Photo prompt for short story
“Improvement, I think,” Dad said after he got over the shock of the freshly printed handprints all over the wooden walls of our living room. I found a can of white paint in the shed, wrenched open the lid and began to create before I could even contemplate that anyone else would see anything but the beauty I saw. Sixty-two thirteen-year-old girl handprints might cause some to scoff and turn their nose up. But not Dad. He patted my head and asked what was for dinner.
This was one reason I loved him: in the midst of war and work and worry, he could see something others couldn’t. He laughed more than anyone I knew, finding enjoyment on a side street, in a jar on the table. I had no brothers or sisters and nights were lonely while he worked the late shift. I told him this one time, and the next day I came home from school, he had added his handprints to mine on the wall, and I didn’t feel quite so lonely.
I was sixteen when he died. Factory said it was an accident. Some piece of some machine had corroded and some person had to fix it. Dad always was the “person” when no one else wanted to be. He crawled under heavy metal shapes and tried to make them fit, but they would have nothing of it and fell onto him in protest.
My uncle took me in, but I screamed and threw his things until he let me stay in my childhood home. My first night back there, I leaned on the wall covered in hands and cried until I slept. When I awoke I pressed my palms into my swollen eyes and went to the bathroom. When I came back in the room, the wall looked strange. All of the large, fatherly handprints moved to outline the shape of where I’d lain, as if they were trying to cover me. But…paintings don’t move. Walls don’t comfort. Father’s don’t die.
I crossed the room and touch the prints. They were warm when the rest of the wall was cold. I traced the palm and thumb and wished I could lace my fingers through the imprint of his and pretend. I called his name and the index finger flinched. I flattened my hands on the walls and pressed my cheek there, too, and hoped and hoped and hoped until I saw another twitch. A whole hand moved. Then, two…and three and four. I backed away to see the white handprints swirl like a hurricane on the dark wall until the collage of them resembled an abstract portrait of my father’s face. The hand-eyes blinked. The hand-ears listened. The hand-mouth spoke. “Hello, Rilla.”
My mouth dropped open and my tears were scared away. “Dad?” I inched closer. “How do I know it’s you?”
The portrait smirked. “My smart girl. That is the right question to ask. You know it’s me because your heart tells you so and because I know that you have a passion for agricultural studies and for…Marcus who sits in the third pew.
“ I…” I stammered because it was true.
“I’ve seen how you shy from him at church and how you flush as you are now when he does speak to you.” He winked. “I’m not as unaware as you think.”
“You aren’t as alive as I think.”
“That’s true,” my father said. “But I feel this is a gift nevertheless.”
“A gift from who?” I asked.
“From me, I suppose.” And the face smiled through the hands and I couldn’t help but feel joy-sunshine joy, blooming flower joy, forever joy.
My father stayed with me as the years passed. Marcus and I began dating. Then, we married and had a child. The farther into life I got, the less I came to the wooden wall. Not because of a separation between us. I suppose it is just how creating a new branch of life with another works. You don’t love the trunk of the tree of life less; you don’t forsake it, even. You just…aren’t focused on it so much, tending to your own offshoots and leaves.
I came to my father’s wall after news of our leaving. Marcus could no longer support us here. He had to search for something new, and he found it somewhere new. Rosie was three.
For the second time I sobbed to my father, but this time it was me who had to leave. One whitewashed handprint floated to my cheek pressed against the wall, while the others formed his face and begged me not to cry.
“It’s time for you to live fully in this life. If you stayed with me you would always be only half here and I wish more for you than that.” His kind face drooped. “In truth, it has long been time for me to wholly embrace my death. I, too, have only been somewhat existing.” The fingers making up his eyebrows twitched upward imploring my understanding.
“I didn’t know you were unhappy.” I clasped my hands and backed away, shamed by my selfishness.
“Oh, no. Not unhappy. You have always been my happiness on this earth, and because of my stay, I have seen you marry someone who loves you without condition. I have seen my grandchild grow to favor your lovely mother’s face and your sincere soul. I would not trade these years. But,” my father heaved a sigh, “I am tired.” He was quiet for a long moment, and then said, “This is welcomed. You will not have to leave me behind and I will have my rest.”
I placed my hands on my father’s faux face. “You have given me your life and your death. I can’t tell you how grateful…” tears pressed my voice back down my throat. “I know you love me. Please tell me you know how much I…”
He looked to the side, distracted. He nodded and came back to me. “I have to go.”
“Forever?” I asked.
“No, not forever. Just until you can find me again.” His fingers created a marvelous smile. “Your mother and I will be here.”
“She’s with you there?” I wiped my cheek clean, but new tears dirtied it again.
He nodded and two hands reached for me. “Now. Live a strong, brilliant life. Love your husband and your child with everything you have, and when you are old and have worn out your days, we will be together again.”
I watched each hand print, one by one, join mine, as if all those years ago they had never moved at all. And as each hand found its permanent place, each piece of my father I grasped so tightly floated away until I was full of his sweet memory but not the jagged shards of grief and loss. I left the house once the hands stilled. A cleansing rain pelted my face and I promised myself I would be strong and I would be brilliant. For my father and for me.