Another rainy Monday morning. Maggie Doyle is sorting the weekly wash. She examines the yellowed tide marks and grimy cuffs of her husband’s work shirt and wrinkles her freckled nose in vexation. Is this truly what her life has come to? She spies a greasy stain on the shirt-front and sighs. Out damned spot! Reaching for the stain-remover soap that she bought on offer in the supermarket, she lathers up her little scrubbing-brush and attacks the stubborn mark with grim determination. Eliminates everyday stains, the packet had said. “Well, we’ll soon see about that,” mutters Maggie out loud. Yet, even as she scrubs, her mind wanders to bigger questions.
The Lamb of God washes away our sins, Father John had said, yet can we truly start afresh, free from stain, free from sin? Will all the water in the Liffey suffice to wash away the stain of the fruit from the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil?
Maggie Doyle worries about these things; worries that the little brush will wear away the very fabric of the shirt, like the nun who washes raw her sinful flesh, in order to be pure. Clothes wear thin and so do souls, frayed ragged by the grind of daily life and the weekly bleaching of purification. How can the soul that is constantly cleansed be whole and vital? Wash with care, says the label. That’s about right, thinks Maggie as she sets the brush to one side and bundles the shirt into her top loader.
In the afternoon, Mrs Kelly drops by for tea. She speaks of Mrs Murphy’s influenza and the price of shin of lamb at O’Rourke’s this week. Maggie’s attention flutters away and hovers somewhere just behind the netted curtains of the parlour windows. Mrs Kelly feels the slight. She clinks the silver teaspoon impatiently against the delicate rosebuds on Maggie’s best porcelain teacup, but Maggie’s errant thoughts are not so easily called to heel.
Mrs Kelly’s eyes follow Maggie’s gaze into the street outside. Over the road at number thirty-four, Father John is making his parish rounds, stepping courteously around the edge of the neatly mown lawn and up the gravel drive to the front door. No crossed corners for the Holy Roman Church. Even without her glasses, Maggie’s vision is still sharp enough to make out the greying temples and handsome features of his face. He raps the door-knocker and steps back with patient anticipation but the occupant seems in no hurry to answer the door. He shifts from one foot to the other, then he turns to look across the road towards her own house. Maggie’s heart all but stops a moment. She flushes and plucks unconsciously at the crucifix around her neck, but now old Ma McGinty is opening the door, pulling her crocheted shawl around her to keep out the cold. He turns back, then nods and steps inside. Maggie can breathe again. Mrs Kelly makes a small coughing noise. Aware, all at once, of the other woman’s gaze upon her, Maggie suffers the mortification of blood rising to her cheeks.“Sure, but we’re all going to burn in Hell over that one,” says Mrs Kelly in a low voice.
Maggie Doyle is all aquiver. It has been seven years since Mr Doyle last laid his hands upon her, and even longer since she had felt anything like the itch of even the most pedestrian desire for his pallid body. Every night they sleep like strangers in their barren marital bed, conjugal duty abandoned, the scornful reproach of her empty womb as effective an inhibitor to her husband’s feeble libido, as any bromide. But here, right now, in the Catholic Women’s Union meeting in the draughty parish hall, she is all on fire, and fire such as no demon in Hell could contrive for her torment. Maggie swallows and gasps for breath when Father John’s fingers brush against her own, as he helps himself to tea and ginger snaps. She is wicked, shameful, wanton, she tells herself and digs her fingernails into her palm in penitence. But she wants him all the same, and the conviction of her contrition is as empty as the church’s poor box.
Father John can hardly be immune to such passion and feels the spark. He has a gentle way with him, with that wistful smile and deep blue eyes that penetrate a woman’s very soul. Brought up on the Beatles and sixties’ liberalism, he is a modern Catholic – all love and no condemnation. He sees how the flowers of a woman’s middle years blossom unappreciated, like lilies growing by the side of a busy highway. It cannot but touch his heart. He has so much love to give, and Mrs Doyle wants so much to take it. If God is love, then how can love be sin?
Sheltered in the rosy bower of the faded bedroom wallpaper, Maggie holds her holy lover between her legs and groans. Yet even as she approaches the climax of her ecstasy, her mind is on the sinful sheets that she will have to wash anew, though there are still another five days till washing day. Every Wednesday afternoon, when he has dressed and gone, and the bed is cold, she cannot help but shed a tear of grief. It never fails to break her heart to see the stains of wasted life that mar the white perfection of her immaculately laundered linen. Maggie wants to be filled with love. She wants a child. His child. It is not too late. So, this afternoon, when he groans then starts to pull away from her, she clasps him all the more closely to her arching body and he cannot break free.
Three Mondays later, Maggie Doyle sorts through the weekly wash with a secret smile. She dreams of matinee coats and bibs with yellow ducks. There are some things that cannot be washed away and lost. Things that grow and thrive inside, long after the moment of passion is over. Maggie knew long before she missed the familiar bloody stain upon her sensible Marks and Spencer’s cotton briefs, knew, that her prayers had been answered.
Father John does not visit anymore. Angry over the seed she stole from him and frightened for his reputation and career, he keeps his profile low and faces God and Father O’Brien’s wrath in the confessional one Friday morning just before Pentecost. His desertion had stung her deeply at first, but Maggie, seated beside her frigid husband in the wooden pew on Sunday morning, is a study in impassivity. She does not need him now. “The wages of Sin,” Father O’Brien reminds the congregation, “are death”. Yet, she knows that the wages of love are life, new, miraculous life. She feels it throbbing through her veins and surging throughout her organs like aqua vitae. Her soul is whole and bright. No more will she run it thin through the mangle of repentance. She gazes into the Blessed Virgin Mother’s face and for the first time in her life, understands the secret rapture in those lowered eyes.
For six months Declan Doyle wears his cuckold’s horns with sullen rage. Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. But God had the sense never to get himself married.He bites his lip and eats his joyless dinner as usual, yet his eyes follow his wife with stifled loathing.Maggie rises above it on her cloud of bliss, yet his hatred seeps out, filling up the house; a subtle poison that makes her unborn child stiffen and writhe inside her. When Maggie starts to show, vows or no vows, he can take no more. He packs his bag and calls a taxi. Then clutching a bottle of whiskey, he heads home to Mammy, cowering on the back seat of the cab to avoid the gossiping eyes.
Father John can’t look at Maggie Doyle. Can’t bear to see the fruit of his loins as it swells and burgeons inside the softness of that body, which had so recently been his exclusive domain. He busies himself with parish business and avoids her whenever he ventures out to tender to the needs of his sick and ailing flock. But it is Father John who is sick at heart and sick of soul, and even as his former lover blooms, his handsome looks and manly graces seem to fade, like tall grasses in the summer’s drought.
On Friday 13th, at ten-fifteen in the damp October morning and six whole weeks before her time, Maggie’s waters break. She packs an overnight bag. Her turn now to call a taxi. The back seat of the shabby Ford Escort reeks of curry, beer and stale tobacco. Struggling not to gag, she doubles up in a sudden spasm of agony. The waves of pain from her first contractions crash down upon her, like the Red Sea upon the Pharaoh’s men. She fixes her eyes on the Saint Christopher’s medallion which dangles from the rear-view mirror. She prays that the kindly man who bore the little Lord to safety so long ago will bear her unborn child to safety now.
Arriving, at last, at St Jude’s Hospital for Women, she hobbles down the echoing corridor to the maternity suite, alone and for the first time, afraid. It is too soon, far too soon, but the child is coming now and nothing can stop it.
The labour room is sanitized of germs and comfort, save for a wooden crucifix hanging on the wall. Maggie pants and moans, and calls upon Our Lady to deliver her, but the Virgin has closed her ears and closed her heart. Perhaps the wages of sin are Hell, after all, pondersMaggiewretchedly, as lost in her own private Purgatory, she strains and burns.
At last, just as she fears she must surely die, the infant tears free of her sullied flesh, pure and new, and ready to scream. Maggie falls back upon the sweat-soaked pillows. She smiles and sighs then holds out her waiting arms. But the midwife and the doctor hesitate, huddling together around the child and whispering in hushed voices.
“My child, my darling babby,” pleads Maggie, arms still outstretched. The midwife turns, exchanges an anxious glance with her colleague, then places the hopelessly tiny infant on his mother’s breast. Maggie stares into his unfocused eyes then holds him aloft for inspection, half with fear and half with admiration. From his back protrudes a pair of tiny wings, perfectly formed and covered in the purest white down.
“It’s a miracle,” gasps Maggie Doyle, clutching him to her swelling heart, “God has granted me a miracle!”
“Abomination!” cries Father O’Brien and almost flings himself out of the pulpit with the force of his rancour, the following Sunday. Tongues, even the most Christian, will wag and by this time the news has reached all but the most isolated hermit in the tiny town of Ennisgowan. Filled with zealous piety, he spits out Hellfire and Damnation upon his trembling congregation and shakes his fist in the face of Satan. He will be damned himself before he sees such a creature baptized. Such an affront to decency and Our Lady’s Holy Church. It simply shall not be countenanced.
Father John sits cowed within the chancel, beset by demons of his own. He prays to the Virgin Mother for guidance, but his path has never seemed so unclear. If the Father Almighty, in His wisdom, can forgive him because he makes his confession, then how can He see outcast for all eternity, his little son? “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children!” roars Father O’Brien, as if in answer to his thoughts. But how can a father obey his duty to his church by forsaking the soul of his child, wonders Father John. And, in the end, it is John Lennon’s words, which lighten his darkness: “All You Need is Love.”
Word travels far and fast. Outside the hospital, in defiance of the ugliness of such unfettered hatred, a small but growing throng of parishioners gather together in the evening drizzle to hold a candlelight vigil for the infant angel within. Maggie cannot see them, but she hears their hymns of faith and hope and for a moment at least, her spirits soar on the wings of their song.
But her hope cannot be sustained. Another Monday morning dawns. Back in the maternity ward, Maggie Doyle’s child lies struggling for its very life, the weight of mortal flesh all too onerous a burden for so delicate a soul. The doctors, recognizing only near unviable prematurity and congenital defect, can offer no hope for salvation in medical intervention. It had been tacitly agreed; they must let nature take its course. He is in God’s hands now.
A thousand miles away, the Roman dawn steals stealthily across St. Peters Square and in through the leaded windows of the Vatican. High up among the stucco rafters of the great hall, Michelangelo’s Adam exchanges glances with his creator once again, as the miracle of the new day unfolds.
In a gloomy side office, the ageing pontiff and his advisors have been deep in discussion since the early hours of the morning. The rosy finger of light that reaches around the corner of the curtains and prods them gently on the shoulders reminds them that time is marching forward. The weary pontiff sighs and buries his face in his ancient hands. A storm is brewing and the Holy Church must move quickly and surely. How could a miracle spring forth out of sin; good proceed from evil? Yet, Christ himself consorted with the harlot Magdalene and made saints out of tax collectors. By his works shall ye know him. The world seems so complicated now, and his flock so desperate to seek a sign. The Holy Father looks up and meets the eye of his special advisor, who bends to whisper in the papal ear. “We must use this child, one way or another,” hisses Cardinal Salvatore. One thing is for sure; they must lose no time in viewing this infant and making a full and thorough assessment.
In the early hours of the next day, in her lonely side room, an anguished Maggie lays her fading infant in the cot beside her bed. Another feeble feed. She would drain the last drop of life-blood from her very arteries if that is what it would take to sustain him, but all she can do is sit in helpless watch. Time drags by. She tries to read a magazine, but she cannot wrest her attention from her sleeping child. How peaceful he seems. How blissfully unaware of the mortal danger that lies in wait to prey upon his little soul.
At eight o’clock, as Maggie pushes away an untouched breakfast tray, Father John appears, as if in answer to her most desperate prayer. He wears his cassock, but as soon as he is done, he will discard his priestly garb forever and take the next boat to the mainland. Finding only hate and fear where he had hoped to find love, he has cast himself adrift in a sea of doubt. But first, he has one last priestly office to perform. No words are exchanged, as Father John takes out the precious flask of holy water from his cassock pocket and anoints the diminutive head of his child. In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. His eyes are lit by tenderness as the infant wakens, stretches wide its perfect wings, and smiles. For all that he had hardened his heart, Father John cannot but feel it soften and swell within his breast. “We must call him Gabriel,” he says, squeezing Maggie’s hand, “Our little angel”.
At peace, at last, Maggie Doyle slips gratefully into sleep, her anxious face smooth and young again in repose. Father John watches over mother and child for a moment, then dropping a kiss upon her brow with a “God Bless you, Margaret,” takes leave from Ennisgowan forever.
Late in the afternoon, Cardinal Salvatore, straight off the earliest Rome-to-Dublin flight, arrives at the hospital and wastes no time in idle conversation. “Get him out of here!”, screams Maggie, as he descends upon her infant, with all the dark menace of the Spanish Inquisition. And the doctor is obliged to prescribe sedation before she is herself again. But fear is set bone-deep in Maggie Doyle’s Catholic being and to stand against the Holy Roman Father, friendless and alone, demands more courage than she can muster.
By early eveningshe concedes to the inspection, on condition that she remain present and that the infant is not physically touched. Cardinal Salvatore assumes his most pious smile. Maggie takes a deep breath, picks up her sleeping baby, then gently folds back his blanket to reveal the downy protrusions between his little shoulders. The Holy Father’s right-hand man all but gasps. This child could certainly pose a threat to the moral order. He stares deep into Maggie’s eyes, hoping to see a sign of Satan’s touch. Maggie shudders and hastily re-wrapping her infant, holds him tightly to her as if he were already slipping out of her grasp. But the inquisition is over. For now. The Cardinal bows and leaves without a word. There is much to ponder, and supper awaits him back in the rectory with Father O’Brien. He crosses himself and makes a silent supplication. God spare him from Irish spaghetti Bolognese.
The following day, barely the sixth of his short and precious life, the little angel takes a deep sigh and expires. Maggie cradles the tiny, lifeless body in her arms and rocks, moaning softly to herself. She knows that Cardinal Salvatore is waiting, rubbing his hands. Waiting to dissect her beautiful child, to lay it out like a biology specimen and pick over his remains like a great black carrion crow. To label and name, judge and condemn. She can’t let it happen. But what can one woman do against the might of the Holy Roman Church?
And she is right. On receiving the news, The Cardinal places a long-distance call direct to The Holy Father. The truth must be established. The myth of a deceased angel, the offspring of the most sinful of unions, could prove even more dangerous than the reality of a living one. Had it survived, in time, its flawed humanity would surely have betrayed its freakishness. Dead – well, there is no end to the power of such a symbol, should word of it spread. “It is imperative that we undertake the post-mortem, Your Holiness,” he whispers into the receiver, “it is imperative that we take control.”
Sister Angela wears a grey wimple in place of a nurse’s cap and exemplifies that rare and simple faith, which is fast disappearing in this complicated world. Orderly, yet kind, she nods sympathetically when Maggie begs for one final hour more alone with her baby, her darling child. She closes the blinds on the door on the way out. Sure, if ever a soul needed privacy, it would be now.
Alone in the shadowed silence, Maggie Doyle knows what she has to do. She only prays she has the strength to do it.
When Sister Angela returns and softly opens the door the promised half-hour later, she screams and faints dead away to the whirling linoleum floor. Maggie sits, mute and unresponsive, amid the blood-soaked sheets, red-stained down sticking to her mouth and chin. Like a feral cat that eats her offspring, she has devoured her lifeless infant, blood and bone, flesh and feather.
For twelve long hours, Maggie remains cocooned within her catatonia, silent and as unmoving as the statue of the Virgin in the deserted hospital chapel. The doctors shake their heads and sigh, they must simply bide their time, but the prognosis seems bleak.
The next morning, as dawn breaks, Maggie Doyle sits suddenly upright in her bed. Staring blankly ahead of her, she swings her feet mechanically onto the floor then walks the somnambulist’s walk to the sink, where she takes the bar of hospital soap and crams it into her mouth. She gags and splutters, foams and spits, and works the soap until all that remains is suds and lather. But, all the soap in the Emerald Isle will not suffice to wash away the stain of her infant’s blood from her mouth or the salty tang of his flesh from her tongue.