Words Not Mine
I had my first encounter with Evil when I was in third grade. It was a week or so before Christmas, but I wasn’t feeling very festive. A year before, my father had lost his job after suffering a near-fatal heart attack. Although he was working again, my mother had been telling me for months that “there wouldn’t be much Christmas this year.”
I’d adjusted fairly well to the new regimen. I quickly figured out that they sent me to my room right after supper so I wouldn’t hear them fighting. I knew that Dad’s “nightmares” were nothing of the sort, but I’d learned to assure Mom that he hadn’t kept me up at night. When my allowance jar on the top shelf of the cabinet over the stove disappeared, I decided not to say anything. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be standing on the stovetop in the first place. All I knew about alcohol at that time was that it went in the alcohol lamp in the chemistry set I wanted, but wouldn’t get, for Christmas.
It was a Sunday, and I was walking home from the Congregationalist Sunday School my mother had recently forced me to join. I hated every minute of it. It wasn’t listening to the litany of demands from someone hanging on the wall or the threat of fire and pain if we transgressed him. It was the emptiness of the room, like it had never actually had anyone in it and never would have. It felt terribly sad, almost angry, and I felt very, very wrong just being there. I spent most of every session desperate to get away to the safety of my walk home.
This time I was feeling especially relieved because I had with me my Sunday School Christmas gift, a box of hard candies. The Sunday School teacher had admonished us not to eat the candy until our mothers said we could. That was no problem, I could wait until I got home. In fact I was worried that this was going to be the only thing I got for Christmas. I had already opened the box just to be sure there were at least a few of my favorites, the raspberry shaped ones with the chewy centers. I’d found eight. That was enough to make me feel better. I still felt silly carrying this little box on a string, especially since it looked painfully like a box of animal crackers. But I could hear my mother saying “Be grateful for what you have.”
So I carried the box instead of putting it in my pocket.
Suddenly my worst fears came true. There he stood, blocking the sidewalk. One of THEM, a foul-mouthed, dirty-faced, fat-fisted bully from The Projects. He started teasing me about the animal crackers. As you might expect, I immediately sealed my fate by protesting that they weren’t crackers, they were candy from my Sunday School class. “Good,” he said with a grin. “Give me some.” With all that ‘do unto others’ stuff fresh in my mind, I opened the box and offered him a piece. He snatched one of the raspberry candies. That hurt, but I could handle it. I heard my Sunday School teacher telling me that that was what Jesus-on-the-wall would have wanted me to do.
I was not at all ready for what he said next. “I can take all I want and you have to give it to me.” To this day I can remember the sneering tone of his voice. “You have to, God wants you to.” Even then I understood exactly what he was up to. He was going to take my only Christmas gift, either by brute force or by moral coercion. That couldn’t be right. Was I supposed to give up my precious gift because God wanted us to love each other? This guy didn’t love me. How was that fair or right? Perhaps I could just run away. He’d never catch me on those fire hydrant legs of his.
But my feet wouldn’t move. Something was making me stand my ground. I looked to the sky and thought “if you’re really up there…what am I supposed to do?”
I think I expected the Nazarene to be like my Sunday School teacher – a pudgy bilious man with a voice that sounded like a lawnmower. I expected He would tell me that on God’s behalf I should offer the bully more and I could rest assured that he was one of the evil souls who would go to Hell and deserved every bit of the pain he’d endure there. I was not at all ready for what happened next.
I heard it across a huge distance, yet it tingled on the back of my head as if someone were speaking directly into my hair. The calm but firm voice replied: “My words are not yours.” At that moment the bully tore the box from my hand.
I watched as he picked out all my favorite pieces of candy and then popped two in his mouth at once. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to run home to Mom. I wanted to know why the Nazarene wouldn’t help me. The bully tossed the box back to me. “Wanna make somethin’ of it?” he mumbled between bulging cheeks.
I’d never felt so alone before. I looked at the box. I looked at those fat fingers clutching my candy. Then I felt something sweep through me, hard and heavy like a storm gust yet warm and soft like sun laced mist. It was startling, it was calming.
I handed him back the box. “You can have some more.” He hesitated. “Go ahead. Just leave me a few pieces for my Mom and Dad.”
His hands did their worst to my treasure box, apparently unaware of the puzzled look on his face. “Thanks,” he stammered as he handed me back the almost empty carton and waddled off. I headed home, feeling much lighter for the mere ounce or two of sugar he’d taken, and left the box on the kitchen table so my parents could get their pieces.
I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when my mother marched up the stairs to my room and yelled at me for eating all the candy. “But I didn’t,” I said, and proceeded to tell her about my encounter. I don’t think I expected her to understand. I certainly didn’t. All I knew was I’d done the right thing because it felt that way. I certainly didn’t expect to be scolded for it.
“Haven’t you learned anything at Sunday School…. We’re supposed to punish the wicked, not reward them…. Jesus died for your sins, and you can’t even stand up for yourself against some piece of white trash from the St. Mary’s Projects….”
The final blow was she said I was stupid. She said I’d been used.
I realized that she’d said more than she knew. I had indeed been used, more so by my Sunday School teacher and my mother than by the bully. He only wanted my candy.
I was angry. I was hurt. I was confused. But as I looked at my mother, for the first time I noticed the worry lines etched around her pursed lips and the frayed ties on her soiled apron. My chest began to ache, as if my arms were being stretched wider than they could possibly go, around something so vast it was invisible except for the strain of my muscles, a palpable silence, reverberating through me from far, far away. It was the answer to the question I hadn’t dared ask again, and would never again need to.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I looked her straight in the eyes and added, “It won’t happen again.” She turned and left, satisfied she had made her point.
I don’t recall what I did the rest of that day. I do remember feeling a moment’s remorse for the lie I’d told my mother. But to have said anything else would have transgressed that silence.
Copyright 2007, Collen Tree Press