Monday, July 9, 2007

The Grace I Know-By Tony Woodlief

Below is an excerpt from a story written by Tony Woodlief, a man that I had an opportunity to meet, and admire greatly. Mother found this on his blog, and emailed it to me. It pierced me in some strange way. If I can capture a fraction of the meaning and poigniancy found among the words below in any of my writing, I'll call myself a success. I hope you have a tissue...

Anthony Woodlief
Grace comes for me in the loneliest part of the night, the way she used to do. Her steady tap on the door pulls me from sleep, and there she stands in the dim light of the hallway, wearing her little cotton nightgown embroidered with purple flowers. Her stare is fixed on the place where my head emerges from the darkness of our bedroom, as if her eyes can divine the black. I know what she wants before she raises her arms. She was always my little spool of thread, spilling out of her bed and down the hall to bump against my door, to wait until I cradled her and rewound the invisible string between her door and mine, returning her to rest.

So I lift her to my chest and she lays her head on my shoulder. Her soft dark curls tickle my nose as they always did, even when only wisps remained. “Do you remember,” she whispers in a voice that is still working out how to form words, “the time when I was sick from the medicine you let them give me, and how you yelled at me because I messed myself?”

“Yes.” My answer is thin and soft because I am ashamed, and because I don’t want Hannah to hear. It frightens her that our daughter still comes to me. “I was just so tired.”

She tightens her grip. Her muscles feel coordinated and purposeful, like that of a snake, and for a brief moment I imagine she will strangle me. Her lips are close to my ear as we walk down the hallway. “You promised I would get better.”

The shame is an icy wind and I close my eyes to it. “I know.” I stumble, then stop, fearful of waking Benjamin. We are outside his door, so close that I can hear a catch in his breath, as if he feels the same cold gust stab his skin. I don’t know what I am waiting for, only that we should wait.

I can feel Grace peering from beneath her hair, through Benjamin’s door, and suddenly I am certain that she is examining him with those relentless eyes. No, we shouldn’t wait here. My instincts have been unreliable for years. We move quickly past Benjamin’s door and I try to explain my lie. “I didn’t want you to be afraid.” Her throat extrudes a grim chuckle.

We are at the doorway to Grace’s room, which is closed, so I open it. Inside there is a small bed of painted white wood, and a matching dresser, and a child’s rocking chair surrounded by dolls. The smell of her is gone; there is only a faint mustiness, an odor of dust. The girl in my arms has no smell, now that I search for it. I used to be able to conjure her scents – baby shampoo and bubble gum and, after playing outside, something like a wet puppy rolled in flowers.

She doesn’t resist as I pull back the blankets and lay her body on the bed, but her gaze is a reproach. I sit and she takes my face in her hands, exactly the way she used to do. “Do you remember,” she asks, her eyes bright and cruel, “how you wanted me to die in the end? How you daydreamed about it?”

A moan forms in my throat. I pull my face from her hands of stone and stare at the floor, at the way my feet have gathered themselves at the side of her bed just as they would do when I sat here and prayed. There are no more prayers inside me. I close my eyes and pretend that the creature tugging at my arm is Grace.

“David?” Hannah stands in the doorway. For a moment I think perhaps I have become Grace, sitting alone on this little bed. There is pity and sadness in Hannah’s face, and the slightest fear. Her pale blue eyes can fill up so quickly, even now. She cradles my head against her stomach, which quivers with the cold, and she kisses me. Her tears drop onto my skin, warm at first, but quickly becoming cold touches, like the fingertips of a corpse. Hannah thinks I came here alone.

We squeeze onto the bed together and lie down, the way we used to do when we believed the lingering smell would spark dreams of Grace. Each of us was secretly treacherous back then, silently pleading with God that if only one of us could see her, that it not be the other. You think that you will dream about your child all the time, but that’s a lie. You hardly dream of her at all.

Only lately I needn’t dream, because she comes for me in the blackness. I know she isn’t my daughter, but I didn’t know it would be this way. I didn’t know that the days would stack themselves end on end, and shape themselves into months, and then years, until they became a relentless wave, carrying me away from that last moment I held her. Sometimes my arms ache from it, from the absence. It is too much, and so when she comes I always open the door.

Tony Woodlief is an MFA student in creative writing at Wichita State University and a regular essayist for World magazine. Some of his current essay interests are faith, children and annoying things like McDonalds's inability to properly place pickles on a cheeseburger. Tony has a forthcomingstory in Image, and his short memoir Raising Wild Boys into Men: A Modern Dad's Survival Guide is soon to be released (The New Pamphleteer, 2007). Tony lives in Wichita, Kansas, with his wife and four sons.


Anonymous said...

I don't suppose you know for sure however, I thought I'd take a chance and ask you if this was just an assignment or if this was a real life situation he is writing about. Like I said, I don't know if you know or not, but I just thought I'd ask.

PJ said...

Michel-thanks for the comments. I can't say for sure, but the story was originally published in Ruminate Magazine. The link to the excerpt on Ruminate's website is shown below. It is not HIS real life situation, but I don't think, either, that it was an assignment. I believe it was written to publish (it is fiction).