In first grade the twenty of us went on an excursion to a local park near the river, girls in green uniforms, boys in black pants and white shirts, lined up like Madeleine traipsing through Paris. Our dark heads in a row punctuated by Kathy Dombroski’s shiny blonde hair. We bobbled down the slate sidewalks of Owego, past Lenore’s house where her father’s ashes sat on the mantel, to the small boat launch.
A nun, raising her habit slightly, climbed into each boat. Sister Milcheora and Sister Vincent each directed seven kids into her craft. Sister Pauline, the youngest nun, her habit slick with damp, was allowed only six. Sister Vincent, the principle, corralled the wild boys to sit in front of her, their hands folded, her brow creased. Each nun yanked the power cord as if they mowed their own lawn or snuck the boats out on dark nights to smoke in the middle of the river. After a mumbled Holy mother of Jesus, which we took as prayer, a cough, a sputter, and a belch of noxious gas, we glided through the dark water to the island Lenore’s family owned.
When we beached, we kids removed our shoes and waded to shore, boys’ pants rolled up, girls skinny white legs free under our skirts. The nuns’ hems grew a dark border. Our toes squished in the mud, and Gerry whispered loud enough for the girls to hear, “That ain’t mud, that’s people-do.” The boys giggled.
“Look, children.” Sister Milcheora, the sunny one, pointed. “A swan.”
We squinted, held palms flat around our eyes against the water’s glare. Regal birds glided past, silent, two of them. Babies, puffs of white lint, followed, unimpressed by the giant penguins who stayed the boys flicking fingers, restless feet, stilled their dirty minds.
“Swanlings,” said Pauline, adjusting her wimple with wet fingertips.
“A pen, a cob, and cygnets,” Sister Vincent lectured, long countenance dour. “The personification of a good Catholic family.”
We retained that image, the five of us who never reproduced, seeing ourselves a wedge, wings dipping through damp air, voices in lamentation, free.