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The Parable of Ryker and Samwell

“As water reflects the face, so one’s heart reflects the man.” Prov. 27:1


Luke rightly says that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. That is to say, the heart is the core of one’s most basic beliefs, and words provide a glimpse into Man’s heart. It does not matter who a person is – butcher, baker or undertaker – words reveal his soul.

CHAPTER 1 – A baby at last

My birthplace of Harston in East Lincolnshire did not have a large number of inhabitants – neither before or after I was born. Hidden in rolling hill country, it was even considered backwater by some. But we always reckoned our burg, with its one to two thousand residents, as a decent size.

This number did not even take into account the souls who lived in outlying areas, tenant farmers and scattered cottagers, all of whom had a certain predilection for country living. Our town proper boasted a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, teachers, and a preacher. Housewives, clerks, carpenters, grooms and saddlers either paced or ambled the packed-down dirt sidewalks and children visited the local park to feed the ducks. There was even a railway station on Station Road and a small but well-stocked library straight across from it. Mercer Street had textile shops, an inn, and a bakery.

Harston’s roads, although not paved, were well-traveled. Days prior to the bi-weekly market held just outside its east limits, were alive with bellowing and bleating during the summer months – audible signs of life as farmers drove their four-legged produce through the streets to the local butcher shop for slaughter. The day of the market itself was noisy as well, roads abuzz with clamant vendors and townsfolk eager to bargain for good deals.

Although certain protocols were associated with living in our community, such as the few wealthier families having calling cards, the truth was that most of the citizenry were just common folk. A number resided in plain brick houses along the main avenues of Crown Street and Rudwall Lane. The balance of Harston’s inhabitants, however, lived in modest thatched homes on lanes akin to alleyways, and they lived without the benefit of butlers, maids, or cooks. Households were a decent size, with four or five children in each home. The homes, mind you, were small, often only consisting of two or three rooms.

We, my father, mother, and myself, lived on Hillbrook Street, a middle-class street, considered neither rich nor poor, and we had a small garden in the back of our two-story house.

My father, who was a self-appointed teacher of sorts, greatly admired the writings of the Anglican bishop, J.C. Ryle. Thus when I was born in 1889, I was named and baptized Ryle – Ryle Harrison to be exact. My mother later told me that I had cried lustily when the water dribbled down my forehead and that my father had been somewhat embarrassed by these wails. Nevertheless, she told me, her eyes growing soft as she spoke, he had cradled me in his arms with great tenderness and love during the ceremony. Hearing this as a young boy prone to admire Goliath figures, I was a trifle embarrassed, feeling quite keenly one should not use soppy words like “tenderness” and “love” with regard to men. But inside my heart I was warmed by the thought that my father, a rather stern but just man to be sure, felt more than a modicum of affection for me.

I was not a sturdy boy to look at. Rather skinny, fair-haired and prone to sniffles and coughs, there often rose within me a covetousness to be more strapping and robust.

But I run ahead of myself. When my mother was expecting me, there was rejoicing in our home on Hillbrook Street – indeed, there was a very great thankfulness. A baby coming at last after my mother and father had hoped and prayed for years and years.

We were, as I said, middle class and had the faithful, domestic help of a woman who had known Mother since she was a child. Plump, good-natured Cora, born and raised in Harston, was both our cook and maid, and she confidentially passed on to me many interesting paragraphs out of my parents’ diary – details of past events which had happened before I was born or when I had been but a little tacker.

“Master Ryle,” she would say, often expressing an opinion in double negatives, “Your mother was quite sure she would rock no cradle, never. And seeing as to how she’d been married to your father for more than fifteen years, I was quite sure she was right. But then many’s the time the stork’s visited them thought to be barren. And isn’t that the way of it?” Cora told me this while she was letting me lick out the bowl of pudding she had made for dessert that evening. With my mouth full of sweetness, it was difficult for me to respond. Not that Cora ever needed much of a response to what she was saying. She was as full of words as my mouth was of custard. My father often raised his eyebrows as she prattled on and I, ever trying to be like him even as I swallowed the pudding, raised mine.

“Yes, sir!” she went on, oblivious to my apparent surprise, “and your mother cried tears of happiness. It’s a good thing I was here to see to things – to cook and clean proper, mind you, because she wasn’t up to doing nothing.”

“Yes, Cora,” I mumbled, lowering my eyebrows again while I was licking the spoon clean, but she wasn’t listening.

“And that was the time, strangely enough, that the Sparrows moved into town. Not into Harston proper, mind you, but into the farmstead down Furrow Lane, to the south of here.”

I nodded again, scraping the bowl with the spoon for what was left.

“And wouldn’t Providence have it, but that Sarah Sparrow was expecting too. And wouldn’t Providence have it as well, but that she and Sam had also been praying and hoping for a little one for many, many years.”

Here Cora stopped yattering, quite out of breath. I sighed, sorry that the pudding bowl was shining and clean.

“And that’s how,” Cora ended her communication, “there was a friendship begun between Sarah Sparrow and your mother, Master Ryle.”

She lifted me off the counter where I had been sitting, patted my backside and shooed me out of the kitchen.

“Now off with you, young Sir,” she called, “for I have work to do and surely you want dinner tonight.”


It was true about the friendship between my parents and the Sparrows beginning at this time. Sam and Sarah Sparrow had freshly moved in from London during the time when both my mother and Sarah Sparrow were expecting their first baby.

Sam, a burly, big fellow, was a farming tenant of one of the wealthiest farmers in Harston – Ryker Bitter. Ryker Bitter was the owner of one of the largest estates on the outskirts of Harston. He had lots of money, but possessed neither capacity nor willingness to share. As a tenant farmer, Sam Sparrow was better off than many farm laborers who occupied the very small and dank cottages of their employers. Although Sam did have to sign off a significant portion of his proceeds to Bitter, if he managed the rented property well, he could become fairly affluent. Sam and Sarah lived in a good-sized farmhouse and I loved visiting them.

Sarah Sparrow was adept at weaving, spinning and quilting, and had come by Hillbrook Street one day to show Mother a comforter she had made. Sarah had heard from other townsfolk that Mother might be interested in purchasing one. As the two women interacted in the front room, they naturally began to speak of the coming births of their babies. A common bond was kindled because both had been forced to wait for more than a decade for their first child. Mother was due a month before Sarah Sparrow was expected to give birth. They promised one another that they would visit back and forth. They laughed with one another as visible kicks poked bumps into their aprons, and they discussed myriad names for their unborn progeny.

CHAPTER 2 – The birth of Samwell

When Mother began labor it was a week or two before her time, so Cora told me, and it was a misty and rainy night. Unhappily, the Harston midwife was visiting a daughter in London and the doctor was late in coming. To all appearances it seemed that I would be born without medical assistance. My father, Cora said, was in such a nervous state that he was ready to go and carry the man to Hillbrook Street on his back, but he did not want to leave my mother alone. “I thought a teacher and an educated man like your father,” she spouted philosophically, “wouldn’t have been so fretful.”

I stared at her.

Cora then added matter-of-factly, “He didn’t place no confidence in me delivering you neither.” I nodded sympathetically, rather liking the fact that my birth had been the focus of such attention, and sat up straighter. Cora was polishing the silverware, allowing me to hand her the forks and spoons as she worked.

“Did the doctor finally come?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“Yes, he did,” she sighed, even as she rubbed a cloth over a butter dish, “but he was a sorry case, he was. Wet with rain, he dripped all over the hall carpet, he did.”

“And then what happened?” I prodded her, even though I knew perfectly well what she would say next.

“Well, your father yanked off the doctor’s coat so fearfully hard that the man almost fell over, and then he proceeded to pull him up the stairs.”

“And he forgot his bag,” I added, for Cora had forgotten that part.

“Yes, indeed! And once he was up, didn’t he have to go down and fetch it a minute later?”

I smiled. Dr. Pillblight was a sour man, to say the least, one who rarely gave patients a smile. It was a game with me to try and make him do so, but his lips seemed permanently frozen to scowl. Yet he had been forced to walk down our stairs to get his black bag when I was about to be born. That was something which made me smile.

“And then coming down the stairs, he tripped,” I went on, “tripped and sprained his ankle.”

“Yes,” Cora affirmed, her round cheeks quivering busily as she nodded her head, “and this was just when there was a knock at the door and when I went to answer, there was Sarah Sparrow standing on the doorstep.”

“And she livered me,” I proudly went on.

“Delivered, Master Ryle,” Cora corrected, shaking her buxom jowls this time, “the word is ‘delivered.’ And she herself as big as a volcano about to erupt.”

So it came about that Sarah Sparrow helped Mother during the last part of her labor and she it was whose hands first lifted me up and laid me on my mother’s belly so that she could see me. A skinny youngling, puling and oblivious to the people about me, Mother says I kept my eyes shut for two days.


Mother never let Sarah’s act of kindness nor her expertise at midwifery slip from her memory. Father remembered it as well, and in this way a true friendship was forged between our two families – the families of Harrison and Sparrow – and, consequently, between myself and Sarah’s baby.


It was during the month after I was born that Sarah’s time of confinement also came. When Mother heard, via Cora and other townsfolk, that Sarah was in labor, she walked down to the farmstead where the Sparrows lived. Mother pushed me, a six-week-old baby, along in a pram. With big wheels and a wooden handlebar, it bounced me up and down, up and down, but it did not deter Mother’s determination to go to her friend.

A container of broth for Cora was positioned precariously on the blanket by my feet, and mother carefully avoided large potholes and mud puddles. Arriving at the Sparrows’ home, she gingerly lifted the soup out of the carriage and carried the pan to the back door. Met by Ruby, the midwife, she asked if there was anything she might do to help. Ruby took the soup from her hands, smiled and was about to send her home when a voice from the bedroom cried out.

“Is that Maudie? Please, I want to see her.”

The midwife shrugged and stood back. Mother, however, did not walk in straightaway. She first returned to the carriage, and lifted me out. Then, with me in her arms, we both entered the farmhouse. I was sleeping soundly, drooling milk bubbles on my chin, so Mother later informed me, and thus do not recall a word of the conversation that ensued between mother and Sarah. Cora, who was close with Ruby, later told me that Sarah had been greatly distressed, distressed to the point of tears.

“Something’s wrong, Maudie,” she had burst out while the midwife was bringing the soup to the kitchen, “I know something’s wrong.”

“Hush,” Mother replied, dandling me, “Hush, dear. I know things are difficult right now, but just wait. Before you know it, you’ll be holding a little one just as I am holding Ryle.”

“No, I am afraid. Please pray with me, Maudie. Please!!”

So Mother prayed. With me in her arms, she prayed for a well baby, a healthy life, and a healthy mother.

“Pray it again, Maudie. Pray that the baby will be well.”

So Mother prayed the same words again. Years later, years after little Sam was born, my mother still vividly remembered that she had been sure that Sarah’s instincts about her child had been right.

At that moment she would, without fail, add these words: “But there is no sin in asking God for wellness, is there?”

Ruby, who had been listening in the doorway as Mother prayed, was all ears, and it was mainly her blurting out that prayer to Cora and others in town that caused Sam’s name tag to become Samwell.


Sheep farming and the wool trade brought profitable business to our area. I mention this only because Sam Sparrow raised sheep and he was good at it. Ryker Bitter rented out farmland to Sam Sparrow. He used that land, called in-bye land, for pasturing heads of sheep. As well, Sam hunted grouse and other wildlife on that land, and often sold produce at the market. The wool from his sheep, Lincoln Longwool, was much in demand and he did rather well in bartering with certain textile manufacturers. His sheep produced the heaviest, longest and most lustrous fleece and it made hard wearing cloth.

Although a great deal of his earnings disappeared into Ryker Bitter’s pocket, Sam himself also gained financial standing. The eastern port of Boston, not too far off, was a place of economic interaction. Centuries before, the merchants of the Hanseatic League had established their guild in Boston and many ships came to its port. There had been issues with water diversion to neighboring fens, but a canal had been cut, and a sluice constructed. The result of these endeavors was a navigable communication, of a lucrative nature, with a number of shires, our shire included. Boston was a major trading center for wool and Sam Sparrow had been born to raise sheep. My father sometimes joked that instead of herding children, he ought to herd sheep. But then mother would remind him that the children in his study were also sheep and he would laugh and pat her on the cheek.

Samuel Sparrow was born later that same day – that day my mother had visited Sarah, pushing me in the pram. Baby Sam was born with a short neck, a flattened facial profile and his almond eyes seemed slanted. Ruby, the midwife, was a bit disconcerted by the way the neonate felt somewhat floppy in her arms; by the fact that he made no effort to squeeze her hands. Consequently, on the third day after his birth she sent for Dr. Pillblight who arrived carrying his black bag. After he had examined the baby thoroughly, testing reflexes, and peering at his toes and fingers, he took off his glasses.

“Well,” he finally slowly asserted, as Ruby laid the baby back down in his cradle, “Well, I may as well tell you straight off that the boy is going to be slow.”

Sam was sitting on the edge of the bed and holding Sarah’s hand. Ruby retreated to the doorway. “Slow?” Sarah repeated, a worried look on her face, as she pushed her head back into the pillow, “What do you mean ‘slow’?” Sam said nothing, but let go of Sarah’s hand. Then he stood up and deliberately walked over to the cradle. There he remained, studying his placid child.

“I mean,” the doctor continued, and later Sarah told Mother that he had actually been quite kind and sympathetic, “I mean that this boy ….” He stopped and searched for words before he continued. “This boy has all the characteristics of babies in a study I have been reading by a Dr. Down, a Dr. John Langdon Down to be precise. He fully describes some things in this study which I see in young Samuel here.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah reiterated, “What do you mean ‘slow’?”

Dr. Pillblight settled himself in a chair opposite the bed. “I mean,” he continued, “that Samuel will probably be slower in learning how to walk. He has poor muscle tone. He will also very likely be slower in his mental ability.”

Sam and Sarah stared at one another and Sarah’s eyes filled with tears.

“Although,” Dr. Pillblight continued cautiously, “it has been recorded that some children with these characteristics ….”

He could not finish because Sam interrupted him. “What characteristics?”
“Well,” Dr. Pillblight rose and walked over to the cradle and stood next to Sam as he discoursed, “characteristics such as the wide space between his big toes and the other toes. Also, note that he has a very short neck and that his hands are very short.” As he spoke, he uncovered the child to demonstrate what he had just said, and Sam again stared down at his unperturbed and sleeping son.

“Note also,” the doctor went on, “the baby’s slanted eyes.”

“I had noticed that his eyes were unusual,” Sarah later recounted to my mother, “and suddenly, looking at the baby’s face as the doctor spoke, I knew that what the man said was true. Also, Samuel’s tongue often came out of his mouth, almost as if it was too big for him to hold in.”

Sam Sparrow broke the ensuing silence, albeit fumbling for words. “What …. What can we do?”

The doctor shrugged. “Just take care of him,” he answered, “the study shows that children with this … this abnormality, are susceptible to ailments. Some die in infancy; others live longer. It’s in the hands of God and you will just have to take good care of him.”

He stooped over, picked up his black bag, and then, after a greeting, was gone.


Once she had finished grieving over and contemplating the fact that Samuel was a delicate and different sort of baby, Sarah proved to be an excellent mother. For one thing, she was very innovative. She devised ways to help the baby sit up. Talking to him continually, she coaxed sweet smiles from the flat, little face, crinkling the almond-shaped eyes.

Wrapped up warmly, Samuel was taken for countless strolls. There was no place in Harston which did not recognize Sarah and her son. Most importantly, when people stopped her to have a look inside the carriage, she would not be ashamed. She bragged on him as if he were the most important, delightful and charming baby in the world. And because this baby was so beloved, he never stinted in giving spectators beaming smiles.

Sarah often took Samuel, or Samwell, as he was beginning to be called by everyone, to Hillbrook Street where we lived.

CHAPTER 3 – A beginning of books

As I said before, my father was a teacher of sorts. (Although I hasten to add that he actually had no need of employment because he was a gentleman. That is to say, he had a good personal income from his mother’s side of the family.) But he loved reading, studying various kinds of books, and took much pleasure in passing on his knowledge. I cannot recall a single evening when he did not peruse a book or a magazine of some sort with me. It was not until much later that I realized the enormous benefits I had reaped from having such a father.

The 1800s had been a time period of much academic poverty in England and Wales. Out of the four plus million children of primary school age, two million received no schooling at all. Religious institutions had been set up by the church to teach children reading, writing, arithmetic and religion, but they did not meet the needs of the growing population. In 1870, about twenty years before I was born, the Elementary Education Act had been passed in Parliament to address the issue of poor children who were not being taught. The Act specified that school places were to be given to all children between the ages of five and twelve in schools run by qualified teachers. A fee was required though – a varying fee of between one and four pence a week. If a family could not afford such a fee, children could attend classes for free. But not many did.

Before father had begun to transform our very large back room into a classroom, there had been a school of sorts on the outskirts of town. It had been run by a Mr. Dauper, a man who, as my mother said, was as addicted to a bottle of wine as he was to caning children. Supposed to be overseen by board members, this establishment was not well-run. Father visited the school once in the second year he and Mother moved to Harston and he came home much incensed. After speaking with several local officials, Father eventually became the new teacher and our back room was transformed into a classroom. It was an unusual situation, but my father was an unusual man. (There was a school in a neighboring shire, and a number of local children did attend that school.)

When I was little, Mother and I often visited the Sparrow farmstead and they, in turn, visited us. Consequently, Samwell and I became compadres, brothers almost. In the beginning, both in nappies, we just slept side by side in front of the hearth. Later we played together, with me usually being the leader and Samwell agreeing, smiling, and a willing partner to most of the things I invented for us to do.

When Father read to me, as he did most days, and Samwell was present, both of us would sit on his lap. I usually fidgeted at Father’s stiff, starched collar which he would eventually take off and drop on the floor. At first he read us A,B,C books, Mother Goose, Jack and the Bean Stalk and the like; later we graduated to Robinson Crusoe, Rip Van Winkle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Children’s Stories from Dickens.

When we were at the Sparrows’ farmstead, however, it was Sam Sparrow who read to us and not Father. Sam, although he did not shun A,B,C books and such, tended to stick to Bible stories. I did like the timber of his well-modulated, heavy voice and I will never forget how he related the way in which God created Adam from the dust of the ground. Sam stood up for this story, and picked up some imaginary dirt from the ground. After this he straightened his position, held the dirt in his arms like a baby while he rocked back and forth, gazing on the imagined dirt tenderly. Then Sam Sparrow bent his head and breathed the breath of life into this earthen baby.
Samwell listened intently. He always did. I can still see him leaning his large head back against the cushion of the rattan chair, almond eyes steadily fixed on his father.
So we grew – grew out of our nappies and were breeched, although I was breeched a full year before Samwell. He did not get his first pair of pants until he was four.

We grew on, Samwell and I, into bigger and bigger lads. It is true that many things, things such as the breeching, took longer for Samwell. Indeed, it sometimes took him years longer to attain a level that I had achieved in a few months. It did not impact our fondness for one another. Samwell was never scanty with his smiles and affection. Though he did not speak quickly as a young lad, he babbled on so incessantly and gestured so amiably to all who would pay attention that he was a favorite of many folks in town. Sarah, as well, often read to him during the day, and with the help of my father, she obtained picture books. When Samwell saw things illustrated, he learned much quicker.

Sam Sparrow, when he was able, always came in for the noon hour meal, frequently bringing men with him who were helping him with the sheep, because such was his success with the sheep raising that he was able to hire others. On one such day, when Mother and I were visiting the Sparrows, and Samwell and I were about four years of age, Sam and two of his men were seated at the table. Sarah and my mother were serving them fresh bread and some soup. Before eating, Sam Sparrow took off his hat and motioned that his men should do the same.

“Let’s say grace, lads,” he announced, his voice pleasant and sure.

Then he began.

“Our Father in heaven, we thank You for this fine food. Bless it we pray and we thank You for ….”

He did not finish. The side door opened as he spoke and it opened with an intrusive creak. The noise trespassed into Sam’s prayer and was followed by its architect, Ryker Bitter. The man strode in boisterously, blatantly ignoring those sitting quietly around the table. We boys, Samwell and I, standing next to the table, watched him enter with our eyes wide open. Ryker was a large man and he had to bend his head so as not to bump it on the low door lintel.

“Well, praying are we,” he began, “and what are we praying about?”

Sam Sparrow scraped back his chair – a wooden upright one with a woven seat – and stood up. “We are thanking God for our meal,” he answered simply and clearly.

“And what are you eating today, Sam?” Ryker mocked, “Is it a meal worthy of thanks? Well, will you look at that! Some plain bread and some watery soup.” He laughed and cracked his knuckles at the same time.
“When God provides food,” Sam Sparrow countered, “then it is a fine meal. And we ought to thank Him for it.”

“Has He blessed you with a fine son too, Sam? Has He given you a fine child as well? I hear tell he’s a bit slow. It would be a long time before I would thank God for a child like that!”

The truth was that Ryker and Alice, his wife, had no children. Mother and Sarah stood silently at the board as Ryker was speaking. Both were motionless. I was closest to the door and could feel the vibration of Ryker’s boot as it tapped the wooden floor. His boots were made of black leather. “Now that’s a frail-looking tyke as well,” Ryker boomed on, inspecting my person, “But well, I’ve not come to discuss food or children. I’ve come for the payment due on the farmstead, Sam.”

Mother walked over and reached for my hand. Then she walked me back to the board and resumed her position next to Sarah. Samwell had said not a word, but stood dreadfully still, his hand grasping the back of his father’s chair.

After Sam Sparrow and Ryker Bitter had left the room, it was as if an audible sigh of relief swept through the room. Mother walked over to the table and ladled soup into the bowls of the men. Talk resumed. Samwell laughed and was lifted into his special chair by Sarah, and I climbed into mine right next to him.

The truth was that Ryker Bitter was easily the wealthiest man in the area. There were very few who dared to contradict him; very few who would consider disagreeing with him over even such a small matter as the weather. If Ryker Bitter complained that the sun was too hot, many would nod even though it might be a mild day; and if the man suggested that it would rain, umbrellas were taken out even though the sky overhead was blue.

CHAPTER 4 – Growing in wisdom

My father, and here I repeat myself again, was a self-appointed teacher. He loved reading and writing and did much of both. He had transformed our back room into a classroom and it was a classroom free of charge. For many of the fathers and mothers in Harston’s poorer section, however, sending a child to school, even a school free of charge, meant the loss of a much-needed income, for often a child would be working at a job. Attendance at the school which had been run by Mr. Dauper had been poor at best, especially at times of harvest.

Father made it known, I don’t know how, perhaps by word of mouth, that he was willing to teach at any time to anyone disposed to learn. And so a steady stream of local boys passed through our home at odd times. Sometimes they would come an hour or so in the early morning, and sometimes evenings were convenient. They would knock and Cora let them in. She would instruct them to take off their shoes in the hallway and to hang their coats on one of the many wooden nogs that father had attached to the wall in the corridor. After thus being properly introduced to the house, they were ushered into Father’s study.

When I grew older, I was usually seated at a small wooden desk, hard at work when they came in (provided they came in the morning). For me there was reading, writing and arithmetic. Later Father added grammar, geography and history, being most insistent on that last subject. And gradually I advanced to other subjects – Latin, French, algebra and geometry. The local boys, however, were taught mostly to read and write, add and subtract. They were a serious lot, these boys who came.

From time to time, Samwell also came to school. When Sarah visited with Mother, Samwell would inevitably find his way into the study. Father never forbade him. Samwell was rarely distracting to those who were learning and the other boys tolerated him with rather good humor.

At first Samwell would simply sit on the floor of the study and watch me and the others. Whether we were reading, writing, or attempting to work out a mathematical problem, he was fascinated. After a while he would stand up and peer over someone’s shoulder. If I, or anyone else looked at him, he would tilt his head and flash such a huge smile that no one had the heart to send him back to the floor. Standing behind me, he would often count the fingers of his right hand. It had taken Sarah a very long time to teach him this, and he himself was very pleased with this accomplishment. Laboriously and slowly, he was able to say the numbers one to five with as much conviction as if they were the breath of life to him. The action pleased him to no end and he would do it over and over, proudly and loudly. Father would eventually shush him and he would sit down on the floor again, his voice dropping down to an almost inaudible whisper, his hand held up in front of him as if it were a slate on which to draw.

There was another subject which drew Samwell like no other. That subject was religion, or Bible stories. Doubtless because Sam Sparrow read to him most evenings out of the Bible, the boy was replete with the commandments, the prophets and all the stories of the New Testament.

Actually, to say that Sam read to his son is a bit of an untruth. The truth is that Sam chanted or sang the stories to his son. Samwell could retell, or re-sing them in his own fashion, the favorite-by-far story being that of the good Shepherd. Samwell’s rather large, and sometimes protruding tongue, sometimes made his speech less than clear. At times it caused some of the village children to make fun of him, especially if he was singing one of his favorite songs while walking down the street. But woe to these children if one of the boys who frequented Father’s study was close by. Quick punishment awaited them and Samwell, hardly aware of the mocking to which he had been subject, generally smiled his way through town. Singing in his low-pitched voice, although he could barely carry a tune, did not deter him from interacting with other folks, many other folks.

Samwell was good friends with Mrs. Dalfry, who lived just outside Harston on the east side. She kept a rabbit warren in an enclosed field by her cottage. She farmed the rabbits for food and fur. The dry and rather sandy meadow tract by her home was enclosed with water-filled ditches to stop the coneys from escaping and she had fences to keep out the predators. Her husband, long dead, had been a warrener, someone who kept rabbits. He had built several oblong “pillow” mounds with stone-lined tunnels for the rabbits to live in. His was a rare occupation but rabbit meat was a delicacy and the price of rabbit meat and fur made it a rather lucrative business. Being that she was close to the market, Mrs. Dalfry often ran a rabbit booth.

Samwell loved visiting Mrs. Dalfry and her warrens and she was fond of the child, often inviting him in for a chat of sorts. They would stroll in the field and she would show him the rabbits. Affectionate and happy, it was obvious that he loved her as well as the rabbits.

Mrs. Dalfry was not Samwell’s only friend. I believe he visited more people in Harston on a regular basis than our pastor, John Solls, who lived but a few houses down the street from us. Samwell also frequented Mistress Toynder, the baker’s wife, who often gave him a cookie as he passed by; as well there was Joe Cobb the chimney sweep, who betimes let Samwell follow him and watch him work as he climbed some of the wealthier chimneys in town; and there were the countless grooms, housekeepers, clerks, carpenters and maids, all of whom developed a fondness for the child, or, as the years went by, for the kind and simple-hearted man Samwell was on the way to becoming.

There was one person, however, who truly harbored no love for Samwell. That person was Ryker Bitter. Ryker actually had no great liking for me either and it could probably be surmised that he had no great liking for anyone besides himself. Still, for the young lad Samwell had grown into, the wealthy landowner showed an especial aversion. I believe that Samwell himself was aware of the animosity exerted towards himself by Ryker. When street-children mocked him, or laughed at something he did, he laughed right along with them. On the other hand, when Ryker Bitter stopped him on a path, or singled him out in the farmyard by his house and made degrading remarks, Samwell was puzzled. His almond eyes furrowed and he did not smile. He did not understand. He could not fathom that someone might not like him as he himself liked others. It pained him somewhat to see Ryker Bitter deride him. Not for his own sake, but for the man’s sake. There was this singular characteristic about Samwell in that he was uniquely loving. That is to say, he understood much more with his heart and mind that most people gave him credit for. He could not always express with his mouth what his heart thought, but he felt, oh, he felt much and he sensed that Ryker Bitter was unhappy.


School-leaving age was generally around the age of fourteen. When I was a year and a few months past that age, my father tested me and judged me ready and qualified to write an entrance examination into a higher school of learning. There were two examinations for the University of Cambridge: the Junior (for students under sixteen years of age, into which category I fit), and the Senior (for students under the age of eighteen). These examinations took place in local “centers” – places like schools or church halls. The subjects the students were tested on were many and sundry. They included such topics as English language and literature, history, geography, geology, Greek, Latin, French, and so on.

School exams took place over a period of six consecutive days and were set in the morning, afternoon, and evening. My presiding examiner arrived by train at the Station Street station. He wore a black, high hat and appeared very impressive. Upon seeing him, Samwell immediately asked his mother for a similar headpiece. She laughed and told him to ask Joe Cobb, the chimney sweep who wore a stovepipe hat. My heart was in my throat as I walked towards the church hall the first day. Both my father and Samwell accompanied me to the door.

Father shook my hand. “I know you’ll do well, Son.”

Samwell beamed a grand smile of affection and followed Father’s example of handshaking. “Do well, Ryle.”


Much to my relief, I did do well. The questions were easier than I had anticipated. For example, one of the questions in History was: Name in order the Queens and the children of Henry VIII. On what grounds was he divorced from his first wife? In Religion one of the questions read: In what three ways was our Lord tempted in the wilderness?


These, and other questions posed, did not present much difficulty and I passed the examinations with flying colors in those particular subjects, as well as in some others, much to Father’s gratification. The only discipline in which I needed help was French, and Father was to tutor me in that during the next few months. Samwell was pleased also. He had not understood much of why I had to be at the church hall and stay there for a length of time each day during the week that I was examined. But he did know that it was important for me and was always waiting when I came out the side door.

“Do well, Ryle?” he would ask me with his guttural tongue.

I would nod and he would clap his hands in glee and follow up by thickly shouting, “Good, Ryle! Very good.”

CHAPTER 5 – A good shepherd

We hadn’t seen much of one another that summer, Samwell and I, as I had been busy studying with Father preparing me for the examinations. But Samwell had been training with his Father as well, who was grooming him to become more self-sufficient. It seemed only logical that Sam Sparrow, the sheep owner, should prep his son to take care of his own little flock of sheep.

Sheep can be kept in a barn or some other enclosure fairly easily. There was a small barn near the Sparrow farm. It stood on one and a half acres of land in which Samwell was now keeping ten sheep. He was inordinately proud of his little flock and spent much of his time counting the sheep on the fingers of his hand. He knew that if he counted his hand twice, then that was the number of sheep he had. Samwell was also meticulous in storing bedding and feed inside his barn.

“Sheep don’t get very cold, Ryle,” he confided in me. “They are warm animals.”

I nodded.

“Food for sheep has to be dry, Ryle.”

I nodded again. Truthfully, I did not know these things and was happy Samwell was learning a trade of sorts. “Sheep need room to move, Ryle. In the barn and outside.”

“You know a lot about sheep, Samwell.”

He grinned broadly, all teeth showing. Then he proudly went on to tell me that his sheep had to be careful. “Foxes kill lambs, Ryle.”


“Yes, Ryle, red foxes. And,” he added suddenly remembering, “badgers too, Ryle. They hunt lambs too.”

“You do know a lot about sheep, Samwell,” I repeated, clapping him on the back, “and they are so happy, I think, to have you to look after them.”

“Mother likes wool, Ryle. When sheep stay outside, they have clean wool.”

“Will your sheep stay on this piece of land, Samwell? Won’t they wander off?”

“No, Ryle. I fixed fence with Father. See, I will show you.” He did show me, and the stone wall that enclosed the section of land Sam Sparrow had given his son was in good shape, measuring some three feet high.

“That’s a sturdy wall, Samwell.”

“Father fixed most of it,” he modestly replied, but then grinned, adding, “but I carried stones too.”

I believed it for Samwell’s hands, though short, were strong.

“Where do your sheep drink, Samwell?”

“Trough in the barn, Ryle. I change water every day.”

“Samwell, I think you will become a teacher in sheep-raising and you can give lessons to all the children in Harston.”

Samwell chortled so hard that he almost fell over.


Father and Mother and I had a long talk about whether or not I was ready to leave Harston and go to Cambridge.

“I waited for you so long,” Mother complained, without looking at Father, “and now before you are sixteen you plan to leave us.”

“The boy will be home for holidays,” Father interspaced, as Mother was gearing up to say a lot more.

“Well, it wouldn’t hurt him to study with you for another year, or at least a half a year,” she pleaded. “He will probably learn much more from you than he would from all those strangers who don’t really know him.”

“Maudie,” Father tried again, “the boy needs to leave sooner or later. And the sooner he leaves, the sooner he’ll be home again.”

“That’s not true,” she countered, adding with a sober face, “Sometimes I wish that Ryle was like Samwell. Then he’d stay home.”

Father and I looked at one another in astonishment. “Maudie,” Father whispered, “you don’t really mean that. God has given each boy talents – Samwell as well as Ryle – and each must use his natural ability as best he can.”
And in my mind, I could see Samwell standing by the sheep pen, hugging the lambs and leading the animals to a salt lick. And I could hear him speak with his hands, with his five fingers. Often his sentences had just five words. “My name is Samwell Sparrow” and “He said: ‘Feed my lambs’” and, most telling of all, “Bring good news of happiness.” They all fit on his fingers, those words.

“What good news of happiness, Samwell?” I asked.

“Jesus, Ryle. Don’t you know? The good news of Jesus.” He raised the fingers of his right hand as he repeated the last five words. And then he smiled.


The upshot of the matter was that I did stay home for another six months. It was a compromise of sorts between Father and Mother. Father did continue to teach me half-days with a strong emphasis on the French I had fallen short in. I was, truth be told, happy as a lark to put off leaving. Change was not my venue. I was not adventurous and often I spent part of these my reprieve-from-Cambridge-days roaming the woodlands with Samwell. He was a good walker and we saw bitterns, red kites, kingfishers, foxes, and hedgehogs. Samwell loved animals. One such day in the late fall, he stopped.

” I show you something, Ryle?”

We were walking down a path and had just stopped to eat a sandwich. “Sure, Samwell.”

Samwell held up his left hand and counted the fingers with his right. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Again, the words numbered five and fit on his hands like a glove.

“That’s good, Samwell,” I praised. “Did your mother show you that?”

He shook his head. “No, Ryle. I showed myself.”

“Well, that’s very clever and true.”

“Can you do it too, Ryle?”

“Yes, I suppose I can.” I lifted my left hand and counted fingers with my right saying as I did so, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

“Good, Ryle,” Samwell approved. Then, aping my Father’s often used words for himself, he added, “You are a good student.”


A few weeks later we were out again. It was a day with a steady drizzle, every now and then upgrading into a firm rain. Walking proved mucky and difficult on the country paths. Stone walls guarding the side of the lanes were wet and shiny. Following along in ruts made by wagon tracks, Samwell stomped through puddles and cheerfully sang songs. He loved mizzling weather and, as he was frequently subject to colds, Sarah always made sure he wore a thick coat when he went out.

Around one particularly steep bend, we suddenly stopped. Among the small copse of apple trees we were just skirting, there was a pitiful, bleating sound. Distressful and whiny, it crept past the Kirton Pippins with their yellowish-green skins and dull red flush, slid over the wagon ruts and halted by our boots. Samwell immediately began scouting the sides of the road.

“That is a lamb, Ryle,” he told me, and I nodded.

We found the creature fairly quickly. Almost in the ditch, it was lying in a clump of wet grass. The apples suspended above the pathetic, whining sound, looked ready to be picked. Perhaps some farmer driving a flock to market and hungry for the sweet bite these apples offered, had stopped for a snack and perhaps because he was inattentive at this point, one of the lambs of his herd had been able to wander away from his protective custody.

But I was wrong in my conjecture, for it was the very smallest of lambs which Samwell scooped up in his arms, a lamb still covered in wet amniotic fluid, a lamb that had its umbilical cord still attached.
“Oh, Ryle,” he called out, even as his round face coughed into the dankness of the place, “Oh, Ryle, this is a newborn baby. But no mother!”

Samwell was almost weeping with concern. Unbuttoning his great coat, he cradled the lamb within its folds and informed me that this pretty, little ball of fleece ought not to get cold, because then it would die.


We set off at breakneck pace back towards Harston with Samwell breathing noisily and having a difficult time catching his breath. As we half-walked, half-ran, taking this path and that as we headed home, the thin shower of rain became almost negligible. A blue sky and a bright sun materialized. The lamb had stopped its mournful cries and appeared to be dozing peacefully against Samwell’s chest.

“We have to find mother, Ryle,” Samwell kept repeating as he wheezed. “We have to find her.”

Fifteen minutes into our rush back, we had wandered onto the deer park adjacent to Bitter Hall, the home of Ryker and Alice Bitter. When Samwell turned towards it, I was a little hesitant and, voicing my objections, told him of my hesitancy about walking onto their property.

Samwell, still sheltering the lamb, paid no heed. We were on the Servant’s Trail, the trail used by those employed on the estate, those who helped keep the place running. Although a section of the trail was a short-cut back to Harston, Samwell seemed intent on heading towards the estate itself.

“Ryker Bitter has ewes, Ryle. Ryker Bitter will have mother. Mother will have milk,” he panted as we headed towards the large, thatched manor house.

“But Samwell,” I pleaded with him, “Ryker Bitter may not let you into his barn. He might not like it that you are here on his property.”

We could now see the stone and timber barn that belonged to the Bitter estate and that is exactly the place towards which Samwell’s feet moved.

“I’ve visited with Father. This way, Ryle!” he called out over his shoulder. “This way!”

It was at this point that we met Jacob Crew and Daniel Shutter, two of my Father’s old pupils, and big fellows they were. Both were efficient gardeners and thatchers. Indeed, there were many in Harston who hired the pair to repair their roofs.

“Hey, there, Samwell and Ryle,” they called out in a jovial manner, carrying shovels and rakes and pushing barrows, “what brings you down here?”

Samwell stopped, coughed, smiled for a brief moment, and I explained to Jacob and Daniel what his mission was. Jacob was a little dubious and eyed the lamb reclining beneath Samwell’s coat with a certain amount of disbelief. Daniel just shook his head.

“I don’t know,” Jacob slowly worded, rubbing his chin, “I can take you into the barn and I’m quite sure there are a number of ewes who have recently lambed. Perhaps ….” He left off speaking, waved his hand, turned around and guided us towards the barn.

“Ryker’s not the easiest fellow for whom to work,” Daniel confided as he too turned and walked along with us, “but I don’t see why you can’t check the ewes. Where’s the harm in that? Nowhere, to be sure.”

With its thatched, hip roof and its white-washed stone walls, the barn was rather massive and overwhelming. As soon as we walked in through the large, double doors, a strong, musky odor hit our nostrils. Several casement windows let in a little light – only a little though, because they were dirty. Jacob maneuvered us through an initial half-dark section towards one of the wooden barricaded areas and peered over the edge.

“Well, here we are then,” Daniel said, following close at his heels and scrutinizing the pen as well, “and look at all the lambs.”

At this point Samwell breathed a huge sigh. It touched the wainscoting and landed on all the bewildered sheep huddled together in a corner.

“They are a silly-looking bunch,” Jacob commented, “and which do you suppose might suckle your little ewe lamb?”

“Not silly, Jacob,” Samwell countered. “Bright eyes and white wool. Beautiful.”

We were now, all four of us, standing next to one of the several sheep folds. It was dull in the large shed. Hay lay strewn about and we could hear pigeons cooing somewhere in the distance. At this juncture one of the mother ewes stood up and curiously approached us.

“Maybe that’s the mother,” Samwell whispered. “Maybe she’s ….”

The barn door opened and shut behind us with a bang, all within the space of a second. Samwell’s murmur dropped into the straw. Even as he stopped talking, two rough hands gripped his shoulders, turning him one hundred and eighty degrees.

“And what would you be doing in my barn, young scallywag!” It was not so much a question as it was an accusation.

Remembering this, I am still amazed that the enmity of the tone had not phased Samwell’s resolve to help the little being snuggling within his coat. “I ask for help, Ryker.”

The words fell thick and Samwell’s tongue threatened to leave the confines of his mouth. It appeared that Ryker was somewhat taken aback by this reply, for he did not immediately strike the boy as I had thought he was about to do. But then, both Jacob and Daniel were imposingly present and both, I am proud and relieved to say, stayed by the boy’s side.

“I ask for help, Ryker,” Samwell repeated, rather louder this time, his arms caressing the lamb. ” I have a new lamb. It needs milk. You have ….”

“I have nothing which you can have, Boy,” Ryker retorted.
Then he suddenly reached down into Samwell’s coat. Drawing out the small, white body hidden within that coat, he cruelly mounted it hard on the wooden gate post. The diminutive, woolly bit of lamb blatted softly. Then it piteously gasped, expiring before our eyes. Samwell fell down to his knees.

“God loves all His lambs,” he said, holding up his right hand.

Fixing his gaze on the crucified lamb, he wept. He cried as the lamb had cried, and his round head lolled on his chest. Jacob touched my shoulder and indicated that we should leave.

“The lamb’s dead anyhow,” he whispered, “and you can’t do any good here any longer. Take the lad and go.”

I bent over and took Samwell by his right upheld hand. He gazed up at me, but did not see me as his eyes were filled with tears.

“Come on, Samwell,” I urged, “let’s go home.”

And so we did. We trudged through the now foggy early evening and made for the Sparrow farm, Samwell coughing wretchedly all the way.

CHAPTER 6 – The richest man in Harston

After I had entrusted Samwell to the care of Sarah, who was quite anxious as to his shortness of breath, I set out for my own home hoping that Cora would have some hot soup and fresh bread ready, for I was cold and hungry. About an hour had transpired since Samwell’s encounter with Ryker Bitter. As I neared Hillbrook Street, a man passed me riding a horse at breakneck speed, galloping past as if his life depended on it. I was home shortly thereafter, and had my mind fixed to speak to my mother and father about what had happened.

However, I found Mr. Solls, our pastor, in the living room and did not think it proper to relate the incident in front of him. My mother served me bread and soup in front of the warmth of the hearth and I half-listened to Father and Mr. Solls discuss doctrine. I confess I almost fell asleep after I ate, so pleasantly warm was I and so worn out with the afternoon were it not for a sudden loud knocking at the door.

“Open up. I must speak with Mr. Solls.”

We could all hear the voice, an insistent voice, abrasive and intruding. Cora answered the door. Not easily put out, she nevertheless looked out of sorts and rather shaken when she announced that Ryker Bitter was insistent upon seeing Mr. Solls.

“Well, let the man in,” Father said, “for Mr. Solls is here and our guest.”

Cora did not have to walk back into the hallway to issue the invitation, for Ryker Bitter had pushed his way through the study doorway and was standing larger than life in front of all four of us – Father, Mother, myself and Mr. Solls.

“I need to ….” he began, stuttering and stammering, while wobbling on his feet, black riding boots encrusted with mud.

“What need you to do?” Father mildly remarked, ignoring Ryker’s obvious confusion and agitation.

“I need to speak with Mr. Solls, but,” Ryker jabbered, “I can speak freely in front of you all, I think. Yes, I think that I can.”

“Well, Man,” Father said, “out with it. What is it that has you so riled up?”

“I will die tonight,” Ryker babbled, drooling somewhat out of the corners of his mouth, and I wondered that the man was presently so obviously inattentive to his person, as he had so often made fun of Samwell’s outward appearance.

“Die?” Mr. Solls and Mother spoke simultaneously.

“Yes, I will die.”

“How do you know that?” This time it was Father who questioned.

“I heard God speak. Indeed, He spoke directly to me saying that I would die. And I must prepare.”

“Ryker,” this time Father spoke a little more gently, “sit down, Man! Sit down. I think you have had a dream or perhaps you’ve been drinking?” He got up and guided Ryker towards one of the cushioned armchairs, pushing him down forcibly. Appearing distracted, looking at us but not really seeing us, Ryker sat down shakily. His leather riding boots left soiled imprints on Mother’s carpet. She did not appear to notice but was staring at Ryker with great eyes.

“There was a voice,” Ryker rasped out, “and it came to me from the roof of the barn. It was a great voice, a hollow voice, and it said, ‘Ryker, tonight the richest person in Harston will die.'”
“What …?” Mother began, only to stop for she did not know what to say.

Indeed, I wouldn’t have known how to reply to such a statement either.

“I must know,” Ryker’s hoarse voice went on, “I must know how to die. You see, I don’t know how to do that.”

Mr. Solls eyed Father who raised his eyebrows and shrugged slightly. “Mr. Bitter,” Mr. Solls began, “it’s a strange tale you tell, and I must confess I rather doubt ….”

“Doubt!” Ryker wailed, and surely wailing was the correct description of the eerie sound he brought forth, “I heard the voice, Man, I heard it. It surely was meant for me.”

There was quiet for a moment, aside from the fact that Ryker was breathing hard and was hitting the knuckles of his hands on the supporting wooden sides of the chair in which he was sitting.

“Well,” Mother said purposefully, standing up suddenly, “I think I will go and get you a hot toddy, Ryker. It will relax you some.” She was out of the room in an eyeblink. Ryker made no comment.

Father coughed and Mr. Solls seemed rather uncomfortable. This seemed rather strange to me as Mr. Solls, being the pastor of our church, of all people should be comfortable with talking about God and about death. As I was thinking this, he got up, walked over to Ryker’s chair and knelt down on the carpet by his feet.

“Ryker,” he began, leaving off the Mister he had used previously, and repeating, “Ryker, you must tell us a little more. We’d like to help you but perhaps it would be beneficial if you told us exactly what happened.” Mr. Solls was in possession of a liquid voice, a fluid voice as it were, and it was soothing.

Ryker sighed deeply. “Very well,” he conceded, “I will tell you. I was in the barn, you see. That young scallywag, Samwell, he’d been by together with … well, together with your son, Mr. Harrison ….”
I exhaled rather noisily at this point although I hadn’t notice that I had been holding my breath. Ryker looked over.

“Yes, I see you Ryle, and you were there.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say. The fact is that I dearly wanted to alert Father to the truth, to the fact that Ryker had been cruel to Samwell and had killed a little lamb. But I could not formulate the words.
“Well, the young boy irritated me. Always pushy that one, with his big smiles and ….”

“I don’t think I want to hear any sort of blather about Samwell,” Father interrupted. “He is as dear to me as my own son.”

Ryker went on, almost as if he had not heard Father. “Well, after Samwell and young Harrison here left, I checked around the barn. Wanted to make sure that there was nothing missing, nothing broken and that everything was in place…. Well, it was then that I heard a breathing, a loud sort of breathing. It seemed to be coming from the center of the barn roof ¬– thereabouts anyway. I looked up to see if there were pigeons flying about or if there was a thatching problem, but there’s dim lighting in the place and it’s been a dull day, you understand, and I could see nothing amiss. And then,” and here Ryker’s voice changed, “then a voice began. ‘Ryker’ it said, and very loudly too, ‘Ryker, tonight the richest person in Harston will die.'”

Mr. Solls, who was still kneeling by the armchair, took Ryker’s right hand between his own hands. “Suppose it were true, Ryker,” he posed, “suppose that you were to die tonight. What then would happen to your soul? It’s not a bad thing for you, and for all of us, to think on. That is the truth.”

He got no further. Ryker pulled his hand away and held it up in the air even as Samwell had held his hand up. I reflected on how strange that was. Two hands and two thoughts. For even as Ryker’s eyes bulged with fear and panic, he also blurted out five words. “And what is truth exactly?”

His words hung in the air even as the lamb had hung on the wooden gate post.

“Well,” Mr. Solls responded, not exactly answering Ryker’s question directly, but raising a good point nevertheless, “to think on death is healthy because it reminds us that sooner or later we shall all meet our Maker, Ryker.”
Ryker’s hand fell down and he slumped over. “There is no cure for it. I am undoubtedly the richest person in town. So I shall die. I know it.”

Mother slipped into the room again. She carried a cup which, as she told us later, contained a sleeping draught. She passed it to Mr. Solls, who gently, with the assistance of Father, helped Ryker sit up. He drank the liquid almost greedily and then leaned his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. Within minutes he was asleep.


It was only an hour or so later that the doorbell rang again. Ryker was still sleeping. The lamp lights had been turned off around him and there was darkness where his chair stood. This time Cora let Sam Sparrow into the room – Sam, the father of Samwell and husband of Sarah.

“I came to tell you,” he grieved, and his voice fell onto the soiled imprints that Ryker’s boots had left on the carpet, “that our Samwell’s years have come to an end like a sigh. The favor of the Lord rested upon him. His wheel has broken at the cistern and his spirit has returned to God Who gave it.”

All three pictures are by Havilah Farenhorst, a granddaughter of the author.

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Amazing stories from times past

Four days in the life of Albert Tenfold

What you'll find below is a Reformed Perspective tradition that started back in the winter of 1991 – 31 years ago! Each year since then, at year's end, and just in time for Christmas holiday reading, Christine Farenhorst has gifted us with a longer short story, and what follows below is her latest edition. We've also included links to reviews we've done for seven of Christine's books, so that when you're finished, you'll know where to go to find even more of Christine's stories. “I’m going out tonight” "Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have..." Albert always felt slightly uncomfortable reading this passage. He ran his hand over the thin paper of his Bible page and cleared his throat. "What's the matter? Do you have a sore throat?" "No, mother." His mother sat across from him, regal and straight, in the red, high-backed plush chair that had been his stepfather's. She peered at him through her bifocals. "Shouldn't let your thoughts wander, Albert." He cleared his throat again and continued to read. "...should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband." His mother's voice picked up where he had left off. They took turns reading two verses each after meals. He regarded her for a moment as she read, ring-fingered hands resting in her lap. It was one of the few moments he could observe her without her knowledge. Her rather coarse face had an equally coarse voice. Loud it was, and monotonous to the point of dull. She hadn't gone to school here, so perhaps the English.... But then, come to think of it, when she read in Dutch there was no inflection either. The voice was always flat and without feeling. Her gray, rheumy eyes suddenly met his. "Albert, where are your thoughts tonight? Verse five, child." He found the place and read on. "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent...." As he read, his thoughts smoothed out, smoothed out ridges which he occasionally tripped over and when he later breathed the words: "for it is better to marry than to burn with passion...," he was able to keep his mind on Paul without focusing on the lack of passion in his own life – a passion he occasionally desired. **** Before Albert cleared the table, he helped his mother to the couch. "Do you want the paper? Or shall I turn on the television for you?' She shook her head to both questions. "I'm a bit tired, son. I think I'll have a small nap while you do the dishes. In that way I'll be fresh for Scrabble when Mrs. Dorman comes later. Be sure to set out the cups for tea and the cookies..." He stopped the avalanche of words with "I know, mother. I know." There was a certain resignation in his voice as he pulled the afghan over her body but a thin thread of irritation unraveled in his hands and a sudden clumsiness overtook them. **** Christine serves up biographies of six very different men: Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Rembrandt, Samuel Morse, Freud, Norman Rockwell. Click the cover for our review. In the kitchen Paul's words swam about as Albert placed the dishes in the sink. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion..." Had Paul known more about passion than he did? Had Paul been married? Had he taken a wife with him on his missionary journeys? Or a mother? If Paul had had his mother... He suddenly grinned at the suds but then became serious. What did he, Albert, know about marriage anyway? His expertise lay in being single. He scrubbed at the potato pan with vigor and frustration. The small kitchen surrounded him with apathy. There was nothing new. Coffee mugs hung on a small rack in the same way that they had hung for years and years. A birthday calendar, with numerous Dutch aunts and uncles enshrined on separate dates, hung beside it. The white refrigerator stood squarely and the patterned tiles on the floor reflected cleanliness and care. The wooden plaque on the wall spoke to him in Peter's voice. "Cast all your care upon Him for He careth for you." "But what are my cares, Peter?" Albert questioned the apostle out loud and repeated: "What are my cares?" "What's that, Albert? I can't hear you." "Nothing, mother. Just go to sleep." "I'm sure I heard you say something." "No, mother." He folded the dish towel over the rack and walked into the living room. "Are you sure you didn't say something, Albert?" "Yes." He stood in the middle of the room, undecided as to what to do. "Sit down, son, and read the paper." "I'm going out tonight, mother." "Out? But Mrs. Dorman..." "She's your friend, mother. She's coming to play Scrabble with you." "But you always play with us. She..." "I'm going out tonight, mother." His voice was firm. "Where are you going?" She half sat up, reaching for her bifocals on the side table. "I'm going out." It was all Albert could manage. "But..." "You'll be all right. And I'll be home in good time." He was out in the hall before she could formulate a reply. ''Albert?" Opening the closet door, he took his coat off a hanger. "Albert?" Her voice was growing in intensity. "I'll see you later, mother." The door handle felt cold under his hand and the hinges squeaked. "Albert?" It was more of a shout this time and he shut the door firmly, feeling both guilt and relief. Into the night Albert Tenfold lived on the fifth floor of a high-rise apartment building with his widowed mother. He was thirty-five and she was seventy. His stepfather had died when he was a teenager. Cast into the mold of male provider at an early age, he had never really been young. Fiercely dependent, his mother had leaned on him heavily, and he had settled under the weight. To the outward eye, they were a model family - a stalwart son providing constant love and care for an aging, frail mother. And it had seemed that way to Albert also - had seemed that way until this last month. Perhaps because he was rapidly approaching his thirty-sixth birthday, he had been doing some thinking. Ten years from now he would be forty-five, almost forty-six, and his mother would be eighty and then, ten years later, he would be in his mid-fifties and she would be ninety. Unless she died - but somehow he could not envisage his mother dead - even though deep down he sometimes wished it. He would be her son forever, her son and not someone's husband. And then guilt would flood over him like a wave of hot wind and he would break out into a sweat. How could he be thinking such thoughts? The hall was empty. As he plodded heavily towards the elevator, Albert awkwardly buttoned up his coat. It had all been very well to tell his mother that he was going out, but the truth was that he had no inkling as to where he would go. He had few friends - few friends outside his mother's circle, that is. There were a great many Mrs. Dormans; widows who delighted in visiting back and forth; who excelled in speaking of rheumatism and the weather; and who always commented on how fortunate his mother was to have him. The elevator had brought him down to the first floor. He legged it towards the front door. It was raining outside and he stood for a moment, contemplating the sidewalk through the heavy glass panels. He could possibly go to the library. As he resolutely opened the entrance, both the sound of the rain and the fresh air comforted him. Raindrops were a sound he had always enjoyed. Sighing deeply, he pulled up his collar and struck out. It was quiet outside and almost dark. The faint glow of streetlights reflected and trembled in the puddles. He wished he were going somewhere - somewhere where someone was waiting for him. It began to rain harder as he passed Mary's Dome, the large Roman Catholic cathedral. Although he had quickened his step with the downpour, he stopped for a moment to contemplate the cathedral’s colossal size and grandeur through the sheets of rain. Stone arches glistened in their wetness. He suddenly shivered and coveted shelter. Perhaps he could sit inside for a while. Just until the rain stopped. Turning, he climbed the stone steps which led to massive wooden doors. Gingerly pressing down on a wrought-iron door-handle, he pushed. As the door creaked heavily, an aperture appeared and Albert stepped inside. Flickering candles The cathedral foyer was dark and smelled slightly musty. Behind him the massive wood fell heavily into place, the sound echoing and re-echoing. Hesitantly he walked on through the foyer into the lighted sanctuary. It was huge compared to that of his own church - and comparatively quiet. There people talked and whispered behind their hands when they walked in. They rustled bulletins and took out peppermints. But perhaps because there were so few people here... He inhaled the quiet and relaxed. Three or four people were present in the front pews, heads bowed and silent, praying, as far as he could tell. Albert stood for a moment and then slowly made his way toward the middle of the church, sliding into a seat on his left. The pew was small - almost too small for his bulk. He grinned to himself. What would his mother say? Or his ward elder? Or Mr. DeVries, his employer and an avid commentator on false churches? After a while the quiet had embraced him to such a degree that he felt as if time had stopped. Did it matter to God whether you sat in a Reformed church or a Roman Catholic one? Of course it did, he knew that. But it was raining proverbial cats and dogs outside and the state of one's heart, was that not what God considered? He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his face dry. If a church happened to be on your way in a rainstorm and that church was Roman Catholic, well then... Well then, what? It certainly was peaceful here. He cautiously examined the stained-glass windows on his right. Impressive and grand, they made the raindrops outside them glow with color through the matted glass as they danced their way down in rivulets. He shifted his frame somewhat and his foot knocked against a wooden slat beneath the pew in front of him. He contemplated the kneeling bench with interest. Padded with red leather, it appeared comfortable. He glanced about again. There was no one present except the few worshippers at the front and the only one staring at him directly as he peered about was a statue of Mary in the aisle next to him. Clad in a sky-blue stone robe, she eyed him serenely. Cautiously he slid his knees onto the padded red leather and bowed his head. "Our Father..." He could not recall ever before having knelt for prayer in church. He did kneel for prayer when he went to bed. It is not a matter of knees or kneeling, the minister had told them in catechism, but a matter of the heart. And yet, kneeling always made his heart more submissive. Was it submissive now? So many thoughts.... Could you be submissive with so many thoughts running around in your head? "Hallowed be Thy name..." There was a strange smell here. It reminded him of... What was it? Christmas was the time when mother brought out the candles. It was the scent of sweet tallow. Mary's statue, just ahead of him in the center aisle, had a number of candles in front of it. Several of them were burning. Luther had knelt in such churches and so had Calvin. But he was neither a Luther nor a Calvin. Imagine people four centuries from now saying that they were Tenfoldian or Tenfoldistic. He ran his hand over the wood in front of him. The grain was smooth. Sometimes he was not even sure of the truth he stood for. Was the truth always smooth? He went to church, had gone to a Christian school, read the Bible at mealtimes and before he went to bed, prayed at set times and was able to recite a fair number of the catechism questions and answers. Did those matters encompass the truth? And if he heard a lie, would he be able to detect it? He sighed. All of life, all of life... was it not one confrontation after another? Were simple problems not large ones in miniature? And each spoken word... Were you not judged for it? "Thy kingdom come..." Most times, he admitted to himself as he shifted his knees on the red leather, he had no thoughts of God's kingdom at all. There were only the day-by-day affairs of coping with small things, of pleasing his mother and of doing his work properly for Mr. DeVries. "Thy kingdom come...." He moved his body back up onto the bench again and rubbed his knees. In heaven there would be no marriage. The statue of Mary smiled at him benignly. The Roman Catholics believed that she was immaculate, pure, undefiled; and that she had never had relations with her husband Joseph. The figure certainly seemed flawless. There was one thing he had never doubted about her and that was that she surely must have loved her Son. But then, Jesus would have been easier to love than an Albert. Contemplating the statue, he began to whisper confidentially. "I know that you were highly favored, but you were human - you did have sin." Mary kept on smiling. A dozen candles shone brightly at her feet. He imagined lighting candles at his mother's feet, imploring her to intercede, begging her to help with some problem. Did candles have to be made of tallow? Did he not often light candles at his mother's feet in other ways? Did he not do it by always deferring to her and conceding that she was right; by asking if he might do this or that; by permitting her to take a role that somehow made him weak and ineffective, even though it seemed to all the world that he was the provider and the man of the house. Tonight was actually the first time that he could recall that he had actually done something without asking her permission. He regarded the statue again. The sky-blue of the robe was peaceful and Mary’s eyes were pensive, as if she was thinking deeply. But there was a hair-line crack along the folds of her stone robe. He knelt down again on the leather and rested his forehead against the pew in front of him. He did love his mother. Hadn't he taken care of her all these years? Perhaps, perhaps he just didn't like her. Did she love him? Had she reason to not love him? His forehead rubbed against the smooth wood and slipped just a bit as sweat trickled past his eyebrows. He could not recall that she had ever said, “I love you, Albert.” There had been phrases like “I'm proud of you, Albert,” when he had graduated from college, and if he donated money to the church or Christian school, she would say, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver,” but that was about as close... “You are a priest, then?” A slight noise to his right startled him. He raised his head and saw a woman standing by Mary's statue. She fumbled with her purse and Albert watched her take out a wallet, fish out and fold a ten-dollar bill before depositing it into a slot. She made the sign of the cross and lit two of the candles. Hunching down, her clasped hands almost touching the carpet, she was evidently praying. Her blue raincoat dripped water onto the carpet staining bright red. He watched her for a long time. She was motionless but he could see that her lips were moving. What petition, he wondered, was worth ten dollars? What question so burned her heart that she had to kneel down on a faded, red carpet in front of a lifeless statue? Had Eli watched Hannah in this manner? She rose and turned and he could see that there were tears in her eyes. Ashamed to be watching, he bowed his head down on the pew wood again. "...a rare treasure, a must for all parents!" click the cover for the rest of our review. "Excuse me. Could you tell me what time it is?” He opened his eyes. The woman was standing by his side. "I'm sorry to bother... to bother you." She stuttered a bit in embarrassment and he pulled up his coat sleeve to check his watch. "That's all right. It's a quarter after nine." "Thank you." Her blue raincoat was still shiny with rain and black hair curled damply around an oval face. She was fairly young. He would guess her to be around twenty-four or five. "Are you the... the priest?" She looked at him rather anxiously and he wondered if he had put on his collar backwards. The statue of Mary silhouetted behind her and compassion overcame him for her misplaced faith. "The priest?" "Yes... He was to meet me at nine. I thought... thought that you ...?" Clearly, within the chambers of his mind, he heard Peter's words, "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him Who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light." The girl continued to stare at him. Her dark blue eyes were pensive and he smiled at them. "I'm not the priest. That is to say, I'm not the priest you're looking for." "Oh, but you are a priest then?" "Well..." He looked for words to explain to her that as a believer he reflected the glory of God and... His thoughts got no further. "If you're not busy, maybe you have time to speak to me for a moment?" He saw the statue smiling at her back and got a whiff of the tallow. "I'm not Roman Catholic." For a small moment looking into her dark, blue eyes, he was sorry he was not. The girl blinked and took a step backwards. "You're not?" He shook his head. "No, I'm sorry if my being here misled you." "You were praying." She said it defensively. He felt a trifle foolish and stood up. "I came in out of the rain. It's very peaceful here. Yes, I was praying." "I'm not Roman Catholic either." She suddenly smiled up at him and he could see strong, irregular, white teeth. "Oh?" "If you were praying," she was earnest again, "maybe you know about God... about prayer…?” “You might be a king, but…” Albert Tenfold had led a very structured life. It had been drilled into him that organization and discipline were next to godliness. When he was growing up, his mother had always made sure that he had porridge for breakfast, drank milk with his lunch and went to bed at a set time after dinner. Christian grade and high school were givens and catechism lessons a must. There were always two services to attend every Sunday, regular Young People's meetings, and occasional youth rallies. After he had made a public confession of his faith at age seventeen, he had tithed, celebrated the Lord's Supper every two months and attended study weekends on various Bible topics. "About God...?" he answered the girl slowly. "About prayer?" She nodded at him. During his entire thirty-five years of Christian living, Albert had never been confronted with questions of this sort by anyone outside of his church circle, and they hung in front of him like an unused banner. He played for time. "Do you want to go for a coffee and talk for a while?" She considered him for a long moment and he wondered if she felt that this cathedral was a safe place, a place where strangers could be approached without fear. "I'd talk here but it's just that..." He stopped abruptly and made a small gesture towards the front pews with his head. There were still some people there and Albert's whisper carried. "Sure, I'll go for a coffee." Turning her back on the statue, she walked down the aisle ahead of him and he followed. **** 74 short stories make for great devotionals with your kids! Click the cover for our review. The rain had eased off considerably. There was a smell of sweetness in the air and in the distance a dog barked. "What's your name?" She asked the question almost as soon as they reached the pavement. "Albert. What's yours?" "Victoria, but my friends call me Vicky." He grinned. "Why are you laughing?" "Albert and Victoria." She looked at him blankly. "You know," he explained, "the king and queen of England." She grinned too. "Well, you might be a king but I'm not exactly a queen." He awkwardly offered her his arm as she gingerly edged past a puddle on the sidewalk. She took it lightly. He barely noted her touch. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that her hand was small and that her fingers had well-rounded, clean nails. He could not help but think of how his mother would cling to him in this sort of weather. His mother who always wore gloves. Her voice bounced off the sidewalk now and he heard her command clearly within the chambers of his mind. "Your arm, Albert! Give me your arm!" He sighed and quickened his step. She looked up at him questioningly. "You probably have other things to do, right? Actually you don't..." He didn't let her finish. "No, no. I'm sorry if I've given you the impression that ... that I'm not enjoying myself." He finished the sentence rather lamely and almost blushed. **** The coffee shop was crowded and the noisy atmosphere fell about them like an intrusion. They stood in line for a while behind one another, not speaking, studying the pastry behind the glass. "I'll pay for my own." She spoke curtly and avoided looking at him. "No, please..." He didn't really know what to say but went on hesitatingly. "I'd be honored to pay for your coffee and..." "Maybe," and she interrupted in a low voice, "maybe you won't be honored after we talk." He felt unsure suddenly. Maybe this girl was a prostitute; maybe she had committed a murder; maybe... He got no further with his thoughts. "Can I help you, sir?" "A glazed donut, please, and a coffee." "To go?" "No, we'll eat here." Vicky ordered the same and allowed him to pay. “Sometimes, you want to redo time…” Providentially there was an empty table by a window. It had begun to rain again and the sound eased the tension between them. Albert stirred his coffee and wondered how to begin the conversation. But he didn't have to. "Do you still want me to talk to you?" she said. He looked at her. She was fingering her donut without eating it. Damp hair clung to her forehead. "Yes, of course... but if you'd rather not…" His spoon sploshed some coffee over the side of his cup and she reached for a napkin from the holder on the table. "Oh, I'd like to talk to someone. Actually I have to talk to someone or..." She stopped and rubbed the brown puddle on the table fiercely, small fingers white with the pressure. "Well," he said, matter of factly, "well, I'm here and at your service." She took a small sip of her coffee, smiled nervously at him and began. "A year ago I was a student at the university here in town. I was enrolled in Political Studies..." She lifted her coffee with both hands and stared out the window. He waited. He didn't have to wait long. She no longer seemed to be speaking to him but, considering her reflection in the window, addressed it. "I resented most things... rich people, styrofoam, male chauvinists, acid rain and apartheid. I joined Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Amnesty International and talked about a lot of things without really understanding any of them. I said that I was an agnostic and I was flattered when I raised eyebrows." She paused for breath, put down her cup and crumbed off a piece of her donut. Not eating it, but turning it over in her hand, she went on. "All my friends were saying the same sort of things. One of them... One of them..." She picked up her coffee, sipped again and returned to her reflection in the window. "To make a long story short... Well, I became pregnant... The father was someone I hardly knew... and the baby I conceived was just another thing I didn't really understand." Albert had been watching her face. He had been listening to the sound of her voice thinking that it didn't really fit in the story. She had a child's voice and her hands were a child's hands. "The group I hung around with all advised me to go for an abortion. So I did what was expected of me. I scheduled an appointment for an abortion at a health clinic." Albert sat up straighter and took a bite out of his donut. His heartbeat increased and he felt sweat trickle down his armpits. "But my friends... they suggested that I try a new abortion technique. It was a drug. So I... I looked into it. There was a special clinic and it was close to where I lived. I went to it." **** Some people passed their table and Vicky stopped talking. She gulped down some of her coffee and coughed. Albert cleared his throat. He racked his brain for Biblical texts - prayed for some homily to come to him which he might deliver here at this coffee shop which would relieve the tension and which would both teach error and convey compassion. "I... There was a staff." Vicky seemed not to notice his discomfort. Engulfed in the past, her voice kept on confessing. "They examined me and had me sign two documents. One was a release form and one was a government something or other. Then a nurse came and she had this small suitcase. She explained things... like how this drug would work. I didn't understand it all but didn't let on. I was scared." Albert took another bite of his donut. It tasted bland and he had trouble swallowing it. "Was I sure I wanted to go ahead? That's what the nurse asked. And I said, yes... yes, I was sure. And then she opened the suitcase and gave me a small box. There were three pills in the box, just three little pills. She brought me a glass of water and then I... I swallowed those pills. Just like that... just like that." Her voice broke and Albert took a swallow of his coffee and cleared his throat again. Vicky pushed her donut towards the center of the table and picked up her napkin. "Sometimes you want to redo time, to relive just one moment. Have you ever had that?" She turned her face to him fully for the first time and he noted that her eyes were blue with small flecks of green in them. He answered slowly. "I've had that. Yes... I've had that lots of times. It's because we continually do things that we regret later. We always..." "Yes," she interrupted, "but what if the thing you do is so..." She stopped again and then went on. "The pills made me sick. I had cramps, nausea and diarrhea and I bled... I just bled and bled. I phoned the clinic and they told me not to worry but I felt so ghastly. I could barely get out of bed to make it to the bathroom. There was so much pain and I couldn't focus properly. I finally phoned for an ambulance. They came and took me to the hospital." "Did you... Had you..." Albert couldn't help but ask, "Had you lost the baby?" She stared at him with her blue eyes. "Lost it? You don't understand. If you lose something... Well, you can maybe find it later. I failed to abort with the pill but it had done the job. The child in me was dead and, as a result, I had to have a surgical abortion and... And during that surgical abortion my uterus was punctured. There was infection, a bad infection, and then I had a hysterectomy." "Oh." It was all Albert could manage. He played with his cup and noted that it had stopped raining. Were these the words Vicky had prayed to Mary? Was this what her silent lips had been speaking of to a mere statue? Had she lit a candle to atone for murder? He shivered. “I have to apologize to someone” "They didn't tell me that I would be feeling such guilt. No one ever mentioned the fact that I would feel such a..." She stopped and tried again. "No one explained. You see, I know for a fact that it was a child... not just a nothing... and I killed this child... my child. My friends didn’t understand when I tried to explain how I felt... and I was so lost." “Your family..." Albert got no further than two words. She laughed. "I have no family. That is, my mother died when I was seven and my father is living with wife number four. I haven't been home for years and don't plan to go there now." "Oh." Again, it was all Albert was able to say. How would his mother react to a Vicky? "Mother, may I introduce you to Vicky. She just had an abortion and is feeling a little down." "I... I realize that whatever it was that I was trying to be or say last year and before that, was a fraud - was not real. But I know that there is something real. There has to be! And I'm trying to find it. So I wanted to ask the priest about God and then he wasn't there. But you were there." **** There are 9 short stories here, and “I was a Stranger” is reason enough to pick it up. Click the cover for our review. Albert was suddenly calm. "You see," she went on, staring out of the window again, "if there is nothing, then I wouldn't be able to live. I... I... I don't know if you understand, but I have to be able to apologize to someone for... for killing this baby." There was a sudden clap of thunder outside and the rain resumed with thick drops splattering the sidewalk. Vicky shivered. Albert began to speak. Cautiously his voice crept across the table. "I think I understand what you mean," he said. "Can I tell you something about myself - something I haven't told... something I have never told anyone." He stopped. She turned her eyes towards him. He could read neither approval nor disapproval in them. "Sure." Her passionate voice had become flat. It had turned bland, disappointed perhaps. Maybe she wanted a quick answer. But he wouldn't be able to answer quickly. He looked her full in the face. "It isn't easy for me to speak actually. I'm more of a doer than a speaker." She didn't respond and he went on hesitantly, choosing his words with care. "I was born during the first year of the war. We lived in a small village somewhere in the north of Holland. I don't remember much." His hands crumpled the napkin he was holding. "It’s funny, the things that I do remember though. Things like the creaking of the cradle I must have slept in; things like a horse pulling the milk cart passing our house every morning. My mother says that my first word was horse." He looked at her, waiting for some sort of response, but there was none. And his intuition told him that she wasn't really listening because the words meant nothing to her, nothing at all. But he went on all the same. “My father had a good job. He was a lawyer, a very good lawyer my mother tells me. He conducted a lot of business and people liked him very much. When the war came, he helped people. He helped Jews in particular. The strange thing is that I don't remember my father's face but I do remember that he was tall, very tall. Perhaps I remember that because he used to throw me up into the air and catch me in his arms." “My heart accused me…” Vicky was still not reacting to his story at all. If anything, she was slightly uncomfortable. But Albert persisted. "During the first years of the war my father lived at home. He was not suspected by the Germans of any subterfuge even though he was involved in the underground. His specialty had something to do with illegal documents. But later on he had to leave our house and go into hiding. My mother and I only saw him on those few occasions that he deemed it safe to come for a short visit. On one of those visits the Gestapo must have been tipped off because shortly after he arrived they surrounded our house. My mother was frantic and father hid behind a secret panel in the living room. When they came into the house a moment later, she and I were in the kitchen. They didn't ask where he was but simply began searching." Albert stopped and stretched his legs under the table. He wasn't looking for a reaction in Vicky's eyes anymore. He had actually almost forgotten she was there. "And then... What happened then?" Her voice called him back and he saw that she had become genuinely interested. "Then? Well, miracle of miracles, they didn't find him." He stopped and stretched his legs again. "What was the point of telling me that story?" "The point? I'm still coming to that. You see, after their combing of our entire house, one of the officers hunched down by me, small boy of three that I was, and began to play with me. He had a chocolate bar in his pocket and even though my mother frowned, I took it when he gave it to me. He helped me unwrap the candy and I began to eat... and all the while my mother was glaring. But it tasted wonderful and the man seemed so friendly. When he took me on his lap a moment later, I completely ignored my mother and freely smiled at him. He joked with me and then asked if maybe my father was maybe playing hide and seek. I laughed out loud, greatly amused that he would ask such a question. He laughed too and asked where my father, who must be very clever indeed, might be hiding. I slid off his lap, walked into the living room and stood by the panel. When they discovered my father a few moments later, I remember that I did not feel quite right about it but didn't really understand why. When I ran to my mother for comfort, she spat in my face. Then they... they took him out into our yard and shot him, right in front of the house. The soldier who had given me the chocolate said, 'Danke schön,' bowed to my mother and myself, and left. He was mocking us. Afterwards, my mother made me go out to look at the dead body of my father... and I screamed and screamed until the neighbors came and took me away." "You didn't mean it," Vicky said. "You didn't know what you were doing. You were only a little child." "Yes," Albert answered thickly, "you are right. I was only a child." The thunder rolled in the distance and Vicky's eyes were sympathetic when she said, "How did you... How did you manage? What did your mother...?" "She... I lived with the neighbors until the end of the war. She didn't want... me." "Oh." She drummed her fingers along the table edge and regarded Albert seriously. "You were praying in church. You told me that you were praying. So, what did you do with your guilt? Or, didn't you pray when you were little? Or, what I'm trying to say is how did you deal with the fact that you caused...?" 7 stories from the 2 World Wars. Click on the cover for our review. She stopped abruptly. He smiled at her. The fact that he now felt forgiven for the death he had caused did not make it any easier to speak of this time. "No one really spoke to me about my father's death. The neighbors were very kind. But as I grew older I felt, also because of what other children said to me at school, that I was solely responsible for the fact that my mother was a widow. When my mother remarried in 1946 I had been living with her again for about a year and my stepfather made plans to emigrate to Canada. We never spoke of my own father. As I grew older my mind told me that I had only been an ignorant child during the war, but my heart accused me of murder every day. We went to church, yes, and we read the Bible." Vicky's eyes were wide with affinity. Albert went on. "What finally saved me from this terrible guilt feeling, Vicky, was the fact that God allowed me to see that He was totally in control of all things." He was quiet and for a moment saw himself earlier that evening, kneeling in the pew. He had been thinking about truth, the truth that God controlled one's life, the truth that God's tender, loving control had always drawn him with cords woven throughout everyday life. Vicky continued to look at him and he went on. "God was in control of my father's life. He had stipulated when and where my father would die. And, I was also led to see that, but for my father's death, I would not have been as drawn to study the Bible so thoroughly to investigate the mighty God I worship, the God Who forgives when we are truly sorry." Vicky stared at him unblinkingly. He wondered if she had understood what he was saying. "I think that if you are looking for God, Vicky," he finally ended, "it's safe to say that He is making you look, that He has used this very tragic thing that has happened to you, this abortion, to make you look for Him." “I can tell you where to look” A waitress stopped by their table. "How is everything with you folks? Anything else you need?" "No, thank you." Albert was quick to answer but then amended, "Maybe you would like some more coffee, Vicky?" "No, no thank you." Her voice was thin and lifeless. The tables around them were almost empty. The waitress smiled. "All right. We'll be closing soon. It's after eleven." Albert glanced at his watch. He imagined that his mother would be livid by now. He took out the small notepad and pen he kept in his pocket and jotted down his church address. "I can't give you faith, Vicky. I can't give you forgiveness either. But I can tell you where to look for it." "I know God is there." Vicky whispered the words. "I know... but I don't know how I know." "Do you have a Bible?" "Yes, I bought one last week." "Then you must read it every day." The lights in the restaurant dimmed and they automatically stood up. The rain had let up again. "I'll walk you home." "No, no... I live very close by." "Well, then it shouldn't be a problem." "No, no... please, I need time to think and be by myself. Thanks." The waitress eyed them impatiently as they walked past her to the door. "Thanks again, Albert." "Goodnight, Vicky." He watched her walk away, small and slight in a coat the color of her eyes, and felt some pain. “It’s your mother…” In the elevator ride up to the fifth floor, Albert rehearsed what he would say when he walked in. There was no doubt in his mind that his mother would still be awake. "Albert?!" "Yes, mother." "Where were you all evening?" "Out with a girl, mother. She'd had an abortion and felt rather miserable. So I took her to a coffee shop and tried to tell her about the forgiveness we can have in Christ." He contemplated the elevator buttons and continued his conversation. "Do you know about forgiveness, mother? You don't, do you?" "Albert, what kind of way is that to speak to your mother?" "Sorry, mother, but I had to say it sooner or later. Even though God forgave me for inadvertently causing father's death you never let me forget that I made you a widow. You never let me forget that I was the one who..." The elevator had reached the fifth floor. The hall was quiet and Albert's inward voice dissolved. **** He took out his keys as he walked towards the apartment. They jangled and he stifled a yawn, hoping against hope that his mother would, after all, be asleep. Before he could fit his key into the lock, however, the apartment door opened. Mrs. Dorman stared up at him. "Albert, you're finally home." "Yes, but what are you still doing here, Mrs. Dorman?" "Your mother, Albert... It's your mother." "What about my mother? What's the matter with her?" They were still standing in the doorway and he moved past the small, dark woman into the apartment. "Maybe you should sit down before..." "What's the matter with my mother, Mrs. Dorman?" "She felt ill, Albert. She had a pain in her chest. So I called an ambulance..." "Yes?" A strange feeling came over him. "They came within five minutes of my calling and the attendant said that it was her heart." He stared at Mrs. Dorman. The woman was nervously twisting her hands together. "It was a heart attack, Albert. I rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital. They took her to intensive care. But before they took her there I promised that I would come back to the apartment and wait for you." "Thank you, Mrs. Dorman. That was kind of you." "Are you going down to the hospital now?" She looked at him, her eyes wide and helpless. His mother was her best friend. "Yes, I will and I'll phone you in the morning to let you know how things are." "Thank you, Albert. Thank you." She walked towards the door and then turned. "Wasn't it too bad that you were out just tonight of all nights?" "Yes. Goodnight, Mrs. Dorman." **** After he closed the door behind her, Albert walked into the living room. A just-begun Scrabble game lay on the table. The words apple, tax and problem stared up at him - three words made by his mother and Mrs. Dorman. He ran his fingers through the word “problem” and then tilted the board, emptying the letters back into the Scrabble box. Maybe his mother had already felt ill when he had left. She had looked just a bit off color. He closed the box and sighed. A great weariness crept over him. But greater than the weariness was the feeling that he had failed somewhere - again. He sat down and cupped his face with his hands. If he was really honest with himself he had to admit that he had no great affection for his mother. “Honor your father and mother - which is the first commandment with a promise - that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” He didn't really know at this precise moment whether or not he had honored his mother. Holding him with invisible ropes as it were, she had made him aware of the past in innumerable ways. The small clearing of her throat, for example, when the minister read the sixth commandment. It had always made him edgy, nervous, countless times as a child, and still caused him to squirm. Not because God had not forgiven him, but because she had not. He sighed again and slowly stood up. Better go to the hospital and see how things were. “Forgetting what is behind…” It was still raining when he drove the car through the streets not five minutes later. The windshield wipers beat a soft rhythm and the quiet of the hour calmed him somewhat. He could not stop thinking about his mother's life. She had been happy, as far as he could tell, with his stepfather. His stepfather had been a good husband, a kind father, a gentle and hard-working man. But his mother had always been reserved, had always held back. Albert could not remember that he had ever seen her kiss his stepfather. Neither had she ever kissed her son for that matter. He could not remember either, that she had ever sung spontaneously or laughed genuinely at something silly. On the other hand, she had always cooked good meals, had provided adequate clothing and had kept the house very neat. She had led an ordered existence, an ordered existence that would now, he went on to think, maybe come to an end. What could he say to her as she lay on her hospital bed? If he could never speak to her again but this one time, what was it he should say to this woman who had, after all, borne him in her belly for nine months and who must, it seemed to him, have harbored some love for him. But he could not feel that love as he sat in the car and drove through the dark. **** The streets were deserted but he stopped punctually at every red light, playing for time, having no particular desire to get to the hospital quickly. He thought of Vicky - a compassionate, young woman who had wept because she had killed her unborn child. Perhaps Vicky had more compassion for her dead child than his mother had ever had for him. No, that was a ridiculous thought, an unfair thought. He rubbed his forehead with his right hand and, returning it to the steering wheel, found it wet with sweat. He should not be unfair. What was it he had said to Vicky? Nothing, he had said, nothing is outside of God's control. God had used the tragedy in his life to make him realize just how dependent he was on God. What was it the minister had preached on last Sunday? Oh yes, forget what is behind and strain toward the goal for which God has called us. Another red light - he brought the car to a slow stop. His mother had been unable to forget what lay behind her. They had never really talked about his father and what had happened - never. Would they be able to talk about it now? If they talked about it, would she be able to forget - to forgive? Was it hampering her road to heaven? He should have talked to her at some point. The light turned green. He stepped on the gas and began to drive faster. Was it not also true that, if she had maintained a grudge against him all these years, he had also nurtured a grudge against her? He drove through the next red light. **** The hospital entrance was quiet. The glass doors opened silently under his push. "Can I help you, sir?" The nurse at the desk looked efficient. "My mother was admitted earlier this evening - a heart attack. I've just heard and now...." "What's your mother's name?" "Drooger." She consulted her book and peered up at him from her swivel chair. "She's in intensive care, sir. Fourth floor. You'll have to ask at the desk there." "Thank you." He walked on towards the elevator. “Perhaps it was a blessing” The fourth floor corridor had a red carpet - red, the color of blood. He walked over it quickly and with some trepidation. Two nurses presided at the desk. They both looked up at him and smiled. "Yes?" A unique look at Luther and his times - click the cover for our review. "My mother was admitted earlier this evening with a heart attack. I understand she's in intensive care." He eyed the double doors behind their desk to the intensive care unit with some degree of dislike. They appeared so grim, grey and dismal, as if they only let in and not out. "Your mother's name, sir?" "Drooger." He spoke with some impatience. "Drooger?" "Yes." There was some hesitation on the nurses' part before one of them responded, "Could you wait in the waiting room, sir? I'll ring for the doctor on call to speak with you." "The doctor?" He spoke cautiously, tripping over the word. "Why must I speak with the doctor? I just want to..." "He'll be with you directly. You can sit down over there, sir." They indicated a small lounge behind the desk and smiled at him. "All right." He walked towards the lounge, clumsily scuffing his feet on the red carpet, uncomfortably aware that both nurses were eyeing him behind his back. **** There were three brown chairs and a leather couch. Indecisively he stood for a moment and then sank down heavily into one of the chairs. The table sported magazines - colorful editions featuring smiling men and ladies. The clock on the wall told him it was 12:01. He picked up one of the magazines and then laid it back down. "Mr. Drooger?" A young man had materialized at the entrance of the lounge. Albert stood up. "My name is Tenfold, Albert Tenfold. Mrs. Drooger is my mother." "Please, remain seated. I'd just like to speak with you a moment." "My mother..." Albert was afraid to phrase the question. The young man came closer and bending down, offered his hand. "I'm Dr. Ellis." "Glad to meet you." Dr. Ellis sat down on one of the other chairs and Albert waited. "Your mother was admitted around nine o'clock this evening. I happened to be on duty and so I attended her." "It was a heart attack?" Albert began searching out the pieces of the puzzle that lay between him and a finished picture - pieces that the doctor held. "Yes," Dr. Ellis nodded and queried, "You live in town?" "I live at home with my mother. I was not there tonight when she became ill." Albert's voice was meticulous and short. "Ah." "My mother..." Albert began again. "Yes, your mother did have a heart attack." It was now 12:05. The clock, Albert thought, seemed to move faster than this young man. "How is my mother?" Dr. Ellis reached out a thin and long hand and placed it on Albert's knee. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tenfold. Your mother passed away about an hour ago." Albert sat very still. The doctor removed his hand and regarded him solicitously. "Is there something I can get for you - a coffee?" "No, no, thank you." "It may sound callous, Mr. Tenfold, but perhaps it was a blessing. You see, it was a massive heart attack. There had been extensive damage - several organs were not functioning anymore." "May I see her? May I see the body?" “Perhaps milk and honey” The room in which his mother's body lay was very quiet. The doctor had offered to come in with Albert but he had refused, saying that he wanted to be alone. As the metal door fell shut behind him, he stood leaning against it for several moments, breathing in the nothing odor of the room. His mother’s form scarcely made a dint under the covers of the bed. For a moment he thought he saw the sheet moving, moving up and down as if his mother was still breathing. But it was fool's gold, because when he moved closer there was only stillness, unbroken stillness. **** Might be Christine's best. Click the cover to read our review. He stood at the foot of the bed and held onto the railing. "Hello, mother." Moving to the side, he pulled up a chair and sat down. "I've been gone most of the evening, I know," he went on, "but I didn't know. I really had no idea that you would die tonight." She didn't answer and he looked down at his hands. "You know," he went on, looking up again, "I thought that I might get a chance to talk to you tonight about the past. As I drove down in the car I was thinking about all the things that I would say to you. And now it's too late." He stopped and pulled his chair a little closer to the bed. "But maybe it's not too late, not too late for me, that is. You see," and he looked up again at her dead form, "you see, maybe if I had brought it up, maybe if I had told you that I was sorry, the way I told God that I was sorry, you might have forgiven me. Now you died without forgiving me." His voice caught and he lay his head on the edge of the bed's steel railing. But the words flowed on, the words tumbled out past all the years of stifle, hitting the floor with their vehemence. "Yet maybe this evening you did forgive me. Before you died, perhaps you thought, ah, I should have told my son that I love him. I should have..." His voice broke again but still he went on. "I do not know that you did. I cannot judge that. God will judge that... and this is what I want to say to God and to you - I forgive you, mother. I forgive you for haunting me, for never allowing me to have my own life outside of yours all these years." He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, before he went on. "... and yet it was my own fault too. Because I let you do it and I could have stopped it." **** He stood up and regarded her face. Smooth and unperturbed, she lay silently. It was almost as if she would open her eyes in a second and say, "Albert, is the tea ready yet?" "No - no tea, mother," he whispered, "but perhaps milk and honey -perhaps that." Then he left the room, not stopping to turn for a last look. “It’s been three days…” Three days later there was a funeral. Although Albert accepted myriad condolences at the funeral home, he was not quite comfortable with the “I'm sorry about your mother...” remarks. Was it necessary, he reflected, as he sat in the left front pew, flanked only by the three church members whom he had asked to be pallbearers, that others knew how he felt? Was it necessary that someone understood? The minister read from John, unperturbed by Albert's thoughts. "When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 'Lord,' Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now...’" **** There was no clock in the sanctuary. The coffin stood directly beneath the pulpit. His mother had always sat in the ninth row from the front. Albert turned his head slightly and almost expected to see her there, smartly dressed in her green summer coat, straight and dignified with her eyes on the minister. There were a lot of people behind him and his gaze passed over them impersonally, passed over them and then suddenly stopped. In the exact place where his mother had been wont to sit, was a slight figure in a blue raincoat. “‘If You had been here,' Martha said to Jesus, 'my brother would not have died.’” The minister's voice rose and fell about his being. "These words of Martha tell us a lot about what she was actually thinking. She was thinking, if you had been here, and you could have been because we sent you a message, then you could have prevented Lazarus' death." Albert turned again and saw that Vicky's face was turned towards the pulpit with studious attention. Why would Vicky be here? He'd given her the address of the church, of course. But it wasn't Sunday and... "Jesus’ direct statement, 'Your brother will rise again,' evoked an earthly response from Martha. 'Yes, I know that he will rise again on the last day.'" Albert eyed the coffin again. His mother would rise again. The lid of the coffin would open and she would climb out, maybe jump out. "Martha wanted an immediate resurrection - she wanted a 'now' answer, brothers and sisters. We all often want a 'now' answer and we forget that God has His own agenda, His own way of working things out for good." Albert shifted his feet and listened, listened with his own ears and also with Vicky's. "‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’" A shaft of sunlight fell through the window at the right and a pool of brightness bathed the front section of the church. "The question is not, brothers and sisters, whether Martha believed Jesus' words. The question is, do you believe them?" He walked out behind the minister. The pallbearers walked with him and the people from the funeral home pushed the coffin sedately ahead of them all towards the door and on to the parking lot. The small figure in the blue raincoat reached his side before he reached the hearse. "Albert - wait." Scores of heads turned, turned and listened. "It's been three days - and I've been reading and looking. I just wanted you to know." The pallbearers had stopped walking and Albert smiled broadly as he gestured to them to move on. You can read some of Christine Farenhorst's other Christmas stories here....