And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there . . .
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
Her dad pulls a jacket on over her pajamas. He ties her shoes.
She does not know where he is taking her. She isn’t awake in the middle of the night except when nightmares wake her. She is never outside. She has always lived here, but in the middle of the night, her neighborhood doesn’t look like hers. The porch lights burn her eyes when she looks up at them—why doesn’t the light reach the sidewalk? The windows of the houses are so black. Spiny hedges threaten to come alive. The blue mailboxes whose mouths she can’t reach, even on tiptoes. By the hand, her father pulls her past them. Somewhere, a dog barks meanly. Dogs scare her, yet she’s glad that this one senses them. She wants to cry. She knows better.
Her father is John Donaldson.
Walking with his daughter, he wears his camel-hair topcoat, the one he wears to the office in autumn. At three in the morning, he doesn’t think anyone will see them. Even on summer days, no one sits on the wraparound porches.
Across the street, yards fade into houses. The darkness blurs lines and angles. Mr. Donaldson’s wife once described Victorians as brooding. He nodded rather than asserting that they had stood the test of time. His wife’s photo is in his pocket. He keeps from slipping his hand into his pocket.
Scotch warms him from the inside. Mr. Donaldson drank one and then another after he found his daughter praying at bedtime. He stops and stoops to face Hanna, rubs her arms up and down to warm her. It’s an empty gesture, he sees; her cheeks remain colorless and stiff. He stands. They continue walking.
A kiss on the forehead every night before bed. Her dad turns out the light, and her ceiling glows with stick-on stars. One time, she asked him why the stars in the sky outside don’t stay put.
Under her bed, in plastic bins, she keeps her stuffed animals. On the dresser top is a wooden jewelry box. Her bedtime books are stacked on the nightstand. Her dirty clothes go in a yellow hamper. In the morning, she hangs her pajamas in the closet. Her backpack goes on the hook behind her bedroom door. Everything in her room has its place.
She puts everything away, but when she puts something away in the wrong place, her father doesn’t yell at her. He has her put it back right.
Her mother has watched over her from a framed photo on the wall across from the bed. Tonight, when her dad shook her by the shoulder and said, “Sweetheart. Hanna, baby. Hanna, get up,” the photo wasn’t where it should’ve been.
No one has reason to think him strange, but Mr. Donaldson doesn’t talk much about himself. His colleagues and neighbors know he has a seven-year-old daughter. They know his wife died some years ago.
Her whole hand fits into her dad’s. Was it just this morning when the warmth of his palm, his sweat, comforted her? In the middle of the night, he walks too fast and pulls her forward. Her feet skitter over the sidewalk. For an instant, she is a water skipper on the pond behind school. They’re all gone now. Asleep? She wants to ask her dad to slow down. A voice in her head whispers, Daddy, please. Please slow down. Three times she asks the few stars in the dusty sky to grant a wish: for her father to stop and hold her.
They go around corners and cross the street and go right and go left and cross the street. They have walked for forever. Hanna has counted eleven cars. Hanna has silently told herself “Hansel and Gretel.” She has told herself “Little Red Riding Hood.” She has silently sung herself “You are My Sunshine.” Her feet don’t feel good. In her neighborhood are big trees with big sheets of bark that peel like the paper off Band-Aids. Now she tips her head back, searching for the top of a light pole. Her toe catches on a break in the sidewalk. Her dad lifts her up by the wrist until she finds her feet.
“Daddy . . .”
“We’re almost there, sweetheart.”
Mr. Donaldson was raised Catholic. His mother and father, and later his father alone, took him to church for Mass, for feast days, for Sunday school.
At home it was: Don’t run in the halls. Flush the toilet. Finish your food. Don’t bother Mommy in the bedroom. Once, he spilled grape juice on the sofa. He denied doing it, and his parents scolded him. Little boys, too, were judged by God. After that, how often did they remind him of God’s judgment? John soon had no trouble obeying the rules.
Then, one Friday in October, his mother felt tired and achy, as if coming down with flu. With the fish lasagna finally in the oven and the timer set, she told John she was going to lie down and to let the buzzer wake her.
After an hour, the timer went off. When his mother didn’t wake up, John sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor in the hall, at the foot of her bedroom door. After a minute or two, he started to rock himself forward and backward, forward and backward. The buzzer, sharp and biting downstairs, reached the second floor no louder than the whine of a mosquito at his neck. John rocked himself harder. He pulled at his earlobe. He put his ear to the door. He could hear the bed shaking, its feet rattling on the floor. “Mommy,” he whispered. He knew not to wake her. He knelt, clasped his hands, prayed. A thump came from inside the room. He repeated louder, “Mommy.” He prayed, God, please wake Mommy. God, please tell Mommy that I’m scared. God, tell me it’s all right to open the door. He put his ear to the door. Heard only the buzzer. “Mommy,” he said. He prayed to God and sat cross-legged on the floor.
His dad, arriving home from work, opened the front door to a billow of smoke. He dropped his briefcase and yelled his wife’s name and under his breath muttered, “What the.” He ran into the kitchen where, finding his wife’s yellow oven mitts on the butcher block, he maneuvered the carbonized lasagna into the sink and doused it. John heard his father and shot up. The faucet ran. The oven fan was on high. His father was opening windows when John hugged his leg.
They climbed the stairs together. John knew his father had permission to wake Mommy, and he stood behind him as the door swung open to his mother on the floor. Her legs were straight, her toes pointing toward the ceiling. Her left hand, the one closest to John, lay clenched on her stomach. Her right arm disappeared behind her back. Her neck bent sharply backward; her shoulders and upper-body were lifted onto the crown of her head. His mother, when trying to stay calm, would massage above the hollow of her throat. Where her fingers once moved up and down the skin, John saw ropes of tendon. He knew they were responsible in some way for her gaping mouth.
Three years ago, Hanna’s grandparents dressed her in a soft red pinafore. They whispered in her ear that her mother, their daughter, was in a better place. Her dad doesn’t say that Hanna’s mother is in a better place. He says her mother’s in the blue pot he keeps atop the dresser in his bedroom. “Like a genie?” she once asked, and he nodded yes and hugged her.
Hanna hasn’t seen her grandparents since she was four. Or she has seen them without her father knowing. Once, right after the robins came back, and again months later, when the leaves changed colors, she saw their wrinkly faces through the windshield of a big gray car parked across the street from her house. Her dad saw them, too, and he picked her up and pressed her head to his shoulder. He was breathing noisily through his nose, so she pretended she hadn’t seen her grandparents.
After his mother died, John knew that everyone, especially his father, blamed him. He could see it in the simpering faces of his neighbors and the congregants of St. Bedes. Over dinners, his father never looked him in the eye when he served the boy a scoop of boxed potatoes or instructed him to eat a second hotdog.
His mother’s seizure was brought on by encephalitis, one of those illnesses that you see mentioned only in obituaries. He was six years old when she died. A decade passed before John learned the cause of death. As he walks with his daughter, Mr. Donaldson remembers praying to God for permission to do what was necessary. He resists tightening his grip on Hanna’s hand and quickens his step.
The iron gates of the cemetery are closed. Her dad takes off his coat to slip through the bars. Even in her jacket, she passes between them almost without touching the cold metal.
They don’t walk so fast now. He doesn’t hold her hand. His shoulders sag, so Hanna knows her daddy is off thinking. Her feet hurt and she wants to be carried, or at least her hand in his with the same care as this morning. She scampers to keep aside him, the best she can do. At kindergarten, for Halloween, they donned white sheets and moaned, “Ooooo.” In the cemetery, the wind blows, and all around them the branches of high, droopy pines swirl.
“Who taught you to pray?” her father asks, keeping his eyes in front of his feet.
“You can tell me.”
The road winds. One of her shoes comes untied.
“Were you praying to God?”
She doesn’t know what she has done wrong.
“You can tell me.”
“I don’t know, Daddy.”
“Here,” Mr. Donaldson says.
No one has bagged the fallen leaves. The ground is squishy as they leave the road, moving between graves. The lights of the city are so far away. Stars, the size of raindrops and of pinheads, wink.
Her father stops to let her catch up, stops to let her catch up, stops to let her catch up. Hanna walks slower. If she falls down and bawls, will he come back to her? The last time she did, he crossed his arms and reminded her that she had outgrown tantrums.
Now, when she catches up, he doesn’t turn and keep walking; he bends down, lifts her by her armpits, and seats her on a flat-topped stone. The cold cuts the cotton of her pajama bottoms. She keeps from squirming. Her feet dangle. Not even her shoelace hanging loose is long enough to touch the ground. She can’t help the tears running silently down her cheeks. Her dad wipes one away with the pad of his thumb.
“Where did you learn to pray?” Her dad crouches below her. Her dad’s hands on her knees.
“I don’t know, Daddy. I just—”
“Do you believe in God?”
It sounds like a question she would be asked in school. She liked it when Ms. Kelly, her homeroom teacher, said her mother was with God. There is a different heaven for animals, Hanna knows. She wants to answer right. What else has she been told?
God’s a figment of your imagination. Like . . .” Mr. Donaldson wants to tell her that God is no different than Santa, but of course she still believes, and he still wants her to believe, in Santa. Nothing else comes to him. Maybe now’s not the time. Maybe when she’s eight or ten he can explain it to her. He pinches his earlobe and pulls it. He says, “Grownups don’t believe in God, and those who do aren’t really grownups . . .”
Her lips smush together. She doesn’t understand.
“You know how you felt just now, when I was taking you here? Not knowing where you were headed because you had to follow me and I didn’t tell you? You were scared, weren’t you?”
“You felt like you had no choice, like you were out of control, didn’t you?”
She looks down and askance, the way she looks when he’s punishing her.
“I’m not punishing you, Hanna. I just want you to know that you will always feel that way if you believe in God. You will feel just the way I made you feel. Do you understand?”
His daughter doesn’t blink. His words haven’t caused the muscles in her cheeks to flinch or tremble or in any way rearrange her distant expression. He sees he has not gotten through, and a new tension lifts his shoulders.
“Your mother is dead, Hanna. If God were real, then He killed your mother. If God existed, your mom would be alive.” His daughter winces. His daughter holds her breath. His voice picks up. “But it’s not a bad thing that we lost her. You won’t ever see your mom again. One day, you might not even remember her. One day, knowing that it’s over for her might even comfort you. I know you’re too young to understand.”
He sighs, exhaling air that clouds. “Do you understand? Do you still believe?”
“I don’t know, Daddy.” She swallows, and the pink underside of her chin bobs like a chick’s. She closes her eyes. “I think so.”
Mr. Donaldson, with his hands pressed atop his daughter’s knees, looks away. His gaze wanders from stone to stone, maybe a dozen in sight, of different shapes and sizes and colors, as if each corpse were unique. It was foolish to think that. When his wife died, he had her cremated against her parents’ wishes. They bought a burial plot and a stone to spite him. He lifts one hand off his daughter’s knee and slips it into the pocket with his wife’s photo. Rubbing the glossy paper, he sees her face, his mother’s face, without closing his eyes. And then he doesn’t see them. He tips his head back, squints, concentrating. He returns his hand to his daughter’s knees, looks her in the eyes. “That’s your mother’s grave you’re sitting on, Hanna,” he says. His wife would hate him at this moment. His mother, too. He drops his hands from Hanna’s knees and stands hulking in his camel-hair coat. “Hanna, I want you to pray to God to bring your mother back. Pray to him tonight. If God loves you, He’ll bring back Mommy. And Mommy will bring you home.”
John hustles back the way they came. He hears his daughter crying. Her cries fade, and then he doesn’t hear them.
Hanna watches after him long after he’s gone. She wants to jump down, but it’s so high. She calls for her dad. She closes her eyes, tries to picture her mother, opens her eyes. With each breath, the cold bites her lips. Above her, the stars, which in her mind should stay put, spin so wildly they blur.
DAN MALAKOFF’s short stories have appeared in Pleiades, Prick of the Spindle, The Long Story, Ellipsis, and other journals. He is author of the novella Steel City Cold. He has received residencies and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the University of Pittsburgh MFA Program.