Authors: Ruta Sepetys
Puri sits on the grass, wearing her black pinafore apron embroidered with a cluster of arrows. A little girl points. “Look, the arrows on your apron match the arrows on the building.”
“Very good!” Puri looks up to the familiar emblem etched into the exterior of the Inclusa.
The Inclusa spans three large stone buildings, positioned in a U-shape, with a plaza garden in the middle. Puri likes to mentally remove the exterior walls and imagine the Inclusa like a dollhouse. The lower floors house dining areas, administration offices, a medical wing, and learning rooms. The upper floors are divided into sections with the capacity to house five hundred children and a hundred mothers.
Puri looks to the basement windows at ground level. In the farthest corner of the basement is a private file library. The file room is locked, accessible only to the nuns and doctors. She can’t help but wonder—why is it always locked?
” yells a boy, racing by Puri.
Most children delight in being outdoors, anxious to run and jump. On sunny days, Puri and the mothers bring the children outside in shifts. The doctors advise that without adequate sun exposure the orphans may develop rickets, skeletal deformities that cause bones to soften and bow. Fortunately, medical care is rigorous at the Inclusa. But Puri hears some physicians lament that mortality rates of newborns in Spain are particularly high. Cases of polio increase each year.
“Other countries have a new vaccine for polio. Why aren’t we using it in Spain?” asked one of the young mothers.
“Maybe other countries need a vaccine. They don’t have the faith to pray it away,” replied Sister Hortensia. “The Holy Spirit will see to polio.”
Puri wonders. She wonders so many things but is reprimanded for her questions.
When the radio broadcasts announce, “Spain is the chosen country of God,” does that mean that God has abandoned other countries? And if foreigners are indecent, why is Spain catering to them as tourists?
“Why must you question everything?” scolds her mother. “Have you no faith?”
She most certainly has faith, but she also has questions. Can’t she have both? Puri turns to watch a group of six-year-olds sitting under the silvery leaves of an olive tree. She worries about the older children. Newborn babies are the most desirable for adoption. It is more difficult to find homes for the older orphans. If the child’s parents or grandparents were known to be Spanish Republicans, those who opposed Franco during the war, then the child must be rehabilitated and reeducated as a rational human being. Puri heard one couple tell Sister Hortensia that they didn’t want a child who had been “circling the drain.” They said they wanted an infant—“a bright, fresh canvas.”
It made no sense to Puri. Shouldn’t the most vulnerable children be rescued first? When she asked her mother, even she agreed.
Puri knows all of the six-year-olds by name. Soon they will be gone. If a child reaches seven and is not adopted, they are taken out of the Inclusa and sent to separate boarding schools for boys and girls. The orphan girls receive more assistance. Puri hears that at the age of fourteen, a matchmaking process secures husbands for the girls.
“Isn’t fourteen young?” she once asked.
“Enough questions. One is never too young to honor their country,” replied Sister Hortensia.
Thankfully, the children ask as many questions as she does.
“Are the arrows on the building a scar? I have a scar,” says a boy, pointing to his arm.
, that’s an etching on the building. Your scar is special. It’s warrior skin, very strong,” Puri assures the boy, rubbing his thin arm and wishing she could remove all of their scars.
To Puri, the children’s beauty certainly eclipses her own. Her frame is so much wider than her mother’s. Her brown hair is not shiny like other girls’, not nearly as pretty as her cousin Ana’s. It seems unfair that Ana and Julia received all of the family beauty. But she would not trade places with either of them. Their parents were Spanish Republicans. In school, Puri learned that Spanish Republicans killed many priests during the war. How could someone kill a priest or a nun?
Sister Hortensia appears in the garden. She walks slowly around the edge of the grass, hands hidden beneath her thick white robes. Only her face is exposed, framed by the starched coif of her habit. Are nuns also susceptible to rickets?
Sister Hortensia is squat, with a strong jaw softened by gentle eyes. Sister devotes her entire existence to the protection and care of the orphans. She is firm with the children, yet kind. Some young mothers at the Inclusa whisper about Sister Hortensia. They prefer Sister Pilar, a woman of their own age, with a loving laugh and patient heart.
Although Puri respects Sister Hortensia, a tiny part of her fears her. If what the young mothers whisper is true, Sister Hortensia has tremendous power. And now, out of the corner of her eye, Puri watches the wooden rosary swing from Sister’s robes as she moves closer. A small boy tugs at Puri’s hand, pulling her attention to the children. A little girl tries to braid her hair. A third child climbs onto Puri’s back.
“Good afternoon, Sister,” greets Puri. Sister Hortensia nods and then stops, staring at her. Puri feels the nerves beneath her skin begin to tiptoe. She glances down at her apron. It’s smeared with diaper cream
and talcum from the nursery. Cleanliness is a sign of spiritual purity. “I’m sorry, Sister.”
Sister gives a forgiving nod, turning her gaze to the row of olive trees. She speaks without looking at Puri. “I saw you from the window yesterday. A woman approached you on the street. What did she say?”
Puri is eager to share the odd experience. Perhaps Sister will have answers.
“She was confused. She was told that her baby had been taken for baptism. The child was never returned to her. She asked if he was here.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“Well, I explained that he could not be here, that this is an orphanage. And then she scurried away. I think the poor woman was suffering emotional distress.”
“Indeed,” agrees Sister Hortensia. “Pray for her,” she says, and walks away.
Puri nods. She wants to ask if emotional distress can be prayed away like polio, but tucks the thought aside. She asks too many questions.
Carlitos greets Ana and Daniel at the entrance of the hotel. “No telegram yet,” he announces.
, Carlitos,” says Ana.
The round upper lobby of the hotel brims with people, all chattering in English. Daniel sees his mother, as well as Shep Van Dorn and Ben Stahl, the reporter.
“It’s the monthly luncheon for the American Club of Madrid,” whispers Ana.
A voice appears from behind. “And what are you two doing?”
The voice belongs to Nick Van Dorn. He stares intently at Ana. “Hello, Ana,” he says, and then nods to Daniel.
Daniel nods in reply, noting Nick’s unbroken gaze toward Ana.
,” says Ana quietly. After an elastic pause, she adds, “I was on errands for the Mathesons. I’m sorry, but I’m in a rush. I have a task to finish for
“Thanks again for your help,” says Daniel.
.” She turns and darts through the crowd.
“How do you know her?” asks Daniel.
“Just a friend,” replies Nick. “Come on, have lunch with us.”
Daniel eyes the men in suits and ties. “I’d better change first.”
“Nah, then you’ll be boring like the rest of us. Let the girls think you’re the Marlboro Man.”
Daniel follows Nick to the circular upper lobby, where beverages are being served. Waiters balancing silver trays of sangria thread
through dozens of well-heeled guests. Nick helps himself to a drink.
“Most of these people are families of American diplomats or officers from the U.S. air bases,” explains Nick. “The hotel is constantly hosting functions for them.”
Daniel spies Paco Lobo, the hotel’s resident guest, petting the bilingual parrot that serves as the lobby mascot. He’s about to reach for his camera when he hears the laugh.
It belongs to his mother. It’s not her real laugh, it’s the one she uses when she’s nervous. Turning toward the counterfeit sound, Daniel sees Shep Van Dorn regaling his mother with a story.
Nick lets out a breath of disgust upon seeing his father. “Where’s your dad?” he asks.
Daniel shrugs. “Probably working. He’s always working.” And somehow always working against me, thinks Daniel. He’d love to tell his father about Miguel and the camera shop but knows he’d dismiss it as a waste of time.
He follows Nick through the crowd toward Ben.
“Do you know who Ben’s talking to?” asks Nick. Daniel shakes his head.
“That’s Max Factor Jr., the Hollywood cosmetics mogul. He and his wife are staying at the hotel. Franco allows some of the Hollywood studios to shoot movies here.” Nick approaches, close enough to listen but not interrupt.
“When I saw the black winged hats and long coats, I assumed it was a costume and they were filming,” says Factor with a laugh. “I was going to mention our new product line.”
“Trust me,” says Ben, “the Guardia Civil are not actors. Where did you see them?”
Daniel takes a step closer. His stomach drops a step back.
“Around the corner an hour ago, speaking to a hotel employee. Thankfully, the little bellboy stopped me before I pitched Hi-Fi to
them. It’s a new foundation that’s lighter than our Pan-Cake makeup used for Technicolor. Don’t imagine you’d be interested in covering the new Hi-Fi line for the
, would you, Ben?”
Ben’s hair is immaculate but his dress shirt is missing a button and shows freckles of a prior meal. His generous stomach makes his tie appear short. “Sorry, Max, I focus more on world news,” says Ben.
Max sees the drift of Ben’s gaze and turns to Daniel.
“Well, howdy there, partner. Are you straight off a movie set?” asks Factor.
“No, sir, just inappropriately dressed for the function,” says Daniel.
“Nonsense. Nothing wrong with being comfortable, young man.”
But he isn’t comfortable. Despite Mr. Factor’s compliment, he knows his mother will be annoyed that he’s underdressed.
“Let’s get this kid into a Hollywood picture,” says Factor.
“Dan’s a photographer, not an actor,” says Ben.
“Really? Sure seems like he belongs on the other side of the lens.”
Daniel fights the impulse to roll his eyes. Why does everyone need to categorize him, and incorrectly? Laura Beth had a particular talent for that.
“Excuse me, I’m going to head up to my room,” he says. Inappropriate dress aside, mention of the Guardia Civil nearby makes him uneasy.
“Dan, wait a minute.” Ben Stahl follows him. “I’m not going to the luncheon either. We can have lunch in the hotel coffee shop. It’s the only place in Madrid to get a burger and a milkshake.”
Daniel hesitates, sizing up Ben’s invitation. Is this generosity or just another one of his father’s chess moves? He decides to find out. “Sure, a burger sounds good.”