Rachel

Rachel
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

“I’m jus’ lookin’ for my grandbabies. And maybe you seen my grandbabies?”
The old woman’s voice whines in my mind at odd times, grieving me, urging me, who can do nothing, to do some little thing after all. Oh, the humble supplications are the most horrible, since they enlist the conscience, and it is the conscience that echoes forever until I bend and put it to rest.

   “Woman! What, what between me and thee?” Conscience. Common humanity. The heart’s language commonly spoken, and you speak it, and I understand it, though I do not always choose to understand, but we are members of the same Body, various extremities, and I am commanded to understand-

     Woman, hush!

     I will do something.

     I will name you Rachel; and I will magnify your cry by writing it; and with it I will fill the ears of the people.

*****

     At eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night I left and locked my office, then stepped into dark night and a thin drizzle. Oily concrete in the close and cratered city. When I slid into my truck, both my hair and my feet were damped-and my spirit. I sat utterly still awhile, tired.

   It is not unusual, at the end of the day, quietly to wish for endings absolute and to nurse the dream.

    But then I heard what sounded like a wailing outside the rain’s whisper: “Hoo-ooo. Hoo-ooo.”

     Cat’s call?

   No, it was a high, broken, desolate voice, as though someone cried “Please, please” without words. Two simple notes, high and low, one simple song. But I saw no one, and I would have thought it the noise of my own weariness, or distant brakes, except that it became insistent, and when I opened the truck door, I heard it the louder: “Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”

   It came from the alley that dead-ends at Gum street. Louder, and yet infinitely patient.

     “Hoo-ooo!”

    Then a bent figure emerged from the alley, stood at the mouth of it, and the wailing turned to words: “They ain’t bad boys. It ain’t that they is bad, oh, no,” she said. “I’m jus’ lookin’ for them, you know. But these old eyes is dim, and I cain’t seem to see them no ways.” She turned aside and raised a hand: “Hoo-ooo!” She turned to the other side, like the poor picture of an orator: “Hoo-ooo!”

   Talking, she was. But there was no one, absolutely no one, near the woman, neither companions to hear her talk, nor grandbabies to come at her call. She was alone.

     I stepped from the truck, winking against the mist.

    Street-light glinted on her face, gnarled, wrinkled, deepdark and harder than black walnut. She wore a man’s vest and a man’s shoes. Her eyes jerked left and right, so intent on the search that she didn’t see me. She was a tiny bit of woman.

     “It ain’t no time,” she said full reasonably, “it ain’t no place for them to be about. And it’s a dirty, weathery night. Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”

     Who was she speaking to? God? The eyeless night? But her purpose was so inarguably right that I couldn’t leave her now; and it was clear that love and yearning together had driven her into the rain.

     I coughed.

     “Hey, Mon!” She saw me. “I’m jus’ lookin’ for my grandbabies.”

    She came immediately and clutched my arm in a bird’s claw, her head at my chest. I smelled her tight, neat hair. Raindrops hung from earlobes pierced and ripped a long time ago. She was not ashamed to look me in the eye. “And maybe you seen my grandbabies?”

     “No, I don’t think so,” I said, though I wished with all my heart that I had. I thought of brown infants potching in puddles. “How old are they?”

    “Oh, they be strapping big boys,” she nodded, holding my eye. “Each of him could give a head to you, Mon.” I’m six one. So they were big, these boys. They didn’t need me.

     My wish to assist her melted in the chilly drizzle.

  But the lady was earnest. Her fingers had sunk between muscle and arm-bone. “How long,” I asked, “have they been missing?”

  “You gonna look?” she demanded, bright old eyes drilling mine. She reached her other hand to my cheek.

     “Well,” I said lamely-she was buying me by touching my cheek— “yes—”
“Ooo, God bless you, child!” she said. “They been gone two lonely years, now, and I’m thinkin’ they hurt, Mon, and I’m feared they be troubled. Oh, Mon, you help me to find them!”

   Two years! I spluttered in the manner of educated people whose education is meaningless before the bare, forked animal.

     “Mon?” She drew down my face so that I had to look at her.

     “Yes, ma’am?”

     “It’s a promise? You use the powers Jesus given you? You be helpin’ me to find them?”

    She had no teeth. Gums black and a darting red tongue and lines at her eyes that enfolded the soul.

     I said, “Okay.”

    Immediately she released me, forgot me standing there, and limped down Gum to Governor, a tiny and tinier bit of woman: “Hoo-ooo! Hoo-ooo!”

                                                                        *****

Mad, I thought driving home and dripping in the cab of my truck. Ho, ho, crazy lady! Midnight’s citizen!

     And despite my vow I tried to forget her desperate, patient, weary search for grandbabies.

     But I can’t, you see, forget it. Like spasms of conscience her voice keeps recurring inside of me. Certain sights, certain sounds trigger the cry, and I groan to remember her face, black walnut shell. Neither rain nor the late, exhausting nights do this to me, though one would think so by association. Rather, it’s a moral memory.

     Listen, and I’ll tell you when I hear the pleading song, “Hoo-ooo. “

  When I see young strapping men slouch into Bayard Park beside my house-

   They carry beer cans low at their sides, and bottles in packages. They drink, they laugh unmindful of anyone else, they gaze with vacant eyes to the void-blue skies, they leave a most unsocial mess behind. And compulsively I wonder with the crazy lady’s sweet irrationality: Are these her grandbabies? These, the handsome, strong, and lost? Do they know what they have done to her? Can’t they hear the old woman’s call, “Hoo-ooo?”

    So much for intellect and my education. The woman’s infected me with madness.

     Or, when I smell the strapping young men in front of my house—

  Smell, because their car windows are open, and the acrid smoke of marijuana cannot be disguised. “Hoo-ooo!” And they gather in front of Doc’s Liquor Store, those who could give a head to me, those beloved of an old and searching woman. And they park at the Eastland Mall; and they ride wild on the North Side, the East and West sides in loud careless cars; and they live in a thousand homes throughout the city, great weights upon an already crippled system, strapping youths who have chosen to live according to their own desires alone, full of their own boredom, forgetful.
“Is that old lady your grandma?” I want to say. “Don’t you know that every private choice which you make for yourself is not private at all, but hurts her? Don’t you know that she still is looking, a singular figure in the night, still is looking for you? There are no private choices. There is no such thing as ‘your own thing’! All selfish action damages those in love with you!”

     No. The lady is not mad. She simply has a love that will not quit against reality—and that only looks like madness. She is Rachel.

   “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they were not.”

    Oh, go home again, you strapping, slouching youth, so full of promise, so full of yourselves! Bow down before mad, merciful Rachel. Ask her forgiveness. Then give her love for love.

Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?

Little Lamb
Who Made Thee?

By Walter Wangerin, Jr.

 

Secretly beaten.
Sexually abused—

O child, it’s not your fault. You do not have to earn the approval of your tormentor-no, nor his forgiveness either!

Is it strange that a victim thinks she caused the wrong and must right it again? Well, not so strange when we consider her helplessness. She’s looking for leverage. She needs some principle by which to control her horror. And if her sin caused the punishment, then she might prevent it by a confession. See?

So the victim seeks her own iniquity-and the Christian faith is made grotesque thereby, allowing the guiltless to suffer guilt. And the abuser’s become a Destroyer therefore, both of the body and the soul.

***

No, child-it was his act.

He was its cause. He was its doer. He took the wretched benefit. He must own it now, not you, not you.

He did it!

But because of your native innocence (which your tormentor encourages, since it shifts his guilt to you), and because you crave order in dangerous chaos (some ethical order anyway), you see a connection between one’s behavior and one’s fate. The good get goodness back again; and the bad get hurt-and look what a mess you’re in; therefore you must be bad. Is that how you think? It saves the world from absurdity, doesn’t it? It argues a certain rationality in human affairs. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, right? And your punishment proves evil in yourself, right? WRONG! Absolutely, unequivocally wrong.

If you’ve suffered abuse, the one who abused you sinned.

Sin is an uncaused evil. Responsibility sticks with the sinner. The sin came from him. He is the source. He bears the blame. His is the shame. Not you! Not yours! Do you hear me?

You, my child; you, dear lamb-you are beautiful and clean.

This sin occurred because a fool considered himself superior to you. He considered his whim superior to your health, his desire superior to your body, his mood superior to your peace. But you were made in the image of God, so his action condemns him: he demeans the creature whom God exalted; he attacks the child whom heaven loves. Listen: such spiritual blindness, such bestial selfishness, such a pitiful lack of self-control, declares this fool your inferior after all. You needn’t seek kindness from him. Rather, he can’t continue to live without your forgiveness. He needs you!

But his is the more desperate state, because right now you need do nothing for him. No, no, you may withhold forgiveness until (1) you have regained a genuine wholeness again after his savagery, and (2) he has ceased to blame you, and has sincerely recognized his sin, and has acknowledged the guilt, and has confessed aloud his ruinous guilt, and has confessed before God the bloody treachery of his guilt. Somewhere the sin must stop!

***

The sinner tells me that it-was his parents’ fault in the first place. His father did him the same way. His mother was silent and critical. He didn’t (he tells me) have a chance. He can’t help his breeding and his personal shaping.
But if this is true, then we’re all a cosmic landfill for every sin that ever occurred; they fall on us from the past generations, all the way back to Cain. Such a weight of sin (everyone else’s fault except our own) must crush our innocent souls. Such an undeserved history must kill us.

But it hasn’t killed us. In other words, there must be some break in, this chain of responsibility, sinners causing sinner to sin-abusive parents turning their children into abusive parents.

And there is: it is the acceptance of responsibility by the sinner, by none other than the sinner himself, so that when divine forgiveness transfigures that one, the sin and the sinning are canceled together, and the chain breaks.

No, sir, it doesn’t do to blame another, neither the parents before you nor the child behind you. You, sir, as perpetrator of a vile abuse, must with a contrite heart confess.

***

And you, the child whom he ravaged, must not call yourself ugly. You aren’t. His action does not define you.

You, child: you are as soft as the blue sky. Touch your cheek. Do you feel the weft of life there? Yes: God wove you more lovely than wool of the clouds, smoother than petals of lily, sweeter than amber honey, brighter than morning, kinder than daylight, as gentle as the eve. Listen to me! You are beautiful. You are beautiful. If you think you’re ugly, you’ve let a fool define you. Don’t! Touch your throat. It is a column of wind and words. Stroke your forehead. Thought oves through its caverns. Imagination lives in there. You are the handiwork of the reator. You are his best art, his poem, his portrait, his image, his face-and his child.

And if the Lord God took thought to create you, why would you let a sinner define you?

God caused the stars to be, and then bent low to make you.

God wrapped himself in space as in an apron, then contemplated the intricacy of your hands; he troweled the curve of your brow; he fashioned the tug of your mouth and the turn of your tongue; he jeweled your eye; he carved your bones as surely as he did the mountains.

God conceived of time and in that instant considered the purposeful thump of your heart-and the blink of your eyelid.

God made galaxies and metagalaxies, the dusty infinitude of the universe-then filled your mind with dreams as with stars.

You are not an accident. You were planned. You are the cunning intention of almighty God. Well, then, shall you think ill of yourself? NO! You shall think as well of yourself as you do of any marvel of the Deity.

Please, my sister, do not allow a sinner to steal you from yourself. You are too rare. No matter what filth has befouled you, your soul is unique in the cosmos. There is none like you. Whatever thing you admire-a leaf, a little cup, a sunset-you are more beautiful.

Sleep peacefully, you. God loves you. And so do I. And so ought you in the morning light, when the dew is a haze of blue innocence. But sleep now, child, in perfect peace. You are God’s-and he spreads his wings above you now.

 

Red, Red, the Bloodred Kiss

Red, Red, the Bloodred Kiss
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Two weeks ago I sat in the crowded holding area at one of the gates at Houston Intercontinental Airport, waiting to board my flight home. First dribblingly, and then wondrously in so public a place, laughter rose up by the door of the jetway. It became a loud, footstomping hoot.

I glanced up.

Two young women were rooting through the enormous purse of the third, an older bonier woman who was obviously nervous, obviously the traveler of the three.

“Where you got them Tums?” cried a younger woman, her face and her full right arm deep inside this purse. “You know you need—Whoop!” she shrieked. “Lookee here!”

Laughing, laughing till tears streamed from her eyes, she drew forth and held up five magazines, a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, earplugs, small cans of juice, an umbrella—and a new package of underwear entitled: Three Briefs.

“Mamma!” she cried. “Oh, Mamma, what you want with these?” The older woman looked baffled. The younger one laughed with a flashing affection. “You got plans you ain’t tol’ us about?” Maybe the two young women were daughters of their more solemn elder, maybe her granddaughters. “Honey, it’s the Tums’ll do you most good.” She dived into the purse again. “Now where you got…Oh, Mamma. Oh, Mamma.” She whispered with suddenly softer wonder: “Look.”

This young woman had a magnificent expanse of hip and the freedom of spirit to cover it in a bright red skirt, tight at the waist, wide behind, and tight again at the knee. She stood on spiky heels. Fashion forced her to walk by short wobbly steps, oddly opposite her amplitude of hip and cheek and laughter.

“Oh, Mamma!” Suffused with gentleness, she pulled from the purse a worn leather-bound Testament and Psalms. “Mamma, what? What you thinkin’?” The two women exchanged a silent look, each full of the knowledge of the other. The generations did not divide them.

“Well,” said the older, bony woman, “you found the nourishment, but you ain’t found the Tums.” With a bark of laughter, Young Woman in Red hundered down into the purse again—tottering on her tiny heels.

At the same time there came down the concourse an old man so gaunt in his jaw as to be toothless, bald and blotched on his skull, meatless arm and thigh. He sat in a wheelchair, listing to the right. The chair was being pushed through the crowds at high speeds by an attendant utterly oblivious of this wispy, thin, and ancient passenger.

The old man’s eyes were troubled, but his mouth, sucked inward, was mute. His nose gave him the appearance of a hawk caught in a trap, helpless and resigned.

Now the attendant turned into our gate area, jerked the chair to a stop (bouncing the skeletal soul therein), reached down to set the brake, turned on his heel, and left.

But the brake was not altogether set, nor had the chair altogether stopped. It was creeping by degrees toward the generous hips of the woman whose face was buried in the generous purse of her elder, giggling.

The old man’s eyes—the closer he rolled to this red rear end as wide as Texas—widened. He opened his mouth. He began to raise a claw. He croaked. And then he ran straight into the back of her knees.

Yow! Up flew the great purse, vomiting contents. Backward stumbled the young woman, a great disaster descending upon a crushable old man.

At the last instant, she whirled around and caught herself upon the armrests of the wheelchair, a hand to each rest. Her face froze one inch from the face of an astonished octogenarian. They stared at one another, so suddenly and intimately close that they must have felt the heat—each must have smelled the odor of the other.

All at once the woman beamed. “Oh, honey!” she cried. “You somethin’ handsome, ain’t you?” She leaned the last inch forward and kissed him a noisy smack in the center of his bald head. “I didn’t’ hurt you none, did I?”

Strangers were strangers no longer. Suddenly they were something more.

Slowly there spread over the features of this ghostly old man the most beatific smile. Oh, glory and heat and blood and love rose up in a body dried to tinder.

And the young woman burst into thunderous laughter. “Look at you!” she bellowed. “What yo wife gon’ say when she see my lipstick kiss on yo head? Ha ha ha!” He reached to touch the red, and she cried, “You gon’ have some explainin’ to do!”

That old man closed his eyes in soundless laughter with the woman—two made one for a fleeting moment.

So did the elderly woman, who still hadn’t found her Tums, laugh.

So did I, surprising myself. So did a host of travelers who had been watching the episode with me. We all laughed, gratefully. We, in the brief event and the silly joke of wives and kisses, were unified.

It wasn’t the joke, of course. It was goodwill. It was spontaneous affection.It was the willingness of a single woman, wholly human even in the public eye—in risk and under judgement—suddenly, swiftly to love another, to honor him, to give him something graceful without hesitation or fear, something free and sweet and durable. But she gave it to us all. I won’t forget her. I beg God, in such revealing moments, that I might be a generous and good as she.

There was a sanctity in the kiss of that woman.

And in this: that the man was as white as the snows of Sweden, and the woman as black as the balmy nights of Africa.