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The Gift: an allegory of sorts

“Why do you always have that small string wrapped around the top button of your sweater, father?”

The father smiled at his son. “Have I never told you?” he replied.

“No, sir.”

The father fingered the small, grey string thoughtfully. It was almost hidden within the confines of the thick wool of his sweater. Then he sat down, held out his arms to the child and took him onto his lap. “Once,” he began, “Once…”

Chapter 1 – The eagle awakes

At precisely six thirty, when the sun had already risen, Arend heard the alarm rattle in Cousin Janie’s bedroom. He had woken up to it every morning for the past six months. The urgent shrillness traveled insistently and angrily through the thin walls of one of the little houses on Tooker’s Road, rudely tweaking Arend’s earlobes, making him pull the blanket over his head.robin pulling on worm

Tooker’s Road was not really a road, but a small lane. About twenty-five homes stood next to and across from one another along both sides of a gravel path. The adjoining land had once belonged to a farmer by the name of Tooker. In need of a little money, he’d sold off twenty-five parcels of two-acre lots for four hundred dollars a piece. That’s how the houses had been born. Small homes they might be, but they were homes boasting a bit of acreage. Although narrow and barely qualifying as thoroughfare, cars did use Tooker’s Road enough so that when you crossed over to the other side you had to keep an eye out.

Arend lay quite still under his blanket, waiting for Cousin Janie to wake up, waiting to hear her trudge across the linoleum tiles of her bedroom towards the bathroom. He had listened for her sleepy footfall every morning this past half year and he continued to be perplexed as to how Cousin Janie could not want to wake up. He was constantly amazed that she would not want to peek out the window to see if the grass was still green; that she would not want to ascertain whether the sky was still as vast and magnificent as it had been the day before; and that her blood was not throbbing with the desire to embrace the very air around her.

Pushing the blanket back down, Arend folded his thin, little arms under his head and stared up at the cracks in the ceiling. One of the cracks ran all the way from the light bulb in the center of the ceiling down to the right corner. It was a crack that split off into other smaller cracks. A fat fly crawled over the naked bulb and buzzed down to the floor. There were many such flies who called this room their home. When the sun shone into Arend’s bedroom in the late afternoon, they all vibrated and spun around on the floor simultaneously. Cousin Janie called it their death dance. She vacuumed them up every chance she got, but Arend rather liked the sound of the buzzing.

The tap stammered water in the bathroom. The yellow faucet only produced thin trickles of water at intervals. It was enough though, to fill cupped hands so that you could splash wetness onto your face and sputter into a towel. He could imagine Cousin Janie standing on the bathmat in front of the oval sink, shivering in her blue nightie. Grinning, he sat up, turned around onto his knees and stuck his head under the green curtains which hung just behind the iron headboard of his bed. There was a robin on the lawn. It was pulling hard at a worm.

Arend itched to go out. He didn’t really know what it was he desired to do. Just to go out would be enough. He ached to hear the birds singing their cheerful, early songs in the tree tops; he wanted to feel the dew wet his feet; and he yearned to feel the smooth blades of the lilac bush leaves between his fingers. Sighing deeply, he leaned his chin on the palm of his right hand. Cousin Janie’s car stood on the driveway. It was an old, blue Pontiac and rust had eaten away a great deal of the body. Sometimes she had trouble starting it and then she would grumble because the bus was the only other recourse to get to work. The problem was that she had to walk a half mile towards the city bus stop and in Cousin Janie’s high heels, that was no picnic.

The tap stopped running. A few minutes later the toilet flushed. Arend lay back down. It was only a matter of a few minutes now before Cousin Janie would pass his bedroom, calling as she passed to tell him that there were corn flakes on the counter and could he please clean up afterwards and could he remember to peel potatoes for supper tonight? Yes, he nodded to himself, for had he not always remembered these things in the time that he had lived here? Always was a very long word. There was a time, he pondered, as he folded the thin arms under his head again, a time before always. Cousin Janie was not really and truly his cousin. She was his mother’s cousin and actually she had not really known his mother that well. And his father… well, he did not like to think of his father.

“Arend,” Cousin Janie’s voice startled him, even though he had been waiting for it, “Arend, the cornflakes are on the counter. Please remember to clean up after you eat and please remember to peel the potatoes for supper tonight.”

“Yes, Cousin Janie.”

Arend grinned at the cracks in the ceiling. A few minutes later the side door opened and closed, the screen slammed shut, and he could hear Cousin Janie’s footsteps patter down the steps and crunch on the gravel as they headed for the car. Then the car door opened and closed, and a minute later, after a bit of coughing, the car started. Sighing in relief, Arend resisted the temptation to peek out the window again.

It was truly the beginning of his day now. Lithely he swung his feet over the edge of the bed even as the car wheels ground over the fine stones of the driveway. Sitting up, he took off his pajama top. Reaching for his shirt, socks and pants, he scooted off to the bathroom. The blue linoleum was cold under his bare feet, but that was no matter. After he had splashed himself in the face and dried off with a clean but hard hand towel, he pulled on his cotton tee shirt. It was a black tee shirt and underneath the crew neck a picture of Davy Crockett, gun in hand, stared out courageously from his small chest. He loved that tee shirt and Cousin Janie literally had to sneak it off his bedside chair for washing when he was asleep or he would wear it all the time. He’d seen the movie “Davy Crockett, Indian Scout” at school the last day before the Christmas holidays, just before he’d moved in with Cousin Janie. And ever since he’d seen it, he’d had a keen desire to be an Indian scout himself.

School was finished for the year now and there would be no bus to pick him up today. He was his own master and could truly do what he liked. Cousin Janie had been insistent that he stay within distance of the house while she was at work. He had faithfully promised her that he would, clearly envisioning within his mind that he could walk a long, long way into the field behind the house and still see the house, and that there was a great deal of exploring he could do while keeping that promise.

Chapter 2 – Petrus & peanut butter

He cleaned up as tidily as he could after eating breakfast. Diligently wiping the counter clean after he washed his plate and spoon and cup, he even swept the floor with the broom. Surveying the kitchen afterwards, he nodded, quite pleased with himself. Why Cousin Janie complained about housekeeping was a mystery to him. There was nothing to it.

He would leave the potato peeling until later. First he had to get out and see if there were any tracks in the field. It had rained last night and surely if deer had come around, there would be tracks. He had marked their hoof prints before, indented large as life between the wide and growing rows of corn. But today, on this first day of his holidays, he would be able to follow those tracks, follow them to wherever they led.

Making himself a peanut butter sandwich, he scouted around the cupboards for something in which to wrap his lunch. Finding nothing, he decided the sandwich would have to fit into his back pocket.

Then he was off, the screen door slamming shut behind him.

The next few hours were blissfully wrapped up in the knowledge that freedom was his: freedom to catch tadpoles in the small creek between Cousin Janie’s house and the farmer’s field; freedom to climb an oak tree and scan the horizon for Indians; freedom to lie down between the corn stalks watching their green leaves gently sway in the breeze; and freedom to lazily observe black beetles lumber past dew puddles on the ground. And then, strangely enough, Arend fell asleep.

****

“Hey, boy! Hey, boy, what are you doing here?”

Arend groggily opened his eyes. He thought he was waking up in his bedroom and tried to decipher the cracks in the ceiling. But all he saw were the cracks in a face, an old, old face.

“Hey, boy!” the voice repeated, “Wake up!” Then the face smiled and one of the eyes in the face winked at him. “Are you running away from someone and hiding?”

Still lying down, Arend shook his head even as he began the process of sitting up. “No,” he said.

“Well then, what are you doing here?”

“School’s over and I’m exploring,” Arend explained.

“Exploring?” He was a tall, a very tall man. His bony jaw jutted out and his eyes, although one of them had just winked cheerfully, were a piercing dark blue. “So you’re not running away?”

“No, I’m not,” Arend answered again, and then, because he had been told by Cousin Janie over and over to speak with two words, he added, “Sir.”

“Well, I am.” The old man promptly sat down next to him, put a finger on his lips and motioned that Arend should keep quiet. The boy was not afraid but rather fascinated.  “She’ll be shouting in a minute. Don’t say anything, mind.”

Arend nodded and sure enough, a few moments later a woman’s voice rang through the air. “Petrus! Petrus, where are you?”

The man poked Arend with his elbow and gleefully whispered, “Didn’t I tell you she’d shout?”

“Petrus, come out this very minute. I’m getting angry!”

“Sometimes Cora gets so angry,” the man confided softly to Arend’s left ear, “that she turns redder than a tomato. Sometimes I think she might explode.”

This so amused him that he began to chuckle and had to clap his hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. Arend couldn’t help it, but he began to grin. They sat in silence for a few minutes while the woman’s voice kept on calling and calling. Finally a screen door slammed shut. Arend presumed Cora had given up and gone inside.

“The only thing is,” the man went on, sobering up, “I’m so hungry. I think lunch time is soon and Cora does make a good lunch.” As he spoke, his face fell.

Arend turned onto his knees and put his hand into his back pocket. The peanut butter sandwich was still there. It had stretched out flat, like a square pancake. He extracted it and held it in front of the old man. “Peanut butter,” he whispered, “and you can have half if you like.” To show that he meant what he said, he tore the sandwich in two and held out one half to the man.

A smile twinkling in his eyes again, Petrus regarded Arend with joviality and readily accepted the half proffered to him. “You are my friend, and friends give their names. What is yours?”

“Arend.”

“Mine is Petrus.” Contentedly Petrus took a bite from the bread and began to chew. Suddenly a look of apprehension crossed his face. Taking the half-chewed bread out of his mouth, he put it on his lap.

“I forgot to pray,” he said.

“Pray?” Arend repeated.

“Yes, don’t you pray?” Petrus didn’t wait for an answer, but folded his hands and respectfully recited, “Lord, bless this food for Jesus’ sake, Amen.”

Satisfied, he popped the bread back into his mouth and resumed chewing. But he regarded Arend carefully as he chewed. “Don’t you pray for your food?” he asked, his mouth full.

“I don’t know how.” Arend truthfully replied.

“Well, you fold your hands and ask God to bless your food. Unless, of course,” Petrus added, as he took another bite, “you are going to bed. In that case, you ask Him to take care of you during the night and,” he went on as he took another big mouthful, “you also ask Him to forgive your sins for Jesus’ sake.”

“Oh,” Arend said, not understanding exactly but rather taking it all in as if the teacher at school were explaining the new sound in a word.

“So you try it,” Petrus encouraged, “Just fold your hands and I’ll help you.”

“Cousin Janie doesn’t pray,” Arend whispered, beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, “and I don’t know God.”

Petrus’ eyes opened wide at this revelation and the grooves in his forehead deepened. He said nothing, but took another bite. It was his last bite. “Well,” he finally commented, swallowing the oddment, “if you’re not going to pray for your food, you may as well give me your half of the sandwich. It’s better, I think, for me to eat it because I prayed, and you didn’t.”

“Does it taste better when you pray?” Arend ventured to ask.

“Yes,” Petrus confidentially answered as he took the other half out of Arend’s hand, “much better.”

They sat for a while in silence, Petrus chewing and swallowing assiduously. Then Arend asked, “Is Cora your mother?”

This set Petrus off into gales of laughter, almost choking on the peanut butter. “My mother?” he finally managed to gasp, “My mother?”

“Yes,” Arend replied, “isn’t that why she is looking for you?”

“If she was my mother,” Petrus explained, savoring his last bite, “I’d have to do what she said. I’d have to come. But she is my sister, so I don’t have to do what she says.” They sat for another long while in silence, Arend stealing glances at his companion, wondering who he was and why he did not want to go and see his sister.

“You know,” Petrus eventually spoke, licking his lips, “I’m still hungry. I think I’ll go now.” He stood up. His tall frame was twice that of the growing corn. Without any further ado, he took several strides through the cornfield towards the ditch. Reaching that, he crossed a small bridge leading to a grass backyard. Then he stopped, turned around, and called back to Arend. “Do you want to come, Arend? Do you want to come to my house and have some lunch too?”

The boy had stood up as well. He was quite famished, his sandwich was gone and, more importantly, he was suddenly lonely. He could see Cousin Janie’s house clearly outlined to the far left. He was definitely still within the bounds of the promise he had made her. “All right,” he answered Petrus, walking toward him, “I’ll come to your house for lunch.”

Chapter 3 – Beginnings

It was a small house – white with black shingles on the roof and black shutters on the window. Situated just a bit farther down the road than he traveled on the school bus, Arend hadn’t been aware of it. Jumping the ditch rather than using the minuscule bridge, he landed on the grass with a thud before running to catch up with Petrus. “Won’t Cora mind that I come for lunch?” he asked, a bit anxious about the voice that had called so insistently for Petrus to appear.

“No, she won’t.”

“Will she still be angry that you didn’t come?”

Petrus stopped dead in his tracks and looked at Arend. “She never gets angry in front of company – and you are company.”

He grinned and held out his right hand to Arend. Arend was about to take it when the old man suddenly bent down and, putting his hands under Arend’s shoulders, lifted the boy onto his neck. “Now I am really tall.” Petrus pranced around on the gravel stones of the driveway. Arend clung to the grey head, half afraid, half excited.

“Petrus, put that boy down!” Both looked towards the door of the house. It was open and a small woman stood in its frame. “Put that boy down right now and come in, Petrus!”

Arend supposed that the woman must be Cora. He felt Petrus’ hands reach up for him and gently lift him down to the ground. Then one of those hands took his own and pulled him along towards the door. “This is Arend, Cora. I found him in the field.”

The same piercing blue eyes that graced Petrus’ face, were in Cora’s – only hers were a lighter blue. “Hello, Arend.”

“He’s hungry, Cora. I ate his lunch.”

“Well then, he’d better come in for a bite to eat, hadn’t he?”

There was soup, cornbread and a cup of milk. And if that was not enough to make a belly stuffed, there was also a jelly donut on a stone plate for dessert. Petrus had explained in a rather matter-of-fact way that Arend did not know how to pray and Cora had not said anything about it. But after the meal, when Petrus yawned, appearing rather drowsy with the weight of a double lunch in his stomach, she had taken out a book.

“Are you going to read a Bible story, Cora?” Petrus asked.

“Yes, I am. Why don’t you lay down on the couch for a snooze and I’ll read out loud. You can listen with your eyes closed.”

Petrus obeyed with alacrity and Cora sat down at the kitchen table next to Arend. “Have you ever read from the Bible before, Arend?” He shook his head and Cora smiled. “Well, then it’s about time you heard about the very beginning of all time.”

She opened the Bible and Arend heard, heard for the first time in his life, the words, “In the beginning God…”

Now there is within every soul on earth the knowledge of eternity – and so this knowledge was also lodged deep within Arend’s soul. But when the window of one’s soul has been covered over with the dirt of birth for years, this is hidden. But the breath of the Word can blow away that dirt. As Arend listened, the words “In the beginning God…” were blown so violently across his heart that he caught a glimpse, a glimpse of eternity.

“What is the beginning?”

Petrus had begun snoring lightly and Cora absently smiled in the direction of the couch where her brother lay sprawled out. “The beginning,” she repeated, “Well, Arend, the beginning is when God was and we were not.”

“Where were we then?” And, after a moment he added, “And Who is God?”

If Cora was surprised at his naked ignorance, she did not show it. She merely answered, “God is the One Who made you and me and Petrus.”

“And Cousin Janie?”

“Everyone, Arend. God made everyone.”

“How did He do it?”

“By speaking.”

“By speaking? You mean by talking?”

“Yes.”

Arend was silent. He had never heard this before; he had never thought of this before; he had never contemplated the fact that he came from somewhere and that someone had made him. His mind briefly wandered to his mother and father. “Is God still alive?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cora answered quietly, “He surely is. He was always alive. He is alive now and He will always be alive.”

Arend thought about this for a moment before responding. “My father and mother died.”

“Did they?”

“Yes.”

Cora said nothing else but waited patiently. There was quiet for another minute before Arend went on. “My Mom, she died when I was born. I didn’t know her, but Cousin Janie says she was nice as far as she can remember. And my Dad, he had an accident. He was riding his bike on the road on his way to work and a truck went by and a piece of his coat got caught in the wheel of the truck or something like that. And he was dragged and then he died.”

“I’m sorry.”

Arend’s words had come out in a rush. He didn’t know why he had told Cora these things. He had not even spoken to Cousin Janie about what had happened to his Mom and Dad.

“You must miss your Dad.”

Arend stared past her to where Petrus was peacefully splayed out on the couch. He did not really miss his Dad. What he did miss was the sense of belonging to someone. His Dad had never spoken much with him and had often gone out at night, but his Dad had been the person with whom he had lived. There had been foster homes, a lot of foster homes, in the last two years. And he had never stayed anywhere longer than a few months.

Cora put the Bible down. She stroked Arend’s head. “I’m glad you met Petrus,” she said, “because Petrus needs a friend. I hope you can come over often.”

“Petrus is old,” Arend said, looking up at Cora and pulling away from under her hand.

“Yes,” she answered with a smile, “but I think you will still find him a friend.”

“Why does he …?” Arend stopped, unsure of how he could ask why Petrus was different, was rather odd in the way he spoke and behaved. But Cora anticipated his questions.

“Petrus had an accident a few years ago. He was a farmer and a good farmer. He knew everything there was to know about farming. But a loose beam from the barn gave way and fell on his head. It knocked him unconscious. We thought he might die. But eventually he did wake up and he woke up the way that he is now. He woke up like a child, but a child whose knowledge and faith often puts others to shame.”

Arend did not comprehend everything Cora told him and reacted only to the obvious. “What happened to his farm?” he wanted to know.

“Well, my son, who was working for him at the time, took it over. He runs it now.”

“What is his name?”

“Andrew Peter.”

“Why don’t you and Petrus live at the farm with Andrew Peter?”

“Because sometimes Petrus doesn’t see danger and runs after the tractor or goes into the bull pen by himself. He has forgotten many things about farming.”

Arend nodded. He understood that part. He settled back in the chair as Cora returned to the Bible reading. “In the beginning God…. created the heavens and the earth,” and, “Then God said: ‘Let there be light.'”

And Arend listened.

Chapter 4 – A good deal

That evening after supper, the child related the events of his day to Cousin Janie as she was sitting on the couch with her feet up. It was tiring work, she said, standing up as a teller at the bank all day and her feet desperately needed a rest. Cousin Janie was a cheerful, very direct person, a person who generally said what she thought.

“Well, Arend, little cousin,” she remarked, her hands cupped around a mug of coffee, “I gather from what you are saying, that I might not have to worry about you being alone all day after all.” And that was the truth. She had worried about Arend being home alone all day.

“Cora’s going to teach me how to play checkers and parcheesi,” Arend further informed her, “and read to me. She has a Davey Crockett book too. And Petrus is going to show me how to shuck corn and hoe the garden and he might even help me raise chickens or rabbits.”

Cousin Janie sat up, setting her empty mug on the coffee table. She regarded Arend thoughtfully. “It sounds like a busy summer for you, little guy. But I think I’d better go over there and make sure that you won’t be a nuisance – that you haven’t misunderstood.”

“Cousin Janie,” he said, ignoring her statement for the moment, as he watched her stretch her arms over her head preparing to stand up. “Cousin Janie, did you know that God was in the very beginning? And that He made us?”

She did not answer but looked at him rather strangely, her arms dropping down to the couch.

“And I wouldn’t be a nuisance,” Arend went on, going back to her previous caution, “I really wouldn’t.” The last words came out rather vehemently.

“I know,” Cousin Janie responded soothingly, “but just in case you misunderstood, I think I’ll pay them a call. Why don’t you get ready for bed and I’ll be back in a jiffy to tuck you in.”

Arend sighed. What if Cora and Petrus didn’t like Cousin Janie? What if she spoiled things for him? But when she came back some twenty minutes later and sat on the edge of his bed, she had a smile on her face. “It looks like it’s a deal, little cousin of mine,” she said, “Cora’s happy to have you come for lunch every day and to have you spend as much time as you like over at her place.”

Arend wiggled his toes under the covers and yawned simultaneously. He felt good – the kind of good you feel when it’s your birthday the next day and you know there’s a present for you in the living room. Once, three years ago, his Dad had actually remembered that he was going to turn four. He had set a present, elaborately wrapped, on the couch. Although Arend had barely dared surmise that the present was for him, he could not imagine who else it could be. His Dad had nodded almost imperceptibly when he had asked. From that time until bedtime that day, he had felt as if there was another person in the living room. It had been that big! He had woken up in the middle of the night. The temptation to get up and look at the present had eventually forced his feet out of bed. The moon shone in through the apartment window and had guided his steps into the living room. He had stood in front of the couch and stared. Then he had reached out and touched the wrapping – touched it ever so gingerly.

“What are you doing out of bed!”

Startled he had turned around.

“I go to the trouble of buying you a present for your birthday and you, you sneak out of bed.”

“No, Dad!” Hands now dangling dejectedly at his sides, he had begun to walk backwards towards the door of his bedroom. As he lay shivering under the covers, he heard his Dad pick up the present. The paper crackled. Then his father’s door closed. The next morning the present was gone and to this day he did not know what it had been; to this day he did not know if there had actually been something inside the wrappings. Perhaps there had been nothing.

“So even though I know you don’t intend to make a nuisance of yourself,” Cousin Janie’s voice broke into his thoughts, “be sure to help whenever you can. Offer to sweep, do dishes or just ask what Cora would like you to do. And never touch anything that doesn’t belong to you.”

He shook his head vigorously. “I won’t, Cousin Janie. I would never….” and then he stopped.

It was a good summer, a great summer and, comparatively speaking for Arend, the best summer he’d ever had. He learned how to play checkers, parcheesi and horseshoes; he was instructed on the intricacies of weeding, hoeing and podding peas; and Cora unwrapped Bible stories for him each day. Together with Petrus he fashioned two wooden cages, and when they were finished, Andrew Peter, Cora’s son, brought over three rabbits and five chickens, animals which he had bought at the local market.

“Now you be sure to help my Mom in the garden all summer,” Andrew Peter sternly admonished when he dropped the animals off, “and I’ll consider that payment. Is it a deal?” But he had not admonished so sternly that his eyes had not smiled. Andrew Peter and Arend had shaken on it. Andrew Peter was a tall fellow, not unlike his uncle. In his thirties, he was blond, lanky and clean-shaven. And his face held the same pale blue eyes that his mother had.

“He’s a good farmer,” Petrus said to Arend once, “I wish he were family.”

“He is your family, Petrus,” Arend replied, “Don’t you remember? He’s your nephew.”

“What’s a nephew?”

“Well, a nephew is … is … family.”

“Are you family to me, Arend?”

“Well, no.” The boy shook his head as they spoke.

“Are you family to anyone?”

“Well, to Cousin Janie, sort of. She was my Mom’s second cousin?”

“Well maybe you can try to become a first cousin. Do you have to study for that?”

Arend grinned. Petrus grinned too. “Was that funny, Arend?”

Arend didn’t answer.

“I hope you stay my friend, Arend.” The old man patted him on the back as he spoke. They were cleaning out the rabbit cage.

“I will, Petrus,” Arend promised, “but in September I have to go to school and then I won’t be able to visit as much.”

“I’m so glad that I found you in the field. I think that you were a present to me hidden in the corn.”

“Yes,” Arend answered, “I’m glad too, but Petrus, in a few weeks I will have to go to school.”

Petrus now stopped pushing the grass through the wire enclosure and turned his face toward Arend.

“School?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, because you have to go to grade two when you’re seven and I’m seven.”

“Well, maybe I can come and visit you at school? I’m seventy and it’s my birthday in October.”

Arend envisioned Petrus cramped into a small desk in his classroom and grimaced. He looked at the old man doubtfully.

“Do you want to go to school?” Petrus went on.

“No!”

“Well, then don’t go. Stay here with me.”

Arend tugged at some straw and wrinkles appeared in his smooth forehead.

“They make fun of my name in school, Petrus. At least they did last year when I was in grade one.”

“Fun of your name?” Petrus was incredulous and clapped his hands together in surprise. Pieces of straw left his sleeves and danced through the air. “You have a fine name. Arend is a good name!”

“Maybe it is,” Arend replied slowly, “But the kids said, ‘Arend. Aren’t you here? Aren’t you there? Arend isn’t anywhere’. And then they all laughed.”

Petrus clapped his hands together again as if to reprove the teasing children. His tall frame backed away from the rabbit coop and then he spread his arms out wide. “Arend means eagle. Have you never seen an eagle?”

“No.”

“They are great birds – really big birds. And eagles are in the Bible too.”

“In the Bible?”

“Ask Cora.” Petrus’ attention was diverted by the big doe. She was heavily pregnant and he carefully bent down to peer at her nest, stuffing some more grass into the enclosure, stuffing it right next to the would-be mother. “Soon we’ll have baby rabbits, Arend.”

Chapter 5 – Friends indeed

Arend wished a few weeks later as he lay in bed, that his name had been that of another bird – a bird such as Hawk, or Robin, as in “Robin Hood,” or something like that. But there had been a grandfather in Holland on his mother’s side – a grandfather for whom he had been named. But Arend did mean eagle. Petrus had said so and Cora had confirmed that it was true.

Tomorrow school started. Cousin Janie had surprised him with a lunchbox sporting the picture of Davey Crockett. Last year he had carried his lunch in a paper bag. Cousin Janie had also taken him to the store and had bought him two new shirts and a pair of pants. Cora had knitted him a thick blue sweater and Petrus, not to be outdone, had whittled an eagle out of a piece of wood. “It fits into your pocket,” he’d said, “and the teacher won’t know it’s in there.”

“Petrus,” Cora had chided, “Arend isn’t to hide anything in school.”

“That’s true,” Petrus had answered, his eyes twinkling, “and that’s why I’m going to keep it in my pocket. Now I have an eagle in my pocket. I have you in my pocket, Arend. And you’re going to stay there. I just thought you’d like to know.”

He’d emptied his pocket on the living room floor displaying a stone, a small, oddly-shaped stick, a blue jay feather and a dried-out dandelion. The eagle lay between these things. Arend smiled in the dark. It was, in a strange way, good to know that he was in Petrus’ pocket.

Things at school went much better the next day than Arend had expected. Although he found himself rather lost in the good-sized class of twenty-five rambunctious grade two, three and four students, he was not as scared as he had thought he would be. The teacher, Miss Wilcox, was pretty and she had each new grade two student take a turn to introduce him or herself.

“I’m Billy Barber and my dad is a farmer,” the boy in the desk next to Arend’s spoke up forcefully.

“What kind of farm does he have?” Miss Wilcox asked.

“A pig farm.”

“A very fine thing to have,” she smiled, “because ham is delicious to eat. You must be proud of your Dad, Billy.”

Billy sat down grinning. The next child was a girl. She stood up but her head was down. Her name was Isabel, she told the class with a shaking voice, and she had seven brothers and sisters. She sat down again and blushed. Miss Wilcox replied that she hoped she might meet them sometime. It was now time for Arend to stand. Isabel’s evident nervousness had calmed him. He had rehearsed his introduction a few times inside his head as other children took their turns. He rose, leaning on his desk with his right hand.

“My name is Arend,” he enunciated in a clear voice, “It means eagle and this name is in the Bible.”

Miss Wilcox was taken aback for a moment, but then responded. “Arend is an unusual name. What country does that it originate from?”

“Holland.”

“Indeed? Thank you for sharing that with us, Arend.”

Billy glanced at him from across the aisle. “Want to come to my house sometime, eagle?”

At recess, as if by prior agreement, the boys gathered at one end of the schoolyard and the girls at another. The grade four boys started a baseball game and allowed the younger grades to be part of the teams. Arend was picked to be a leftfielder. He enjoyed it especially when Henry, one of the older boys, commented that he ran pretty fast for a grade two-er.

A month and a half after school started, Cousin Janie slipped on the porch as she left for work in the early morning.

She had called out the usual admonitions to Arend and he heard the screen door slam shut as she left for work. Her initial steps down the porch sounded normal. Then her heel slipped on a thin layer of frost coating one of the cracks on the wooden steps. October had begun chilly and the nights were below zero.

Arend heard the noise of the fall. Still in bed and contemplating whether he would be allowed to bring one of his rabbits to “show and tell,” he immediately sat up, turned onto his knees and put his head between the curtains. Cousin Janie lay sprawled out in front of the stairs, half of her body stretched out on the gravel driveway. She was not moving. Arend jumped out of bed, raced through the house and catapulted out the front door in a flash.

“Cousin Janie!” There was no answer even though he called her name so loudly that the syllables seemed to echo across the lane. He called again. “Cousin Janie!”

Then he pelted, in his pajamas and on his bare feet, down the road to Cora’s and Petrus’ house. Banging on the door, totally out of breath and gasping for air, he brokenly told them what had happened. Petrus, wearing only his housecoat and slippers, as quickly as his old legs could carry him, immediately went back with Arend to where Cousin Janie lay on the driveway. He took a little mirror out of his housecoat pocket, bent down and held it in front of her mouth. “Look, Arend,” he called out, “Look, there’s mist on the mirror. She’s breathing! That means she’s alive!”

Arend began to cry. Sitting down on the gravel next to his cousin, he softly stroked one of her limp hands. “Please don’t die, Cousin Janie.”

Petrus sat down on the steps just above them, looking on. His blue eyes were grave. Then he took off his housecoat, bent over and tucked it around Cousin Janie.

“We should pray, Arend,” he said, “We should ask God to help.” As Petrus’ voice sincerely began to invoke God’s help, Arend closed his eyes, all the while not letting go of Cousin Janie’s hand. At the “Amen,” Cora appeared, fully dressed.

“I’ve phoned for the ambulance,” she said, “Arend, go and stand by the road so you can flag it down when it comes, but first go inside and put on your coat and your boots.”

Arend obeyed her woodenly. Letting go of Cousin Janie’s hand, he got up, scarcely feeling where the gravel had indented his legs. He walked up the stairs past Petrus, opened the door and found his coat and boots. Putting them on, he came out again and descended the steps. He walked backwards down the driveway, his eyes never leaving the still form of his cousin. Cora then went inside, procured a blanket from one of the beds and came out again. Telling Petrus to put his housecoat back on, she covered Cousin Janie’s figure with the blanket. Arend stood at the end of the driveway, and peered down the road for what seemed like an eternity, constantly checking over his shoulder to where Cora and Petrus were bending down. He loved Cousin Janie. Sobs welled up inside him bursting out in a howl of misery. The next instant Petrus appeared at his side and took his hand.

“It’s all right, Arend. I’m here.”

Arend snuggled into Petrus’ side and then two hands lifted him up, not to the old man’s shoulders, but to his heart. A car drove up from the opposite direction. It was Andrew Peter. He parked his car at the side of the road, turned off the motor and got out. Passing Arend and Petrus, he smiled gently and walked over to where his mother was hovering over Cousin Janie. He knelt down next to her, feeling Cousin Janie’s pulse.

“Arend,” Andrew Peter called a moment later, “Arend, come here.”

Arend slid down from Petrus’ arms and ran, scattering gravel in all directions. He could see that his cousin’s eyes were now open.

“Cousin Janie,” he whispered, leaning over Andrew Peter’s shoulder, “Cousin Janie, are you awake?”

“Yes, and I’m OK,” she whispered back, “Don’t worry, little cousin.” Carefully she moved her head to find Cora. “Please watch out for him today,” she went on.

Cora nodded, even as Andrew Peter took Cousin Janie’s right hand and began to pray. “Dear Heavenly Father,” he said, in a very normal voice, “Janie’s had a fall and needs Your help. Please strengthen her, Lord.”

“The ambulance is coming!” Petrus called out through the prayer, “I see it coming!”

“For Jesus sake, Father,” Andrew Peter went on, unperturbed, “let Janie put her trust in You so that she might live forever.”

Cousin Janie’s eyes were wide open now and riveted on Andrew Peter’s face. “Tell me,” she slurred with difficulty, and then her eyes closed.

The ambulance turned into the driveway.

“Let me go with her in the ambulance.”  Andrew Peter spoke up softly but clearly. Cora agreed, and stood up rather stiffly. She took Arend’s right hand and pulled him away from where he was leaning on Andrew Peter to stand next to her. Petrus, who had come back from his vigil at the end of the driveway, took Arend’s left hand. Together they watched as Cousin Janie was lifted into the ambulance. Andrew Peter got in as well and took a seat next to the stretcher. After the white car drove off, it was very quiet.

****

“What happened, Dad?” the little boy impatiently tugged at his father’s sweater, “What happened? Was Cousin Janie all right? Did she get better?”

The father smiled and shifted his position on the couch. “Yes, son. Let me just get my bearings here.”

Chapter 6 – A Father figure

Arend stayed with Cora and Petrus while Cousin Janie was in the hospital. She’d suffered a concussion, a heavy concussion. Andrew Peter phoned from the hospital that she was to stay there for observation for a few days before she would be allowed to go home. That Sunday Arend went to church for the first time in his life. Cousin Janie had not permitted him to attend previously. “You visit Cora and Petrus a lot during the week,” she’d said, and said it firmly, “I’ll not have you overstaying your welcome. So on Sundays I want you home with me.”

Arend had not minded really. Because in her tone he’d heard that she actually liked and wanted his company and that made him feel good. He’d taught Cousin Janie how to play checkers and sometimes they hiked in the park or visited some of her friends.

Arend felt a bit awkward at first. Sitting in the wooden pew, feet dangling, hair wetted down and neatly combed by Cora, he breathed as quietly as possible. He feared that if he were to make a sound, it would reverberate from the rafters and everyone would be sure to guess that he was new, that he had never been to church before.

He was wedged into the corner spot and Petrus sat on his right. It was Petrus’ birthday and there would be cake this afternoon at teatime. Cora sat next to Petrus. They were early and slowly people began to dribble in through the aisles – families with children, couples and single people. Then the organ began to play. Arend had never before heard an organ and started violently when the first rich tones swelled past him. Turning his head to see where the music came from, he spotted Billy Barber a few pews behind them. Billy waved. Arend turned his gaze away quickly, quite sure it was not proper to wave in church. Petrus nudged him and showed him a roll of peppermints in his pocket.

“You can have one later,” he mouthed and grinned.

A tall boy from grade four sat down directly in front of them. He was the boy who had praised Arend for running fast, and his name was Henry Beenstra but all the kids called him “Beanstalk” because he was so skinny and tall. He flashed a look at Arend before he sat down with his parents, eyebrows raised in surprise. His eyes jumped from Arend to Petrus and then back to Arend again. There was something troubling in his glance and Arend felt uncomfortable. He knew it had to do with Petrus but was not quite sure what it entailed. Petrus nudged him again and bringing out the small carved eagle in his pocket. Arend smiled. Whatever it was that bothered Henry “Beanstalk” about Petrus, it didn’t matter.

The minister, a middle-aged man, welcomed everyone and smiled. It was a good smile and reached Arend’s pew. There was singing and more singing and prayer. It was a very long prayer and from time to time Arend peeked to make sure everyone else was still praying. At one such peek, he caught Henry, face turned back towards them, staring straight at him. He quickly shut his eyes again, but not before he’d seen a smirk on Henry’s face. He leaned into the pew corner and tried to relax.

Avoiding eye contact with Henry during the entire ensuing service, he tried to listen – to listen carefully – so that he could tell Cousin Janie all about it later. It was a good story that the minister told – a story about a father with two sons. The younger one was tired of staying at home and wanted to go away. From everything the minister said it sounded as if the boy’s home was a good home and Arend could not fathom wanting to leave your home if it was good. That younger boy was stupid. Imagine having a kind father who loved you and wanting to leave that love. He turned his face back towards the minister. The father gave the boy a lot of money and allowed him to leave and the father was very sad to see him leave. The boy traveled to a far away country and spent all his money. Arend had never had any money. He guessed that Cousin Janie giving him milk money for a carton of milk at school each day didn’t really count. And he wasn’t allowed to spend that money on anything else but milk. After the boy had spent all his money, he got a job feeding pigs. It would have been a dirty job, Arend imagined, and not at all like feeding his rabbits or his chickens. And the boy was so hungry that he wanted to eat the pig food. What would the pigs have been eating? Slop, the minister said and if it tasted like it sounded, then it would have tasted terrible. While he was in the pig pen, the boy remembered his father.

Arend remembered his own father. His father had not really wanted him at home; had never given him money; had not even given him birthday presents. If he was living with pigs right now and his father was alive, would he go to him? It was a hard question and Arend began to dangle his feet back and forth, kicking the pew in front of him. He instinctively felt that his father would not have been happy to see him. Petrus put a hand on his knees to stop the kicking motion and Arend’s feet became quiet.

The boy went back home to say that he was sorry he had left, and when he was still far away from his old house, his father saw him coming down the road.

Arend remembered standing at the end of the driveway watching down Tooker’s Lane for the ambulance. It had been difficult to see very far because there had been a bit of a mist. He recalled straining his eyes. The boy’s father must have had very good eyesight. Maybe he could see like an eagle. And then the father began running towards the boy because he so very much wanted the boy to come home; and when they met, the father hugged the boy.

Arend’s father had never hugged him. But Petrus had hugged him.

The father then dressed the boy in a beautiful robe and he gave him a ring for his finger too. Arend stretched his right hand in front of him. Would it be sissy to wear a ring? And then a lot of food was made ready for a party and everyone celebrated because the boy had come home. Maybe cake was served – maybe cake like they would have this afternoon because it was Petrus’ birthday. It was because the boy was sorry, the minister insisted, that the father was so happy and took him back; and it was because the boy knew that he was lost, that he was accepted back home.

Arend reflected on that. It was easy to understand that if you were sorry, sorry about something you had done wrong, that this was a good thing. But to know that you were lost, that was more difficult to understand. How could you know that you were lost? Was he lost because he didn’t really have a proper home? And how could he… ? His thoughts stopped.

After church, Billy Barber and some other boys came up to him. Cora, with a backward glance over her shoulder, presumed that Arend would be fine with his friends.

“Want to come over to my house, Arend? My Dad will bring you back this afternoon. I’ll show you the piglets and we have puppies right now too.” Billy was insistent and Arend felt flattered.

“I’ll have to ask Cora,” he said, and together the boys looked for her but she said “no.” “It’s Petrus’ birthday. Did you forget?”

Then seeing the downcast faces in front of her, she relented somewhat. “Why don’t you come to our house instead, Billy,” she suggested, “and have your Dad pick you up later today?”

As Billy disappeared into the crowd of churchgoers around them in the foyer to ask permission, Henry “Beanstalk” walked over. “Hey, squirt,” he said, “how’s the number one runner doing?”

“Fine,” Arend answered carefully, a little apprehensive to be singled out by Henry and recalling vividly how Henry had looked at himself and Petrus during the service.

“Want to play some baseball this afternoon with some of the guys?”

“I can’t,” Arend replied, “it’s Petrus’ birthday and we’re… well, we’re having some cake and stuff. You know.”

Billy came running back. “My Mom says it’s OK. I can come to your house, Arend.”

“Oh,” Henry’s face took on a look of mock hurt, “so you can play with Billy, but not with me.”

Arend didn’t know what to say. He ground the toe of his shoe into the carpet. Henry turned around.

“Well, see you guys.”

****

“Then what happened, Dad? Was there cake?

His father nodded. “Yes, there was, son. But not until the afternoon. And it was a lovely chocolate cake, the kind that Petrus loved.”

“Tell me,” the boy, insisted leaning back against his father.

And the father continued.

Chapter 7 – Carried home

After Sunday soup, fresh bread and a hard-boiled egg, Arend and Billy helped Cora dry the dishes. Petrus was already on the couch half-asleep.

“Now you boys play outside until tea time,” Cora said, “and then we’ll have a piece of that birthday cake.”

Arend showed Billy the rabbits and the chickens as well as Cousin Janie’s house. Then they looked for deer tracks and rabbit tracks out in the field. Arend was about to get a container so they could catch some tadpoles in the little creek, when he saw Henry standing in the driveway. There was another boy with him. They were standing next to their bikes. “Hey, squirt,” Henry yelled, “we came over to say “happy birthday” to your friend.”

Arend didn’t know what to say.

“Well, aren’t you going to ask us in?”

“I can’t,” Arend said, “Cora and Petrus are sleeping.”

Henry turned the handlebar of his bike and fastened his gaze on Arend. “Well, eagle-boy,” he returned, “I sure would like a piece of that birthday cake and it would be a shame if we came for nothing.”

“Can’t you give them a piece,” Billy, who had come to stand next to him, whispered advice into his ear, “and then they’ll go away.”

Uncertain, Arend slowly walked towards and up the steps. He carefully opened the door, making sure he turned the handle just right so that there was no squeaking. It opened into the kitchen and the cake smiled at him on the counter. Cora had put a knife next to the cake. Also, neatly lined up, were four plates and four forks. He tip-toed inside, swallowed deeply, took hold of the knife and cut into the chocolate cake. He’d never done such a thing before. The knife stuck. He pulled it out and tried again. This time he was more successful. Eventually he managed to get two pieces of cake onto two of the plates. Balancing them carefully in his hands, he retraced his steps and went back outside. Henry applauded and laid his bike down on the driveway.

“Great going, squirt,” he said, “I’d knew you’d pull through.”

He walked toward the backyard and his friend followed. Billy and Arend followed as well, Arend still carrying the plates with the cake. They all sat down on the grass and Arend handed the boys a plate each.

“It’d be a waste if old drool mouth had this all to himself,” Henry commented, “and how come you’re staying with him, squirt?”

Arend blushed.

“Well, how come you’re staying here,” Henry persisted, his mouth full of chocolate cake.

“My Cousin Janie’s in the hospital and … well, Cora and Petrus are neighbors.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate, isn’t it? Having a neighbor that isn’t right in the head!”

Arend looked down at the grass. He didn’t know what to say. That is, he did know what to say, but he didn’t dare say it.

“I bet you’re sorry your staying here, aren’t you, squirt?”

Arend didn’t answer, but Henry repeated his remark.

“I bet you’re sorry Petrus is your neighbor, right, squirt?”

He stood up as he spoke, leaving his empty plate in the grass. The plate was stained with brown crumbs. The other boys stood up as well. Henry walked over to Arend, linking arms with him, pulling him back across the grass towards the driveway.

“I bet you’d much rather stay with me than with silly, old Petrus, squirt.”

Henry’s voice was loud and invasive. It crept under his Arend’s skin and slithered down the road. Arend wanted to pull away from the voice, but he couldn’t. His arm was locked in Henry’s grip. Nevertheless, he began to pull.

“If you say, ‘Petrus is a silly, old man,’ I’ll let you go,” Henry promised and squeezed Arend’s arm so hard it brought tears to his eyes.

“Petrus is a silly, old man,” the words burst out of Arend’s mouth before he knew it. Henry suddenly let go of Arend’s arm and Arend fell backwards onto the driveway. Henry laughed, laughed so hard he doubled over. Then he and his friend got on their bikes and rode off, tearing through the gravel of the driveway. Arend stood up, brushed himself off and glanced over at the still open door. Petrus was standing on the landing and he was staring right into Arend’s eyes.

Farmer Tooker’s grandson, who owned all the property in and around Tooker’s Lane, never harvested his corn until late in the season. As a matter of fact, sometimes he did not even harvest until the following year. Other farmers commented on it and said it was a shame to see a crop go to waste. After staring into Petrus’ eyes for a moment, Arend took off towards the field, losing himself between the tall, dry cornstalks.

Billy did not follow him and he was glad of it. He ran until the breath had totally drained from his lungs and he was forced to stop. Falling down onto the dirt, he curled himself into a tight ball and lay still.

How long he remained there he didn’t know. The late October ground was unrelentingly hard. It did not possess the dignity and support of a mattress, and yet the boy slept a dreamless sort of sleep. It had not been a sunny day to begin with and when Arend finally came to himself, he was numb with cold. Slowly he remembered what had happened and sick with shame, he sat up. His good pants had a grass stain and he wondered what Cora would have to say about that. But she would probably not say anything because he could not possibly go back. For surely after Cora heard what Arend had said about Petrus, she would not want him in her house again. And when Cousin Janie heard what he had done, she would never want to see him again either. He couldn’t blame either of them.

A lark flew overhead and in the distance he heard a mourning dove coo. He picked an ear of corn off the nearest stalk, peeling off its dried leaves. Shriveled and tiny, the kernels were uninviting and unappetizing. Perhaps he’d have to stay here all winter and eat hard, uncooked corn. His stomach both rebelled and rumbled. Billy had probably gotten a piece of chocolate cake and Billy’s Dad had, without a doubt, already picked him up and taken him home. He wondered if the coyotes in the field ate people. He sometimes heard them howling at night. Petrus said there were packs of them about. Cora was making fried potatoes tonight and there was going to be egg salad too. These were some of Petrus’ favorite dishes. He hadn’t even given Petrus a birthday present. He did not have money and Cousin Janie was in the hospital. But he had made him a card. It said: “Happy birthday, Petrus – from your best friend, Arend, the eagle you found in the field.” The card was under his pillow.

Was he like the boy in the minister’s story? Had he squandered what had been given to him so freely? Were dried ears of corn like slop? The only thing missing here were the pigs. Billy had pigs. Maybe he could stay with Billy’s family and live in the pigpen. The boy in the story had been sorry. In that way he was like the boy. He was so terribly sorry that he had said that Petrus was a silly, old man. Petrus’ eyes had been so sad, as if they could not understand that Arend would say such a thing about him.

“I hope you stay my friend, Arend.” “I will, Petrus.” That’s what he had said a few weeks ago and it had been a lie.

He picked up a clod of earth and threw it into the air. It landed with a small thud and broke into pieces. The strange thing was that the dirt, broken and black, was still part of the earth. You could not tell now that he had thrown it into the air, that it had been somewhere else but a few moments ago. Not so with himself. He had been tossed up by fear and he had landed flat on his face. Unlike that clod of earth, he was now part of nothing. His past was gone. There was no place for him anywhere. He was lost. He did not know where he was or where to go.

He shivered miserably. Even if he went to Cora and Petrus and said that he was sorry, he would not belong to them anymore. They would always mistrust him and would never love him again. What if he said that they could punish him? What if he said that he would work for them and they didn’t have to pay him ever?Petrus giving shoulder ride to his little friend

Unconsciously he stood up and his feet began to move through the rows and rows of corn towards the little white house in the distance. It was dusk now and the first stars were beginning to appear. The corn stalks crackled as he walked on, head down, towards the afternoon’s disgrace. He could hear an owl hoot somewhere in the bush behind the field. Bats flew by in the air hunting insects. He lifted his head for a brief moment to stare at them as they darted through the sky like ashes scattered to the wind. Instinctively his eyes moved toward the horizon, moved toward the house. It was glowing with light. Cora must have turned the lamps on in the kitchen and in the living room. His gaze fastened on the glow and he wished with all his might that he were there and that it was yesterday.

Then he stopped short for he suddenly perceived the figure of a person, a tall person, moving through the corn field just beyond the little bridge, moving toward himself. It was Petrus. He knew for a fact that it was Petrus – knew it within the pit of his being. Petrus had seen him too because at that moment the tall, spindly frame began to run, crushing plants as he did so. Without being able to stop himself, Arend began to run also – to run as fast as his legs could carry him. And when he reached the old man, he felt himself being lifted high, as high as the stars, and then he was carried home.

****

“What about the string, father. You said it was a story about the string.” The child was impatient and tugged at his father’s sleeve. fingering the string.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well?”

“Petrus had tied a string around one of the eagle’s wings. He said he had done this so that the eagle would not fall out of his pocket. He gave me the string that night because he said I needed to know that I would never fall out of his pocket.”

 

****

Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books, her latest being Katherina, Katherina, a novel taking place in the time of Martin Luther. You can read a review here, and buy it at www.sola-scriptura.ca/store/shop.


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The Healing Touch

Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Prov. 3:7-8) *** Chapter 1 It was a warm day, and Meggy adjusted her close-fitting cap with a sigh. Its whiteness covered thick, dark braids wound tightly across a high-held head, and enfolded the sides of a well-sculpted face. Meggy felt like itching her scalp but knew that a few steps behind them Hawys, who always walked to church with father and herself, would comment on it. Capitulating to the older woman's unspoken influence, she refrained, and merely adjusted her waistcoast with a shrug of her small shoulders. "Do not move about so much, child. It is the Lord's Day after all." Hawys' correction came swiftly. Father glanced at Meggy with a sidelong look, and smiled an apologetic smile. He was not one for arguments although she was sure he sympathized. They both knew Hawys did not mean ill and besides that, they were staying in her house, living partly on her charity. "I can hear the Sanctus Bell." Hawys, picking up both speed and her long, dark blue skirt, swept past them. Meggy automatically increased her steps as well. "Come, Father," she whispered, as she tried to pull him along, "it will not do to irritate Hawys." Undisturbed, he calmly answered, "Surely the bell ringer has only just begun and we have time to spare." Not multiplying his measured paces, he ambled on, all the while tranquilly regarding their surroundings. Meggy was unsure. Should she stay with father, or should she shadow Hawys? In the end it was the sense of father's words that convinced her. St. Mary's Church was but some ten minutes or so from where they were, and surely the sexton would not shut the doors against them? "Have you perhaps knowledge that the Archbishop himself is attending today? Is that why you and Hawys are in such a hurry, Child?" Father was teasing her. Slowing down, she affectionately squeezed his arm. "It would be wonderful," he continued, "to hear actual instruction from the pulpit. But I confess that I have not much hope for it." Meggy did not answer. Her eyes were still fixed on Hawys who, glancing back over her shoulder every now and then, was gaining great ground. "We might walk a trifle faster, Father," she suggested, but he seemed not to hear. "Your mother, although a mite argumentative, was fond of a good sermon, Meggy," he went on, "and I vow that in the long run she would not be in favor of us continuing to attend St. Mary's." Meggy could see the flint and ironstone makings of the church building coming up ahead. It was a beautiful structure and she loved it. The graveyard at the rear where mother was buried was very peaceful. Betimes she walked there and marveled at the monuments and admired the many stained glass windows that laughed at her from the grey church walls. There was one special window she favored – one with green diamond-shaped panes between its lead outlines. She often stared at that window during services. Sometimes she felt as if staring at something beautiful might reflect into her own heart and consequently make it beautiful. Is that how one was saved? "Meggy, Child, we are here." Indeed, they were. To her relief, Meggy saw that there were many folks still entering the rounded-off-at-the-top double oak doors. After quickly looking up at the top of the tower, as she always did before entering the church, she espied the signal beacon, part of an ancient series of signal beacons.  "Look Father, the beacon." She sped up her steps even as she spoke but Father pulled her back. "Easy, Child. The building will not run away." He was forever chaffing her. "Know you that the church was probably built in the 1200s, and rebuilt in 1494?" She nodded. Yes, she did know that. "Well, Meggy, now the year is 1672, and that makes this building some four hundred years old. All that time it has stood there and it will very likely outlive us." "Yes, Father." Meggy lifted her skirts and crossed over the church threshold. Her father followed close behind. The foyer was cool and quite empty. Meggy immediately walked through and on into the church proper. Standing in its wide doorway with the entrance behind her, she searched for the familiar figure of Hawys who was wont to sit in the back on the right. About to enter, a voice made her turn. It was a voice addressing Father. "Good to see you, James Burnet." It was a low, male voice. She did not recognize it immediately. But as she turned and moved back into the foyer, she saw that it belonged to Timothy Newham, a haberdasher, who lived close to Whitehall. She had never before seen him in their church or, for that matter, at a conventicle. In all probability he was not a religious man. "Hello, Timothy." Father answered the haberdasher's greeting courteously. "I had been hoping that you would come by my shop this past week, James." Father shrugged. Meggy walked back to stand by his side. There was something sad about that shrug and she sensed he needed her. "You owe me some money, James Burnet, and I am here to obtain it." "My dear fellow," the reply came softly and courteously, "perhaps you could come by my shop later this week. It seems unfitting to discuss this matter here in church." "I have waited all of a month already, James, and have seen neither hide nor hair of you." Meggy could feel the eyes of fellow churchgoers pry into her back. She put her arm through father's. "Let's go on into the sanctuary, Father," she whispered. "Is this your daughter?" "Yes, I am," Meggy answered for him, "and I beg you, Sir, do not make a scene here in the Lord's house, for that is not proper." "Is it proper then to withhold five pounds owing me? Five pounds that have been loaned out for more than three months even though the understanding was that it would be paid back in two months time?" Meggy took note of the fact that father's breathing was becoming uneven and rapid. And she minded the times of late that he had been tired. "I have followed you to church, James Burnet," Timothy Newham went on, "and I will follow you inside the church sanctuary if need be, and demand in front of all these people that you give me my money. Perhaps shame will make you pay me back." At the last words, he raised his voice threateningly and it seemed to Meggy that it reverberated off the foyer's high ceiling. "Come, Father," she repeated gently, "maybe we should go home and we will sort it all out when we get there." "There is nothing to sort out," Timothy Newham insisted, "Your father owes me five pounds, a tidy sum when you are a poor man such as I am, and I'll wager that he has that amount hidden some place here or there in his shop." "Not so, Sir," Meggy replied, "and I would ask you to do us the kindness of leaving. Please call at our home at the noon hour tomorrow and we shall receive you properly. You have our word on it." Timothy gazed at her thoughtfully, gazed long and hard. It made her uncomfortable. He was an older man, and it did not seem fitting. "Very well then," he eventually retorted, "tomorrow it is at about twelve of the hour." He swung about and disappeared through the heavy oak door before a reply could be made. Chapter 2 Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) It had been only four years since Cromwell, the Lord Protector, had died. During his time greater religious freedom had come about for the Protestants. However, then “the Restoration” had planted a new ruler on the English throne, a ruler who did not know Cromwell. He was of the house of Stuart and his name was Charles II. Although only a youthful thirty years of age, he was well versed in the vices of the world and his skill in these vices had spilled over into the country. Countries are labeled - labeled as republics, monarchies, dictatorships or otherwise. But should they be labeled thus? He who sits in the heavens laughs, and holds nations in derision. He has all things under His control and what He desires comes to pass. England breathed laboriously while Charles II ruled and was in great need of a physician. ***** James Burnet and his daughter stood in the church foyer for a few moments after Timothy Newham had left. Then, as if by common consent, they turned and departed the church building. No words were spoken on the way home. The streets lay silent for the church bells had stopped ringing. Meggy clung hard to her father's arm. James stopped walking every twenty steps or so and reflected on the fact that he had not been able to do as much work lately as he was wont to do. By his side, Meggy wished for the hundredth time that she had been born a boy and that her mother was still alive instead of lying in the burial ground back of the church. How they would both help father. She knew that they would. James Burnet was a pewterer. Although only a trifler in the trade, there was much call for the items he fashioned, items such as inkwells, mugs, badges, and candlesticks. He was not a wealthy man but small pewter utensils were popular and he sold of his wares to traveling tinsmiths who hawked them in the countryside. The Burnet family had been able to manage. James had taught his daughter much as she was growing into a young woman. Even now as they passed through the silent streets, Meggy could hear his instruction. "Pewter into which no water has come, becomes more white and like to silver, and less flexible," and "Nine parts or more of tin with one of regulus of antimony compose pewter," and "Pewter is called etain in French." The Worshipful Company of Pewterers in Oat Lane near the London Wall, stipulated that marriage to a member of the pewter guild conferred upon a woman the rights and privileges of the business. Mother, when she was married to father, had been put in charge of the financial side of the business and she had received the payments for all the work father had done. Her receipt to buyers had always been valid. One should not speak ill of the dead, but James' wife, although a hard worker, had clearly not enjoyed the trade and had made her husband's life rather miserable because of it. But she had been capable, and Meggy sorely missed the independence their little family had enjoyed. The Great Fire of London of 1666 The Great Fire of London had come in 1666 hot on the heels of the bubonic plague, which had hit in 1665. Destroying 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and St. Paul's Cathedral, the Fire had also burned both Margaret Burnet and her home. The Pewterers' Hall on Oat Lane had been destroyed as well, but it was being rebuilt. James Burnet had not had the money to rebuild his home. For a short while Charles II was blamed for these disasters. Some said his wicked lifestyle had brought about God's punishment on the city; others whispered that the king himself might have instigated the fire to punish the people of London for executing his father. Although James Burnet had been able to salvage some of his tools, the truth was that he and his daughter were left homeless. Hawys, a distant relative on mother's side, had kindly offered them living quarters. Her son Roger, a great big hulk of a lad, had from the beginning of their moving in, shown great interest in helping his relations. It had become a tacit agreement of sorts that he was working an apprenticeship. But nothing had been verbally agreed upon or signed. James, who was of a very cheerful and carefree disposition, had been glad of the young man's help. Irrationally, seventeen-year-old Meggy had not much liking for Roger and avoided him. Five years her senior, he displayed affection for father and her father returned it. Perhaps she was jealous. If father were to marry Hawys, the trade would eventually revert to her and later, to Roger. And it was a fact that Father was not well. He had of late been fatigued, unable to work much. Also, Meggy had noted that her father had a small, red swelling in his neck. Was he afflicted with a disease? She shrugged her small shoulders again. She did not like to think of such things, but the fears that crept into her mind and the raising of her small shoulders did not push the thoughts away. ***** Hawys asked no questions when she came home from church but simply laid out the Sunday meal on the kitchen table. Being discreet was a virtue, Meggy mulled, as she helped put the plates and ale on the board, admitting to herself that they were blessed to have such a relative. Although always adamant that they be in church on time, on the whole Hawys was a sweet-tempered woman and a good housekeeper. Father was determined that Meggy obey her in all matters. And rightly so, for did not the household run smoothly under her guidance and were they not clean and well fed? Hawys truly seemed to care for Father and for herself. Was she not even now fixing potions for his ailments, making sure he ate enough and did she not mend his clothes? Chapter 3 It was Lent. Now is the healing time decreed, for sins of heart and word and deed, when we in humble fear record, the wrong that we have done the Lord. So rang an old Latin rhyme and Meggy had heard father recite it often. Truthfully, Meggy was not aware that she had ever wronged the Lord. After all, she was quite careful to do all that was right. She obeyed father, loved him and worked hard at the chores Hawys gave her each day. So what was a healing time? She went to sleep thinking about it. But she had forgotten the words upon opening her eyes the next morning because the early air was filled with the sound of her father's coughing. Turning over uneasily, she listened as the grating noise crept under her bed and agitated the coverlet. Next to the bed, on a chair, she eyed her stay. She only wore it each Sunday and it had been mother's. Disliking its stiffness against her body underneath her gown, Meggy was glad it was Monday so that she could safely tuck the corset away into her dresser drawer. Hawys' spinning wheel was tucked into a nooked corner The coughing stopped and, breathing easier, Meggy turned onto her back. Her truckle bed stood at the foot of Hawys' fine feather bed. Hawys always rose at the crack of dawn and Meggy could now hear her rather shrill and drawn-out singing in the kitchen. Father slept with Roger in a side-room off the kitchen. He maintained that the kitchen was too cluttered and busy for him although Hawys was sure that sleeping on a cot in the kitchen would be a great deal warmer for him than the side-room. The kitchen was a room full of pewter, kettles, and skillets, with Hawys' spinning wheel round and annular in a nooked corner. The older woman had been trying to teach Meggy the intricacies and wonders of spinning, but the girl's hands stubbornly refused to convert fibers into yarn. Stretching her fingers, Meggy sighed and sat up, swinging her feet over the edge of the small bed. It might be a very fine day indeed were it not for the dismal fact that Timothy Newham was coming to see father. Sighing again, she stood up slowly and walked over to the washbasin atop the dresser next to the larger bed. Scrubbing her face hard to wash out the sleep, she pulled on a week dress overtop of her white shift. ***** "Good morning, Meggy," Hawys stopped singing to greet the girl's entry into the kitchen. A large wooden spoon in her hand, she stood stirring the porridge in a kettle hanging over the hearth. She followed her salutation with "How silently you enter this day, Child." "I am not a child," Meggy responded petulantly. "I know. I know," Hawys replied soothingly, "but I do want to braid your hair, big as you are, so come along and stand by the table after you fetch the comb from the side drawer. Meggy obeyed. She fetched the comb and stood quietly by the table as she watched the smoke from the fire on the hearth channel up the chimney. By and by Hawys came over and began to plait Meggy's hair. "You are truly silent," Hawys said once more as she put the finishing touch on the second braid, "and now that your hair is done, I would have you wash the front steps before breakfast." "Think you truly, Hawys," Meggy answered as she stood twirling the left braid with her right hand, "that Father might be ill and that he might... that he might perhaps have the scrofula?" "He has of late complained of a sore throat," Hawys answered. "But he could simply just have a sore throat for a while and then it will be gone. That has often been the case with me and with Roger. And I know that you have given him a tonic, and such complaints are common, are they not?" "As well, there is a small red swelling in his neck," Hawys said softly, hands on her aproned hips as she contemplated Meggy, "but that also is not uncommon. Indeed it could simply be a sting or some such thing. You as well as I know...." Her discourse was interrupted by her son Roger who burst into the kitchen from the side door. Tall and gangly, he was red in the face from some sort of excitement. "I can obtain a part-time position at the Palace of Whitehall," he broke in on his mother's words. "They are in need of gentleman ushers, seeing that Lent is here and that the king will begin audiences to touch the ill." "And what about your work for my father," Meggy demanded, letting her braid fall down, even as she emphasized the word my. "Oh, but I can do both," the young man answered, surprised at her vehemence, "for this work at the palace is only during the healing ceremonies this Lent. I simply help usher the poor into the king's presence and sprinkle rose water in the aisle to offset the stench these people carry. There are a number of young men who will do so. There will be a lot of people attending the ceremonies - from as far away as Russia, it is said. Besides that the work will pay." Meggy was not listening any longer. Her thoughts had wandered back to her father. "Father needs help all the time, Roger! You cannot be coming and going to ceremonies at the palace. You should constantly be with father and make sure he does not overwork." Roger looked surprised. His loose-fitting shirt was open at the neck and his collarbone protruded. "What ails you, Meggy? I am always helping him." "We were speaking of the scrofula," Hawys helped him out, "for Master Burnet has a red spot in his neck...." Again she was interrupted. "A red spot that could easily be the bite of an insect." Meggy's voice was shrill now and both Roger and Hawys eyed her uneasily. "An insect bite is quite likely," Meggy repeated loudly, "and is it not so, Roger, that you ought to be in the workshop with him right now, at this very moment." There was a lull in the conversation. Then Roger spoke on. His voice was calm and meant to put Meggy's fears at rest. "It is true that scrofula is called the Evil by many. It is a swollen and ulcerous condition and most pitiful to the eye. I have seen many people with it. Even now the ill are gathering in the streets awaiting the time when they will be allowed into the palace. But it is also said, and I know it to be true, that the scrofula, as well as other ills like it, often disappear of their own accord." "Well, father does not have it." Meggy stamped her foot on Roger's words as she spoke and then turned, walking past him out of the side door to her task of scrubbing the front steps. ***** During the next half hour, braids swinging back and forth as she scoured the stone steps, Meggy reflected again that Hawys and Roger were both actually very kind and that she had been rude. It was Roger who irritated Meggy. He was always so sure of himself, both in his demeanor and in his words and there was no doubt that father respected his opinion. She also had to admit, as the suds flew about the steps, that Roger was a fine help to father and seemed to be learning the trade. Perhaps, she pondered on as she swabbed and brushed, she truly was jealous. But jealousy was, as preacher Baxter had often pointed out in his sermons, a foothold for the devil to come into one's heart. Meggy and her father, as well as Hawys and Roger, divided their worship time between attending the Church of England and patronizing conventicles, even though conventicles were forbidden by law. Only five people, the law said, were allowed to meet together outside of the state church. Any larger number gathering for another church service was deemed illegal. Sometimes conventicles were held in the house of someone they knew, and at other times they were held in open fields. Meggy paused, wringing out the scrub cloth with her hands. Even though she admired St. Mary's Church, she also liked meeting out in open spaces, hearing pastors fervently extol God's goodness, and singing in the fields with only the sky for a ceiling. Watching the water drip down the steps, she wished that worries would run away as easily as the water, for there seemed to be so many of them. The worst of them was the fear that Father might have the scrofula, but hard on its heels was the fretting, the worry that had the name of Timothy Newham, the haberdasher, attached to its label. ***** After brealfast, Meggy was called into her father's workshop. "I owe Timothy Newham," he began, stopping rather abruptly and averting his face from her anxious gaze, before continuing, "I owe Timothy Newham," he started again, "some money, Meggy. I'm sorry, but there's the truth of it." He bent his head in such a way that she could clearly see the small red swelling in his neck. "What are we to do, Father?" "Well," her father answered softly, thoughtfully turning over a little pewter salt-shaker in his hands, "Hawys has graciously offered to pay the sum I owe and I would like you to deliver it to him. I would rather he did not come here, Meggy." "You want me to deliver the money to Timothy, Father?" "Yes, Child." "But how are we ever to repay Hawys, Father?" "I am going to marry her, Megs." Father only called her Megs when he was very moved and she intuitively felt she ought not to say anything which could trigger more emotions in him. "Hawys is good to us, is she not?" she managed, "But five pounds is but a little to build a marriage on surely?" He nodded and emboldened she went on, "Do you love her, Father? Do you love her like you did mother?" Actually Meggy was not sure whether or not her father had loved her mother. There had been many arguments between them. And the truth of it was that she had never yet heard him arguing with Hawys. But how had it come about that father owed Timothy Newham money? Timothy was a haberdasher and dealt in thread, tape, ribbons and other such things as a milliner also uses. His wares were in demand. She had been by his shop on occasion, sent by Hawys for something or other, and she had seen that the counter and the shelves in the haberdashery were crowded untidily with many things – things such as drinking horns, knives, scissors, combs, chess men, knee spurs and even girdles. Her mind had been turned topsy-turvy with the disorder in his store. There were so many items lying about that one's eyes became confused. "Why do you owe him money, Father?" "He had bought some tin in Cornwall, Megs, and he sold it to me for what seemed like a decent price at the time and I just have not been able to repay what he lent me for it." "Oh." Roger walked into the shop right into Meggy's “oh.” After looking at them for a moment, he began oiling the pewterer's wheel. The conversation fell silent. Father handed Meggy a small linen bag. "Go, Child," he concluded their discussion and then, turning to Roger, "I have some items for you to carry to Lion's Inn." Chapter 4 It was a fine morning and Meggy enjoyed walking. Timothy Newham's haberdashery was a good stretching of the legs away but she was young and relished the long stroll using the time to both look about and to think. Father's calling was to be a pewterer. Father's calling was to be a pewterer. Timothy's, on the other hand, was to be a haberdasher. Haberdasher – she repeated the word in her mind. It was a strange word but it was Timothy Newham's calling. And what was a calling? Calling was using one's voice but it was also something else – actually two other things. “There is a general calling,” father's voice plainly rang in her head, “for everyone. And that is a calling to conversion and holiness. Are you being called, Meggy? Are you God's child?” Father had asked her this question several times and always she had nodded in response, answering, “Yes, to be sure, Father.” But father must not have been satisfied with her sincerity, because he touched on the subject again and again. Was she converted? Was she holy? Even now as she walked the road, she pondered on the question. Truly, she did all things required of her, did she not? And did this not make her holy? She heard father's words again. “All those who come to church and sit in pews, Meggy, are not necessarily converted. To sit in a church does not mean you have been touched by the Spirit of God, Child.” Meggy lifted her skirts to avoid the blackish droppings of a horse straight on her path. Although she stayed close to the buildings, the filth of the streets was difficult to avoid. She was a little nervous too about the rats that scurried through the muck and grime. Of a certainty, father had told her often enough, the accumulation of waste had helped cause the Plague. If everyone would scrub their steps, as Hawys made her clean their steps most mornings, surely the problem would be less. She lifted her skirts again. It was hard work to live and maintain a family in London. She fell back to contemplating. “There is also a particular calling,” father's voice continued on in her head, “for every person, Meggy. And that calling consists of the specific tasks and occupations that God places before a person in the course of his daily living. It might be the work a person does for a living. For me that would be the work or calling of pewterer.” “And what do you think the particular calling is for me, Father?” she had countered, leaning cozily against him as they had sat talking in front of the hearth. He had stroked her hair as he replied, “It might be that of cooking, cleaning, listening to someone's troubles, or smiling.” “Smiling?” she had interrupted sitting up straight, almost laughing at the silliness of the suggestion. “Shall I stand at a booth, Father, selling smiles for ha'pennies to passersby? How could that be?” Father had laughed as well. “You see, Daughter,” he had explained, “you are good at smiling. Quite good, truth be told and God has given you smiles to bestow as a gift to others. Pastor Baxter, whom you have often heard at the conventicles,” he went on, “says there is a difference between washing dishes, scrubbing steps and preaching God's Word; but as touching to please God, there is no difference at all. Do you understand this, Meggy?” She had nodded. ***** "Hello, Meggy." All the while thinking and walking, she had almost bumped into Timothy, the haberdasher, who was standing in front of his shop window. Timothy's particular vocation, Meggy pondered on for a moment, was being a haberdasher. Of course he was also called to holiness, called to be a child of God? But he never.... "Are you dream-walking, girl?" Timothy spoke in jest as he looked approvingly at the blossoming young girl standing in front of him. Indeed, Meggy was pleasing to the eye. Red-cheeked, shining black braids bounching on her shoulders, clear, bright blue eyes warmly embracing her surroundings, she was a picture of health and self-assertion. Yet, at the same time, there was a shyness about her that appealed to the much older man. "I've brought you your money, Sir," she responded hesitantly after staring at him for a moment, reaching into the deep pocket of her skirt. Pulling up the small linen bag with the five pounds, she added, "Here is the money which father owes you." "Well, I was ready to walk to your house, but will not deny that I am happy you came here. It saves me both time and effort. Will you not come in for a minute while I make sure that all is accounted for?" He opened the door to his shop and extended an arm downward in welcome. Although she did not want to enter, she considered that the matter ought to be settled. Passing in front of him, she entered the haberdashery. Again, as before, the cluttered mayhem of his store overwhelmed her sense of orderliness. "Please sit for a moment," Timothy said, following her into his shop and, wiping the dust off a wooden stool. He indicated that she should make use of it. Lifting her skirts once more, she obliged. "It's a bit messy, I own," he continued, "and I warrant, it could use the touch of a decent woman." He eyed her for a moment before emptying the money into his right hand. Counting it, under his breath, he quickly ascertained that the coins added up to the right sum. "Do you want a receipt?" he went on to ask, "and might I also inquire if you left your father in good health this morning? "He's a bit poorly," she responded, before calling to mind that surely Timothy did not really care about her father's health, for if he had she would not be here now with the linen bag containing the money that he had demanded so crudely in the church foyer yesterday. "Yet he is well enough," she hastily appended. "I've just had a consignment of lace come in," Timothy volunteered the information slowly, regarding the girl as she sat on the stool, "and I'm thinking that a bit of lace would look fetching on your dress, Meggy." He spoke familiarly and it made her uncomfortable so that she gazed down at her hands without responding to his words. "Well then, you must be worried about your father," he went on, "for I call to mind that it is as you say, he did look a bit unwell the last few times I saw him. "He is well enough, Sir," Meggy defended, albeit in a flat tone, eyeing both the floor and the nearby door, hoping that the receipt would be forthcoming soon. "I expect that you've heard that the king will be coming to Whitehall later this week." "Yes, I have." "Indeed, he's come for the healing ceremony during this Lent. I am glad that you have heard of it." Timothy's eyes rested so long on Meggy that she nodded and he spoke on. "I'm surprised you're not more animated by this. The practice of healing by a reigning monarch such as King Charles II assuredly is common knowledge and I've no doubt you'll be wanting to take your father." "No, Sir." But Meggy's voice was unsure and Timothy was quick to latch onto it. He went on capturing her imagination with his words. "The practice of the 'healing touch' was first recorded centuries ago by the historian William of Malmesbury, who related the story of a barren wife. This wife, whose back was covered with ulcers, dreamt she was commanded to go to King Edward for a cure. So she traveled to court. The king, who much desired to help the poor woman, touched her back with water and her ulcers began to heal within a week's time. Not only that, but upon returning home, she was delivered of twins within that same year." Timothy stopped his narrative and considered Meggy's face. During the short discourse, he noted that she had become fascinated hanging onto his every word. Pleased and flattered, he continued, his voice lowered as if confiding a secret. "There have been other tales as well, including one in which King Edward carried a beggar on his back. The beggar was a cripple. The king carried him into St. Peter's church at Westminster after which the beggar was cured." "Is this true?" Meggy asked, eyes round, "I have always been taught that only God can effect a change in disease, so is it not false to say that earthly kings are able to effect cures?" Toffee-nosed, Timothy smiled down at her. "These ceremonies are extremely religious in nature. God gives kings this gift of healing as proof positive that they are chosen by Him to rule. So you need not worry about doing something that is wrong. Now if you are worried about your father's health...." He left the sentence unfinished and seeing her face become eager with hope, he continued in a scholarly tone, "Well then, I would advise you to look into going to Whitehall tomorrow." "Whitehall? Me?" "You speak, Meggy, as if you could not go there. But you could, you know. There are many who will go there." "But Father is not ... and I'm sure he wouldn't go. Besides I don't even know how I could get in." She stopped and shook her head before going on. "And I don't even know if what you are saying, Timothy Newham, is true. It could all be false and you could be telling me a tale." "There were years, it is true, that kings did not touch anyone. And that is probably why you, being some years younger than I am, are not as familiar with it as I am. During the time of Oliver Cromwell the practice was not in vogue at all. But now that a true king rules England once again, the touching ceremony has come back as indeed it should. Parish registers are kept and miracles have been recorded. My uncle is one as who keeps such registers. That is how I know." "I do not know if I ought to believe you or not." Meggy's voice was unsure. "Well," Timothy responded, looking with pleasure at the roses appearing on Meggy's cheeks in her agitation, "all I can tell you is that I can let you have a ticket so that you can enter Whitehall to listen to the ceremonies that will take place tomorrow. If you like what you hear, perhaps the day thereafter...? " He left the sentence dangling. "How is it that you can get such a ticket?" "I told you that my uncle, Robert Newham, is a registrar and he is one who gives out tickets and he has permitted me to sell them to such as are in need of healing." "Tickets?" Meggy responded, "and pray tell how much do these said tickets cost? And the truth of it is that I myself am not in need of healing." "It would not cost you anything, for I will gladly give you such a ticket." "You would?" "It makes me glad to see a daughter care so much for her father as you do for yours, Meggy." "He is not really ill, you know," Meggy responded rather feebly, "but it would do no harm...." She stopped before she added softly, "He would not go though. I know he would not." "Perhaps," Timothy suggested softly, "you might attend with me tomorrow, might attend the first ceremony at Whitehall to see for yourself what happens. Then, I am sure you would be persuaded of the reality of the cures effected by the king's touch. And being persuaded, you could easily convince your father to go the second day." "He is not convinced easily," Meggy responded, all the time seeing the swelling in her father's neck grow. "But you could go with me," Timothy let the words dangle like a carrot in front of her, before he went on "and see for yourself what happens." Meggy did not respond. "It is not an evil thing, Meggy. Gentlemen Ushers prepare the banqueting hall over which the king will preside. These ushers usually spray a perfume of sorts so that the stench of the ill will not overcome either him or bystanders. Next the Yeomen of the Guard bring in the sick, one by one, and they stand in the aisle before the king's place of sitting. It is after this that the king enters and sits down on a chair of state. His personal confessor, the Clerk of the Closet, will be standing at his side. The Prayer Book is placed on a cushion close by. You see, Meggy, it is all very religious and honors God." The girl said nothing, but her eyes were brimful of curiosity and wonder. "The Clerk's assistant," Timothy went on, "has gold medals or 'touch-pieces' hanging on ribbons on his arm. There are also two royal surgeons nearby waiting to escort the sick from the aisle right up to his majesty so that he can touch them. He strokes their necks, you see, in a loving way as they kneel in front of him, prior to their being healed." He stopped his oration and Meggy was torn. The words sounded so very good, so very real and so very loving. "I will go," she suddenly spoke decisively, "I will go with you, Timothy Newham, if you will be so good as to take me so that I can see and hear this firsthand. But I must hide this from Father and Hawys for surely they would think it nonsense. They are not overfond of the king, as you must know, but they do think that prayer...." She stopped and looked at the cluttered counter. So indeed was her heart cluttered, for there were so many things in there that she could not quite see straight. There was something askew with what Timothy was saying, but she could not manage to put her finger on it. “Whether you are well or sick, Meggy,” she could hear father say, “tis the Great God Who brings your state about. He is the One Who prevents sickness or brings it.” She nodded to herself. Yes, here was a bit of uncluttering. Again she heard her father say “Sometimes we are made ill, or someone we know is made ill, to test our faith and patience, Meggy.” "Well, Meggy," Timothy's voice interrupted her thoughts, "if you are of a mind to go with me to Whitehall you must be here at about one of the clock tomorrow. And perhaps the next day you can persuade your father to come with you. Be here promptly and I will be glad to be of service to you and your father. What can it hurt, after all, just to go and have a look?" This was true. Just looking and listening. Where could be the harm in that? She slowly slid down from the stool and stood directly in front of Timothy. He could possibly be an instrument in the hands of God to give her opportunity to help make father better. "I will be here at one of the clock tomorrow," she returned, walking past him out of the shop, not noting that the corners of Timothy's mouth had turned up, exposing square, yellow teeth in a half-smile - a triumphant smile. Chapter 5 Meggy had to tell an untruth at the evening meal in order to be able to leave the house the next afternoon. Allyson, the chandler's daughter, she mentioned to Hawys, her mouth full of pottage, had asked her help in making soap because her mother was ill with the ague. Roger stared at her in a strange way, a sad way almost. It made her feel rather awkward and she swallowed her mouthful with difficulty, because it seemed as if Roger knew that she was lying and that he was disappointed in her. But father smiled a broad smile and commented that this was most kind of her and of course she should go and help her friend. ***** Bells marked the one o'clock just as Meggy rounded the corner of the haberdasher's street the next day. Timothy, who was just closing the door of his shop, saw her coming. A smug look appeared on his face. Turning, he offered her his arm. She stopped short, confused by the gesture. "Come, come," he said, "you are young and must be escorted. I promise I shall take good care of you." When she still made no motion to take his arm, he scratched his head with his left hand. She marked the dirty fingernails on it. Then he remarked that he had forgotten something of import in his shop which she might find appealing. Stepping back, he unlocked the door of his store. "What have you forgotten?" she asked. "Oh, something you might find interesting," he replied, "Come in and I'll show you." A tad uncomfortable, but curiosity overcoming her sense of acceptable behavior, Meggy crossed over the threshhold once more stepping towards the counter. Timothy closed the door behind them. The click of the latch and the rather musty smell of the place straight away awoke her to the impropriety of the situation. Timothy moved a few paces into the shop. Then he sidled back and stood in front of the door. Particles of dust settled down on the counter. Suddenly extremely anxious, she stood stock still, wishing with all her heart that she had stayed outside. Timothy inched a bit closer. "You know," he mouthed, "you're a very pretty young lady." Meggy stepped sideways. Even though he was still some four feet away, she could smell his sour breath. "So what I forgot to collect was a reward for helping you get into Whitehall," he went on in a rough whisper, "and that reward is just one little kiss." "No!" she whimpered. Her voice had lost its ability to speak loudly, her heart pounded and her hands had turned clammy with fear. She continued pathetically, "Open the door and let me out. I don't want you to...." She did not finish for he had moved forward, had put his hands around her waist and was pulling her towards himself. It was at this point that her voice regained its strength and a high-pitched piercing sound shook the objects on the counter. It flew through the cracks in the wall out into the street. Straightaway the hinges of the door almost flew off their frame as it was flung open. Roger's lanky frame stood tall and forceful in the opening and Meggy had never been so happy to see him. "What's going on here?" he yelled, shoving Timothy into the counter, knocking bows, ribbons, pins, needles and lace onto the ground. The girl immediately slipped past the men, and ran down the street. Her cap was askew and her cheeks were crimson. She did not know where she was going and she did not care. All she knew was that she had to get away. What had she been thinking? What had she done!? Passersby stared. She neither noted nor cared. Finally, out of breath and underneath the overhang of some roofs, she stopped. What a ninny she had been! And what should she do now? She trembled with the horror at the thought of what might have happened. A few minutes later Roger caught up with her. "Meggy!! It's all right. Timothy Newham won't be bothering you again." Without looking up, she began to cry. Roger's arms folded around her and her head leaned heavily against his bony shoulder. "He's a beast," she sobbed, "He's horrible. He ...." "I know," Roger soothed, "but you ought not to have gone in there, Meggy. It's a good thing I was due to go to Whitehall and happened to pass the shop. To tell you the truth, I followed you. Both Mother and I were worried. We knew that Allyson's mother was not ill. So we wondered...." She pulled away, her tear-stained face angry. "But I went to Timothy Newham for father, Roger. He was going to take me to the ceremony. I thought that if the king was giving out the 'healing touch' about which Timothy seemed to know so much, then I ought to find out as much as I could about it. I thought that father ought to... ought to have a chance to... and Timothy said he had tickets." Roger's face became grim. "Surely you didn't believe that chicanery. Timothy Newham is a deceitful man, Meggy. As well, he and the king are both lechers. The king wants to be popular with the people. He wants them to like him. They call him the 'Merry Monarch' but he wants to hide the fact that he is... is....." Roger almost choked on his words, incredulous that she would fall for the jiggery-pokery of such a fraudulent royal ceremony. "But you," Meggy countered, wiping her face with the back of her hand as she spoke, "would work at Whitehall at this ceremony and would thereby help people enter deceit, if what you say is true." "Yes," Roger conceded, "to make some money to help your father and yourself and, of course, my mother. But maybe you are right and I ought not to have such a job." He stood for a moment, gazing down at her, and then repeating, "Yes, I ought not to have taken the job. I was wrong. Nevertheless, I think I will take you to the palace so that you can see for yourself what it is about." "You would take me there?" "Not so that you could take your father there, but so that you can see that you ought not to trust in men, Meggy." She was silent and hung her head. Taking pity on her, Roger went on a little less vehement. "You have heard good preachers often enough, Megs. Remember, their message. We, all of us, are diseased and full of infirmities. This is not such a strange thing here in this world. If your father is indeed ill, and God forbid that it is so, we will use such means as He provides for healing. But God does not use the wiles of such men as Charles II to heal folks. The ill vagabonds that flock to him, wretched creatures such as I see in the streets, only come because Charles provides them with a coin, a 'touch piece.' That is what they call such a coin. Most sell this coin as soon as they leave the palace and use it to buy food or who knows what. Some perhaps really and truly believe that Charles is sent by God to heal them. But would God use black to make white? I think not! Oh, Megs, wake up and trust God!" Roger had unconsciously used her father's pet name for her and she blushed. He continued with a last admonition. "And do you really think that your father would go with you to such a ceremony as would belie his faith?" Chapter 6 There were many beggars lined up by the gate at Whitehall. A host of them had swellings and lesions in their necks. Meggy tried not to stare and pressed close to Roger as they walked past them. Surely Father, she thought, was not as badly off as these people. Actually, he was not like them at all. She came close to rubbing shoulders with one ill wretch who had yellowish fluid oozing down the side of his legs. Her stomach turned. "Come, Meggy," Roger said, "don't stop and don't look so scared." "I'm not scared," she answered in a small voice, even as she eyed an emaciated woman with an ulcerated mass just above her shoulders. Next to the woman, a young boy lay convulsed on the ground, his mother desperately trying to pick him up. A blind man stood behind them. "Come on, Meggy," Roger repeated, "walk quicker." The disfigured disabled her feet. Was the king, she wondered, really such a wonder-worker as to be able to perform miracles? Such a wonder-worker as to heal these unfortunates? Did he have such a closeness to God as to cure these desolates and woebegones? Was father a such a one? "We are nearing the Banqueting Hall," Roger said, "and that is the place where the king will come to touch. One by one these poor creatures will be brought before him. They will kneel before the king and he will stroke their necks." Meggy shuddered. She knew not whether it was the thought of the king actually touching the misery around her that caused her to shudder, or whether it was the thought that it seemed blasphemous on the king's part to think that he had power over illness. They had reached the entrance to the palace and Roger pulled her off to the side. The queue, of which they were not a part, lay both behind and next to them. It was filled with crutches, bandages and disfigured persons. All of them were holding certificates verifying that they would be allowed into the king's banqueting hall. A man hobbled by to the right of them. He was disfigured in an appalling way. Growths of a most horrible kind hung from his neck, dripping both greenish pus and blood. In his dirty hands he clutched a crumpled ticket of admission. The ticket had been, if what Timothy had told her was true, signed and sealed by a minister or church warden declaring that he had never before been “touched” by the king. Despite her revulsion, Meggy ached for the man. He appeared so very ill. Yet there was hope in the very manner he put his feet down, put them down steadily towards the entrance of the palace. Mesmerized, she could not take her eyes of him. It was almost his turn to be admitted. A Yeoman of the King's guard, one who conducted all the ill to a line attended by the surgeon, was also watching him and Meggy read loathing on the guard's face for this particular man. But the man himself noted nothing. His whole being was simply fixed on entering the banqueting hall. "Hey, you! Let me see your certificate." The Yeoman's voice was loud enough so that Meggy could hear each word. Startled, the deformed man handed over his paper to the guard who, after scanning it, threw it to the ground. "It's forged," he announced in a gruff voice, "and I can tell because of the blood on it. You think that you can enter by smearing blood on a piece of paper and not be caught?! You were a fool to think it! Away with you!" Meggy heard a sob catch the man's throat as he watched his paper flutter to the earth. His face ruckled and his eyes, sunken in their sockets, produced tears. What a poor wretch he was!! And it suddenly came to her that she was such a wretch too. And it came to her also that surely this was not the way it should be and not the way it was. Had she not but recently heard pastor Baxter say that you could not let yourself in at the gate of heaven, and that you could not pay your own way into the banqueting hall of Jesus? She had not really understood the words at the time but she understood them now. Pastor Baxter's voice rang clearly in her head as she continued to behold the spurned man. And she beheld herself. “Take heed to yourself,” she heard pastor Baxter say, “for you have a depraved nature. You have sinful inclinations, Meggy! You are verily ugly in nature. And think you that you can come into heaven by your own strength?” Meggy sighed a deep sigh. She recalled her jealousy; she knew that this very day she had lied to her father and to Hawys; and she remembered that her curiosity had almost caused her bodily harm but less than one hour back. Indeed, she was a wretch! Of a certainty, at this very moment she had lost her desire to enter Whitehall and kneel before Charles II. But she did have a deep desire to worship. Indeed, her heart was bowed low within her. It all depended, she thought, whom the king was. To be sure, was it not so that no one needed a certificate to come into the true King's presence. All that was needed was the blood of the Lamb of God. "Therefore, ... we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus ..." Was that not what pastor Baxter had spoken on the last time she heard him at a conventicle? Roger poked at her arm. "Meggy, what are you staring at? Have you seen enough, girl?" She smiled at him. It was a tremulous smile. It was a contented smile. It was the smile God had bestowed on her as a particular calling. "I have Roger.”...


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