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By:

Song of Songs (A Christine Farenhorst Christmas story)

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone –
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
– Job 38:4-7

Chapter 1

There are innumerable, worthy symphonies which have been composed over the ages. Think of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, Handel’s Pastoral in his great work The Messiah, Mendelsohn’s Scottish symphony, Haydn’s Clock symphony, and many other amazingly wonderful works of music. But the oldest and most beautiful of all symphonies is often forgotten.

Entitled Ephesians 1, it was written by the Trinity. An orchestration wrought before the beginning of time, it is a harmony par excellence. Its arrangement, which is found in the Holy Book, sings of the chosen ones, the ones who are blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Its first performance took place in eternity.

Preludes resound.

****

When little Marsha Tennison enthusiastically raised her hand towards the ceiling to ask a question, even her thin pigtails danced with earnestness. “Pigtails,” Jason Brook mused, even as he nodded his head that she might speak, was a strange term. Little Marsha was anything but a piglet. The wispy curls which escaped from both her red barrettes were auburn; red freckles jumped about on her cheeks; and her bright, blue eyes were filled with joy at being allowed to talk.

“If the stars,” the child began clearly in a well-modulated voice, “are the work of God’s fingers, then He must be really big. But my eyes are not big enough to see all of the stars at night.”

She stopped for a moment and caught her breath before continuing. “I was thinking that it would be a wonderful thing if you could catch a bus and climb up into the sky to get closer to the stars. You know, like Jacob’s ladder.”

Her voice petered out. Some of the children were giggling. The sound subdued her somewhat. “We will see God, I know,” she added in a much lower tone, “when we die.”

Samantha, one seat over from Marsha, gasped audibly. She was a sweet child too, but one steeped into supposing that a person could climb into heaven on a Ten Commandments ladder, certainly not on a bus resembling a Jacob’s ladder. It was well-nigh three thirty and almost time to go home. Bible was the last subject on the agenda.

“It’s a good thought, Marsha,” Jason encouraged “And anyone who has ever looked at the multitude of stars at night will understand what you were saying.”

Marsha beamed and settled back in her desk. She held one of her long, thin braids between the fingers of her right hand. A trusting eleven, as were most of the children in his Bible class, she was a dreamer. Jason smiled at the sea of upturned faces. Half of the faces were focused on him; the other half were focused on the clock.

“If any of you think God is small, then surely you will not expect Him to be able to do great things. But if you think, or rather know, that He is big, ” he added, “and that the stars are the work of His fingers, then you will believe He can do mighty things. When we die,” he went on, “we will see Him as He is. Even though we can’t understand how that will be, Marsha, we know it is true because the Bible tells us so.”

Samantha raised her hand and spoke quickly, almost before he could nod permission.

“But God is not a person, pastor Brook, so how can anyone think of Him as, well, as just plain big? Isn’t that wrong?”

“Well, you are right in one way, Samantha. God Almighty is not a person as we are, although we should never forget that He took on our flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ. I think though, that what Marsha meant by her question was that God is mighty beyond what we can physically see and understand? I think she tried to say,” and here he looked straight at Marsha who moved her head up and down vigorously all the while clasping one of her brown braids, “that it is amazing that the stars which are so high above our heads, were formed by the words of God’s mouth and that the Bible actually calls the stars the work of His fingers. And how can it be possible that we, little and sinful people that we are, will eventually be able to see such a mighty and holy God.”

Marsha blushed. They were fine words, the words of pastor Brook. She felt them inside but could not always iterate them clearly. But he had read her question rightly. Those were matters she thought about a lot. She would like to ask him to explain more things, but she dare not ask them now lest Samantha criticize that as well. Perhaps later. Her teacher winked at her and she blushed again.

“We have a very mighty God, Marsha,” he added, “and He does not mind what we ask, as long as we ask questions on our knees, full of reverence.”

“Can we ask Him anything?” Samantha suddenly said, not even raising her hand.

“Yes,” Jason responded quietly and confidently, “anything at all as long as we ask sincerely and according to what He wills.”

Another hand shot up. This time it was Penny, a twelve-year-old going on eighteen. When she had been given permission to speak, her truculent voice struck the wooden desks with a certain amount of bravado. “Well, I’d like to ask Him to give you a wife, pastor Brook.”

A stillness descended on the classroom. Little Marsha stopped fidgeting with her braid and anxiously scanned her teacher’s face for his reaction. Samantha turned around to raise her eyebrows at Penny. But Penny, unperturbed, went on. “I’d like to ask Him to give you a wife who doesn’t mind that you limp. You need some looking after and your mother is getting older. Besides, everyone says a pastor shouldn’t be a bachelor.”

Jason held up his hand at this point to stop the inappropriate waterfall of words gushing out of Penny’s mouth. He smiled at her even as he grimaced inside. “Thank you, Penny, for your concern. That’s very kind of you.”

Everyone stared at him – the girls sympathetically and the boys uneasily. He closed in prayer and then they trooped out.

****

It was mid-June and nearing summer vacation. Jason Brook taught two Bible courses at the local Christian academy every Friday afternoon. His first class consisted of the fourteen and fifteen-year-olds whereas the second class was comprised of eleven through thirteen year olds.

“Pastor?”

He startled and then smiled broadly. It was little Marsha who had returned to the room. There was no denying that she was one of his favorite students. She lived in his neighborhood and he often spoke with her. “Thank you for teaching me…. for teaching me that you can talk to God about anything. You are so helpful. And you know what,” she added softly, “I never notice that you limp.”

She flashed a grin at him and then she was gone, brown braids spindling behind her. Jason stood still for a moment, a small frown on his face. Even coming from a sincere child, a child who meant to comfort and build him up, the words hurt somewhat. He was thirty-six years old and in the sudden stillness of the classroom after Marsha’s departure, he could hear his mother’s voice, could hear it as clearly as if she were standing next to him. “You have a false sense of pride, son.”

She’d said those words to him just last week, just before informing him that Gena Ardwick, the daughter of an old friend, had been invited by her for a few day’s visit. His face must have shown dislike and apprehension because that’s when he had been reproved. “You immediately suspect I’m setting you up and you retreat behind that shell of yours. There is no sin in having friends, Jason, and you need not look for me to be matchmaking behind every tree.”

“You are right, mother,” he had sighed, “and I apologize. I’ll be a good host, I promise.

****

Later, after straightening out his desk and cleaning the blackboard, he picked up his briefcase and began his walk towards the bus stop. People, he reflected, as well as adults, were often most comfortable with the status quo, with the way things were always done. There was no denying that he sometimes fell outside the accepted status quo. Perhaps his childhood polio endowing him with this uneven gait, or perhaps the early loss of his father, had marked him. Yet these events had not been bad, he mused on, but rather had worked for his good, for had they not made him depend on His Creator more and more?

He breathed in deeply. Sure he prayed for a wife, prayed punctually as one might pray for good weather. But if it rained, the truth was that he was quite content to sit at home and read a good book, or to take a walk under an umbrella.

He vaguely remembered Gena Ardwick, the girl who would be stopping in to see his mother today. She had lived next door to his family years ago when he had been a boy about the age that little Marsha was right now. Gena had been a snippy, self-willed girl, if he recalled correctly, and he had not cared for her. She’d always been ready with an opinion and she had not liked either dogs or cats. Strange that he should remember the part about pets.

Unconsciously he shrugged as he walked. In spite of his mother’s protestations to the opposite, there had been questionable female visitors in the past: a far-off distant cousin afflicted with a slight stutter; the organist’s older sister over for holidays from Amsterdam; and the neighbor’s orphaned, sewing pupil. He suddenly laughed out loud, switched the briefcase to his other hand and chided himself for brooding.

****

There were no other people waiting at the bus stop. Setting down his briefcase, Jason unashamedly stretched his tall form. Friday afternoons could prove to be long, even trying, but he enjoyed them – enjoyed the teaching and the interaction which he had with his students, even students like aggressive Penny.

Glancing at his watch, he expected that the bus would be along shortly. He’d known the bus driver for years. Sure enough, rounding the corner right on time, the front end of a grey bus turned towards him. Automatically he picked up his briefcase with his right hand while his left hand reached for a bus token in his pants’ pocket. The bus smoothly slid to a stop in front of him and the door opened.

“How’re you doing, Jake?”

“Great! And yourself, Jason?”

“Fine.”

Smiles were exchanged and Jason habitually walked towards the seat where he was wont to sit. Only…someone else was sitting there.

It was a woman wearing a dark blue hat, a light blue sweater and a grey skirt. He saw this all in one glance. She nodded slightly when he caught her eye, moving past to a seat behind her. It miffed him a trifle that she was sitting in his spot, but he knew this was bordering on the ridiculous. Public transport was just that, public transport and the public could sit wherever they pleased.

Ten minutes later he stood up. His stop was next. He’d always counted it a blessing that he lived only a few houses away from the bus stop, especially during bad winter weather. The woman stood up with him simultaneously. She picked up a small leather suitcase from the floor and eased into the aisle in front of him walking towards the exit door. He could smell a faint scent of jasmine exuding from her person. The bus came to a halt. Stepping down, the woman turned in the direction of his house, leather suitcase dangling from her right hand.

It came to him suddenly, as he followed her steps, that this woman could be Gena Ardwick. But his mother had gone to pick her up at the train station in South Hanker. Maybe mother had missed connecting with Gena and the girl had taken matters into her own hands.

Sure enough, she was slowing down and peering at house numbers. Then, before Jason’s very eyes, her heel caught in a crack of cement causing her to stumble and fall. The incident occurred right in front of his home. The small suitcase flew out of her hand and landed neatly at her side, but as he hobbled up behind to reach her, the girl had already scrambled back to her feet.

“Hey, are you all right?”

She nodded, but he noticed a shining in her eyes – unshed tears just like the ones his students blinked back after they had been given a very low mark or had inadvertently tripped over someone’s feet in class. Reaching over to pick up her suitcase and putting her full weight on her left foot, the woman gave a small cry of pain

“I think you better lean on me.”

Unquestioningly she took the arm he offered, reinforcing his notion that she was indeed Gena Ardwick. A surge of protectiveness washed over him. Shuffling up the sidewalk as she held on to him, she didn’t say a word.

“What providence,” he said, glancing at her as he spoke, “that I was just behind you, Gena.”

She stared up at him. But then another tremor of pain passed over her face.

“I hope you didn’t break anything,” Jason went on, “We’d better get you to sit down quickly so we can have a look.”

****

It was quiet in the hallway and the cat ran down the stairs to meet them, rubbing up against Jason’s legs.

“This way to the living room, Gena,” Jason spoke softly, “and I hope you don’t mind cats now. Harry is a people cat and hates it when I’m gone. ”

She shook her head as he led her through the hallway door into the living room, carefully sitting her down on the edge of the couch. Resting back, she smiled up at him wanly, her face very white.

“I think I’ll put on the kettle for a cup of tea. Just sit for a minute before we have a look at that foot.”

Propping up a pillow behind her back as he spoke, Jason expertly pushed a footstool in front of the couch. “There you are. Can you lift your foot up on it?”

She obliged and Harry jumped onto the couch next to her. It brought a tiny smile to her face and somehow this pleased Jason a great deal. He disappeared into the kitchen and pondered his next move. Hopefully, mother would be home soon and that would take the onus off himself. The situation was a bit awkward. She hadn’t said a word so far and she was also a bit chunky or, as his mother would say, pleasingly plump.

The doorbell rang. Now who could that be? Striding back to the front door, he was surprised to see little Marsha standing on his steps. Grinning broadly, she was holding a tray of cookies in her hands. She lived only a few doors down from him. “My foster mother made these for you, pastor Brook, because you taught me all year and because you visit all the time.”

“Well, thank you, and please thank your foster mother. That’s very kind of you both.”

A luminous idea struck him. He gestured that she step inside and when she happily obliged, he walked her past the closed living room door leading the child into the kitchen. Once there he spoke in a low tone.

“Marsha, I have a visitor in the living room and she’s hurt her ankle. She’s my mother’s friend and will be a guest here for a few days. Would you mind helping me with her for a little while?”

The girl was all smiles and nodded eagerly. “No, pastor Brook, I wouldn’t mind that at all.”

“Thanks, Marsha, I appreciate that very much.”

He pointed towards the living room and she immediately stepped back into the hallway, making her way to the living room. He followed her. Opening the door, they could see Gena bending over, trying rather unsuccessfully to take off her shoe. Marsha lost no time. She was by the couch and on her knees in a trice. Assisting nimbly, her small fingers undid the buckles, even as she spoke in a low tone. “My name is Marsha, but most people call me little Marsha because I’m not as big as I should be. What’s your name?”

“Gena.” It came out softly and it was the first word Jason heard her say. So he had been correct then in surmising that she was his mother’s guest.

“Gena’s a real nice name,” Marsha went on, “and look, your shoe’s off and that’s good because I think your foot’s a bit swollen. I can see it through your nylon stocking. Hope it doesn’t hurt too much.”

Arnica, thought Jason who was still standing in the hallway door, mother’s arnica in the medicine cabinet would help right now. Turning, he made his way to the bathroom and checked cupboards until he found the arnica tube. To his disappointment, it was almost empty. He’d have to go to the pharmacy for a new tube. Maybe he should also offer aspirin with the tea for pain? He slowly walked back into the living room.

“Her foot’s not broken, pastor Brook,” Marsha called out cheerfully from the couch while stroking the cat’s head, “You can wiggle your toes, can’t you Gena?”

Gena nodded.

“That’s fine,” Jason said, very much relieved, “but I think I’ll walk over to the pharmacy anyway to pick up some arnica. It’s a good remedy for bruising and swelling. I can see from here you might have a bit of a bruise.”

Gena shook her head. “There’s no need for you to do that,” she protested weakly.

“Not a problem,” Jason waved away her protest, “Little Marsha, can you stay here until I come back? You can put the kettle on for tea and you know where the mugs are. You can also serve some of the cookies you brought along.”

The girl nodded eagerly. “Sure thing. And I’ll phone Aunt May to let her know I’m helping out.”

Chapter 2

The symphony of Ephesians 1has a recurring theme. The consonance which weaves through its melody is that of predestination. With singleness of purpose, the notes, again and again, point to children adopted through Jesus Christ in accordance with His pleasure and will.

We don’t always hear a theme until it is pointed out. But the truth of it is that election reverberates throughout Ephesians 1.

****

After little Marsha had telephoned her foster mother, she asked Gena if she wanted a cup of tea and a cookie. The woman smiled at the child standing in front of the couch. “You are eager to help. You’re a very kind, little girl.”

Marsha dimpled. “Any friend of pastor Brook is a friend of mine. And I’m sorry you hurt your foot. Shall I put pillows under it?”

The doorbell rang.

“Excuse me,” little Marsha said.

She got up from the couch and stepped back into the hallway, leaving the door to the livingroom half-open behind her.

****

There was a coolness in the foyer and the child shivered before she opened the entrance way which Jason had locked behind him. Two women stood on the doorstep. They smiled at Marsha.

“Hello, it’s a nice day isn’t it?” One of the women, portly but gracious, extended the greeting.

“Yes,” Marsha replied.

“Is your mother at home?”

“Yes,” the child answered for the second time and without hesitation, “She is.”

On the couch in the living room, Gena, who could hear each word, winced. The girl was lying. That was a whopper.

“Can we speak to her?”

“No, I’m afraid you can’t.”

The second of the two women coughed delicately into a hanky.

“And why will you not let us speak to your mother?”

“Because she’s in heaven with the Lord Jesus.”

There was silence on the doorstep for a long moment. Shifting her position on the couch slightly as she leaned forward, Gena strained her ears.

“I know,” Marsha’s voice reached her, “that you are Jehovah Witnesses because you come down the street a lot and start by saying that the weather is nice. Pastor Brook has told me to be careful about you.”

There was another silence and then one of the women opened her purse, taking out a small tract. “Well, I’m sorry to hear about your mother, honey, but maybe I can leave this little booklet with you.”

Little Marsha put her hands behind her back. “No, thank you,” she answered clearly, “Jesus would not like me to do that. Pastor Brook told me that too. You see you don’t know…. that is, you don’t believe….” She stopped and took out her right hand, fingering one of her braids thoughtfully.

“We don’t know or believe what?” Both of the women responded almost simultaneously, talking through one another and eyeing little Marsha with a mixture of both disdain and interest.

“That Jesus is God,” little Marsha said, finishing her sentence carefully.

“He is god,” this time the women spoke in unison, the back one trying to read the girl’s face as she stood in poised in the doorway.

Unfazed by their scrutiny, Marsha responded once more. “No, He is not god. He is the only God there is and we can’t say lies about Him. You see, God says, and I forget where He says it, ‘I am He and there are no gods with Me.’”

The two women looked at one another.

“Pastor Brook told me that too,” little Marsha added as an afterthought, “and you might like to think about that. But now I have to stop talking to you because I’m helping out a friend who has a sore foot.”

The two women turned and began to walk away, the first one shrugging as she left. But the second glanced back over her shoulder, giving Marsha a smile and a little wave. Closing and locking the front door carefully, Marsha made her way back to the kitchen. She plugged in the kettle and leaned against the countertop as she waited for the water to boil. When it did, she pulled the plug and made tea. Carrying a stone mug into the living room, she saw that Gena had taken her foot off the footstool and was gingerly bending over, rubbing it.

“How does it feel? Does it hurt a lot?” she asked sympathetically.

“A little bit, but it’ll be all right, I think.”

Marsha deposited the mug on the end table. “Would you like some sugar and milk with your tea?”

“No, that’s fine. Thank you for your help and for making the tea.”

Marsha sat down on the floor in front of the couch, resting her back against it.

“Tell me about yourself, Marsha.”

Turning her face, Marsha stared up at her. “About myself? There’s not much to tell.”

“Why did you tell the women who came to the door that your mother was home when …. well, when you don’t even live here?” Gena put her foot up on the footstool again as she spoke and reached for the tea.

“Well, my mother is at home. Only her home is in heaven. I did tell them that.”

The clock ticked and Gena folded her hands cautiously around the hot cup of tea.

“I’m sorry, Marsha,” she eventually said, as she put the cup back on the end table, “not having a Mom must be hard.”

“No,” Marsha answered rather matter-of-factly, “you needn’t feel sorry for me, Gena. You see, I’ll be seeing her soon.”

Gena picked the cup up again. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve got…. I mean, I’m sick and right now I’m OK, but the doctor says….” She stopped and Gena could not take her eyes off the child, wispy braids dangling disconsolately on her thin shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” she began again rather lamely, and then stopped.

“No,” little Marsha repeated rather earnestly, “You don’t have to be sorry.”

“Can I comb and braid your hair, Marsha? I used to have long hair myself and I miss doing the braids. Maybe you can borrow a comb out of the bathroom. We just won’t tell anyone.”

Marsha smiled. No one ever offered to braid her hair for her. Her foster mother was too busy and her own fingers were a little messy. She got up and disappeared down the hall, reappearing shortly with a long blue comb.

“That’s great. Now come and sit in front of me.”

Marsha sat on the floor, eyes wide with expectation. Gena had moved the footstool and had positioned her sore foot at its side. Taking a tiny sip of her hot tea before undoing Marsha’s braids, she began untangling the knots in the child’s hair. Marsha blissfully shut her eyes as she leaned her shoulders against the gray skirt. Gena massaged the little scalp with the auburn hair, and listened to the clock ticking as she worked at fashioning a French braid around Marsha’s head.

“Why,” she suddenly heard herself saying, “Why are you not sad, or scared, or well, upset. You don’t seem to be upset, Marsha.”

The girl smiled, her eyes still closed. “Sometimes I am. I really am, “she admitted candidly, “But then I try to remember a story that pastor Brook told me. He heard it, or read it somewhere and then he told it to me.”

“What was the story?”

The child stretched out her legs in front of her and took a deep breath as if she was about to plunge into a pool of water. Gena stopped braiding and listened, her hands resting on the child’s head.

“Well, in the story there was a little girl. Maybe she was my age. This little girl was out on the street, sitting on the doorstep of a house in the middle of the night all alone. Someone came along the street and asked her, ‘Little girl, why are you sitting there? Do you not have a house to live in?’ She said, ‘No, sir, I don’t. I have no home.’ ‘Where is your mother?’ ‘My mother is dead,’ said the little girl. ‘Where is your father, then?’ ‘I have no father,’ she replied. ‘Have you no home at all to which you can go?’ ‘No,’ answered the little girl, and she shivered. You see, Gena, it was night and she was shivering with the cold.”

Marsha stopped and unexpectedly turned her head, causing Gena to cluck in distress as auburn strands of hair flew out of her hands. Marsha apologized, even as she spoke. “I’m sorry to have moved, Gena, but are you not very sorry for this little girl?”

Gena moved her head up and down even while she was trying to sort out the wisps of hair that had broken loose from the French braid. She was, indeed, both puzzled and fascinated by Marsha’s account. Satisfied that her audience was paying attention, Marsha positioned her head forward again and went on.

“Well, I was sorry for this little girl too when pastor Brook told me this story. It was so sad. I think I even cried. Then pastor Brook said to me, ‘In a way many people in the world are like that little girl, Marsha. Although they have a home for their bodies, they have no home for their souls. And at night they sit on the doorsteps of the world and their souls have no place to go.'”

It was quiet for a bit. Gena was intrigued. She prodded the child with her good foot.

“Go on, Marsha. There must be more to this story.”

And Marsha continued. “Then pastor Brook said, ‘I know you love the Lord Jesus, Marsha, and because you love the Lord Jesus, your soul does have a place to go. You have God for a Father and His Son Jesus has made a home for you in heaven where there are many, many rooms for His children.'”

Marsha stopped her narrative again and rubbed her right hand along the carpet.

“Is that the end of the story?” Gena asked in spite of herself.

“No, it isn’t. Only when I get to this part, I often cry, you see, and I don’t like to do that in front of other people. But I’ll tell you the story to the end.”

Marsha’s right hand stopped caressing the carpet and she pushed her shoulders back so that they touched Gena’s stomach.

“Yes?” Gena encouraged.

“Well, I’m guessing you think that I’m the little girl in the story, sort of. But actually, my story is just a bit different. In my story I’m sitting on the doorstep of heaven. An angel stops by and asks me if I have no house to live in and I answer him, ‘Yes, sir, I do have a house. It is my Father’s house and He is making a room ready for me in His house.’ And after I tell the angel that I believe that Jesus is God and that He has died for me on the cross, he smiles and opens the door for me behind the doorstep and tells me that he knows that my room is quite, quite ready.”

Marsha’s voice trembled with the telling of the last sentence and after she stopped speaking there was only silence again and the constant ticking of the clock.

“I see.” But Gena didn’t see. Her hands came away from the hair and rested in her lap. The flat-bosomed, trusting eleven-year-old sitting on the floor in front of her, with a tiny French braid crisscrossing her head, suddenly seemed lovely beyond comparison. Inexplicably she was jealous. She could not fathom it.

“Maybe you will get better,” she offered, “and then you will not….”

But she didn’t finish the sentence, because she didn’t know how to finish it. Marsha turned and looked up at her.

“Are you all right? Is your foot throbbing?”

“No, actually it is feeling quite a bit better and I should be going now. I’ve stayed way too long as it is.”

“Stayed too long?”

Marsha’s voice was surprised and she scrambled to her feet even as she continued to speak. “But you just got here. And pastor Brook’s gone to get some medicine to put on your bruise to help you. And his mother is not even home yet.”

“But I think I can walk now,” Gena answered, and to prove it she stood up as well.

Indeed, her leg was able to bear weight and she took a few steps.

“But where are you going? Are you not supposed to stop and visit here for a few days?”

“No, whatever made you think that?”

“Pastor Brook. He told me you had come to visit his mother for a few days. She should be home soon, I think.”

“His mother! But I don’t even know his mother and I don’t know pastor Brook either.”

“But you came into their house!?” Marsha could not comprehend the way things were going. She watched in amazement as Gena slowly but purposely limped towards the front door.

“But why did you come in if you didn’t know who lived here?”

Gena’s fingers were wrapped around the door handle. “I don’t understand it myself, little Marsha. I think it was because he knew my name.”

“Your name?”

“Yes.” Gena winced even as she spoke. “And now, little girl, perhaps you can call me a taxi.”

Chapter 3

Sometimes the Ephesians1 theme appears to be lost. Raucous notes and cacophony seem to drown out the sweeter airs. But, as in many musical compositions, there is frequently a coda, a conclusion, a postscript, a postlude as it were. And the Ephesians1postlude is praise – praise of the glory of the grace of God. Listen carefully.

****

It was only a half a year later that little Marsha’s funeral took place. Conducted by pastor Brook, it was in the church he shepherded.

There were not very many people who came to the funeral. The school Marsha had attended, the same school at which Jason taught Bible every Friday afternoon, did come out in full number. The children and teachers had been given leave and they sat in the front pews. As well, a few members of the congregation showed up. Some had known little Marsha; others were curious.

The coffin stood in front of the pulpit. It was a small coffin. Made of white pine, smooth and shiny, it would not be very heavy for the pallbearers. It was snowing lightly outside and Jason’s text fell with the snow: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

“Little Marsha had faith,” Jason said and his voice faltered.

It faltered because even as he spoke he could not fathom why this child, who had been so wholly trusting in her Lord, might not have lived a longer life, might not have had the possibility of being a mother in Israel. Of such, indeed, they had much need. He studied the young faces in front of him, and he preached. He preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He always did. But the why of the coffin continued to confound him even as he spoke. And through his sentences he saw a little girl with two wispy, auburn braids dancing her way up his sidewalk to tell him some new wonder that she had thought of during that day.

****

Afterwards, when the “amen” had fallen, opportunity was given for classmates and others to speak. Jason issued the invitation and waited. A long silence hung over the sanctuary. He did not think it likely that any of the children would come forward and certainly did not expect any of the adult members to speak. So few had really known little Marsha.

But just as he was about to conclude the service, a figure at the back of the church stood up and began a lonely trek towards the front. Jason strained his eyes. It was a woman and he did not know whom it was. He did not recognize her and neither did any of the people in the pews. They all watched her advance. She was uneasy. Everyone could sense it in her uncertain gait and yet she continued her walk to the pulpit. Having reached it, she sighed, glanced upward and proceeded to climb the steps. The lectern seemed to give her some measure of security, for she gripped the wood with both hands. It was only when Jason handed her the microphone and caught the scent of jasmine, that he remembered her.

“Hello,” she began, addressing the people in the pews.

The voice took Jason back to a summer afternoon earlier that year, an afternoon in which someone had taken his seat on the bus.

“You don’t know me,” her voice went on.

Jason sat down in the chair behind the pulpit. He could see that the woman was taking a deep breath before continuing. “I had the pleasure of meeting Marsha, or little Marsha, as she told me people called her, a number of months ago.”

In a row of children on the second bench, Penny nudged Samantha. “She’s a nice looking lady.”

“Shh,” Samantha whispered back.

The woman’s voice stilled both of them. “I apologize if my story seems a bit stilted, but I’m not a trained speaker like your pastor here behind me.”

Jason looked down at the floor.

“I’ll introduce myself and hope that you won’t all leave after I do. My name is Gena and my second name is not important. I am, or I should say, I was,” and here her voice faltered, “a prostitute.”

A palpable hush fell on the sanctuary. Penny pinched Samantha. “Do you know what a prostitute is, Sam?”

Samantha pinched her back. “Quiet.”

“About a half a year ago, I hurt my foot in front of your pastor’s house. Summer had just begun. It was a beautiful day. Your pastor did not know me, but when I hurt my foot in front of his home, he took me inside and ….” She stopped speaking. Someone coughed in the back of the church, but on the whole it was deathly quiet. Only the coffin spoke through the stillness proclaiming that little Marsha was dead.

“My parents divorced when I was about Marsha’s age. My father left and my mother was given custody. Not that it meant anything. She was always gone. When I came home from school every day there was no one.”

Both Samantha and Penny listened with rapt attention. Indeed, the whole church was fixated on the figure in the pulpit. Gena was wearing a blue coat. Open at the collar, a grey scarf covered her neck. Jason’s eyes had lifted from the floor and were now riveted on the back of Gena’s head.

“I’ll spare you the details of my tumultuous teenage years. There were parties, drugs and boyfriends. I know now that I was looking for love, for some semblance of acceptance. I wanted someone who was interested in me, someone who would….”

Samantha and Penny without being aware of it, were leaning into one another.

“My mother eventually threw me out when she came home one day and found me drinking with several boys.”

The silence into which Gena’s words were spoken became louder. “The day that I spoke of, the day that I hurt my foot and your pastor took me in, that was the day I was on my way to have an abortion. Only I had gotten the address mixed up and had gotten out several stops too early.”

Gena took a kleenex out of the pocket of her blue coat and blew her nose. Jason felt an incomprehensible bond with the girl. He did not know why. Everything he stood for had been repulsed by her. And yet here she was on the pulpit, confessing sins.

“Little Marsha came to the door to bring your pastor some cookies. She came inside and introduced herself to me. When he left to buy some ointment for my foot, the child made me some tea and then, well then we talked together.”

Jason could see his mother in the fourth row. Her eyes were lifted attentively towards the girl, the girl whom he had supposed was Gena Ardwick. The real Gena Ardwick, it turned out, had not shown up at all because she had caught influenza. Strange that this girl’s name had also been Gena.

“Little Marsha told me that she was ill and that she would probably not live much longer. She was right, wasn’t she?”

Everyone’s eyes automatically shifted to the small, white coffin in front of the pulpit. Samantha remembered with a pang of conscience that she had ridiculed Marsha when she had asked Pastor Brook how she could see God when she died, because God was so big that He had made the stars with His fingers. She shivered a little.

“Marsha was a very special girl,” Gena’s voice broke over the sentence and Jason could see that her right hand clenched the kleenex which she still held. “She had a gift – and that gift was faith. She believed with all her heart and ….”

Her voice broke again and Jason fought the urge to go and put his arm around her.

“The truth is,” Gena went on, “that God used little Marsha in my life. When I told her that I was leaving and that it was only by chance that I was there in pastor Brook’s home, she called a taxi for me. Then she persuaded me to sit down on the couch again and she sat next to me.”

Penny and Samantha and the other children held themselves rigidly quiet, waiting for Gena to finish a story of which they could not guess the ending.

“I say she sat next to me, but the actual truth was that she leaned into me. ‘I like you, Gena,’ she said, ‘and I wish you could be a foster mother to me. I’ve had about six, you know.’ ‘Six?’ I asked her. ‘Yes, six and some of them were quite nice. But I’m always moving to another place. I guess it’s hard to have someone like me who is in the hospital a lot.’ And then Marsha added something else. She said, ‘I think you will be a good Mom to this baby you are having, Gena. That is a really lucky baby to have you for a Mom.'”

A child cried in the back of the sanctuary and was shushed by its mother. Gena stopped for a moment and blew her nose again.

“I said, ‘Marsha, how do you know I’m expecting a baby?’ And she lifted her head from my shoulder and looked up at me. ‘I felt the baby kick,’ she said, ‘when I leaned against you and you were doing my hair. My shoulders felt your stomach and I felt a little kick and I thought the baby must be so nice and cozy and safe in there. My last foster mother was expecting a baby too and she let me feel her tummy.’ ”

Samantha felt a tear slide down her cheek. She let it slide right down to her chin. Then she took the back of her right hand and wiped it off. Penny cast a sidelong glance at her and then put her hand on Samantha’s knee.

“I told Marsha that she was right, that I was expecting a baby. ‘What will you call it?’ she asked. I told her that I didn’t know. ‘Perhaps, you can call it little Gena,’ she suggested.”

Gena shifted her position behind the pulpit. Bending over, she put her elbows on the lectern, supporting her face with her hands for a moment. Then straightening up again, her gaze went up and down the pews.

“Then Marsha asked me the most important question anyone has ever asked me. She said, ‘You do believe in the Lord Jesus, don’t you Gena? Because if you don’t, I’ll never see you again.’”

She stopped and looked down before she continued.”I have to tell you all very honestly that I did not believe in God at that time, let alone His Son Jesus. And I told her so.”

The ceiling lights flickered on and off and back on. In the distance a car honked its horn and white snow still fell past the sanctuary windows.

“Then Marsha did what no one has ever done for me before. She wept for me. Curling into my side, she sobbed her heart out. I hugged her but she would not be consoled. She kept on crying. Eventually she managed some intelligible words and these words were: ‘I don’t want you to be lost, Gena, I want you to come to the doorstep of God’s house just like me.'”

And Jason thought of all the sermons he had preached, of all the benedictions he had given, and he knew that not one of them came even close.

“The taxi driver came to the door then, and I stood up. My shoulder was wet, wet with little Marsha’s tears. I never saw her again.”

Gena was finished. She stepped back from the lectern and moved towards the pulpit steps. But then, as if she had forgotten something, she returned. It was for the postlude.

“Oh yes,” she said, “I do want you all to know that I will see her again. And so will Faith, my little daughter. Faith, who was born the day little Marsha died.”


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I Have A Son Seven Years Old; He is to me full dear...

This a short story about World War II, the immigrant experience...and much more Chapter 1.  The teacher Perhaps it is true that one's conscience is like a songbird warbling high up in a tree. Though you cannot detect its form, its notes are clear and touch your soul with their pureness and you cannot walk by for weeping. September of 1953 was a hot month in the city of Toronto. In fact, the second day of the month was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reaching 98 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat on that Labor Day weekend had me thinking that it did not seem to be a very auspicious time to open school doors or an auspicious moment to be a first-time teacher. I had graduated from the Toronto Normal School earlier that same year. As far back as I could remember I had always loved the idea of becoming a teacher, of being with children and imparting to them knowledge, truth and fine ideals. But when I faced my mixed class of seventh and eighth graders that first week – a medley of twenty-seven faces, all wilting with heat in the muggy, crowded classroom – my courage and commitment somehow deteriorated into nervous tension. There were names to memorize, characters to unravel, and temperaments to discern. Not that the children were rowdy or disobedient; it was just that there were so many of them and so few of me. Consequently, at the end of that initial week, I stood in front of the half-open classroom window gazing out at the silent playground after the students had been dismissed. Tired and not a little discouraged, I contemplated whether I should have opted for another vocation such as mechanic or traveling salesman. Drumming my fingers on the sill, and staring off into the horizon, I recalled the respect I'd had for teachers who had made an impact on my formative years. Mr. Kunstenaar, my history teacher, stood out in my memory. How that man had been able to tell stories! Absently, I wiped beading drops of sweat off my upper lip. Some boys had appeared on the playground. Though the weather was still hot and humid, they were running and yelling. There were four of them and the first was much younger than the rest. As they tore past, it became obvious that the boy in the lead was being pursued by the rest. The child was a good runner, but his small legs did not stand a chance against the longer legs of his opponents. By some providential quirk, if there is such a thing, the boy zigzagged back towards my window and, upon reaching it, turned, standing with his back against it. The boys stopped their chase and picked up clumps of dirt from the ground where they stood. They then began to pelt the boy with the dirt, one soft clump striking the top of his head and breaking into a hundred small grains of black on his crown. Pity flooded my heart. Stepping forward to make myself clearly visible, I stood tall behind the boy. Though I did not think he saw me, his pursuers certainly did. Neither gesturing nor saying one word, I just stood quietly. And one by one the three boys opened their fists, dropped their missiles, and disappeared. I don't know what the child thought of his attackers leaving. The back of his head pressed hard against my window. The hair I could almost touch was blond – very blond – a blond mixed with black. I had a déjà vu moment but could not place it. Then the boy turned and he smiled at me. It was a warm and radiant smile and in that instant I knew I had made the right decision about becoming a teacher. *** The following Monday morning the principal asked if I could spare a moment to talk. "I'd like to take advantage of your bilingualism," he said, by way of beginning the conversation, "of your ability to speak Dutch." "Oh?" "This year there are three children, children of Dutch immigrants," he continued, "who are attending our school. They need help with their English. It occurred to me that you might be just the man to encourage them. Can I ask for your help in tutoring some of these students for a few hours each week if I provide some extra help in your classroom during that time?" "I have no experience in tutoring," I said. "It's just to see them through an initial awkward and difficult period," he went on, almost as if he had not heard my objection, "You see, because of their lack of ability to speak English, they have been put back a year in school, and if they are able to become more proficient in English, perhaps they can be moved up to the grade level they should be in." To a certain degree, I felt cheated. It was clear to me that tutoring was something a teacher's aide should be doing; it certainly did not seem to be work for someone like myself who had just studied hard to earn a degree. Besides that, wasn't it obvious that these children would pick up English quickly enough by themselves, immersed as they were in the mainstream of school life? The principal, sensing my hesitation, stood up and patted me on the shoulder. "Mr. Anders," he said, "I assure you it would definitely help these children a great deal and it's just a few hours every week." *** So, beginning immediately, every Tuesday and Thursday morning were set aside for instructing three children. From nine until recess, two sisters – eleven-year-old twins Tina and Tonnie DeGroot – were taught the rudiments of English. Following recess, the boy with the blond hair came in, the boy who had smiled at me. Providence is a mixture of the wonderful, strange, and fearful. A truth wrapped up in seemingly discordant notes fell onto my heart when the child told me his name. "Ik heet Nico," he said, "Nico Goudswaard, and ik ben zeven jaar oud." (My name is Nico - Nico Goudswaard, and I am seven years old.) Another vague déjà vu moment occurred. "Nico," I repeated slowly, and again, "Nico." "Ja," the boy replied. I sat down rather weakly and he came and sat down opposite me. "What is your name?" he asked. I did not answer his query, instead asking him another question: "Who is your father, Nico?" "Well," the boy said, his clear eyes shining at me across the table, "that is a hard question to answer." He looked down at the table for a moment as if thinking deeply. Then he looked up and smiled again. "I do have a father though." I did not know what to say to that and waited, for clearly the child was not finished. After thinking long and hard for another minute, hands folded on the brown tabletop, he finally added quietly, "Do you have to know who my father is to help me with English?" I shook my head and grinned at him. "No, but I would really like to know. Can't you tell me?" "Well, you can't see my father. Not the way that other children can see theirs." "Oh?" I said. "Fathers are good," he continued, "When I ran to the window last week, then I pretended that you were my father. I only pretended for a minute," he quickly added, "because mother says that I must not do that – pretend that other people are my father." "But you said that you did have a father, ... or don't you?" "Well, mother says that my father is God in heaven and that He will look out for me always, no matter where I am. I almost forgot that He was there when those boys were teasing me, but then I saw you and thought that..." He stopped abruptly. "How is your mother?" Any adult would have looked at me strangely for asking such a personal question on such short acquaintance. But no one alive could have understood the absurdity of this present-day providence – even I did not understand it – this providence of me sitting here with the child of a girl I had once known when I was a young boy. "She is fine." Nico had no trouble answering familiarities. "Do you live close to the school?" He nodded. "Yes, I do. It only takes me fifteen minutes to walk to school." Our whole conversation had taken place in Dutch. I took out a reader at this point and had him sound out simple words to ascertain his command of the English language. His English was actually better than that of the twin girls. But my mind wandered continually as Nico was sounding out his words – wandered back to days long gone by. And when Nico left at lunch hour, I stayed behind in the small study room and thought – indeed, could not stop thinking – about the past. There is no accusation that tastes as bitter as self-reproach. Others can accuse – often unjustly and unfairly – and, in those cases, the accused can rest in knowing they are innocent. But people who recognize the secret dealings of their own hearts repeatedly cringe in shame and regret. And so it was with me and I began remembering. Chapter 2. The student "The White Book of Sarnen contains the earliest surviving record of the William Tell story." The speaker was Jaap Kunstenaar, and I was among the children he was addressing. We were in school, if you could call it school, for there was no bell, no principal, no heat, no recess, and certainly no list of subjects that we had to follow. There were only some thirty children or so huddled in desks, students so skinny that ribs protruded and elbows jutted out of our sweaters. We varied in age from eight to fifteen, with myself, 16-year-old Nico Anders, the oldest boy there. It was spring, 1945, following on the heels of a cold, cold winter. Jaap Kunstenaar was a retired teacher and nearing three score and ten years of age. He had offered to feed some history to the youth of our town two afternoons a week. We came not because our parents forced us to come, but because there was not much else to do, and because, somehow, listening to Jaap Kunstenaar talk helped us forget the hunger pains in our bellies as we lived the heroic tales of the past. I well remember the day that Mr. Kunstenaar told the story of William Tell for it was a day that marked a changing point in my life. "The Book of Sarnen was accidentally discovered in 1856, and is believed to be a copy of a much older manuscript written in 1426." Mr. Kunstenaar rubbed his thin and blueing hands together. The color of his hands indicated both the coldness of the room, in which the pot-bellied stove had neither wood to burn nor warmth to throw, and his venerable age. Perhaps that's why he told history so well, because he himself was almost a part of it. "More than 700 years ago," Mr. Kunstenaar began, and we all listened, already fascinated because of the intensity of his baritone voice. "More than 700 years ago," he repeated, "a local farmer and well-known hunter hailing from the canton of Uri, strode through the market square of Altdorf. A crossbow hung over his shoulder. In all of the surrounding cantons there was no one who could climb mountains as sure-footed and as quickly as could this man, William Tell, and there was no one as skilled in the use of a crossbow." The mention of a bow made me even more attentive. I knew how to use a bow and arrow myself. My father had taught me how to aim carefully, and how to unfailingly hit the mark, from the time I was old enough to hold a bow. "My father taught me and I teach you," he told me. "And, God willing," he added with a twinkle in his eyes, "you will someday teach your son." We hunted rabbits and quail together, my father and I, and grandfather had shown me how to skin the rabbits and how to pluck the quail. Mr. Kunstenaar continued: "Altdorf was one of the many small settlements in the area which we now call Switzerland. Its market square was no doubt very similar to the market square we have in town here. People strolled through it, they conducted business there, and they sat on the benches erected along its sides. But the freedom of walking through the square had been curtailed. This was because the town of Altdorf, as well as the surrounding cantons, was occupied at that time, even as we are occupied today, by an enemy. For Switzerland at the time of William Tell in the early 1300s, the enemy was Austria. Today, for Holland in this year of our Lord, 1945, it is Germany." He paused dramatically and we all breathed deeply, anticipating action before he continued. And why shouldn't we have? Stories that paralleled our situation were stories that most gripped our hearts. These were stories with which we could empathize. For example, tales about the Spaniards occupying our country during the Reformation times fascinated us, and episodes of heroism encouraged us. Mr. Jaap Kunstenaar was a wonderful well of information, and we leaned forward in our desks listening eagerly, forgetting for a while our worries, aches and trials. "The enemy agent for the Hapsburg Duke of Austria was a bailiff by the name of Hermann Gessler. He was the Austrian Duke's henchman. Strangely enough, Hermann Gessler sounds ominously like Hermann Goering, who, as you all know, is Hitler's henchman." We all nodded vigorously for we were very familiar with the name of Hermann Goering, a top Nazi, and a hater of the Jews. "Gessler was a proud man, a cruel man, and one who sadistically punished the Swiss people without reason. One day, overcome with pride, he placed his hat on a pole in the center of the Altdorf square and announced that anyone passing this hat would have to bow to it, on pain of death. Shortly after this announcement, William Tell, a patriotic Swiss man and one not easily frightened, strode through the square. He refused to obey Gessler's ridiculous command, nonchalantly passing by the cap, totally ignoring it. And he passed by it walking upright, holding the hand of his young son, Walter." We all laughed, the younger as well as the older children. We were enormously pleased that William Tell had not saluted the cap, for it seemed so obvious that to salute a hat was extremely foolish. Who would do such a thing? Our laughter was shrill, almost as if we had forgotten how to do it, but we were hungry you see, and our voices had grown weak because of the severe lack of food. I remember thinking that the red ribbon in the hair of the orphan girl Nienke Jongsma in front of me looked good enough to eat. And I remember thinking at the same time of the potatoes in Friesland, where Nienke had come from, potatoes which lay rotting but which were not allowed to be sent from that province to the other western provinces desperately in need of food. All the while, during that thought, Tom Jansen sitting next to me shook with mirth. And Ina De Wit in front of Tom put her hand in front of her mouth to hide squeaky giggles. And fifteen-year-old Lieneke, my good friend Lieneke, with the beautiful blond braids, whom I loved with all the innocent passion of my teenage heart, had a wide grin on her face, showing all her pretty white teeth. Strange that such a sweet and pretty girl was the daughter of a suspected Nazi sympathizer. Mr. Kunstenaar waited until we settled down before he continued. "Loitering nearby in the center of the square were several guardsmen. When these guardsmen noticed that William Tell had not saluted Gessler's hat, they immediately arrested him. Shortly afterwards Gessler himself rode into the square surrounded by his hunting party. 'Why is this man in custody? And who is he?' Gessler demanded from the great height of his white stallion. 'He refused to salute your cap,' the soldiers answered, 'and his name is William Tell, a fellow who by all accounts, seems to be a remarkable marksman – one who can shoot a straight arrow at a great distance and not miss his target.' Gessler remained quiet and thoughtful for a few moments. Small Walter, Tell's son and proud of it, began to boast and his words rang through the square, stopping in front of Gessler on his high horse. 'My father,' he called out in his childish voice, interpreting the soldiers' claim in his own words, 'can shoot an apple from a tree at a hundred yards!' Gessler sneered, sneered from his high perch on the horse, sneered at the boy, and sneered at all the bystanders. 'Can he indeed?' he scoffed, 'Well then he shall prove his skill to us here. Place an apple on the boy's head. And we shall see if he never misses.'" The mention of an apple brought saliva to my dry mouth – I almost drooled. If I had been in the place of Walter Tell, with the apple placed on my head, I would have taken it off and crunched into it for one bite, just one bite. I could almost taste it – a far better taste than that of the sugar beets that the town council was beginning to ration out sparingly to the families in town. We had heard of food packages being dropped out of planes flying over Amsterdam, but we had received no such luxuries. "Walter was led to a tree at the far end of the square, and an apple was placed on his head. Quite a crowd had gathered in the square by this time. Everyone was horrified. Outwardly calm, William Tell took the crossbow from his shoulder and fitted an arrow to his bow. Walter stood very still and appeared not to be afraid. The child had unconditional faith in his father's skill. William Tell took careful aim. The arrow left the shaft, and whistled through the air, finding its mark in the center of the apple splitting it into two parts." We all sighed. And then Mr. Kunstenaar quoted an old Northumbrian English ballad. He quoted it with great emotion and I remember it still. I have a son seven years old; He is to me full dear; I will tie him to a stake - All shall see him that be here - And lay an apple upon his head, And go six paces him fro. And I myself with a broad arrowe Shall cleave the apple in towe. For a moment afterwards it was quiet – the class all picturing the cleft apple lying on the ground in front of the boy Walter, who, no doubt, had a huge grin on his face. "William Tell sprinted towards his son, and as he did so a second arrow fell from his coat. Gessler, puzzled, asked him why this second arrow was necessary. And Tell replied: 'That second arrow was for you, if the first had wounded my boy.'" We were all delighted with Tell's bravery and gleefully visualized the look of helpless anger on Gessler's face. Jaap Kunstenaar went on: "A conversation reported between a Swiss diplomat and a German in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War, went thus. The German said, 'You Swiss are so proud of your 500,000 men militia. But what will you do if a 1,000,000 man German army comes marching across your border?' The Swiss diplomat calmly replied, 'That's easy. Each of us will shoot twice and go home.'" We roared with laughter, at which point Nienke Jongsma fainted and Mr. Kunstenaar and some of the older girls did everything they could to revive her. It took some time, but after she was sitting up again, pale and hollow-eyed (as indeed we all were), Mr. Kunstenaar decided that it was time to go home. "What happened to William Tell after that?" Jan Bezem asked as we filed out into the hall and from there into the street. "He led a rebellion against the invaders." "Did he win?" "Yes," Mr. Kunstenaar smiled and patted Jan on the head, "and I'll tell you about that some other time." Chapter 3. The pilot While the other students went straight home, I only passed by our house long enough to pick up an old baby carriage from our shed. My father, who would visit us once a week or less and always under the cover of darkness, had instructed me to walk to Farmer Dikkens after four o’clock. It was already close to four when I picked up the carriage. Inside it, hidden in a false bottom, were two packages of cigarettes and two chocolate bars, placed there by my father to be used in bargaining for some wheat and potatoes. Farmers didn't take kindly to people coming anymore. There wasn't much left of anything for people to barter with. But father had said that Farmer Dikkens would be expecting me. So I went, albeit reluctantly, because I knew that my bargaining powers were less than spectacular. We lived on the east edge of town. I lived there with my father, when he was home, and with my grandfather. My mother had died the first year of the war and I had no siblings. There were just the three of us. We had no other living relatives as both my father and mother had been only children. At this time we also had living with us a Canadian pilot who had shown up a few weeks earlier with a bad burn to his right arm, as well as a cut in his right leg. We doctored him as best we could. His mother was from Holland, so he spoke a decent amount of Dutch, and consequently our communication was good. Sometimes he stayed with father in his hiding place, and sometimes he came to the house. He was the one who had given us the cigarettes and the chocolate. "Nico," father had said, "these cigarettes may very well be the saving of our lives; God-given they are." So I prayed before I came to the farm. "Dear God," I said, not out loud but within my heart, "please let Farmer Dikkens be generous so that I can come home with some food for grandfather." It was quiet outside. The fields were bare and during my half hour or so of walking, I saw only one German soldier and he paid no heed to me, a skinny boy pushing a baby carriage. The Germans, very edgy now that the end of the war was coming, had dug holes the size of small rooms by the side of the road. In case of an air attack, they would have somewhere to hide. These holes appeared like graves to me, although had a plane appeared overhead I would have jumped into one without any hesitation. My walk that late afternoon was a lonely trek and I felt the atmosphere heavy with danger. Miraculously, Farmer Dikkens, a big man with a pot-belly and large jowls, was agreeable. An admiring smile on his small lips, he held the cigarette packages in his hand, turning them over and over, in his fleshy hands. "What do you want for them?" "What are you willing to give?" I inwardly congratulated myself on this answer. "Fifteen pounds of wheat." "I think not," I answered, "there are others who will..." He did not let me finish. "All right, then, twenty-five pounds and that's my final offer." Sliding my hand into one of my pockets, I produced one of the chocolate bars and put it on top of the cigarette packages in his hands, saying nothing. He studied me with piercing eyes, suddenly wary. "You're not in cahoots with the Germans, are you?" "You know my father," I answered, "how can you ask such a thing." In the end he gave me thirty pounds of wheat and fifteen pounds of potatoes. His wife, it turned out, had been addicted to chocolate before the war and would be very pleased with the treat. I walked back home as quickly as I could. It was a going against the wind and the carriage wheels, which had no rubber rims, kept digging into the many ruts in the road. There was a gnawing worry within me. Grandfather had been so tired lately. And so very thin. He rarely got up out of his chair anymore although sometimes he surprised me. Pushing the carriage past an abandoned house, I noticed some scrap pieces of wood by its door. Our woodstove had not been burning this last month. Wood was very scarce. One night, months ago, people had cut down many of the trees lining the center road in town. I'd heard that one man who had no axe had fanatically hugged a tree tearfully claiming it as his own, until a neighbor had lent him an axe with the promise that he might share some of its wood. Others had hung on low-lying branches, breaking them off, pulling the branches behind them to their homes. There was no brushwood left close to the town. Out in the country there were still woods. But few dared to go for these trees because the Germans had issued an order after that night, saying that anyone caught cutting down any more lumber would be arrested. Leaving the carriage on the road, I ran up to the entrance of the abandoned house. Picking up the scrap pieces, I decided there was just enough wood for one good fire – a fire that would surely cheer grandfather's bones tonight. As well, I thought I would be able to concoct a meal that would taste better than the pancakes I had been making out of mashed tulip bulbs and other bits of leftover food. And the remaining chocolate bar still stashed in my pocket could be our dessert. In rather high spirits, I pushed the carriage back into our shed. Who knew but that the war would be over next week. I prayed again, quietly inside my heart, "Thank you, Lord, for this food. Thank you, Lord, for this bit of wood." Leaving the wood in the shed, I carried the potatoes under one arm and the bag of wheat under the other. When I pushed open the front door, it creaked horribly. One of the first things I would do after the war was oil its hinges. No familiar call of welcome hailed me from the livingroom. Perhaps grandfather was sleeping. He slept much and sometimes, or actually very often, was rather befuddled about the situation we were in. I could see his head resting sideways against the back of the chair. It faced the east window where he could look out on the fields. "Grandfather," I called, but there was no answer. I walked through to the kitchen and deposited my bargaining trophies on the counter. Then I walked back into the livingroom, approaching to the edge of the chair. "Napping, are we?" I joked, "Sleeping while your favorite grandson is bringing you not only a good supper but also a warm-bellied stove for the evening." Moortje, our black cat, was sitting on his lap. We never fed him anymore as there was no food. Although thin, the animal was wiry and did an admirable job catching mice and rats on his nightly raids. Moortje was inordinately fond of grandfather. No wonder, for the black creature received innumerable scratches behind his ears, under his jaw and along his furry back. As I came closer, Moortje stood up and began to meow, at the same time licking the top of grandfather's hand – a hand, I now noted, that hung slack over the edge of the chair. Suddenly afraid, I pushed the cat onto the floor and nudged the still figure. But even as I put out my hand, I knew. I knew that my grandfather had died before I could make the room warm, before I could boil the potatoes, and before I could make some sort of pancakes out of the wheat. Undeterred by my gesture, the cat jumped back onto grandfather's lap and began butting his black head against the unmoving chest. I knelt down on the floor in front of the chair, resting my head on the still lap. The cat half-sat on my head and began purring. I vaguely took in the familiar smell of grandfather's pipe, for even though it had been years since he had last smoked the odor of it permeated his clothes. I did not weep, but was overcome with weariness so great that all my limbs felt as if they had turned to jelly. I sat there for an hour or more - I don't know quite how long. But eventually I heard the front door creak open. Then there were footsteps and Paul came into the room. Paul was the Canadian pilot. "Nico?" His voice showed his surprise at seeing me on my knees with my head in grandfather's lap. I stirred but very slightly. "Yes," I answered softly. "Nico," he repeated, and there was something in his voice that made me raise my head and look at him. "What is it?" "Your father," he answered, and then there was a catch in his voice that gripped my heart with fear. "My father?" Standing up I repeated his words mechanically. The cat jumped to the ground and ran past Paul's legs. A minute later we could hear the door creak – Moortje had the uncanny ability to somehow paw it open on her own. All the while Paul stood still and I knew again, for the second time within a few hours, that something devastating was going to occur. "Is your grandfather sleeping?" Paul asked. "Yes," I answered, reasoning to myself that he was asleep, for weren't the dead asleep according to the Bible? "Somehow," our Canadian pilot continued, beckoning me over to the kitchen where he was heading, "somehow the Nazis became aware of your father's hiding place in the woods." I trailed him to the kitchen, not able to say anything. He continued, speaking more slowly, leaning his left arm on the counter next to the potatoes and the wheat, his voice low and showing no emotion, "This afternoon they raided it and your father..." "My father," I regurgitated, feeling surreal and hearing my words as if someone else had said them. "He was killed, Nico." "No one knew where he was hiding," I protested then, "no one at all. There was just grandfather and myself who knew." But within me I was aware that there was another person. And my heart pounded with the knowledge that I had confided in one other person where my father was hiding and that person was Lieneke Goudswaard - Lieneke with the blond, honey-colored braids. I stared at Paul. His eyes were full of compassion. "We'll not wake your grandfather," he said, "not yet, anyway." "But he," I stuttered, "he is dead too, Paul. He is dead too." A half-scream, half-groan erupted from my heart and from my belly and Paul's arms closed around me until I stopped. I was quiet afterward but could speak no words; neither could I weep. A great weariness overtook me again as I gazed at grandfather sitting in his chair, head tilted to one side while the potatoes and the wheat stood upright on the kitchen counter. And then things went black. Chapter 4. The judge I awoke on my bed later that evening, and I awoke because the door creaked. My head was fuzzy and it was hard to immediately remember what had happened. But the realization of death, loneliness and betrayal returned full force as soon as I sat up. Candlelight shone in from the livingroom. Swinging my feet over the edge of the bed, I peered through the small hall. I could just make out the figures of three men standing in the livingroom, one of them holding a candle, standing around grandfather's chair. They were Piet Winter, Hugo Enkel and Klaas Boks – all part of father's team, all part of the underground. I must have made some sort of noise, because all three simultaneously turned to find me looking at them. "Ah, Nico," said Piet, "I'm sorry, son. I'm deeply sorry about your father and," he added, "your grandfather." The others murmured agreement and I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. "We're going to bury your father tonight," Piet went on, "and we thought perhaps it might be a good thing if we buried your grandfather and your father next to one another." I nodded again. Klaas, a big man, lifted grandfather's body out of the chair and began carrying it towards the front door. It could not have been a difficult task for him because grandfather was light as air, so thin he had become. "Where," I asked, "will you bury them?" "In the church cemetery, next to your mother," Piet said, "we've already had some men dig the holes. We can't wait, Nico, because the liberation is coming closer each day and the Germans are getting so nervous that we're not sure what they'll do. But we're pretty certain they won't take the time to dig up graves. Do you want to come?" I walked towards him rather unsteadily. "Let me come with you afterwards too, Piet," I pleaded, "I've got nothing left here." He said nothing, but held out his hand and I took it – me, a grown boy of sixteen years, hanging on to someone as if I were a toddler. When we reached the churchyard several people emerged from their hiding places behind some of the larger tombstones. One of them was the dominee. No one spoke. As one body, we all moved forward silently towards the west side of the church. This was where my mother was buried. Wasn't it just last week that I had visited her grave with my father? And now, in the moonlight, I could see that two yawning hollows had been dug next to it. I watched silently as my father's body and my grandfather's body were lowered into those black mouths. There had been no wood for coffins for a long time now. "There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say enough! The grave..." Like arrows from the bow of a hunter, the words from Proverbs found their mark straight into my heart and a great anger overcame me so that I turned away from the small group bunched around the gravesite and ran blindly away between the markers. Reaching the metal gate, I lifted the latch eventually finding my way home. And all the while I was thinking about what I would do next, all the while I was scheming how I could avenge...and I did not leave the end up to God. *** Paul came to the house some time later. He always came and went; I did not know the full extent of how involved he was with the underground. As I lay in bed, feigning sleep, I could feel him bend over my still form. He whispered my name but I didn't answer. Then he went to my grandfather's room and I knew he would sleep there for the night. But I did not sleep. *** Even before the morning light touched the horizon, I was up and into my clothes. My bow and arrows were stashed away in the shed under an old wheelbarrow. I checked them carefully before I headed in the direction of Lieneke's house. It had rained during the night. Puddles lined the road but there was a sweet south wind – a warm wind – and I thought of how grandfather would have enjoyed this day. He might even have sat behind the house if the sun proved to be warm enough. No one was about. Certainly a year ago, or even a half a year ago, I couldn't have walked out as freely as I did now or as I had done yesterday on my way to farmer Dikkens. The Germans badly needed manpower so they had been randomly conscripting men and young boys off the street. But the war was almost over now. Or so it was said, and Germans could be seen leaving town. Every day we saw small groups of soldiers walking through our streets, heading northeast. No matter though, during this particular pre-morning hour there was quiet and not a soul was about. Lieneke lived on the opposite edge of the town and upon reaching her home I stood for a long moment under the window that I knew held her bedroom. Then, taking the few pebbles I had collected from the roadside, I began to toss them gently and steadily, hitting her pane with a soft ping each time. It would not do to waken her father who would not take kindly to seeing me. Before long the curtains parted slightly to silhouette Lieneke's form. She opened the window and whispered. "Is that you, Nico?" "Yes," I answered, making my voice bland, giving away none of the emotion that roiled around inside me. "What is it?" "I'm going for a walk. Will you come?" She was silent, and for a few moments I was afraid that she would not come. We had often gone on walks together, she and I, and had been able to talk about many things. What these things were, I can't recall now – only that our rapport had been excellent. The reality of the bow and arrow under the wheelbarrow in the shed lay heavy on my heart. I heard birds begin to sing, only just now starting to wake. "I'll be there in a minute, Nico. Wait by the road." I breathed in deeply. She would come then. Slowly I sauntered back to the road. Spring, though late, had come and almost gone. I could smell it. Ragged robins, marjoram, and wild balsam flowered, flowered while people died. "Here I am, Nico." She had come up behind me so softly that I was startled. "Lieneke." "Where shall we go for a walk?" I did not answer but began to lead the way back in the direction of my house. "I'm sorry about your father and grandfather, Nico." There was something within me, something that pushed all other emotions away except for an overriding sense of ... of something I did not know how to define. Lieneke's hand gently stole into mine. It was a very thin hand and I could feel the bones. "I am truly sorry, Nico," she repeated. No response found its way to my lips and my right hand roughly pushed her hand away. She did not seem overly hurt by the gesture, supposing that my bereavement entitled me to rudeness. Blackbirds whistled their songs in fields, mingling their voices with those of finches. A lark rose up high above our heads, strong and proud, flying straight up to heaven. It was almost morning – almost. We walked without speaking for a long while, and eventually came to my house. I turned in, walking towards the shed. "What are we going to do, Nico?" I said nothing, simply holding the door open for her. She slipped into the semi-darkness of the interior and sat down on a broken chair propped up against the east wall. The earliest sunrays faintly fell through the cracks in the wall, shining on her blond braids. I noticed that she had not taken the time to comb her hair. It was slightly disheveled, with strands escaping from the thick plaits. But it did not look unkempt to me, rather it gave her an aura of being totally caught up in my welfare. I was not happy with that thought and forced myself to visualize my father being lowered into his grave. I sat down as well, on the dirt floor straight across from her, and took a deep breath. "Someone," I began in a neutral voice, "betrayed my father. Someone informed the police where my father was hiding." She nodded, her blue eyes fixed steadfastly on my face. "There was no one," I continued, "no one except myself, my grandfather and you, who knew where he was hiding." Her eyes became clouded, as tears formed. I could see them pooling, then overflowing, and finally falling down her cheeks. "Oh, Nico," she whispered, "you don't think that I..." "It is a fact," I said, "that there is no one else who knew." She said nothing but just looked at me. Tears ran down her face. I wanted a denial, a strong denial, and hot anger flooded my being. "You," I pushed out vehemently, "You're a traitor, just like your father! You wicked girl!" I stood up then, balling my hands into fists. Backing out through the shed door, I knelt down on the wet ground and picked up a pile of dirt. Packing it into a ball, I stomped back in. Lieneke still sat in the same spot. She hadn't moved. It was as if she were frozen. I hesitated but only for a moment. Slowly coming up to her, never taking my eyes of her face, I heavily deposited the huge clump of dirt on top of her head. Part of it oozed down, down past the honey-colored hair, onto her cheeks, mingling with the tears; but most of it stayed on top of the blond pile of hair. Walking backwards, I took my bow and arrow from under the overturned wheelbarrow. Fitting the arrow into the shaft, I aimed at the apple of dirt on Lieneke's head. "Why did you tell them?" I cried the words in agony. My fingers trembled. She did not contradict me but sat so still that she could have been a painting. The sound of loud, raucous laughter coming down the road startled me – startled me so that my fingers let go of the arrow. It whistled and struck Lieneke's left cheek, narrowly missing her eye. She flinched and her hands flew up to her face at the same time as the door behind me opened revealing Paul. "Nico! What are you doing?" I could not answer. For suddenly it was as if the dam of grief within me had burst its bounds and the waters swept me away so that I no longer had any control over my body. Paul was at Lieneke's side in an instant, speaking as he moved. "There is a German patrol coming down the road. I do believe they're totally tipsy. But neither of us had better be here if they decide to check on the house, or search this shed." "Run! You must run!" The words were Lieneke's and woodenly through my tears I saw that she had stood up. Blood trickled down her left cheek even as she spoke. What had I done? "I think you're all right," Paul said, addressing Lieneke, and then coming for me, he added, "Nico, we have to make a run for it. Those Germans will shoot us on sight." "But what about...?" My words slurred and I could not stop looking at the blood running down Lieneke's face. "I will be fine." She spoke the words almost formally, the wet dirt on her head continuing to seep downwards to mingle with the blood on her left cheek. "As you know, most of the Germans in town are acquainted with my father." She lifted one of her hands in a mock salute, a hand wet with her own blood as she added, "So you need not worry about me at all." Rooted in my spot, Paul had to push me alongside him towards the shed door, talking to Lieneke as he did so. "Go to the house and wash that wound," he instructed, looking at her over his shoulder, "Don't let any of that dirt infect it." Opening the door, and peering around the corner, he next pulled me out with him and we began our escape. Our house was built on a slope and the field behind it curved downwards towards a small stream. Even now I remember the shouting, the loud voices calling us to halt. We did not halt. Miraculously the shots that were fired missed us. Slipping and sliding, we reached the water, and all the while Paul dragged me behind himself. He dragged me until I lost consciousness. It was then that he carried me. *** When I awoke, I was lying on a cot in a small room. Paul was sitting at a table, as were some other men. I recognized Piet Winter and Klaas Boks, but there were others I did not know. Shifting slightly, the movement alerted them to the fact that I was awake. Paul stood up and sat on the edge of the cot. "So how do you feel?" "Where am I?" "That doesn't matter. What matters is that you're safe." "How long have I been here?" "Well, you've been sleeping for about two days now." "Two days!" He nodded and smiled. I was struggling to remember everything that had happened and closed my eyes at the immensity of the memories that hit me. My father and grandfather were gone. There was no one at all now except for Lieneke and she... "How is...?" But I could not bring myself to say her name out loud, and repeated, "How is...?" "First I want to tell you that we know who it was who told the police where your father was," Paul said in a low voice. "Who was it?" "It was your grandfather." Paul uttered the sentence softly. He knew the words would hurt. The men at the table had gone back to playing cards, to speaking quietly among themselves. "How could he? How could grandfather?" "He didn't mean to. The Gestapo came to your house that afternoon. Only they were not dressed like officers. They were dressed like ordinary folks. They questioned your grandfather and led him to believe that they were loyal Dutch citizens and that they were friends. They promised to bring some food for your grandfather and you if he would only tell them where his son was. They said they had an urgent message for your father from the queen." "The queen?" "Yes, and your grandfather believed it, and was more than willing to point them in the direction of your father's hiding spot." Paul stopped for a moment and eyed me compassionately before he continued. "You're grandfather was suffering from aging, Nico, and did not quite know what he was doing or saying the last while. Surely you know that." I did know it. I had seen him talk out loud to the cat as if she was my mother. And I also recalled that he had told me only a week ago that Prime Minister Gerbrandy had come to call, asking for his help in fighting the Nazis. "How do you know for a fact that he really told them?" I asked the question with a sigh and moved my feet under the thin blanket covering my form. "Because one of the German officers told Hendrik Jansen. The officer thought it was a huge joke. Hendrik is one of our men, but the officer didn't know that." I knew Hendrik Jansen. He was Tom's father and I'd gone to school with Tom for a long time. "So it was not Lieneke?" Paul shook his head. "No, Nico, it wasn't her at all. "How is she? Is she hurt very badly?" He replied rather indirectly, and I vaguely sensed that he was keeping something back. "The wound on her cheek was not very bad, just a scratch really." I sighed again, partly in relief this time, but when I wanted to get up, dizziness overtook me. Paul pushed me down. "Sleep, Nico. Sleep." Chapter 5. The substitute Two weeks later the war was over. So was my life as I had known it. Our house had been burned down to the ground. There was nothing left. There were only the three graves in the cemetery and I could not bed down there for the rest of my life. But I had no other family except for those three. It was Paul who provided me with a solution of what I ought to do. "Come back to Canada with me, Nico." "Come back with you?" "Yes," he said with a warm smile on his face, "my mother and father would love you. After all, it was your family, your father and grandfather and yourself, who saved my life." I talked with the dominee, and with Jaap Kunstenaar, both of whom encouraged me to accept Paul's offer and go with him to Canada. I tried very hard to see Lieneke, but every time I knocked on the door of her home, no one answered. The windows had been boarded up and the property appeared untended, unkept. The neighbors raised their eyebrows when I asked them about Lieneke and would tell me nothing. Neither was dominee or Jaap Kunstenaar able to relate anything to me as to the whereabouts of the family Goudswaard. I was ashamed to tell anyone what I had done to Lieneke the day after my father and my grandfather had died – Paul was the only one who knew. For all intents and purposes then, it was as if that whole episode, together with the Goudzwaard family, had disappeared from the face of the earth. And so I left my village without saying goodbye to someone who had never shown me anything but kindness. But now here was the mystery. Lieneke was in Canada – not only that – but she was in Canada with a child. That child was seven years old, born the year after the war was over, so he had been conceived during the war. Echoing, loud laughter in the hallway reminded me keenly of the loud, raucous, crowing laughter of the drunk soldiers coming down the road – coming down the road that morning when the birds had just begun to sing. And it came to me that Lieneke had offered herself as a substitute – offered herself so that Paul and I could live. I groaned out loud. Someone knocked at the door. Still absorbed in the past, I stood up and opened it. Little Nico Goudswaard faced me, or was it Lieneke? His grin sang at me. "I came back because you forgot to tell me your name." "Nico," I answered, "my name is Nico, just like yours. And," I added, "I think that I would like to ask your mother..." I didn't finish the sentence. I couldn't because I was weeping. This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue under the title "I Have A Sonne Seven Years Old; He is to me full deere..." Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books including "Katherina, Katherina," a novel taking place in the time of Martin Luther. You can read a review here....


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