I

She died wearing a low-cut halter top, and it was across her chest where the main damage was done and would not be repaired.
        As though the limb of the tree had been waiting for her, had slipped its finger under the fabric slack upon her white shoulder and lifted her up out of her Mercedes a seventeen year old girl. Not lifted but flung from the automobile—not wearing her seat belt, therefore flung—through what window into what object, the impact with which crushing her sternum and whatever she had been thinking the moment before.
        She died along the way to Borderview Medical Center not too far away. Her breast plate was shattered and her heart set free from its mooring and this, as far as we know, was the cause of her death.

II

        The problem, as Ralph Biehn saw it, was that he would not be compensated for the damage to his property. Yes, it was tragic that a young and otherwise smart and certainly attractive girl (he, too, had seen the yearbook picture in the newspaper) had met such a sudden and unjust end. Yes, of course, this was a hard time for the girl’s parents and for the rest of her family and even for the whole community, as far as that goes. Yes, their loss was great, even immeasurably great, even unthinkably great, and no, they were not in any way compensated for it; admittedly, they could not be compensated for it. Yes, true, the most he had suffered from the incident was the shock of having this young girl’s broken body quivering indecently on his lawn, and yes, true, the most his property had physically suffered from the incident was that a good part of the lawn out front had been torn up and the tree would probably have to come down. But when the tree came down, the girl’s family and friends—and the whole community would no doubt applaud the idea—would want to memorialize the stump in some way, would want to write messages to the girl and carve her name in the bark and hold candlelight vigils there; they would want to bring flowers, every day at first and then just on the anniversary of the accident, which could go on for years, really, pretty much indefinitely, all this memorializing, and no, that’s not really damage per se, but the problem with all this, as Ralph Biehn saw it, was that while the insurance company would probably cover the costs of re-sodding the front yard and getting rid of the tree (the girl did, thank God, have insurance), they most certainly would not cover—could not cover—the fact, the bare raw fact, as he put it, that the very nature and not to mention substance of his property—and it was indeed his, he’d paid off the mortgage seven years ago—had been permanently and irrevocably altered. Now what, he wanted to know, what could be done about that?
        Nothing.
        Or so his wife, Bonnie, said.
        “Nothing, Ralph, so just leave it alone, will you please? We can’t do anything about it now,” she said, “any more than that poor girl’s family can. And I have to say it upsets me, Ralph, that at a time like this you would show such little concern for anyone but yourself.”
        Ralph argued that on the contrary he was concerned about her, too—“about you, Bonnie,” he said—and about the community in general, about setting unhealthy precedents for the community, and it was because he was concerned, he argued, not only for himself but also for Bonnie and for the community in general, that he felt it was his duty to bring up the subject of compensation.
        Bonnie would have none of it, but the way Ralph saw it, he was not being selfish, he was being honest, and he was not trying in any way to denigrate or offend the family or the grief of the family of the poor, young, dead girl; no, on the contrary, he was sharing in their grief, which, he noted, was an important thing. It’s important, he noted, for a community, for people in a community, to share grief. He noted further that he, too, was part of the community and so what he was doing, he argued, was sharing in its grief, just as the girl’s friends and so-called friends did, just as the mayor did, just as the faculty of West Rock High School did, “just as you, Bonnie,” Ralph noted, “wish to share in its grief. It’s our grief, too, isn’t it?”
        “What’s done is done,” said Bonnie.
        “I know that,” said Ralph, “I know what’s done is done. Of course I know that. I know that better than anyone or at least as well as anyone,” he said. “But that doesn’t make this the end of the road, Bon, that doesn’t mean that nothing else can be done. Because even though we can’t change what’s happened, you have to admit that what happened has changed us, so nothing is set in stone, Bonnie, so something can still happen or be done that will alter the whole state of things in another way, in a whole other direction, and I mean for us and for that poor girl’s poor grieving family, and for the whole entire community-at-large.”
        Again, Bonnie would have none of it.
        “It amazes me,” Bonnie said, “that here you are, having witnessed a real tragedy, having seen with your own eyes what happened to that poor little girl, and all you can think about is your stupid tree and your stupid lawn and your stupid property.”
        “Our stupid tree,” said Ralph. “Our stupid lawn, Bonnie. Our stupid property.”
        “You make me sick,” said Bonnie.
        “I can see this is going nowhere,” said Ralph, “so let’s just leave it alone for now.”
        “Let’s please do,” said Bonnie.
        “Let’s please,” said Ralph. “I agree to disagree with you,” he said, “and that’s how it should be. People don’t always have to agree about everything,” he said. “Every eye tilts on a different axis. We all live and we all die, that’s all I’m saying, and along the way we all suffer.”
        “Let it be,” said Bonnie.
        “I’m letting it be,” said Ralph. “We disagree, that’s all,” he said. “I agree about that, that’s what I said before, everyone has their own way of thinking, their own way of dreaming, their own way of loving, their own way of suffering, that’s all, so we can leave it alone.”
        “You always have to have the last word, don’t you?” said Bonnie.
        “What do you mean?” asked Ralph.
        “You know what I mean,” said Bonnie.
        “Everybody suffers, dear,” said Ralph. “It’s a natural way to look at things. It’s a natural thing to look at.”
        “Are you finished?” said Bonnie.
        “I think I’ve made my point,” said Ralph.
        “I know what you think,” said Bonnie, quite unsardonically, quite emphatically. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk over to St. Minnie’s right now and kneel down in front of the altar and in front of whoever else is in there—probably praying for that poor girl—and ask God to forgive you. Ask God to open your heart and your blind old eyes to the pain of others, and try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes for once, because if you can rid your soul of pity for our stupid tree and our stupid lawn and our stupid property, then maybe, just maybe, God will overlook your incredible shamelessness and forgive some of your other sins too and not kill you right now like you deserve, if you’re lucky!”
        This, to Ralph’s surprise, was the last word on the subject. He was about to respond with an argument he had been saving for the right moment (something gleaned from the work of a Holocaust survivor who, like Ralph, sought meaning in a meaningless world, who believed that suffering, like gas, distributes itself evenly throughout the body it inhabits, and it inhabits every body, and so no one’s experience of suffering is ever any more or less than anybody else’s—Ralph was sure to defeat Bonnie with that one), but before he could get the equalizing words off his tongue, Bonnie was bulldozing him toward the front door, and “No,” she was saying, and “No more” and “I don’t want to hear it.”
        Ralph managed a “Please” but Bonnie was already issuing her final, solemn command: “You go to St. Minnie’s right now,” she said, “and on the way I want you to walk across our front lawn and pause for a moment at our broken tree and don’t think about your own loss but think about the loss of that poor girl’s family and friends and think about all the wonderful things she might have accomplished had her life not been so tragically cut short, and when you’ve thought about that I want you to cross the ditch—I mean get down into the ditch and climb back up, don’t just hop over—and then you walk yourself over to that church and thank the Lord you’re still alive and blessed with a healthy family and a comfortable home, and don’t set foot in this house again until you do.”
        Ralph couldn’t answer her or even accept her terms because she had already gone back inside and slammed the door.
        “Bonnie,” he said to himself, “you dirty fascist.”
        But he did as he was told. He stood in front of the broken tree and tried to think what might have become of that girl had she not died right here. It was difficult. Well, she might have become an astronaut or, oh, president of the United States, he thought—then took it back. He tried again but found only similar solutions, which he had to take back. She might have been a fireman or a famous actress or a veterinarian. She might have given birth to a genius who would have discovered the cure for cancer. Or she might have married an abusive husband and given birth to abusive children, he thought—then took it back.
        The day was unseasonably warm, the afternoon sun was shining, and spring was in full bloom, and despite what his wife or her few friends (sympathizers, he called them) might think, Ralph rather enjoyed going on walks, even long ones, especially in such lovely weather, and the way to St. Minnie’s was particularly pleasant, so why not, he thought, why not go for a walk. Leave the woman her small victories.
        After emerging from the ditch, he headed down the hill toward the pond where his sons used to catch frogs and salamanders. He lingered there a while, wondering why the place smelled so much like sewage, wondering why none of the ducks seemed to get scared when he started throwing stones at them, even though some of the projectiles nearly hit their targets. He wondered how long a properly weighted body could go undiscovered in that black water there, and just how deep was it anyway, and he wondered what kind of God it was who saw fit to punish an honest man by marrying him to a despot. He wondered, not rhetorically, how that poor dead girl’s father had had the financial means and stability to buy his teenage daughter a Mercedes and yet found it fiscally impossible (or simply unnecessary, as Bonnie would have it) to compensate those who had been victimized by his reckless, irresponsible, albeit tragically dead, child.
        The problem, as Ralph saw it, was Orwellian. “Two and two,” he said to himself, “just don’t equal four these days.” And somewhere in the distance a dog barked or gun shots rang out or tires screeched, and some kid some few blocks away flew over the handlebars of his bicycle and hit the pavement and looked at his skinned knees and skinned palms and at the bits of gravel lodged there, held up his arm to block the glare of the sun and, seeing how compoundly fractured his wrist was, brought forth from his lungs a piteous and blood-curdling scream.
        “Nope,” continued Ralph in his thinking, “two and two equals whatever your wife and her cronies down at the city council tell you it equals. And if you want any appreciation, you’d better be dead, because no one cares you’re here until you’re gone.”
        None of it made any sense.
        He cut onto the trail that led up to Violet Park and brushed his arm against some nettles. He swore. Soon the little white bumps would rise. I’ll have an allergic reaction, he thought. In time, he imagined, his arm would be useless and soon he would be dead, face down in this mud puddle or that bed of moss, picked at by wood beetles and pond mice and unmourned except by his wife, who was unconditional in her sympathy for the dead and their next of kin. He was as good as dead but was comforted somewhat by the thought that somebody would have to shoulder the task of removing his corpse from wherever it landed, that the Parks Department would have to do some kind of clean-up and probably some kind of precautionary screening of the area to ensure that this was merely an isolated incident and not the tip of a whole epidemical iceberg of lethal urticaria. Of course, he thought, in all likelihood my untimely death will have been the result of a rare (and therefore tragic, he added sarcastically) reaction to an otherwise common and harmless intersection of the plant and animal kingdoms, so the rest of you have nothing to worry about, really. Still, on the off-chance that my abreaction will be due not to some allergy or genetic predisposition on my part, but rather to some sinister, whispering, yet-to-be conceived horror—and in these uncertain times we can’t be too careful—it will be necessary for the municipal authorities to employ, immediately and thoroughly, every possible preventative and investigative measure to nip the dawning catastrophe in the bud. And that will require time and money and manpower and no small amount of fear and inconvenience for the entire community, all of which will at least even the scales a bit insofar as the damage to my property is concerned, damage which will go uncompensated even after my death, since Bonnie doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.
        If she’s content to have her rights trampled upon, that’s fine by me, he thought, let the fascist be fascisted, let her love everyone in the whole community and all their dead daughters and sons and even the beetles and mice and those ducks and their pond water, let her love their feces for all I care, let her love dirt before she loves her own husband, but dear God take me first, sting me dead with every nettle and swamp spore you can muster, Lord. In such a world I am not fit to live.

III

        The sun is so bright. It plays beyond the pane of glass, and but for the red, aching limbs of the trees and the memory of yesterday outside, you could believe it had never surrendered to night. You could believe the pavement beyond the garden felt another way, not cold, not cruel, not solid.
        It’s so bright here right now, especially bright in the afternoon, especially between plates of glass, narrow alleys where the sun reflects infinitely, remains trapped infinitely, destroying everything that is not light. The sun is one thing, but for us it is not one thing, though it is the only center of our universe. For us the sun is nothing but its light, and the sun itself, the yellow flare which we at times imagine to rise or fall, is only the round echo, and not the source, of the light it has born. The sun for us is not one thing, though we have learned only to pronounce one name. The sun is a solitary thing for itself, but for us it is only its light, which is not a solitary thing but a plural thing, and not the same here as there, in this house or that house, or where I am, or where you are. Here there are no clouds between us, and the sun is cold and bright, and even through the blinds, even through the solemn, thickening branches of trees, even through the tinted glass, it is difficult to stare at the light and its echo which, here, in the morning, are together and one and many.
        The light here is the light of metal and alloys of metal, the light of cement and motor vehicles, the light of things wrought, the light which is the reflection of things wrought which rise and fall, drowning in concrete and steel and aluminum and plates of glass, the drowning light which is the reflection of things and people, wrought in neoprene or plastic, the drowning light which is the reflection of shadows reflected or cast and then doubled over, repeated, returned to center, raised and then leveled and raised again, a body of light with its mouth open (and it is a long opening, and deep), spilling over the surface of another body, naked and frozen, frozen but swimming, a body of mercury, water kneeling beneath the sky, reflecting things, swimming over things, its fingers in the dirt or leaking into cracks in the pavement where there is no dirt, its body spreading and consuming things, spreading and consuming light, the very and only center of the universe, the one and the many, the sun which is its light which is all it is, spherical bodies of itself, echoes, formless trappings of itself, stranded pools of itself.
        The light as she will not remember it, which falls after her, after the closing of her eyes, back to earth.

        She is seventeen and she is alone, listening to Dave Matthews, she is in the driver’s seat of a Mercedes on 45th Street, heading south; she is distracted by the light of the drought, she is in the light of the sun as it shines down on West Rock, a light which is not unlike the light of the sun over Jericho or Rochebrune or Pope, a dry and relentless light; she is here in this light, heading south, when she glances down or blinks or when she takes her hand away from the steering wheel for just a second at just the wrong second, when her foot slips or her cell phone rings or the bass or the treble or the fader needs adjusting, when the body of the vehicle jerks or veers too hard to the right, into the gravel, when the right front wheel breaks ever so slightly the plane of the edge of the ditch, spins just slightly on nothing, spins with the momentum of the momentary loss of control which iterates and expands as the full rest of the right front wheel loses ground and spins on nothing; she is here in this light and doesn’t think or react fast enough or hasn’t been driving long enough to be able to adjust or even just stop the car. At this moment, when the afternoon light is unclouded and taken more or less for granted, at this moment the momentum of everything that came before, everything up to and including her last real thought, the last thought before she understands that here she is in the midst of a collision happening right now, at this moment everything accelerates. At this moment, when the car is already moving too fast for its environment, when the environment suddenly changes and already too fast becomes even faster and the front end of the Mercedes pitches forward and the lateral movement of the vehicle causes the driver to overcompensate, out of fear or inexperience or distraction, and the car ends up turning over on itself, reaching into the ditch and arching its back, handspringing, twisting and slamming into a tree; at this moment, when the seventeen year old girl is flung from the automobile, through the windshield or through something, out of something, into the light; at this moment everything accelerates, and the girl’s body lands several feet away, a splash on the too green grass, her last thought lingering, her chest cavity completely ruined by impact with the steering column or by some other shock too severe to absorb, her collarbone and sternum shattered, her body several feet away, several feet long, curled up in the very green grass, the strange, somehow mistaken green of the cared-for lawn of some person she did not know, who did not know her, who is or is not home or who is watching television or on vacation or on business in New York or visiting a relative in Tucson or who is there, watching from the window, through the blinds or curtains or simply through the glass, watching the body of a young girl in this light, watching as it makes these gestures and sounds in this split second, watching as it is gathered up and disappears, on its way to Borderview Hospital, where it will be another thirty minutes or so before she is pronounced dead, the cause of death, ultimately, being all the damage in and around her heart.

IV

        “Did you know that girl?” Ralph asked his son, David, who had hardly said a word all evening. David shook his head, which Ralph took as a sign that he should keep pressing. “Your brother said he might have known her. Said he’d probably seen her around. She was a year below him, but that’s quite a bit younger than you, I guess.”
        “I don’t think I knew her,” said David.
        “She used to work at the Skagg’s,” said Ralph.
        David didn’t think he knew her, though he supposed he might have crossed paths with her any number of times. It was certainly possible. He could imagine her, not definitively, but as an extension of the yearbook photo which had been printed in the local newspaper with her obituary. He could imagine her in the smock she must have worn as a cashier at the Skagg’s Drugstore. He had worked there, too, and he could imagine if not quite remember all those people, every person who ever worked at Skagg’s, they were all imaginable. He could even summon their names, most of them, names like Brad Judy and Paul Masaguchi and Sean Roach, names you never forget, names that join easily with faces and postures and how many years they put in at Skagg’s, whether they worked at Register One or in the pharmacy or at the photo counter, whether they operated the one-hour photo machine, or knew how, or wanted to learn so they could get out of setting up the seasonal aisle. He could imagine that place and all of those people, and so he could also imagine this girl, but no, he didn’t know who she was. He was older than her and long gone from Skagg’s by the time she could have worked there legally or even shopped there without her parents or an older sibling.
        David didn’t think he knew her, but he might easily have seen her one day, with her mother or her father or an older brother or sister; he might have seen her anywhere, in Skagg’s, not in Skagg’s, West Rock isn’t so big, it would be safe to say that David had seen most of its people at one time or another, in one place or another, and that most of its people, whether they remembered it or not, had seen him. Some of them might remember me, David thought, as I remember some of them, but not her. I don’t remember her, and I don’t think she would have remembered me.
        Bonnie asked, too, “Did you know that poor girl?”
        And after shaking his head, David had responded, no, he didn’t think so, no, he didn’t know her, never saw her probably, but it was sad, very sad and unfortunate. He was sitting in the blue chair in the living room, with his arms resting on the arms of the chair.
        “Unfortunate,” he thought, and was vaguely aware that he was sitting as though on a throne and that his pronouncement—that the death of the unknown girl was unfortunate—was as a pronouncement made from a throne. He changed his posture.
        Only a few days earlier a friend of his, a good friend and a good person and a kind person, had confided in him that he could not feel sympathy for others. His sense of sympathy, his friend felt, was impaired, and he could no longer feel bad for misfortunes suffered by others, and now he wondered whether he had ever really been able to.
        “Have I?” David’s friend asked him. “Have I ever? And if not, why not? And if so, why so? Of course I can still say I’m sorry, but I can’t really feel sympathy, I can’t really feel sorry. I wouldn’t wish evil on anyone, and I wish nobody had to suffer or at least that we could all suffer less, but that isn’t the same as sympathizing. If I don’t know someone and then the person I don’t know is dead, what can I possibly feel? Why do we have to feel things? Why is it our duty to feel? I don’t understand, and yet I continue to worry that I should be feeling more. Even right now I’m worried that you’re going to think of me as heartless or numb, but I can’t help it. I wish I could feel sorry but I don’t. I mean I can say that I’m sorry about the millions who die every day, but really I’m not sorry. I’m not really even glad to be alive. I can say that I’m sorry, you know, I can say it over and over, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry, not really. It just makes me feel like a liar, and it makes me feel like everyone around me is a liar.”
        “I suppose,” David said, “that sorry is not the right word.”

V

        Ralph Biehn was looking at his watch. He was sitting in one of the pews in the chapel of the Virgin of L. at St. Minnie’s church, sitting because he refused to kneel, because why should I, he thought, and also because he was getting older and if he were to kneel down here, now, alone as he was in the chapel, who knew whether he would be able to get back up? Once a kneeler, always a kneeler, he thought. Bent knees never straighten. A man lives and dies on his feet, he thought, a beggar lives and dies on his knees.
        Beside him on the bench was a children’s book which he had pushed out of the way in order to sit down where he wanted, there, in the center of the pew, in the center of the room. The cover of the book showed an illustration of a man with a beard leading a mule along a mountain road. The man was smiling and the mule was smiling.
        Kneeling, he thought, is for sycophants like Bonnie.
        “Forgive my spite,” he muttered, “but Lord I have a spiteful wife and cannot always escape her influence.”
        Ralph tried to change his thoughts. He looked at his watch, which had stopped. He had come to the chapel rather than the church proper because he knew that nobody would be in the chapel. Everything in the chapel was clean and ugly. The stained glass was ugly. The brown carpet was ugly. The cross was ugly.
        He stood up and stretched out a bit and looked at the altar and thought, “Ugly,” then he approached the altar and took a closer look at the cross and its pale, clean geometry, and thought, “This cross is made of the same wood as the banister in my house and that wood was cheap. I know because I paid for it.” He saw how there was nothing on the altar, how it grew up out of the carpet to serve no purpose, to bear no sacrifice, to cradle no gifts, how it lived unadorned and pale under the empty shadow of the birch- or beech-wood cross which hung above, looking clean and bored. No wonder nobody ever visited the chapel. Except, Ralph considered, the clergy people. And the cleaning lady. He imagined a short woman with a wide mouth and squat body and pinched eyes, vacuuming the brown carpet, running a dust cloth over the altar, genuflecting every time she passed in front of the cross.
        He looked down at his feet: there was mud on his boots and one of his shoelaces had come undone. “So,” he thought, “I’m losing the fight.”
        And seeing no other way around it, he knelt down and took up the laces and tied them as tightly as he could. For good measure he tied a double knot. Then he placed his hands on the altar for support and brought himself back to his feet.
        “Losing the fight,” he thought. “I need help.”
        There was a door to the right of the altar, and Ralph wasn’t sure why it was there but he thought maybe this was the door that connected the chapel to the church. He tried the door but it was locked. He wondered whether Bonnie was really a bad influence on him, and if she was, whether he could escape that influence. “She’s my wife,” he thought. “My wife and I’ve been married thirty-two years.” He was standing in front of the door that he thought maybe connected the chapel to the church. If this was the door to the church, he thought, why should this door be locked?
        He looked at the cross that hung above the altar and noticed the white cloth draped over the arms of the cross and behind the cross’s neck. He hadn’t noticed the cloth before, but now he was thinking that the cloth was obviously meant to replace the body of Jesus, and this thought led him to imagine that the same could be said of the naked altar, that it was meant to stand in for the naked body of Christ, and then he thought that the same could be said of those pews and those kneelers and that stained glass and the brown carpet, and the same could be said too of the mud which his boots had tracked onto the brown carpet, mud which was there but invisible, a substitute for the body of Jesus, a mystery, just as the locked door was a mystery. He looked at the beige bricks that made up the walls of the chapel and he thought, “Replacement.” And then he looked back at the door that he thought connected chapel to church. “Substitute.” It dawned on him that the entire chapel, and perhaps the entire church and every chapel and every church, might be little more than a great proliferation of substitutes for the crucified body of Jesus Christ. It crossed his mind even that he should run and tell this to someone, and right away.
        His fingers came across the keys in his pocket, and he removed them, held them loosely in his hand. He looked at the keys in his hand and thought of substitutes, and one by one he tried to fit the keys into the lock on the door which led (he thought) to the church. He tried the house keys and the car keys and the padlock keys and the suitcase keys and the key to the shed. None of the keys would turn the lock. The key to the shed seemed to fit at least, but it wouldn’t turn the lock.
        “The lock fits the key, the key fits the lock,” he thought, “but it doesn’t fit the mechanism.”
        Certainly he hadn’t expected any of the keys to work—why should they?—but he wanted to try. He was, after all, in a room with a locked door, and in his pocket there was a set of keys, and so, he thought, it would only be natural. It’s only natural.
        It would have been perfect, though, if one of the car keys had fit the lock, even if it wouldn’t have turned. If one of the car keys had fit, he considered, if one of the car keys had been able to open the passage that maybe, probably, connected the chapel to the church, if the key that turned the car mechanism had been able also to manipulate the chapel-church mechanism—that would have clarified everything. And if at that moment, at the moment of the car key turning the lock on the door, someone had walked in, burst in, suddenly, to pray or to clean the chapel, he would not have been embarrassed, not in the slightest, he would not have felt compelled to give the intruder an explanation, he would not even have felt compelled to open the door; he would have simply unlocked it, returned the keys to his pocket, and left. On his way out he would have genuflected and felt perfectly satisfied and would have been unconcerned about his knees. As it stood, however, it was not the car key that fit the lock but the key to the shed, and that meant—could only mean—absolutely nothing.
        He returned to the pew and sat down. He folded his hands and looked at the cross.
        “Ugly substitute,” he thought.
        The cross looked like a tree that would never grow.
        “A cross planted in the ground is a gravestone,” he thought, “a tree that will never grow.”
        He looked at the children’s book beside him.
        “A mule bears no fruit,” he thought, “a mule is the end of the line. A cross is a mule because it is a substitute, the end of a line. A cross is a mule because it has no seed.”
        He flipped through the pages of the book then set it aside.
        “A tree that has no seed will never grow beyond substitution. A tree that has no seed will bear only substitute fruit,” he thought, “and that will be the end of the line. So this is why a gravestone marks the end of the line: it is a cross, a substitute without seed.”
        Ralph said aloud: “God, forgive me. You are everywhere and nowhere, so forgive me for remembering You and then forgetting You. You plant little girls in the ground and you plant men like me in the ground because You have no seed of Your own. My only fruit is the fruit of Your will. I am a substitute seed, Lord, forgive me. Amen.”
        Ralph unfolded his hands and put them on his knees. He smiled briefly, proud of his prayer, then stopped smiling.
        “I take everything back,” he thought and prayed. Then, looking just to the left of the cross, he added under his breath, on top of a thought he was now having about his wife’s face, “No I don’t.”
        To the left of the cross was nothing but white plaster, and it was difficult to look at, especially with the cross still there in the periphery. Ralph stood up, trying to think of something else to say, just one more thing to say to God or to the cross or even just to himself, but the picture of his wife’s face was still woven in there and the only words he could think of were “Have mercy,” and those were the wrong words.
        “Have mercy,” he said, under his breath, and realized that the picture of his wife’s face was more or less also the picture of the dead girls’ mother’s face, which he had seen in the newspaper, veiled and knotted with grief, darkened a bit by the light behind her head, which he thought must have been the sun or—and he had to bite his tongue to keep from saying it—a halo.
        “So,” he thought, “my wife and the dead girl’s mother.”
        There was light coming through the stained glass, and there was dust in the light.
        “That dust is everywhere,” Ralph thought, “but I only see it in the light.”
        And then: “I’m in the dust, even when I’m not in the light.”
        And then he thought: “That light must be from the sun.”
        And finally: “Those poor children.”
        He meant “That poor girl” but he said “Those poor children” in his thoughts, because even though he was losing the fight, that didn’t mean he had to give it up. He felt at this moment the swell of many more thoughts, the bare, unformed ends of all the possibilities for all the thoughts he might have next, how they might lead him to surrender or to victory, how they might savage or dull the rest of his day, how they might even drift over into that night’s sleep and through sleep into the next morning. And so it was, at this moment, that he rose, made a sort of involuntary grimace in the direction of the cross, and exited the chapel the way he came in.