Ashley Valmere, River People (photograph)


Catherine Grehan, who had only been called “27”
for years she could not count, woke to bells
in darkness.  When she was a girl, men looked at her longer
than others, and so her father hid his too-beautiful
fourth daughter in the laundry.  She had never seen a mirror
inside the walls, but doubted her beauty endured. 
She dressed and ate silently in a line of others,
food left from yesterday. She counted six mouthfuls
– one for each hour until she’d eat again.
The others counted, too.  Counted and measured to stay alive –
months measured by blood on the rags. Their baby’s
ten fingers, two eyes, dozens of dusty eyebrows
thousands of miles away in strangers’ cradles
being called the wrong names.  Catherine Grehan
was famous, as much as fame could be
measured in the bitter silence, for trying to escape.
She’d scaled the wall last April when it thawed
but hadn’t counted on the glass along the top.
This morning, she sunk her scarred hands for some thousandth time
into the morning’s wash, sheets and draperies, stained
and soaked and heavier than many men could lift.
By ten o’clock, the water had gone milky like the priest’s skin
she’d memorized when he visited her cell, shaved her
head, made her sorry for her pitiful attempt to flee.
His child kicked her lowest rib as she heaved her load
into the rinsing bin.  Catherine Grehan, baptized daily
by ice and reborn into hell, knew what did
and did not come clean.



The undertakers came to Our Lady of Charity
to clear the land the sisters sold to balance out
bad stock bets. When they began their work, 

some of the men believed in God.   

Then, they lifted one hundred fifty-five women
and their babies from the ground. Their limbs
were crooked, shattered, plaster-casted.  One they found

buried separate from her head.   

Work stopped for the day when the youngest man, 
who still lived with his mother, found the bones
of a woman, the bones of her baby

cradled inside her broken ribs.


Katie Bickham