Early, on the first Saturday of June, Mum came to my bedroom door,
tapped lightly, then came in with a small tattered suitcase.
“You need to get some things together. You’re going away.” She
stopped, then continued, “for a while, you know, until the baby
comes.” She hesitated between words, like she forgot what she was
supposed to say.
“No. Mum, you promised,” I said.
“I said I would do what I could. Your Da knows what is best. We must
abide by what is decided. You need to be a good girl. Do what they say.
You’ll be home in no time, back at school. You’ll have forgotten any
of this ever happened.”
She left the suitcase, walking out of the room without another word,
without any reassurance, without turning back to give me a sign of some
kind. A sign that could say that I’d be all right, that I’d get
through this. I ached from the betrayal.
I gathered together what I thought I might need, then took a quick look
around. From a small jewelry box on top of the dresser, I pulled out a
stained white string with a Sacred Heart medal attached to it. I slipped
the necklace into the pocket of my skirt.
When I came down stairs, Monsignor sat at the table drinking tea with
Da. Monsignor stood up to greet me, but Da walked out the front door,
not bothering to look at me. I imagined he wanted me gone, so he could
put this mess behind him. Later when asked at church, he could say,
“It’s been seen to.”
Monsignor took my suitcase, then guided my arm to the car. Mum stood in
the doorway, waiting, always waiting as usual. I took in the smell of
the wild lavender that grew in the garden, even pinching off a white
rosebud before getting into the car.
I took my place in the back seat, while Monsignor handed me my suitcase,
along with a sealed envelope. I brushed my hair from my face, fiddled
with the latch. Neither Mum nor Da had said a word about how long I’d
be gone, or when I’d be coming back.
I turned, looking back through the tinted car window, but the yard was
empty. Da was nowhere to be seen. Mum stood alone in the doorway.
A small older woman, dressed in a dowdy blue smock, with her hair pulled
back in a loose bun, opened the car door. I grasped the sealed envelope
he gave me when I first got in the car, along with my suitcase. The
frail woman guided me through the entry. As the door closed I heard the
tires spin on the gravel, Monsignor had completed his responsibility. I
had been dumped at the door. I looked around the opulent entry, very
different from the outside of the building. The tile floors glistened a
polished white. A staircase, with oiled wood, lead beyond what my eyes
could see. A statue of the Sacred Heart stood centered on the crafted
mahogany table, buffed to a bright shine.
“You can sit here,” she said softly, more like a whisper then a
She glanced over, this woman with white sunken cheeks, and gave me a
slight smile, nodded. She then leaned down and whispered into my ear.
“My name is Sara.”
“You’ll be just fine,” she said, patting my hand. “Mind your
business, and do everything Reverend Mother tells you.”
“When do I get to go home?” I asked, looking back at Sara.
“You must be Alice Brennan?” The tall lean woman stood in the
doorway of her office.
“Sara, get on with it. I’m too busy to have you dawdling about. You
wait here until we’re done,” she said pointing to Sara, “then take
her upstairs and get her settled in. Come on now.” She waved me
through the doorway, “let’s be done with this.”
I handed her the folder and watched as she pulled the papers out, then
went through them, one by one. From across the desk I smelled lye soap
with a scant scent of roses. I saw that her square face fit perfectly
into her black and white habit. Just above her head, a heavy wooden
cross hung from the wall. I stared at the body of Jesus. Without moving
a muscle, I made the sign of the cross. I could only hope someone would
“I see Monsignor’s been very thorough. You come from Meadow’s
“Yes, ma’am, that’s in County Westmeath.”
“That was not a question.”
“You were attacked on the way home from school.”
“And your mum believed you? Never mind.” She tapped a small wooden
ruler against her desk. “How far along are you?” She finally looked
up at me, but instead of making eye contact, she stared at my belly.
“Three months past, maybe Ma’am”
“Your mother took you to the doctor, and he confirmed your pregnancy,
but not the rape. So how do I know that you told the truth?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I slipped my hand into my pocket and
fingered the Sacred Heart medal along with the wilted rose I snagged at
the gate. Once again I stared up at the cross, but there was no sign
that He had heard a word.
Reverend Mother got up from her desk came around and stood in front of
me. She gripped the ruler in her hand, and I saw her knuckles whiten.
She’s not spent much time in a garden, I thought. Though always clean,
Mum’s hands were red and cracked during the cold winter months, and
often filled with creases of dirt, buried deep from fall planting.
“Your parents signed you in, so you’re here until we decide
otherwise. You will do everything I say. You do realize that you’ve
sinned and that we’re here to help you earn forgiveness from God.”
She looked at my face now, took the ruler up to my chin and ran it down
until it rested on my belly.
“Reverend Mother, I didn’t do anything wrong. I was never with a
“Really? Now if you weren’t with a boy, how did this happen?” She
demanded, staring at me. I said nothing. How could I say it wasn’t a
boy at all; that it was a man, old and worn, who tore at me, a man who
reeked of dirt and alcohol, and left me alone in the bushes. I lowered
my head so she couldn’t see the shame.
“Let me remind you, I decide what happens to you from here on out.”
Her chin tightened. “Never miss chapel services, clean up after
yourself, and don’t have any conversations with any of the other
girls. If one of the Sisters wishes to speak with you, stop, bow your
head, but do not look at them. You answer with a simple yes or no. Have
I made myself clear?”
“Don’t test me, girl.
“No, Ma’am, I won’t.”
“Wait, one other thing before you go. Do you have a baptismal name?”
“Yes.” She had taken a paper from the drawer. Then she looked up at
“Well? Your name? Good God girl, what is the name?”
“Well, that won’t do. Teresa,” she said, as she wrote the name on
the paper in front of her.
“I don’t understand.” I said. “My name is not Teresa.”
“It is now. None of the girls keep their given names. From now on when
someone asks your name, you tell them it is Teresa. Do you
“No. I don’t. My name is Alice.”
“Girl. Did you not hear me?”
“Yes ma’am, I heard you, but I don’t understand.”
“I will say it slowly. You are no longer Alice. Your name is Teresa.
Is that clear enough?”
She moved to the door, opened it, and stood to the side.
“Sara, take her up to the dormitory.”
She closed the door, leaving the two of us alone. Sara started toward
the stairs and I reached for my suitcase to follow her.
“Oh, no, you have to leave that there.”
“But it’s mine,” I said, gripping tight to it.
“No, it’s theirs now. They decide if you need any of the contents,
which usually they figure you don’t, and they dispose of the rest.
They say everything is given to the less fortunate.”
I left the suitcase in the corner, and turned toward the stairs. I
slipped my hand in my pocket and clutched hold of the medal.
She seemed smaller then when she had opened the convent door. Her hair
thin, her nails splintered, and her eyes vacant. The spell of lye filled
the stairway as it had Reverend Mother’s office. We continued toward
the dormitory. Sara stopped, and turned back, looking down at me.
“You have pretty hair,” she said, like a child, admiring something
she wanted. She reached out and touched my braid. “I had a braid
once, reddish-brown, like a horse’s tail,” she giggled.
“That is nice. I didn’t know what to say to this child-like woman
who tried to pet my hair.
“Did you get your name?” she asked.
“Yes. Teresa, but I don’t understand why they take your name.”
“She changes your name, so no one will know you were here.” Sara
whispered, turning and waiting for me.
“Did they change yours?” I asked.
“Yes, but I’ve been Sara for so long, it doesn‘t matter if I
remember or not.
“You don’t remember your real name?”
“No. I remember it all. Katherine O’Dea. My Da called me Katy, and
Mum called me Kathy. There are some things you try to forget, but others
you never do.” She turned away and continued up the stairs with her
pale hands grasping the stair rail.
I didn’t know this woman before this morning, but after our short
walk, she seemed more than a simple-minded servant. She had been
someone’s daughter, perhaps someone’s mother.
“How can they take your name from you?”
“She’ll ask for your baptismal name, and if no other girl has it,
then that’s the name you get.”
“Actually they can take anything they want from you,” she said, with
a touch of authority in her voice. Sara unlocked the door and walked
toward the beds. Looking back at me, she pointed to a thin mattress.
“There, the one with the clothes, that one’s yours. When you finish
changing clothes, put your old ones in the wooden box by the lavatory
door, then come down stairs. I have to go back to the kitchen. It’s on
the ground floor, just before you reach the hallway that takes you to
the chapel. I’ll get you some breakfast, and then you’ll start work.
Do you have any questions?”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll never call you Teresa. I promise.”
Sara left and I looked around the cold dark dormitory. Twelve beds in
all, six lined on each side, each bed between a small night table with
double drawers, with a chair at the side of each bed, and a threadbare
rug. The clothes reserved for me, were a blue smock, brown blouse, along
with underwear a pair of shoes and socks.
I picked up the smock and held it close to my nose. Though ironed and
clean, it smelled sour, like old fruit. I took off my clothes and
slipped on my new uniform. I took my string necklace from the pocket of
my skirt and slipped it under the pillow, and left my old life near the
Excerpted from "The Swan Garden" by Anne Biggs. Copyright © 2016 by Anne Biggs. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.