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Sally Fordyce left the house as soon as the breakfast dishes were done, walking a little, jogging a little along Highway 9 a narrow, straight-as-a-string two-lane with a fading white line and an evenly spaced parade of utility poles. This was eastern Washington State, quiet and solitary. Wheat fields, spring green, stretched in every direction over the prairie swells. Straight ahead, the highway dipped and rose gently into the distance until it narrowed to a vanishing point at the far horizon. The sun was warm, the breeze a little biting. It was April.
Sally was nineteen, blonde, slightly overweight, and severely unhappy, mainly because she was no longer married. She had believed everything Joey the trucker told her about love, and how she was that girl silhouetted on his mud flaps. The marriage-if it happened at all-lasted three months. When he found another woman more "intellectually stimulating," Sally was bumped from the truck's sleeper and found herself coming full circle, right back to being Charlie and Meg's daughter living at home again. She had to keep her room clean, help with dinner and dishes, get home by eleven, and attend the Methodist church with them every Sunday. Again, her life was not her life.
She had tasted freedom, she thought, but she was turned away. She had no wings to fly and nowhere to fly even if she did. Life wasn't fair. (To hear Charlie tell it, he and Meg must have made up a list of all the dumb mistakes they hoped she would never make and given her a copy. Needless to say, things were tense.)
Even before she tried Joey the trucker, Sally used to find escape out on the wheat prairie in the stillness of the morning. Now she returned, even fled to this place. Out here, she heard no voice but her own thoughts, and her thoughts could say whatever they wanted. She could pray, too, sometimes aloud, knowing no one but God would hear her. "Dear God, please don't leave me stuck here. If you're there, send a miracle. Get me out of this mess."
In all fairness, it was past time for Sally to feel that way. Except for those who had wheat farming in their blood and couldn't wait to climb on a combine, most everyone growing up in Antioch heard a call from elsewhere-anywhere-sooner or later. When they came of age, all the kids who could find a way out left-usually-for good. Sally had come of age, all right, but had not found a way out. Charlie and Meg would probably tell you that she was not the kind to look for one, either. She was still waiting for it to come to her. The halfway point of her jog was a spreading cottonwood at the top of a shallow rise, the only tree in sight. It was monstrous, and had to have been growing there long before the roads, farms, or settlers came along. Sally double-timed her way up the rise and was breathing hard by the time she reached it. She'd developed a routine: every day she braced herself against the huge trunk and stretched out her leg muscles, then sat and rested for a moment between two prominent roots on the south side. Recently, a short prayer for a miracle had also become part of the routine.
The stretches went easily enough. She had cooled down, her breathing had settled, she could feel the flush in her cheeks from the exercise and the cool air.
She rounded the tree -
And almost jumped out of her skin.
A man was sitting between the two roots, exactly in her spot, his back against the gnarled trunk and his wrists draped lazily over his knees. He had to have been there all during her stretching-out, and she was immediately curious, if not offended, that he had said or done nothing to indicate his presence.
"Oh!" she gasped, then caught her breath. "Hello. I didn't see you there."
He only chuckled and smiled at her with a kindly gaze. He was a remarkably handsome man, with olive skin, deep brown eyes, and tightly curled black hair. He was young, perhaps as young as she was. "Good morning, Sally. Sorry if I startled you."She probed her memory. "Have we met before?"
He shook his head teasingly. "No."
"Well who are you?"
"I'm here to bring you a message. Your prayers have been heard, Sally. Your answer is on his way. Be looking for him."
She looked away for only a moment, just a slight, eye-rolling gesture of consternation. "Be looking for who - ?"
He was gone.
She walked around the cottonwood, looked up and down the road and across every field, and even looked straight up the trunk of the tree.
He was gone, just like that, as if he'd never been there.
After one more hurried trip around the tree, she stopped, a hand against the trunk to steady herself, her eyes scanning the prairie. Her heart was beating faster than when she'd come up the rise. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
She was shaking.
At Our Lady of the Fields church in Antioch, Arnold Kowalski was busy dust mopping the quaint little sanctuary, pushing the wide broom between the pews and down the center aisle, moving a little slowly but doing a thorough job. Arnold had been a soldier, a carpenter, a diesel mechanic, and a mail carrier, and now, since retiring, he had taken upon himself the unofficial title of church custodian. It wasn't a paid position, although the church did provide a little monetary gift for him each month as an expression of love and gratitude. He just did it for God, a few hours a few days a week, pure and simple. It brought him joy, and besides, he liked being in this place.
He'd been a devout member of Our Lady of the Fields for some forty years now. He never missed Sunday morning Mass if he could help it. He never failed to make it to confession, though now at 72 the confessions were getting shorter and the penance easier. He liked to think that God was happy with him. He considered himself happy enough with God.
Except for one thing, one minor grief he had to carry as he moved slowly down the center aisle pushing his broom. He couldn't help wishing that God would pay just a little attention to Arnold's arthritis. It used to flare up occasionally; now it was only on occasion that it didn't. He was ashamed to think such a thought, but he kept thinking it anyway: Here I am serving God, but God keeps letting it hurt. His hands throbbed, his feet ached. His knuckles cried out no matter which way he gripped the broom. He was never one to complain, but today, he almost felt like crying.
Maybe I'm not serving God enough, he thought. Maybe I need to work longer. Maybe if I didn't take any money for what I do here …
What am I missing? he wondered. What am I leaving out?
He always took off his hat when he entered the building and blessed himself before entering the sanctuary. Right now, as usual, he was wearing his blue coveralls. Perhaps a tie would show more respect.
He pushed a little more dust and dirt down the center aisle until he stepped into a beam of sunlight coming through a stained glass window. The sun felt warm on his back and brought him comfort, as if it were God's hand resting on his shoulders. From this spot he could look up at the carved wooden crucifix hanging above the altar. He caught the gaze of the crucified Christ.
"I don't want to complain," he said. Already he felt he was overstepping his bounds. "But what harm would it do? What difference would it make to this big wide world if one little man didn't have so much pain?" It occurred to Arnold that he had addressed God in anger. Ashamed, he looked away from those gazing wooden eyes. But the eyes drew him back, and for a strange, illusory moment they seemed alive, mildly scolding, but mostly showing compassion as a father would show to a child with a scraped knee. Sunlight from another window brought out a tiny sparkle in the corners of the eyes, and Arnold had to smile. He could almost imagine those eyes were alive and wet with tears.
The sparkle grew, spreading from the corners of the eyes and reaching along the lower eyelids.
Arnold looked closer. Where was the light coming from that could produce such an effect? He looked above and to the right. It had to be coming through that row of small windows near the ceiling. To think he'd been attending this church for so many years and never noticed this before. It looked just as if A tear rose over the edge of the eyelid and dropped onto the wooden cheek, tracing a thin wet trail down the face and onto the beard.
Arnold stared, frozen, his mind stuck between seeing and believing. He felt no sense of awe, no overshadowing spiritual presence. He heard no angelic choir singing in the background. All he knew was that he was watching a wooden image shed tears as he stood there dumbly.
Then his first coherent thought finally came to him. I have to get up there. Yes, that was the thing to do; that would settle it. He hurried as fast as the pain in his feet would allow him and brought a ladder from the storeroom in back. Pausing before the altar to bless himself, he stepped around the altar and carefully leaned the ladder against the wall. Every climbing step brought a sharp complaint from his feet, but he gritted his teeth, grimaced, and willed himself up the ladder until he came eye to eye, level to level with the carved face.
His eyes had not been playing tricks on him. The face, only a third life-size, was wet. He looked above to see if there was a leak in the ceiling but saw no sign of a stain or drip. He leaned close to study the image for any sign of a device or some kind of trickery. Nothing.
He reached, then hesitated from the very first tinge of fear. Just what was he about to touch? Dear God, don't hurt me. He reached again, shakily extending his hand until his fingertips brushed across the wet trail of the tears.
He felt a tingling, like electricity, and jerked his hand away with a start. It wasn't painful, but it scared him, and his hand began to quiver. Electric sensations shot up his arm like countless little bees swarming in his veins. He let out a quiet little yelp, then gasped, then yelped again as the sensation flowed across his shoulders, around his neck, down his spine. He grabbed the ladder and held it tightly, afraid he would topple off.
A strong grip.
A grip without pain. He stared at his hand. The vibration buzzed, and swirled under his skin, through his knuckles, across his palms, through his wrists. He lightened his grip, tightened it again, held on with one hand while he opened and closed the other, wiggling and flexing the fingers.
The pain was gone. His hands were strong.
The current rushed down his legs, making his nerves tingle and his muscles twitch. He hugged the ladder, his hands glued to the rungs, a cry bouncing off the wall only inches from his nose. He was shaking, afraid he would fall. He cried out, gasped, trembled, cried out again.
The electricity, the sensation whatever it was enveloped his feet and his scream echoed through the building.