The Faint Light of Heaven

Fiction
Lisa Ahn


girl in a polka dot hat
Photo Credit: Bonnie Natko

I’m too old to begin again with Grace. Seventy-one is past time for raising a child.

But this morning there she was, stepping off the train with such awkward care you might have thought she was keeping her skin on by force of will. Six years old, left in the hands of the conductor, her name pinned slantwise on her sweater. God knows what her mother was thinking, and surely even he might pause, if he had a mind to look. Truth is, I haven’t understood my own daughter in a good long while.

It doesn’t help that it’s the middle of winter and bone-chilling cold, everything frozen solid. In the spring, there will be new calves and shoats and lambs, and the baby chicks that she loves and tiny ducklings and goslings on the lake. But it’s too early for all of that. We putter through the house instead, skirting the edges. Grace sits by the television watching an endless loop of cartoon characters chase and maim and mock each other. Her face never changes.

I hold my breath, waiting for the grief. It burns inside my chest, aching, as if I’ve been shaken loose from dreams. There’s no expiration date on loss. Grief can run so deep it thins out time past the point of bearing weight. That, I know. That, I lived too—the shock of falling, headlong, into impossibility. The realization that the person who birthed you might not, in fact, bear you any love.

*

I was younger than Grace when I first came to the farm, but it’s not a journey I could forget. Nor could I forget what came before—the soul-grimed kitchen where I slept curled like an apostrophe by the stove, under a thin, gray blanket with bugs that were even more persistent than the cold. My mother’s tight red lips that burst into an exaggerated smile whenever a man walked in. She had none to spare for me. I remember the odor of stale sheets and whiskey and unwashed men and something else that I was too young to understand but that I did not want to know.

I had a little doll back then that I made from a stick and odd bits of string, her eyes and smile scratched on with a nail. She was the only thing I owned completely. The doll’s name was Rose and I loved her so much, you wouldn’t believe she was made of bits of nothing and scraps. I used to whisper to her, marvelous stories of faraway places where everyone was polite and clean and smelled of flowers. I was much too young to wonder then how imagination could reach so far from where I was.

I cried for half the train ride, missing Rose. I’m sure she was thrown out or burned when they found me gone. It was one of the other women who woke me in the depth of night, when even our house was quiet, woke me with a hand over my mouth and a whisper in my ear. She was young, I remember, with golden hair and sad, pinched eyes. She hadn’t been in the brothel long, already a favorite with dockworkers and shipmen. With a finger to her lips, she promised me a surprise. I was so befuddled with sleep and the rarity of gifts that I left Rose behind, not knowing I wasn’t coming back.

We walked a long time, and my feet were bare and nearly frozen. She carried me after a while, and I think I must have drifted back to sleep because all of a sudden she stopped and I opened my eyes to a building that loomed in every direction at once—to me, trembling in the dark chill, it looked like an entrance to the far edge of nowhere. I started to whimper, and my escort shushed me into silence and set me down to face her. She looked hard and broken in the castoff light of distant stars, and I realized that she was much, much younger than I had thought. She smiled, brittle, and told me that I was going to a new life, now, just like in my stories.

That’s when I knew I wasn’t going back, and I thought of Rose, left all alone. I cried and struggled to break free, but the girl-woman held tight and dragged me towards the massive front door. Before she knocked, she knelt down once more, pulled a thin worn medal from her neck and placed it around my own. St. Christopher it was, patron saint of travelers. That was all she gave me by way of explanation. Her knock was loud on the door—louder than any noise I would have imagined she could make. The boom seemed to chase itself down the street as several dogs woke and set up a racket. The woman who answered was fully dressed as if it weren’t the middle of the night. She looked us up and down, lingering on my pale bare feet, and then she took my free hand firmly in hers. The girl-woman let go and the door closed over her face with a dull and resonant thud.

That night I became the ward of a children’s aid society. They cropped my hair very short and gave me a new, clean dress and shoes, real ones with hard soles. All the children ate together in a large room insulated against chatter. We slept on long rows of cots, tossing whispers back and forth when the matron’s footsteps faded down the hall. It was a crowded place, a jumble of noise and chores and lessons and rules.

I hadn’t hardly settled in, nor lost my early bruises, when the matron told me I’d be leaving on the next orphan train, headed to a new home out west. No one asked me what I thought, and I don’t think I could have answered if they had. Staying or going didn’t seem more than two sides of the same coin of solitude and grief. I didn’t try to explain that my mother was still alive, and I doubt it would have mattered. We were all called orphans, even those with both a mother and father alive who could claim them if they would.

Before we left for the train station, we were scrubbed and polished and dressed as neat as pins. There were about twenty of us in all, chaperoned by a lady and two gentlemen. I was the youngest and smallest to be chosen. When the whistle blew and the wheels began to turn along the ground beneath me, I started to cry for Rose, quietly to myself. I held onto St. Christopher dangling from my neck and kept my face to the window as the city rolled by until it vanished. Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I tried to eat the apples and bread and mustard they gave us. Mostly I wondered if where I was going would be any better than where I had been. After a while I didn’t cry anymore, since there wasn’t any point.

I watch Grace carefully today, her frozen resignation, and see a mirror to my childhood’s stalwart grief. Her tears have dried up harsh behind her eyes, as the landscape rolls away beneath her. I’d like to offer up my hand, my history, my promise that she’s not alone, that here is where she’s meant to be. But it’s too soon for all of that. She hasn’t yet the space in her flayed heart to listen.

*

I was just as close-shuttered when I got off the train in Geneva, almost seventy years ago. We were all tired from the journey, but the excitement of reaching our destination was catching, and soon I began to peer around me as we walked into town. Lots of folks were there, casting eyes at us. There weren’t many children in the crowd, and I heard one of our guardians say that the Spanish flu had hit hard the year before. Nearly every family in the area had lost a child or more. That’s why we were there, to replace the ones who’d gone. I felt a bit sick inside at that, thinking I’d come to take the place of a ghost child, a double sort of haunting. I clenched my hands tight to my sides and looked down then, keeping my eyes pointed at the toes of my round brown shoes.

We were bustled into a big, warm building with large arched windows and carvings on every surface—later, I knew it as the Opera House, but back then it was a mystery and a wonder. I was ushered up onto a wooden stage along with the other children. All the townspeople were down below and we could hear them as they looked us over and decided who they might want to take home. I kept my eyes down, even when the lady who brought us there told me to look up and smile so that someone would want to keep me. She wanted me to be amiable, but I could hardly stand for shaking.

I could hear the folks below saying that this boy looked strong enough to work the farm, and that one looked like he had a mean streak, or that girl looked too frail and wouldn’t last, but this one could help in the kitchen for sure. Most of the other kids, especially the boys, were bolder than I and were calling out their good qualities as if they were selling fruit in a market stall. Only a few of us, the youngest and shyest, held back, and soon I found myself towards the rear of the stage, mostly out of view. Then some sort of signal must have been given because everyone started to move at once, and the people from the town were coming up on stage a few at a time and kids were moving off with them and going away. I backed up a little farther and started to cry. I wanted Rose, or that old scratchy blanket, or my mother. I wanted something, someone I knew, who knew me, even if it hurt.

I must not have heard Agnes when she first knelt down to speak to me. At some point I guess I just realized that she was there, in a pretty blue dress with little yellow flowers, kneeling down and wiping my cheeks with the whitest handkerchief I had ever seen. A man stood by her side—even with my eyes lowered, I saw the ends of his brown boots and the worn crease in his denim. His hand rested on her shoulder while she spoke to me in a voice as soft as a breeze in July. She asked me several times if I would like to live with them. I had stopped crying by then and looked up. She had a face washed with kindness and sorrow and laughter all at once, and eyes that crinkled lightly all around the edges. I nodded, mute. She squeezed my hand and Albert took my other hand and together they led me off the stage. They didn’t let go once, not even when they signed the papers. Outside, Albert lifted me up into the wagon and Agnes right behind me. They covered me with a thick warm fur, tight against the cold. Then Albert cracked the reins and the horse bells rang out and we began the journey home.

Since then, I’ve learned that home is mostly a question of lost and found, of what we carry and the ghost-echoes of everything scattered. It was not a lesson for childhood. We all want to go back, sometimes, to bend time, to break it. We all wish for the space before loss. We race ghosts past their own inception, clattering the days. There is never any easy return.

Grace must dream it, even if she disavows the longing. She must feel the pull, back to the home she lost, to the time of “before.” Before her brother disappeared into the hands of a stranger. Before her parents sought to heal their own wounds by sending her away. In Grace, I see my own life refracted, transposed onto another skin. It is a strange sort of haunting.

It’s hard to imagine that parents who lost one child could so easily give up on the other, but that’s what they’ve done. That’s what they’ve done, and we are left to mend the pieces blown.

*

We’ve had a rare warm spell lately, days so bright and sunny that the mounds of snow have begun to melt and we’re surrounded by isolated hillocks of dirty slush and troughs of half-frozen mud. Ben took Grace out this morning before the sun to help with the milking. As soon as her feet hit the squelch, a smile popped back onto her face. Leave it to her grandfather to realize that nothing can restore a child to herself like messes to be made.

There’s not enough mud in the world, though, to make up for what is still to come. Her mother called last week and asked me to enroll Grace in school. Her records arrived in the mail today. Every time her parents call, she asks them when they are coming to bring her home. There’s always a pause, a silence, a change of subject, but no answer. Angelica is waiting for me to break the news, the truth that Grace has been abandoned, that we, old and worn, are all she has. The truth that home is here, now, this.

*

The first time I saw this place I thought it might swallow me up. In the gathering twilight, the lake was a wide blue-gray seam that stretched out to the other side of nowhere, and the land filled with trees was a rushing of shadows towards the sky. The neat square house on the hill was filled with light—and strangers. There were Albert and Agnes, and Albert’s twin brother, Matthew, along with Matthew’s two sons, Charlie and Jacob. A whole family not my own, and most of them men. I pulled my children’s home coat tighter across my chest, but Agnes brushed a cool and gentle hand along my forehead, knowing.

In Five Points, in the brothel where my mother worked, there were no private rooms for girls who didn’t earn their place. That’s why I slept in the kitchen. It was a busy room, but chilly, so I always tried to cozy up to the stove. It was a dance, that was, trying to get close enough to the stove for warmth, but not so close that I’d be noticed. More than once I woke to the prodding of a boot in my stomach, gruff laughter, and glances that felt, even to me, so young, like something slick and heated with its own exposure.

When Agnes led me upstairs to the little room in the eaves, there were no men, no potbellied stove, no dirty dishes to wash or damp clothes hanging from lines. Instead, I found honey-colored furniture and bright quilted warmth. A clear square window looked out across a lake blanketed with stars. I had never seen anything like that room. It felt too clean, too bright, too cozy and safe to be anything of mine. I backed up into a corner, curled up like a cat, and pulled the edges of my heart closed around me.

Agnes knelt down at the rim of where I was. Her cool hand on my cheek felt likeā€¦ well, like stories of Christmas, light and smooth and dulcet with the clear jingle of a sleigh bell. She held her hand like that, against my cheek, for a long, unreckoned moment. A universe was unwinding between us, vast and spiraling and unspeakably new. Her voice, when it came, was soft and warm like the fur of a cat, but what she said in words had already unraveled itself between us in the cool touch of her hand. This room was mine, she said. Just for me, she said, just for me—the bed, the wooden chest, the desk and its chair, the lovely cushioned rocker by the little square of sky, and the quilt, the marvelous quilt with its bright stars of color, the points all touching as if they were holding hands, the quilt she had stitched together, just for me. She held out her hand and I took it, and she lifted me up and tucked me deep in a nesting of quilts, running her cool palm across my cheek once more before she smiled and left me to my wonder.

I did not sleep that first night on the farm. I stayed awake, watching the stars and the moon slowly glide across the clear square of night. I traced the quilt patterns in the faint light of heaven. I stroked the softness of the sheets and pushed hard against the pillow to see how far my hand could sink. I crawled to the edge of the bed and slid down, landing softly on the braided rug with its picture of an apple tree in bloom. I opened up the smooth wooden chest with its carved figures on top—an apple, a bee, and a cat. Inside, nestled among sweaters and blankets there were a few carved blocks, a spinning top, a sack of marbles, and a small wooden horse—all worn with much love and play. I handled each as if it might shatter, before putting it back exactly as it had been. On the wooden desk, there were two thick books, some chalk and a slate, all carefully tended. I picked up the books and, though I couldn’t read the words, I traced the outlines of the pictures under the scattering light that comes before dawn.

I stayed out of the bed, though it was bitterly cold, until I heard stirring below, and then I scrambled back onto the mattress and crawled beneath the quilts. I closed my eyes and listened, waiting, until the heaviness of sleep crept over me. I slept until the sun was high in the window and all was quiet below. And I knew somehow the way only a child can know that they were quiet because of me, because I slept. I knew without knowing that she had come again and again to the door, had stood there and listened to catch my breathing. That she had gone below to tell the men, who kept coming in from their work, that I slept, that I breathed, that I was still there, still there. I knew that they were the only people who had ever listened for my breath, and when I felt Agnes’s hesitant hand on my shoulder, I knew I was crying and I knew I was home.

Oh, I must be old, for the memory of that first night and morning has me crying an old woman’s tears. Ben reaches out and pats my shoulder in comfort, even as he sleeps. We have been together a long, long time, he and I. Years stretch behind us, beaded with memories.

We are too old to begin again with Grace, but we will do it all the same. Together, we will sift through everything lost, everything reclaimed. We will offer up our history, mourning’s echo redeemed. From loose bits and faded time, from the reinvention of hope and faith, we will weave together a new incarnation of home, golden-hued and tucked carefully within the eaves.

pencil

Lisa Ahn’s short fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle and Spectra Magazine. She has also published narrative nonfiction on Writer Unboxed and at Real Zest, and literary criticism in the journals Criticism, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, and Twentieth Century Literature. “The Faint Light of Heaven” is an excerpt from her first novel, Grace Blinks. Email: flowerpotsun[at]gmail.com

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