Another snow had started and stopped since he'd first come upstairs. The night looked.... It looked, "Pure!" he whispered, fogging his newly created portal. But that was the word, Pure, with a capital P. With memory and imagination, he savored the first full easy wafts of the Pure he could actually enjoy if he raised the sash. Of course, that would set up a draft in Poppa's or Raymond's room. Which could give Poppa a crick in the neck. Or make Raymond wet the bed. Which, of course, would be "Unphilosophical!", as he called such things, now . That announced, he, of course, wouldn't -- couldn't -- open the window. Instead, he expanded the diameter of his portal.
Moonlight made the snow look pale blue. Flakes coating the bramble on the fence between the two pastures resembled the woolly rolls on a black lamb he'd once held and curried.
The brook up in the north field, the last fresh water around that wasn't frozen over, formed a secant between two points on the arcing edge of their woods. Asa tried to find the moon. Nope. From the angles of the shadows, he guessed it was directly above the house.
He hadn't known that hurtful Word, at first. For a while, and for some silly reason he'd thought it was a synonym for pregnant. Momma had asked Raymond to say pregnant instead of having babies. "The 'have' part is ambiguous," she'd said to Raymond. "Ambiguous" was what she often said about things she didn't want to hear. Asa remembered how she'd said almost the very same thing to him once and how, afterwards, he'd gone around talking to himself, "Cows get pregnant!" Pigs, too! Chickens? He'd had to think about that for a while. Of course, ladies got pregnant. And he'd known from Raymond that pregnant hurt ladies and scared fathers. When Momma let him come in and had him touch Raymond's little red feet, he'd asked if Raymond hurt as bad as it sounded. And she said he had. But Asa had hurt her much worse, she said. And that made him cry. But Momma kissed him and said, "Suffering sometimes pays for life's truest joys." And he, and now Raymond, were two of her life's joys. Asa'd kissed one of Raymond's red feet. Now, watching the peace of the Pure night outside, he could recall how he'd never before touched anything as soft as that little red foot.
Asa hadn't really been curious about the Word. Not at first, anyway. Which was very strange, come to think of it. He hadn't gone straight for the dictionary, as he almost always did. And that he might think it meant...he swallowed..."Pregnant!" he whispered. "Oh!" Momma used to call it a little trick of the mind when we want to avoid the truth. His head was full of little tricks, he guessed. Little tricks like "The Lord moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform"; which had been very tricky and had puzzled him for a long long time. Asa finally asked Momma what it meant. He should probably discuss it with his grandfather, she said, but she believed it meant that a person must search carefully to find the meaning of God's love and mercy. And Asa did set out on a search. Under rocks, inside hollow logs, up in branches, down in burrows. What he found seemed like wonders. Life must be God's love, he'd thought at the time. And the mystery part must be that there's any life at all. How could quail chicks ever escape the fox or the weasel? Then something else happened. Momma had worried all winter about a young rose bush. "Poor little thing out there all alone in the cold," she'd said to Poppa. When spring came and she found green on the little plant, she came running and skipping like a girl. "Oh Elwood, life has returned to my little darling. Please come see!" She took their hands and led them outside. Poppa squatted and looked. Then he stood, opened Momma's hand and kissed it and kissed it and kissed it for a long, long time.
And Asa decided as he watched them that the return of life was even better than life itself.
"It is," he whispered to the night. Regeneration of life is the meaning of mercy. Although he hadn't yet learned the words, he'd thought the thought then, watching his mother and father. And he thought it right now. Mercy! Regeneration!
But there'd been problems. And one came about because of his own sin. He'd decided to play Little David one Saturday afternoon. He'd made himself a slingshot (not knowing the difference at the time between a sling and a slingshot), made it carefully from a cherry twig and strips of an old inner tube from a bicycle tire. Then he'd scouted the banks of the brook, as he imagined Little David had, and collected a pocketful of smooth pea-sized pebbles. And he'd set forth with bold strides in search of the Philistines, which, for some strange reason he'd thought were birds. He'd noticed a pair of robins. The cock grubbed while the hen stayed alert and on guard. Asa moved very slowly, very carefully forward, pretending to be...a...tree! Then, cautiously (a word he used a lot around that time), he took aim, drew back...back...back on the sling and waited for the robin to duck down for a peck at the ground. Asa'd let go. The pebble hissed through the air. It was way wide of the mark. But it glanced off a stone and right up into the robin's escape path. Down fell the robin. The hen flew off to a tree where she squeaked and squawked at Asa as he boldly strode to the slain Philistine. But when Asa got there, the softness of the little orange breast didn't look Philistine. And it really wasn't Philistine, either. He had killed a little robin. Asa'd wanted to cry. Because even if the robin was Philistine, Asa didn't care anymore. He didn't want it killed by a pebble from a sling. Then the bird's wings fluttered, and he tried to stand. But all he could do was sidle cockeyed through the grass to get away from Asa. "Thank you, thank you Lord," Asa'd said. Because he thought God's mercy had returned life to the killed little robin. And it had seemed like a sign that God had forgiven Asa Zook's sin.
But the robin stopped fluttering and became motionless. Asa'd waited and waited for its life to return. But it didn't. And finally Asa went to Momma and confessed. She tipped the flat iron on its heel and listened. After a while she put the iron on the stove, went to her rocking chair and had him come rest his head on her lap while she told him a story. He couldn't remember her story now, only what it meant. And that it was about goodness and mercy. He wiped his nose on his pajama sleeve and translated her ideas into his own words. Good and evil were choices between love and hate. Mercy was choosing love even though you wanted to hate. "Choice!" he whispered. She'd used "choice" herself. Asa had made a wrong choice about the robin. He needed forgiveness, which was what God did, forgive sin.
Choice! He'd begun to understand something about choice last summer one evening when they went to the parsonage for supper. Grampa had a visitor. "The Reverend Doctor Pietro Dicampo," Grampa introduced the man to Momma and Poppa, and "Pete," he said, putting his arm around Asa's shoulders, "I especially want you to know my grandson, Asa Zook. I believe he'll one day join the Calling."
Dr. Dicampo shook Asa's hand. His accent was like Mr. Sirillo's at the produce terminal: "Azooka." Dr. Dicampo talked and smiled and studied Asa's face and continued to hold his hand inside his own. His eyebrows reminded Asa of rabbit's feet. After a while, he put both hands on Asa's shoulders and said, "If it's in the heart as well as the head, Milton." Asa understood, and he felt guilty. Because the Calling wasn't in his heart or his head, not by then.
"Pete," and Grampa had been old friends, Grampa said. They'd gotten out of touch somehow over the years. Dr. Dicampo had a church in New York. "But he's now bringing his flock to the shore each summer." And while in Long Branch one afternoon last week, whom should Grampa literally bump into at a filling station but "This gracious, dear and gentle old friend." Grampa went on to say that Pete was probably the only Methodist minister "extant" who regularly conducts Wednesday Prayer Meeting in Italian.
"Sicilian!" Dr. Dicampo corrected with a deep laugh, his eyebrows wriggling as though they'd crawl off his forehead. What made for the humor, Grampa explained, was that most Sicilians, especially clergymen, were devout Roman Catholics.
"Or else atheists," Dr. Dicampo laughed. Did Asa know what an atheist was? (Yes.) Dr. Dicampo had been an atheist as a young man. His boyhood home had, of course, been very pious. His parents had expected him to enter the priesthood. "But even as a child, I resisted the shackles of Rome." And Dr. Dicampo went north to the university with linguistics on his mind and atheism in his heart. "Ah! Just what I need," he said as Gramma's hired girl Anita brought in a tray of stuffed peppers and set them on the middle of the dining room table. "Just what I need to tell the story of my salvation."
The tops of the peppers were the mountains in which
Dr. Dicampo had been in war. "The Austrian was on this row," he pointed with a table knife. "We were over here!" Dr. Dicampo's battalion attacked the pepper in the middle and easily drove off the Austrian. But someone had overlooked this vital pepper. And the Austrian quickly occupied it in great numbers. Dr. Dicampo's battalion was now surrounded. All that day and the next and the next, the Austrian's artillery pounded and pounded them. "During a pause in the bombardment, I realized that prayers were constantly on my lips. 'How can this be?' I asked myself. For I was an atheist, nor did I fear death.
"I was not praying for my own survival. But my atheism, I could see, was not genuine, not a renunciation of the Lord, but of the tyranny of Rome. I loved Jesus, I realized, and I was using the last of my moments to affirm my love., and I vowed to imitate him whether I lived another fifty seconds or another fifty years. Of course, I could never return to the Catholic Church."
But the story had another part, and this interested Asa the most. After their third night on the mountain, Dr. Dicampo's battalion had run out of water, and then rifle ammunition. At noon sharp the Austrian stopped firing his artillery. Dr. Dicampo could see enemy infantry massing below in overwhelming numbers. He drew his pistol and ordered his platoon to fix their bayonets. Cowards threw themselves face down into the trenches. Brave men blessed themselves and prepared to die. "Then our colonel executed the most brilliant maneuver of the entire ridiculous war." Dr. Dicampo sat back, widened his grin and stroked his thick white hair with the palms of his hands. "Our colonel ordered us to surrender." And now he roared from deep inside his body. "You see," he continued, his words sounding like music instead of speech, "our colonel was a philosopher."
Dr. Dicampo leaned forward, his smile vanishing, and looked directly into Asa's eyes. "Do you know what a philosopher is, Asa Zook?"
"The philosopher identifies human choices. The Lord is the giver. Religion supplies the faith. But man must make the choices, the choices of good over evil. And to choose, Asa Zook, you must discover meaning and know truth. Philosophy is the search for truth and meaningfulness."
Oh! Asa had thought, but was too overcome with happiness to say that he...that he...loved philosophy. Right there and then on the spot! Loved it as though...as though it was a duckling...or a little red foot. Philosophy!
But he was puzzled the next day, the more he thought about it. Momma had liked Dr. Dicampo's story too, she said when Asa wanted to talk. They took cookies and milk to the side porch and she listened. Asa was sure he wanted to grow up to be a searcher of truth and meaningfulness. "A discoverer of choices?" Momma asked. Yes! Yes! She said he didn't have to wait until he grew up, that this was what he was already doing, "Right now, in fact."
Asa told her that she was a philosopher. She laughed and denied it. And she was so beautiful.
Asa recalled kissing Momma and thinking how soft her face always felt. Could she help him with the truth and meaningfulness of..."With the philosophy of love? "
They went into the library and looked up the definition of love in the big dictionary. The words didn't quite tell it, she thought. A person had to feel love before the word really meant what it's supposed to mean. Come to think of it, much of the language was like that, although love was more that way than any other word, at least any word she knew. She hadn't really known its meaning at all when she was his age. Not for years afterwards, in fact. Not truly. Not until one Thursday evening when she was playing the organ for Senior Choir practice and happened to look up from her music. "There, standing near the first pew beside Grampa was a young man with a bag of tools slung over his shoulder. And he was looking straight at me with his mouth wide open. I missed the entire next bar and threw the choir into a dither.
"But then I found my place and played more beautifully than ever before in my life. And I've known ever since precisely what that glorious word is intended to mean. The man was Poppa."
Asa urinated again and re-polished the glass. The Word still hung in his mind: right there in the midst of everything else he was recalling and thinking and feeling. He couldn't displace it, or dislodge it, nor up and vomit it out like an owl does with the indigestible remains of a rat.
He'd had a similar experience with The Calling.
"The Calling!" he whispered. He thought about why the Calling wasn't in his heart or head, as Dr. Dicampo surely sensed. For some time, Asa had wondered -- and had even asked himself aloud: "Do I really love God?" And that was before he'd even heard about philosophy.
In church, he'd found himself paying attention to only parts of Grampa's sermons, to the stories about people; which were always very good. But oh! How his mind would wonder during the readings of the Scriptures. And his brain would turn to absolute air during prayers. In fact, he'd begun dreading prayers. And at grace, he began to keep his eyes open. Poppa always did, he discovered. And little Raymond usually peeked and smiled. One Sunday at dinner, he saw Raymond squinting through the spaces between his fingers, grinning across the table at him and trying to play peekaboo. Amen came just then, and Gramma caught Raymond. "The Lord will punish you severely for that, Raymond," she said.
Punish little Raymond? The Lord moves in mysterious ways...Was the Lord the same as God? Momma thought so. "We can't judge Him by human standards," Grampa had once preached. Asa asked Momma if God went to the bathroom. She laughed. Why had he'd asked that? Because we're in Gods image, Grampa'd said. And ...could God stink? Momma laughed again. It was our spirit that was in God's image, not the body. Then (although Asa didn't say so to her), Grampa was wrong about judging God by human standards. Because standards were in the spirit. Our goodness must be in the image of God's goodness, unless God really didn't have goodness, after all. If God threw a rock at a robin, that was much worse than if a boy did it, wasn't it? And it was even a worse sin to punish little Raymond for peeking at grace. Poppa would never do that. Momma wouldn't. Asa knew he wouldn't. Not after the robin.
And then suddenly he knew he didn't have the Calling. If he'd ever had it in the first place! After that, the Calling finally stopped gliding around inside his brain.
Finally, he looked up the Word and read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then he knew that it wasn't God who
regenerated life. Something else was in the woods and the fields and the waters and the skies. Something he really could love. He was an atheist for certain, he knew. And no guns of the Austrian on a stuff pepper mountain would ever force him to kneel down and pray to evil. He would find out what that something was out there. And he would pray to it. "No!" he called out. Not pray! Pray was the wrong word. Prayers didn't bring meaningfulness or tell truth. Prayers weren't for philosophers. And he'd rather not be alive than not be a philosopher.
He rested his forehead against the cold sill and silently wept. Who could he ask to help him in his search?
Suddenly, he straightened, dried the tears with the tail of his pajama coat and sucked in a deep breath. God had made her suffer and suffer. God had sinned. God's choice was not mercy. God's choice was not goodness. God's choice was hate. God was merciless. God was evil. God was the meaning of this terrible new term in his vocabulary. God's name was Cancer.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved.
May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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