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The Work of Grace
The Work of Grace
Author: Kristen Lee

*1* Key

*Grace*

It’s warm inside, between the great room’s roaring fireplace and all the people. Too warm. I can’t remember a time the farmhouse has ever been so warm. The closest was just before I turned fourteen. At Christmas. After my father married my stepmother and our blended family spent the holiday here, with my grandmother, Juliet, before we moved into our own home.

Now it’s warm from the horde of visitors here for Juliet’s repast. Familiar strangers from this small town, mumbling condolences and promises to visit I know they’ll never keep. My feelings now are the same as they were that Christmas sixteen years ago—sadness, numbness.

Checking to see if anyone is watching, I slip quietly out the mudroom door onto the wraparound veranda and hurry to the railing at the back corner of the deck. No one can see me from any window of the house here. I need the respite.

Tiny, dry snowflakes drift in the stillness—the result of a late autumn cold snap that promises a long, wet winter. Their predecessors coat the fallow fields in a gauzy sheet of white. I watch their seemingly aimless movements and light the cigarette I bummed from one of the guests. Wrapping one arm around myself against the cold, I inhale deeply and tolerate the shivering. The snowflakes aren’t aimless, I correct myself. They only have one way to go. Just like me.

Through a broken section of the fence around the fields, a buck eases cautiously from the deciduous hardwood and evergreen woods surrounding the property. He takes slow steps on spindly legs into the field and snatches at a few dry stalks poking through the snow, then scans about for signs of danger as he chews, his ears flicking about at the slightest sound.

The buck’s head pops to attention and his ears swivel towards me when I exhale a long plume of smoke. He stares at me, his great brown eyes wary, and I stare back, knowing mine are stormy. The short movement of putting the cigarette back to my lips startles him, and the buck bounds away, disappearing into the trees. I envy him.

“Gracie Hammond! What are you doing out here without a coat?”

It’s Ella, my sister. She’s the only one who’s ever understood. Besides Juliet, of course. I’m grateful for Ella. As stepsisters go, she’s a gem. And as sisters go, well, she’s still a gem.

I hear her bustle her way across the deck towards me but I continue to stare at the gap in the fence where the buck made his escape. Ella drapes a heavy blanket over my shoulders, trapping my body’s heat against me and my shivering eases. I exhale slowly as she brushes away the thin layer of snow, then leans on the railing beside me.

“You’ll catch your death out here,” Ella says but without any venom. She looks over her shoulder at me with a grin, snapping her fingers lightly towards the cigarette. “And smoking too. Juliet would have killed us both if she ever saw it.”

At that, I chuckle mirthlessly, handing the cigarette to Ella and waiting while she takes a long drag. “You can hardly blame her. Sneaking them is what killed Grandpa. Probably didn’t help that she found all those coffee cans full of cigarette butts he’d buried out behind the barn when he’d told her he quit.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.” Ella exhales, giggling, then takes another drag before handing the cigarette back to me.

“Yeah, when they leveled the old pasture to plant crops, they turned up hundreds of them. Grandma nearly blew a gasket.” Thinking about it, I can’t help but smile. It’s deep and genuine—the kind people say lights up my face. What they miss is that those kinds of smiles light up your heart too. This one doesn’t.

“I guess he’s lucky it killed him before she found out and did it.”

Ella’s not wrong. Juliet had been ferocious in her day and everyone for miles knew it. I put the cigarette to my lips, inhaling again. “I suspect you’re right. He’s probably getting an earful as we speak.”

“And blamed for us standing out here smoking,” Ella laughs. She’s silent a few minutes, then says, “Most folks are clearing out now, Gracie. I hate to leave you alone here with all these ghosts. Are you sure you don’t want Paul and me to stay?” Ella stands, leaning against the rail so she can look into my face.

There’s pity in her eyes and I look away. I know what she sees in mine—the same vacant stare and numbness I do when I look in the mirror. She’s the kind it breaks her heart and I feel guilty.

That’s novel, I think. It’s the first different feeling I’ve felt in a week. I listen with pleasure to the soft hiss as I stub the cigarette’s burning end against the snow-dusted railing but I don’t look at Ella.

I’d rather sleep outside in a gutter for a month than have Ella’s lecherous husband in the house with me. Even if Ella is here too. His conditional offer of financial help before Juliet died revealed a side of him I hope to never encounter again. “They’re mostly good ghosts, Ella.” I smile, meeting her gaze. “You know that. I have a lot of good memories here.”

Rising, Ella hugs me, a pained look on her face. “You’re so thin,” she whispers, but stops herself from continuing when I arch a brow. How thin I am is the least of my worries now.

“Ok. We’re just a call away if you need anything.” She urges me toward the door. “I put the leftovers in the fridge. There’s a lot. If you freeze some of it, you should have good, hot meals for a month without having to cook. Yay! right?”

Inside, I glance around the now clean kitchen gratefully. “Thanks, Ella. You’re the best.” I give her another hug. When I open my eyes, I can barely stop myself from shuddering. Ella’s husband, Paul, is standing in the dining room doorway with Ella’s coat with a cold-eyed stare. Suddenly, I completely sympathize with the buck.

They leave without another word, and the crowd dwindles as the rest of the repast guests also clear out in short order. The last person remaining is the pastor of the church Juliet had attended from the time she’d married my grandfather until the Sunday before she’d died.

“You don’t have to say anything, Pastor Higgins. Or anything else, I guess. I appreciate all the nice things you had to say about my grandmother.”

Pastor Higgins is middle-aged and a character, to say the least. He meets my eyes with mischief in his. “Oh, good, because I was done.” The dry comment has the desired effect and when I giggle, he smiles and relaxes a bit. “I actually hung around so I could talk to you for Juliet. Although, I’m sure I have a few more things I could say about her if you want.”

Gesturing to the sofa, I take the chair across from him—Juliet’s chair. “What do you mean talk for Juliet?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to know, but it wasn’t long after your mother passed that I came to the church. I remember seeing your grandparents swinging you between them before and after services every Sunday as they walked to and from their car. When you were little and your father was away working. In fact, your grandfather was the first person I laid to rest in this parish.”

I wait patiently, hands resting in my lap. Part of Pastor Higgins ‘character’ is that his stories are long-winded. And circuitous. Eventually, he’ll get to the point though.

“Your grandmother found me after his service to tell me ‘thank you’. And as soon as those words were out of her mouth, she corrected me for misquoting a scripture I’d used.” He laughs at the memory, shaking his head. “I’ve never been so surprised by a person in my life. She set the precedent right then and she never quit surprising me.”

Reaching inside his suit jacket, he pulls small envelope from the breast pocket. I recognize the floral stationary Juliet had loved and my name in her familiar handwriting.

Pastor Higgins hands the envelope to me, adding,” That letter is no exception.” He nods towards the envelope, now cradled gently in my hands.

“The day she gave it to me, she told me I was to give it to you after she was gone.” Pastor Higgins clasps his hands in his lap, staring at them. His eyes are distant, remembering.

I can tell there was more. With Juliet, there was always more. He chooses not to share because I’m already so brittle, he’s afraid it’ll break me. It’s almost laughable. Hammonds aren’t oaks. We’re willows, and we might bend under the weight of things, but it takes a lot to break us.

“Would you like me to wait while you read it?”

I stare at the twined rose and ivy pattern printed on the paper. “No. It’ll be okay. It’s just Juliet.”

Pastor Higgins doesn’t understand what I mean—he’s a nice enough man, but, like everyone else around here, he never understood me. Still doesn’t. He rises, then buttons his coat and I walk him to the door. “Thank you, Pastor Higgins. For everything.” It doesn’t invite further discussion. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m exhausted in every way humanly possible, and I’d just like to be alone.

He nods, giving me a reassuring smile. “If there’s anything you need—,” he says as he trots down the steps into the snowy yard. I close the door against the cold without waiting for him to finish. He doesn’t need my help getting to his car, and I don’t need his help for anything either. Frankly, these platitudes are tiresome.

I drop the letter on the dining room table, working my way counterclockwise—widdershins, as Juliet used to say—to turn out the lights. I have to linger in the parlor to draw the curtains and drape the furniture with sheets again. I roll the old carpet up against the wall and heave a sigh, casting a sad and disapproving glance over the hardwood floor.

Somehow, during the endless hours of summer I played in here— first with my grandparents when I was little, then later, after Dad remarried, when my stepsisters and I would come to the farm for free babysitting during the holidays— somehow I’d never seen how badly the floors needed polishing. How years of paint had all but obscured the pattern in the trim and molding. At least it won’t look any worse for wear the next time this room is used. Probably when I die, I think morbidly.

I switch the light off, close the parlor’s double doors. No reason to heat a room no one uses anymore. As I stand in the walkway between the great room, the parlor and the kitchen, I can hear the ticking of the clocks in different rooms. It’s how I feel. Out of sync. Empty in a house full of empty.

When I switch off the last of the lights in the great room, the heat and light from the fire follows me to the upstairs landing. The occasional crackling or spitting is an echo of conversations long since passed in the old farmhouse.

It’s cold at the top of the stairs. In the darkness, I can see all the bedroom doors standing open. Someone was snooping, I think, closing these too. I move by memory into the master bedroom. My bedroom. It had been easier to get Juliet into and out of the bedroom across the hall.

Removing my boots, I climb into the unmade bed without removing my dress. There’s a comfortable irony in seeing the black folds of the skirt against the striped floral sheets in the dim gray light. I look like I feel.

Like a shadow.

I pull the covers over me but lay awake in the dark.

While I’m grateful Ella was here today, seeing the look Paul gave me has dredged up feelings I could do without right now. I shudder, remembering his insidiousness.

After I’d moved in to care for Juliet, with no job and no home, on the pretense of checking up on us both, Paul started communicating with me exponentially more frequently than he had in all the years since he and Ella married. That happened right after my divorce was final.

He’d call during his commute to work, from his office, or when he was on business trips. He’d text whenever—morning and night—just to say ‘good morning’ or ‘goodnight’. Which seemed odd, considering with my best friends or even Ella, I’d never done that. But these calls never came at night, or on the weekends. Confusingly, there was never something inappropriate or suggestive—just a wish to ‘get to know’ me and my situation better, so he— and Ella, of course— could understand how to help.

To my knowledge, Paul and Ella weren’t unhappy in their marriage, but a subtle suspicion had taken root: Paul was bored. And for a reason I don’t understand, willing to push my limits. When I told him, out of respect for Ella, that these conversations made me uncomfortable, Paul actually got angry— told me that Ella was his wife, his concern not mine, no matter how close we were. “After all,” he’d said, “You’re stepsisters, not actual sisters.”

In other words, though I saw his behavior as exploitative, he didn’t and that was the end of the discussion in his mind.

With his sudden interest, I felt defenseless in a way I couldn’t explain to my dwindling married friends or my grandmother. Certainly not to Ella. As though, in addition to everything else my divorce had cost, I’d also lost some unseen armor I didn’t know I had—a measure of propriety that shielded me before was gone. Unlike before I married, now I was legitimate sport for whatever advances were made, whether it made sense or not.

Paul’s final advance had taken the face of an unexpected and late-night visit on his way home from a business trip. He’d arrived long after I’d helped Juliet to bed and had been working on bills for a couple hours under the yellow glow of the leaded glass chandelier at the dining room table. Since I was visible from the drive, he’d insisted on coming in—worried about us, he’d said, following me up the stairs when I’d closed the door to Juliet’s room to keep the conversation from disturbing the ailing and fragile woman.

I was stunned speechless when instead of returning to the stairs after me, Paul strolled casually into my bedroom and took a seat on the foot of my bed.  

We’d stared across the space at each other for a long minute before he fished a legal-sized envelope out of his breast pocket, extending it to me. A knot twisted inside my gut, confusion warring with concern for what that kind of envelope could hold.

“What’s that?” I pointed at the envelope.

“To help you and Juliet,” he’d said, motioning me into my room with it. Like bait. I remained carefully out of reach as I took it, opening it slowly.  “There can be more,” he’d said when I’d blanched at the hundreds of dollars of cash in the envelope. “If you’ll consider keeping a relationship on the down low.” He ran his hand meaningfully over the comforter on my bed.

Disgusted, I tossed the envelope back at him. “Get out.”

“Grace,” he’d said, rising, “I know you can use the money. Just think—.”

“No. I refuse to hear anymore. Get out now or I’m calling Ella.”

Without moving, he glared at me across the room and I could see it—he’d have what he wanted and I’d pay for refusing. “You’ll regret this,” he’d hissed as he brushed past me, storming down the stairs and out the front door, leaving it standing open.

He’d been absolutely miserly towards Juliet and colder to me than the mercury in the thermometer outside. But you can’t get blood from a stone. The only thing I had left was Juliet, and while he couldn’t tear us apart, the cancer eating her up inside would take her soon enough.

**

It’s late when I wake, stiff and still worn out. A muted light illuminates the room through the dismal gray overcast. I lay still, listening to the farmhouse breathe around me—the slow rumble as the old furnace in the cellar warms and begins to blow, the creaking of the walls and ceiling against the cold, the quiet ticking of the antique mantel clock, now homed on my dresser. It doesn’t keep the right time anymore, but I love it because it was a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother.

Gone are the high-pitched tones and beeps that had accompanied the medical machines. I’m grateful for that at least. I’ve had enough of them to last a lifetime. Their chirps and tweets like vicious little birds twittering about the dwindling moments of Juliet’s life.  

I close my eyes as the numbness creeps in again. Already, my lids feel scratchy sliding over my irises. I feel purposeless without Juliet. And overwhelmed. The dichotomy is lunatic. Where do you start recreating your life? Or maybe more importantly, how?

I quit my job two years ago and moved to the farm to take care of Juliet. That move cost me my network. Not that it mattered. Even if I had an ‘in’ locally, in a town of less than two thousand people and no industry, what teacher would give up their job? The farm barely eked out enough to pay for itself the last few years. Mostly that’s my fault, despite my grandmother’s best efforts to teach me. And I think the farmhouse needs serious and probably expensive repairs.

Hot tears squeeze between my closed lids and race into my hairline. I sigh, wiping at their cold tracks in irritation. How many more can I possibly have? All I’ve been doing for months is crying.

You can cry just as well standing up as you can laying here, I think. Besides, I need the bathroom. I force myself out of bed to the toilet, then strip and brush my teeth while the shower is warming. Ella is right. I’ve gotten thin. There are dark circles under my eyes and my collarbones seem bony and prominent. Not much to be done for it when everything you put in your mouth tastes like sawdust.

The shower is hot and soothing and I stand in it until it starts running cooler. I towel my hair without bothering to dry it and dress in comfortable clothes.

Downstairs, the fire in the great room has burned to ashes but a few embers glow beneath their gray blanket, patiently awaiting the fuel and air that will bring them back to dancing life.

I scoop out the ash, piling the hot embers directly beneath the grate before adding a bit of kindling and new logs on top. A few loosely wadded pieces of newspaper between the grate and the coals and poof! the fire is crackling again. As I rise from the hearth intending to get more wood from the rack outside on the porch, I spy Juliet’s letter awaiting my attention on the dining room table.

I’m not ready to face whatever Juliet had to tell me this morning any more than I was yesterday. Priorities, I remind myself, much as my grandmother would have done. I pull my work coat from the closet in the entry, tug on the rough, heavy duty gloves I use for working outdoors. Get the firewood in the house, I remind myself, then deal with the letter.

I draw the process out, filling both upright racks on either side of the fireplace, carefully stacking each to maximize the space. Nearly a quarter of the cord stored outside against the veranda rail to dry is gone when I’m done. Great. Another expense and no money.

I spend another hour sorting and cleaning out the entry closet, boxing items to take to the church to donate later. I leave the box in the mudroom and start coffee.

A series of meandering, mindless tasks follows—sorting the recyclable plastic bags from the paper ones Juliet stored in a lower cupboard, wiping out and organizing the remaining cupboards, cleaning out the refrigerator. The gray, late morning grows bright with a continuous snow, and fades to a muted gray twilight with nothing much accomplished. Par for the course, I think looking around. Feeling more overwhelmed than before, I make a cup of tea.

The gracious kitchen is cold by comparison to the great room when I return with my cup to sit before the fire. Distracted, I tuck fraying threads along the old easy chair’s arm. As if there wasn’t already a thousand things to do, I think: I bet I could re-upholster this.

Re-upholster it, refinish the floors, fix the stair and veranda railings. You probably could do a lot, but you won’t, my conscience condemns. There are so many things, you wander aimlessly from one to the next. Accomplish a little or accomplish a lot, you’re spinning your wheels, Grace, it says. Stalling. Because you can’t do any of these things—you can’t do anything because you don’t know how and you don’t have any money even if you did.

There’s a real and dangerous truth to the cliché: you are your worst enemy.

I set my tea aside and put my head in my hands and the crying starts again. Hiccuping, weak pants and tears give way to great, shuddering sobs gobbled up by the lonely, cavernous farmhouse. As darkness leaches the color from everything around me, I slump to my knees on the floor before the fire.

**

I wake stiff and sore, with a crick in my neck that hurts like hell. Though I hadn’t intentionally banked it, the fire burned all night, the last starving flames licking the charred remains of logs as I sit up. Getting to my knees before the hearth, I go through the motions-- scooping the ash into the bucket, piling embers under the grate, and adding new logs.

Rising, I stretch, wincing at the pops and snaps as my body realigns. When my eyes fall on Juliet’s letter, I slump under the weight of the unread words. Now I’m crying again.

Long minutes pass before I inhale deeply, inflating to stand straight. I square my shoulders, march into the dining room and snatch the letter off the table.

A line forms between my brows. There’s something hard and inflexible inside the envelope. Taking a seat before the fire, I tear one end of the envelope off, tipping it to withdraw the letter. A smallish key falls into my lap. I turn the key over in my hand. Finding no markings, I set it aside near my now cold cup of tea and focus on the letter.

My dear sweet Gracie,

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve started this letter. It seems lacking to say “thank you” when I think of the hours of your life you’ve given up, caring for a dying old woman. When I think of all the times I woke to find you wadded up in that terribly uncomfortable chair in my room, just so you didn’t miss the alarm on one of these miserable little machines. All the times you didn’t go home to your husband and what that cost you.

All the thank yous I can give in what remains of my life won’t give you any of those minutes back. It won’t give you back the husband you lost, or the job you left, even if you didn’t leave it for me. I feel bad about that, even though I’m so very grateful that you’ve been here.

When your grandfather and I raised cattle in the pasture by the barn, your granddad would whistle at the fence at feeding time, and we’d watch them come across the field, following their cow paths to get to their basic needs, like water, food and shelter. The cows don’t make these trails along the most direct route. Sometimes, they aren’t even the easiest path. There’s usually a more efficient way for them to get where they want to go, but they’re cows, and they continue to trudge along those well-worn and winding pathways because it’s what they’ve always done in their past. They’ve never walked a new path before.

That’s what taking care of me has left you, unimaginative and illusionary cow paths, and I’m sorry for that. You’ll inherit the farm of course, and if I don’t tell you otherwise, Gracie, I know you’ll keep following the track your grandfather and I made all those years ago and try your best to work it.

That’s not what I want you to do. You have choices now, ones that love and loyalty didn’t give you before. If Pastor Higgins has done what I asked, these are choices you might not be able to see right now on your own.

Your granddad and I saved what we could when we had good years. Everything we have is in the barn, in a lockbox we stored inside the wall near the spigot. The board with all the yellow knots. The key is here.

Take that money, Grace. If you have to put in a crop this year to give you some time to find a buyer, the money should cover it, but sell the farm. Mueller will buy it, but he’ll undercut the price, so look for another buyer unless you have no other choice. Once the farm sells, take the money and make yourself a good life someplace wonderful that makes you happy. I wish I could give you better.

I’ll love you always, my sweet girl.

Grandma Juliet

I gape in numb shock at the words on the page, my grandmother’s familiar script and floral stationery. I’ve cried so much, so often, I can’t muster anymore tears. Take the money and run. Abandon the one place I’ve felt grounded and safe my whole life.

Juliet was right about one thing. I expected to stay, to pay someone else to help me farm as I’d done while Juliet was sick.

But give up on this place? Leave?

Was that the only way to be happy?

Was that even my way to be happy? An inkling of new insight about my grandmother’s life here starts to creep in and I look around the room. How many times had she wandered alone in here, the only company the out of sync ticking and the crackling of the fire? Had she resented the cow paths of her life?

Abruptly, I stand, picking up the key and dropping the letter in its place. I grab my coat and go to the mudroom for my galoshes. Through the windowed door in the mudroom, I can see the fields, now covered several inches deep in snow, glittering white in the patches where weak sunlight breaks through the heavy overcast. It blows in sparkling silvery puffs when the wind gusts and I roll my eyes and groan.

Lifting each foot carefully to avoid getting the deep snow inside my galoshes and pulling my coat tight against the cold, I make my way to the barn. Despite the snow piled against it, the barn door slides aside easily. Inside, it smells faintly of fertilizer, wet earth and musty hay. Out of the wind, the cold feels almost tolerable.

I make my way to the spigot, scanning the barn wall for the panel my grandmother described. Kneeling a foot or so from the faucet, I pry at the edges of a knot-mottled board. It doesn’t budge.  

The cold makes my fingers ache and I rub them together quickly before tucking them back in my pockets. I should have worn gloves, I think, clenching my hands into fists to try to warm them. The lockbox key brushes against my fingers in one pocket and a thought occurs to me. Using it as a lever, I pry again at the edges of the board, gasping in excited surprise when it pops toward me.

I set the board aside, smiling for the first time in days. My breath releases in a white cloud as I exhale. The dingy aluminum lockbox—my secret treasure— is tucked inside, as Juliet had said it would be. Lifting it out by the handle, I replace the panel, stepping on it to snap it into place again.

Tucking the box under my arm, I hurry back to the warmth of the farmhouse following my previous footsteps, heedless this time of the snow and my galoshes or the cold creeping through my coat from the frozen box under my arm.

Inside, I leave my overshoes and coat in the mudroom. Carrying the frozen box to the great room, I warm my hands, listening to the soft, metallic pings as the metal thaws to room temperature sitting on the hearth out of the direct heat from the fire.

The waterproof gasket gives with a sticky, peeling sound as I lift the lid, exposing the contents. Two neat stacks of long envelopes lay side by side, bound with crumbling rubber bands. I go through each one carefully, finding anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in cash in each of them.

Retrieving the accounting records from the kitchen desk, I sit down beside the box to review them. There’s a slight surplus in the farm’s account from the previous year, enough to cover planting and harvesting costs—equipment and labor, seed, fertilizer and insecticides, irrigation— and taxes in the coming year, assuming no losses. Possibly enough to cover the probate costs. After that, only enough to cover the household costs. No repairs. But with what Juliet had in the lockbox, there’s potentially materials.

What could I offer someone to help? The only thing I have is the farm—the land, the old barn, and the farmhouse. I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, focused on the peeling texture around a vent. “I have a whole lot of nothing.”

I let my breath out with a whoosh as the realization hits. Space. What I have is space. If I could get the barn fixed up, I could rent that space. This far out of town, my property connects to lots of old trails and quiet roads. That might bring in enough to float expenses for a few more months until I can bring in a harvest. Any income couldn’t hurt.

And I could offer space in the house to someone in exchange for fixing things up. There has to be someone with the skills I need looking for a place to live. I could offer room and board—it’s not like I’m not cooking anyway. Maybe I’d waste less food if I was sharing it with someone else.

For the first time since Juliet died, the tight ball of anxiety in my stomach releases. There is a way. It might take some work to find the right person, but there is a way.

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