03107_000_021First Place All-Church Short Story Contest
He is awake, and knows the time. In its reliable way that he does not yet trust, his mind has waked him just before the alarm should go off. His side of their bed in the small room must be jammed close to the wall, so he leans across his sleeping wife to reach the nightstand and press down the button. He has set it early to have time to dress, get his shovel, and walk to the headgate, so he has maybe twenty minutes, and he half-wishes to wake her. With the children, there is little time when they are truly alone, in quiet like this. But she was up till almost eleven settling the girls, and needs this placidity that he senses in every part. She lies still as water without a breath of air moving on it.
So he slides out of the covers and scoots down his side, the lightstring brushing his scalp so he thinks for an instant: spider. Bugs are one problem of this old house; winter drives them in, and as spring swells into summer they will propagate madly.
Cold is another: the heater is central only in having been built into the wall between kitchen and living room so it blows both ways. In winter, one of them will rise at least once each night to check and re-tuck the girls’ blankets. Not quite twenty-six, he has begun to understand already, living here, why some old people, his grandmother, triumph at lasting out the winter. One January night under the house with a propane torch, gloved hand gripping the frozen pipe to feel when the water would start, he has known his first terror of the simple elemental world. And in the rented house, far more than in two years of apartments at school, he has felt on himself and on Lea the entire weight of their needs of shelter, heat, food, clothes.
He stands at the foot of the bed, thankful for carpet even if it is cool. And it is spring now, the worst of the cold past, and if there is no late frost, the lilacs may all bloom. But the hawthorn came through anyway last year, a monumental bouquet of red and green he is glad to have lived to see. A sort of stewardship. Just out that blinded window he could see it if it were day—a few knots of bloom already open. He remembers a moment’s sheer joy, coming into the room one afternoon last August, at the pear-yellow light storming through the drawn blind. He has been happier here in this time than anywhere or anywhen else.
From the dresser mirror his clownish ghost shimmers back at him as he stoops with knees spread to hold his pants up while he reaches his shirt. With it on, he carries his shoes to the added-on porch, opens the back door, and sits on the steps to pull on his heavy steel-toed shoes, which pinch and bunch his toes. Standing again to take his hat and gloves from the hooks below the back window, he remembers coming home early one afternoon last week, quiet to surprise them, walking through the house, then seeing them blurred and pastelled through the waterspotted glass and screen: sitting under the blossoming apple trees, petals shrewn thick around them on the grass, the little girls calling to make it rain again, and she shaking a low branch to shower more on them. He stood and watched, drowned in delight that he could find no words for, hardly daring to go on out lest his coming be less to them than what they already had. He walked them to the corner and across the highway for soft ice cream.
Picking up the shovel standing by the step, he crosses the yard, climbs the fence, pulls the shovel through, and makes his way through his neighbor’s deep back yard—a good man and kind to them, though Carl does not more than mildly like him yet and so feels unworthy of even shared surplus corn or broccoli.
At the headgate in the cement ditch it takes only a minute to aim the water at his yard, a big stream so he doesn’t need to seal the gate with mud—what runs on by won’t matter. It is also simpler to walk back around the block, so he does that, his shovel balanced on his shoulder by his wrist crooked over its handle. He crosses the tracks and walks into the hard glare of mercury-vapor lamps, which he dislikes for the livid cast they give to skin, the tarry-looking shadows they throw around even pebbles, and so is glad to get past the warehouse, turn the corner, and walk in dark toward his house. Out of the glare, he can look up at the stars shining a steady, warm light. Living at home, he’d use his telescope on any night like this, could find his way from constellation to constellation, predict where, aimed carefully, the six-inch mirror would dazzle him with a nebula, a far galaxy like M31 in Andromeda, the jewelled globe of stars in Hercules toward which the whole solar system slowly spins. He’d wonder what it was like to know the sky as God does, galaxies and even clusters of galaxies flung like seeds to the far fences of the universe. He’d read that a planet within the great Hercules cluster would be seared in the light of a thousand suns, and supposed that to be like the place where God dwells.
The sidewalk runs straight to the edge of his yard, stops for a foot-wide strip of bare red clay, then continues at his own front walk up to the narrow concrete steps. In the back yard before the water, he has time to check his dams for watering the trees and flooding the small lawn. He really doesn’t need all the water this second turn of the season—their garden is only half planted, peas, carrots, lettuce, thin grasslike spears of onion sets. He remembers last fall, when he came out from hanging several onion-stuffed nylons in the storage room and saw their cat leap three feet into the air to claw down the hummingbird that had darted at the hollyhocks all summer. He himself pounced on the cat to rescue the bird, got it in his hand, felt the shock of its unimaginably intense life, saw at its throat what he first thought was blood, then realized was the ruby, glowing in the dusk as if the bird bore the summer’s whole harvest of light. Then, his hand stunned open, the bird flew away. Safe.
Now the water arrives, a finger-size trickle swelling to fill the ditch and start spilling on the lawn. He steps back near the house and follows its spread by silver flickerings in the grass. The garden furrows were set right last time—he won’t need to check them for an hour. He did not think he’d like gardening. His parents had a large one and made him help weed it, a chore he escaped when he could. He still doesn’t like weeding, but to have something grow by his own labor, something they can eat even if not at much less cost than buying, feels good. When the lawn is a still, blade-pricked sheet of dusky silver, he turns to go in.
He’ll sleep on the couch near the bedroom door, and he steps into the bedroom to get a light blanket in case of cold. Coming back out, he kneels by the bed to kiss Lea on her temple, again half-wishing to wake her. The faint odor of the vinegar she rinsed her hair with last night tangling sense and memory. “Sleep,” he whispers, content that she’ll not know this riffle in the secret channel of her ear. He will sleep without resetting the alarm, and see if his mind will wake him again in an hour.
But when he wakes, it is because one of his daughters has cried in her sleep. Guessing why, he takes a dry diaper with him, changes her, and turns her warm, tumblesome body so she lies as she should, When he stands and turns to check the older girl, he sees through the windows, taking both in at once, unbelievably, snow. The sight stuns him with delight and fear harmonized like a major fifth, and then he knows, barely trusting this, that it is some surprise of the light. Stepping to the east window, he sees it is so: pale light pouring from a risen last-quarter moon on bare clay, on weeds, on barely flowing water, on apple branches like silverest, most weightless snow. Looking at it, he is weightless, in free fall as if the earth has dropped from under him, or as if he is drawn up with the world’s tidal bulge and loosed in the gravity of light, yearning in wordless prayer farther out and from deeper within than in any prayer he has ever spoken. Undeserved, abounding, grace rings in his bones.