“The cupboard’s empty, Lord.”
So often Scully and his wife had spoken the words throughout their lifetime together. Now, bitterly, he recalled the familiar prayer.
The cupboard’s empty, Lord.
Scully and Bethie had knelt together and spoken it the very afternoon before she died. The Lord had filled the cupboard – Scully’s railway pension cheque had come early and they had stocked up on groceries. But the Lord took Bethie that night while she slept in Scully’s arms. The old man awoke to find his wife dead at his side. Like a thief in the night, the Lord had taken her from him.
Now the cupboard stood empty.
He had to face another morning without his love of more than five decades. How he despised the rising sun.
Scully dressed slowly – buttoning his shirt to the top and at each cuff, folding the handkerchief neatly for his front pocket. Bethie had always liked him well dressed. “Spiffy”, she had called him. “I want my man looking spiffy.” She had bought or made all his clothes, embroidered all his handkerchiefs, and knitted all his socks, since he was seventeen years old. Some had thought they were too young to marry, but Scully and Bethie knew they’d be together always. Nothing could pry them apart. “God willing, we’ll be together forever,” he had always said.
But God had not been willing. God had robbed him of his wife, and now he had to face life without Bethie. And Scully would never forgive the Lord.
“Damn you.” Scully spoke through clenched teeth. “Damn you to hell if I could.” His hands shook as he fastened the last button on his grey flannel shirt sleeve.
Habitually, he reached for his coffee mug. “First Place 2001” – the print was barely readable now. Bethie and her little friend, Paulette, had won it for him at the powwow that year with their dreamcatcher design. Scully was always annoyed by the chief’s talkative, pestering, little daughter Paulette. But Bethie had adored her and enjoyed her company. Many days Scully had come home to find them baking in the kitchen or plotting to play a trick on Scully.
“There’s something very special about her.” Bethie use to say. Scully smiled at the memories until once again he realized that’s all he had now – memories. Memories and bitterness.
The cupboard was empty. There was no coffee. There was no food. Fine. He’d go hungry. He’d starve to death before he’d ask God for anything. Scully would rather go without than ask Him for another damn thing now — ever. He tossed his empty coffee mug into the sink. It broke in two.
Another long, hungry day stretched before him. He looked around for something, anything, to do. Finally, Scully sat in the rocker by the window. It creaked familiarly with his weight. Scully had wanted to get a new rocker years ago, but Bethie wouldn’t hear of it. Now he never would. He stared at a row of fish baskets she had weaved. Everything remined him of her and the life they once shared. He shifted his eyes to the wooden cross that hung over their bed. It angered him. They had had such faith in God.
His knees ached.
“The cupboard’s empty, Lord.” How often they had prayed this!
They hadn’t asked for much out of life. They hadn’t needed much. The two had lived their lives quietly in their tiny cabin on the edge of the Wattern Reserve. Sometimes the kids down the road would come up with thick alder branches and beg Scully to carve whistles for them, and all the youngsters on the reserve loved to have Bethie tell them stories, and of course Paulette was a familiar face. Other than that, they were alone – happily, contentedly alone. Just them and their God.
His stomach growled.
He rose to look one last time in the cupboard. Was there anything left? Anything at all? Maybe he missed something. It was empty. Not so much as a can of tuna and a dry biscuit. Funeral expenses, visiting relatives and a suit for him to wear to bury his wife, had cleaned out the savings. The railway pension cheque was not due for another week.
He could pray. That’s what Bethie would do. But Scully would be damned damned if he’d ever talk to the Lord again. He slammed the cupboard shut.
The knock at the front door startled him. Scully didn’t expect company, but that it would arrive uninvited and unexpected wasn’t a great surprise on the reserve. He ignored the persistant pounding. The door was locked from the inside. No one would be barging through.
“Old Scully, you in there?”
He recognized the voice. It was Paulette. She’d been around a few times since Bethie had died but Scully wouldn’t let her in. He did not want to see her. Not yet, not ever.
“Mama says you’re in there, Old Scully, and that I’m suppose to knock until you open the door. She says that I need to visit you so that you’re not alone and so that she can go down to the falls with Dad and the boys. I’d just fall in again. Mama says if I were to give you these pussywillows you’d know how to make them keep forever.” She added a kick to her pounding fists. “Come on, Old Scully, I know you’re in there.”
“Damn it.” Scully said, realizing the only way he’d be alone was to tell her to go. She wouldn’t be ignored away this time.
“I’m just not in the mood for company Paulette.” He said, finally opening the door and stepping out. The sun assaulted his eyes. It had been days since he’d left the cabin. “I just want to be alone. You go home and tell your mama to take you with her.”
The little girl stomped a red-sneakered foot and crossed her arms for dramatic effect. She looked at him with dark, astonished eyes. “Are you serious. Like, hello! They won’t let me have a net and I cut myself on the bellies of the boy fish when I tried to catch them by hand last time. See?” Paulette proudly showed him the cuts on her palms in hopes he’d understand.
Scully didn’t answer for a moment. He looked at the trees, the dam, anything but the girl. “Paulette, I just can’t take you today.”
She sat on the bottom step of Scully’s cabin. Paulette sighed. Her pussywillows drooped to the ground. She wasn’t use to rejection from Scully.
Her back was to him when she finally spoke softly. “You still mad at God, Old Scully? Mama says you’ve been mad at God ever since Bethie died. She says you shouldn’t be though.”
Scully’s patience ended with her bluntness. Wide eyed he looked at her. The veins in his neck strained against the collar of his buttoned shirt. His angry, hungry stomach growled. His jaw tightened as he spat out the words.
“Your mama don’t know squat. The Lord took my Bethie. He stole her. You couldn’t know … she was all I had, and He took her. I’m just an old man alone now. An old man in an empty house with an empty cupboard. So damn it, don’t tell me who I shouldn’t be mad at.” Scully raised his hand to steady himself against the house. How dare they! Paulette was just a child. Her mother had no idea. What the hell did they know about being alone? What did they know about long days and empty cupboards.
The little girl sat quietly, drawing pictures in the dirt with the end of a pussywillow.
“Yeah, but Old Scully, Mama said God took her. That’s true. But, like, didn’t He take her to Heaven? I asked Mama where Bethie was, and that’s just what she told me. ‘Bethie was in Heaven.’ So it’s not like God stole her, it’s kind of like He … kind of like God’s just looking after her for you until you get there.” Paulette smiled at her wisdom. She was sure Scully would understand now. “Aren’t you glad, Old Scully. I mean, that the Lord took her to Heaven to wait for you. I think that’s so cool. That way you can be together forever.”
Scully stood there looking at the little girl. He felt stunned. He felt slapped. The sun burned hot on his head. He felt weak with hunger.
From his pocket Scully pulled a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from his brow. Bethie had given it to him their last Christmas together. He knew what was embroidered on it even before he read the words. He gently fingered the golden-threaded letters. “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Scully stood there for a minute trying to decide what to do. How he wanted to be angry. He started to take a step back into the cabin, but his feet wouldn’t move. He opened his mouth to curse, but the words wouldn’t form. He put his hands into his trouser pockets, and then pulled them out again.
And then Scully cried. Tears raced for release down his weathered, dark face. They dampened his shirt. They fell onto the step. Scully held his head in his hands as he wailed with grief and understanding.
Paulette was silent while the old man cried. She made no attempt to leave, but stayed beside him. She waited until he was ready. Finally, Scully, blew his nose, and wiped the last of his tears away.
“Paulette, you’re a smart little girl, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” she flashed him a big toothless grin. “Mama says so too.”
He sat down on the step beside her, folded his hands, and bowed his head. The sun warmed him now. Scully swalllowed and took a death, shuddering breath before he spoke. “The cupboard’s empty, Lord.” He sighed the words out.
“Bet its not. Bet you’re teasing me, Old Scully.” Paulette jumped up and ran into the cabin to look in the cupboard. She was sure Scully had a surprise in there for her. Scully let her enter.
“Look, Old Scully,” Paulette returned beaming with excitement. “I found this big molasses jug in there. Bethie and I filled it with cattails last year for you. Remember? You really liked it.” She nodded her head up and down to emphasize her words.
“Why, that’s just perfect for pussywillows,” Scully said as he stood and slapped his knee with enthusiasm. “Grab me my jackknife and I’ll show you how to trim the stalks so those pussywillows will keep forever.”
They sat together on the porch perparing the flowers. Paulette sang and told bad jokes. Scully clapped along and laughed at even the worst of them.
It was noon before Paulette’s mother came to get her. “Hey Old Scully,” she said. “The gasperau are running. I brought you a dozen and some fresh buttermilk bread. We got about two hundred more fish in the truck. Scully, if you want to smoke them for us, we’ll split them with you.”
The cupboard was full again.