Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
Second Place Adult
Agnes in Light
by Noelle O'Reilly
At the end of the dirt road lies a small clearing. A house and a barn sit facing each other on either side and in the early morning, the fog rolls in and hangs just above them. The two structures show their age, white paint remaining only in protected corners, the rest a mildewed gray. Past the clearing and through the crop fields, Silver Hill rises out of nowhere, a hiccup in the flatlands. As morning comes in, the fog lifts away from the house and climbs its way up the hill until it disappears into the sky above. Meanwhile, on the second floor of the house, through the window on the left, Agnes has opened her eyes. Overnight, the room filled with a damp cold that crept through her blanket and left her with gooseflesh, translucent and tinted blue by her small veins. Agnes is cold despite the layer of sweat she’s been waking up in lately. She looks past the foot of her bed and through the frost lining the windowpanes; it is still dark outside. Before kicking off her blanket and putting her feet to the floor, she curls onto her side and breaths hot air beneath her nightgown.
Usually, she wakes early, before Aunt Maude and Uncle Morris are up. She moves through the still morning air, her slight body just hinting at growing some substance. In the dim light she is almost hidden against the backdrop of walls and only bits and pieces of her, a newly curving hip or weightier thigh, make her appear solid. She slips around creaking floorboards and pushes silently through the screen door. The old boots she wears are too big and they knock around her bare calves as she crosses to the barn. Her dress has grown too small in the torso, and the seam around her ribs cuts into her skin. The cows stir upon her arrival. Agnes presses her cheek and neck against their hefty middles and tries to take in their warmth as she milks them.
When the sky starts to lighten a bit, Maude and Morris will wake up with the rooster. Morris will rise and go to the basin in the corner to splash water on his face. Maude will slide into her slippers and unpin the nightcap from her hair before making the bed, still sunken on either side where they slept. After breakfast Morris will leave the house and spend his day trudging through the fields, preparing the softening ground for spring planting. Maude will stay inside, washing and scrubbing, preparing lunch and then dinner.
It is just Maude, Morris, and Agnes on the farm. Agnes accompanies her uncle to town once in a while, but these occasions are infrequent. The closest schoolhouse is two towns away, so her studies have been limited to reading from the family Bible. Agnes often doesn’t follow what she reads, as the words are not the ones she speaks with. The characters seem to live forever, and though Agnes draws maps of their kinship in her head, the lines always get lost, and she forgets who is connected to whom. Nonetheless, the characters are vivid in her mind. They are as real to her as the neighbors up the road; she doesn’t see them, but knows they are there. The dry well behind the house is the hole where Joseph lay bloodied and Agnes’ own footprints really belong to his ten angry brothers. The barn is an ark, and Agnes cares for the animals that will repopulate the earth.
When she is done with her chores, Agnes climbs to the top of Silver Hill. The snow is gone, but it will be months before the ground gives up anything green. Agnes stands with her feet in the brown grass and hugs herself against the wind. Looking at the farm below her, the only signs of life are chickens pecking at feed in the courtyard, and Morris moving slowly along a fence in the distance. The wind sweeps the covering of clouds across the sky, but it is gray forever. Agnes wonders if they are the same clouds passing her, over and over again. With them Agnes feels time move past her, but isn’t sure where it goes, or if it changes anything but her. Below, one field becomes another, the neighboring farms shrinking as the distance grows. They are houses for ants, Agnes thinks. She tries to imagine people inside. Agnes is alone on Silver Hill and has very little with which to measure her life.
At dinner, the three of them sit and pick at their plates against a background of fading wallpaper. They are jaundiced by the light of the wall sconces. Agnes looks straight past her aunt and uncle. Maude and Morris are a single person to her. They could be brother and sister, they so resemble each other with their ashen faces and lank bodies. They too seem to change only with the season. Maude will abandon her wool sweater once the crocuses have emerged from the ground, but it will be back when the elm in the yard looses its first leaf. They are straight and stoic, divulging little with their manner, and even less with their words. Agnes has never heard anything of a family beyond them. Once, when she was very young, she asked about her parents. Maude stopped what she was doing and looked at Agnes. She said that her mother had died in childbirth, then turned back to her work. The words echoed in Agnes’ head. She turned away and carried them out of the house with her. When she was alone in the barn, she mouthed the words silently. She dissected the phrase, but when she put it back together, it didn’t make sense. Died in childbirth, she repeated. I was born. It registered slowly that it was she who had caused it.
After dinner, they sit in the living room. Agnes reads aloud from the Bible while Morris leafs through his Almanac and Maude picks through her sewing basket. There is a carpet in front of the fireplace with chairs in three of the four corners. Maude and Morris sit opposite each other in the chairs closest to the fireplace, and Agnes sits diagonal from Maude. She wonders where everyone else is. Families are too big to map, but here, they are just the three points of a triangle.
She climbs the stairs to her room. Lying in bed, she pulls her nightgown up to her chest, and runs her hand down the middle of her torso. She picks it up and runs it downward again, as if petting an animal. She moves her hand crosswise across the bulge below her navel, hoping to ease the aching there. She falls asleep like this.
Every morning Agnes wakes up to days that are the same. But recently, she aches in her middle, and in her joints too. In the barn, she sits on the milking stool and looks down at herself. There must be something wrong, she thinks.
One day after dinner, Agnes is clearing the table while Maude starts to wash the dishes and Morris sits in the living room. Agnes stands in the doorway of the kitchen with a plate of unfinished cabbage in her hand. She studies Maude from behind, her feet, positioned in a V, are all that show beneath her long skirt, and even as she works, her body is rigid and straight. Agnes moves forward hesitantly. She sets the plate on the counter next to the sink.
“Aunt Maude, I think I’m sick.”
Maude does not stop cleaning, or turn to look at Agnes. “You don’t look sick.”
“I ache everywhere.”
Maude circled a plate with a soapy sponge. “Maybe you’re getting taller.”
“But here,” Agnes said, pointing beneath her navel. “It hurts.”
Maude turns her head to see where Agnes is motioning. Her eyes rest there for just a moment before looking back to the dishwater.
“Finish clearing the table.”
In bed that night, Maude lies awake. Morris sleeps on his back and lets out a soft puffing sound with each exhale. Maude gets up, stands by the window, then walks out of the room. She puts her bony feet down softly in the hall and pushes open Agnes’ door. She has kicked her covers off, and her nightgown is hiked up around her ribs. Her stomach swells intermittently with breath. She usually sleeps tight under the blanket; Maude has never seen this much of her uncovered. She is not looking at the child’s body she last saw in bathwater.
In the fall before Agnes was born, Morris drove more than a hundred miles to collect Eliza. It was dark when they got back to the farm. Maude stood in the doorway of the house, silhouetted in the kitchen light, and waited for her sister to climb out of the truck. She had already started showing. Several months passed before Eliza felt the water come down, and knew it would not be long. It was long before it should have happened and Maude and Morris were miles away at the wake of a neighbor. Winter had been settling itself in slowly, frosting the window panes and freezing gutter drip into icicles, but inside, Eliza sweat and wailed, trying to push from herself the enormous weight that had grown there. When Maude returned home, she found Agnes lying in a pool of blood between her mother’s legs, alive only by the mercy of God.
After a week with the doctor, any danger seemed to have passed, and he handed the baby over to its guardians. He had wrapped her in a tight little cocoon of blanket so that only her face showed. Maude held the baby, not close against her, but balanced in the cradle of her arms. The doctor told her that Agnes still needed the warmth of another body, and that the baby should sleep between she and her husband for a while. Maude gave a quick nod, but wondered how much warmth the baby would find there. When bedtime came, she stood at the edge of the bed for a long time before she was able to climb in next to Agnes. She watched Agnes’ whole body swell with each breath, opposite in rhythm to Morris, who had started to snore softly. When she finally did get in, she lay stiffly on her back and tried not to move. She stared at the ceiling. Tree branches occasionally moved so that they cast shadows above her. She breathed shallow, trying not to work her breath into the rhythm of the other two. As night wore on and she still did not sleep, Maude made a decision, and moved the baby to her crib down the hall.
Watching Agnes from the doorway now, Maude looks for the infant, but sees no sign of her in the body before her on the bed. She closes the door, and returns to her room.
In the morning, Agnes rises and leaves the house. From outside the barn, Agnes hears the strained lowing of a cow. She opens the door to find the pregnant heifer lying in her stall, craning her head backwards with each cry. Agnes runs to get Morris. He returns to the barn with her, and positions himself behind the cow. Agnes stands several yards away; it is the first time she has stayed to watch. There are sounds of great pain and effort from both Morris and the animal. The cow tosses her head back and knocks her legs against the ground. When the calf finally comes out, it is sticky and steams against the cold.
Once Morris has left the barn, Agnes approaches slowly. She moves the cow’s tail aside and looks underneath. She stares at the calf, then down at herself. Her eyes move back and forth between the three of them.
Agnes isn’t sure when this could have happened. She thought God sent messengers to announce these things, but no strangers have come into the house, she has received no warning. Maybe God was the light coming through the crack in the clouds when she stood on the hill. Maybe he overshadowed her as she stepped off the porch into the morning fog and she just hadn’t known it.
As she lies in bed that night, she crosses her arms over her belly. She can feel it holding onto her insides. I don’t need a messenger to tell me, she decides.
The morning pulls Agnes from a deep, still sleep. She circles her palm over her stomach then plants her feet onto the floor. She moves forward, down the stairs and out of the house. In the barn, the calf feeds from its mother, its tongue curving upward as it sucks down milk. As Agnes watches, she remembers going to the doctor once and seeing a woman holding a baby against her bare chest. Agnes puts her hand where her heart is and strokes downward. She imagines herself being milked like the cow or that woman.
After dinner, Agnes looks at Maude and Morris in their separate corners of the carpet. The shadows of flames dart out past the fireplace. Maude and Morris sit close, yet the heat seems to miss them. Across the floor, Agnes fills her corner of space, warmed from the inside.
Agnes excuses herself and climbs the stairs. She undresses and looks out her window. The clouds are barely distinguishable from the sky, their night colors almost the same. She wonders how anyone is supposed to find her without a star to follow. Maybe He did send a messenger, she thinks. Maybe he just couldn’t see me through the clouds.
When she wakes the next morning, Agnes feels pains stronger than before. She gets up, lifts her nightgown and puts her hand there. She looks down to see her fingertips covered in blood. A short constricted breath comes out, and Agnes falls to the floor. Having heard the crash, Maude crosses the hall and opens the door. She understands and goes to find Agnes a cloth. She tells Agnes that it happens to all women, that she will get used to it. Agnes cannot hear a word. She can feel everything leaking out of her, and she knows it is gone. Maude closes the door. Agnes lies still while blood collects slowly beneath her and soaks into the cracks of the floor. Maude’s slippers tap softly against the wood as she walks down the stairs and into the kitchen. In the bedroom, Morris splashes water onto his face from the basin, unintentionally wetting the front of his nightshirt. The sun is rising behind the cover of clouds, slowly lighting the sky and the farm below it. Agnes’ window is divided into four panes, each framing a separate picture. A dirt clearing, a weathered barn, a hill growing out of a distant field.
The author of this story shows a facility with words, the ability to
construct a place in the reader's imagination that seems real. When
Agnes shivers, so does the reader. We feel the cold. Set on a
desolate farm, far removed from high-tech Palo Alto, the story reminds
us of how mysterious the everyday rhythms of human and animal existence
can be and reminds us, too, of how the lives of one generation affects