Heart of Stone


Spring would come to the world again. But could it melt the winter she hid inside?

Heart of Stone

“Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (D&C 42:45).

Her father died on a cold night in February, on his way home from a business trip to Florida. And now her mother was explaining what had happened. She spoke in a calm, measured voice. The commuter flight to Albany had crashed taking off from Kennedy. Megan knew already. It had been on the news. They said ice on the wings was probably the cause.

The northeaster had swept up the coast over the weekend, burying the fields deeply in the freshly fallen snow. Megan stared out the living room window. The cruelest month, their neighbor Mr. Chisholm called it. Actually, it was T. S. Eliot who said April was the cruelest month, but he spent most of his life in England, so what did he know. February in the hills of upstate New York had little kindness in it, nothing but the vindictive end of winter and no hope of spring.

Andrew started to cry. Susan looked confused and frightened. Megan abruptly got up and went to the mud room and put on her riding coat and boots. She didn’t want to hang around inside any longer.

Her father and Mr. Chisholm had been working on putting the horse-drawn sleigh back together. They’d been restoring it since October. She’d saddle up William and … and …

Her breath caught in her throat, her heart almost stopped, a feeling so incomprehensible she felt it could not be happening to her. The world shimmered, fragile as fine crystal caught at the perfect pitch. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and clenched her fists.

When she opened her eyes, the shimmering had stopped.

Outside, it looked like heaven. The sky was a piercing, frozen blue, the snow cover so brilliant white it made her squint and hold up her hands to shade her eyes. It hadn’t snowed like this in years. That’s what the people said who came to sympathize, to console. Nonstop the last two days. She would prefer they didn’t. It wasn’t their business. He wasn’t their father.

She swung open the stable doors. William the Conqueror greeted her with an annoyed nicker and a bang on the side of his stall. “Oh, c’mon, William,” she said, patting his withers. She put on a saddle and bridle.

The driveway was clear. Across the county road Mr. Chisholm was finishing his long driveway with the snowplow mounted on his tractor. He always did their driveway when he did his.

She trotted William up beside him. “Good morning, Mr. Chisholm!” she yelled over the hoarse rumble of the John Deere engine.

He doffed his cap to her, old habit. “G’morning, Megan.” But he hadn’t expected her this morning. He’d heard what happened.

Megan rode up to the porch and dismounted while Mr. Chisholm parked the tractor in the barn. His dog, Gabriel, pushed open the storm door with his muzzle and limped over to her. There had been a time when he could stand and put his forelegs on her shoulders. But, however willing the spirit, the body was in bad repair. She stroked him behind the ears. “Hi ya, Gabriel. Don’t like this cold, do you?”

Mr. Chisholm shook his head. “A husky, no less. That must sting the pride.” He massaged Gabriel’s coat. “Just like people, I guess. Old is old.”

“Oh, not Gabriel,” Megan said, holding his head in her hands and peering into his weary eyes. “He’ll live forever.”

“Nobody lives forever,” Mr. Chisholm said, with a gruffness he worried later had been too sharp. He added, “Not in this life, at least.”

But Megan didn’t appear to notice or mind.

When she got home Sister Garner and Sister McAllister had stopped by. She could tolerate them, not being the weepy, feeling-sorry-for-you kind. They had brought dinner. At this rate, her mother wouldn’t be cooking the rest of the month and a good part of the next.

While they talked in the kitchen with her mother, Megan sat in the living room, staring out the window, wondering that the world could be so perfect and so deadly at the same time.

Mr. Chisholm went with them to the funeral. That night, after she got into bed, Megan listened to her mother’s and her grandparents’ voices drifting up the staircase from the kitchen. They were talking about the thing they always waited to tell her later, if at all. But she wanted to know. They weren’t going to have to move—something about insurance and double indemnity, the settlement with the airline. As for the farm, Mr. Chisholm already rented half their fields and could probably take over the rest.

“I’m worried about Megan.”

Megan leaned forward, tilting her head toward the door.

Her mother went on, “She seems so … unemotional, so distant. She and her father were very close. It worries me, seeing her … seeing her going on as if nothing had happened.”

Megan couldn’t hear what her grandmother said, but it was probably something reassuring. Grandmother was a very reassuring person.

Megan lay back and curled up under the covers. I’m not unemotional, she told herself. It’s just that I believe what the Church teaches. I’ll be with my father again. There’s nothing to be sad about. But she felt a cold clenching in her chest as she sank into her bed. She stared at the ceiling in the darkness and faded off to sleep.

The funeral marked the end of what their life had been, and the beginning of a life they could not have dreamed of. It was a season of uncertainties, and March was an incalculable month. With February so short it didn’t always know that winter was over. March was far too long, but it needed all that time to figure itself out.

You could forgive March for being that way. But not April. It occurred to Megan, walking home from the bus stop on a gray Friday afternoon, that Mr. Eliot was right. It was a cruel month, one day bright and warm and full of promise, and the next day a frost would snap the growing buds like brittle bones. It couldn’t be trusted. You always had to be on your guard.

Coming around the bend she saw Mr. Chisholm’s John Deere stopped in the middle of the north field, and Mr. Chisholm trudging through the freshly turned loam, something bundled up in his arms. It was Gabriel, and for a horrifying moment she imagined that he had been caught under the spades of the plow.

She ran up the driveway, meeting Mr. Chisholm as he struggled up from the muddy lane. “What’s wrong?”

Mr. Chisholm shook his head. “Don’t know.” He laid Gabriel carefully on the porch. “Just seemed to run out of gas.”

Megan sat down beside the old husky. Gabriel turned his head towards her. There was grief and shame in his dark brown eyes.

Mr. Chisholm leaned against the railing, took off his cap, and wiped his brow. “I’ll give Dr. McAllister a call,” he said, a weariness in his voice Megan didn’t quite understand. He kicked the mud off his boots and disappeared into the house.

Saturday morning he took Gabriel to Charlton Corners to see Dr. McAllister. Megan watched from across the road, paced up and down the driveway, sat on the porch, rested her chin in her hands.

The big red Ford came around the bend, turned in at the driveway, and made the long, slow climb to the house. Mr. Chisholm turned off the engine. He sat in the cab, hands clutching the steering wheel. Finally, he opened the door and got out, standing, so when Megan ran up to him she could not see around him into the cab.

“How is he? How is Gabriel? Is he going to be all right?”

Mr. Chisholm looked down at her. His eyes were like Gabriel’s eyes. He put his hands on her shoulders. “Megan …” he said. “Megan, he was old. He was in pain. It’s been going on for too long. There wasn’t any way to make him better.”

She stared at him.

“Megan …” he said again.

She twisted away, ran to the cab. Gabriel lay lifeless on a white canvas sheet. Mr. Chisholm pulled her away. She lashed out at him. There was a roaring in her ears that she realized was the sound of her own voice. Then she wrenched free and ran home across the fields.

She slammed the door, tripped over her brother’s galoshes in the mud room, and crashed to the floor. She kicked off her boots, viciously stubbing her toe. She could barely stand, and she clasped her arms tightly across her chest as if she might explode.

“Megan.” Her mother looked in from the kitchen. “Megan, what’s wrong?”

“Gabriel …” she gasped, blinking the tears out of her eyes.

“Gabriel?”

“He had him put to sleep,” she stated bluntly. She limped into the living room and collapsed on the couch. Her mother followed her, but Megan averted her gaze, and presently, she left. Megan curled up on the cushions, resting her head on the armrest. The knuckles of her right hand throbbed.

She hardly felt the pain. She was afraid. She knew she was afraid, afraid she could not hold the world together. A clear, aching tone rang through her temples. If the crystal shattered, she would never find all the pieces, never put it back together. If she could just be more careful, see these things coming, not hurt, not feel, have a heart of stone.

She whispered these things to herself, a quiet mantra of unemotionality. Through the window, across the road and fields, she watched Mr. Chisholm mark out a plot in the garden by the porch and begin to dig a grave.

She looked up at the ceiling, tasting bitterness and regret in her mouth. When she looked back her mother was standing next to Mr. Chisholm, and then she was walking away. The door opened and closed, and she heard her mother’s footsteps in the hall. She closed her eyes tightly. She did not want her mother to try to talk again.

Megan knew how unfair she was being. She ran to the mud room, flung on her jacket, and pulled on her boots and flew out of the house.

Gabriel lay on the white canvas sheet next to the grave. “He was a good dog,” Megan said, softly.

Mr. Chisholm turned to her. There was an angry red welt on his jaw, and she remembered how she had bruised her knuckles. “Aye, he was.” There were tears in his eyes, and she felt sorry for what she had done.

She knelt next to him and stroked Gabriel’s silver coat.

“There wasn’t anything Dr. McAllister could do. He didn’t suffer in the end.”

“I know.” She managed to smile reassuringly.

They sat together on the damp earth. Mr. Chisholm said, “We’d better get it done.”

She nodded, and then realized he meant her to help him. She grasped the corner straps of the tarp, he the other two. It was almost too heavy for her, especially with her right hand growing numb, but she braced herself, and they lowered him into the ground.

When she got home she told her mother, “We buried Gabriel.”

After she said her prayers that night, Megan told herself she had done right by Gabriel and Mr. Chisholm. She reminded herself that the past was past, her father was gone, it was all behind her, she would be fine. But it wasn’t true.

She told herself again. The words only disappeared into the air.

She told herself again, but a voice interrupted her, a voice she somehow recognized, a voice saying, “No, Megan.” A voice insistent, not reproachful. “Everything breaks, Megan. But everything mends, if you only give me the pieces.”

She did not remember awakening. She did not remember how she cried, sobbing so she could not breathe. But she remembered her mother’s arms around her, holding her, the universe of love enclosing them, her mother whispering it was okay to cry, to feel the hurt of her loss.

And then it was morning.

It was early, and she found her mother in the kitchen, at the stove. Together they stirred and tasted the tomato, pepper, and garlic that would go on the spaghetti for lunch after church. It was always better this way, when you cooked it up in the morning and let it sit for a few hours before warming it up again. Then her mother looked at her, touched her cheek. “We’re going to be all right, you know,” she said. “Your father loved you a great deal and always will.”

Megan knew, but at the same time she felt something missing from her life, a vacancy where there should be a presence, a hollow in her heart. And yet she would not deny it now, for it marked a sacred place in her memory and held the distant hope of heaven.

She walked outside into the cool, wet sunlight. Mr. Chisholm had just stepped out onto his porch. She cupped her hands and shouted, “Good morning, Mr. Chisholm!” and waved. Not the most reverent way to begin a Sunday morning, but she strongly suspected at that moment she might be happy, or at least capable of happiness. And it would not do to keep the moment only to herself.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson