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a story of my story
By Brennan Manning
David C. Cook Copyright © 2010 Brennan Manning
All rights reserved.
"There is something more important than understanding."
Willie Juan ran breathlessly through the streets of the village. Today was the day, the Fiesta of the Virgin of the Assumption, an occasion of great celebration in every Mexican town along the Rio Grande. Hopi may have been only a poor, rough-edged village clinging for survival to the banks of a very muddy river, but the people of Hopi loved their festivals. And the boy named Willie Juan may have loved them the most.
Once, long ago, Hopi was full of people. The prosperous silver- and lead-mining operations attracted visitors from near and far and supplied employment to most of those who lived there. But there was no desire to conserve, only consume. The ore was completely stripped from the earth, leaving little but dust. The mining operations took what they wanted and moved on. Many residents of Hopi followed. What remained could best be summed up in one word—few.
Willie Juan snaked through the village of small adobe huts, heading toward the heart of town. As he looked up, he could see the sharp peaks of the Sierra Padres rising in the west. Willie Juan assumed that there was something about mountains that didn't want to be plains. Brilliant whites and pinks and yellows stood out in contrast to the deeply shadowed granite of the mountains and the cloudless blue summer sky. The August sun made the colors shimmer and dance, as if anticipating the fiesta.
The Hopi that Willie Juan walked through had grown weary, its buildings groaning under the weight of time and the elements. The older adobe buildings had crumbled and melted away under the assault of wind and rain. Heaps of rocks on the surrounding hillsides masked the abandoned mines that once supported the community. Scrubby desert plants like ocotillo and prickly pear grew in spite of the harsh, dry conditions. The summer heat was brutal, over one hundred degrees today.
An adult would see and feel these things, but not a child. Willie Juan noticed neither the heat nor the decay; his mind was set on other things. He secretly hoped that today would be different, that today might be a day of belonging for him. He'd learned early in life that he didn't really fit in, he wasn't like the other boys and girls. He'd discovered that people, even kids, especially kids, can be cruel to those who are different. Most days at school the kids laughed at his odd-colored skin, tugged at his burnt-orange hair, and sometimes kicked his stiff leg. Willie Juan hoped today would not be like most days.
When he finally reached the center of the village, he quickly joined in the fun at the fiesta. His spirits were high. The fiesta was the highlight of summer—everyone in the village took time off work to celebrate.
Willie Juan bought himself a hot tamale and eagerly ran to join the games. He found a group of kids picking teams for tug-of-war. The thick rope stretched over a large puddle of water that the men of the village had made for the game using buckets and buckets of water. Willie Juan stood in front of the kids, begging to be picked. One boy shrugged and said okay and placed Willie Juan at the front of the line. But when the pulling started, his teammates suddenly let go. Willie Juan was jerked forward face-first and dragged though the thick brown mud. Like most days, the kids laughed and laughed as Willie Juan emerged from the mud and tried to wipe himself clean. They all thought it was quite funny, everyone, that is, except a little girl from the village named Ana. She was not like most kids.
Willie Juan walked away, away from the laughing. He didn't cry. The boys were just joking, he told himself. But why was he always the joke? He decided the kids wouldn't dampen his spirit; after all, this was a holiday. He spent a few minutes watching the parade and then wandered around the festive booths, smelling the glorious foods on the vendor's carts and eyeing many beautiful things for sale.
A little later he found his schoolmates pairing up for the wheelbarrow race. Most of the people in the village gathered to watch this particular race. The boys got to show off their strength and speed and make a plaything out of a work tool. The goal was to get across the finish line first with one boy pushing the wheelbarrow while his partner rode inside. Willie Juan hung back, trying not to think of the tug-of-war game. He watched quietly, as the padre organized nine pairs of boys along the starting line, each pair with a wooden wheelbarrow. At the end was a wheelbarrow with only one boy, Tino, left without a partner. The padre looked up to see Willie Juan standing off to the side by himself and called him over to be Tino's partner. Willie Juan was hesitant, but he trusted the padre. He hustled into the wheelbarrow, but when he looked over his shoulder, Tino's face was filled with anger; Tino was not happy to be paired up with one so strange, Willie Juan assumed. Still, Willie Juan turned back around, grabbed the sides of his wheelbarrow, and hung on tight as the race began amid shrieks and laughter.
Initially everything seemed fine, almost hopeful. Tino was pushing the wheelbarrow as if his life depended on it and Willie Juan thought they might actually win. The people cheered them on. But just before the finish line, Tino veered off the racecourse and dumped Willie Juan into a pile of brambles filled with black thorns. Once again, hope turned to laughter at his expense.
The boys guffawed as Tino turned and took a bow, obviously pleased with himself and the joke. Willie Juan crawled out of the brambles and slowly removed the thorns. He definitely hurt on the outside, but the deeper hurt was on the inside, where no one could see. Tino's little sister, Ana, walked by and glared at her brother: "Not funny, Tino." She smiled at Willie Juan, gently waved, then ran off with a group of other little girls.
Willie Juan just wanted to get lost, so he shuffled away into a crowd of jugglers and musicians. One of the men was playing a soldier's march on a glistening, silver trumpet. Willie Juan was amazed at the man's talent; he played with such ease. But as beautiful as the music was, the thought he was left with was "nothing will ever be that easy for me." Later, as the sun winked good night, Willie Juan limped home to his grandmother, who lived in a tiny house on the edge of the village. Sadly, Willie Juan realized, this day had turned out like most days.
After Willie Juan arrived home, his grandmother plucked out the stray thorns he couldn't reach, helped him bathe off the last of the caked mud, and rubbed his scratched and aching skin with aloe oil.
As his grandmother cared for him, Willie Juan thought about how she had been considered "different" too. In her youth, she had told him, she lived a very wild life, looking for love in the wrong arms and for happiness in the wrong places. But then, one day, a great change came upon her. She turned from all she'd known, changed her name to Calm Sunset, and retreated to live like a recluse in her tiny adobe hut. Visitors were always welcome there, and even though she was very poor, she loved having guests, and would offer a bite to eat, something to drink, and conversation.
"Grandmother," he said with a sigh, "why are the other kids so mean to me? I just don't understand. Why do I look so funny?"
Calm Sunset tugged him onto her soft lap and cradled him gently, telling him, as she had many times before, the now familiar story of his birth and the first few years of his life. She always called the story Tuesday's child is full of grace ...
"It was a fine Tuesday in the village when you were born, Willie Juan. Everyone was curious about you, wondering ..."
"What will he be? What will he be?" chimed Willie Juan.
"Yes, 'What will he be?' You see, your great-grandfather Jack had come to this country on a boat from Ireland, and your great-grandmother Lizzie was a former African slave. That meant that your grandpa John was African-Celtic, and he married your grandmother Mai, who was from Cambodia. So your father ..."
"Johnny, right? My father's name was Johnny?"
"That's right, Johnny, was a mixture of Ireland, Africa, and Asia, and he married your mother, Consuela, who was from Mexico. Your mother was my daughter, and our ancestors include both Spanish and Indian blood.
"As a result of all this mixing, you have a very unusual skin color, like no one had ever seen before. Your parents decided on your name—"
"They named me Willie Juan. Tell me what it means, Grandmother."
"Willie Juan, you tell me what it means."
"Willie from William meaning 'strong,' and Juan is a form of John meaning 'beloved.'"
Calm Sunset smiled. "That's right. When you were just a toddler, you and your parents were involved in a very serious automobile accident. Your right leg was crushed and some burning debris from the car fell on your face and body, leaving burns all over your black, white, red, and gold skin. The doctors did what they could for your leg and eventually your burns healed, but there were many scars mottling your finely burnished skin."
"But my hair wasn't touched was it?"
"No, Willie Juan. Strangely enough, your hair wasn't touched—it has always been the same bright copper color." Calm Sunset gently rocked him, stroking his head, ruffling his hair.
"Your father was a migrant worker—he picked fruit and vegetables, following the sun and the seasons, traveling around the country from field to field, picking the harvests as they matured. His job meant he was gone for long periods of time. Your mother stayed here to care for you. She herself took a job working in the fields of a local vegetable farm, planting, weeding, harvesting. Your father sent money and letters every week from strange, far-off places—Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and Maine—and your mother would read them to you again and again. You loved your father very much and loved to hear his words as your mother read.
"Then, one day, the letters stopped coming. For many weeks the whole village held its breath along with your mother. We all felt that something must be very wrong. Finally, one afternoon, a worker who had traveled with your father returned home. He was very tired, but he made his way to your house to speak to your mother. 'I've news about your husband,' he said sadly. 'He's taken up with another woman, one with more money and a nice house. He will not be coming back to Hopi; we should not expect to hear from him ever again.'"
"Grandmother, did my father love me?"
"Yes, little one. I believe he did. Sometimes, Willie Juan, men get lost as years go by. That is, I believe, what happened to your father. It's very hard to understand." Calm Sunset paused. "Your mother was filled with a great sadness after your father left. She rarely smiled anymore. Without your father's income she was desperately short of money to care for you. She increased the hours she worked in the scorching heat of the vegetable fields. After many weeks of sixteen-hour days, she collapsed in the field one afternoon from too much sun. When they brought her to my home, she was dead. There may be only so much a human heart can take and then it breaks completely."
Willie Juan sat very quiet. The part of the story about his father always confused him, but the part about his mother made the sorrow come. Every time.
"If that would have been the end of the story, it would have been a catastrophe," Calm Sunset said. "But it wasn't. After her funeral I brought you here to live with me. My sweet Willie Juan, you have brought a joy to my days beyond what I ever imagined."
"So I'm not a cata ... catast ... what did you say?"
"Catastrophe. No, you are not, because that would mean your story had no brightness at all. But it does, Willie Juan. I like to say it's a tragedy; that means there is sorrow, but it's also mixed with moments of joy. Only God knows how much I love you, Willie Juan."
Calm Sunset had always lavished Willie Juan with warmth and tenderness; Willie Juan knew that she had done the best she could. But he could tell that she was now growing older, and she could not protect Willie Juan when he was away from her on the streets. Her love and care gave him a place of refuge at the end of the day, but it was no buffer against the world's laughter. And even though her aloe soothed the wounds she could see, he knew there was little she could do about the deeper hurts on the inside, close to Willie Juan's heart.
The night of the Fiesta of the Virgin of the Assumption, Willie Juan wept softly in his grandmother's arms. As his tears gradually gave way to sighs, she caressed him tenderly and whispered another story he'd heard so many times from her, about the Man of Sorrows. It was hearing of his love for her that caused her to stop running and change her name; such love, she had said, was simply stunning. But he loved all people, especially little children. Whenever children saw him, they flocked to him and never wanted to leave his side. Let the little children come, she whispered. Let the little children come. Long after Willie Juan had drifted off to sleep, she continued to rock him gently, whispering of the deep love of the Man of Sorrows.
The next day, Willie Juan woke up to a different kind of sadness. He was sad most days, but this didn't feel like most days. He was so unhappy about not having any friends that all he wanted to do was run and hide. As he stepped from his grandmother's house, he wondered where he could go to be completely alone, where no one could see him and laugh at him. A cool breeze blew against his skin and reminded him of the dimness of the adobe church in the center of the village, with its sweet fragrance of incense and mysterious peace. The church would be a place where he could hide.
Although he'd always been fascinated by the colors and images and music of the church, there was something that had always drawn him even more. It was the big crucifix over the main altar. However, he'd never dared go near. But this day, with a different, deeper sadness at his side, he decided to get a really close look. Sadness, pushed far enough, sometimes leads to a kind of courage.
Willie Juan stepped into the quiet church and slowly walked down the side aisle. Pleased that the sacred place was empty, he spied a stepladder in the sacristy and pulled it over to the main altar. Once it was secure, he climbed up for a closer look at the face of the crucifix.
Without hesitation Willie Juan reached out and gently touched the face, tracing the brow, the cheeks, the chin. Then Willie Juan looked up into the eyes. They were eyes like none he'd seen before: sad, gentle, and kind. As Willie Juan stared, he knew that this man on the crucifix was the great Man of Sorrows—the one Calm Sunset had whispered of many times, the friend of all children. Willie Juan continued to caress the face, recalling his grandmother's whispered words about this loving man, allowing the truth of his discovery to wash over him again and again. The longer he paused, the more he knew that this one loved him.
The man looked so thirsty and Willie Juan felt sorry for him. He scrambled down off the stepladder, got a cup of water, and gingerly climbed back up, trying not to spill it. Carefully he poured the cool water into the half-open mouth of the man. But the statue did not move its lips and the water ran down the painted chin, splashing onto the altar below. A few drops back-splashed onto the painted cheeks, making it look like his sad eyes had been crying.
Suddenly Willie Juan heard laughter's familiar scorn. He spun around quickly, nearly losing his balance, and saw three of his classmates. Willie Juan realized the boys must have crept in through the side door of the church and witnessed his attempt to comfort the Man of Sorrows. After jeering him, they ran to the parish house and within minutes the priest returned to the sanctuary with them.
"What in God's name are you doing?" the priest shouted. "Never, never, never tamper with holy things!"
Willie Juan's classmates quickly ran out the side door, but Willie Juan stood still, almost frozen by the priest's anger. "But ... but ... padre, he looked so thirsty, and I just wanted to help him ..."
Willie Juan tried to explain about the man's sad, gentle, piercing eyes, but the priest only scoffed at him. "It's a statue and an expensive one at that!" he huffed. "Besides, only a priest is allowed to handle these things; they are to remain untouched by the world." With a captive, fearful audience of one, the priest lectured Willie Juan about the parousia and about ascensions and assumptions and eschatological realities and all the other things he had mastered in his training.
Excerpted from patched together by Brennan Manning. Copyright © 2010 Brennan Manning. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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