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It is February 22 again. The wind blows small, dazed snowflakes through the sky, bitter with clinging winter. The ground is hard, the gutters filled with the discolored slush that is neither snow nor mud but the worst elements of both. Church Street is stained with salt in wave-crest patterns. The sky, grey as old stones, dulls the ordinary noise of life to a choked whisper.
It is appropriate, thinks Father Wyckham, staring out his frost-filled window. It is appropriate that mourning marks only February, that the glories of the other eleven months remain untarnished and pure. February requests mourning, exudes mourning, becomes mourning. Father Wyckham supports his chin on his fingertips, feeling his age far more acutely than usual. See these hands, bony beneath loose leather skin, flecked with brown? These are my hands.
He watches the school bus wheeze to a stop on the corner. There is little daylight left; evening is already encroaching upon the slate sky. The children who file off are subdued, their motions labored and lugubrious. A few wave mittened hands half-heartedly in the direction of the window, and Father Wyckham waves back with matching languor. He wonders if they are surprised to see him there, and realizes that is hardly likely. Children, in his experience, view the comings and goings of adults with the same incomprehension as one views ants swarming about a disturbed anthill. If there is anything out-of-the-ordinary about Father Wyckham’s presence at his window at four o’clock in the afternoon, it is nothing so unusual that it has not happened before and will not happen again.
And yet, it is unusual. Father Wyckham fills his days with motion without necessarily intending to. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that his days are filled with motion. He does not know why they come, but they come, drifting in and out with the regularity of the mail plane. The stories are the same: “Father, I was just … heard you could … felt badly … just
dropping in, but … really needed someone to… hope you don’t … you see, there’s this … don’t know what to … thank you for … someone who listens … been a real help …” There is something about him that draws them, the wisdom in his lined skin, the softness of his gaze, the nostalgic warmth of his parlor. And he sees them, soothes and listens, fills the need that draws them in. Every day but one.
“Playing God again, are you, Edward?” laughs Reverend Howes of the Methodist church, who cannot explain why he stops by every Thursday evening to have a cup of tea in Father Wyckham’s parlor on the other side of town. The Father smiles, sitting in the same chair where he entertained the town socialite and the town drunk, a Methodist minister and an atheist poet. Reverend Howes’ face becomes
“They don’t know you’re human,” he says softly. “They think you’re immortal. What are you to them? A pair of ears and a few comforting words, and they’re out the door. It’s hollow, Edward.”
Father Wyckham sits alone now, remembering these words. Perhaps it is hollow. But one might dream one does some good. And yet he can do no one any good today. He watches several of the children approach his door. The bell jangles loudly, jarring though expected, and Frances is there in an instant. Ordinarily she would usher them in, and the parlor would be filled with stomping boots and laughing salutations, hair shaken free of clinging snow. Frances would serve cocoa as the chattering voices competed to relive the day’s events for the old father. But today he watches as she sends them away with uncharacteristic brusqueness, her face drawn and her movements short. The children troop off, slump-shouldered, into the gathering dusk. Father Wyckham realizes he has been clenching his fists and releases them slowly, relief overcoming his momentary guilt. He could not face their lively stories today.
Frances appears at the door. Her face softens as she looks at him, small in the huge armchair. Her fingers dust and smooth unconsciously as she speaks, “I’m going out for groceries. I won’t be long. Don’t bother opening the door, I’ll leave a note in case anyone comes by.” Trailing off, she awaits a response. Father Wyckham nods, and Frances is out the door in a rush of motion. He watches as she hurries down the front steps, walking briskly over a small film of snow and out to Church Street.
The shadows in the room have begun to mesh, and darkness will soon arrive with winter’s characteristic suddenness. Father Wyckham does not turn on the lamp. Instead, he leans back and holds his fingers to his temples. Outside, a car’s headlights approach, filling the room with an intensifying light. Just as Father Wyckham wonders if it can possibly get any brighter, the car sweeps past, leaving the room dim. They don’t know you’re human. See this hand? This is my hand. See this heart? This is my heart.
When the telephone rings, Father Wyckham feels almost as though he has been expecting it. Smoothly, he reaches over to answer it.
“Father Edward Wyckham, may I help you?”
The voice on the other end is distant. “I’m calling from County General. There’s a man here asking for a priest, and your name is in our records. He doesn’t have much longer, I’m afraid.”
Father Wyckham does not hesitate. “Thank you. I’ll be right there … what is your …”
“I’ll be right there then, Emily. Thank you.”
Father Wyckham pauses to leave a note for Frances, then retrieves his scarf and jacket from the peg in the kitchen. It is odd how little he hesitates about making this call, how eager he suddenly feels to hear the patient’s story. Shrugging into his coat, he opens the garage door and starts his car, his breath puffing smoke into the winter air. The snow is still twirling lamely, no harder than before, barely frosting the stiff grass around the rectory. As he pulls out, the headlights skim over the headstones of the cemetery across the street. Father Wyckham catches his breath and turns left toward County General.
The drive passes as if he’s in a dream. He is conscious of each snow-flake, of the deer whose wide eyes follow his car from the roadside, and yet he is surprised to arrive at the hospital without remembering exactly how he got there. He heads through the dusk to the fluorescent-lit building, walking in and out of the bright pools of light spilled by street lamps, his shadow contracting and stretching to meet them. The door opens before him, pulling him in, and he wonders if this was what it was like being a king or queen before the wonder of automatic doors opened with ease to the common man.
Emily meets him, small and pale amid the sterile angularity of the waiting room. Startled, she peers into his pained face, probably wondering if his needs or the patient’s are more pressing. He smiles at her concern, reassuring her with a quick, “Don’t worry, I’m fine. Where will I find the patient?”
“Room 113, second door on the left down that corridor,” she gestures. “He’s expecting you.”
Father Wyckham thanks her and finds the door. At first, he is afraid he has arrived too late. The man is lying on his back, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. He is webbed in by lines and tubes, with racks of bags suspended above his head like a colony of sleeping bats, yet his face and neck are untouched. Near his head, on the windowsill, is a carefully arranged bouquet of flowers in brilliant reds and blues and purples. Father Wyckham clears his throat and steps closer. Slowly, the patient turns his head. Catching the priest’s eye, he murmurs something and struggles to hold up a hand.
Father Wyckham is beside the bed in a moment. He takes the thin hand in his own. “I’m Father Edward Wyckham. Is there something you needed to say?”
“Father,” rasps the patient, his eyes suddenly afraid. “Father, I’m dying.”
Father Wyckham looks into those eyes. He feels the fear slip away, the muscles relax, and waits for the man to continue. Gently, kindly, he strokes the hand that holds his. Finally, when he has just begun to think that the patient will not talk, the man speaks again.
“Father, forgive me. Please,
Outside, the winter world is silent. Darkness has settled behind the windows, squeezing against the lighted room. There is no moon, and the stars are concealed behind banked clouds. Father Wyckham thinks of the other darkness that deepens the night, the darkness that awaits this man, the darkness that will eternally cloud this day.
“I am not God, my child. God will forgive. I will listen.” But are you talking to me, really? Are any of them talking to me? Or are they crying out to another father, an inaccessible father of which I am only a shadow?
“I have killed a woman.”
Tree branches scrape hollowly against the window. The night grows darker, closer. Father Wyckham breathes deeply, realizing he has been forgetting to do so.
“She was so young, maybe 18, and beautiful. I didn’t mean to, Father. I was scared. I ran away. I kept expecting the police, someone, but nobody came. Nobody knew. I didn’t even know her name.”
Father Wyckham feels the hand clutch his. For some reason the room is amazingly, feverishly clear and sharp. The man’s voice has grown stronger with emotion. His eyes are speaking, pleading, crying out the words his voice cannot form. See this hand? This is my hand. See this hand? This is …
“I thought so many times that I should turn myself in, but I was a coward. And then I got married, and I was protecting my wife. Then we had a child and I was protecting my daughter. There was always something. But, Father, I never was the man they thought I was. I lied every day. And my daughter grew up, and each day I thought of that girl, and her family, and what I had done to them. Erin is that same age now, and she’s so beautiful, and she loves me, but oh, God,” the man weeps silently. “I can only imagine losing her and I feel such incredible pain, and I know I’m never going to see her graduate and get married, and to think … to think I took that from someone else’s father …”
The man’s fragile body is shaking with sobs. Father Wyckham is desperate, searching, flailing in his mind. He should be in control. He should know the necessary things to say. Hasn’t he prepared for this? Yet now, in the moment, he is as lost as the man in the bed. They don’t know you’re human. See this hand? Hollow, hollow, all hollow.
Outside, the knife-edged winter wind thrashes the trees, merciless and angry, crashing branch on branch and flinging glittering snow at the window. Father Wyckham clutches the hand, unsure whether he is anchoring the man or himself against that wind.
The man is whispering. “Every day, I am torn apart. Every day … for 23 years …”
Impeded by tears, Father Wyckham’s tongue stumbles in his haste to speak. “He … forgives … son.” His voice is unexpectedly forceful. “Trust Him.”
Then the room is silent, and the two men weep. The storm is subsiding, the branches swaying but not crashing. Father Wyckham has fallen to his knees. He is not aware of the moment when the hand slips from his, nor that he is sobbing alone. Believing the man crumpled on the floor to be a distraught family member, an orderly leads him gently to the reception area as staff members remove the body and begin cleaning the room.
Father Wyckham opens his eyes to find himself in a chair. He stands slowly, weakly. The snow outside the door is gentle again, the wind calmer.
An orderly brushes by, cradling a bouquet of flowers. He recognizes them as the ones from the windowsill. “Miss … miss?” The woman turns. It is Emily, who called him earlier. “Where are you taking those flowers?”
“To the dumpster. Do you want them?”
Father Wyckham accepts the bouquet, mutely nodding his thanks. She touches his hand for a moment, her eyes filled with pity. “Do you need any help?”
“Thank you, no. I’m fine.” The words strike him as ironic, yet oddly true.
He returns to his car, placing the bouquet gingerly on the passenger seat. Despite his loose scarf and unbuttoned coat, he does not feel the wind. The car flies back over snow-frosted roads, the windshield dotted by the occasional snowflake. He turns onto Church Street feeling as though he has come home from far away. Frances is back, and lights blaze in the first-floor windows. He backs into the driveway and sits for a moment in thought. The hollowness has gone, the hollowness he never really acknowledged. They don’t know you’re human. He takes off his driving gloves and stares at his hands, then slowly picks up the flowers.
The sound of the car door closing is muffled in the still air. Holding the bouquet like a child, he crosses the street and opens the cemetery gate. The paths of packed dirt are white aisles of fine snow. He walks to the end, turns, and passes by the first stone. He knows it by heart: Theresa Snow Wyckham, beloved wife of Edward, born July 12, 1927, died February 6, 1949. It is the next stone he kneels before, laying the flowers gently atop the fresh snow. He does not read the words, but whispers them to himself: Anna Elizabeth Wyckham, beloved daughter of Edward and Theresa, born February 6, 1949, died February 22, 1967. Twenty-three years.
Behind him, the snow has stopped. The wind still blows, but its edge has softened, its bitterness dulled, and in it is the promise of spring.