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by Jason Nemrow last modified 2018-03-29 15:42

We promise ourselves many things at the tender age of six, as we look at a world that seems endless and full of opportunity for some. For others, it is a dark and confining sphere, made small by the choking grip of poverty or fear or ignorance. It is a rare person who can look up from a bleak life and see the vast dazzling array of stars: a billion pricks of light, each a glorious opportunity. The rest of us wrap ourselves in houses that shield us, possessions and money that hopefully comfort us, and a mindless conformity that helps us look like everyone else; finding safety as a drop in a stagnant sea of mediocrity. The wonder of the six-year-old is her ability to see the stars between the dark clouds, when older and more experienced people are indoors, hiding from the coming storm.

On the night of her sixth birthday, a young girl named Rachel climbed the white-washed trellis of her families home, sat cross-legged on asphalt shingles worn black with countless rains and snows, and gazed up in wonder at the majestic spray of God's creation. Then, she uttered her first true prayer.

Rachel lived in a typical home, built of wood and brick and stucco, the eaves and ledges peeling away to reveal gray weathering and neglect. The same could be said of for the people within: typical, gray, neglected. Rachel's father was a man of business, full of strict planning and pointless toil, exerting great energies with only money in mind. The light of the television flashing in the darkened "family" room cast a ghastly pallor on the man, making him look more sinister than his thoughtlessness actually was. His evening plan was simple: dinner, television, then bed. The schedule had only been mildly interrupted with the occasion of Rachel gaining another year. The typical song had been sung and the regular cake had been served, which Father took his piece with him to his chair before the television. He never saw or heard Rachel's reaction to her gift, which was a rather typical doll in a frilly dress. She had wanted ballet slippers, but her father had not taken the time to look for them. He had come up with several reasons why a doll was a better gift than slippers, but such reasonings were not required, for if Rachel's six years had taught her anything, it had taught her to be grateful for anything she received because it might be a terribly long wait until she got something she actually wanted. Rachel found some solace in the fact that her birthday celebration, along with nearly everything else in her life, was typical.

The only notable present came from Rachel's maternal grandmother, who she called Jo. Unlike Rachel's immediate family members, Gramma Jo was a burst of colors who filled the kitchen as she swept through the back door and embraced her daughter. Pulling away only a little, Jo grasped Rachel's mother, hands cradling each cheek. The older woman looked deep into the eyes of her daughter and it seemed that some of Jo's virtue invaded her frame. Rachel's mother shivered and gasped, turning away from something she had once felt but given away long ago. Color and laughter and purpose and desire still boiled in her eyes but she blinked the irritant away: those were things that she could not afford now as the wife of a hollow and uninspired man. Jo's presence always pained her, not because Rachel's mother regretted her marriage, but because she had become like her husband, leery of the passionate. The younger woman pulled away and drew into herself, while her mother extended her hands in a perpetual offer. The look said, 'Come and be something special,' but Rachel's mother wanted no part of that. She knew that desires and drives opened one up especially to disappointments and heartaches. For her, it was better and safer to be mild and uneventful; better to subvert joy and life, thus blunting the pain of tragedy and death. Jo slowly brought her hands back to herself with a sorrowful look for what could have been.

Already, the other children had scattered from the grandmother that their father called a siren. 'She is an alluring one,' he would say, 'but she will steer you into dangerous paths.' Rachel's father preached instead prudence and the safest course: public schooling, college, a steady profession in an established field, and a good income that can buy convenience and security. The older children were well indoctrinated, some already reaping the fruits of their labor in stereo systems, jewelry, nice clothes, and even a car for the oldest. Father had done his job well, except for one.

Jo finally turned her full attention to the object of her visit and Rachel ran into her grandmother's arms. The same penetrating gaze was applied on the little girl as her mother, but Rachel basked in it as though it was the nectar of life itself pouring through her. They held each other for a long time, drawing strength and life from one another. Rachel buried her face in Jo's hair and enjoyed the comforting smell. It was not the distillation of flowers or herbs, but was the essence of one who had been many places and acquired the peculiar odors of exotic peoples. Jo could have been anywhere, doing anything, yet she chose to be with Rachel on her birthday.

Rachel turned her head away from her grandmother, looking in the direction of television and her father. Jo also looked that way and they shared the same thought: could they get away without confronting him? The two faced each other and Rachel put a finger to her lips and Jo drew hers together in a tight, hard line, totally silent. They tiptoed to the back door, pausing only to long enough to wave good-bye to Mother, who was chewing her nail and wondering what she would tell her husband when he found Rachel gone. She need not have worried, for by the time Father lumbered into the kitchen for more cake, the magic of Jo had long dispersed, and he barely remembered he even had a youngest daughter.

It was terribly dark, which only made the theatre look bigger. Built on the traditional three levels, Rachel could just make out the massive chandeliers sparkling like tiny, muffled stars above her. Jo moved slowly and without comment, holding her granddaughter's hand loosely, giving her every opportunity to stop and look about. There were wisps of people scattered in the sea of chairs, like a few ghosts haunting the darker corners of the almost completely empty hall. It began to show its age, but it was still obvious that the age that had produced this edifice knew about beauty. The carvings were rich and intricate, the tapestries lining the walls were heavy and busy with medieval art, and the floors were of fine wood covered down the center of each aisle with a luscious swath of red carpet. They softly shuffled on, making their way to the front seats, gawking at the wonders about them. For Rachel, this was a glorious new world, but for Jo, it only confirmed that much of beauty was passing from the world she had know; unappreciated, ignored, and finally left to decay and rot. But, the old woman assured herself, it would not pass away completely before she shared it with someone who could appreciate it, or so she hoped.

Jo prayed again that her premonitions were correct that Rachel, though still terribly young, would understand this gift and find joy in it. The grandmother had gradually given up hope on her other descendants, each showing an annoying practicality that saw little value and bore no interest in art or music or poetry or love or beauty. If these could not be produced in mass and at a sizable profit, it was not worth pursuing: such were the workings of mind that those who had themselves been mass-produced by a society bent on consumption and greed. But, as she looked down on Rachel, Jo saw a girl who was possessed of a different spirit, more apt toward seeing the world as a wonderful place to experience life and learn, rather than a pile of resources to be bought low and sold high. Jo smiled broadly as she sat down in a worn seat, watching the girl turn round and round slowly drinking in these surroundings. 'Finally,' the old woman sighed to herself, 'a kindred spirit!'

Rachel had thought it was dark before, but the cornices of light dimmed and the players, for the lack of a more fitting name, entered the stage. A beautiful young woman came to the fore, curtsied to the largely empty chairs, thanked everyone for coming, and announced that the tale tonight would be "The Sculptor and the Street Girl."

Once upon a time, there was a man that dreamt of being a great and successful sculptor. He had been taught as a boy that God would answer prayers if you really wanted something and it was something very good, so he prayed that God would make him a sculptor and everyone would want his sculptures. Not very much time passed and his prayer was answered: people couldn't resist the urge to buy the pieces he made and would offer great sums of money for work that he hadn't even finished yet!

Rachel giggled harder and harder as one man on stage took imaginary chisel and hammer in hand and 'sculpted' the postures of other players, twisting them with hammer blows into curious shapes. The man was dancing about his creations while he told his tale about the joys of his work and how everyone wanted them. His revelry was interrupted often by other players, who would flit about the 'sculptures' and haggle with the man over price. An agreement made, the buyer would drag the 'sculpture' out of the lit center of the stage into darkness, just in time for another 'buyer' to begin fawning over another piece. One strong man even hefted away a small woman who had been shaped in to what looked like a human pretzel! Rachel burst out in laughter as the woman's eyes grew wide as she held her frozen pose while being carried away.

The sculptor had a number of good years and became quite wealthy. He eventually built himself a nice gallery filled with his work. But, as always seems to happen, people became enamored of someone else and soon, no one wanted his sculptures anymore. He kept waiting for the next art collector to come into his gallery and rediscover his work, but no one did. Common people would come and gawk, but few would ever buy.

At first, the sculptor was terribly sad, but then he remembered praying to God for success and he became very angry and cursed God for not answering his prayer. Life went on though, and he couldn't stay angry forever, so he grew cold and hard and disbelieving. Then, he could only grow older.

Jo's eyes teared as the tale took on a bitter tone. Moving dejectedly among his sculptures, the man seemed to move slower and slower and he grew more bent. The grandmother thought of how angry she could become when others chastised her for being so unproductive and seemingly carefree, being only a simple story-teller herself. What she had always thought to be an inspiring blessing for others seemed a noxious curse to so many people around her. If she wasn't making money in some business venture, she was not doing anything of worth. Sometimes she even thought it might be better to try and be like others, but any effort that way just made her more miserable. She was what she was. Jo saw in this man on-stage a feeling that often crept into her own soul: a numbing chill of rejection from her fellow man, and even a defiance against those who misunderstood her. The grandmother looked at Rachel again, whose eyes were riveted on the man, perhaps thinking parallels of her own.

One day, into the old sculptor's gallery drifted a bedraggled street girl, who wandered about the sculptures, eyeing them strangely. The old man's first impulse was to throw her out, for she obviously had no money. 'But, it was a cold day outside,' the old man said to himself, 'and she has few clothes as it is.' He left her to her exploration and noticed her finally leaving hours later.

The next day, she came again, not long after he unlocked his doors, and wound her way among the stony figures while the sculptor busied himself elsewhere. It was going on evening when the old man found the girl still wandering about the place, not even leaving long enough to eat. Something pricked his old heart and quickly made a stew and brought her a bowl, which she scowled at for a few moments in mistrust and then, hunger overtaking her, she devoured as if she hadn't eaten in weeks. The sculptor felt another twang in his heart as the girl reluctantly went out the front door and the old man locked the gallery fast behind her, shutting out a chill wind that almost knocked the already-shivering girl off her feet.

As she watched the woman in the street girl's role hold herself close and shake as she slowly passed out of the stage-light, Rachel was reminded of a girl in her kindergarten class who wore faded clothes that were too big for her. Many of the children at school made nasty remarks to the girl, making her the brunt of jokes, and going out of their way to exclude her from their play. Sometimes, Rachel herself would join in with the crowd, for once happy to have someone else be the 'different' one. Guilt welled up within her as the player in the role of the sculptor continued his tale in a remorseful attitude.

The next morning, the street girl was there leaning on the door, as the man hurriedly unlocked the door to the gallery. She stumbled inside, no longer shaking, but collapsing like a rag doll on the floor. Cursing himself for letting her leave the night before, he picked her up and took her to a cot in the back room, covering her with blankets. He carefully touched the tip of her nose and her fingertips, which were already a little ashen from the cold, and cursed himself again for being so hard-hearted before. He said to himself, 'This girl has so little and I have so much. I keep this gallery heated at night for cold, dead stone, but I didn't even let a living girl share the warmth.' Then that feeling in his heart came as a stab as he realized how blessed he really was and how angrily he had cursed God for not blessing him even more. The old man started to weep.

Rachel and her grandmother turned toward each other and each saw tears streaming down the other's face. The girl put her hand into Jo's and the woman squeezed softly as they looked back to the stage. The woman who played the street girl opened her eyes, looked at the two figures on the front row, smiled at their tears, and then looked up at the player stooped over her. "Why do you cry?" she asked him.

The old man wiped his tears quickly and touched his hand to her cold cheek. He explained that he was a foolish man who had a wonderful gift from God and got mad when he didn't get more. The girl raised up on an elbow and simply asked, 'Why not tell God you are sorry?' The sculptor blinked, then nodded, and promised her that he would. Then, he told her about how much God loved them both and had sent his Son to die so that they could go to Heaven, which was a wonderful place. The girl laid back on the cot, sighed, and simply nodded. 'Do you think,' she asked quietly, 'that a street girl can go to heaven?' He choked back a tear and said that she definitely could. She smiled weakly, then gave a little yawn, closed her eyes, and never woke again.

The man on-stage shook the hand of the woman beneath him, but it was limp and fell with a sick thud as he brought his own hands to his face and wept anew. A moment later, he raised his eyes heavenward and asked, "Can a sorrowful old man be forgiven?"

With that, the stage-lights dimmed and the man took the hand of the limp woman and helped her to her feet. They came forward, along with the other players, and as the lights brightened, they bowed or curtsied to the audience.

It was deathly still and Jo nervously looked about her. Before, there had been a smattering of people in the hall, but now she and Rachel were alone in the rows of seats. Suddenly, she realized that the players were bowing and no one was applauding! She turned red and began slapping her hands together so loudly that they stung. Rachel quickly caught on and did the same. The players beamed with the reception of their work, as if they had not had such a salute in some time.

In a moment, the players faded back out of the light, save one man that took a step forward, bowed low, and announced the next tale. Rachel knew no better, but a theatre-goer in our country would be struck by the simplicity of this variant of the art. It was known only as the penny theatre, the name coming from the fact that, traditionally, the admission to these performances was only a penny. For centuries, this had been the main entertainment of the lower classes of Rachel's country.

The dress of the players was sparkling and beautiful, but no attempt was made to costume themselves to play a particular role. A girl might be a tree, a rabbit, and an ugly sorceress in one night and in the same dress. The tales were entirely portrayed in movement and dialogue. Props were nonexistent as players either took the role of street-lights and alley-cats or simply interacted with objects that couldn't be seen.

This form of theater is particular to the region in which Rachel and her family lived, though like so much else, it was being devoured by more universal diversions like television plots and movie scripts. This was the last troupe of its kind in the city, which was the largest thereabouts. It might also be obvious by the size of the assembled audience that, like the sculptor in the tale, the penny theatre was a dying forum for a forgotten and neglected art. But Rachel didn't care: for her, it was fresh and new, and she loved it!

A normal performance might last an hour and a half, comprised of four or five tales picked from a repertoire. This night was to be different as the players heard the little girl shout out about how wonderful a birthday present this was. Between the third and fourth tale, it was quickly decided to present a few extra tales, which they thought would appeal to a little girl. Besides the first tale, there was one about a pirate's duel, another about radishes, and even one about a man who could make it snow, even in summer. Some were sad, some were silly, but all had a morale, spoken or unspoken. Rachel was simply enthralled for nearly three hours! Jo occasionally yawned and even caught herself napping once, but whenever she glanced at the young girl beside her, there wasn't the slightest sign of weariness and her face was aglow with fascination and joy.

Fifth on the roster of tales for the evening was a story of a maiden imprisoned by a wicked man. After years of waiting, the maiden had almost given up hope that she would have her greatest wish: she would be rescued by a courageous knight, whisking her away to a wonderful place full of happiness and joy. One day, The maiden's wish came true when a handsome, strong man saw the beautiful girl, loved her, and took her to his mighty castle where the wicked man could never find her.

Rachel watched all of this and saw herself as the beautiful girl in the grip of the wicked man who was her father. With all her heart, she wanted someone to care enough to take her away, someone in bright armor that would put off her father's pursuit. She wanted a knight in shining armor.

The little girl seemed to have her eye drawn most to one particular woman, who had hair of sparkling gold and was a little shorter than the rest, just like Rachel. In spite of her concentration on the performances, the woman noticed the special attention she was drawing and seemed very pleased by it. Rachel watched as the woman, as gracefully as water running down a hill, painted designs on a imaginary wall rising up on her tip-toes to reach something high, and bending a knee and puling a long graceful curl of hair from her face as she picked up something unseen from the ground. Every movement was a intricate dance all its own, soft and fluid. Some of the others grimaced at the complex moves, but this woman flowed through everything with a relaxed grace and when she could spare a glance, the woman looked toward the little birthday girl in the audience. She couldn't help but find joy in this special young girl that fell so quickly and willingly under the spell of the penny theatre.

After the exhausted troupe finished their telling of the eighth tale, Rachel clapped and shouted "Bravo!" just as exuberantly as ever, but Jo yawned and stretched and looked with worry at her watch. Though weary, the troupe beckoned them to come up on stage. The group sang a hearty rendition of "Happy Birthday" to the girl and shook hands with the grandmother. Rachel ignored the offered hand of a young man and hugged him instead, telling him excitedly what scene of his she liked best. He was a little taken aback by the praise that he rarely got! The girl hugged each player in turn and told each the distinctive part she enjoyed about their performance. The members of the troupe were very impressed by this girl, especially their leader, who Rachel had watched so intently. Her embrace was particularly long with the small, flaxen haired woman, who even gave her a kiss and wished her another soft "happy birthday." Rachel looked into those smiling eyes and asked for her name. 'Beatrice,' the woman said softly. Rachel smiled her best smile and said, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Beatrice!" The woman blushed suddenly, caught by surprise. When she recovered, Beatrice gave the girl a last kiss on the forehead and asked if they could come visit again. Rachel almost exploded with excitement as she turned to Jo and mouthed, 'could we?' the older woman opened her mouth wanting to say yes, but snapped it shut, her eyes growing large. 'Perhaps,' she finally managed, though she was worried if she would ever be able to have Rachel again after keeping her out so late and without her father's permission.

Eventually. Jo had to drag Rachel out of the theatre, the girl babbling almost constantly about wanting to learn to dance like that and she kept turning around to shout 'Good Night!' to the troupe and to look again at Beatrice, who she thought was the most beautiful woman in the world.

The troupe was making its way back onto stage to clean up for the night, but their leader kept turning back with a strange smile and looking with wonder at the little girl, hoping deeply that she would see her again.

They were fortunate that night, for Father had gone to bed after his sitcoms were over and never even noticed Rachel's absence. The girl's mother was of no concern to Jo and Rachel was soon in her bed, too excited to sleep, listening to the women speaking in whispers in the kitchen.

Outside of the window of Rachel's room, the trellis groaned slightly as the girl shifted her weight onto it. A year ago, she thought nothing of climbing up and down the thin, wooden matrix, for she was very light and agile. Now, she moved slowly and carefully because, though she was very quick and capable, she was a little heavier and a little wiser now since the latticework would soon no longer hold her. But, on this blessed night, which she would remember and treasure for the rest of her life, the trellis only creaked a little as she made her way upward.

The usual dread hit Rachel as she gripped the edge of the roof and hoisted herself onto it, striking the rusty gutter as she went. What if this was the night her parents caught her on the roof? She shivered to think of the alarm system her father would install or perhaps the psychological test they might subject her to. Already she had been to one counselor because her father thought she was "not normal." The interview had been conducted by a sparkly-eyed woman who seemed to understand the girl and, though she didn't say so, knew that the problem lay in this close-minded father. Next time, the person conducting the tests might not be so kindly. Rachel knew a boy in kindergarten who sat limp in his chair and hardly looked alive because the teacher gave him pills to cure his "being overactive." Sometimes, she heard the teacher telling her aides that those pills might "help" Rachel, too. The little girl shuddered at the thought.

Scooting herself over to her favorite spot, Rachel drew her knees in close against the early autumn chill. Throwing her chin high, she looked with wonder on the great canopy of glittering stars. The cooler air made them glisten the more and the girl let her gaze run along the brighter band of light that ran from horizon to horizon: the Milky Way. Like a shining bow, it held the bowl of stars close, enclosing the beautiful place that was the known world to a six-year-old. Rachel looked out across the other roofs that stretched on for miles and miles, but to the west, the roofs gave out to tall, lit beacons of buildings, some she had been in and recognized. She frowned just a little, denied a view of a short structure, the aging building that housed the glorious penny theatre. It was only a momentary sadness, for that was not the purpose for braving the climb to the roof. She had come to talk to God.

Now, some may say that a six-year-old doesn't do things or think things like this, and I suppose that would be true for most. But her grandmother was correct: Rachel is a very special child. She thought deeply and noticed things that others would miss or discount as foolishness. She listened to adults talking and learned to understand their curious ways very young. That youth also helped her to remain outside the harsh shell that experience builds around adults, so she could think deep thoughts and dream deep dreams and believe that nothing was beyond her grasp.

As for God, Rachel didn't mention Him much at home, for Father disbelieved and Mother lacked the faith. All the things they had amassed in their lives were the products of rigorous labor and pursuit. God didn't enter into that equation for her father, who had a rough childhood and had love and piety denied him as a boy. If there was a God, he told her once, He didn't care about suffering, so why should anyone care about Him. Rachel's mother, who grew up in the Christian home of Jo, had her tiny light of hope and faith smothered by her domineering spouse and now believed that she was of no consequence to the Supreme Being. Rachel knew otherwise.

God often starts with small things, tiny miracles that could easily be coincidence: a tiny piece of the puzzle that just falls into place and bring everything together, a small babe in a manger who saves mankind, or a little person that others easily forget who ultimately blesses the lives of hundreds with hope and courage. In one thing, Rachel's parents gave her a great gift: the humiliation of being lowly. She was the last of five children with a father capable of feeling real concern, much less love, for only one or two, and a mother who was so gripped with self-pity and her domestic toil that a child was often only another dirty plate to wash or another set of clothes to launder. In her family, Rachel was less than nothing, she was a choking liability -- the "surprise" birth in a family already unwilling to accept the nurture of four children. So, when the young girl turned to God and His little miracles, those miracles seemed so obvious to a child that was accustomed to far smaller gifts and attention. When Rachel gazed at the Milky Way as it passed over her roof, she knew that it was the path that ran through God's precious garden and that she was a little flower that He had His eye on. This He could work with!

So, peering at the grand expanse of Heaven, not sure which star God was visiting at the moment, Rachel offered up her prayer.

Dear Father in Heaven.

If you aren't too busy, and if it is okay with you, when I grow up, I want to be a player on the stage of that penny theatre, just like Beatrice.

Oh, and if I am not asking too much, please send my knight in shining armor to rescue me.

Amen.

In her mind's eye, God paused on His stroll through the garden, smiled warmly at her sincerity, and made careful note on His list "of things to do," then he continued on his way. For Rachel, the matter was settled and sometime soon, her prayer would be answered.


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