About the Author
Charles Martin is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of thirteen novels. He and his wife, Christy, live in Jacksonville, Florida. Learn more about him at CharlesMartinBooks.com; Facebook: Author.Charles.Martin; Twitter: @storiedcareer.
Read an Excerpt
Sometime before daylight, I heard it. Inches from my face, it sounded like a mouse sliding a saltine across a wooden floor. Seconds later, it sounded like the horn section of a symphony, tuning up. Then like cat purring lazily in the sun. And finally, like a woman who'd been in a coma for several months and was regaining the muscle tone she'd lost in her throat.
It was one of my favorite sounds--the sound of sweet dreams, the sound of contentedness, the sound of my wife next to me--the sound of Maggie sleeping. At that moment, she was sacked out and snoring like a sailor. I lay with my eyes closed, playing possum, listening and smiling because she'd die if she knew. "I don't snore!" Unconsciously, I had paced my breathing with hers, making sure to inhale deeply enough and to exhale slowly enough.
Moonlight filled our bedroom with a hazy grayish-blue, telling me the moon was high, full, and shining like a Milky Way spotlight on Maggie. I watched her, lingered there, and milked the Milky Way. Most nights she flopped around like a fish tossed up on the beach; then, on into morning, she'd settle down a bit and start spreading out horizontally. Now she lay sprawled across the bed like a snow angel, hogging all corners as if she'd grown accustomed to having the bed to herself.
My left cheek barely hung on the edge of the mattress, and not a single square inch of sheet covered me, but I could not have cared less. If I ever do, somebody ought to beat me into next week. Her feet told me she was wearing socks, her neck told me she was wearing Eternity, and her arms told me she was wearing me. All the world was right.
Around four in the morning, Maggie flung herself sideways, stretched like Blue, and then reencircled me like an octopus. When she settled, her hair draped across my chest like tentacles, mingling into me. Maggie's hair had grown well past her shoulders. Long and shiny, it was made for shampoo commercials. Mine, because of the coming summer heat and what would be long hours atop the tractor, was cropped relatively close, exposing my neck to the sun, dust, and dirt. When Maggie cut it, she had nodded in approval, reminding me that my grandfather would have nodded too. She tucked her nose up close to mine, where her breath filled my lungs either before or after mine had filled hers. Her chest rose and fell in an easy rhythm, and her skin was warm. Making sure she could not be uprooted, she hooked her right leg around mine like a boat anchor, stretched her right arm across me like a bowline, and then drove her right hand into the mattress like a tent peg.
Reluctantly I untangled myself and slid out from beneath the pegs. I pulled the covers back over her bare shoulders, tucked the hair behind her ear, and walked to the kitchen to put on the percolator. Blue followed, stretched, and stood at the screen door, his nose pressed against the latch. He knew how to flip it open, but with Maggie around he'd grown lazy and now waited on me with an air of expectation. I looked at him, and his ears dropped. I pointed toward the bedroom. "Hey, pal, she was in the coma. Not you. Let your own self out."
Blue whined, nosed up the latch, and disappeared off the porch.
While the percolator coughed and sputtered--the sweet sounds of my addiction--I stepped out onto the porch under a clear sky and onto the stage of my life. Judging from the thick black figures silhouetted against the dawning skyline, several turkeys roosted in the trees that lined the river and towered above our son's grave. I couldn't see it, but unless something really bad had happened to the world, the river flowed silently beyond those trees, filling the earth--or at least most of South Carolina, and me--with life.
Before me spread the rows of corn, silent sentinels, six feet tall and swaying in rhythmic, military unison under the quiet whisper of the spring breeze. As my eyes adjusted, ten thousand shades of black reflected off the cornstalks like slender hands waving toward heaven. Papa once told me that farmers are the choir conductors for heaven. It took me a few years and several hundred hours atop the tractor to understand what he meant.
From my perch on the porch, I could almost read the brass plaque that squatted below the roses--my testament to Maggie's "Yard of the Year." I stared and shook my head because I was smiling at a post-coma memory. Something that, at one time, I wasn't sure I'd have again.
The evidence that Maggie was alive, breathing, and back home spread around our house like an English garden. Camellias, roses, gardenias, wisteria, iris, anthurium, agapanthus, and even orchids bloomed in every patch of earth not covered by grass, porch, stepping-stone, or house.
I sniffed the air and walked to the side of the porch, looking over the tips of the cotton rows that had come up thick and bulbous. It was only May; it'd be late June before we saw any blooms. And, like everything in life, that depended on the rain. Waist-high now, they would be the last plants to show their color. And I'm not talking about the cotton; I'm talking about the little white flower that precedes the cotton, telling all the word that the white gold is coming, spring is over, summer has arrived, and the hard work is about to start. Judging by the buds, we were still a couple of weeks off.
I jumped, grabbed the porch rafter, and stood hanging and swaying from the truss. I looked at the cotton primed to erupt and paint the world with white flowers, and I marveled at the life I lived. Each day of my existence amazed me. I pulled up a couple of times, remembered that I wasn't as young as I'd once been, hopped down, skirted around the roses, and then stepped into the cotton--walking up one row and down another.
The bolls slapped my thighs while the sandy dirt sifted up through my toes, reminding me of Charleston and our month at the beach. I looked up, closed my eyes--the stars still shining in my mind--stretched my hands across the heavens, and filled my chest with the night--yawning in his pasture was a farmer's delight.
Between the buds, the many and various flowers lighting up the house, and the smile that spread daily across Maggie's face, I noticed someone unusual, an old invisible friend, as I walked around my house. He had moved out just after delivery, but once he heard she'd come home, he did too. He had returned slowly--a flash here, a sound there. He'd been back a week when I finally cornered him in the barn. When I asked him to stay, he moved his things into the space above the ceiling fan and made his bed on the rafters. I tried to make him feel welcome, because he brought with him the smell of gardenias and magnolia blooms, hot baths, cool sweat, and gut-busting laughter. He routinely tap-danced on the roof, sang in the rain, listened to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra all hours of the night, and laughed for little to no reason. Each day, he'd flutter down off the rafters, or the ceiling fan where he enjoyed multiple revolutions, and light on Maggie's shoulder. Pretty soon, he went wherever she did.
And that was good.
I walked back to the house, pressed my nose against the window, and gazed at Maggie sprawled across the bed just a few feet away. Her eyes were moving back and forth behind her lids, and her right index finger looked like it was writing in cursive.
Yes, life had thrown us a curve, but nothing short of death would dim her desire to have a child. You could tell it in the way she had repainted the nursery, the way she ran her fingers along the teeth marks on the railing of our secondhand crib, and the way she tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of the night when her clock told her it was time. I suppose she was like most women. Maggie dreamed of the delivery, of the excitement of getting to the hospital on time, of timing the contractions, of her pushing and me cradling her head and helping her count. Of looking down across her swollen tummy at the doctor's face as he waited for our child's head to appear through the canal. Despite the pain, the sweat, and the blood, she dreamed of hearing his or her first cry, of being handed our child with the umbilical cord still attached, of watching me cut the cord, and then, finally, of pressing him to her pounding chest and feeling him breathe, suckle, and pull at her with tiny, wrinkled, God-fashioned fingers. She dreamed of watching his eyes open and being the first person he saw. She dreamed of needing, being needed, and giving unselfishly--something she was good at.
But I knew that she, my simple complexity, and the dream didn't end there. She dreamed of pulling that wet, gooey, covered-in-white-paste kid--who no doubt looked a lot like me--off her sweating, flushed chest and of passing him to me--of extending him across space and time and placing him in my shaking arms. She dreamed of watching my face light up as I cradled the son or daughter we'd made--of giving me that part of herself, a second time.
For me, the desire for a child had grown over time. Maggie had planted the seed, watered it, and then waited. I first recognized it as my own desire, distinct from Maggie's, some twenty months ago. It was the moment I placed my son's casket in the dirt down by the river beneath the oak. It was a strange and new feeling. Something unexpected. I didn't know what to do with it. Yes, I felt guilty--what parent wouldn't--but I also knew I wanted to try again. I wanted to be a dad, and I wanted Maggie to be a mom. I wanted us to share the ups, the downs, the hard times, and the great times. I wanted to build a fort with our son or daughter, play catch, go to the beach and dig in the sand, laugh, wrestle, go fishing, teach him how to whistle, how to drive a tractor, and yes, I wanted to walk her down the aisle.
I cracked open the screen door and crept inside. I tiptoed down the hallway, making the floors creak, sat in my chair, pulled the door shut, and picked up my pencil. The single lightbulb fell out of the seams in the tongue-and-groove pine ceiling, dangling from a fraying cord a foot above my head. My writing closet was exactly four inches wider than I on each side, and if I scooted my chair up to the bottom shelf, the door just shut behind me. I fell into my writing position, resting my head on my left hand and holding the pencil in my right.
Since Maggie woke up, I . . .
Saying Since Maggie woke up amazes me still. Every time I say it, I think the clouds should part, a huge brass horn should descend, and God should give me five minutes to blow at the top of my lungs for all the world to hear before I shout, "Hey,World! Maggie woke up!"
Before me sat a three-hundred-page dilemma. Maggie had asked me to tell my story, and I had. From the night our son had died on August 15 to the moment she woke up on New Year's Day--some seventeen months ago. My sweaty palms rested on the pages as the two sides of me waged war. I stared at the words and knew the pictures I'd painted would reopen wounds that had not yet begun to heal. I also knew that opening those wounds would increase the sense of responsibility that she had yet to express but that was written all over her face every time we failed to talk about it.
On the other hand, I had never lied to Maggie about anything, and before me sat two versions. Hers was the watered-down, G-rated version, which told enough of the story to satisfy her desire to know, and yet protected her from the R-rated version with all the ugly parts left in. The one on the right was the real story, the one I had written for myself--the director's take that would cut her to the core because it contained all my doubts and fears. I had written it because something deep inside me demanded that I rid my soul of the secrets that I kept there--those conversations with myself that I never voiced.
The discrepancies were simple: While I told her about the delivery and about our son's never crying a peep, I didn't mention her own screaming or my being crumpled in the corner covered in blood while the doctors worked to repair the damage to her body. While I told her about the funeral and Amos singing and the sun shining, I didn't tell her that I held the casket between my knees after we'd picked him up at the morgue, or that I buried the teddy bear with him, or that I had wished every day between then and the time she woke up and even some days since that Amos had just lowered my son down on top of me and covered us both.
While I did tell her about the fire I set in our dead cornfield, I did not explain the scar on my arm or how it got there. While I told her about watching movies with Bryce to pass the time, I did not tell her that there were nights I could not drive home afterward. And though I told her how I pulled Amos and Amanda out of the ditch that slippery, snowy night, I didn't say that I stood in the ice and snow and screamed at God, shaking my fist at heaven and daring Him to strike me down. Or that, when He didn't, I wished He had.
In Maggie's version, I told her about being in the hospital, how I had sat with her and talked with her. I told her that on most nights, when the halls were quiet, I'd rub her legs to keep the circulation going. I didn't mention that while the therapist had said ten minutes was all that was needed, I often massaged for hours. And I did not tell her that when Amanda came daily to change her gown, I helped so I could see my wife, touch her skin, and feel her warmth. I did not tell her how I bathed her, put socks on her feet when they were cold, held her hand beneath the sheets. I did not tell her that I slid my chair close to the bed and whispered in her ear, "Please come back to me." And I didn't tell her that finally, for one reason or another, I had come to the place that, even if she never woke up, I could have lived without her--and now that memory, that ability to be alone, was maybe the greatest betrayal of all. I stared at my work and remembered something my grandfather said one night, "There's just one problem with pulling the wool over someone's eyes. And it surfaces whenever they take it off."
While I collected my nerve, both manuscripts had sat collecting dust. I had finished a week ago, but it had taken that long to muster enough gumption to do what I was about to do. I pushed back from the desk, stacked the pages, and wrapped my version in a plastic grocery store bag. I knelt on the floor, opened my pocketknife, and pried up the single board that hid the cash box where Papa used to hide Nanny's jewelry when they went on vacation. It was about a foot square and locked relatively watertight. I lifted out the box, dusted it off, and flicked the lock.
Inside I kept our birth certificates, the deed to the house, and a few other keepsakes. I laid the manuscript in the box, locked the lid, and slid the entire thing back into its safe place.
I licked my fingers so the bulb wouldn't burn me and twisted it off, listening to the sizzle of spit on lightbulb. I walked into our bedroom and leaned against the door frame, watching my wife sleep wrinkle-free and without torment.
I tiptoed across the floor and gently pushed her Audrey Hepburn hair out of her Bette Davis eyes. I knelt next to the bed and watched her. If she had any idea I was there, she didn't show it.
I whispered, "Maggie," and waited. No response. I whispered again. Finally I touched her cheek and said, "Honey?" She swatted my hand like a mosquito and flopped to the other side of the bed as if the bugs weren't biting over there.
And then I did something I'd never done before. I lied to Maggie. I laid her version on her bedside table, set a cup of coffee down on top, and crept out. Once an early riser, Maggie had awakened from the coma and found her internal clock reset. Now she was happy to sleep till ten thirty. Knowing that, I was pretty much assured that the coffee would be good and cold by then--just the way she liked it.
I slipped on my jeans and hat, made sure my writing closet was locked, and stepped into my boots. Then I hopped onto my tractor and dropped the harrow into the ground--something I'd seen my grandfather do five hundred times.
With a slight breeze cooling my face, I turned around in my seat, saw the deep cuts in the soil, and remembered something else Papa once told me. He had his pocketknife in one hand, scraping the fingernails of the other.
"Funny thing about farming . . ." He'd pointed out across the field with the tip of his knife. "To grow anything new, you've got to cut the soil and get rid of what remains of the old. I imagine if the earth could speak, it would tell us that it doesn't like that too much." He shrugged. "But life is like that. The past fertilizes the future." He snapped his knife closed, slid it into his front pocket, and stared at me with no expression.
"Problem is, we have a tendency to forget that."
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