clearing her plate. Since Scutari, where the nurses’ rations had been as short as the men’s, Lib had found herself incapable of wasting a bite.

  Noise out in the grocery, and then a party of four squeezed into the dining room. “God save all here,” said the first man.

  Not knowing the appropriate response, Lib nodded.

  “And ye too.” It was the nun who murmured that, making the sign of the cross by touching her forehead, chest, left and right shoulders. Then she left the room—whether because she’d had all she wanted of her meagre portion or to surrender the second table to the newcomers, Lib couldn’t tell.

  They were a raucous lot, these farmers and their wives. Had they already been drinking elsewhere all Sunday afternoon? Spirit grocery; now she understood the driver’s phrase. Not a haunted grocery, but one that served liquor.

  From their chatter, which touched on some extraordinary wonder they could hardly believe although they’d seen it with their own eyes, Lib decided they must have been to a fair.

  “’Tis the other crowd are behind it, I’d say,” said a bearded man. His wife elbowed him, but he persisted. “Waiting on her hand and foot!”

  “Mrs. Wright?”

  She turned her head.

  The stranger in the doorway tapped his waistcoat. “Dr. McBrearty.”

  That was the name of the O’Donnells’ physician, Lib remembered. She stood to shake his hand. Straggly white side-whiskers, very little hair above. A shabby jacket, shoulders flecked with dandruff, and a knob-headed walking stick. Seventy, perhaps?

  The farmers and their wives were eyeing them with interest.

  “Good of you to travel all this way,” the doctor remarked, as if Lib were paying a visit rather than taking up employment. “Was the crossing awful? If you’ve quite finished?” he went on, without giving her a chance to answer.

  She followed him out into the shop. The girl, lifting a lamp, beckoned them up the narrow staircase.

  The bedroom was poky. Lib’s trunk took up much of the floor. Was she expected to have a tête-à-tête with Dr. McBrearty here? Had the premises no other room free, or was the girl too uncouth to arrange things more politely?

  “Very good, Maggie,” he told the girl. “How’s your father’s cough?”

  “Better, nearly.”

  “Now, Mrs. Wright,” he said as soon as the girl was gone, and he gestured for her to take the single rush chair.

  Lib would have given a great deal for ten minutes alone first to use the chamber pot and the washstand. The Irish were notorious for neglecting the niceties.

  The doctor leaned on his cane. “You’re of what age, if I may ask?”

  So she had to submit to an interview on the spot, although she’d been given to understand that the job was already hers. “Not yet thirty, Doctor.”

  “A widow, yes? You took up nursing when you found yourself, ah, thrown on your own resources?”

  Was McBrearty checking Matron’s account of her? She nodded. “Less than a year after I was married.”

  She’d happened on an article about the thousands of soldiers suffering from gunshot wounds or cholera, and no one to tend them. The Times had announced that seven thousand pounds had been raised to send a party of Englishwomen to the Crimea as nurses. That, Lib had thought, with dread but also a sense of daring, I believe I could do that. She’d lost so much already, she was reckless.

  All she told the doctor now was “I was twenty-five.”

  “A Nightingale!” he marvelled.

  Ah, so Matron had told him that much. Lib was always shy of introducing the great lady’s name into conversation and loathed the whimsical title that had come to be attached to all those Miss N. had trained, as if they were dolls cast in her heroic mould. “Yes, I had the honour of serving under her at Scutari.”

  “Noble labour.”

  It seemed perverse to answer no, arrogant to say yes. It struck Lib now that the name of Nightingale was why the O’Donnell family had taken the trouble to bring a nurse all the way across the Irish Sea. She could tell the old Irishman would like to hear more about her teacher’s beauty, sternness, righteous indignation. “I was a lady nurse,” she said instead.

  “A volunteer?”

  She’d meant to clarify, but he’d taken her up wrong, and her face heated. Really, though, why feel the least embarrassment? Miss N. always reminded them that the fact of being paid didn’t lessen their altruism. “No, I mean that I was one of the educated nursing sisters rather than the ordinary nurses. My father was a gentleman,” she added, a little foolishly. Not a wealthy one, but still.

  “Ah, very good. How long have you been at the hospital?”

  “Three years come September.” Remarkable in itself, as most of the nurses stayed no more than a matter of months; irresponsible scrubbers, Mrs. Gamps in the old mould, whining for their rations of porter. Not that Lib was particularly appreciated there. She’d heard Matron describe veterans of Miss N.’s Crimean campaign as uppish. “After Scutari I worked in several families,” she added, “and saw my own parents through their final illnesses.”

  “Have you ever nursed a child, Mrs. Wright?”

  Lib was thrown, but only for a moment. “I would expect the principles to be the same. Is my patient a child?”

  “Mm, Anna O’Donnell.”

  “I’ve not been told her complaint.”

  He sighed.

  Something fatal, then, Lib deduced. But slow enough that it hadn’t killed the child yet. Consumption, most likely, in this wet climate.

  “She’s not exactly ill. Your only duty will be to watch her.”

  A curious verb. That awful nurse in Jane Eyre, charged with keeping the lunatic hidden away in the attic. “I’ve been brought here to… stand guard?”

  “No, no, simply to observe.”

  But observation was only the first piece of the puzzle. Miss N. had taught her nurses to watch carefully in order to understand what the ill required and provide it. Not medicine—that was the doctors’ domain—but the things she argued were equally crucial to recovery: light, air, warmth, cleanliness, rest, comfort, nourishment, and conversation. “If I understand you—”

  “I doubt you do yet, and the fault’s mine.” McBrearty leaned on the edge of the washstand as if his strength were failing.

  Lib would have liked to offer the old man the chair if she could have done it without insult.

  “I don’t want to prejudice you in any way,” he went on, “but what I may say is that it’s a most unusual case. Anna O’Donnell claims—or, rather, her parents claim—that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday.”

  Lib frowned. “She must be ill, then.”

  “Not with any known disease. Known to me, that is,” said McBrearty, correcting himself. “She simply doesn’t eat.”

  “You mean, no solids?” Lib had heard of that affectation of refined modern misses, to live off boiled arrowroot or beef tea for days on end.

  “No sustenance of any kind,” the doctor corrected her. “She can’t take a thing but clear water.”

  Can’t means won’t, as the nursery saying went. Unless… “Has the poor child some gastric obstruction?”

  “None that I’ve been able to find.”

  Lib was at a loss. “Severe nausea?” She’d known pregnant women too sick to stomach food.

  The doctor shook his head.

  “Is she melancholic?”

  “I wouldn’t say that. A quiet, pious girl.”

  Ah, so this was a religious enthusiasm, p
erhaps, not a medical matter at all. “Roman Catholic?”

  The flick of his hand seemed to say What else?

  She supposed they were virtually all Catholics, this far from Dublin. The doctor might well be one himself. “I’m sure you’ve impressed on her the dangers of fasting,” said Lib.

  “I have, of course. So did her parents, at the start. But Anna’s immoveable.”

  Had Lib been dragged across the sea for this, a child’s whim? The O’Donnells must have panicked the first day their daughter turned up her nose at her breakfast and shot off a telegram to London demanding not just any nurse, but one of the new, irreproachable kind: Send a Nightingale!

  “How long has it been since her birthday?” she asked.

  McBrearty plucked at his whiskers. “April, this was. Four months ago today!”

  Lib would have laughed aloud if it weren’t for her training. “Doctor, the child would be dead by now.” She waited for some sign that they agreed on the absurdity: a knowing wink, a tap of the nose.

  He only nodded. “It’s a great mystery.”

  That wasn’t the word Lib would have chosen. “Is she… bedridden, at least?”

  He shook his head. “Anna walks around like any other girl.”


  “She’s always been a mite of a thing, but no, she seems hardly to have altered since April.”

  He spoke sincerely, but this was ludicrous. Were they half blind, his rheumy eyes?

  “And she’s in full possession of all her faculties,” added McBrearty. “In fact, the vital force burns so strong in Anna that the O’Donnells have become convinced she can live without food.”

  “Incredible.” The word came out too caustic.

  “I’m not surprised you’re sceptical, Mrs. Wright. I was too.”

  Was? “Are you telling me, in all seriousness, that—”

  He interrupted, his papery hands shooting up. “The obvious interpretation is that it’s a hoax.”

  “Yes,” said Lib in relief.

  “But this child… she’s not like other children.”

  She waited for more.