by Christopher Raley
During the service evening crossed over from day to night. Inside the sanctuary lights on the stage diminished in increments until the stage was one in darkness with the rest of the sanctuary. Then someone in the dark at the end of the service banged a thick piece of steel three times with a hammer. The impacts resonated both loud and sharp in the room where the darkness seemed to press all other sound into silence.
The father waited in the back of the sanctuary counting the seconds with his hand on the dimmer switch and with measured focus after the hammer strokes. They need to sit in the dark for at least thirty seconds, he thought. The mississippis marched through his head and the father turned up the lights on dimmers in the back of the room just enough for people to see their way out.
“The lights aren’t very bright,” whispered the boy standing next to him.
“They don’t need to be,” the father whispered back. “After everything is so dark you just need a little light to see by.”
As if they themselves were wired to the dimmer switch the congregants got up almost all at once and slowly filed toward the dim light in the back of the room. They passed through the double doors to the foyer and in the foyer they quietly got out car keys and went outside. But he stayed in the corner, and the boy with him, for the few individuals who remained waiting for the conclusion of the service to bring them some kind of solace.
The father looked at their forms hunched in the near darkness and wondered, would they find it? And with a fleeting awareness: was it there to find, this peace? The stands on the stage where readers had read of suffering, of hate, of cruelty and of love were ruinous and mute in their solitude. The blacked out screen yet bore that electrical phosphorescence of the shining bulb like an idolatrous template waiting for form and name to be cast upon it.
The father and the boy stood and were silent until the last person left and then they began to lock up the building.
The long four lane road that bisects the town down its length blackened to the north as buildings thinned and lights vanquished only points of night. The father drove slowly up the road. A street light on the right. A distance. A street light on the left. Another distance.
The father’s right hand rested on the wheel. He looked in the rear view mirror at the boy. “Well what did you think?”
A sharp line of shadow cut the boy’s forehead from where his eyes and mouth glowed and faded from passing light. “It was good.”
“What did you like about it?”
“The hammer scared me.”
“I warned you about that.”
“I know. It still scared me.”
“That’s ok. It startled me too. And it was my idea.”
“I wanted something that sounded like the hammering of nails.”
“What about the darkness? Was that your idea too?”
“Yes. Well no. Yes and no. It was my idea to have a darkness service, but the idea itself is very old.”
The boy was quiet for a moment staring out at the road. “I just don’t know why.”
“Why the idea is old?”
“No. Why it has to be so dark.”
“The event was dark. Mankind killed the Son of God. That’s about as bad as it gets.”
“I know, but I don’t want to have to think about it.”
“Nobody does. That’s why it’s important to think about it. You can’t truly celebrate the resurrection without understanding the death. That’s why we have Good Friday.”
“Good Friday. I don’t think there’s anything good about it.”
The father glanced at the boy in the rear view mirror. He was startled by the finality of the boy’s tone. It was as if the boy stated something he had been thinking about a long time. The father wanted to continue with his explanation but wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“I wish Jesus didn’t die.”
“You shouldn’t wish that.”
“Because he did die. He died because he had to die. And you have to believe he had to die. It’s part of what being a Christian means. It’s part of what believing in Jesus means.”
“Then I don’t believe in Jesus.” The boy spoke a second time with such finality and with, when the father looked in the rear view mirror, such an uncompromising eye that the father was now both startled and afraid.
He was about to say that he didn’t think the boy really meant what he said when his periphery vision told him something was in the road. He looked up but it was too late. The crunch he heard was the same as the almost intangible vibration he felt in the wheel where his hand was now gripping it. His foot was on the brake. Then the car was stopped. Then the car was in park.
Then intention caught up to action. He undid his belt buckle with one hand and opened the driver door with the other. The road—its smell, its fragile sound scape, its barren space, its magnetic prohibition—rushed through the gap. The father left the car and ran and stopped after he had only just started running. In the road was a duck. The duck wobbled and the duck stumbled. A second duck waddled to the curb uninjured and undeterred by the bad luck of his companion. The father stood like a frozen frame of a runner. His posture was of action but his indecision kept him still. He wanted to go to the duck to see if it was ok but in the distance headlights approached.
The father returned to the car.
“Is the duck ok?” The boy had been watching through the back window.
The father closed the door as he sat in the driver’s seat and put the car in drive.
The boy leaned forward. “What are you doing?”
“Getting off the road.”
They were in a part of the road almost equidistant from a street light some yards up on the left and a streetlight some yards back on the right. Fifteen or twenty feet ahead and behind the car were two driveways that opened to a half circle drive in front of two vacant buildings. Behind the buildings was a vacant lot where weeds grew from cracks in the concrete.
The father crossed the two lanes and drove into the driveway. He turned the car around to the right in the direction of the drive and parked in front of the two buildings. The boy opened his car door and the father said, “Don’t go running out there.”
He got out of the car and turned to see the boy running toward the road. “Stop!” The father heard panic in his voice and he understood its presence there but he hated it.
The boy stopped and looked around. “There’s a car coming.”
“That’s why you need to stop.”
The boy looked back at the duck and moved toward the road. The father lurched forward with something rising in his mind but the boy looked at the car again and stopped. As the father ran toward the sidewalk the car passed out of the pool of yellow light and into the darkness where he and the boy were. He heard a smack as he reached the boy and felt sick. The car continued on without so much as slowing. The boy turned away and held the sides of his head with his hands, mute in his anguish.
“I told you to stop.” The father grimaced at the sound of his voice. He hadn’t wanted to speak a rebuke.
The boy didn’t answer and turned back around. He was crying with quiet jerking sobs.
“You need to be careful.”
“What about the duck?” The boy’s voice was tight and it shook.
The father looked at the duck. It wobbled in the road. Its wings were stretched out like big hulking arms reaching for balance and it shook its head like a punch drunk prize fighter. The father looked down the road. Some way back an intersection with traffic lights was cast—its concrete, its restaurant that was closed, its liquor store—in desolate yellow. Like spots in a theater a red light changed to green but the stage was empty.
“Stay here.” The father walked out into the road to where the duck was wobbling and stumbling in the middle of the second lane. “Come on,” he said to the duck. “Come on let’s go.” He nudged the duck with his foot and the duck fell over.
“What on earth are you doing out here anyway?” He looked at the duck. The duck didn’t answer. It pushed itself upright with its wing and fell over on its other side. A trail of blood glistened down from its eye in the faint reach of the street light.
The father looked up and saw a truck cross through the intersection. He looked back at the duck. “Come on, let’s go,” he said. He nudged the duck with his toe several times and the duck rose and fell and rose and fell.
“Pick it up,” the boy shouted.
He looked up. The truck was closer than he thought it would be. It was speeding. Surely they see me, he thought.
The truck kept on without slowing or hesitating. The father saw now how dim the headlights were and he himself in that instant felt dim, unseen, unnoticed and insignificant for all the danger he was in.
In the next instant he ran to the sidewalk where the boy stood and when he reached it he turned in time to see the duck rolling along the pavement from behind the truck which had been raised high above the ground. The truck passed on leaving the road silent in the wake of its ignorance.
The father looked in the direction the truck had gone. “That guy didn’t even see me.”
“Why didn’t you grab the duck?”
The father turned on the boy. “I almost got hit trying to get that duck off the road.”
“You should have just picked it up,” and the son walked out into the road.
“Get back here,” the father said, but he knew there were no cars coming.
The boy ignored him and continued on toward the duck. He bent and with small gentle hands he pressed the duck’s wings against its body and picked it up. He cradled the duck pressing it against his own chest with his arms and walked back to the sidewalk.
“I told you not to go into the road.”
“You weren’t going to get the duck so I did.”
“That’s not the point. I almost got hit.”
“There wasn’t a car coming when I went.”
“There could have been while you were out there.”
The father looked away and took a deep breath and then looked back at his son. “The duck’s as good as dead anyway.”
“No he’s not. He’s still alive.”
“I don’t see how. How can you get hit by a car three times in a row and live?”
“Well this duck did. What are we going to with it?”
“What do mean nothing? It’s still alive.”
The father looked at the duck. Its body was secure against the boy’s but its legs struck out from it at unnatural angels and its neck swayed in long erratic movements from side to side and back and forth and its head wobbled on the neck like a drunkard’s.
“Son, the duck is done for. We need to just leave it and go home.”
“But where did it come from?”
“The duck didn’t come from anywhere around here.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“What about that house over there?” On the other side of the road: a house unlit and shrouded in over-gown bushes and untame trees.
“No one’s home.”
“How do you know?”
“Look at it. Does it look like someone’s home to you?”
“Why don’t we knock?”
“No,” the father said. “Put the duck down, we’re leaving.”
“No. We have to help it.”
In sudden and unreasoning anger the father grabbed the duck from the boy and threw it to the ground. The duck flailed. It shook its head and sprayed little dark drops of blood.
“Go to the car. We’re leaving.”
The father and the boy stared at each other in mute anger and the boy turned and walked to the car but the father knew it wasn’t out of obedience.
Alone in the darkness the father felt anger drain from him as quickly as it had come. But the feeling of the duck’s light and fragile body would not leave the palms of his hands. And the memory of throwing the duck to the ground stayed in front of his eyes.
He looked around him. The vacant lot. The empty buildings. The quiet gibbering of the second duck who stood now in front of the two buildings looking them up and down as if considering certain aspects of their value. And all the while gibbering to itself it continued on in the deeper dark between the two buildings where weeds grew tall, some four feet high, some six feet.
The father went back to the car and sat in the driver’s seat and closed the door. In the silence he could hear the irregular breathing of the boy fighting off tears.
“No one would have done anything more for the duck.” the father said.
The boy looked at his father’s dark and partial face in the rearview mirror. “Mom would have.” He turned and looked out the window.
The father sat and did not utter a word because what the boy had said was true. After a time he started the car.
Motor turned against the night and hummed its unnatural and unwanted voice. The car followed the drive and pulled onto the road and passed by the street light and the street light was like a hunched penitent whose wisdom shines at his feet but leaves the path ahead unreadable and unknown.
At home the father went to his bedroom and closed the door. He took off his clothes and put on his pjs and sat on the bed facing his dresser and listening to the sounds beyond the room. He heard the boy inside his room next to the father’s. Heard the soft breath like movement of the towel being lifted off the hook above his bed. Heard the bathroom light-switch click, the bathroom door close, the bathtub faucet turn on in a squeal of reproach, the water pouring into the tub, the sharp hiss of the water being forced up into the shower head. Heard the water splashing against the boy, against the shower curtain, against the enclosure. He thought of the duck bleeding and dying in his son’s arm. He heard the water turn off. Heard the quiet rustles and clicks of the boy drying off, brushing his teeth and getting into his pjs.
The bathroom door clicked open and the father heard movement into the hall that came to a stop somewhere close to his bedroom door. The father sat in the tension of silence that relates motives unknown and actions not yet done.
A soft knock and the boy’s voice came from the other side of the door. “Can I come in?”
The father lifted his head a little. “Yes.”
The boy opened the door and walked to the front of the bed. “Good night, Dad.”
“Good night, son. Sleep well.”
Silence again. The boy didn’t move.
“I’m sorry I was angry at you.”
“I am too. I mean I’m sorry that I was angry too.”
“I forgive you,” the boy said.
The father nodded. He felt the boy waiting for an offer of his own forgiveness. He said, “Good night, son.”
“Good night, dad.” The boy lingered a moment longer and cast his glance upon the dresser in front of the father before he left the room closing the door behind him.
The father heard the boy’s door close and heard the boy’s light click off and heard the creak of the boy getting into bed and the breathing movement of the boy stretching under the covers. The father sat listening and when the length of the silence was sufficient he rose.
On his dresser was a small wooden rectangular box about four inches wide and eight inches long. It didn’t look like a coffin but the father thought of it as one, a burial place that every night and sometimes multiple times a night he desecrated. He opened the box. Inside were letters inside envelopes and notes written on small cards or note paper. The father pulled out from the top of the stack an eight by eleven piece of typing paper that had been folded in thirds. He sat back down on the bed and unfolded the paper.
He read the hand written note his wife. The last one she had written. He read it straight through and then he read it again. He had told no one that he still had the note, because if any reasonable person had known this he would have asked the father why. And the father would not have been able to give an answer. Neither would he have been able to answer why he re-read it night after night.
But he did have the note and he did re-read it. Because no one who receives this kind of note is ever completely free from the charges that are in it. Whether those charges are explicit or implied they are charges nonetheless. Words like “pointless” which are intended to express the writer’s frame of mind turn in the heart of the reader to lay claim on every helpful action and every word of comfort he had ever offered. Or “overwhelmed”. The writer’s inability to cope becomes the reader’s burden of unfair and unreasonable demands.
And so the father read the note like a prisoner who keeps the record of false conviction and recites it in his cell in the hope that one day it will prove true. The prisoner needs no dramatic lighting and no loud hammer blows. People need to sit in darkness, the father had said once. He saw himself throw the duck down to flail and shudder on the ground in the visitation of his own words upon him.
Aloud he said, “How long do I have to sit here?” He continued holding the note in silence until his son’s snores came through the wall a reminder that life carried on somewhere on the other side.
The father folded the note and put it back in the box. He stood before his dresser for a long time staring at the box and the death it contained and listening to his son. Then he picked up the box and took it to his night stand and opened the drawer and put the box in the drawer and closed the drawer. He turned to go but saw the bare spot on the dresser looking now as if some invisible warden had kept one small rectangle free of dust. He turned back. He stared at the closed drawer of his night stand. Then he turned to the dresser again and with an impulsive motion passed his hand over the place where the box had been as if to erase the invisible mark of its presence was to erase its memory. He stared at the odd swatch of undusted dresser. After another period of time he left his bedroom.
Out in the hall it was dark. He turned on the hall light and went to his son’s room. He bent and grasped his son’s shoulder and roused him gently.
The boy woke up. “What is it?”
“Get your clothes on.”
The boy raised his head. “For what?”
“We need to go see about the duck.”
The boy sat up. His eyes were lit in a blur of focusing as if the man before him was a revelation.