Chapter 17 Part 2 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
The Temple of Amma was a C-shaped, white stone building tiled in clear blues from powder to midnight in mosaics and reliefs of sheep, goats, pigs, sheaves of wheat, children, mothers, looms and shuttles; its wings curved away from the Promenade, where it anchored the row of buildings leading down the Temple Green to its end at the Temple of Pagg the Father. Nestled between those wings stood the enormous Mother's House, an institutional-looking structure built around a large courtyard. By the time Twenna reached its steps, her little boots were soaked through; they were made for carriages, not for walking winter streets.
Inside it was warm and noisy; the place smelled of cabbage, sour milk, lavender, clean laundry and children. Women and children were cleaning, carrying laundry and scurrying about. It hummed, loudly but not unpleasantly. The women wore shapeless, ugly wool dresses, high-necked and utilitarian, blue for the priestesses and gray for the laity; some carried babies on their backs or in slings across their fronts. The boy children wore dark wool breeches and smocks; the girls wore dresses much like their elders, covered in white pinafores. Twenna took Rikki out from under her cloak. A whiff came to her nose; did Rikki need changing, or was it coming from somewhere else?
A frazzled little woman in a Mother's blue habit marched up to her. "May I help you? Are you leaving this child?"
"I…I've never been here, can you help me?"
The Mother swept a professional eye over her. "Hm. Come with me." She led the way into a cramped room off the busy main hall and shut the door; the noise seeped through the thin wood. She motioned to a chair, sat down herself behind a desk, its one short leg shimmed with a wooden block, and pulled out a thick ledger bound in blue cloth. "There is a back way, you know. Or you could have sent it with a maidservant, you didn't have to come yourself."
"I beg your pardon? Sent what?"
"The baby. You're leaving it here, aren't you?"
Twenna hugged Nerrik tight and stood up; he squeaked in his sleep. "You won't take him from me, will you? Please don't take him!"
"Gently, gently, dear!" soothed the surprised Mother, waving her back down into her chair. "We won't take him from you unless you want us to. You really won't be parted?"
"No, no, never!"
"Oh, you poor thing," sighed the Mother. She dipped a pen in the desk's inkwell. "All right then, your name?"
"Twenna Shelstone. Miss."
"Elbig and Deannis. They're dead."
"His father's name?"
"I…I'm not sure."
"Last name Shelstone, then." The Mother gave her scribbling a judgmental squint; she passed the pen to Twenna and turned the ledger around. "Sign here." Twenna dipped the pen and signed. The Mother blotted it, sanded it for good measure, poured the sand into its reservoir and closed the book. "All right then, Miss Shelstone, welcome to the Mother's House. It's not a comfortable life," she said, looking askance at the ermine, "but you get breakfast, luncheon, tea and dinner, and while the babe is nursing he may sleep with you in your cell. In exchange, you are expected to work. Cleaning, cooking, taking care of the motherless children--if you have a great deal of milk, we may make you a wet nurse. We try to feed as many babies on the breast as possible. It's cheaper, and here at the Mother's House we're forced to scrimp and save where we can. Come with me, now." They left the tiny office.
"Otherwise," the Mother continued as they marched into the main hall, "it's the laundry for a strong young one like you. We do all the other Temples' laundry, you know. It's our main income apart from tithes." The Mother led her through the swarms in the main hall and down a flight of stairs into the basement. Women and older children bustled about the huge, warm, steamy room; it smelled pleasantly of soft soap. As comfortable as it was now, it was probably a sight less so in the summer.
Behind a counter, a silent woman dressed in gray sized Twenna up and gave the Mother two large bundles wrapped in white sheets. The Mother gave a polite nod and marched Twenna back into the main hall and up five flights of stairs to a dark but clean hallway lined in narrow doors. From behind them came snatches of lullabies and the crying of both newborns and grown women. The Mother took a key from her apron pocket and opened a door at the hallway's end. "This is one of the nicer rooms. You'll have a window facing the courtyard, at least."
Twenna looked around the tiny, immaculate, colorless room: whitewashed walls; pegs for clothing; white sheets and gray wool blankets with a thick blue stripe at the top on a neatly-made, narrow bed; gray-painted floorboards; a small, rough rug that might have once been blue on the floor before the bed; a basin and pitcher atop a miniature night stand; a pale unpadded wood rocking chair; a tiny radiator beneath a window that looked out on a gray and white sky and the wing far across the courtyard that likely held little rooms just like the one in which they stood; and a tiny figure of Amma in a niche above the bed's curving metal headboard.
The harried Mother dropped the two great white bundles on the bed. "These are yours. Diapers and clothes for the little chap in this one and clothes for you in the other one, both wrapped in spare sheets just in case he has an accident. Clean sheets once a week otherwise. You are to maintain this room exactly as it is now--a Senior Mother inspects unannounced. There's a tap at the end of the hall, cleaning supplies are in the hall closet, and you are to tend to the room on your own time. We rise at dawn and retire at sundown, regardless of the season. Key's on the nightstand, keep it with you and the door locked when you're not here. The child is never to be left unattended in this room. Please change into your uniform as soon as possible. Just lay the little one down on the bed, he can't roll off yet." The Mother marched out of the room, leaving the door open.
"Where am I to put my things?" Twenna said to no answer. Rikki began to root and fuss against her shoulder, weak movements that nevertheless set her breasts to aching. She sat down on the bed between the two bundles and allowed herself a long, shuddering sob.