On my twelfth birthday my father came to my bed in the quiet of night. It was July and hot and the window was open. I was covered by a sheet and watching out of the window the dark trees on the hill and the stars turning in the pale night above them and I was listening for the call of the train to Santa Fe which passed through the trees on the far side of the hill and whose metronomic chorus resonated in the blood and heralded dreams.
My father brought no light but I knew him by his breathing as he stood in the doorway and by his smell as he drew close. He stood in the middle of the room and lit a cigarette. The smoke rolled over me.
Between lemon cake and presents that day my father had held to his custom of sitting at the end of the sofa behind which was stashed an extra set of curtains and his old suitcase. He had stayed there through finger foods and door chimes and the trampling feet of children and smiled at me whenever I passed. When my friends had gone home my mother gave me a slice of cake to take in to him. When I gave it he looped his arm around my neck and pulled me in and said Happy Birthday, kid, in my ear. I dropped the cake. The dog ate it before my mother knew.
In the dark from my bed I could hear my mother’s footsteps on the hardwood downstairs, crossing from the hallway to the linen cupboard to the living room, laying out on the sofa my father’s blanket and a sheet and his favourite pillow. This she had done, for some months, every night at a quarter past ten. Then she would come upstairs and shut her door, and I would hear my father come in from where he spent his evenings on the porch and the sofa would moan when he sank into it. Sometimes, late at night, he would come upstairs and stand at my door and look in on me. More often he would look in, for a while, on my mother. They didn’t hate one another. There had never been any bitter words or raised voices. A coldness had simply pooled between them, and grown wider and deeper until at last their shores were foreign.
When he finished his cigarette, my father slid into bed with me. I was facing away. His chest was to my back and he put his arm around my belly and deftly and slowly pulled me back into him until the soles of my feet were pressed against his kneecaps. I stayed still.
My father began to speak.
There are monsters out there, he said; great blood-hungry carnivores; tyrants and slave drivers who sleep with knives underneath their pillows, and dream of gutted children.
He was speaking low – whispering.
There are body sellers who take children smaller and younger than you and sell them on to work – or worse. There are overseers and bosses and barons who drive women at the yoke; and the women watch on while the bellies of their children swell and the eyes of their children swivel like the eyes of jackals. There is no choice for them. There is no choice for them all their lives until their teeth are broken or rotten and their hands are only bone and disease burns them up.
Through lidded eyes I watched the stars burn white as votives above the dark shapes of the trees on the hill and at that moment I heard the sound of the train as it passed far off, rolling deep and tremulous through the woods towards Santa Fe, and then on from there, through other nights, towards other towns.
You will not know the monsters by their faces, said my father, but you will know their brothers: men who don’t believe they are wicked but in whom wickedness is only the absence of goodness; lesser monsters, lesser beasts, but beasts alike – beasts who will stand with their hands over their mouths while a burning building burns or a drowning man drowns; beasts who will come from the bank in the morning and repossess your home and then go home in the afternoon. Their faces, said my father, will be all around you, forever.
The train rattled on. My father’s body was warm against mine and he was quiet for a long while and then he said, Don’t be afraid.
He took his hand and stroked my hair and said, Goodness is out there, too. Goodness is out there only it is quieter. You have to be still, he said. But it will find you. Strangers will help you push your car out of the snow, or someone will give you a dollar and never ask for it back. Someone will feed your pets when you go away, or bring them home to you when they are lost. Someone will let you sleep near a fire in their living room for days or weeks, and although they tire of you, goodness will hold their tongues. Someone will sit with you when you’re afraid, and rub your back when you’re being sick, and give you their umbrella when it rains.
The train wailed again, farther away, and clattered off, the sound fading, pulling silence in its wake like a black sheet.
Someday, said my father, someone will love you so much that when you die, they will want to die too. And love, he said, is the best kind of goodness, because it is through love that you will see beauty. And if you’re lucky, the person you love will give you a child, and that child will be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. And all your life you will want to stay with him. All your life.
I could feel his breath on my neck. His breath was coming funny and I realised he was crying. I stayed still. In a while he let me go and touched my hair with his hand and because I was only newly twelve or for some other reason I still can’t name I didn’t know what to say so with my foot I reached down to find his foot, to touch the skin there. But what I found instead was the cool leather of his shoe, and I knew then that in the morning my mother would find the old suitcase behind the sofa gone, the sofa unslept in.
Don’t worry, said my father. He was hushing me. He was hushing me and rocking me a little. Out of the window the trees were dark and it was quiet and warm. Don’t worry, he said. The world is so small.
Even today, so many years later, it is those words that are still clearest. Sometimes still I’ll rise from the sofa in the night and pad up the stairs. I’ll pass the door to the room where my mother slept, shut now forty years. And I’ll go up the hall in the dark to that same room. Sometimes I’ll sit on the edge of that bed where he came to me – where my own daughter slept until she went out into the world. And sometimes, even now, the smell of him finds me. Even now I’ll wait for the late train to Santa Fe to rumble off in the dark beyond the hill, and I’ll lie down in the bed and say to myself, The world is so small. The world is so small. While I watch the stars turn and turn and turn.