Beatsie had told her heaven would not have any snow, but as if to contradict the dying woman, the sky emptied its snow and silenced the city on that final afternoon, just a footstep into the new-year, as heavy flakes danced around the window and the roar of streetcars on Roncesvalles were muffled. The dulling of the sound reminded Mrs. Mueller of the reverence shown to Verdi by the people of Paris as the composer lay dying. The Parisians spread straw in the streets so Verdi would not hear the sounds of the city during his final hours. Snow was a small mercy. On the day Mrs. Mueller buried Beatsie Anderson, a girl who had died in her arms at the age of twenty-two, she prayed a simple prayer for the departed. She asked that the girl not feel the cold anymore.
“Cold,” thought Mrs. Mueller “does not care. It does not care for the living and it cares less for the helpless and the dying.”
“I should change your nightgown soon, you are soaked you poor thing,” Mrs. Mueller said softly as she stood and turned to the stack of nighties she had gathered.
“No snow for me, Ma.”
The sweats were growing worse and worse and they were going through six to eight changes in an afternoon. Even with the fire Mrs. Mueller had laid in the tiny hearth in the corner of the nursemaid’s chamber, the room was not warm enough to keep the patient from shaking to the point of convulsion from the chills. Cold kept seeping through windowpanes, and the snow crushed itself against the glass and crowded in the corners of every pane to peer in at the spectacle of dying.
“If heaven is like being brought home then carry her home,” Mrs. Mueller prayed under her breath.
“No?” Mrs. Mueller asked pointing to the glass of water by the bed as she squeezed out another cool cloth to ease Beatsie’s fever and placed it on the dying woman’s forehead.
“No, Ma,” Beatsie replied quietly with an effort to shake her head back and forth.
The Coroner’s man had come through streets constricted with snow, and the stranded carts and cars looks as if they were held hostage along the boulevard. Mrs. Mueller opened the front door not to greet him as much as to accept him. He was followed by another, thinner man, whose face was grey and dour and planted with a small grey moustache above his mouth. Both men stood gravely beside Beatsie’s thin black body and looked at the woman’s hands folded over her chest as if she was still trying to warm herself.
“Dr. Palmer has provided a death certificate stating that it was consumption,” Mrs. Mueller said handing the document to the grey man.
“Why did you let someone with tuberculosis into your house and into the children’s nursery? She should have been in a sanitarium. You were taking a very big risk, Mrs. Mueller. The books that the children have left behind must be burned.” She had not thought of removing the books, only their toys. And yes, they would have to be burned.
“She didn’t have the money. She came here to die because it was the only home she had known in this country. Sir, I owe that woman an act of charity. She was a good soul. She brought light into my home”.
“Charity can be a dangerous thing,” said the Coroner’s man, as he stood and handed the copy of the death certificate to Mrs. Mueller. “No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. Please make sure you give this to….” His voice trailed off.
“Fitzgibbons and Harvey,” she interjected. The Coroner’s man frowned.
“You’re giving this black woman, obviously a domestic, an expensive funeral?”
Mrs. Mueller’s chin withdrew into her neck in shock. “Yes,” she said. “She was one of our family.”
As they shuffled out of the death room, the man with the small moustache paused at the door to an anteroom off what had been the old nursery. He stared at the tiny bed inside it, shook his head, pulled a note pad from his pocket and said flatly, “I will return after the funeral.”
None of Mrs. Mueller’s friends came for the visitation at Fitzgibbon and Harvey. The undertaker kept asking Mrs. Mueller if she really wanted to do this or that, because after all the deceased was who she was and no one wanted to have anything to do with a domestic. Mrs. Mueller looked the undertaker in the eye and said that she never wanted to hear the words ‘after all’ used in connection with Beatsie or Beatsie’s funeral, and as everything was being paid for he was obliged to do his best to follow her requests.
“You would do that for anyone,” she had said to him with a scolding look in her eye.
When she returned home from the funeral, her husband was in the snow-trampled yard that had once been a rose garden. He was standing beside a fire he had built in one of the metal trash cans kept by the side of the house. Into the greedy yellow fingers that flicked and reached into the afternoon sky, he tossed, one by one, the brightly covered books from the old nursery. Her heart sank. Her children’s childhood was over. The world they lived in through those books and stories as their guide to the imagination would never come again. Her husband put his hand up against the flames to warm himself, but the way she saw it through the frosty kitchen window he was attempting to hold back the fire.
“Yes,” she thought, “hold it back as long as you can. Everything changes.”
The men from the city would be coming to take away the last gift of Beatsie, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The bastards were cold. They were colder than the body of her young friend on that final day when Beatsie had shuddered in her arms, closed her eyes, and ceased to wish for the warm sands and seas of her native Barbados.
From the day Beatsie had left to the day of her return when Mrs. Mueller found the nursemaid curled up on her front porch, clutching a small parcel as if the universe was attempting to tear it from her arms, the world had come apart.
The large, stately Mueller home with its staff of cook, butler, two maids, and the children’s nanny had been broken up into a rooming house. The staff had been dismissed. The rooming house and the children were just too many things to look after, and Mrs. Mueller had tired and begun to grow frail. The member her household that she missed the most was Beatsie. She had been the best nursemaid the children had ever had, a true companion for Mueller brood.
In comparison with the others, Beatsie had been a saint. Frau Mittemeyer had not worked out. She had shaken Wilbert to tears and bruises one day as Mrs. Mueller walked into the nursery, and although the German woman – her husband’s choice for a governess – had protested and explained vehemently why she was hurting the boy, Mrs. Mueller would have no part of her child being treated like a rag doll. She issued Frau Mittemeyer’s dismissal on the spot.
“It was all a plot by young Wilbert,” Frau Mittemeyer shouted as she carried her bags down the stairs to the front door.
Mrs. Mueller calmly replied, “you have ten minutes to collect your things before I call the police.”
Frau Mittemeyer turned as she stood on the threshold. “I place a curse on you and whoever will follow me. Your house will be nothing. Your family will have hardship. My successor will burn alive!” Mrs. Mueller closed the door on the raving German woman.
The next morning, after a harrowing evening of bathing the children and struggling through a very restless bedtime story, she summoned Walter, her eldest who wanted to be a soldier to impress his father and who always dressed in a navy wool suit with jodhpurs flaring from his hips. He was followed into the room by Wilma, the only daughter who never missed an opportunity to argue with her, and whose christened name was Wilhelmina in honor of the Kaiser. Wilbert, the middle child whose specialty was tricks and taking alarm clocks apart with a screwdriver, peered around the door and was invited in. He waved a hand behind him and beckoned William, the youngest – the only one who did not have a German name. She lined the children up beside her writing desk.
“Children, she said, I am going to find you a new nanny.”
“Will she read to us,” asked William? “Frau Mittemeyer did not believe in stories.”
“I hope so,” said Mrs. Mueller.
By the day’s end she had been to the offices of several domestic agencies and reviewed the files of a number of candidates. Their statements all sounded too stern for the children.
“I need someone who is dreamy but reasonably educated,” she insisted to the managers of the agencies. “The children need to use this time in their lives to explore their imaginations.”
“I have one person,” offered the manager of the last agency, “but she is a cleaner. She is from Barbados.”
“Let me see her file,” said Mrs. Mueller, and on inspection said to him, “yes, please send her around.”
The young woman entered Mrs. Mueller’s study tentatively the next day, curtsied to her possible employer, and then fidgeted slightly with her hands before tugging at the thin grey cardigan around her shoulders.
“Thank you, Ma,” she said nervously for no particular reason.
“Thank you? I’m not sure for what. And please, you don’t have to curtsy. I am not titled, and I am not royalty, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I am your mother.”
“Yes, Ma,” said the woman again only to check herself and put her hand up to her mouth.
“It says here you were educated in Barbados.”
“Yes, I went to a Bejan school. It was run by an English woman. She corrected my speech and taught me proper things including my love of reading.”
“What brought you to Canada? Were you in someone’s employ?”
“I worked for an English family who brought me here. I didn’t have to come. He was with a steamship company, Cunard, but I told them I wanted to see snow, so they brought me. They asked if I would go to England when he returned there. I asked what England was like, and they say rainy, but I said no, I have seen lots of rain and hurricanes, so I decided to stay here.”
Mrs. Mueller turned in her chair and studied her. “The last nanny we had was not kind to the children. My husband hired her. He has this idea that everyone on the household staff has to be German. I do not like Germans. They turned the world upside down a few years ago and they have bad tempers. So, you are Beatrice, Miss?”
“Beatrice, but everyone call me Beatsie. I mean, everyone calls me Beatsie.”
“Well, Beatsie, my husband is not German. He is from Missouri. He and his brother own a manufacturing firm here in Toronto. They may have been German somewhere back in their family tree, but they are really Americans, and I don’t think he understood what he got himself in for during the war when he paraded his German-ness around town. This is a city where everyone holds something against everyone else – ancestry, money, opportunity, and yes race – and the bigger you make the perceived ill, the more people pick at it and attack it. I have money which came from my family who have been here about a century. I am not going to pay another German nanny. I will, however, pay a Canadian one. I don’t believe in being anything other than who you are, the person you are, and I am trying to raise my children to believe that. You’re here. That’s who you are, and if you are a good person then that is who you are. So, as far as I am concerned, you are a Canadian. I would like you to meet the children.”
Together the two women climbed the stairs to the nursery. On the way, they passed two of maids who had been cleaning the second floor. Mrs. Mueller raised the locket from her neck to huff on it and polish it, then looked at the reflection behind her to see the two women – Fraulein Hempel and Fraulein Schell – lean into each other, whisper, and shake their heads. They were whispering something about a black woman having no place in the house.
“I heard that,” Mrs. Mueller called without looking around. “Back to work, you two. No more of that talk.”
As Beatsie and Mrs. Mueller stood at the door of the nursery, the children looked up from their toys. Walter, the oldest, was propped in a corner with his toy soldiers. Wilma was kneeling beside a small table set for tea with her dolls. Wilbert was working the gears on his sandy-andy, and William sat in a beam of light looking up from the floor with a great smile on his face. This is Beatsie, your new nanny. Walter stood up at attention and saluted.
“Why are you standing so stiff like that,” Beatsie asked?
“I am going to be a soldier,” Walter said, and snapped his salute down to his side. Wilma looked Beatsie up and down and decided that the thin grey cardigan over the black dress was drab and that there must be a terrible sadness in her that made her wear such plain clothes. Perhaps that sadness was her weakness.
“Your hair is puffy,” said Wilbert. Beatsie laughed.
“All my family have puffy hair.”
“Are you from Africa,” inquired Walter?
“No. I am from an island where it is warm and where the sun shines all day through the palm trees. It is a place like heaven.
“Were you sad to leave,” asked Wilma?
“No.” Beatsie smiled.
William stood up and wrapped his arms around Beatsie’s knees. “I want to go to heaven someday.”
“If you all are good you will,” was the last thing Mrs. Mueller heard as she slipped away from the nursery and went downstairs to the correspondence and bills on her desk. That night, just as the children were closing their eyes, she returned to the nursery and was about to enter the room when she stopped to listen to the sound of soft singing. The voice was flowing and melodic. It made Mrs. Mueller think of starlight, and her eyes welled with tears at the beauty of the song.
Soon singing was heard throughout the house, though Mrs. Mueller could seldom recognize the tunes. Often, they had a lilting waltz rhythm to them with the beat slightly off where it should be. She stopped Wilma as the child ran by her study door and asked what it was she was humming. “It is cal…calypso. Beatsie taught us.”
Mrs. Mueller sent the maid upstairs for Wilbert and the boy dutifully came to attention beside his mother’s desk. He fidgeted, thumbing through a stack of papers, and then fiddling with the lamp.
“How has Beatsie been to you so far?”
“Good,” he said.
“Has she been kind?”
“Oh yes,” replied Wilbert, clearing his throat out of habit whenever he spoke.
“She said she would have you reading.”
“Yes. We’ve almost gone through the entire bookcase.”
“What has been your favorite so far?”
“The one about the Pirates! Treasure of the Pirates’ Cove.”
“You liked that did you?”
“Momma, it is not half as good as Beatsie’s stories about pirates.”
“Yes. Her stories are so real. She says they are beige stories about the island where she grew up.”
“Beige? Perhaps she meant Bejan, Wilbert. The word is Bejan. Has she told you much about her island?”
“Oh, yes. It has palm trees. The sunlight, the sand and the water are so bright it hurts your eyes like something so beautiful you can’t stand to look at it. Were the pirates good people or bad people? Beatsie says they were people who had to make a living and they could have been bankers or lawyers or anyone who had to eat, and we all have to eat, but they shared their bread so people would not go hungry.”
“Really? I hope she has told you that pirates steal, and it is wrong to steal and wrong to be greedy.”
“Beatsie, says that boys and girls should not be greedy and that the way to make sure we don’t grow up to be pirates is to share what we have and find joy in doing it.”
“Thank you for sharing that, Wilbert”, replied Mrs. Mueller.
As he turned to go, Wilbert stopped. “Momma, is there a reason why Beatsie wears grey and black?”
“Well dear, black is the proper thing for nannies to wear. I shall buy her a new cardigan rather than that thin grey thing she wears.”
“Buy her a yellow one, Momma, because she says the sun is her favorite thing and the sun is yellow.”
“I shall dear. I shall.” And as her son left the room, the light from beyond the window expanded across the carpet and the study was filled with wave after wave of brightness. Mrs. Mueller realized it was the first day of spring.
Walter had moved out of the nursery the previous month, followed by Wilma and Wilbert. Only William remained. He had been offered his own room on the second floor but refused to leave. He loved Beatsie and he would only go to sleep when he knew she was in the adjoining room.
One night when Beatsie thought that William was asleep, she heard him call to her. The nursery window was open to the summer night and the white curtains fluttered gently in the breeze. She had told him not to be afraid of them when he saw them in the shadows, and she told him a story how the wind carried angels who were watching over him.
“I don’t feel well,” the child confided.
Beatsie rose from her bed and slipped on the yellow cardigan that had become the symbol of her regime in the nursery. The boy was burning up.
“I tried and tried,” William said, “but when they were riding their bicycles today. I just couldn’t keep up. My tricycle is far too small, and their bikes have big wheels. My legs wouldn’t work.”
Mrs. Mueller was summoned, and a doctor was sent for. Dr. Palmer diagnosed the illness as rheumatic fever. He told Mrs. Mueller that her child would probably not live another week. Day after day William slept silently, his breathing labored.
“If he survives he will grow up to have heart trouble,” Dr. Palmer said, shaking his head and packing his stethoscope in the jaws of a black leather bag. “The boy doesn’t have a fighting chance.”
Mrs. Mueller prayed. She found among her most valuable possessions a rosary that she had not looked at since marrying Mr. Mueller and turning her back on the mother church. She prayed to a little picture of St. Therese of Lisieux a nun had given her. The family waited for the terrible news to come down from the third floor. The days were stifling from a heatwave, and anyone who dared venture up to the nursery said that it was an oven up there.
In the cool one night, William woke from his long sleep. His fever had broken. He told his mother he had a bad dream during the sickness. Beatsie appeared to him out of a cloud and chased away the bad things by waving her yellow sweater at them. In one dream, just before his fever broke, he saw Beatsie walking along a beach, guiding a small black-clad nun toward the place where he was lying in the sand. The little nun had sat down beside him with Beatsie and spoke to him.
“There, there,” the little nun said. “It will be alright. You’ll see. I heard your mother calling me. And Beatsie made her way through the darkness to bring me to you.”
When William told his story, Mrs. Mueller went to her room and returned with the image of St. Therese.
“Is this the little nun?”
William nodded. She held the gold-framed image cradled as if an injured bird in the palm of her hand.
“You must thank the beautiful little saint,” she said. “I prayed to her and she saved your life.”
“I know, Momma,” William replied with great certainty. “I met her in my story.”
“Momma, Beatsie told me a story about her.”
“She told me that you and Beatsie and St. Therese were there to protect me when I was sickest. In the story, a boy was bitten by a snake that had curled itself around a palm tree where the bramble meets the beach. The boy thought he was going to die, but a voice he could not see that sounded like music in his ears told him he could make the story end they way he wanted. So the boy went to a deep blue pool in the forest and saw his face reflected in the water, and it was my face, Momma, it was my face, and I washed it because I wanted to be cool, and with that I woke up. You and Beatsie and the saint were gone, but I started to feel better, and the drapes were fluttering around the windows as if they were alive with angels, dancing and laughing. And I wasn’t afraid because Beatsie told me that stories can end any way we want them to. Do you know what I mean, Momma? I wanted the story to end with me getting better, and I am.”
Mrs. Mueller stared at her child. Then she bent down to the bed and hugged him.
Later that night as she lay awake in the humidity, her mind kept telling her that Beatsie was filling her children with fantasies and fairy tales that in the end would only become lies. Stories never end the way we want them to because we don’t have control over such things. Sooner or later all the children would have to face reality and know that Beatsie was simply lying to them and masking the pain and sadness of the world. Yet, for all she reasoned about the hardships of life, something in her heart kept calling to her that it was true, it was true, it is always true.
September came and William and began school. There seemed little reason to keep a nanny in the house with the children off to their studies and friends. Beatsie must have known it was time to move on because just before Christmas, with the house decked out for the holidays and construction paper letters hung from the ceiling of the hall announcing Happy 1929 that the children had made, Beatsie came home from her day off and knocked on Mrs. Mueller’s study door.
“Ma,” she said, “I have met a fellah and I am in love with him. I am sorry I have not told you until now, but I did not want you to think that I was a woman of easy virtue. His name is Frank. He works on the lake steamers and his home is in Chicago. He wants me to come and marry him for New Years. I am asking that you receive my resignation.”
The two women stared at each other and then burst into tears. Mrs. Mueller stood and hugged Beatsie and told her how happy she was for her, and what a great mother she would make having had practice on the four Mueller children. Beatsie embraced her tighter. “I feel as if I can never leave you,” she sighed through her laughter and her sobs. “Ma, I don’t know how to tell the children.
Mrs. Mueller took Beatsie’s hands and sat her down in the chair beside her desk. “You have done so much for my children. You have been a mother to them.” Beatsie wanted to interrupt, but Mrs. Mueller continued. “No, no, let me finish. You have been the love in their lives that I wanted to give them but my weak heart will not permit. You have given me more years to live than I probably would have had after I nearly died from my last pregnancy. I want you to know that you will always have a home here, no matter how far you roam or where you go. You may always return here if you need us. You are a member of the family. My children are your children and your children shall be my children.”
The next day, though she had not told the children, Mrs. Mueller gathered the three boys and her daughter together with Beatsie on the front porch and stared into the view finder of her box Kodak. She pressed the lever.
“There you are now. There you shall stay forever in my dreams.”
Walter stood at attention. Wilma with a silk flower in her hair raised the toe of her right foot in her Mary Janes. Wilbert fumbled with a pocketknife and cocked his head to one side, while William in a broad-brimmed straw hat smiled up with his beaming eyes. This is the only known photograph of Beatsie.
That night, Beatsie gathered them all together in the old nursery. It seemed empty now, save for the shelves of brightly covered books. The room was a shadow of what it had been when it had been filled with the children’s lives. A lamp burned in the adjacent room on Beatsie’s bedside table beside her cot. They sat together on the rug and she told them she was leaving. By midnight, the sobbing had ceased though Walter remained silent, and William sat up and just stared out the nursery window at the bright hunter moon. Before the children were awake the next morning, Beatsie slipped away in a taxi.
In the coming months, Mrs. Mueller stopped trying to write the story of her life in her dreams and daily aspirations and abandoned herself to the flow of the world that was slowly fading into a frenzy of exuberance that was the spring of 1929.
The good times were here, Mr. Mueller had told her each evening for a decade. They would never end. Things would only get better and better. She and her husband played music, Mrs. Mueller on the piano and Mr. Mueller on a mandolin he had taken canoeing with him when he was a young man. The children sang with them. Everyone was happy.
Mr. Mueller’s company had never done better.
Mrs. Mueller checked the post each day for a letter from Beatsie, and one day a short note in her beautiful round handwriting appeared in the mailbox with the words I am happy here and thinking about you so please do not worry about me. I am pregnant, and Frank hopes it will be a son. I send my love to the children and hope their lives are becoming all that they want them to be. Love, always to my wonderful children, Beatsie.
The rest was silence for the next year.
The summer was over, and the fall days settled on the city in a grey mist.
One late October day the world came crashing down. Snow began to fall and never seemed to stop.
The butler was dismissed because they no longer had the money to pay him. Then the cook went, and then the two maids. Mrs. Mueller told the children that the wolf was at the door.
Mr. Mueller came home from his company one night and sat in silence at the dinner table. The children had their heads bowed because they knew that something had gone terribly wrong.
He said quietly “we are finished.”
The next night there was a telephone call and the ringing from the phone split the darkness and woke the house. Mr. Mueller’s brother, his business partner, had put a bullet through his head as he sat in the library of his large Rosedale home. He had killed himself to save Mr. Mueller, the family man, from the truth of discrepancies discovered in a bank audit.
The Mueller family had lived beyond its means.
Mr. Mueller blamed their change of fortunes on happiness. “If we hadn’t been singing every evening this would never have happened. The piano was removed from the house. William found the mandolin smashed behind the garage. The curse of Frau Mittermeyer had come true.
“The only thing we can do,” Mrs. Mueller told her children, “is that we shall turn our home into a boarding house. We have enough rooms here. You boys will have to share Wilbert’s room. Walter can move in with father and Wilma with me. We shall try to rent the rest out. You will all have duties. I am sorry that I am asking this of you, but your childhoods are over far too soon.”
Mrs. Mueller packed up her study. She watched as her beloved desk where she had tried to write the story of a better life was carried through the snow to a rag-man’s truck. The days passed.
Spring came but it did not feel like the world had come back to life.
Summer came but did not seem like summer. The alley way between the houses became filled with trash cans and debris from tenants. William, barely able to lift them, had the duty of dragging them to the curb.
For fun, Wilbert would sit in his window on summer nights and pick off rats with his twenty-two, the little pock, pock sounds of the shots mockingly resembling the sound of someone clapping pathetically in the dark.
Wilma stopped singing and soon forgot the strange and haunting melodies that had come from an isle full of noises.
Mrs. Mueller despaired that the story of their lives was being told by someone whose soul was filled with bitterness and hate, someone who had no place in the heart for fairy tales and happy endings. And the more events of a broken world unfolded, the more they confirmed the fact that the worst had become the story of her family.
Leaves fell one rainy evening upon the streets of Parkdale where the Mueller home stood in the shadow of its former glory. The big houses along the block became shells of silence. Anonymous borders, men barely able to earn enough to pay for a small room, walked up and down the block and never said hello. On the main street outside the rose garden of their corner home, it was far worse: the men there sat against the garden wall begging and pleading for someone to give them a dime so they could buy a sandwich. It was a sad dream, thought Mrs. Mueller, and nothing could wake her from its depths.
A knock came to the door one cold evening in early December. Mr. Mueller and the children were out and had gone for a drive to one of his new clients, a Chinese laundry, on the outskirts of the city. None of the tenants were expecting guests, so Mrs. Mueller descended the great oak staircase to the front door, leaning all the time on the railing because her heart now was not only weak but broken. She tugged at the brass handle that had once been polished to gold by the butler. A shadow, dressed in black, curled in a foetal position, lay at the edge of the verandah. The person was coughing and spitting something dark into the shrubs. For a moment, Mrs. Mueller was startled and recoiled. Someone was dying on her porch.
“Are you alright?” she asked the shadow as it convulsed and groaned as if fighting for its breath. A face appeared from the shadow and their eyes met. They were eyes that were now incredibly sad, filled with a hollowness of heartache, as if they had fallen in on themselves and their light had gone out. It was Beatsie.
“Ma”, she said,” “I have nowhere to go. I want to come home.”
Mrs. Mueller gathered Beatsie in her arms and dragged the fragile body of the nanny, now little more than skin and bones in a thin grey coat, up the stairs to the top to the last room in the house that had not been rented, the children’s empty nursery. The girl was running a high fever. Mrs. Mueller could feel the fire coming from Beatsie’s body. All the while, Beatsie clutched at her parcel.
“Let me take that from you and lay it down,” said Mrs. Mueller attempting to ease Beatsie of her burden.
“Be careful, Ma, he is all I have.”
Mrs. Mueller pulled back the edge of a tattered grey blanket. It was a baby boy, asleep, his face round and cherubic.
“I have no one to look after him,” whispered Beatsie. “Frank couldn’t stand Joseph’s crying when he was born. My man ran off with another woman and he came back and beat me and tried to beat Joey but I wouldn’t let him. My money got me as far as Detroit and a man with a truck of vegetables picked us up and drove us from there.”
Beatsie lay down on her old bed in the nanny’s room to the side of the nursery, and Mrs. Mueller ran to get blankets. The shelves of the old books of pirates and princesses from the nursery remained where they had always been after Beatsie’s departure, perhaps because Mrs. Mueller hoped that the nursery would be occupied again by a child who might bring the light back into it. She laid Joseph next to Beatsie.
“Back in the old room, Beatsie. You feel terribly warm and you are ill?”
“Yes, Ma, but I feel so cold. I feel as cold as death in the ground.”
“Don’t talk of death. I will make you better. I will lay a fire for you and gather extra blankets. The baby must need something to eat.”
The skeleton in her arms merely shook her head in approval. Mrs. Mueller sat with her until Dr. Palmer arrived shortly after dawn.
“I remember that girl when she worked for you and William was ill,” he said, rubbing his glasses clean with his handkerchief. “She does not have long to live. I won’t even have enough time to see her into a sanitorium. Do you really want to have her here with the children? And what are you going to do about her boy?”
“I told her once that this was her home as much as ours. I still believe that. I never break a promise. I also told her that as my children had been hers so her children would be mine.”
“I don’t think the city authorities will let you adopt a black child. On top of that you are not well yourself and you can’t start taking in patients. Remember your heart.”
“My heart is the reason I want her here. And why not? My heart can take it. It can take it for her. I told her I would look after her son.”
“Well, what would people say?”
“I don’t care.”
“Mrs. Mueller, the children’s authorities in this city take a very dim view of such arrangements. I am going to have to report the boy. When the woman dies, the boy will be taken away and raised in an institution. That is the only right thing for those people.”
“Those people? How dare you come into my house and use that sort of language let alone that sort of idea. How dare you! Beatsie IS my people. She is part of my family. I will adopt who I please.”
“I just reminded you that you have a weak heart and you cannot take on anymore. I am not here to encourage you to follow the wishes of a woman of questionable behaviour. I am your physician and I am advising you for your good of your own health and the good of your family. I asked the girl when I was examining her and you were out of the room to fetch a basin. Did you know she told me that she never married the child’s father? That child is a bastard. You will be raising a bastard, and a black one at that. It will kill you. I am only thinking about your welfare.”
“Please leave my house now, doctor, and return only on medical business. I will not be told who I can adopt and care for, and I will not have a person judged in my home on the colour of her skin. Beatsie is my friend.”
In the following days, with the children kept at bay for their own protection, Mrs. Mueller sat with Beatsie, carried trays up and down the stairs, lugged the heavy basin of water from the bathroom on the floor below to wash the failing woman, and sat next to Beatsie’s bed to listen to the laboured breaths. She cradled Joseph and rocked him to sleep in her arms. Beatsie opened her eyes and smiled from the bed.
Beatsie woke in the early hours one morning and told Mrs. Mueller of a dream where she was lost in a labyrinth of towers. It was a fearsome place, she recounted, where her child had been snatched from her arms as she was about to name it and tell it a story. It was a place where love only lasted as long as the rent, and where Frank had failed to come home one evening. There had been the woman she had seen him with shortly before his body was found with a bullet in his head in a warehouse. Then came the winter of sickness when the cold of every smaller room she moved to seemed to press in and crush her chest. And the snow in Chicago, more so than the snow in Toronto, just kept falling and falling until she felt it would bury her.
One night, Walter stood at the frame of her door and asked if there was anything he could do to help her.
“You will grow and soon you will be a doctor,” Beatsie replied before she broke out coughing and choked on her blood.
As Mrs. Mueller motioned for him to go and held the dying woman in her arms. Beatsie turned to the teenager and prophesied in a way that filled him with wonder and awe and such a love that someone such as Frau Mittemeyer could never have mustered.
“You will become a doctor. Your sister will become a linguist and speak to people all over the world. Wilbert will become an engineer and make great machines. And little William will grow into a brilliant teacher who will light the minds of others with his sunshine and his glow.”
“Beatsie, Beatsie!” cried Mrs. Mueller, save your strength.
“But it is true, Ma,” she replied, “it is true if you believe it to be true. Look after your children for they will write the true end to the stories of our lives. And my own boy…I can’t see him. He is lost down a dark road, and it is night, and he is running from something or running to find something, and I only pray he will find it.”
Mrs. Mueller sat by Beatsie’s bed throughout the night and into the dull hours of the morning. She dozed off without realizing she was sleeping. In the early afternoon, just as a grey sun wove into the clouds above the city, Mrs. Mueller thought she heard the sound of waves and the rustle of wind through the fronds of palms, and when she opened her eyes Beatsie spoke to her.
“I am seeing the palms, Ma.” Beatsie sat upright as she took a coughing fit, coughing and coughing and struggling with her arms out as if she wanted to reach something. Mrs. Mueller moved from her chair to the edge of the bed and held Beatsie until the girl’s body went limp. She felt an emptiness pass through her, and then a strange sense of elation, as if a warm wind had risen out of the sea and touched the shore of a tropical island.
As Mrs. Mueller left the nanny’s room, her throat choked and her eyes filled with tears, she turned back to look back at the silent body of her friend. On a peg beside the bed hung the yellow sweater, the cuffs worn to strands and holes, and two buttons missing. The drooping arms could not embrace anything now, and their sadness seemed to say the one who had filled it with her life had no more to give. Mrs. Mueller collapsed in sobs.
The day after the funeral, the man with the small moustache appeared at the door with two policemen. Mrs. Mueller tried to stand in their way, but Mr. Mueller held her back.
“He’s not going to be my son,” he said to his wife. Mrs. Mueller turned and slapped his face.
The days grew darker and longer no matter what the season. Winter disappeared and spring came, but it was not the spring times of old. The trees blossomed, but the return of the world to life exhausted rather than inspired an energy in the city. The streetcars rumbled up and down Roncesvalles, shaking the house, and the songbirds that had once filled the garden lost their place to dirty starlings and pigeons.
Mrs. Mueller took the remains of her family’s fortune and divided it equally among four accounts so the children would be able to go to university and at least part of Beatsie’s prophecy would come true.
She sat in the window of the empty nursery and looked out at the place where the rose garden had been sold off and built upon with a row of shabby stores. The tall leaves of the maple that arched over the yard played with the light.
When she closed her eyes, Mrs. Mueller dreamed of Joseph. She wondered where he was. The city men had never permitted her to know. They always said, “the records are sealed.” She prayed he would come to the front door someday and when she opened it he would smile at her and call her his second mother, but that never happened.
Mr. Mueller put all his German books in one of the alley trash cans and kissed the maple leaf on his eldest son’s air force cap just before he sent Walter off with a new bride. Walter, a lieutenant, was posted as medical officer to a training base out west at Weyburn.
Walter said goodbye to his brothers and sister at Union Station and left Toronto and his mother’s bedside with the sense that he would never see her again. The thought of losing her left a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. He and his wife began their married lives in a world of burning aircraft astride the baked tarmac of Saskatchewan flatlands where the yellow Harvard trainers climbed into the air as if they were shards of summer light returning to the sun. They reminded him of Beatsie’s sweater.
At sunset one day, Walter looked across the runway to where the horizon melted into the yellow fields of wheat. He had a sense that he was on a beach looking far out to sea. The Prairie is a sea, he thought. At night the lights of houses afloat upon the darkness are like ships, and by day, after the rain has fallen, plovers and sandpipers pick the insects from puddles in the fields and roads.
The constant drone of engines never left him, day or night. They surrounded him and roared in his ears with the voice of an ocean lulling him to sleep. Then one night, about three a.m. in January of 1944, the engines stopped. There was dead silence. Walter woke with a start. Something was wrong. He went to put on his wristwatch, the one his mother given him on graduating from medical school. It had stopped just after midnight. An orderly knocked on the door of the surgeon’s cot room.
“There was a telephone call from Toronto for you, Dr. Mueller. Your mother passed away just before 2300 hours.”
This the point where the story should end. Beatsie’s child must have grown and had a life.
Implausible endings are not an antidote to reality. Reality is cruel. The story’s ending should not be written by Frau Mittemeyer. If life cannot give the Muellers the happiness they deserved, then at least a story can. They have suffered enough. They all lived lives that had sad endings. Their real endings were not made for stories. They were made by life, and life simply says, “they died.” So, here is a different ending for them.
Mrs. Mueller had fallen asleep in the intensive care ward of St. Michael’s Hospital. The nuns in their ghostly white aprons and black habits passed in and out of her room as she battled to stay awake. The sun set. The last of the new-year snows had suddenly turned to rain as the night unexpectedly warmed with a sudden thaw. In the darkness, she could no longer stay awake. She was tired beyond any exhaustion she had known, and she closed her eyes.
She had a dream she could not explain, a emptiness where a hand was reaching out to her on a long road and whispering the word “mine, and mine, and mine” over and over again. There was an emptiness, a soundlessness where she could not even hear the beat of her own heart.
She opened her eyes to a new dream that seemed more vivid and real than anything she had ever known. The vision took her breath away. The sunlight was brilliant and hurt her eyes and she raised a hand to shield them so she could see. Aqua and deep blue waves rolled gently to shore, and she looked through her slippered feet to see a clear, jeweled ocean, billowing white clouds against blue skies, and sands the colour of her pale wrists.
A young man, tall, handsome, and bronze extended his arm to her.
“Come, let me guide you. They are all waiting to see you.”
“I know you but I’m not sure from where. It certainly has been a long time,” she said.
“Call me Joseph. We all made it through the world in our own ways, and here we are. You will love what I have to show you.”
Mr. Mueller was sitting in a wicker lawn chair, reading a copy of Treasure of the Pirate’s Cove, its brilliantly coloured cover bearing the image of a fearsome buccaneer. Three of her children came running down the beach.
“We’re all here at last!” shouted William, his face beaming with the sunshine she always saw in it.
Wilma knelt beside her. “I found a wonderful star fish, but I think he wants to go back up to the sky tonight.”
Wilbert poked her on her other shoulder.
“Nobody there,” he said with a grin.
Walter brushed the sand off his Air Force uniform, and stood at attention, a stethoscope around his neck.
“All present and accounted for,” Walter said, snapping a salute.
Mrs. Mueller stood and looked at them all.
“This isn’t supposed to happen, is it? You were all leading your lives. I was dying. It was a rainy winter night in Toronto. That’s the end of it. That’s the way life ends. You live, and then you die. You hope for heaven, but that’s just a fairy tale we tell children in their nursery and not what really is,” she stammered in disbelief.
“Not like that,” said her husband as he glanced up from the book and looked over his sunglasses.
William spoke up.
“The lives we lived were real. I became a teacher, Wilbert an engineer, and Wilma a translator. But as we lived them they became stories that someone would else would have to finish for us. This is the same story you were writing and had on your desk the day Beatsie arrived at our house. You put down your pen, paused it, and never got back to it. But we know how you wanted it to end. And now because someone you never met, a grandson who often thinks of you because he is writer too, found your papers and decided that he would complete it. You’ll have to meet him some day. You would be proud of my son. I am. The story can end now the way you wanted it.”
Mrs. Mueller’s eyes filled with tears of astonishment.
“Come children,” said a gentle, lilting voice she could not see but who seemed to be all around her, on the beach, and in the air. The voice was summoning the waves from their watery origins beyond the horizon where the yellow sun was sparkling in a myriad of diamonds. The sound reminded Mrs. Mueller of music in the night, of a soft summer breeze blowing through the window of the children’s nursery, the supple white drapes dancing to the movement of the words.
“We are all together now,” the lilting voice coaxed in a melodic, Bejan accent. “Let’s get back to our story. There’s so much more for us to discover.”