I mentioned this week that when I sold my first novel, I actually had a two book contract, which then became Watching the Tree Limbs and Wishing on Dandelions. You can read chapters from each by scrolling down to Tuesday’s and Monday’s post.
In those two novels, I used a device to keep Maranatha telling her story in third person. In her adult life, she was still too close to the story, and too traumatized, to be able to tell it in the first person. She couldn’t bring herself to say “I.” But in this third book, I anticipated that Maranatha will have finally found some healing, which is why I start the book with a note from her. You’ll see as the chapter begins, that she finally tells the story as the “I.”
Obviously, this book, tentatively titled Waiting on Rivers, is not published (or even written except for this first rough part), so you can’t purchase it. It’s my hope to be able to publish it someday to bring completion to Maranatha’s story. Would you pray with me that God would someday open that door?
A note from Maranatha:
It’s you and me sitting across each other on the veranda. We’re sipping tea, as usual, while the warm Burl breeze intermingles our friendship. You’ve bothered me for years to tell you my story, but I’ve resisted, writing it on the pages of books using words like she and her to describe me and my. Settle in. Brew some more tea. Grab some hankies. I’m ready to tell you the rest of it. May God help us all.
I vowed my life was to be free of pain a few years ago when I got my fill of agony. I remember the day, actually. The first day of winter, 1987. It’d been a month since the trial when I faced Jake Gully, saw his perverse face stare right through me. He could see my nakedness, I’m sure of it. Georgeanne had shooed me out of our new home, telling me to “go blow your stink off,” so I grabbed the Bible Zady’d given me and hiked the meandering road behind our development. A break in a fence beckoned me. I picked my way through cacti and underbrush through a stand of twisted pines. Beyond them, I heard a trickle. I walked into a hollow where I spied a limping stream, probably a mud gully during the hot Burl summer. I sat on a boulder. I don’t remember it being particularly cold; still, I shivered.
I turned to Ecclesiastes, Old Mack’s favorite book, and read these words: “a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” I don’t know why I knew, but I did. Those were God’s words to me. His promises. I rooted around like a wild hog at my feet, desperate for stones.
I found five red rocks.
I cast each one with fury.
Stone one: Missing Nanny Lynn, the grandmother with a title but no lineage. I threw my grief at the creek bed, barely a kerplunk receiving my rage.
Stone two: My father. I hoped I could cast the image of his face from my mind. I hated the sight of him rendered flat on a photograph. I threw my father hard, a trajectory bent straight toward earth like a plane doomed, but it made little noise in the mud at my feet.
Stone three: General. I held that stone a while, almost cradling it between shaking hands. I wished I had a hammer so I could crush that stone to bits. I remembered Jesus’ words about stones, how if He were to roll over a person, they’d be obliterated. I threw that stone as furious as I could, but it missed the creek. It hit a tree and fell with a thud to the bracken below.
Stone four: Uncle Zane’s stroke. So much of my life’s mysteries remained locked inside the confused memory of this man. I wanted to shake him, make him remember. But every time I had the urge to grab his thin shoulders, I’d recoil in guilt. If only I’d been more attentive. I tossed Uncle Zane’s stroke downstream and watched the waters wash over it.
Stone five: Jake Gully. He’d had such a small part to play in my life—just a few minutes’ ride in a red truck. Yet, he proved I was marked forever as a target for leering men. I held this stone briefly, then let it fly to the wind. It landed upstream with a small splash.
I knew then God wanted me to erect some sort of stone memorial like the Israelites did after passing through the Jordan river, to gather five stones in tribute to His faithfulness, but I couldn’t find any more. Truth was, I didn’t want to. Throwing the stones seemed to be enough—my own vow that everything terrible was flung far from me.
Rocks scattered to the trickling creek, I vowed my life would be pain-free from that time out.
But God didn’t listen.
April 1995, Burl, Texas
Charlie told me to come home early today, begged me really. “I’ve got a surprise for you, Natha,” he said, his eyes atwinkle.
“I’ll be home soon enough,” I said. “Just one more case out by the river.”
“You promise you’ll be careful out there,” he said.
I meant to keep my promise, but as I trudged through the wilds of Burl’s outskirts, I soon realized this was no simple case. How could it be?
In the ravine of a nearly-dry river bed, seven trailers tilted around each other like a wagon train. Children scurried around and through them like squirrels pursued. Must’ve been near twenty of them. I sighed. Social work had its up days and its down days. Though I felt hope when I helped the Sandersons find a reading program for their son Jud, I had a feeling today would end in discouragement. Again. Charlie would have to pick up the shattered pieces of me tonight.
A man slam-banged the trailer door nearest me. The slam seemed to be an unseen command to the rollicking children. They scattered to the forest behind the circle of trailers, leaving us alone. I pulled out my clipboard and walked toward him. He wasn’t a tall man by any stretch. His graying hair matted and curled over his ears. He wore ripped overalls, a stained undershirt peeking underneath. His feet were bare, his eyes distant.
He said nothing. I looked at his feet. His left foot was missing a pinky toe. My stomach hiccupped fear.
From behind his back, he pulled a pistol and aimed it at my nose. Point blank.
“Sir,” I said. “I was sent here by—”
“The government,” he hissed. “I know all about you government folks. Come to steal my family, do you?”
“No sir, just to check in.” I swallowed.
If I stepped forward, my nose would graze the steel barrel.
“Git,” he spat. “Git away from my home.”
I stepped backward, but he stepped along with me in a strange parallel dance—nose to barrel. I’ve spent my life begging God to not to let me die before important things. When your parents die when you’re young, you think this way. Please let me experience college, I begged. Please let me find a meaningful job. I’d like to help people before I die. At least let me live that long, I pled. Please let me marry Charlie. Don’t let me die before I say I do, I beckoned. Lately, it’d become, Please, Lord, let me have children before I die.
“My children are my business.”
“Yes, of course. Now could you please lower your gun?” My words sounded assured, but my head screamed, I don’t wanna die!
“You look awful familiar,” the graying man said. “Do I know you?”
The gun remained suspended in the air, his finger twitching at the trigger.
I wondered if it would be a good thing to humor this man who thought I looked familiar. Or if it would provoke him. “I don’t know,” I said. Which was the truth.
“I don’t like the look of you. Not one bit. You remind me of—”
In a flurry, several children circled us, laughing, playing, chasing. All ran away except for one barefooted girl.
In a smooth motion, the man pulled the gun from the air and shoved it behind his back.
I let out a breath, mopped my forehead with the back of my arm.
The girl, probably eight years old, tugged at the man’s overalls. “Uncle Rivers, Uncle Rivers, play Blind Man’s Bluff with us, please?”
“Magnolia,” he said, “I can’t right now, but maybe later.” The tenderness in his voice surprised me.
“All right, but when?” Magnolia’s copper hair would’ve shown silky in the sun had it seen a brush, but the mats dulled the sun’s effort.
“In a few minutes,” he said. “After I’m done talking with this lady.”
“I’m Magnolia,” she told me. She wiped her hand on her knit shorts and extended her small palm my way.
“Maranatha,” I said.
“That’s a pretty name. Why are you here? We don’t get visitors.”
I swallowed. What could I say? I needed her to stay here, to keep the gun from tickling my nose. How ironic that I’d come here to save children from poverty and abuse, yet one child’s presence around this gun-toting man saved me. At least for now. “I’m just here checking to see how you are all getting along.”
“Oh, well, you needn’t do that. We get along just fine, don’t we, Uncle Rivers?”
“Yes ma’am,” he told Magnolia. “I was just telling that to the nice lady when you interrupted.”
“I’m mighty sorry.” She slipped her hand into his, leaned her head against his bare arm. “You can finish your talking.”
I took this brief opportunity to get my spiel in, so I could go back to the office and check these river-bottom folks off my list, never to return. “Sir, I need to know about the children’s schooling. And have they received their vaccinations?”
The man sneered.
“No ma’am,” Magnolia said. “Shots are the devil’s work and school, well, it’s part of the government.”
“Can you at least tell me how many children live here? Their names? Their ages?”
“Yeah, there are—”
The man clapped a hand over Magnolia’s mouth. “I know my rights, Maranatha.”
The way he said my name gave me the willies, like he knew me, but not in a friendly way.
“The children have rights, Sir. To healthcare, to schooling.”
I could see his face contort, trying to quell a rage there that if unleashed, might brandish a gun—even in front of a child. I stepped back.
“Maranatha,” he hissed. “Get out of here. And never come back.”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Don’t go,” Magnolia said. “Please don’t go. It’s been a long time since—”
“Hush,” the man said. “This woman is bad news, child. Best let her go back to her world, leave ours behind.”
I bent low, eye-to-eye with Magnolia. “There are people who care about you. Don’t forget that.”
Magnolia nodded, then locked gazes with me. Her clear blue eyes told stories, I could tell. I turned away. I knew those stories.
“Goodbye, ma’am,” the man hissed.
“Goodbye,” I said.
I walked up the hill away from the trailers, away from the man with the gun, away from Magnolia’s pleading eyes that tried to pull me back. My heart panicked my chest, stole my breath. I’d tasted death today, nearly kissed it, but I wouldn’t share that with Charlie. He’d spent too much time worrying about me as it was. No need to bother him further.
Now out of eyeshot, as the sun pressed its heat into me, I heard moaning. Or was it crying? Distant sobs wafted from beyond the hill, a sound shadow enticing me and repulsing me. Zady always said the Good Lord appears in funny disguises—in a prisoner’s uniform, a street person’s filth, a lost child’s plea. She said we meet bits and pieces of Jesus when we welcome “the least of these.”
Today, frankly, I was tired of Jesus’ disguise. I let the moaning continue, let it worm its way through my head while my rebellious feet walked away. I’d had enough of suffering, enough of pain. God owed me a good life from now on. I was married to the man I loved, living in the most beautiful home in Burl. We even talked of starting a family. Everything looked rosy. Everything would be rosy. No use in entangling myself in the affairs of the man with the gun and the girl with the haunted eyes. God was big enough to take care of everyone anyway, right?
Now at my car, I unlocked the door, touched the sweltering handle. When I shut myself inside, my slam felt like a declaration. I’ll never see that man again. Never.