Mar 302013
 

Sister Zoe longed for the taste of food over the tongue—the tang of garlic and salt and tomato on a pizza, the mild creaminess of milk, the messy sweetness of an orange torn open with the teeth. Instead, the doctors nourished her evaporating body with clear liquids that dripped through tubes into her veins. They wouldn’t let her near food, for fear she would choke. Nonetheless, she missed the soul of food, the taste of something other than her own dry mouth.

SISTER-ZOE-ISAIAHHer journey to death was becoming a long, solitary march through the desert. She waited for visions to come to her: long-dead relatives, angels, maybe Jesus or Mary. She knew such things were not uncommon as souls passed over into the new country, for many of the dying had reported the lay of the land to her as she kept vigil by their beds. A part of her hoped she, too, would experience an intrusion of the divine.

She had no heavenly visions. But as wakefulness came and went like a gentle, wandering wind, she did have dreams. For instance, she dreamt about the mischievous girl named Sulee, one of the many children she had taught during her missionary years in Africa. In this dream, the girl was lying in a pool of her own blood, stabbed through the gut with a machete. Sulee was not the first, and certainly not the last, to die in the ethnic violence that erupted all around Matate village, but she was the one Sister Zoe remembered, long after her community had ordered her back to Iowa for her own safety. Perhaps it was the girl’s bright yellow head scarf, or the gentle way she had with her younger siblings, so motherly for a nine-year-old.

She told Father Manion about the dream when he came to hold his own vigil at her bedside. He had been her student once, in the years before her retirement when she had taught high school algebra. His round, brown face still seemed young to her.

“Why do you think you’re dreaming about Sulee now, twenty years later?” he asked.

“I’ve always felt guilty that we never buried her body,” Sister Zoe said, coughing deeply—her lungs kept filling with fluid despite all medical efforts to keep the floodwaters at bay. “We left in such a hurry.”

The priest raised his eyebrows and tilted his head to one side. “You feel guilty about abandoning her, you mean. Or for not preventing her death.”

“Yes,” Sister Zoe said. She folded her bony hands together over the white sheet.

“There is no reason for you to feel that way,” he said. He spoke carefully, as if he was tasting each word. “It’s not your fault she died.”

“My head knows it, but not my heart,” she said. “We were supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those people, and we ran away when they needed us the most, in their suffering. We left so we’d be safe. But what for? Most of the women who were with me are just as dead now as they would have been then. I am dying now, too. We should have stayed. I should have at least buried the girl.”

Her eyes had gone all teary. Father Manion reached across the bed and squeezed her hand but said nothing for a while.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“It’s this place—it’s got me down.”

The priest nodded, handing her a tissue. “So. Have you had any good dreams?”

She thought about it. “Yes, I did. I dreamt about driving across the country to see the ocean when I was in college, with some friends. We slept on the beach in March, in our winter coats.” Her eyes got dreamy. “I had cancer—it was usually fatal in those days—and I went with my friends to see the ocean, and to say good-bye to them. But I didn’t want to die, so I prayed hard for a miracle. I promised God I would give my life to him if I survived.”

“Obviously you did survive,” Father Manion said. “A miracle?”

“I think so,” Sister Zoe said. “The tumor  disappeared.”

“And that’s when you chose the religious life?”

Sister Zoe laughed, which made her cough raspily. She nodded as she caught her breath. “I thought that the only way you could give your life to God was by becoming a nun, which caused problems years later when I realized the truth. But I worked through those, and stayed.”

“And are you glad you did?”

“Yes,” she said, the word sharp on her tongue, and the look in her eyes suddenly strong. “Yes. When I think of what an abundant life it’s been, it takes my breath away. It opened my eyes to a million miracles.”

Later in the day, her community and her other friends gathered around her bed, a hot beam of afternoon sun slanting through the window at them. When Father Manion began the anointing, they each placed a hand on her body in blessing. It was the most pleasant sensation, her body covered with warm hands all over. Sister Maribeth stroked her hair gently as Father Manion pressed oil to her forehead, then her hands, then her feet.

“May the God of all consolation bless you in every way and grant you hope all the days of your life. Amen.

“May God restore you to health and grant you salvation. Amen.

“May God fill your heart with peace and lead you to eternal life. Amen.”

When it was over, she opened her eyes to all of their faces. “Thank you,” she said.

“Is there anything else we can do for you?” Sister Maribeth asked.

She was so tired; sleep was closing in on her like dusk. “Some spumoni ice cream in my belly would be heavenly.”

Father Manion smiled. “We’ll see what we can do.”

 

During the night, she slept long and deep, and had powerful dreams. She swam up to awareness only as someone’s hand rocked her dream-boat, pushing insistently at her shoulder.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

Zoe’s eyes snapped open. It was a girl in a white nightgown with yellow butterflies printed all over it. She had large brown eyes. The girl turned her face sideways to see Zoe better.

“Hello,” the girl said.

“Hello,” Zoe said, blinking several times. The clock on the wall said it was five in the morning. “What room did you escape from?”

The girl leaned forward, until her beautiful brown face was inches from Zoe’s. “I’m hungry,” she whispered conspiratorially, her eyes widening. “Let’s go find something good to eat.”

Zoe laughed. Didn’t they feed anyone around here? “I can’t get you anything to eat. See, I’m stuck in bed. Go out in the hall and ask one of the nurses for a snack.”

The girl shook her head solemnly and began removing Zoe’s covers. “They don’t have the good stuff. We want real food, right?” The girl took Zoe’s arm, and peeled away the tape holding the IV line in place.

“Hey, don’t do that!” Zoe said.

The girl smiled brightly at her as she removed the needle and coiled up the line. “Why not? If you eat real food, you won’t need it.”

Zoe regarded the girl curiously for a moment. “It’s not my job to feed you, you know.”

The girl gave her a “get serious” look.

“Well,” Zoe sighed. “Maybe I can get something to eat myself while I’m at it.” She was suddenly hungry for strawberries in creamy yogurt.

She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and was surprised at how well she felt. She breathed in deeply; no coughing. The girl took her by the hand, and led her to the door.

sister-zoeThe hallway was full of people—patients, mostly, in bath robes and flimsy blue hospital gowns. Nurses guided the people along with words of encouragement and direction: “No, ma’am, you don’t need discharge papers.”  “Yes, Mr. Priske, just down the hall and to your left. Just follow everyone else.”

Zoe looked around in wonderment. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Is there a fire or something?”

“No, there’s no fire!” the girl laughed. She tugged Zoe into the hallway eagerly. “Everyone’s just hungry, that’s all.”

They followed the general flow of the crowd toward the elevators. At the nursing station, the nurses were shutting down computers and abandoning their posts. The vending machines they passed were empty; candy bar wrappers were littered everywhere, trampled underfoot like autumn leaves.

They squeezed into the elevator with some other patients. “Am I the only one around here who wants to know why we’re evacuating a perfectly good hospital in the middle of the night?” Zoe asked them.

“Food,” said a large, balding man wearing a red velvet robe and cow slippers. “I tell you, I own fourteen Shoney’s family restaurants in five states, so I know food, and this hospital food is the worst. They’ve had me on this no-fat, no-salt, no-nothing diet ever since my triple heart bypass surgery, and I mean, what’s the point? Why bother?” He shook his head as the elevator doors opened on the lobby, and they joined everyone else heading outside. “I’m starving, and so is everyone else in this place. I feel like I haven’t eaten in…in forty days, practically. Even the nurses are sick of the food!”

“Amen to that,” a passing nurse put in.

“So when we heard about how everyone’s invited to this big party out in the country, we figured, why not? Sounds like the guy hosting this thing puts on quite a spread.”

They passed through the sliding glass doors at the hospital entrance and found themselves on the street, which was lit by the pink and gold Easter colors of dawn.

“Looks like everyone had the same idea,” Zoe said in amazement.

The street was filled with more people than Zoe had ever seen in downtown Des Moines. It was like a stage onto which the entire cast of some bizarre play had come out for the final curtain call. There were business people in suits, Laotian dancers, kindergartners holding hands in a line, inner-city kids passing a basketball around, veiled Iranian women, several hundred South African soldiers, lots of shoppers with empty shopping bags—even the governor of Iowa, who waved and shook hands with passersby as if she were working a parade the day before elections.

The restaurateur folded his arms across his wide chest. “This is just great. I hope all the good stuff isn’t gone by the time we get there.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” the girl piped up. “He’s rich enough to feed everyone, with leftovers to spare.”

“Well, let’s get going,” the restaurant guy said, grunting and ambling into the crowd.

The girl tugged at her hand, but Zoe didn’t follow. “Wait; just wait,” she said. She was staring intently at the passing crowd. This mystery seemed familiar somehow, as if she should know what it was all about—but she didn’t, and that bothered her. She directed her gaze to the strange young girl. “What’s going on?”

“Come and see,” the girl replied with a smile. “You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No,” Zoe said, a little taken aback. She’d been afraid before in life, but she had never given in to fear—except for perhaps when she left Matate village. “No,” she said again, “but I don’t even know where this thing is, or how to get there.”

“Yes, you do,” the girl said.

A man with a crooked nose and sad, baggy eyes approached them. “Excuse me,” he said, waving his hand at Zoe. “Can you help me find the way to this party?” He was awkwardly carrying shopping bags from various department stores, all of them stuffed full of boxes. He shifted his load and added, “All this shopping made pretty ravenous.”

“She knows the way,” the girl said, looking up at Zoe expectantly. “Don’t you?”

Zoe silently looked down at the girl for a moment. She looked back at the man and saw the hunger in his face. Something like understanding was dawning on her now, as she recognized the man’s hunger, and the girl’s simple joyfulness.

“Yes,” she finally told him, slowly. Yes, she thought, she knew all about bravely entering mystery. “I think I do. You can walk with us.”

“Oh—thanks!” the man said, readjusting his bags. “But—these boxes—uh, could you help carry some?”

“What’s in them?” Zoe asked.

“Uh, clothes, mostly. Nothing that I can eat, which is what I really need.”

“Well, I think I can help you out,” Zoe said, noticing some of the under-clad patients from the hospital. She winked at the girl, who covered her mouth and giggled.

They entered the motley parade behind a high school marching band. Zoe went through the man’s new clothes as they walked along, and gave them all away to anyone who needed them. His load lightened, the man traveled more easily, and to his pleasant surprise, he didn’t miss his baggage at all.

They walked east for a very long time, all the way out of the city. The girl skipped along, or chatted with different people. For a while the inmates of a maximum security prison, still wearing their gray uniforms, took turns giving her rides on their shoulders so she could see above the crowd. Later, she and Zoe danced to the music of a passing mariachi band.

Zoe took in the faces of the people around her. She knew these people, and knew their hungers, from all those years of working in parishes and schools and in Africa. She was happy to be traveling again, and happier still to be traveling with them. She was at home, here on the road with friends.

Soon they were well into the countryside, where fields rolled out all around them, black and ready for planting. People began leaving the procession and making their way across the fields toward a distant stream.

“Come on!” the girl said excitedly, jumping all around Zoe. “Let’s run!”

Zoe laughed at the suggestion, because running for fun was a child’s pastime, and she was no child—and she only had on hospital slippers, besides. But it had been a weird enough morning so far; who was to say she couldn’t run?

So she did; haltingly at first, and then with confidence, exhilarated at the sensation of a wind of her own making on her face. She chased the girl, weaving around people who cheered them on, until they came to the edge of the stream. There, she caught the squealing girl and scooped her up. She spun around and thought of dunking her in the water—but then she saw a man watching them, and she stopped abruptly and stared, breathing hard from running; she thought she knew him.

He looked like the gardener of this place, a common farmer, because he wore faded, dirty overalls, and a floppy wide-brimmed hat, and he was unshaven. And yet he did not look common at all. His bearing was such that she thought he might be the owner of the place, the host of the party. He was looking at her with an amused but friendly smile. She carefully lowered the girl to the ground.

“Welcome to the party,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”

She approached him slowly, pushing strands of hair away from her face. He was standing behind a beat-up old red pickup truck, in the back of which were piled many large sacks. He met her eyes, and smiled. She felt her heart beating against her ribs.

“Help me feed these people,” he said, reaching into one of the sacks. She reached out her hands, and he filled them with seeds of many shapes and colors.

“I want to help, too,” the girl said, and Zoe poured some of the seed into her hands. Others gathered seed, too, and began drifting back through the crowd.

They gave the seeds to all the people, instructing them to find their own patch of good ground to till. Placing the seeds carefully in each outstretched hand reminded Zoe of distributing communion at church. She closed her eyes and saw them coming to her in a long line of beautiful faces. “The body of Christ,” she said. “Amen,” they said, gazing into her eyes in the way of people who know each other well.

The girl gave seeds to some soldiers, who used the stocks of their guns to till the earth. Zoe gave a seed to a group of gray-suited business women sitting cross-legged on the ground.

“I thought,” the woman who received the seed said dryly, looking down at it, “there was going to be food at this party. Gardening isn’t exactly what we had in mind.”

“Well, I guess this is a surprise party, then,” Zoe said, smiling.

The woman rolled her eyes. “Why do we only get one seed?”

“Tend to it with care, and sprinkle it with water from the stream,” Zoe said. “You might find you have more than you expected.”

When they were finished, Zoe lifted the girl onto her shoulders to see the milling crowd that spread out to every horizon.

“Wow,” the girl breathed. “Look at all the people.”

And they’re all hungry, Zoe thought, as am I after all that work. We’ve come too far to go home now, and there is no food anywhere to give them; just bare fields. She turned to find the gardener in the crowd. He was sitting on the pickup truck’s cab not far off, and he waved at her as she approached with the girl.

“Children, have you found anything to eat?” he called to them.

“Not a thing,” Zoe answered.

The man adjusted the brim of his hat and regarded her from under it, grinning a little. “Zoe,” he said to her. “Turn around, and you will find something.”

His words raised the hairs on the nape of her neck. Behind her, a great cry rose up from the crowd. She turned and saw not empty, muddy fields, but a garden, a garden that rose from the earth even as the people watched. Grasses and grains, vines and legumes, and every kind of tree that bears fruit grew up all around. Canopies of leaves spread out from trees as if to embrace the sky. Vines twisted and tumbled wildly around tree trunks, and squash and melons made low thunking noises as they plopped onto the ground. Boughs shook out the apples and oranges and pears gathering along them like roosting birds. Corn emerged with a green creaking noise, stands of wheat rustled and bent over heavy with grain, and flowers strew color everywhere. The emerging garden rumbled like an earthquake, and the people cheered and cheered—even the gray-suited businesswomen, who were dangling from high among the limbs of the tree that had sprung up from their tiny seed.

Zoe gasped and whirled around—everything was changed, even the people. Or maybe it was she who had changed, for now she saw the land not with her eyes, but with the heart of her heart; and from that place, she saw everything transformed by love.

She saw the beautiful girl who had awakened her to all of this, and recognized her as Sulee, quite alive as she clapped and cheered and jumped up and down. Sulee winked at Zoe and began dancing joyfully; she reached under her nightgown and pulled out a long machete, which she twirled over her head like a majorette’s baton. She tossed the machete in an arc away from herself, chased after it by doing two cartwheels and a backflip, and caught the flashing knife as it fell into her mouth. People applauded and cheered as she removed the machete from her mouth and made a sweeping bow.

“Isn’t that a neat trick?” Sulee said, skipping over to Zoe and taking her hand.

“It’s an amazing trick,” Zoe exclaimed, picking up the girl and embracing her. “It’s all amazing.”

She turned to the gardener, and she recognized him, too; she knew him from the moment he had called her name. She smiled at him shyly, but she wasn’t afraid; she only felt warm and beautiful near him. “This isn’t Iowa, is it?” she teased.

“No, ma’am,” he replied, laughing. “This is heaven. Come and eat your meal.”

All around, the people gathered the harvest and shared it with one another, combining their simple gifts to make the best meal any of them had ever had. Zoe laughed with joy, and ate until she was satisfied.

 March 30, 2013  Comments Off on Sister Zoe, Meet the Gardener
Mar 302013
 

“Look, Jim! It’s more cool bovine scenery,” Annie, who had just taken over driving, said cheerfully. I glanced up from the map I was studying (being in the navigator’s seat) and Zoe popped up in the back where she had been curled up on sleeping bags and pillows, trying to catch forty winks.

“Moo, moo, little cows,” Annie said. “Moo, moo.”

all-passages“Since when are there cows in South Carolina?” Zoe said, pulling her black stocking cap up over her eyes. She was dying of cancer, and her hair hadn’t grown back since she stopped chemotherapy. Back in Minnesota it was the middle of a winter so cold it would make the snot in your nose freeze solid, so she wore lots of hats. The black stocking cap was the warmest, but it made her look like a mobster. Fortunately, when she went into public places she wore a navy blue beret, which at least made her look intellectual. “I thought South Carolina was known for peaches,” she said.

“No, that’s Georgia,” I said. “Haven’t you ever heard that song, ‘My Georgia Peach?'”

“Is that by the Smashing Pumpkins?” Zoe asked, to be silly — she knew better. Zoe knew all kinds of music. She could even sing opera by heart. She had sung La Traviata all the way through the deep blue shades of Missouri landscapes the night before, to keep awake at the wheel.

“Pumpkins are the official fruit of Indiana,” Annie said.

“This car smells like pumpkins,” I said, because it had that funky smell that comes with long trips — Doritos, stale pop and stale breath, ripe fruit and sweat. We’d been on the road almost twenty-four hours straight with no sleep. That’s the only way to travel, though, when you’re in college and too poor for airplanes and motels, and too hungry for the road to let mere poverty stop you from getting on it and flinging yourself as far down it as you can. What else did God make all-night restaurants like Denny’s and Perkins and Happy Chef for?

I was trying to figure out where we were, but I couldn’t match up the little two-lane highway we were on with the map. That we were lost didn’t surprise me, since we were penetrating foreign territory — none of us had been to the Deep South before, and it seemed to hold us as enchanted as newborn infants wide-eyed at a new world: all the kudzu hanging from the trees like green veils. The old barns weathered down to gray wood, listing to the side like sinking ships. The round, warm vowels of the language. The decades-old Coca-Cola machines at small-town gas stations that gave us real glass bottles. The Civil War monuments littering the landscape everywhere.

I quit the map and folded it up. “Well, children, I think we’re lost,” I announced. “Maybe we should ask for directions.”

Annie peered out from under her ever-present baseball cap at the sun. “Nah, as long as we’re headed generally in the right direction, we’ll hit the ocean eventually,” she said. “Life is so much more interesting when you don’t know where you’re going, right?” She gave me a wicked look.

She was being sarcastic. During the night we’d fallen into a long, serious conversation about what we’d do after we graduated from the university in a mere three months. None of us had a clue. You don’t just go to the registration office and sign up for the rest of your life; there’s no course booklet or class requirement. Just time and space stretching out before you like a blank canvas or an empty page. What do you do with all of that? We felt like birds getting pushed out of the nest, or little kids getting thrown in the deep end of the water: fall or fly, sink or swim.

“It scares me witless,” Annie had said.

“Well, look at it this way,” I’d told her philosophically. “Not knowing where you’re going in life makes it more interesting.”

“Ha,” she said. “I’ll remember to use that on my parents next time they ask me what my plans are. Oh, and the bank I got my loans from, too. ‘Isn’t this interesting?’ That’s what I’ll tell them when I default on the loan. Thanks, Jim.”

It was Zoe who had suggested the trip in the first place, bringing it up late one night at the university newspaper where we’d all toiled together for the past four years. We always had interesting conversations there, about relationships and politics and art and religion, especially on the late nights when we were all a little wired from too much coffee and pizza. We’d been talking about the journey of life or something and Zoe said we should go on a real journey, and when that got our attention she said she wanted to see the ocean, since she had never seen it before.

“It’s on my list of things to do before I die, seeing the ocean is,” she’d said.

“You are not going to die,” I told her. Zoe had a strong streak of melodramatic romanticism, which I figured came from writing too much poetry. “You are twenty-one years old.”

“You’ve never seen her driving,” Annie deadpanned without even looking up from her computer screen.

Of course, wouldn’t you know Zoe was diagnosed with cancer later that year. How ironic. At the newspaper, we joked about it; our strategy was to keep her spirits up by being light-hearted instead of all heavy and serious. But then her hair fell out and she kept getting thinner and paler, until all that shaped her face was her bony skull, and we stopped talking about it altogether. But we made very sure she got to go on her trip to the sea.

Now that we were within a few minutes’ drive of the ocean, Zoe was getting all hyper about it.

“I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” I said. “It’s just a lot of water, like any of the lakes you see lying around back home, except so big you can’t see the other side.”

“No,” Zoe said. “The ocean is the birthplace of all life on earth, including our own species. It’s like the womb for the whole biosphere. There’s something in us that longs to return to the sea.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not me. I hate swimming. I hate taking baths, even.”

“Return to the sea,” Zoe continued, not listening to me (as usual). “Think of all those people who didn’t make it across. I’ll bet there’s enough of them down there to make a whole country of drowned people.”

“Eww,” Annie said.

“My great-great-grandma was only nineteen when she came over,” Zoe said. “Of course, she had to come, because otherwise she would have starved. It was the great potato famine in Ireland that made her come. Our country is populated with the descendants of  all those millions of people who risked their lives coming over the ocean, to a place they’d never seen before, to make new lives.” Zoe was silent for a long moment, resting her chin on the car seat. “The water giveth life, and it taketh life,” she said.

“Amen,” Annie said, nodding.

“We’ll get some salt-spray-scented air into you, Jim, and that’ll cure you,” Zoe said. “You’ll see the poetry of the ocean.”

When we got to the empty parking lot near the state park beach, it was a lot cooler, especially with the strong wind. We put our winter coats on. Grassy sand dunes blocked our view of the water. Zoe charged ahead, slipping in the sand occasionally. When she got to the top, she let out a whoop.

“Bonzai!” she yelled, and disappeared down the other side.

“She’s not going swimming — is she?” I asked Annie, but she was already running after Zoe.

When I got to the top of the dune I saw that Zoe wasn’t going to run in the ocean after all. She’d taken off her shoes and was cautiously walking out where waves slid across the flat sand like tongues, leaving it so glassy-wet that you could see her reflection. Annie took a picture of Zoe ankle-deep in the water.

From the top of the dune I looked out over the empty water, which was a sort of steel-blue color interrupted by flecks of white all the way out to the flat horizon. There weren’t any boats or islands or anything out there. It was as forlorn as a desert, except of course there was all that water. And under the water, a whole world of millions of strange living things, and unexplored mountains and plains, and the shipwrecks of people who hadn’t made it to the other end of the ocean. Walking along the strand, Zoe and Annie looked so small compared to the vastness of half the world stretching out behind them.

We pulled blankets and sleeping bags and food and Zoe’s boom box out of the car and set up headquarters on the beach. We were planning to spend the night there, sleeping under the stars. There was no one else to bother us, except some gulls that Annie encouraged by tossing pieces of stale rolls out onto the sand, which attracted even more gulls. Pretty soon it looked like a scene from The Birds, there were so many gulls hovering around us.

We roamed the beach hunting for dry driftwood to make a fire with, and picked up some interesting seashells along the way. Zoe said she would make necklaces for her little sisters. For supper we made baked potatoes and vegetable stew over the fire, and brought out cheese and crackers and wine and avocados. Annie put on a tape of some jazz music and we were in fine shape.

“I am warm and happy,” Zoe said, eating a piece of avocado. She was wrapped up in a heavy wool blanket, and had a scarf wrapped around her head to keep the wind out of her ears. She smiled at us; Annie and I smiled back.

“You look like a babushka,” Annie said.

The sun set behind us, orange-like, among the grasses of the dunes, and the sky above the water grew meaner-looking.

“Thank you for coming on this trip with me,” Zoe said. “I could never have made the trip myself, without someone to take over the driving. Not that I would have wanted to — I mean, it wouldn’t have been as much fun if I traveled by myself.”

“Of course, if you’d gone by yourself, you wouldn’t have had to put up with Jim’s annoying music,” Annie said.

“Or Annie’s snoring,” I said.

“Shush,” Annie said, slapping my arm with a mitten.

“No, it’s better to travel together,” Zoe said. “We need each other.”

I leaned back to look at the darkening sky; I could make out the first stars there. I thought of The Lion King — stars being the souls of dead people or something like that. It was hard to comprehend Zoe as a star, though, a sharp little quiet piece of light. If she had her way, she’d be an exploding star, a supernova. Actually, if she had her way, she’d keep on living. Her pale presence so close on that beach — the blood and the breath moving in her like the waters of the ocean, her quick eyes, her songs, all the things she could spin with her hands and her heart — all of that burned with greater brightness than any of those far-away stars. And if a star fell from the sky, who would miss it? The universe is choked with them, and they all look alike from this far away. But when Zoe fell from the earth, there would be no getting her back. It made me mad at God, for taking away her life just as the most interesting part was coming up. I imagined God as someone who gives a kid a present, then smashes it to pieces.

“I never did like The Lion King,” I said, breaking the long silence.

“What?” Annie said, frowning as if I’d sworn or spoken some blasphemy.

“So now that we’re here at the edge of the ocean, what do we do?” I asked, to change the subject.

“If I had a boat, I would sail across it,” Zoe said.

“I wouldn’t,” Annie said. “I’d be too afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” Zoe asked blandly.

“Getting lost. Drowning.”

“Drifting out there without any drinkable water for weeks on end is what you should be afraid of — a slow death like that,” Zoe said. She poured herself more wine. “I should build a boat, and sail across the ocean.”

“Where would you go?” I asked.

“You can go almost anywhere by water,” Zoe said. “Where to begin? I would go to the island of Pohnpei, where the yams grow 10 feet long and the grasshoppers get as big as chickens, and the schoolchildren use giant pandanus leaves for umbrellas. In the 1800s, whaling ships stopped going there for provisions because so many men would desert that no one was left to sail the ships home.

“I would go to Glacier Bay to climb blue mountains of ice at the height of summer, when the sun never sets. I would take my boat to India, where I would learn to play the sitar. Maybe I would devote my life to teaching poor children in Calcutta to read and write Bengali.

“No, I would compete in the America’s Cup sailing race without officially entering. Or maybe I would sail to Venice, where the cats own the city because there are no cars to run them over, and I could sing opera on the Bridge of Sighs. I would make friends with stamp collectors everywhere I went, and send postcards to all of them from every country I visited. And there’s all of the South American coast, too, which is much closer to here. I could go to the Galapagos Islands and ride giant turtles for fun, or study new plant species and discover a cure….”

She pulled up short, as if she hadn’t meant to bring that subject up with us — but how could we not think about it, as she sat there listing all those things she would never do? In the awkward silence, we heard the ocean breathe. She looked up at us. Her eyes were so big in her pale face, lit in several watercolored shades of yellow by the fire. She smiled like a ghost.

“The good thing about dying from cancer is that, in the good moments, it wakes you up more alive than most people ever are in a lifetime. God scatters us across the earth like so many mustard seeds, hoping we’ll live the abundant life. God puts on this amazing dance act, this three-ring circus, this traveling magic performance — ” she extended an open hand toward the water and the world beyond, “and what do we do? We all watch television, and miss the show.”

I had never heard Zoe give a speech like that before, and her earnestness embarrassed me, a little. I thought she might be slightly drunk from the wine. Or maybe being so close to death made her bold.

I saw tears on Annie’s face. Zoe looked over, too, and she moved to cup Annie’s cheeks with mittened hands.

“Don’t cry,” Zoe said. “Not for me. I know where I’m going. Just because you can’t see to the other end of the ocean doesn’t mean there isn’t another shore all ships come to, right? We look out across the water and we don’t see it, but only because we can’t see that far. But we don’t believe anymore that if we sail over the horizon, we’ll fall off the end of the earth. I can smell it, Annie, like sailors on a ship can smell land ahead in the dark. It’s there.”

She leaned forward a little and kissed Annie on the forehead. “Don’t be afraid; God is with you. Be brave. Explore everything. And don’t watch too much television.”

“But I’ll miss watching old reruns of Friends,” Annie teased, smiling a little and pushing away the tears with the palms of her hands.

“Make real friends instead.”

That night all of us huddled together in our sleeping bags, trying to stay warm on that cold beach by the sea under the bright, bright moon. Zoe and Annie seemed to sleep soundly, but I kept drifting in and out of dreams. I think the rhythmic noise of the waves washing onto shore kept me awake, plus I worried that the tide would come in and drown us. Was the tide coming in or out tonight? I didn’t know.

We were on the edge of new territory, each of us ready to go our own way — Annie and I out into what people referred to as the “real world,” Zoe out into another world entirely. The real “real world.” The new world. A place I hoped Annie and I would come to at the end of our journey. We were on the edge of new territory, ready to step out, and nothing would be the same for us again.

Hush, hush, the waves seemed to say.

Zoe turned over, and kicked me. “Move,” she mumbled. “You’re squashing me.”

I made some more room, and fell asleep under the sound of their breathing, and that of the ocean.

 March 30, 2013  No Responses »
Mar 292013
 

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. She would not wait for him any longer, even though Edward had said, “Stay at home, love, and wait for me,” because that must have been hours ago, and where was he? Out picking blackberries, she thought. Him with a bucket hat pulled over his bare head and a couple of pails, whistling something happy.

foraging-blackberriesOnce, she would have gone with him. But that was before she fell down the stairs and everyone said next time she might break a hip, so no more blackberry picking for her. And now it was dark outside, and here she was, just sitting. The dog used to stare at the door like this, waiting for Edward to come home.

“Well,” she said to the ticking clock and the sleeping cat and the book on the table, “I’m not the dog.”

She rose, carefully, and stood there a moment considering the book on the table: “The Little Forager’s Field Guide,” by one Adam Vanderaart, who offered drawings of roots, mushrooms, and berries and such, as well as practical advice for finding them. Edward had heavily annotated its pages in his own neat script, and underlined its instructive first sentences: “The earth will yield its treasures to those perseverant souls who know where to look. Hunger, I have found, tends to sharpen the eye.”

She slipped the book into the pocket of her robe, tied the belt around her caved-in waist, and went to the door. Her rascal of a son, fast asleep in the upstairs bedroom, had installed a screechy alarm at the top of the door; she switched it off with a swipe of her hand, and walked out into the cold night.

The bright moon, floating low in the sky, squinted through a tangle of bare branches as she limped along. By the time it had set, she had lost her slippers as well as her way.

The woods were a black, jumbled mess. But they yielded this vision to her: Edward, in his jeans and canvas jacket, deep inside the sharp teeth and claws of a blackberry bramble, pushing aside the prickly canes with a gloved hand while the fingertips of his other hand loosened their good fruit. She had refused to follow him into that dark place, not wanting to go to work Monday looking like she’d been rolled down a hill in a barrel full of cats. When he finally came crashing out into daylight, he was scratched, bleeding, and ecstatic. She shook her head, saying, “I don’t know about you,” but he caught her hand and lifted a blackberry to her lips. Its faint scent reminded her of just how starved she was.

As the fruit yielded to the tips of her teeth, she looked up and saw the heavens heavy with starlight. “Now tell me that isn’t worth it,” he said. She laughed at that, because how could she say? She wasn’t the scratched and bleeding one. Instead, she leaned teasingly close to his sweet face, and said, “Got any more?”

It was not until the following July that the property owner, out clearing brush, found the body lifted up among the blackberry canes. The Vanderaart field guide, its pages bloated by many rains, was still tucked away in her robe. A single cane had grown through the dark hollow where her tongue once lay; and at its green tip, a cluster of three ripe blackberries pushed against white teeth, ready to burst.


This short short story was originally written for NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest. You can read the winning entries here.

 March 29, 2013  No Responses »
Mar 262013
 

living-justice-and-peaceSaint Mary’s Press, 2008 | Religion | 336 pages

The second edition of this text has the same sound theology with updated stories, images, and statistics! The Living Justice and Peace course empowers students to examine society critically, based on values from the Scriptures and on the seven themes of Catholic social teaching. The text addresses specific topics, including abortion, capital punishment, racism, poverty, the environment, and peace.

 March 26, 2013  No Responses »
Mar 262013
 
waking-up-beesSaint Mary’s Press, May 1, 1999 | Juvenile Nonfiction | 168 pages
Engaging and true-to-life, these ten short stories vividly portray people who are wrestling with important life issues–love, work, money, suffering, communication, vocation, and more. Written from a young person’s viewpoint, the stories offer in-depth material for reflecting on the meaning and practice of the Christian life. Lacey escapes spending a drunken night in a Tijuana jail only to be shaken up the next morning by encounters with a world he has never known. Scott and Emily have just gotten engaged, but Emily wonders if they will turn out like her miserable, divorcing parents. Lily’s developmentally disabled brother, Christopher, can be exasperating. But he has some lessons to teach her, like how to wake up bees. A companion leader’s guide is also available, which includes suggestions for using the stories with groups.
 March 26, 2013  No Responses »
Mar 252013
 

Anyone who has ever joined the Winona Catholic Worker as a live-in volunteer has inevitably had The Conversation with his or her family and other relatives. With surprisingly few exceptions, the announcement that one is about to join the Catholic Worker sets off alarm bells.

WCW dinner 2But how can we blame them for their furrowed brows and doubtful looks? Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re the brand-new live-in volunteer, breaking the news to your family. Remember the great expectations that your family had for you? Because “you have so much potential,” you know! And now you’re announcing your intentions to join an organization—no, not even an organization, but a “movement”—with vaguely Marxist-Communist overtones: no real leadership, an emphasis on community and “consensus decision-making,” and a commitment to something called “voluntary poverty.” (Hint: Now is not the time to mention that, before her conversion to Catholicism, CW co-founder Dorothy Day ran with the Communists.)

But there’s more. People—complete strangers!—are going to show up at your front door in search of food or a place to sleep or conversation, and you’re going to let them in. They might be snoring in the next room a few hours later, and you don’t even know their last name, much less their past history. If this news prompts a long silence from your parents, they’re undoubtedly trying to recall whether they were sufficiently diligent in warning you not to talk to strangers. And no, your belief in non-violent resistance is not particularly comforting to them at this moment.

And then there’s that whole voluntary poverty thing—particularly the fact that you will not be receiving a salary, not even a stipend. Now, you may see this as part of what frees you to serve the guests of the Catholic Worker, who have no choice but to live with poverty and precarity, and you may assure your family of the virtues of relying on Providence, but truthfully, they would probably sleep better at night knowing you had a 401(k) tucked away somewhere. Or even a decent savings account, actually.

Your family undoubtedly admires your idealism and generosity; after all, you were raised to be helpful to others. On the other hand, the lifestyle you’re proposing to adopt seems really, really impractical. Foolish, even, although they would be too kind to say so (I hope).

In the face of such reasonableness, how can the new volunteer respond? What can possibly be said?

Perhaps he or she could tell a story, a story about how Saint Francis once tested two young men who wanted to join his community. He took them to the garden and told them to plant cabbages upside down, with the heads in the dirt and the roots in the air. One of the young men complied; the other sensibly suggested that it was customary for cabbages to have their roots planted firmly in the ground. Francis gently suggested that the sensible man return to live among the other sensible people of the world. Francis often boasted of being a fool for Christ; sometimes, he knew, following the way of love meant doing things upside down—at least from the world’s perspective.

Francis may have liked one of the refrigerator magnets at Bethany House: “Leap, and the net will appear,” it says. That is a good description of what is happening at the Catholic Worker. Practicing hospitality, community, voluntary poverty, stewardship, and nonviolent resistance requires a leap: it requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. We are able to make that leap  because of our belief in the “net”: Love. Providence. The Holy Spirit. This is the practice of faith; it is our sixth core commitment, and the only answer we can give to reasonable, sensible people who object to the foolishness of the Catholic Worker.

The seed of this faith was planted long ago, in our religious upbringings or life experiences, but it is continually enlivened here at the Catholic Worker. It is enlivened by the prayer we regularly share. When we pray, we create an empty space in ourselves so God might have room to “speak” in our lives. (Voluntary poverty resembles prayer in that way.) It is also enlivened by our life in community—by the support and example of one another, our guests, and by our extended community. We speak of relying on Providence or the grace of God, and that is true; but often, the face of Providence and grace looks a lot like someone in our support community (perhaps even you!).

Most of all, our faith is strengthened by its practice—by leaping off that metaphorical cliff, again and again—for the love of our guests, our community, and our world. How is the Xcel energy bill going to be paid this month? When the bank account is scraping bottom, we have no choice but to trust in God’s providence. In a sense, the empty spaces left by our poverty, precarity, and vulnerability make room for God to play in our lives—to surprise us, to catch us in ways we didn’t expect. And so our faith grows.

Yes, there is uncertainty and risk; the crucifix in our prayer room reminds us that faith does not exempt us from pain or loneliness or anxiety or weariness. These are woven into life at the Catholic Worker just as much as anywhere else. But our faith places these things in a larger context. They do not have the final word; God does. Love does. We witness this miracle again and again: somehow, even though the floors need to be scrubbed (again) and even though our guests experience disappointing setbacks, there is an abundance of joy amidst it all. That joy comes to us when we notice a guest making someone new feel welcome, and it comes to us in the loud laughter of nightly card games. And in it, there is a deep sense that all will be well—that whatever we sacrifice for the love of one another is not lost, just changed into something more precious and enduring. This is why we have faith. At the Catholic Worker, we have taken that leap toward love, and found it to be solid.

~

Perhaps we Catholic Workers are not such great fools after all, given how often we fall short of our ideals, or even deliberately turn away from the hard work of faith. But, there’s always hope! We have many of you in our wider community to serve as examples and set us straight. And we can say this daily prayer: “Lord, make us better fools, so we may know greater love.”


This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Winona Catholic Worker.

 March 25, 2013  No Responses »
Mar 182013
 

THE RIVER FLOWS SOUTH, AND ALL THE FLOWING WATERS OF half a continent run to it—morning dew, whole gray-white fields of melting snow, rain running down rooftops and cascading through the leaves of trees, rivulets in the streets, brooks and streams and creeks and tributaries—all wash clean over the people and the land, drawing together in the broad and heavy river that pushes south. Even teardrops move to find solace in the warm southern sea; shed too many tears, and they will bear your soul along with them. A loose enough body might follow, only half aware of the currents that carry it along.

Photo: The interstate bridge at Winona as featured in the state's sesquicentennial postage stamp in 2008. (USPS)

Photo: The interstate bridge at Winona as featured in the state’s sesquicentennial postage stamp in 2008. (USPS)

That is how Glory found herself driving south one morning in early spring as she wandered out of Minneapolis toward nowhere in particular. Descending from the long plains into Red Wing, the road fell alongside the river, which bore down so heavily against the earth that rounded bluffs rose hundreds of feet above it on either side, each pressing against the other in a rippling succession that unfolded before her, and closed over the receding scenery like a shutting door. The river ran wild, ragged with backwaters, sloughs, and marshes, and tangled with long, low islands flooded by the spring melt, so that the trees that covered them seemed planted in the water. Where the river was wide and clear and blue, gulls turned on the black tips of their wings in the air above, and were mirrored on the surface by the slower white triangles of sailboats.

She saw an eagle rise from the water, heavy with wetness and the gray fish it clutched, and she pulled onto the shoulder of the road to watch it disappear over a ridge.

She thought of that fish, how it would have been surprised by the thunder that broke through the glassy surface, like something from another world, to spirit it away into the air above. Its bulging fish eyes must have been filled at the end with visions of the river falling away into the green world like a dropped ribbon.

Here is a place to die an exotic death.

She pulled away from the shoulder and rolled down the window. The air that poured over her carried in it the hazy gray-blue of the far bluffs and the new, snow-shocked green that ascended sharply in choirs of trees on the slopes beside the road. Her dark eyes took it all in, and killed it there.

At Winona, she found a bridge whose long arch across the river prevented her from seeing its end, so that it seemed to terminate there in the sky. As the bridge lifted her up, the town dropped away on either side, flattened against the ground. Her hands began to sweat. The bridge crested, and there before her lay all the thick green of the valley rolling away into the low wall of the bluffs.

Near the end of the bridge she turned off onto an unmarked exit that curved sharply away from the road and down to an island. The asphalt gave way to a dirt road, which she followed to a small parking lot—there was a boat landing, some picnic benches, a small sand beach. She parked at the end of the lot, away from the few cars that were already there.

She put her head back against the seat, her hands still holding the wheel, and listened to the ticking sound of the engine cooling, the birdsong, and the low throbbing of a tugboat engine on the river. She whispered: “Dear God, dear God.”

A mosquito hummed in her ear.

She would walk back to where the arch of the bridge pressed firmly into the cathedral sky. From that high she would end her life by closing her eyes and pushing away from the fence with her toes.

She was afraid of doing that, which is why she hadn’t allowed herself to fully realize the abstraction of the idea. Now she reasoned that it was no more difficult than learning to jump into the deep end of the pool. That, she remembered, was simply a matter of balances. The weight of all those watching faces—the other girls, their white-capped heads bobbing at the edge of the pool; the instructor treading water out there, her arm outstretched as if to lie, “Take my hand”; the parents in the bleachers—all those faces were like smooth white stones being piled into the arms she held out stiffly before her. When they became heavy enough, the balance tipped, and she threw herself away into the deep water of the pool, where she touched the bottom and choked on chlorinated water. She had been eight then.

She rolled up the open window, leaving a small crack for air, and climbed into the backseat and curled up there to wait for darkness.

She dreamed of nothing. When she woke it was not yet dark; orange light sluiced low through the canopy of leaves and dappled her face. It was hot enough in the car that she had to peel her skin away from the vinyl. She thought she would walk up to the bridge in the day’s last light, with the idea that she could survey the lay of the land.

She went out along the dusty road, beating the blood back into her prickly, sleepy legs. A handful of teenage kids had gathered along the thin beach and started a small fire from which they watched her as she walked by. Rock music with the bass turned up pounded out of their cars—an old blue pickup truck, a rusted out Honda hatchback—so that she could not hear what they were saying to her, or about her.

A small girl in a white dress crouched down over her bare feet on the road ahead, drawing in the dirt with a long stick. The girl raised her sun-browned face and squinted at Glory against the light, her face framed by tangled blonde hair. Glory hesitated, then stopped. She slid shut the lids of her eyes and lifted them: there was the child, intent once again on inscribing the road. She must have been about four. Glory scanned the area for a mother or father or babysitter, but the girl seemed to belong to no one. She turned briefly to glance back at the kids tending the fire. They were oblivious to Glory and the girl: one of them had thrown a string of firecrackers into the flame, which erupted in a shower of sparks and explosions that sent them scrambling away, shouting and laughing.

The problem of the girl in the road remained. Had she wandered out of the woods?

It’s only a girl. Not my girl. Just a child.

She recalled old habits with small children and pretended to herself that she still knew them.

“Hello!” she called out. “What are you making?”

The girl looked up at her briefly and scuttled sideways a little to continue her drawing. “Don’t step on it!”

“I’m not going to step on it, honey. I just want to see what you’re making.” She looked down at the lines traced in the dirt but could find no pattern in them.

“I’m making words,” the girl said proudly. “See?”

“What does it say?” Glory asked.

The girl was amazed. “Can’t you read?” she exclaimed, standing up. “Oh my gosh.” And she turned around and slapped a sandy hand against her forehead in exasperation before bending to the task again.

Glory crouched down beside her and watched as the girl, who stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, carefully shaped curves and intersecting lines. If those made words, she had accumulated perhaps a full paragraph there on the road, which Glory tried to decipher but could not. This was not the chicken-scratching of preschool children; here was a full-blown foreign language.

“Aren’t you going to tell me what the words say?”

The girl shook her head.

“Why not?”

She stopped writing and considered Glory a moment, as if their roles had reversed: her the preoccupied adult, Glory the pestering child.

“My birthday is pretty soon,” the girl declared. “I’m going to be five.”

She examined her work intently. “There are ants here! Get out of there you ants! Stop stepping on my words!” She began flicking at them with the stick.

Glory stared at the girl and smelled the water and listened to the low sound of a tugboat’s horn somewhere down the river. Five little ducklings, herded by their mother, bobbed in the waves and drifted with the current. The span of the bridge loomed in the near distance; a red light flashed on top of it, and white lights brighter than comets marked the few passing cars. Beyond the bridge the sun flared orange and dropped behind a distant bluff, and the shadow passed over them. Glory looked straight up; a thin net of stars was already set across the darkened sky. Panicked birds seemed to flutter and clatter inside the white bone of her ribs.

She stood up. “Well,” she said, “I’m leaving now. Is your mother around?”

“I don’t know.” The girl had placed her face close to the ground and was scowling at an offending ant. She flicked it away. “Where are you going?”

“To that bridge.”

“Why?”

“To see what the river looks like from up there.” Suddenly she added, “Would you like to come with?”

The girl gazed off toward the bridge distractedly, then flung the twig into the bushes. “Okay,” she said, and took off running toward it. “Come on!”

Glory followed the child. To a casual observer, she would appear to be the child’s mother herself.

They ascended a grassy embankment to the foot of the bridge, and went along its walkway. A chain link fence prevented them from falling out into the space that gathered in exponentially increasing volume beneath them as they made their way up the bridge’s long arc. Their shadows turned like the second hands of clocks as glaring headlights passed one after another. There was a small space around where the girders had been punched through the floor of the bridge, through which Glory could see the water far below.

At the top the girl stopped and clutched the fence with her hands and pressed her face against it.

“Whoa! It’s like flying!” she cried.

It was indeed like flying. The wind lifted Glory’s long hair, contributing to the illusion of motion when she moved right up to the edge and leaned against the fence to take in the broad landscape. Her body tensed against the sensation of falling. Small birds shot out of the trees on the island and passed below them. Faint circles pulsed out from the bridge footings where the long bow of the river passed over them, its heavy water pressed flat against the ground, pushing down, sliding south like some massive snake.

“It’s real beautiful,” the girl said. She pulled herself up the fence, using a crossbar for a footing. Glory grabbed at the back of her dress.

“I want to see!” the girl protested irritably. “I won’t fall.”

For a while they were still, watching the darkness pool beneath them as the light faded in the sky. The girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and chewed it reflectively. She tired, stood down from the fence, stepped up on it again, and stood down again.

“Carry me,” she said, reaching up to Glory with her free hand.

“You’re a big girl. You’re too heavy to carry.”

The girl shook her head and stood there with her arm upraised in supplication. Quietly Glory kneeled and took the girl in her arms, turning her around so she could see the river. She rested her head on the girl’s shoulder and took in the soapy smell of her skin, felt her blood and breath moving so close, noticed the roundness of her small limbs. The downy hairs at the nape of the girl’s neck tickled her nose.

Glory glanced self-consciously at the passing traffic, aware of the tableau they presented: Madonna and Child, illuminated in ephemeral beams of light. Twice as a young girl she had been recruited to play Mary in Christmas pageants; she had forgotten that.

The girl shivered. She was worried about the dark; more specifically, the unnamed monsters that live in the fabric of the dark. There is nothing to worry about, Glory told her. How do you know? the girl asked.

“Monsters are not real,” Glory said. “They’re only in your imagination.”

The girl was skeptical. Of course no one actually sees monsters, the girl countered, because in the first place they generally only come out when it is too dark to see anything at all, and moreover monsters by their very nature tend to lurk in hiding. Then where do they go during the day? Glory challenged. Into the ground, the girl assured her. And what happens if they get you?

“Then they eat you.”

At this sobering news they fell silent. Glory considered that she should have disabused the girl of her fears, but who was she to argue? It could be, after all, that the children were right and the adults were unknowingly caught in a state of denial. The river below could be the dark heart of the beast, or its mouth stretched wide, waiting.

Instead Glory placed her lips close to the girl’s ear and whispered. “I had a girl just like you, once,” she said, and was surprised that she had. Let me tell you a secret, strange child. “A pretty little baby with a red face and scrunched-up eyes and wisps of blonde hair. She would have grown up to be just like you, I know she would have.

“What’s your baby’s name?”

“She has no name.”

The girl was offended, and scowled. “Why?”

“She has no name because she died.”

“She died?”

Glory nodded. “Yes, she did.”

“She could still have a name.”

“She has no name because she died,” Glory said, the words pouring from her throat like water from a vase, “because I drowned her. In a bathtub. In a motel room. She fell all bloody into the water, she was splashing around, crying. I was afraid someone might hear her. I was afraid—”

She stopped, shuddered. She was hyperventilating, and unbalanced, and so she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the girl had twisted around to watch her in mute wonderment. Glory found in the girl’s face a vague apprehension, a sudden uncertainty. The girl lowered her gaze and gnawed the knuckle of her thumb ever more vigorously. She understood, Glory thought; she understood, in the way children do, the secret that had been placed in her consciousness like an egg in a nest, like a soft mass of fish eggs at the bottom of the river.

“You go make your words out of that.” Glory lifted the girl’s chin and spoke in a voice that was strong and clear. “You write that in the road for everyone to see, write that there was a mother who killed her child with her own hands. Do you understand?”

The girl nodded shyly.

“Now there’s your father. Is that your father calling for you down there?” They could hear a voice calling out on the island below, repeating a name that Glory could not make out exactly. She let the girl down to the ground and took her hand and led her along. When they had descended to the road again she sent the girl out before her toward the voice and the circle of light cast by the fire on the beach. Glory hung behind and watched from the shadows. She heard, but did not see, the child reunited with the man—presumably her father—whose low, querying voice carried out into the dark indistinctly.

As she returned to the bridge’s apex, the jumping off point, she thought of the child, the first she had touched or even breathed on since the day she had drowned her newborn. God had given souls to mere animals that way, breathing on them. The breath of God flowed out, and there was the Milky Way, a cloud of hot stars strewn all across the darkness; the breath of God flowed out, and all the world was covered in verdant abundance. God breathed and life upon life streamed out in long ribbons through time, from the inception of the universe down through all of human history, passed on from man to woman to child again and again, until it was cut off, abruptly snapped, in her hands, her very own hands. She was as guilty as Cain.

That she had shared this with the girl did not remove her guilt, nor did it ease her conscience. Yet it was all she could make out of what she had, having escaped the judgment of her peers. Their judgment would have been insufficient anyway. They could condemn her, lock her up until she died, or even kill her themselves, but in the end, she thought, it was all mere lip service; they were all barely less guilty than she, and in no position to mete out justice.

But the little girl in the road was as close to innocence as a human being could hope to be, so much so that she hardly believed what she had been told. She would grow into full comprehension slowly. Over a period of years her disbelief would increase until perhaps she would convince herself that no woman once stood on a bridge over the river and confessed to her, of all people, a child, of killing her own live offspring. The girl would grow up, and all of it would become a strange nightmare that would make her shudder as she watched her own small children sleeping. And she would wonder at herself, amazed that such thoughts could even enter her head. But there they would be, and there they would  stay, and such would be the judgment on what Glory had done.

And this satisfied her, that the truth would not die with her, but live on in some way, as a testament to her guilt.

Glory was strong, able to pull herself to the top of the fence and then put her legs over in one smooth swinging motion. She trembled. She sat on the fence, balancing by finding a hold in it with her heels, and took the measure of the depth below her. The mottled water still reflected what light was left in the evening sky.

“It’s a long, long way to eternity,” she commented to herself hoarsely. Her taut arms and legs were shaking horribly. She imagined that the dark surface would open like a door when she hit; she imagined, and fervently hoped, that as she plunged through, she would be stripped of her body, and her soul, by the mercy of God, would be washed clean. She was not sure of this—in fact, now her hope was as finely balanced as her body, and in that balance, all was surreal.

She braced herself, all coiled inside, and waited for the cars to pass, just as if she were about to cross the street. She calculated the drivers, blinded by headlights, couldn’t see her; still, she wanted to be sure. When the last of them had passed, and it was quiet, she gathered her courage. She prayed that she would fall into the hand of God, and pitched out into the soft blackness.

The sound she made etched into the emptiness her exact place in the world, until the river closed over it, all smooth.

She did not die, which contradicted her expectations. Instead, she came bobbing up to the surface, her white face lit against the water by the light of the moon, her black hair spread out all around her.

She floated along like that, unconscious, until presently a boat came and cautiously circled her, its motor gurgling in the water. The figure of a man bent over the side of the boat, which tipped toward the water, righted itself, then tipped again. The boat spun in slow circles, drifting, as he worked over her, breathing his breath into her lungs, beating life into her heart.

She coughed up river water, and her eyes fluttered open. She stared up at the stars of the sky moving silently above her, a giant wheel of light turning in the vast darkness. The man pointed his boat toward shore, where his daughter waited patiently.


This story first appeared in the November 1997 issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine.

 March 18, 2013  No Responses »