Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sister Harriet

Sister Harriet stood in her doorway looking up the long slope of the valley towards the grandfathers' peaks. She stood still with her head cocked, just looking up at those old peaks, covered in snow, like a bridal gown. The white of the snow came down the sides of our valley, the place where our people had been born into the world and where we would die, God save us. Sister Harriet would stand in her doorway like that for hours and we could not tell if she was listening to something here, or if she was listening to God.

It was late winter and the dust in the streets had turned into a black muck that got all over shoes and boots and splashed up pant legs and clung to the hems of skirts. She could smell it coming. Spring was just around the corner, soon her mornings would be warm and filled with birdsong and sunlight and we would all be saved amen God praise us amen, God save us amen. God kept us all winter long amen. God and Jesus saved us amen. Like little lambs he blesses us and cherishes us and wipes away our tears like the melting snow.

This was Sister Harriet's twenty-fifth spring in our valley. The church in all her wisdom had sent her to us to teach us the bible, and to teach us the mass, and to teach us to say our prayers to Mother Mary who wept, and still weeps, for her son, for us, she who intercedes with the Lord on our behalf, begging him to be kind and gentle to us. Sister Harriet taught us all our catechism and our rosary and she was the only one who would stand up to old Father Elias who told us we were unclean for the color of our skins.

Here in the high mountain valley we called home oh the hills rising up above us where our fathers herded sheep and we wove that wool into cloths dyed with fire and flashing blue the color of Mother Mary's veil. The blue of forgiveness, that's what Sister Harriet taught us, blue is forgiveness, and that's why God spreads it over the sky. Showing us that our sins are washed clean from us like wool before it is dyed, washed clean and pure and white. Father Elias taught us to fear God. Sister Harriet taught us to come to the Lord and to come to Mary and bow our heads before them like we do to our own parents. Our fathers started to drink then. Started to take the wine and the liquors that had never spread to our valley until now. They started to beat us. We'd show up to Sunday school with black eyes and loose teeth and Sister Harriet would tut her tongue at the sight of it. We were too young to know anything else though. All of us little children, a chorus of innocence in a harsh mountain valley at the edge of the world where all we had were sheep and the river and the bright burning blue of forgiveness spread over the sky.

Sister Harriet stood in front of her little cottage, which our fathers and uncles and brothers had built, piling stones and mortaring them together until she had a snug little cottage that she could heat with her wood burning stove, things Mother Church provides her missionaries. Sister Harriet stood in front of her door, which she had to stoop to walk through, and she breathed in the air and smelled the coming spring and she praised God who keeps us, praised God who loves us and teaches us, praised Him who sacrificed himself to us, for us, for our sins. The mountain air was warm rushing down from the north, warm wet air rushing down from the north. Some days you would swear you could smell the hot wet jungles, smell them with their hidden dangers, with the screaming demons that lurk in the dark wet undergrowth, waiting to drag you down with their claws and teeth. Waiting to cloud your mind with their poisons and drugs. 

The grandfathers didn't go to church. They would sit out in the high pastures and sacrifice a ram. Sacrifice a ram to the old gods who had sheltered us for so long. They would chant and hum and sing and drink from a skin. Drink the urine of a man who had eaten mushroom caps and seen visions. He would then piss into a bowl and the bowl would be set in a high place, in a cold high place, so that the gods could touch it with ice. Then that man who had seen their faces, had seen the old gods faces, like long distant cousins, old ancestors who had worked and lived and died in our valley, old grandfathers the faces of our people, and he said they wept for us, said they cried out to us on the moaning wind, reached out their hands to us with the whispering pines, tried to embrace us as the earth someday embraces us all, he the one who had seen these faces and who knew their hearts, would take the bowl and clear from it the ice that had grown on it. Gently with his fingers he would clear the ice and then pour the bowl into a skin, into the sacred skin, marked with red, marked with the blood of ram after ram, dark red brown leather, worked and worried and polished with years, and he would pour the urine into the skin and pass it around, and each grandfather would drink from the skin and they would pass the skin until all had taken it into themselves, until all of them had taken the  voices of the ancestors, of the gods, of our long gone cousins, into themselves. In the firelight they would look into each other's eyes and see all the secrets a man hides from the world. All the shame and pain and fear that a man hides in himself, and they would see this in each other's hearts, laid bare by the old gods, and they would hum and sing to each other. Songs of brotherhood, songs of love and friendship, until the fire died down and then the gods would come and walk among them. 

The grandmothers had their gatherings too, but theirs was kept dark and secret and they did it in a cave that every child is scared to go in. They would lead a lamb, into the cave, into the dark place that they had prepared, a place they called the womb of the earth. A white lamb was carried there, and we were not taught what happened then. There are no windows into the womb of the earth. There are no fires in the warm wet cave the grandmothers prayed in. Their secrets are lost to us children. Mother church has broken our chains. 

Sister Harriet though we watch, we watch as she takes one of us into her arms, one of us who has been beaten by a father for some imagined disobedience. Sister Harriet takes one of us into her arms and wipes away our tears, like God wipes away the snow from the high hills,  and she makes one of us laugh, by tickling us and kissing us and singing sweet songs into our ear as she hugs us to her breast and we feel safe don't we? Safe there near her heart. She makes us feel safe there, safe with her. We love her.
We love Sister Harriet, as she stares up the valley, and looks to the place where the waters are rising, and soon there will be fish and birdsong and we will plant potatoes and the traders will come up the valley to us and we will give them wool, and they will give us dyes and then we'll move onto the summer pastures, and we will not see Sister Harriet again for months and months. 

She smiles up at the mountain peak. We think she smiles at us. We think she is smiling at God. 

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