We had one story in under the wire before the end of 2018, which we will post the day after tomorrow. Our contest is now closed. T-shirts ordered earlier in the month for our previous contest have not yet arrived (Christmas rush from the supplier, no doubt), but are expected this week, and will soon be sent to everyone who participated in “One-of-a-Kindness.”
Now, on to Kristy…
Kristy Webster’s stories invariably obtain what every writer hopes to achieve–spiritual authenticity. A confession: I have been fighting a cold here in the Towers in Moscow, and had to drag myself to the computer because I promised everyone that our contest would conclude on the first of January, and I did not want to disappoint, as I have in the past, by prolonging the deadline.
And then I read her story. I am instantly revitalized, inspired. Stories like these keep me stoking the fires at A Word with You Press, and keep me leaving the lights on. We have many, many fine writers contributing to our website, but none so consistently engaging as this author from the Pacific Northwest. We were so overwhelmed with her body of work that we published “The Gift of an Imaginary Girl” with your help a few years ago, and hope that it contributed to helping her garner a following. Maybe I have set up too high the expectations for this read, but I doubt it. Please enjoy, as did I:
The Great Wonderful Thing
by Kristy Webster
I wore the painted dress the night of the Great Wonderful Thing.
I was tired. I didn’t want to tell the children what to draw or paint anymore. I did not want to lecture them on organic and geometric shapes, or how to blend and shade. So I bought the drab, beige, cotton dress for two dollars at the Goodwill. I brought it to the school my last day. I handed brushes to the children and set rows of paints on the long tables. I expected disaster.
I laid the dress out like a canvas on a long piece of plastic on the tile floor. The faces of the children turned giddy and their demeanor manic. Still, I did nothing to control the chaos. It was out of my hands anyway. I massaged my temples, sat back and told them to begin.
A small gaggle of boys dipped their paint brushes so that they were fat with red paint, violently splattering the top half of the dress. The girls pushed back. One girl, tiny but livid aimed a dish of paint at the boys. I gave her the teacher look and she backed down. A small, timid boy with a face like a lizard took a dish of the red and turned the blood-like splatter into a lopsided heart. I told him, How beautiful. I said, The most beautiful thing. We watched as the gang of angry boys hunched their shoulders, looked down. One of them walked away to wash his hands. Another put down the red, grabbed black, and drew the sun over and over again.
The lizard boy asked me, “Why are you leaving? Why can’t you stay?”
I stared at his round, bulging eyes. I was beaten with exhaustion, and the sharks in my head were multiplying inside the maddened cloud of my brain. I often felt my teeth coming loose, dreamed that I woke up spitting them out in all directions.
“I’m sick,” I told him, and I looked away. And it was the truth.
“What kind of sick? I had the flu last week and I threwed up on the couch and my mom get real mad. Did you throwed up?”
I shook my head.
“I have something inside of me that’s making me sick and it needs to come out.”
“Where is it?”
I took a deep breath and felt the buzzing of my scalp.
“Where is it?” the boy repeated.
“What are you painting?”
The boy shrugged. I peeked over a round little girl wearing a bedazzled denim vest that hurt my eyes to see what he working working on. I saw the blue outline of a truck.
“You like trucks?” I asked him.
“Where’s the bad thing inside of you?”
A planet swelled inside my throat. I stood up, dizzy as I was, crossed my arms and walked away.
My favorite student, a tall, lanky girl, so quiet you’d think her lips were sewn shut, timidly approached and handed me a tumor shaped wad of tissue paper. When I squeezed it I felt something hard as rock and knew immediately what it was.
“Is this one of your famous sculptures?” I asked.
A hint of a smile, a sad smile, twitched at the corners of her mouth.
“May I hug you?” I asked.
She nodded again.
I hugged her and though her hands remained tucked inside her pockets and she stood stiff as a statue, I knew the hug was mutual.
I began to open it and she shook her head.
“You want me to wait?”
She nodded. Then in an almost inaudible whisper she said, “For when you’re feeling better.”
After an hour, the children were wet with paint. The ruffian boys had painted their faces like warriors, the lizard face boy had drawn hearts of green and blue down the sleeves of the dress, and the girl in the denim vest had drawn of a picture of me holding hands with her. I was purple, she was pink.
Quiet girl, my pet, had painted a grey house with half circle windows, a pistachio colored roof and rows of cacti, like a fence protecting a fortress. If you looked very closely, you could see a tabby cat in one of the windows, and a fox with yellow eyes hiding behind two fat cacti. I thought I saw the flicker of a candle as well, but maybe it was the sharks again. Anyway, this was her gift, hiding little treasures in her paintings and clay figures. This is why we were each other’s favorites. I could see what she was hiding, and she could hear what I was thinking.
Students left a pile of cards made of construction paper and crayons telling me to get better. Telling me they will miss me. Saying they love me. As much as it moved me, I knew children and their fickle hearts. Every teacher is the best teacher in the world until the next best teacher in the world comes around. And when I came back, they would miss the substitute teacher, Miss Laura who never raised her voice when they misbehaved, who brought hand puppets and showed them pictures of her twin babies, Lulu and Layla.
But I wouldn’t be coming back.
I stayed to clean up before the janitors walked in and by the time I was done, the tempera splattered paint had dried. I changed into the painted dress in the bathroom, locked up my classroom and drove away for the last time.
When I got to the beach, I laid out on my back and stared up at the sky waiting for the moon to absorb my body. I felt hot tears running down my temples, but still I smiled. Soon the ocean will take me away and soon the sickness in my brain would sink to the bottom with everything else.
I rolled over to sit up and felt something hard when I pressed my palm into the sand. It turned out to be, not something the sea gave up, but the quiet girl’s figurine wrapped in tissue. I’d forgotten that I’d put it in the pocket of my windbreaker. I smiled weakly thinking how she whispered, “For when you’re feeling better.”
But I could not open it at the bottom of the sea, or maybe I could. Maybe I would not give up the ghost as quickly as I’d imagined. Still.
I unwrapped the gift and that is when the Great Wonderful Thing happened. I could see what she was hiding, and she could hear what I was thinking.
And there it was, the monster I could not describe, the villain inside my head, aborted and exorcised in the form of a clay figurine. She’d inscribed the bottom of the figurine with her initials and she’d written something on the red tissue paper I almost carelessly let the wind carry away: Throw it in the ocean where the sharks are waiting.
I felt the winds of heaven freeze me. I stood, carrying the figure towards the sea until the water was up to my waist, and I threw it as far as I could. The sea disappeared from my eyes.
My students’ paintings survived the salt water and so did I.
For several years, the dress remains a dress inside my closet until the day I’m ready and I ask my daughter if she will make it into a quilt. And she does. And it covers me, holds me, until I fall asleep.
Throw me in the ocean where the sharks are waiting.