A Prayer for the Dying

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It's darker under the trees, the stars peeking through the canopy, a hint of hyacinth in the air. Tomorrow's Saturday, and you haven't even begun your sermon. How many ways are there to say have faith? You search your memory for a parable on strength, on trusting the Lord. Abraham and Isaac come to mind, but you just did that last week. Job's overused. Lot. You shake your head and walk on. It'll come, just give it time. Maybe leaf through Matthew after supper, look over your old notes.

Round the bend, and there's your house, the lamp lit, windows warm and orange as your neighbors'. Is it selfish that you give thanks for this, that the sight touches you more deeply -- that it seems to mean more -- after poor Lydia Flynn? If so, you don't mean to be cruel. And you've done right by her, you make sure of that.

Through the gate and up the walk toward the front door. It'll be good to get his gun belt off, the jacket, the boots. You've earned your supper.

Locked, just as you instructed. You jangle the big key ring, searching.

Open the door and the light blinds you. Fresh bread, and the salty crackle of fat. On the floor of the sitting room lies Amelia's stuffed duck, toppled on its side. You undo the gun belt -- Marta won't have it around the child -- and stow it high in the front closet, thumping the door shut to announce yourself. When no one comes, you make your way to the kitchen.

It's empty, a wisp of steam floating up through a hole in the stove top.

"Marta," you call.

In the dining room the table's set, your milk poured, the high chair between the two seats so you can each minister to her. The tray holds a spray of crumbs, a slug of gravy. Maybe they couldn't wait.

The back of the house is dark.


You try your room first, peering in the door. She's not on the bed, and immediately you turn to the nursery.

It's black, and you have to leave the hallway before you see Marta sitting in the rocking chair, her hair a bright frame, her face dark, impossible to read. She's still, hands in her lap. Amelia's in her crib, already asleep, and softly you go to Marta.

"I'm sorry," you apologize, ready to explain why, but she doesn't take your hands, she doesn't look at you, as if you've done something inexcusable. A wet sniff and you know she's been crying.

"What is it?"

"She's sick," she says.

"What do you mean?" you ask, though you already know. Better than anyone, you know.

"She's sick," Marta says, and now she's clutching at you, grabbing, crushing herself to you with a strength you find frightening. "Jacob, she's sick."

By Stewart O'Nan

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