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Foster Home

ISSUE:  Winter 1988

When we first saw Mary Miles, I will say that our hearts went out to her—you always seem to know, in the very first instant, when a person, particularly a child, is going to mean something special to you. Not that Mary Miles was a child exactly, being eleven years old.

And tall for her age. And thin. With a lonely-looking face, narrow and bony and the eyes sort of sunk back like the daylight hurt them. Those were pebbly-gray eyes with lashes so sparse they looked as if she’d been picking at them, the way she was picking at the skin around her mouth, sort of quick and nervous and not knowing what she did. “Such sad beautiful eyes!” Mother whispered, clutching at Father’s arm. Of course there was suspicion in Mary Miles’ eyes too, and a watchfulness like an animal’s, which was to be expected as the poor girl had been in two or three foster homes thus far but through no fault of her own—as we were told, and there was no reason then to doubt—the homes “had not worked out.” In the last foster home the father was said to have been “abusive” to Mary and the mother “had riot offered adequate protection.”

Sister, not being one to mince words, asked just what did that mean?—but Mother quickly intervened, saying that whatever prior difficulties the child had had, and had weathered, by the actual or hidden love of Jesus in her heart, did not matter to us: for we were a new beginning, and would love her, and take her in, because we had chosen her. “This is the special thing,” Mother said, her voice quavering, “— the child will know herself chosen. We, this day, walking into this very room, seeing her amidst the other children, have chosen her to come live with us.”

Father said, “Yes, Mrs. Brook, we hope the child will understand this. That she is not coming blindly or haphazardly into our lives, but has been chosen above all the others. Quite deliberately—consciously—chosen.” He too was deeply moved, and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. In a softened voice he added, “—By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

To which Sister murmured, “Amen.”

And Brother, as if taken by surprise, murmured, “Amen.”

This while, Mary Miles was standing right in front of us, not exactly looking at us, but listening. You could see she was trembling just slightly as if, if you touched her, there’d be the finest vibration like when you lay a hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming inside. Her whitish skin was splotched with freckles like dirty rainwater and looked stretched tight across her cheekbones, and the irises of her eyes were shrunken to tiny black dots like something made with an icepick. “Mary,” said Mrs. Brook, “—you’ll be going home with these good people as soon as the papers are drawn up. Isn’t that wonderful news?” Mrs. Brook was not the director of the Home but his assistant and seemed to know the children well. We might have perceived a certain edginess to her voice in addressing Mary Miles had we been open to suspicion— which of course we were not. “You do understand, Mary, don’t you? Look up here, dear, and take your finger out of your mouth. This time will be very different from last time— if you are good.”

Mary Miles was too shy to answer Mrs. Brook, or even to give a sign that she had heard the woman’s kind words. She stood with one foot turned inward, a forefinger hooked in her mouth. It was not rudeness as such but simple backwardness, which we understood would require our patience. Mary was one of a number of children in the Home said to be “slow” but not “disturbed”—for so we had been informed. She was obedient when she understood what was expected of her, but it was usually necessary that things be repeated, slowly, once or twice, before she understood. Her behavior was not to be interpreted as stubborness (though, like any normal child, Mary could be stubborn at times), and it was certainly not to be interpreted as wickedness (for Mary, despite her origins, had been baptized and believed in Jesus Christ as her savior).

“What do you say, Mary,” Mrs. Brook urged, “to these nice people who have come to take you home with them?”

Mary’s mouth stiffened as if she wanted to smile, or grimace, but dared not. She removed her finger from her mouth and hid her hands behind her back. Her teeth were crooked, and her chin just sort of melted away backward, so it was hard for her to close her mouth correctly; but she made the effort. We were all smiling at her to show there was nothing to fear, and Mother reached out to touch her—-just the lightest touch on the shoulder—and she shrank away just so you’d notice and said something so low and hoarse we couldn’t hear. Father cupped his hand to his ear as he sometimes did in playfulness, leaning toward Mary and asking, “Come again?” And Mary just stood there like an animal that’s been leashed to a peg, but the leash was not visible to the naked eye.

Then Mary Miles raised her eyes for the first time. To Father, and to Mother who stood close by his side. In a voice that sounded like no child’s voice you would ever want to hear, but hoarse and raspy like the wind rattling dry leaves, she said, “Thank you Sir, and Lady. I will try to be good.” It was true that, as Mother said, her eyes were beautiful; but the right eye appeared to be larger and had a shiner, glassier look to it than the left.

“Bless you, child!” Mother cried. Weeping with very joy, she hugged Mary Miles tight against her bosom, and this time the child could not shrink away.

(All that day and that night a strange whining wind was blowing out of the foothills with a taste of something raw upon it. No one of us, not even Sister, marked it as a premonition at the time, for who could guess what lay ahead? As Mother is given to say, with her nervous little laugh, “It is hard enough to know what has passed, let alone what is to come!” And as Father is given so say, more gravely, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”)

*  *  *

So that was how Mary Miles left the Home and came to live with us in our large brick house on High Street and was welcomed into our hearts in the name of Jesus our Savior. That was how she began her stay of nine months and five days, so very innocent, or innocent-seeming, at the start. All of us were made glad, but most of all Mother, who showed happiness beyond the ordinary, her eyes shining as they do at church and her face giving off a rosy heat. A dozen times a day Mother whispered “Praise Jesus!” as if her dearest prayer had been answered. And Mary Miles, if she was within earshot, would turn her gaze downward, and stand blinking at the floor. If there was a slight redness to her face it was likely to be pimples inflamed from her incessant picking with her nails—no natural blush that any of us was ever to observe.

It should be made clear that we were not like other foster families in our town who took in unwanted children for cash profit: we did so out of Christian charity, and love. As the house was spacious and Father’s business continued to prosper, and as it was evident that no further issue would be born of Mother and Father, for a reason known only to God, it began to seem that opening our household to an orphan would be a very good thing. The urgings of Jesus Christ in this matter were perceived by Mother and Father to be particularly strong.

Many months of prayer preceded the actual decision, and several lengthy discussions with the pastor of our church. At first Mother hoped to adopt a baby but soon concurred with Father that it was best to take in a foster child, a somewhat older child whose opportunities for adoption were very small; and who was thus more deserving. For, as Father pointed out, there was little challenge and thus little merit in taking in an infant or a very small child whom anyone might love. A crippled child, or a Negro child, or, like Mary Miles, an older child whom no one would want—”That is what Jesus would wish us to do,” Father said.

And Mother said at once, shamefaced, “Of course—you are right. How blind I was, and how selfish—of course you are right.”

In the early weeks it was not hinted that Mary Miles harbored within her any especial wickedness. Mrs. Brook had informed us that Mary’s background was “not of the highest pedigree” but this we understood, for no decent mother, surely no decently wed Christian mother, would give away her child for others to rear—and Mary had been given away at birth. (Who Mary’s mother was, still less her father, was never revealed to us; nor would we have wished to challenge the laws of the state, to be told.) Perhaps the Home might have made it clearer to us that Mary Miles was possessed of an inclincation toward upset— not temper tantrums of the sort that Sister and Brother still have if sufficiently provoked, and Father himself is capable of, if sufficiently provoked; not spells of weeping and fainting of the sort that Mother succumbs to, upon certain occasions; but nervousness, and a twitching of the body, and a queer stiffening of the face as if it had turned to stone—out of which the eyes and the mouth were the only things alive, with an ugly drowning look like a fish’s. And this upset, though contained within the child, yet had the power to ripple outward to throw into distress and confusion all who come within her range.

At the start, however, Mary Miles gave every impression of being a good girl. She said her prayers under out guidance and comported herself well, if a little clumsily, at mealtimes. In church, she sat quiet, and seemingly attentive; she made an effort to sing the hymns with the congregation, in her strange hoarse voice, which had very little volume but did not lack for emotion. (Mary’s favorite hymn was “Rock of Ages,” which, when she sang, she accompanied by swinging her head and rocking from side to side to an embarrassing extent.) She kept her room tidy and did her household chores as she was directed—though, out of clumsiness, or seemingly, she did not always do them as thoroughly as Mother wished. It was Mary’s responsibility to help the cook with meals and kitchen work and to help the black girl Mandy with general housecleaning (which included laundry, and ironing, and miscellaneous tasks as they came along—silverware polishing, for instance: from both Mother’s and Father’s families there had come to us a considerable quantity of silverware, of the finest English sterling. As many of the pieces were finely wrought, in scroll, rosebud, and fleur-delis patterns, they required a good deal of what Mother called “old-fashioned elbow grease,” to prevent tarnishing.) These tasks Mary performed in utter silence, her head sharply bent and her gaze turned inward.

Indeed, Mary spoke so little to us, even when questioned in the kindest of ways by Father and Mother, it seemed that something might be deficient with her powers of speech. Her teeth were so crooked—”alligator teeth” Brother called them, not unkindly—we halfway wondered if this was the cause; or, perhaps, it had to do with a certain thickness of her tongue, which seemed larger than it should have been, in proportion to her mouth. Mother would hear no such thing and defended Mary by saying that she was merely shy; and backward; and would warm to us all in time, if we did not press ourselves upon her. “Remember, the poor child was treated cruelly before she came to live with us,” Mother said.

Also, Mary had a habit of gliding so noiselessly into a room, like a snake walking on its tail, we were often taken by surprise. “Oh goodness, Mary!—you’ll be the death of me yet!” Mother, whose nerves were not strong, would laughingly cry, pressing her hand against her heart. She joked that her own children walked so heavily she could hear them in all parts of the house and could hear them, sometimes, when they weren’t even in the house—thus she was unaccustomed to Mary’s grace.

(“”Grace” is a strange word,” Sister observed to Brother, with a tinge of hurt, “when it is sneakiness Mother means.”)

Like many another foster child, as Mrs. Brook carefully explained, Mary Miles had what was called bladder problems: which necessitated a rubber sheet fitted to her bed, and the frequent airing of her mattress on the lawn, and some unpleasantness between Mary and Mandy (who oversaw the weekly laundry). The problem Mrs. Brook assured us would correct itself as soon as Mary was adjusted to her new circumstances and understood that, as she lay in her bed, she would not be susceptible to attack—but this turned out to be false. For, as long as Mary Miles lived with us, the filthy habit continued, and did in fact worsen, very likely (as Mother herself was finally forced to acknowledge) out of spite. At the start, though, it was believed to be something Mary could not help: which caused her a good deal of grief and shame.

It began to develop that Brother, out of high spirits, fell into the habit of holding his nose when Mary appeared, for the amusement of Sister; or, at school—for he and Mary Miles attended the same school—for the amusement of their classmates. If Mother or Father was close by he held his nose behind their backs; at other times his teasing was quite open. Poor Mary Miles!—she saw, and averted her eyes, and bowed her head in shame. That a terrible rage boiled inside her, would have been impossible to perceive.

(Yet it was the case, as Mother admitted, that Mary Miles did not like to bathe; that, unless she was watched carefully, in the very tub, she would only pretend to wash herself—a few swipes of the washcloth, and a quick dunking of her head, to wet her hair, and that was that. “Cleanliness the child will come to, naturally, in time,” Mother insisted. But there was doubt in her voice, and the problem was not initially brought to Father’s attention.)

Weeks and months passed. When they were alone together Mother would draw Mary to her, and ask, “Why are you so quiet, Mary? What are you thinking of, when you are so quiet?”

Laughingly, yet nervously, Mother would chide, “Your mind is a million miles away isn’t it!”

And: “Mary, you must stand straight: you must hold your head high, in pride. For you are loved. Don’t you know, dear, that, now, you are loved?

This while, the child would stand wordless before her, staring at the floor as if she hoped it might open suddenly to save her. It was clear that she did not like to be touched; yet dared not draw away, still less throw off Mother’s hand, so plump, warm, and hopeful, on her shoulder.

“You know that Jesus is in your heart, dear, don’t you,” Mother whispered. “As He is in mine. As He is, if He is bidden, in every heart. You know that don’t you.”

“Yes Lady,” Mary said.

“No, no, dear—you must call me “Mother.” I am your Mother now.”

“Yes Ma’am.”


Mother’s voice rose in exasperation; with a little peal of laughter.

But Mary Miles stood silent before her, silent and sullen, head bowed, eyes hooded, her lower lip caught in her crooked front teeth. Since coming to live on High Street she had gained a pound or two, but little more, though her appetite was generally good; she brushed her frizzy red-brown hair, or tried to, and held it in place with barrettes, which reduced her wild and somewhat monkeyish appearance. This day, she was wearing a white cotton blouse with buttoned cuffs and a Tartan plaid skirt newly selected by Mother from the children’s wear department in Father’s very store. (For Father owned the largest store of its kind in town, which he had inherited from Grandfather.) Though she had been forced to bathe only a few hours previous, however, a dry acrid odor as of stale urine was faintly released when Mother took hold of her shoulders and gave her an impatient little shake.

“Mother,”” Mother cried, ““Mother”! Cannot you say the mere word, “Mother”! Does it stick in your throat!”—but Mary Miles remained silent, biting her lip so hard it went white, and, as if sensing how this might provoke poor Mother the more, went limp, like a rag doll, and allowed herself to be shaken, shaken, shaken, her head rolling on her shoulders. Until in angry despair Mother said, “You are bad, Mary! You are cruel!” and, weeping, pushed her away.

That evening Mother confessed to Father what had happened, and began to weep, saying that she had allowed herself to become emotional, and to frighten the child; which she knew was very wrong. “It is just that Mary does not seem to love me,” Mother said. “In truth, she does not seem to care about me at all—scarcely to notice me. As she does not, except in sideways looks of a kind I cannot interpret, seem to notice any of us.”

Father smiled, to comfort her; but said that God’s plans are not required to be easy, or even apparent, to mankind. They had brought Mary Miles into their home of their own volition, knowing something of her background and the fact that, mentally, she was not quite right; they had elected to offer her a home, and a family, and, should she wish it, or earn it, love—and must proceed now as they had intended. “It would look very poor for us in our neighbors’ eyes, and reflect very badly on our Christian charity, to surrender the child back to the Home so quickly,” Father pointed out. “She has been here—how long?—only three or four months.”

“Only!” Mother said, with a hurt little laugh. “I would have thought it much longer.”

Examining the calendar on his desk Father said, “Yes. Mary has been with us only three months, eleven days. It is too soon, you know to—reconsider.”

“I had wanted a baby, you know,” Mother said, wiping at her eyes. “A tiny tiny baby. One who would know me as “Mother” and love me as “Mother,” having no choice.”

“That is a remark unworthy of you, Mother,” Father said stiffly. “A remark I am very glad no one else has heard.”

* * *

But by degrees Mary began to surprise us, and the surprises were not pleasant. In Sunday school, which she attended with Brother and some two dozen other children, her presence was said to be “disruptive” and “nervous.” Precisely what Mary did, even Brother, who always observed her closely, to bring back tales of her to Sister, could not explain. She sat quietly in her seat; did not whisper or giggle, or squirm with boredom, like certain of the other children; always knew her lesson, and invariably came in first in Bible drill. In fact, it was Mary’s outstanding performance in Bible drill week after week that struck them all as strange . . .very strange indeed.

Bible drill proceeded thusly: the instructor Miss Mahon would cry out the name of a book of the Bible and the number of a verse, “Leviticus 15, 19!” for instance, or “Deuteronomy 6, 27!” and the young people would page through their Bibles as quickly as they could, with the first to locate the verse leaping to his feet and reading it out in a clear, ringing voice. Each time a boy or girl won what Miss Mahon called a round of the drill a point was given; at the end of the drill the one with the most points was awarded a Bible card. When Sister Was still attending Sunday school she won cards now and then, which were still proudly displayed in her room, but Brother, despite his zest for the drill, had never won a card in all his years in Sunday school—had rarely, in fact, been first in any round. You would not think that Mary Miles, with her mental impairment, would be the first to locate any Bible verse, except by accident; and yet, week after week, she did; and soon began to accumulate Bible cards in far greater quantities than even the brightest students. Moses and the Burning Bush, Jesus and the Barren Fig Tree, Jesus Crucified, The Ascension, The Affliction of Job—Mary won them all.

Naturally, the others were resentful; and began to tease and snub and speak cruelly of Mary when they could, either behind her back or to her very face—which was an unfortunate development in a Sunday school class, indeed. Miss Mahon complained to the pastor that she knew Mary was cheating at the drill but could not, for the life of her, determine how. “The child is the center of disruption,” she said. “I have never seen anything like it in my 36 years of teaching Sunday school and I don’t know how long my nerves can bear it.”

Added to which, as the weeks passed, Mary began to talk back to her classmates when they teased or tormented her. Sometimes too she made faces—”Uglier faces,” as Brother said, “than her own.”

At school Mary was not enrolled in a regular grade but in a special education class. There, two dozen boys and girls with problems of one kind or another—”learning disabilities,” as it was called-—were grouped together in a strange assortment of ages, sizes, and degrees of mental sharpness. Some you could judge at a glance as dull-witted, others struck even the most charitable eye as worrisome indeed, if not frankly alarming—oversized boys with rat’s eyes and sly smiles, full-bodied girls who talked too loudly and giggled uncontrollably to themselves. The previous year, when little fires were started around the school, it was believed that someone in the class was the perpetrator; but, though all the boys and girls were interrogated, the person or persons was never found. In such a context our Mary gave the appearance of being very nearly normal, which was both good and bad, as it developed: good, for it allowed the girl to take some pride in herself, and to shrink less when others looked at her; bad, in that, all too quickly, it instilled an excess of pride—which resulted in difficulties at home, and instances of “talking back” even at the dinner table. Yet more provoking, Mary cultivated a habit of working her mouth while one or the other of us spoke, as if in mimicry of what was being said, accompanied by near-imperceptible grimaces, facial tics, rolling of the eyes, and the like. One very bad time, after Sister scolded Mary for mixing up the order of her piano books while housecleaning, Mary sat at the supper table fixing her gaze upon Sister, and turning her lower lip inside out, though in a sly, subtle, devilish manner, until poor Sister cried out, “Oh make her stop! Make her stop! Make her stop! Father, Mother—make her stop!

“Mary, leave the table at once and go to your room,” Father would say upon these occasions, trying to remain calm, and, with no word, almost as if she delighted in the dismissal, Mary would slip out of her chair, walk in her customary noiseless way to the threshold of the dining room, then run, bringing her heels down so heavily the house shook. As the disruptions increased, Mother’s nerves were such that she dreaded the very prospect of a meal, and even Sister and Brother, who usually enjoyed a ruckus that did not involve punishment for them, began to grow uneasy. Brother, in accidentally jostling Mary on the stairs, or nudging her in the chest with something he carried, was apt to be the object of Mary’s quick-darting fist, where, in the past, the girl would have slunk away with that look of hers of a mysterious shame.

“I had so wanted a baby—a tiny, tiny baby,” Mother wept, though not in Father’s earshot, for Father, of late, was not one to tolerate her moods.

At church, as a consequence of her outstandineg ability to memorize Bible verses, Mary was selected—if “selected” be the proper term, since poor Miss Mahon had no choice in the matter—to recite the Gospel According to St. John to the congregation, as part of our annual Easter program. This she did, making not one error, but in so swift and mechanical a voice you might think she was mocking the very words; more than one member of the congregation complained of feeling a chill in their hearts. Even more surprising, Mary placed first in the annual spelling bee tournament at school, beating out her eighth- and ninth-grade opponents by spelling such words as ictus, Mesopotamia, embolectomy, whydah, and the like. As Brother observed, Mary did not know what the words meant (if they meant anything at all) but she won the spelling bee nonetheless; and in the county-wide competition placed second, having been bested by a 14-year-old boy with an I.Q. rumored to be in the genius category, who spelled zyzzyva correctly after Mary had falteringly spelled it zyzyva. At the assembly at which Mary was presented with a Webster’s Dictionary and a gold-plated plaque, however, no homeroom but “special education” applauded with much enthusiasm, and those misfit boys and girls so cheered, whistled, and stamped their feet that the principal had to declare an abrupt end to the assembly and direct the homeroom teachers to herd their charges out of the auditorium as quickly as possible. In the confusion cruel taunts of “Freaks!” “Crazies!” “Id-jits!” were directed at Mary’s classmates, and threats made on both sides.

What Mary Miles did with her prizes no one knew, for, when she came home from school that afternoon she was carrying nothing, and had nothing to say to Mother, who made inquiries about the assembly. “Didn’t something special happen to you today?” Mother asked hopefully. “No Lady—nothing,” Mary Miles muttered, and walked quietly away; only to run up the staircase to her room, and slam the door, and, as Mother afterward discovered, attempt to secure the door by tying the doorknob with a rope, and barricading the doorway with her bureau.

“Mary! Mary! Please let me in! What have you done! Dear, dear love, dear Mary—please let Mother in!” Mother cried.

And what did Mother hear from Mary?—or from whoever it was, child, or devil, crouching inside?

Only a low crackling laughter, mean and malicious, Mother said, as the sound of fire.

Of Mary’s spelling-bee award, which was written up in the local newspaper and provoked compliments from neighbors and friends, Mother said, “I suppose we should be proud of her,” in an uncertain voice, “—That is to say, we are proud of her.” Father grunted a vague assent, but Sister’s mouth was pursed tight and even Brother, who had told them quite a tale of the uproar at assembly, merely shrugged his husky shoulders and stared into space. “Mary is ours,” Mother added. “We have opened our house and our hearts to her, in the name of Christ our Lord.” When, still, no one of us spoke, Mother slapped her hand down hard on the table and said, in a hurt, bitter voice, “I told Father it was a baby I wanted but no, he would not listen—no, oh no, he would not listen! Knowing so much more than I, and scornful of my deepest wish, he would not listen—he and Jesus together would not listen!

Father roused himself to caution her, that Mary might be eavesdropping from upstairs. And Mother, beginning to weep, said “Why should I care? Why should I care, since my heart has been broken?”

Mary Miles’s term as a foster child in our home came to an abrupt end in the midsummer as, as Mother said, the worst that could happen to a girl seemed about to happen. That is, Mary though only, now, twelve years of age, and hardly a pretty girl, with a scattering of pimples on her face, and an angry-looking rash on her forearms, began to attract beaux. And what beaux they were!—the mere sight of the first of them, a boy from the special education class named Alfred, hulking, big-eared, with a coarse reddened skin and an Adam’s apple like a growth, was enough to drive poor Mother to tears. She could not, she said, bear it. She could not bear it.

Father sent Alfred, and, in time, Elmo, Homer, Roddy, and “Pluto” away; but could not control Mary slipping off to meet them on the sly. “I know, I just know what she is up to! I know!” Mother cried. “I know the child’s heart!” Of all of us, Mother was most upset by this new turn in events, reasoning that, should Mary Miles get in trouble, as it was called, Mother too would appear in a very bad light in the community; and the common decency of our household thrown into question. Sister, who at 17 had no beaux of her own, and may have felt somewhat jealous, spoke of the need to send Mary back to the Home as quickly as possible. She was always, she said, seeing Mary in the street, or in an alley, or in the park, “like a common slut,” in the company of one or another of the boys. So peculiar did Mary Miles and her boy friends look strolling hand in hand like normal couples, or in the park, on the grass, pretending to read books, strangers stopped and stared, and sometimes made rude remarks. “She is an embarrassment, pure and simple,” Sister said angrily. “I am thinking of leaving home if she does not.”

Though banished from our house and property, Alfred kept returning on the sly. If you saw Mary Miles with a certain look on her face, “like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” as Mother said, smiling to herself, and humming, and twitchier than usual, you could be sure that Alfred was outside somewhere, in the rear alley, or hiding in the shrubbery. One day when Mary was weeding flower beds in the back yard the big-boned flush-faced Alfred was observed kneeling beside her, boldly helping her weed. Mother called out a window, “Mary! What is this! Send him away, please!” but Mary pretended not to hear until Mother appeared at the back door in a state of extreme agitation. “You! Go home! You!—leave this property at once or I will call the police!”

Like a sullen dog Alfred trotted off, casting a look back at Mother that pierced her to the heart. She sent Mary to her room; telephoned Father at the store; insisted that he come home immediately, saying, in so excited a voice Father could barely comprehend her words, that she was fearful of her life—”It may be a lover’s pact they have, to murder us all in our beds!—to murder us all in our beds!—to live together openly in our house!”

Only a few days later a small fire was discovered by our cook, in the basement of the house: some rags and crumpled newspapers were burning in a corner, which she extinguished at once. And that very night Brother woke to the smell of smoke, went downstairs to investigate, and found a fire burning in Father’s study, in his wastebasket; and the very match itself tossed arrogantly atop Father’s desk. Brother stamped out the fire at once and ran upstairs to rouse Father and Mother from their beds.

Of course it was Mary Miles who had set the fires, though the child denied it. A box of matches was discovered hidden between her mattress and her bedsprings, along with a small cache of things presumed to be stolen—soiled combs, an empty change purse, fountain pens, hair barrettes—and a scattering of Bible cards. When, weeping angrily, Mary reached for the cards, Mother held them out of reach and methodically tore them into pieces. “You do not deserve these,” Mother said. “Better that they be destroyed, than fall into such wicked hands.”

Mary spent the remainder of the night in the basement, locked in the coal bin; where, it was reasoned, she could do no further harm. Next morning, despite her pleas that she had started no fires, that someone else must have done it— “because they hate me”—we drove her back to the Home, where Mrs. Brook greeted us, it seemed, with a look more of resignation than surprise upon being told by Father, “I’m afraid things have not worked out.”

Mrs. Brook looked at Mary, who stood white-faced and mute before her, her eyes insolent, her lower lip caught in her teeth. If she feared Mrs. Brook’s anger, she was mistaken for the woman said only, “Ah, well, Mary—here you are again. Here we are again.” Before even inviting us to be seated she called for one of the attendants to take Mary away. And, so, the child went off with her head insolently high, and not so much as a backward glance of regret, or appeal, or even anger.

“A hard heart,” Mother said afterward, as Father drove home. “A hard hard heart,”

“Yet, as Christians, it was our failure,” Father said quietly.

“Yes,” said Mother, bowing her head. “Our failure.”

With some reluctance Sister said, “Yes—I suppose.”

And Brother, “Yes—I suppose,” staring moodily into space.


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