Mary Margaret stirs, awakens, listens instinctively for the children, the thunking heel-strike that was Michael’s long, thin feet, or the softer flip-flop of Anna Marie’s. She snaps awake to the silence, the emptiness. Beside her in the darkness, John’s feet kick restlessly, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth under the crisp white sheet.
She slips out of bed, feels for her slippers, makes her way down the hall to the front room and its dark Christmas tree, its empty mantel. The grandfather clock strikes once, a hollow gong. Mary Margaret moves toward the sound of it, but it is silent again, as silent as the bare mantel, the unlit tree, the bedrooms upstairs. The entire world is silent, absent even of the outside night sounds which are hushed, deadened by the heavy snow that stretches in an unbroken blanket all the way to her children’s graves.
Mary Margaret raises the little brass hook and opens the lower door of the clock. From inside, she lifts her bottle of bourbon and fills her glass. She sits at the window, her back to the room, the tree, the stairs leading to the children’s bedrooms, stairs she climbed only three days ago to wake Anna Marie for the last morning of school before the break. Michael was up already, finishing his homework at the kitchen table, his fingers tight against the end of his pencil, touching the lead.
The children had argued that morning as they boarded the bus, Anna Marie’s mouth puckering in indignation as Michael teased her about a new boy at school. But even that had not bothered Mary Margaret. Her mind had been on the boxes of ornaments in the cellar, the lights, the tree which was, thankfully, safely anchored in its stand. Her mind had been on the new bicycle she’d bought for Michael, which John would assemble that weekend, and on the charm she’d had made for Anna Marie, a tiny silver heart engraved with the same name, the same birth date as that now engraved on the granite slab.
That same evening, the neighbors had come with their thick, consoling casseroles. They came one after the other, bringing news of the new boy, in a coma in a hospital miles away. They spoke in soothing tones about how lucky she was that her children hadn’t
suffered, as if it were a blessing to be left completely without hope.
Outside, snowflakes flutter in the glow of the streetlight which, muted by the whiteness, shines like a halo against the darkness of the cloud-laden sky. Watching it, Mary Margaret has the vaguest stirring of a memory of something, some comfort she once knew. She moves to the bookshelf and finds her mother’s Bible, the tops of its pages covered with a layer of dust as ancient and impermeable as the unending snow. She sits at the window again, tracing a finger over the dull gold letters embossed on this book from which her mother read her stories when she was a girl. Mary Margaret had read to her own children just as her mother had read to her, but she read different stories, other fairy tales: Cinderella and Snow White and Peter Pan. She read them The Chronicles of Narnia, all seven volumes, wondering as she read whether the parallels between the lion god of Narnia and the Father-Son-and-Holy-Ghost God with whom she had grown up would be lost on her children. Michael and Anna Marie had been baptized, but had never really been brought to any god.
Mary Margaret takes a sip of bourbon. She opens the Bible, tilts it to the window, to the halo of streetlight, and reads aloud, as her mother would now were she still alive. "My daughter is even now dead," she reads, "but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live." She leans back against the chair and closes her eyes for a moment, and when she returns to the passage, she hears the words in her mother’s unquestioning voice. "And Jesus arose, and followed him . . . And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house . . . He said unto them . . . the maid is not dead, but sleepeth . . . He went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose."
The child arose, Mary Margaret thinks. The father believed and he called on God and God answered him, and the child arose, awoke and lived, though she had
been dead only the moment before.
Mary Margaret hears the downy echo of her mother’s voice, the soft rhythm of words with which her mother used to lull her toward belief. And for the shortest moment, she thinks she will flee out the door, run slipper-footed across the snow all the way to the cemetery, carrying only this book, these words. She will read to her children at their gravesides as she has never read before, and they will rise up like the daughter in the story. They, too, will be returned by this God.
When John wakes and comes to find Mary Margaret, the lights of the tree glow brightly in the living room. The children’s stockings hang on the mantel, overflowing now with gifts. Still, Mary Margaret stands there, stuffing candy canes, crayons, magnets into them. As if Christmas day were not already over. As if she need only believe in something. As if there must be some one thing in which she can believe well enough.
John takes the gifts from her hands and sets them on the mantel. She stares at him blankly. He leads her back to bed, eases her in carefully, pulls the sheet and blanket to her chin. He lies next to her, strokes her cheek, her hair, the dip of her waist. She closes her eyes, pretends sleep.
John’s breathing slows. Downstairs, the clock strikes three times. Outside, the snow continues its relentless fall. Beside her, John’s feet begin to kick again, gently, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in his sleep. Mary Margaret lies motionless, entombed in the silence, wondering where he has found to run.