Now that I stand near a door that summons me into its eternal keeping, I desire to preserve my fondest memories in hopes that my experiences are not lost.
I grew weary of retelling the tale. Not few but none believed. Perhaps this final testimony will give the reader pause and stir a desire to search the deeper depths of our existence.
Years ago, in autumn, my wife and I attended the grave of her deceased grandfather. It had been ten years since his passing. Near the place we expected to find his tombstone, we happened upon a peculiar, unexpected sight. A large granite dais standing in the field.
A young man in his early thirties, black skin, morning stumble on his chin, sat on the dais with an infant in his arms. When he saw that we had noticed him sitting there, he seemed genuinely surprised and pleased, all at once. He invited us to approach and join him. Curious, we climbed up on the stone, noticing at once how warm it was.
The man introduced himself as Robert and the infant girl as Innocence. One look into her light blue eyes convinced us as to the fitness of the designation. She was picture-perfect, angelic; a rare beauty. He shared her with us. We were childless, would always be childless, so we clung to Innocence as if she were our own. We kissed her puffy cheeks and made silly expressions that brought laughter to our hearts. It was a great day.
But as great days often do, they come to early ends.
The sky which had been perfectly clear and sunny the whole time, suddenly grew thick with clouds. A maturing northern breeze chilled the air. The stone we sat upon started to turn cold.
Robert drew the babe tight to his chest and fought back tears. We didn’t know what to think.
And then Innocence hiccupped. A small bubble of spit appeared on her bottom lip. She smiled at Robert, turned her head to the side, and died. Her perky blue eyes just rolled back in her head and her breath ceased. Her arms went limp and dangled.
I started shaking. My wife and I cried. We were scared and in total shock. We didn’t know what to do.
Robert was sad but calm. He carefully swaddled Innocence in a pink blanket and placed her on the center of the stone. He climbed down off the dais and urged us to follow him. We were dumbfounded. He wanted us to leave her dead body there, alone.
“Please,” he kindly begged. “Turn and walk a mere ten steps with me in that direction. That is all I ask. After ten steps, you can do as you wish.”
Begrudgingly we submitted. Arm-in-arm, my wife and I turned our backs to Innocence and walked with Robert, ten full steps. I remember being so consumed by confusion and grief, I wasn’t thinking or pay attention to anything else but the count. As we came to the last two steps, I looked over at Robert and he had changed. He was no longer a young, healthy man. He was old. He leaned on a cane. His hair was longer and grayer, the stubble on his chin grown out into a full and aged beard.
I spun on my heels to see what my wife was already seeing. The granite dais was gone. Vanished. There were only graves.
Robert, a tearstain still evident on his wrinkled cheek, grabbed hold of my arm and smiled. He used me as a crutch as we slowly retraced our steps. There was a small, rectangular marker in the ground. There were no dates inscribed in the black granite. There was only one word, a single name, Innocence.
“I was as you saw me when first I happened upon this place. Another couple sat on the stone holding Innocence. They invited me to join them on the dais, as I invited you. They are gone now, long ago.” He reflected for a moment. “Innocence remembers me young, so in her presence, I am.”
“What happened?” I asked. “How is this possible?”
“How is life possible?” He answered. “Innocence cannot tell us what she does not know. She only knows joy. One day a year for one precious hour. As difficult as it is to repeat her death, the renewal her cheery spirit brings to my heart is worth it, wouldn’t you agree?”
We could not argue with his conclusion. We remembered how alive we felt in Innocence’s presence. We quickly resolved to meet Robert here again the next year, from the start. And this time we saw it all. We were there when a warm southern breath arose and brushed fall aside. Summer returned. A black granite dais rose up out of the earth. We walked backwards in time with Robert, back to his youth. Innocence was there waiting for us, still bundled up in her pink blanket. As a family, the four of us enjoyed one another’s company. We took turns snuggling and loving Innocence. It felt as though she remembered us. We hadn’t forgotten her. That day passed all too quickly and once again, Innocence died. Robert cried hard that day. He cleaved to her limp body for a long time after she passed before agreeing to go.
When we embraced Robert goodbye that day, we did not know it would be for the last time. Robert had been living in a nursing home and was very sick. He must have known it would be his last visit. At the funeral, the nurse who had been at his bedside told us that Robert spoke of seeing a child in his room. He calmly raved about his innocence and a desire to go back.
The hour of Innocence’s return became a pilgrimage. My wife and I were young and healthy and had many years ahead of us. Our visitations were nearly religious in nature. We never forsook our duty. We were serious about going back. And oddly enough, we grew accustomed to losing Innocence. We knew it would happen. We would cry but it was expected.
Early on, we brought other family and friends with us to share the experience. For reasons we could not fathom, they saw nothing, experienced nothing. They told us that during our walk towards the stone with Innocence’s name engraved in it, we would stop suddenly, stare blankly and awake. An hour for us was merely seconds to them. We spoke no more of it and went on without them, year after year after year.
And then my worst fears came true and my wife got sick, nearly bedridden. I remember so well the last time I took her to see Innocence. I watched with wide-eyed wonder as my love transformed from her crippled state to youth again. So beautiful. I held her more than I held Innocence that day. Meanwhile, my dearest snuggled with the child, smothering her with kisses, singing softly, laughing joyfully, and dancing with her, never wanting to leave; never wanting life to end. It did end. Leave me she did.
Today is my last day, I know that. I’m sitting here alone on the stone with Innocence in my arms, attending our child one last time. I see in her tiny hands all the miracles yet to come, all the hopes and dreams of a million children. How soon will innocence die? Will it be stolen from them? Will they surrender it, willingly, quickly?
No one sees me. There is no one to take my place.
Who will attend her once I am gone?
I implore you to find your child and hold her close. Find your Innocence again.
My testimony is life itself. It can’t be measured in losses and gains. It is not tangible. It is the allotted years we are given to spend with loved ones, in our homes, cooing and laughing, singing and dancing. Family. It is in the midst of this curious relationship we discover our true purpose and meaning.
Happy is what I am.
Happy is what I will always be.
Innocence is smiling at me with her light blue eyes and I’m smiling right back.
It feels great to be young again.
: This is a short story I wrote several years ago.
– AM Werner