Power of Prayer, Chapter Five: Ben
The old woman set the cabbages in the sink and turned off the water, drying her hands on her apron as she walked to the front of the house. A young woman from across the street stood on the rickety porch, a loaf of bread wrapped in plastic in her hands.
"I brought you this," she said, holding the golden loaf out with both hands. The plastic was neatly folded around the still warm loaf and a red ribbon was tied around the middle with little curlicues flouncing on the top. The old woman took the bread and invited the young woman into the house, an invitation which was declined.
"Thank you, no," she said, hesitant.
The old woman stood looking at the brown haired green eyed girl with her ivory skin and unintentionally petulant mouth. They stood staring at each other awkwardly for a moment, the old woman unsure why she was receiving the gift and the young woman now unsure about her true purpose for coming.
"Thank you for the bread," the old woman said, adjusting her body position to indicate she was ending the interaction.
"Will you pray for a friend of mine?" The young woman half-yelled the request, her voice more anxious than forceful. The old woman tucked the bread under one arm and set the other arm on her hip, considering.
"What would you like the prayer for?"
The young woman explained that a family at her church had a son dying of cancer. "I want him to live. I want a miracle. Will you pray for a miracle?"
"What makes you think I'm a miracle worker, child?" the old woman suppressed a smile as she asked.
The young woman paused. She didn't know how to explain to the old woman that she'd heard whispers among the neighborhood about the 'good witch' up the street. The kids spoke of how they heard strange songs in foreign languages if they walked past the old woman's house at night. Rumors drifted around from the old folks and her parents' friends that the old woman used to say 'I'll pray for you' and the next day or the next week, the person she'd spoken to had found joyful resolution to their predicaments and ailments.
The old woman nodded as the conflict washed over the young woman's face. "I will pray for the family at your church."
"Will you pray for a miracle?"
"It's not like that, child," she smiled sadly. "Prayer isn't like that. It's not a wishing well. You don't pray for what you want, you pray for what is right. I will pray for the family you mentioned." The old woman turned to walk into the house.
"How do you know?" she asked, again too loudly. "How do you know what is right?"
"There are two things in this world that are always right, child. Justice and mercy. When you pray for justice and mercy, you pray for what is right. Even if it doesn't seem right. Even if it seems cruel. Justice and mercy are the infallible virtues."
"How do you know what justice and mercy look like?"
"I don't. But there's a feel to them, you see. A feel to justice and mercy. When you see it, you know it, even if you don't like it. I pray for that. Thank you for the bread."
The old woman closed the door and the young woman stood on the porch, looking at the old door with the etched glass in the middle. The young woman felt a certain sadness that the old woman hadn't said yes to praying for a miracle; the old woman felt a different but equally certain sadness about that miracle.
The old woman spent the day wandering between the kitchen and the garden. Harvesting season kept her busy all day, picking, washing, canning, and then picking some more. Her garden supplied more produce than she needed. She made gifts of many canned good, careful that nothing she grew went to waste. The cat came in from the garden proudly bearing a brown furred grey bellied mouse. She congratulated the tabby on his successful hunt and hummed to herself to drown out the sound of crunching bones and an unnecessarily vigorous bath.
In the afternoon, the cat napped in the sunlight on the back porch railing. The old woman scratched his warm shoulders as she carried a jug of sun tea in from the heat. She hummed a nameless tune as she fished the lemons out of the tea and added ice cubes to dilute the dark brown infusion. Her body was tired from the long night before but her mind was restless, her spirit seeming to fidget within her skin.
As the sun set she cleaned the kitchen with a warm wet rag, green and white checkered and soft in her hand. She ate spaghetti with fresh basil pesto and Parmesan cheese with a small chunk of leftover chicken breast. As darkness filled the sky she poured a second glass of iced tea for herself and stood on the back porch, welcoming the cool breeze against her skin. When the stars flickered into view she finished her tea and called to the cat, who hurried in the back door and paused to sniff at the milk bowl. He offered a plaintive cry and she acquiesced to his request, pouring a ration of creamy milk into the silver bowl. He lapped at the milk vociferously, as if he hadn't already eaten a can of food, at least one mouse, and innumerable grasshoppers over the course of the day.
She turned off the kitchen light and wandered through the dark house to the staircase. Sighing before she stepped, her foot on the first step was silent and the second step creaked. She mumbled as she continued on, 'some day I will fix that nail and walk my stairs in silence.' She never would fix the step, though, she knew, and so did the Step. Sometimes things are broken for so long that the brokenness becomes normal and to repair what is broken yields a foreign, unpleasant feel.
Wandering into the bedroom she turned on the bedside lamp, filling the room with an amber glow. She slipped off her boots, setting them beside the ragged chair in the corner, and turned back the sheets. One less step for her to take when she finally came to bed. In purple socks with pink polka dots she wandered down the dark hall and grabbed the shawl off the peg, flipping the purplish-silver knitwear over her shoulders. She stood for a moment in front of the door. Some nights she came to this room and it seemed her words were for naught. Other times she had to force herself into the room at all because it seemed a pointless practice.
Tonight, she knew, was the hardest kind of night. She knew she would go into the room and pray for justice and mercy and her spirit would fly to a house in her town, perhaps a house just up the street, and she would find a weary family and dying child.
Her entire life she'd prayed for justice and mercy. Not a results oriented prayer, not a wish list, but for two indispensable virtues. Sometimes the answer to her prayer was more extravagant and beautiful than any requester could dream. Other times she could barely make sense of the results. With time every answer made perfect sense, the far reaching impacts illuminating how the answer was just and merciful. Those were the hardest answers, the ones to which the answer seems cruel or dismissive or mocking. But the truth of the world didn't operate in hours or days, or even years sometimes. Whatever the greater fabric the threads of humanity were woven into, the span was expansive and incomprehensible. And yet, if she looked for them, she could always see how the justice and mercy were played out.
She opened the shiny brass door handle and stepped into the dark room. Pausing at the small table to light the single candle there, she ran her fingers over the slim black book with a gold cross embossed on the front. She flipped open the book to where a thin black ribbon marked her place and she read silently the verse.
But He has shown thee, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of Thee: To do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.
She closed her eyes and hummed the tune she knew from childhood then took her place in the rocking chair.
Her words filled the air in the room and her body glowed a silvery blue. As she rocked steadily forward and back her body relaxed and her spirit loosened itself from her bones. Her voice raised and lowered as the blue light filled the room and radiated out of the window. Her spirit slipped loose, into the room and then out of the window into the cooling night. On featherless wings her spirit drifted along dark streets spotted with hazy orange light. Past rows of houses with SUVs parked in the drive and basketball hoops secured above the garage door. The spirit would know the right house. The spirit would taste the right amount of grief lingering in the air.
Down the street and through a series of yards, she wandered the night as atmospheric gasses made the stars twinkle and sparkle. Turning down a cul-de-sac, to the third house around the circle, the spirit hovered above the thick green grass. Lights were on, both downstairs and up. The upstairs light filtered through thin curtains. It was a low light, a reading lamp most likely, and soon to go out.
On queue the light flicked off.
Looking through the downstairs window, the spirit saw a bone-tired woman walking down the stairs with thumping steps. The spirit swirled up to the second story and slipped in the window.
Close to the window was a single bed covered in a blue bed spread, lumping in the middle where a child slept. The air tasted of sickness and joyful hope with a light dusting of mature resignation. She hovered over the bed, tendrils caressing the lump, seeking to understand. There was only death in this bed; unavoidable death. The question was not a matter of if, but when, and after how much agony. Considering, the spirit slipped under the door, down the lighted hallway and stair case, down the family room.
"He was already asleep, he fell asleep reading," the woman said. Her voice had the flat inflection of a purposeless life.
"That doesn't surprise me since you're doubling his dose of pain killers." The man's voice was angry and hostile, doused heavily with blame.
"I would like to sleep at some point, instead of getting up every three hours because he's crying." The woman's shoulders slouched under oppressive grief.
"That's not a reason to half kill him with pain killers, Jeniece. You're going to keep him too drugged up for any of us to spend what little time we have left." His voice was raising. The anger wasn't truly at Jeniece, but she was here, and his pain was here, and so he called her to account for the pain.
The spirit drifted between them, flicking silver and blue toward both of them. An unearthly calm filled both their minds. The woman forgot his harsh words and sidled over to her husband, collapsing on the over-sized red couch next to him. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her against his chest, kissing her chestnut hair. The spirit left them there in the comfort of each other, whisking up the stairs and back into Ben's room.
A soft snore greeted her as she lingered in the shadows watching the lifting and falling lump. The spirit stayed in contemplation for a long time. The parents eventually wandered up the stairs and into their room, adjacent to their son's. Soon enough a low snore drifted into the boy's room from the master bedroom, in a discordant melody mixing with the snore of the child. A tug in the ether reminded the spirit that her body was already wearied and unable to sustain another prolonged excursion.
Not so many nights in a row.
The spirit drifted to Ben's bed, swirled blue and gold tendrils over the body and watched as a small cloud of white lifted from the boy and dissipated into the air. The lump was still and silent, the spirit the only life in the room.