There were two, finally, after a thousand tries and a few shots at adoption, all of which ended in tears and frustration, little more than horrifying sadness and bitter regret at having believed that, well “maybe this is what God wants.” There were two, finally, when the doctor confirmed what all the home pregnancy tests had already said, even though they were far too skeptical to believe them—they could have bought them by the gross. There were two, finally, after literally thousands of dollars in procedures and a time when they used to say that both of them might just as well move into the hospital or clinic of whatever—they seemed to spend so little time doing anything else, but monitoring and making love in ways that had become silly, so much more science than art. There were two, finally—there they were on ultrasound; and it took all the strength they could gather not to give them names in the womb—shoot, right there in the office. There was not just one—but two. And great rejoicing in heaven, he thought.
There were two finally, and the horror of baby commercials had in a moment become heralds of joy and triumph. There were two, finally, and her tears were wrung from joy, which was new and glorious, an answer to his silent prayers because they’d long before already stopped praying about it aloud. There were two, finally, and for a long time, fearfully, they had to temper their enthusiasm simply because they’d suffered so much heartbreak.
There were two, finally, and neither of them lived.
Six weeks later he found the note on the refrigerator.
“I met this woman who survived the Holocaust. She told me when the war ended, she knew she had to close the book on that part of her life. She’d lost her fiancé in Dachau. She had to start over. It got me thinking.”
That was all. That was the whole blessed note.
He wanted to scream at her, to throw flames.
That was when he stopped responding, stopped writing, altogether. Refused. She wasn’t reading whatever he’d said anyway, she’d told him. Why should I waste my breath?
So he kept silent, left the ministry, and went west, like Teddy Roosevelt.
Tom Sturtevant came into his office Friday, after classes, and said he’d seen the show, the pictures, and one in particular brought back a story, a story he thought maybe Ray ought to know. “The one with the single cottonwood up on the hill—looks like a dancer—ballet. You know it?”
It was a story how Sturtevant, a young pastor, got this phone call, first year of his ministry in that little church just outside of Bainbridge, you may have seen it? “Young woman was killed in an accident just north of town here, and the police called me—that was the practice then—expected that I’d go out there and break the news,” Tom said. “It was behind those hills somewhere—I don’t remember where, but that old dancing cottonwood looked familiar.”
He was young, and it was something he’d never done yet—gone to a place with that kind of bad news, and he’d had all sorts of trouble finding the farm. “The whole place was wild,” he said. “And it was dark, too, and there I was chasing around in those hills.”
“Awful job,” Ray told him.
“It was hell,” he said. “You know—you’ve been in situations like that. I don’t have to tell you what happens to their faces when they come to the door, snap on the light, and it’s the preacher at 11:00—or worse—on a weekend. They know.”
And then he stopped, as if he’d stumbled into an obstruction. “I don’t know if you need to hear this,” He reached for his book bag. “Maybe it’s stupid—but the story came back to me when I saw that picture—you know, the one I was telling you about.”
“What happened?” Ray asked him.
“She wasn’t the only one out that night, so they wanted me to stay there when the others came in, the other teenagers or whatever.” He looked up at the walls. “You know, you really ought to put something up in here—the place looks like no one’s home.”
“How many others?”
“Two,” he said. “Whatever they knew about birth control they rejected out of hand, I guess—there was a whole string of kids younger. Don’t even remember their names anymore—that’s forty years ago. There I sat in a house I’ve never visited before, waiting for kids to come home to tell them their sister was gone.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just remember those hills. It all came back.”
“Three times?” Ray asked him.
“I think so—three times. Not a square corner in the place. On the edge of those hills somewhere, down close to the river. Three times I had to tell the story. Could have flooded the place with tears.” And then he looked up. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this—you don’t need to hear it. It just struck me, you know. When I saw that cottonwood, those broken branches, leaning the way it was, as if the wind was forever blowing, like a woman dancing. I swear it was right around there—that farmhouse. Probably long gone now. They didn’t have a pot to pee in.”
“You ought to try to tell me where sometime,” Ray told him.
Tom swung his bag over his shoulder. “And how you doing anyway? Students driving you nuts? I worry sometimes,” he said.
He let that go for a while, then stepped to the door, as if to leave. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I worry about you.” The bag fell from his shoulder so he pulled it up again. “I can’t say a thing to you that doesn’t have double meaning.” He held up both hands in innocence, as if to swear off evil intent. “I walk in here because I got to tell you this story—it’s your photograph that brought it back. I walk in here and I start to tell you and it all goes sour because I’m worried about how you’re going to take it. Ray,” he said, “you really can’t be you, can you?” he said.
Ray knew what was meant. “I can be me all right, but I can’t be anything else.”
“We keep praying,” Sturtevant said.
“For you,” he said.
“That can’t hurt,” Ray told him. “Where was that place anyway?—that old farmhouse.”
“It’s got to be gone,” Tom Sturtevant told him. But he tried to explain as best he could.
Tomorrow: A shocking early morning discovery.