by Naomi Kim
I don’t know anymore how to pray, and frankly, I’m not sure I ever knew how. Maybe no one really knows how to pray, not even the saints framed in light and color in the stained glass windows of the lonely chapel. I walk there, sometimes, and kneel in the pew and talk out loud. Call it prayer, if you would like. But I think the times I come closest to prayer—whatever that is, anyway—are when you crawl into my lap and ask about the night you were born, and then, as I tell the story, you fall asleep in my arms. Soft and warm and trusting, your head leaning against my collarbone, your breath gentle on my skin.
Oh, Maggie, my darling. How brave—how foolish—how mad of you, to come alive into this dying world.
I don’t know any other way to think of it. You always want to hear the story, and I am always obliging. Olive, you calls me, the way your mother Anneliese does. Just Olive, though at first I was supposed to be Aunt Olive. Not that I am your real aunt, but it seems like none of that matters anymore, not with the water rising—but I digress.
Olive, you say to me, Olive, tell me about the night! Simply the night, and of course I know what you mean. And I hold you and tell you about how it was wild and stormy. How we were all so scared: Anneliese, who was only twenty-one; me, who had never delivered a baby before; and Kyle, the too-young, too-earnest pastor, accidental nurse that night. All he had wanted to do was take shelter from the storm after his car stalled, but of course the door he came frantically knocking on was Anneliese’s. (Kyle! you giggle. Kyle, who is the only father you have ever known. Kyle, who taught you to knot daisies into crowns and to say grace with your artless, six year old clumsiness.) I tell you how you came with the dawn and the calm, how we gave you to Anneliese to hold and nurse.
I don’t tell you that you were born to a string of Anneliese’s expletives, or to Kyle’s white-knuckled stream of dear God help us, or to my own terrible wonder that you should even be alive.
Oh, Maggie, I remember how you slipped into my hands, all of a sudden, alive and wriggling and crying and bloodied. I was shaking as I wiped you down and passed you to Anneliese, and all the while the water was rising, as it is always rising. One day it will swallow Wister whole, and all of this—this chair I sit in, rocking; this shabby house; the church and the tiny chapel on the hill; the nursing home where I make my rounds—all of this will sink beneath the brine.
You are the youngest of those of us left here in Wister. One day I will be gone, and Anneliese, and Kyle. One day we will all be gone, and you will still be here. You—our Maggie—and the ocean. That ever-encroaching ocean. I think of you clinging to the church steeple as the bells toll and the water rises, your hair tossed like a flag in the salt-rough wind.
On Sundays we are busier than usual, because Sundays are church days. Kyle comes to play old hymns on the piano in the nursing home, to pray with and read to the residents, who are his only real congregation. Everyone else is gone now, of course, having evacuated when the first spate of hurricanes came, and now we live in the Bradleys’ old house, halfway between First Methodist and the nursing home, with a tiny untidy vegetable garden and a vast tangle of overgrown grass.
That old piano is terribly out of tune. During the weekdays you mash yellowing keys at random and sing the songs Anneliese and I have dredged out of our own kindergarten days. Shouldn’t we do something about how out of tune the piano is? I fretted once. Each note twangs and bends the air in ugly shapes. (And do you know—will you ever know, Maggie—what a piano is supposed to sound like?) But Anneliese said, matter-of-fact, well, half these people are deaf anyway. And you—you were playing on the floor with old Barbies and without missing a beat, you said, Mrs. McIntyre says she’s always listening for God, and I told her good luck because He doesn’t talk that loud.
They love you, you know. The residents, I mean—Mrs. McIntyre and everyone else in that nursing home, and even some of the ones with dementia often ask after you as I make my rounds with pills and insulin. These are the people left behind in Wister, the people without families. You sing old hymns for them while you skip around the nursing home halls, and on Sundays you trail after Kyle and Anneliese to each room and pipe up, the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed for you, when it’s Communion. The first thing you learned to read wasn’t about Spot the dog; it was in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. This, I presume, is what comes of having Kyle raise you.
You asked me once to say your prayers with you, when Anneliese and Kyle were late coming home from the nursing home one Sunday evening. I knelt down beside you on the wooden floorboards and you said, okay, you can start, and I said, dear God, and then I couldn’t go on. My chest felt tight. Maybe my heart was too full, or maybe it was the thought of the water—I am always thinking about the water, Maggie, always—but I couldn’t squeeze any words out of my throat. And you said, so matter of fact, picking up right where I left off, dear God, please help Mama and Kyle get home safe, and please make Kyle remember to teach me to swim, and please would you teach Olive how to pray, amen. So you know, too, my difficulty with prayer.
It was when I tucked you in to bed that you asked me, Olive, do you believe in mermaids? And I said, why, do you? And you said, well, when the water comes, won’t we turn into mermaids too? Because how else are we going to breathe underwater?
Oh, Maggie, my heart tore as easily as wet paper.
I don’t remember what I said to you, but I must have said something satisfactory, because all I can remember is you saying, good night! Cheery as always. And I walked down the hall to the living room, wearing your words like a shroud, and there were Kyle and Anneliese asleep on the couch in the lamplight—Kyle’s arm around Anneliese’s shoulders, his head resting against the top of hers. They must have gotten home sometime during your prayers, but I hadn’t heard. I looked at them for a moment and remembered their wedding. Weeds tall and green and wild, roses blooming all over the trellis. Anneliese in a yellow summer dress and Kyle thin and lanky in his oversized suit, the two of them smiling shyly and looking delightedly surprised to find themselves there with one another. The air was thick with heat and the buzz of bees. I had the sun in my eyes and you, a toddler, on my hip, your baby hands curled into the fabric of my blouse. I was maid-of-honor and wedding officiant and babysitter all in one.
I turned off the lamp—what a quiet click it makes, almost like a sigh, but too sharp to be one. I went down the stairs to my own room. I stood there in the dark for a while, at the window, and I thought that maybe I could hear the ocean from there, although I know that’s impossible. You couldn’t possibly know, Maggie, what it felt like then. To be the only one awake in the house, in the big dark stillness. Somedays I wish I could wake up next to someone, too, and fall asleep next to their warmth, and know that every day it would be the same. That it would be safe. Certain. What I would give to live in a world where someone takes my hand gently when I am weary.
What I would give to live in a world where the ocean stays put.
Every six months, the drone comes with supplies, dropping them off in overgrown backyards. Our manna, Kyle says wryly. You love to push through the tall grass and dash to find the package among the weeds—it’s a game for you. We are not quite forgotten here, but it’s only a matter of time. At first, when we first ran out of gasoline—of course, you wouldn’t remember this—the drone came every month. Then every two months. And now, twice a year.
I don’t like to think about what will happen next.
Instead, I worry that you might learn everything wrong. That you will think canned goods and bundles of medication drop from the sky. That you will believe it natural to grow up in a nursing home, in a neighborhood of empty houses. That you will think it perfectly normal to root around in other people’s abandoned homes and garden sheds, as we do when we realize there is something we need, and maybe that neighbor or this one might have left it behind when they left Wister.
I worry, too, that there will be so much you won’t ever know: what it means to play with other children or go to your grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving or eat greasy fries from the drive-through. Then there are the things we’ll inevitably fail to teach you, things like calculus or physics or Shakespeare. And will we bother to tell you about credit cards and the stock market and health insurance? But then again, the terrible truth is that those things won’t matter. Don’t matter.
Sometimes life before the waters seems like the fuzzy kind of dream you have just before you wake up, when sleep is growing so thin you can already see the sunlight. Before: back when I was in my first year of medical school, before the spate of storms that sent everyone skedaddling here and there, before I found myself, somehow, in Wister. I didn’t mean to come to another seaside town, of course, but I took a wrong exit on the highway in the storm, and three hours later in the wrong direction, my weather-beaten car sputtered out. When the rain had abated I found myself staring at a crooked sign that said Beach and had an arrow pointing ahead. Welcome to Wister. The town where everyone who could was already leaving. Had already gone. The only people left were the ones who were stuck, like Anneliese, like Mrs. McIntyre and her nursing home companions, and the ones who were too loyal, like Kyle.
You said to me, Olive, I think ghosts must live in these houses. We were tending to the garden, our small patch of civilization where we grow carrots and potatoes and strawberries and tomatoes as best we can, and I had to stop and sit back on my haunches when you said that.
I could only say, oh really? I tried not to think about the time you planted a baby doll to grow a friend. I opened my mouth again—to say what, I don’t know—but you were already bounding away into the overgrown yard, unfazed, singing “It is well with my soul” at the top of your lungs. I knelt there amidst the wilting carrot plants like I was in Gethsemane, praying nothing but oh Maggie, oh Maggie.
Do you know that I have dreams where I build an ark for you? I tear down the houses with my bare hands, but gently, the way I imagine you might take apart a honeycomb. I gather up the planks of wood in our yard. I use that heavy old hammer from the Parks’ shed. I hold the nails carefully between my lips while I work, so that each one contains my kiss in it. I build you an ark, Maggie.
I’d build you an ark if I could.
I was painting yellow flowers on the dusty black front door while you made great spirals and big stars—galaxies thrown up on a house in the middle of this doomed town. Then you edged up next to me and before I knew it, you’d streaked my worn jeans with brilliant pink and you crowed, I got you! You threw down your paintbrush and ran into the tall tangled grass, giggling, and I shouted, come back here, you!
You laughed, and I chased after you, and you swerved my way again, your old patched-up gingham dress a swirl of red and white, and I caught you and you squealed with delight, and together we spun and spun in a circle, holding tight to each other, and oh, oh, how much more could I have asked, than for this?
Naomi Kim is a rising junior at Brown University concentrating in English. She serve as Editor-in-Chief of Cornerstone Magazine and as a staff writer for Post-. Her work has also appeared in Lunch Ticket.