My Name is Jane
written by Christine Unger
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|Aside from the fortuneteller's peacock box, the guy who wanted to find his birth mother, the one actually footing my bill here, would need something to chew on soon. There was no better place to look for foundlings than places of worship - their great solid walls had once offered much needed sanctuary to unwed mothers and my client was of an age that his mother, living in a conservative Catholic community in French Canada might well have gone to one for help. Best of all, most of them kept impeccable records, thought getting them to share was never easy.
Instinct guided me to the Sister’s of Saint Anne (Congrégation de Souers Sainte-Anne). Always conservative I nevertheless dressed down, pulling my hair back into a pony-tail I put on a pair of ugly pleated grey pants and a sweater that buttoned to the top of my throat. I dawned a pair of glasses with oversized Nana Maskouri frames that cemented the impression of unfashionableness and as a finishing touch I put on the simple silver cross my mother had given me along with my first bible. I stopped at the local library and found books on environment and genetics and photocopied a stack that looked sufficiently intimidating. I scribbled notes into the sides. roughed up the edges of the paper and created some strategic coffee rings. Dumping the contents of my clients binder onto my back seat I replaced them with my psuedo-science study copies and even added a few cookie crumbs for effect. I picked up a clip board and pen at the local stationery store as well as a name tag clip. My ensemble was complete.
I found their residence at the centre of of town. Maison Sainte-Esther had been built in the 1920's. To my architecturally untrained eyes it’s square portions and grand multi-tiered porches made it look like it would be more comfortable in New Orleans than Northern Quebec.
I found it endearing and altogether telling of the Quebecois nature that they loved to build for an outdoor life. Their refusal to submit to the demands of nature and the realities of a winter that stretched over 6 months of the year had instead led them to embrace summer with frenetic energy. Outdoor festivals abounded, outdoor cafe’s clogged the streets, making them all but impassable, the per-capita expenditure on “piscine” far surpassed that of any other province.
The overall impression was unquestionably more inviting than the great stone bastions of catholicism that abounded across the quebec landscape. It looked less like a church than an oversized B&B. Had I been an unwed mother in the 1940s I might very well have brought my little bastard to this doorstep.
I had decided to pose as a researcher from a small university looking for a test group for the study of the environmental effects on longevity in Northern climates. Nuns were generally great for such studies as they lived such regulated and isolated lives many of the complex interactions that had to be accounted for in the general population could be largely discounted among the residents of monasteries and convents.
In general, I like to be as honest as possible with the people I encounter in my investigations, it’s just easier to remember, especially if I had to go back for anything, but nuns are a particularly wary group. Church policy did not welcome investigations into parentage, or in fact, anything to do with children. The scandals that abounded throughout Quebec relating to child abuse at the hands of nuns, and priests had made them extremely wary of any sort of investigator. I was prepared for summary rebuff, particularly if any of the sisters were well educated in the sciences. Before becoming a private investigator I’d made a small income doing odd bits of research for university professors so I had a little background, but I could never pull this off with someone who really knew the field. I knew I would really have to rely on luck as much as planning. It made me just uncomfortable enough to look like the lower rung, grunt-work graduate student I was pretending to be.
So guess what, I got lucky. I looked so pitiable the nuns invited me in. Sitting me down with a cup of tea and an excellent tarte tatine, they let me lay out my project which I did with great earnestness. I revealed my hopes to contribute valuable information that could lead to cures for everything from multiple sclerosis to acne. They smiled hesitantly and tentatively offered a second piece of pie with the BIG question on the side. Would they have to participate in anything ‘improper’? No no I reassured them. I would have them fill out simple forms about their diet and their health, there would be blood tests I apologized, but once all the information was gathered, a generous donation would be made to the church. But, to begin with I would need to look at the records of their residence to see if they were eligible at all, to ensure that they met a minimal standard of outside interference. I was genuinely surprised when they agreed and promised myself that I would, in fact, offer up the information I found to Sophia, a friend and former client who actually worked in the field. Inwardly I did a little two-step.
Sister Agathe waved to a nun who I had noticed hovering to one side throughout the meeting. She moved quickly to welcome me, hand outstretched, her smile timid but penetrating. Her quizzical gaze suggested she had something important to say - I couldn’t imagine what.
“Sister Martine, could you please show Miss Schulze to the archives.” Sister Agathe turned to me with a reassuring smile, “I’m sure you’ll find everything you need and Sister Martine will be able to help you, she’s our best librarian.”
I nodded my thanks and let Sister Martine guide me down the impeccably clean, bare hallway and down a flight of stairs to a large basement area. Once there she closed the door behind us. Looking around she grasped my arm tightly, almost painfully.
“You must help me!” she whispered urgently.
I was completely taken aback. Could there really be so much going on in this little town! Maybe Fourier was right. The more remote the more inwardly rotten and peculiar things became. I pulled away gently but firmly.
Sister Martine reached deep into a pockets of her habit and pulled out an astonishing photo. Sister Martine stood next to another nun. They were posed in front of the convent on a sunny spring day, smiling broadly with arms companionably around each other. It was a shock, someone less likely to be a nun I couldn’t imagine. How on earth had this goddess ended up here? on any sidewalk she’d be a show stopper. She was slim, and standing next to sister Martine who was about my height, I’d guess her to about about 6 feet tall. Snow White, I thought, what woodsman brought you to live with these dwarves. Below fine sweeping brows her dark eyes were luminous as a clear summer night, so dark, in fact that the pupil and iris seemed a single entity.
“Mon amis, my great friend, Joy. She is missing,” said Sister Martine. “No one here will report it. I am forbidden to do anything. They all believe she ran off with a man. But now I see something. Can you help me. I only want to be sure she is alright, if she’s run away, I cannot blame her but in my heart I think she is dead.”
“Why do you think she is dead?” I exclaimed.
Ssssh, they will hear us… she whispered, It was only a few days ago I see this in the paper. She held out the article about Jane in the local newspaper. Look, look close, there on the right. you see er hands, er arms, this is the hands and arms of Joy. When she left, her voice dropped further, trembling, I thought too, she left us for the man, his wife was gone and she seem so happy, we even find out she has a brother. She come to me in the night and smile and say everything would be good now. But then, she doesn’t write, she doesn’t call. It is not like him. When I talk to the others here, the ones who came later, after they have life outside, they all say the same. They say this is how it is outside, this is what happens to people in the world, the world takes their hearts and squeezes out the kindness. Forget, they say. And I try… I was wrong, I should have trust my feelings. Now I see this.” She rubbed the image with her fingers as if she could erase the evidence with sheer force.
“I know you are here for something other,” she said. “I study the science before I come here and still, I read a lot. This study you make, it cannot work here. We are too much in the town. You help me and I will help you. Bien?” she said pleadingly but with a pitiful attempt at sounding menacing.
We both knew she’d never out me, but I was already on the case. It took us less than half an hour to find out that my actual client had been born here, in Val-David. Both parents were killed in a car crash on route 117 in February 1978, a particularly cold and icy winter, and the grandparents, already elderly then and overwhelmed with grief, no doubt, had brought the child here at the suggestion of their priest-a quick search showed both grandparents were now deceased, the grandmother just this year at the grand age of 101, with no other family listed. I considered this a happy ending for my client. In my experience, reunions tended to bring more pain and confusion than anything. With the information I had for him he could set his mind at rest and if so inclined, could pursue his rights as a beneficiary if his grandmother had left anything behind, he’d even be able to find out his medical history. I stuffed a thick sheaf of photocopies and print out into my binder. I almost crossed myself with relief. I’d been feeling rather guilty about my client. This had been so easy I almost felt God had had something to do with it.
Sister Martine tugged my sleeve, maybe it was a nun thing, the no talking must make sleeve tugging a lot more common. In hushed tones she laid out what she knew about Joy and suddenly, pieces started coming together.