The following story is a selection from World Unknown Review Volume III (2016).
by Sarah Gribble
I go to visit her every Sunday at ten o’clock, a time I used to reserve for Mass. Now my husband worships without me. I can’t bring myself to praise God after all He has taken from me.
I pull off the paved drive, as usual, just past the battalion of uniform soldiers’ graves, all lined up as if they were protecting the young souls behind them. It’s raining today, and cold, but that doesn’t deter me. No umbrella, no coat.
My SUV door slams shut with a startling report in the silence. As usual, the cemetery is deserted.
Two angelic stone children kneel on either side of a small fountain, their hands clutched in prayer as they look up at the sky. Etched in the fountain’s curved side are the words LULLABY LAND. I want to scream every time I pass this gateway to the corner section; the name seems trite and foolish. As if all the children buried here are merely sleeping.
Lullaby Land contains the detritus of lives not lived. Plastic phones with eyes, Tonka trucks, creepy faded monkeys strung from makeshift crosses. Birthday balloons, holiday decorations. The grave next to hers is partitioned off, filled with sand and Hot Wheels.
I take up my position on the cold ground, knees protesting as I sit cross-legged and stare at my daughter’s headstone.
JAN 3, 2015 – JAN 6, 2015
OUR LITTLE ANGEL
The cold rain mixes with my tears.
* * *
Father Thomas is over for dinner. He and Luis have been making small talk for the past twenty minutes while I finish dinner. Baked chicken and rice from a box again. I used to consider myself a gourmet; I even wrote a modestly successful cooking blog. Now I can’t muster the energy to think of a recipe, let alone put effort into cooking it. The plates I set out are mismatched; I sacrificed my nice set against the walls months ago in a fit of rage. I don’t care. Father Thomas will just have to deal.
“This looks lovely, Alina,” Father Thomas says with a small smile.
I don’t respond. All I want is for this dinner to be over.
Luis and Father Thomas share a look, then Luis clears his throat.
“Would you like to say grace, Father?”
I shoot my husband a sharp look. Grace hasn’t been said in this house in almost six months. Father Thomas either misses the look or ignores it.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Luis echoes the ‘amen’. I stare stoically ahead.
* * *
I’m being tortured. Father Thomas and Luis are on their second cup of coffee. My first cup remains in front of me on the table, cold and untouched. I spent the entirety of dinner listening to supposedly uplifting stories and bits of scripture. All revolved around loss, of course. Luis nodded sincerely between bites, every so often glancing quickly at me. I wanted to throw a plate at the priest’s head. To hell with him and his lessons. And to hell with my husband for springing this on me. Did he really think this would help?
Father Thomas sits his steaming mug down. “And when can we expect to see you back at Mass, Alina?”
I stare like he’s spontaneously grown horns.
Luis jumps in. “Very soon, Father. Very soon.” He doesn’t dare look me in the eye.
* * *
Low conversation from the hall as my husband guides our guest to the front door. The door clicks closed, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I wish people would mind their own business.
Luis returns to the dining room. I have yet to move from my chair. Luis wraps his hands around the back of the chair opposite. He’s staring at the center of the empty table as he murmurs, “We could try again.”
I get up slowly, my chair scratching across the wood floor like fingernails on a coffin.
I don’t look at him as I leave the room.
* * *
The blackout curtains are shut tight, our bedroom a sea of dark. I hesitate in the doorway. Behind me, directly across the hall, is the door to the nursery. Beyond are pink walls, stuffed animals, an unchristened crib. I close my eyes and picture myself rocking my infant, singing her a lullaby as her tiny eyelids droop, her breath eventually deepening as she drifts off. Just like I’d done in the hospital, right before she died.
My breath hitches, and my eyes sting. I fight the urge to fling the door open and rush to the crib. She’s not there, I tell myself. She’s never been there and never will be.
I don’t turn on the light as I cross to my bed. The sheets are cool. I pull them up to my chin and bury my face. Time passes in the dark. Eventually Luis comes to bed. He reaches for me. I roll away.
* * *
I place the little stuffed rabbit beside the stone.
“You’re a year old today,” I whisper. “Your daddy…” I trail off. What should I tell her? Luis refused to come today. He said he would pray for her at Mass.
The cold rain from the past few weeks has given way to a light snow.
Would she have liked snow?
I give up on explaining Luis’ absence. Instead, I tell her about snowmen and snow angels, hot cocoa and warm cookies. I would have tucked her in tight on Christmas Eve, reading her a few lines from A Christmas Carol, as my mother had done for me.
A lifetime of missed opportunities, of memories that will never be.
Someone is approaching, but graveyard etiquette keeps me from looking up. The fellow mourner stops at a grave several rows to my right and one row up. I can see her out of the corner of my eye: an old woman, a plastic rain bonnet tied around her fluffy white hair. She bends slowly to place flowers. A grandmother, perhaps.
When she straightens, she begins a lullaby, low under her breath.
Her presence disturbs me, makes me simultaneously angry and uncomfortable. She has broken a social barrier somehow, muscling her way into my private mourning. The heartbreak of a mother outweighs that of a grandmother, surely. I hope she will leave quickly.
She launches into another lullaby. Or maybe a prayer.
I check my watch. I have plenty of time before Luis returns home from Mass. Resolving to wait her out in my car, I tiptoe over graves and crosses, Barbies and wayward flowers. As I pass behind her, I can’t help glancing at the headstone she’s caressing.
JOHN JOSEPH McKIBBEN
JANUARY 3, 1967 – MARCH 14, 1967
An involuntary gasp escapes my lips. She turns at the noise, notices where I’m looking, and gives me a small smile. Even smiling, the corners of her mouth tug downward.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” I say quickly.
“Don’t worry, dear.” Her eyes float back to where I came from, a question on her face.
“My daughter.” I point. “She is…would have been…a year old today.”
Her eyes soften, and I’m suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to hug this stranger, but non-stranger, this woman who knows the black mark left on your soul after losing a child.
She turns back to her son’s grave and says, “You hear that, Johnny? That little girl over there has the same birthday as you. You best look after her.”
I burst into tears. A moment later, the woman’s arms are around me. I inhale her scent of flowers and menthol.
“There, there, child. I know.”
Suddenly embarrassed, I pull away and wipe the backs of my hands over my face. The woman pulls a handkerchief out of her long wool coat and hands it to me.
It all comes out in a rush. The labor, the hospital, the prognosis. She was early, born with weak lungs. I only got to hold her once, as she took her last breaths.
The woman listens and nods, her lips pursed. I feel an overwhelming sense of relief when I’m finished; I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to talk about my daughter, about the pain I’ve been through. Finding another woman who understands the grief, the guilt, is more cathartic than I could have imagined. Maybe Luis and Father Thomas were right about the support groups they tried to get me to attend months ago.
“And where is your husband?”
“Oh dear, I didn’t mean to pry.” She flutters a hand around her mouth as if she could catch the question and put it back. “These days I guess there doesn’t have to be a husband…not that I mind that…”
“Luis,” I say. “He’s…at church.”
She nods with appreciation. “A good place to be.”
“I suppose.” I glance back at Evangeline’s grave. “I would rather him be here. He should be here.”
She is silent for a beat, chewing on her bottom lip. I feel as if she disapproves of something I’ve said, but I don’t know what. Luis? I find that I don’t care to defend my husband to this stranger. I’m not sure I would defend him to anyone.
“He wants another baby,” I blurt. “Can you believe that? Our daughter is dead, and he wants a replacement. Like she was just a toy, an iPhone or something. Pick up a new model when the old one doesn’t work.” The cool fury I’d felt toward Luis for the last year ignites in my belly. “I can barely stand to be in the same room with him anymore.”
She points vaguely to the left. “My husband is over that-a-way. Drank himself to death.” Her voice lowers. “I’ll never forgive him for that, for leaving me alone with my grief and three other young ones.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
She waves a hand dismissively. “I only mention it to prove a point. It sounds to me like your husband is trying to be there.”
“He’s not here!”
“I don’t mean here. I mean he’s trying to be with you. Possibly be there for you. Or maybe trying to get through this horrible tragedy the only way he knows how. Everyone grieves in their own way.”
She takes my hand in both of hers and pats it. Her skin feels cold and thin, like butterfly wings.
“Trust me, dear, it’s much worse to go through alone.”
* * *
Luis is lying on his back as I crawl into bed and click the light off. We lay in silence. I listen to his breathing, thinking about what the old woman said.
A thought hits me like a boulder: I miss him. I need him.
I inch toward him. His body tenses.
Wrapping my hand around his wrist, I lift his arm so I can snuggle into the nook at his armpit, lay my head on his chest. I want to give this a chance. One more chance.
He doesn’t fight me, but his muscles remain on alert. I run my fingers through his fine chest hair.
Suddenly, he clutches me to him and begins to weep.
Words tumble out of him between sobs. “I’m sorry Alina, I should have gone with you today. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
I hold him tight as tears roll down my cheeks, and I know I’m not alone.
Sarah Gribble physically resides somewhere in Ohio, but where her mind resides depends on the day. She writes sometimes. She bangs her head against hte wall other times. When she’s not engaged in either of those activities, she is trying to satisfy the intense attention requirements of a houseful of animals and one patient husband. Her work can be found in Wordhaus magazine and the horror anthology Hindered Souls Vol. 1.