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Three

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

One thing in life is certain: time passes. Far less certain are old adages, such as "Time heals all wounds." In some ways, time took away some of the pain in Rachel's life, but many of the scars she kept for a long time. When she had been forced from college, she was a young nineteen, her adulthood just making an appearance. Now she was in full womanhood with thirty three years to her credit. Those intervening years had beaten down all of her dreams of being a theatric and having knights sweep her away. The daily struggle just to survive as a feeling person had been the only hope she could afford as she cooked and cleaned for her aging parents. Some might have considered it a charitable act worthy of honor, but it was simply her sentence for the crime of spoiling her father's carefully crafted plans.

The first ten years were the worst for Rachel, as she endured the ridicule and shame of her father. She did not endure well as he wantonly stripped away every good feeling about herself, leaving his adult daughter naked and unprotected against a frigid and often unforgiving world. She had, early on, remembered with fondness her college days, but thoughts of Robert stirred always the embers of her anger. It was his fault that her life had turned out this way, she would tell herself. If he had only stood up to her father, things would have been different. Time had finally cooled those embers and the mindless monotony of her life at home had made her nearly forget him. Nearly...

This was her existence now, and any thoughts she harbored outside of housekeeping were just foolish dreams.

It was a great relief when her father finally succumbed to cancer when Rachel was twenty-eight. Near the end, any restraint he had exercised of telling the woman how he really felt about her slipped away and he seemed to joy in what he saw as her daily failures, which only confirmed that his road-map for her had been right and that her pathetic efforts to do otherwise had brought her to this pitiful end. Rachel had long ago given up the argument and accepted her father's interpretation of her life. At his funeral, she even cried, for though she had loathed and hated him for most of her life, he had, at least, paid attention to her. Rachel's mother was a completely different matter.

The grind of dealing with her father had so occupied Rachel's time that she mostly ignored her mother. After Father's demise though, she mechanically cared for the old woman, who stared into nothingness and was, to her daughter, something to spoon pureed food into and to remove soiled diapers from. If her father stripped away Rachel's self-respect, her mother gave her the opportunity to feel what it was like not to exist. The old woman sat in an overstuffed chair and rocked as the television blared before her. She never looked at Rachel or even acknowledged her presence. It would have been better for her if her mother had even actively ignored her child, but not even that was offered. For Rachel, it was like attending to a machine, and she didn't even bother attending the funeral when the wife followed her husband four years later.

Now, every day was the same for Rachel, living alone in the house that her parents had unwittingly left her. She awakened always at seven in the morning, showered, and sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee until ten. Then she would move to the living room and watch a soap opera numbly until eleven, when she would walk to the small grocery down the street.

Long ago, the owner of the store had stopped trying to strike up a conversation with the shuffling woman, who would only respond by lifting her head and staring blankly through the man with empty, lifeless eyes. The stout man passed her off as some spooky old woman, for she carried herself like a woman three times her age. The grocer could have also easily assembled the things she wanted in advance, for they never changed: coffee, flour, cherries, milk, eggs, and a chocolate bar. After she passed through the register, she would shuffle home with her small paper bag, munching chocolate, and the grocer would shake his head in resignation.

At one in the afternoon, Rachel would watch another soap opera and after that program had ended, she would bake six large cherry muffins. These muffins were actually very good and tasty, but she only knew that her father had never liked them and her mother had never said anything for or against them. She would eat two, along with a glass of milk, at four-thirty in the afternoon, she would watch an old movie on television, then go to her tiny bedroom and manage to fall asleep after staring at the overhead light fixture for a few hours. It wasn't much of a life, but then again, she wasn't behaving much like a person.

Winter was late that year and the leaves were still green on the trees into November. Rachel's countrymen took the opportunity to bask in the sun and to recreate, secure in the fact that their favorite shows were still on television and, as long as they paid their bills, the lights and the gas appliances still worked. They might have done better being about the attentions of a neighboring country, which eyed the fertile valleys of Rachel's homeland. The few extra warm weeks in autumn provided for their untrusted, but never yet violent, neighbors an opportunity to stage a stunning invasion that took nearly two-thirds of the her country's territory. Fortunately, Rachel lived in the remaining third.

The malady that numbed Rachel also seemed to permeate her nation. Even in the face of conquerance, the people were rather complacent. Instead of giving and receiving rousing speeches that called the men to defend and take back their lands, people complained about how the coverage of the invasion was interrupting their favorite television programs. There were a few isolated rebellions in the newly occupied territories, but these were quickly quelled. The new government returned television to its regular programming and very few people seemed to care that they had been conquered. Taxes were raised and men were forced into military reserve units, but there was just some belly-aching about it, sitcoms had the new realities woven into their plots in funny ways, and everyone just got adjusted to the new situation and did what they were told. Everything that really mattered to people, like television and money, were provided in abundance, so there was little to complain about. When their new overseers confiscated their farms and property, moved them to shabby tenements, and gradually took away all of their freedoms, the conquered people barely even noticed or seemed to care: they reveled in free cigarettes and recreational drugs, bigger paychecks, and more channels on the television. Life, or what the people substituted for life, was much better now.

A few brave souls gathered together in the as-yet-unconquered regions and began to raise an army. Brought to the new capital of the land, this rag-tag group of totally untrained men were billeted in torn-up brown tents, stinking of sweat and mildew, just outside of the town where Rachel lived. Almost to a man, they were underfed, poorly clothed, and badly bathed, but these were the men that heeded the call to liberty and freedom from oppression.

Their general was a bald man of about fifty years, still energetic and possessed with a strategic mind that had already formulated the plan to end the invasion, but lacking the charisma to inspire the assembled men to act upon a very risky plan. He would try to engage two or three foot-soldiers and explain his idea, but no one seemed willing to take the associated risk. The chances of returning from the mission were frankly slim at best, even if they were successful, and no one was ready to give up their lives in such a risky venture. Courage was something men had on television when you knew the star of the show would be back again to play the role next week. These men had no such guarantee and they would not support a plan that didn't promise a risk-free, ready-for-television victory. But the general finally found one.

He almost lurked in shadows just to avoid attention. When the general noticed him, last of all, he was in the corner of the mess tent, hunched over some strange concoction, wincing as he spooned in the swill. The general brought his tray to sit beside the man and made some small talk with him. The man didn't look very interested, not saying a word in response, but in his desperation, the general laid out his plan, including his appraisal of possible risks and benefits. The man chewed his food slowly as the general spoke, images filling his mind. There were scenes of stories that he had heard as a young man and kept close in his heart: tales of bravery, love, hate, mercy, revenge, and even caring. Underneath all of these images moving across his mind, a backdrop became more and more clear: it was a young knight kneeling before the still figure of a dancer appealing to heaven. The general coughed politely, startling the man out of his thoughts. "What do you think?" the older man asked.

The young man looked at his plate again, his mind shouting at him. All his life, his shyness had allowed him to avoid difficult things that a courageous man could face and perhaps even conquer. Then came the sting of the memory. Once, he had the chance to be courageous, to do something truly noble, but he had stepped back into his shyness and the moment and the one person he had ever truly loved was lost forever. He vowed that day to never again pass up another opportunity to be courageous. He swallowed the food in his mouth and furrowed his brow. He turned to his general, looked him in the eye, and said "I'll d-d-do it."

Fateful days always begin differently from others, which still held true even in Rachel's monotonous life. It all started when she could not shut the door of the freezer section atop her refrigerator. There were simply too many cherry muffins! At first, Rachel stacked things carefully in the small compartment, making as much room as possible, but now their sheer mass forced her to jam new additions in wherever space could be made or a blank spot threatened to allow the whole thing to tumble out. She could never eat more than two of the muffins she baked each day, and she couldn't bring herself to throw them out, so freezing seemed the best answer. Now, the reckoning time had come and she had to do something different. Her ten o'clock soap opera was over and her mind turned to the coming trip to the grocer. A thought struck her as if from the sky and she nearly snorted as she pondered it: She would take the muffins to the owner of the grocery.

Rachel spent considerable time wondering how to transport the defrosting mound of muffins on her kitchen table. She happened upon her mother's old bushel basket and a red wagon from her childhood. If anyone along her route to the store had bothered to look, they would have seen that queer old-looking woman doing something even queerer than usual: towing behind her a rusty old wagon containing an overflowing basket of steaming muffins. She had to stop quite often to pick up one or two treats that had tumbled off of the pile, but in short order, she had her muffins inside the small grocery store.

The poor grocer didn't know quite what to do about the curious situation. The old woman that had never given him the time of day before was now trying to palm off several dozen muffins like some tired salesman. "You really do want these," she said morosely. "You could sell them."

"Oh," the man said as nicely as he could, "I really don't think I could do that. They don't look very appealing." The heat of the day had finished the defrosting process, but many of the muffins had failed to hold their shape and looked quite mushy, Rachel had to admit.

The woman offered another choice. "You could take them home to your family. I don't want any money for them."

The man sighed, looking dubiously from Rachel to her unsavory muffins. "Uh, that is a nice thought, but I don't think we could eat them quickly enough before they went bad." The grocer questioned even if they were ever any good, especially having been made by this odd woman. He thought for any way to get this creature and her creations out of his shop, as neither could improve business. Suddenly, a thought struck him. "The army is camped just out of town. I'm sure they would appreciate these, um, muffins. Why don't you try to give them away there?" He was already turning her wagon around and ushering her out of the store before she could say a word to the contrary.

Rachel had really just wanted to unload the muffins on someone and go home before she missed her afternoon soap opera and a movie she was actually looking forward to watching. Instead, after a tiresome hunched walk to the outskirts of town, she was being escorted to the largish tent in the middle of the army camp by two scruffy soldiers who thought that would be the best place to distribute muffins. She had wanted to just drop them off at the gate, but now she was approaching the slowly moldering canvas mess tent.

The press of men seemed to electrify Rachel somehow. Unlike the images of crowds on television, these men were breathing and reacting to her, looking at her awkwardly and accepting her muffins with uncertainty. She blinked, trying to process all the sights and sounds and smells around her, which she had not had to deal with for many years. Rachel looked at each man as they came to her, seeing the lifelessness in them that seemed just like the attitude she had become accustomed to seeing in her mirror at home. Perhaps that was why she gave up looking in mirrors.

With a start, she looked at the next man in line and found that he looked very familiar. Another moment passed and the memory of him returned in a flood. He looked older now and more careworn, but it was definitely Robert. Once, long ago, she had thought of him as some sort of hero, but she had been mistaken and consequently hurt. The old feelings of pain began to well within her, but she shrugged them away. Whatever she had felt those many years ago was long passed. She reached into her basket and pulled out nothing.

"I'm sorry," Rachel said blankly. "I'm out of muffins."

Robert stood there before her, flabbergasted just like always. The men waiting behind him moved off when it became obvious that there were no more treats available. "D-Don't you rem-m-member m-me?"

The woman blinked and stared hollowly at him. "Of course I remember you, Robert."

He stood there for a moment, waiting. Was that all she was going to say? Not even a "How are you?" or a "It's been a long time." Even a "You were a thoughtless coward to let my father steal me away" would have been better than this silence. Rachel turned around and began moving toward the exit.

Robert was at a loss for what to do, but his body took action anyway, sprinting in front of the woman to block her escape. Rachel was busily shuffling along, shoulders hunched over, eyes on her shoes, when she bumped into the man. She jerked up straight and looked into Robert's face, brows furrowed. She really had nothing to say to him, but her mouth opened and something strangely familiar came out: "Can I help you?"

Robert wanted to say something, but his mind was a blank. His mouth opened and closed repeatedly as if he were saying something, but there was no sound. Rachel squinted as if trying to read his lips, but her interest was waning quickly. She looked back down to her shoes and prepared to shuffle to the side and passed him, but Robert became nervous and had to do something.

"T-T-Tell m-me a t-t-tale!" Robert spat suddenly, startling himself as much as Rachel jerked back in surprise.

The woman eyed him uncertainly, trying to think of some way to say no. It was another complete surprise when she heard herself say "Okay" quietly and found Robert excitedly steering her toward the center of the room.

There was a man named Jesus, who had been sent by God, His Father, to save the people of the world from sin and death. He was given power and strength and wisdom to do His task, but He also had the one great gift that had been given to all men: the gift of choice.

The Son knew what His Father wanted to do, which was to take upon Himself all the sins of man and be punished for them. He also knew that He must die. All of these things had to be accomplish so that man could become worthy to return to God. Jesus also knew that only He could do these things. After a last Passover dinner with His friends, He went out to do the work His Father had given Him.

The words came to Rachel easily, as if she had told the tale a thousand times. She had only heard it once, but it seemed as if some power from above were expanding her mind and she could recall the tale without any effort at all. As she spoke, a peculiar light came into her face and she smiled for the first time in years. Rachel began suddenly to sway back and forth to the tempo of the story and the forgotten years of practice that lay dormant within her. With a sweep, she was on her feet, spreading her arms wide and attracting much attention to herself.

Beside a rock that rests in a peaceful garden, Jesus knelt to pray and accept the sins of men. He asked His Father if there was any way to avoid this, but He already knew that He could not. Then, like a waterfall, wave upon wave of sins crashed down upon Him, physically bearing down upon Him with a weight that would have crushed the bones of a mere man. He felt the pain of trust lost when a lie is revealed, and the sorrow as a thief is caught by the authorities with no chance of escape. Jesus writhed as He was chained by lusts uncontrolled and pleasures unrestrained. He felt the woman's heart break as her husband confessed adultery. The Son of God even understood the horror that came after a raging fit that causes one man to kill another, seeing only the hopeless terror of his victim as life itself bled away, the murderer never being able to repair the damage. All this and more Jesus suffered, thousands upon thousands of times over. The agony of the experience, totally new to a sinless man, was so much that He bled from every pore like sweat.

Rachel writhed on the floor herself, as if in great pain, as she told the tale and every eye was riveted on her. A few men even stood over her with concern etched on their faces, not sure if she were playing a role or really stricken by some torture. There was simply no choice, every man in the hall was watching and listening. Even the general, who had just pulled aside the tent flap and entered, came to see what was happening.

Even as He convulsed from the effort, He yet raised His voice to God, His Father, praying for strength equal to the task. At any time, He could have commanded the pain to cease, for He had that power, but He had promised His Father to carry through to the bitter end.

The thundering roar of anguish and emotion dulled to a throb as He began to grow accustomed to the agony, then He returned to His friends and faced His enemies, whose sins He now bore. For a brief moment, escape was again an option, as one of His friends smote off a servant's ear. In the commotion, He could have fled and escaped into the desert, but He did not -- the sins He had upon Him must be paid for if the plan of His Father was to succeed. The appointed path was not away from His enemies, but toward them. The servant miraculously healed, He went obediently with the mob.

His friends did not follow or even try to rescue Him, save one, and that one denied even knowing Jesus three times. The Son of God was alone and betrayed, after accepting the punishment for their sins. That would have been an easily justified time to walk away from His purpose, for who there was worthy of the great gift that Christ was fashioning in those hours?

The governor gave Him another opportunity to put His burden aside, asking again and again for Jesus to speak in His own defense against His enemies' preposterous charges. If the stricken man would only speak, the governor would be satisfied with a good flogging and let the man live. But the way His Father had chosen for Jesus led to a rough-hewn cross and death, not light punishments and life.

The tables had been cleared away to give Rachel room to move about, and the tent was filled to overflowing with every soldier in camp coming to see the spectacle. The woman pantomimed the weary Christ, dragging his cross up to Golgotha. Tears were in the eyes of some as they imagined the scene and the incredible effort being portrayed. Robert stood now in the back, pushed there by men more eager to see. The man was full of conflicting emotions and wanted to run, but his still-vivid love for her and his fascination with her tale kept him close.

Again, the seeming futility of His life's work struck Jesus, as the soldiers, whose sins He was bearing then, taunting Him as they lifted Him up on the cross, telling Him to perform one of His miracles and come down. Not only could He have done that, but He could have reduced the soldiers to ash and brought down every wall in Rome with one word, but He did not. He was committed to doing the work His Father had sent Him to do.

For hours, they ridiculed and spit on Him, and even His own Father turned His love and spirit away from His beloved Son now buried in a sea of transgressions that He did not commit, but of which He must pay in every way. "Why have you forsaken me?" This also He knew the answer to. The punishment must be complete, which included being cut off from His Father, which was the deepest pain of all for the one man that had lived a perfect life and had never before drawn breath without the presence of the Father's spirit with Him. In that moment, the temptation to end the suffering came again, for He was the Son of God and He didn't have to die. Was mankind worthy of salvation? He looked down at the handful of those who knew Him and what He was. They cried and wailed that He should have to die. But He knew that Christ must pay the price, if only a handful would ever make use of the great gift. Even a few justified the terrible cost. "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." With that, He finished His labor.

The silence was profound as Rachel stepped out of the character of Jesus, and, her body hurting from the unaccustomed exertion, wobbled as she stood up tall. The general came forward as the girl slipped away, quickly drawing parallels between this story of Christ and the plight of their nation. Jesus' sacrifice for all men was likened to the potential sacrifice to insure the freedom of their countrymen. No one failed to see the similarity or neglected to see the Savior's unbending courage and faith in his cause. Very quietly, the old warrior asked if there were a few who were willing to accept this assignment that would likely cost them their lives.

The sea of men swayed a bit, but there was no response. Suddenly, one figure moved, pushing a way open through the crowd and came to stand by the general. "I-I-I'll d-do it," he said softly. Rachel turned as she was about to leave the tent and go home. She saw Robert standing straight and tall, facing his comrades. Like the leak that becomes a flood, two men came up to stand beside Robert and accept the challenge, then another two, then three, and soon, all were on their feet, pledging themselves to courage and freedom. Rachel felt a surge of pride to see such a display, but she turned away again to leave.

Quietly, one man began to clap his hands together, bringing Rachel up short. As she turned to see, there was Robert looking straight at her and clapping as he wept. In very short order, the clapping spread until the entire tent was a deafening roar of applause for this woman who had inspired them. She looked about with surprise at first and then broke into a large and, to Robert, familiar smile. Rachel curtsied deeply, blew the men a kiss, and hurried out of the camp before they could catch her.

She missed the afternoon movie and got to bed very late that night, but that didn't matter to Rachel now. She spent that whole evening rummaging through boxes and musty drawers that had not been opened in years. Finally, she happened upon the treasure that she had been seeking, hugging it close to her with a dreamy, closed-eyed look, and actually blessing her father for not throwing it out. She very carefully washed it and dried it on the 'delicate' setting, such was her reverence for the theatre dress she had only danced in once, but which embodied every hope and dream she had ever had. Just then, her mind was back in that dusty college dance hall with Robert, and she forgave him that terrible night, for he had given her this day. The feel of her body moving in those familiar ways, the attention of the men, and most of all, their applause, had awakened something inside of her. The little six year old girl that hoped and dreamed had been locked away for many years, almost forgotten from neglect, but today, that girl made her reappearance. And, as Rachel looked at herself in the mirror, made beautiful again with the many pastel colors she wore, she vowed that the little girl within her, and those prayers to God that she had spoken so long ago, would never be imprisoned again.


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