The Tiny Church on the Hill: Minnesota, 2006
Annette sat, her hands folded. Folded, but not well, it would always be a difficult task and a painful reminder, simply clasping her hands together. The pinky and ring finger on her left hand, twisted and scarred from where she’d had her hand broken by… Annette blinked back tears, finding solace in the hard pew, breathing in the smells of her childhood. The small church, built in 1895 by the first settlers to call her home town, their first home. The church sat barely a hundred people, hard wood oak floors, the original pulpit, nothing fancy. They had built the church on the small hill right outside of town because of that verse in the Bible about ‘The light of the world’, and, ‘a city on the hill can be seen for miles.’ At some point in the 1950’s they had jacked up the church and put in a basement to accommodate Sunday School classrooms.
The cemetery, holding its generations of dead, sat to the north on a bluff below the church. It was full now, had been for years, and the headstones were a reminder that none of us are ever truly remembered for who we are, what we accomplished. Only names, chiseled on a stone.
There was a soft creak and a rush of wind before the door at the back of the sanctuary swung closed on oiled hinges. Footsteps came carefully up the aisle towards her from behind but Annette was not afraid; she recognized the gait now. It was, she had to admit, the first time in ten years that she would have allowed anyone to walk up behind her without being afraid, or feeling a panicked need to whip around and catch sight of whoever was approaching. The footsteps paused and Annette knew that Andrew was accessing the situation, reading her mood before coming to her side. That’s part of why she loved him, his quiet confidence, his gentle touch, the way he navigated even the most complicated situations with effortless ease. Annette kept her head bowed, tears silently streaming down her face knowing that after today he may, probably wouldn’t, ever want to be with her again. Still she would go through with it. She must, it wouldn’t be fair to him otherwise, and she couldn’t bear to be with herself, or with anyone else, if all she was, was a lie.
Her long brown hair continued to hide her face, the tears, and the deep scars that crisscrossed her cheeks. Andrew slid onto the bench, his left arm coming around her, his long lanky from enveloping her, causing the tears to flow even harder, her shoulders shaking. She was about to lose all of this but there was no going back now.
He pulled gently on her shoulder with his hand and she let her head collapse against his chest, sobbing. “Hey,” His voice was so gentle, soothing, “I got your note at work and hurried here as soon as I was off. I thought this was going to be about the wedding since we’re going to married here in a couple weeks.”
Annette shoulders shook as sobs wracked her body even harder, tears soaking Andrew’s shirt. She pulled away from him and opened her mouth but no words came and she ended up back on his shoulder, still crying. He let her cry for a long time and then he said, “Baby, whatever it is, I can take it. I’m here for you.”
“You won’t be, not after…” she pulled away again and gestured with her broken hand to her scarred face. “It’s about…about…all of this,” She finished lamely, her hands falling uselessly to her lap.
There was a pause and then Andrew’s right hand closed over both of hers. When he finally spoke it was with such kindness that she allowed herself to feel for just a moment that maybe he wouldn’t turn her out after hearing the truth. “I know that you were the Homecoming Queen, that you went away to Washington State University and were in that terrible car accident. I know that ever since you returned here, broken, you’ve hid yourself from the world, working the lines at the factory and living at your parents house. I heard all about you from the local gossip mill.” He laughed, “In a town this small there is no escape.”
Andrew paused and then continued in the same quiet gentle tone, “What no one, including yourself, has been able to answer, and I haven’t pressed you because I think it’s your story to tell, is why, even after ten years, you’ve been unable to overcome the obstacles of your broken body? I have to be honest with you Annette, I feel that in the year I’ve been courting you and all the time we’ve spent together,” He was looking away from her now, up at the pulpit, adorned with its crude wooden cross, “You haven’t been entirely honest with me. Is that why you are crying? Is there more to the tale than a wrecked car and a life unfulfilled?”
Annette grew quiet then, bringing up her right hand and wiping away her tears. She steeled herself; now was the time, no more avoiding it. “You’re right.” She found a point to focus on, the old rugged, rough cut cross nailed to the pulpit, and began. “Immature freshman, doe-eyed, full of myself, I see that, looking back. The WSU campus was beautiful that year, long walks across the quad turned into strolls around town, finding all the best places for coffee and food. Autumn, my favorite time of year, the turning leaves, harvest parties, the smells of fresh hot pressed apple cider…and football, always football. My two older brothers both played in high school and I was dragged to every game. Years of sitting around the family room on Sundays, watching the NFL and hearing everything that was wrong with every player on the Vikings team. Sooner than later I learned the sport of one man throwing another man a leather ball.”
Annette coughed out a bitter laugh and continued. “So naturally I was drawn to the games at college. I wasn’t sheltered growing up. My parents, although avid church goers, sent me to public school, allowed me to date, but I wasn’t that kind of girl, I was much more interested in academics. Occasionally boys would ask me out and I would say yes, but it would never go any further than that. One date just to make them happy and then never again. Winning Homecoming Queen came as a shock. I guess that’s how out of tune I was socially, or maybe it shows how naive I really was to the intentions of boys, or how far they would go to get what they wanted. Going to college games with my already forming group of girlfriends, I unfortunately caught the eye of one of the players. He wasn’t a major player, mostly rode the pine except on special teams. That’s how he must have noticed me. Not much to do but check out the stands for cute girls when the games got out of hand. One night, at a frat party, he made himself known to me. He was already three sheets to wind, breathing hops in my face and making outrageous boasts; that his family was rich, he was an important person, had good connections, hinting at a life to come. It was ludicrous. Well, nothing could have turned me off more and I shot down his request for dinner immediately, maybe a little too sharply. His eyes got beady, and his face was splotched with rage. It was frightening. I left the party, it wasn’t my thing anyway, my friends had dragged me there and I never went to another one again, but…”
Annette stopped, drawing in a rattling breath, her shoulders and chest shaking with effort and emotion. Andrew had not pulled away, still his right hand enclosed her two hands, he squeezed once, but she didn’t take her eyes off the cross, afraid to even look at him for fear of seeing rejection in his eyes. “I…like I mentioned before, I enjoyed a walk around town in the fall, so beautiful…” Annette trailed off again and she had to take a moment to wipe her eyes and compose herself. “That’s how he tracked me, followed me. I kept to the same pattern of coffee shops, books stores and streets, and one night, a few weeks after his arrogant boasts at the frat party, as dusk was turning to darkness, he caught me alone…”
Annette could not continue…sobs wracked her body, and Andrew stayed, still holding her, standing guard over her pain. After a few minutes she took a long shuddering breath. “He had a knife, he…” She gestured to her face, with her twisted left hand. “But what happened next was worse than what he had done. It was what wasn’t done by the college and the authorities. My assailant was right, he did have connections, powerful ones, the ones that wrangle the wills of men and make the accusations of the righteous disappear in a wicked tornado of false incrimination and blame. Even though I could identify my attacker, the detectives and campus security said it was my word against his and he was set free.” Annette tightened her jaw, pain turning to rage, “His father was a major donor, donor with an “M” for millions, and I was told by my lawyer that if I continued along the line of accusation I was following, I could be countersued for libel. After a month in the hospital, healing from my injuries, I was released into the care of my parents. I dropped out of school before Thanksgiving and we decided on the flight home that the best story, that would cover all the scars, was a car accident. I’ve lived in the prison of that lie ever since, lost in the dark alley of my torture, pseudo smiling at the future…until today.”
Andrew let Annette finish crying after her narrative and then he gently leaned her head against his shoulder and spoke in even softer tones than he had before. “I still love you. I still want to marry you and spend the rest of my life with you. Whoever hurt you, I forgive them, and I want that for you too. More than anything though, I want you to forgive yourself and see that nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome of that man’s actions. It’s not your fault. You blaming yourself is like a scorched tree apologizing to a forest fire. You were in the path of the inevitable, as is his future.”
Annette frowned, looking up into the glass pools of Andrew’s deep blue eyes for the first time. “What do you mean, ‘The inevitable future, and forgiveness’?” Annette’s tone was harsher than she meant it to be, but in the rawness of her vulnerable emotions, she didn’t care.
Andrew paused, realizing he was on dangerous ground, wanting to continue without breaking more than he had to. He narrowed his beautiful eyes in wisdom and spoke slowly, choosing his words with great care. In the Bible there’s an old proverb that states, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This man who hurt you, his life is empty. Those who are full, only of themselves, are filled with nothing. They live a life of violence and insatiable need, always devouring, forever famished and sooner or later, whether in this life or the next, the edge of their own sword is upon their throat and they cannot even beg for mercy. For those to whom they would beg, are the very ones they have slaughtered. Who among us can ask a dead man’s favor?”
Annette continued to stare into Andrew’s eyes, waiting.
“As for forgiveness, no one is ever free of the pain someone else has inflicted on them, until they learn to forgive. It is not the apology that frees us from the chains of the unmerciful, but our ability to forgive those who are not sorry and never will be; that sets us free from their sin.”
Andrew paused and then, with the utmost of care, staring deep into Annette’s brown eyes, he raised one long, perfect finger to her face and traced the scars that made her beautiful. “I want that for you, Annette, the freedom to move forward in this life, together, unencumbered. There will be other sinners and further transgressions against you, but if you practice forgiveness, you will be unfettered, soaring on the wings of eagles.”
Annette was breaking, every wall she had held in place so carefully torn down by the man she had spent the last year letting herself fall in love with. And now she knew why, but still. She bit her lip and the words were hoarse when they came out, “Andrew, there is something else I haven’t told you. The knife he used, I…”
“You can’t have children,” He finished for her, never breaking eye contact.
Annette gasped and her eyes flicked quickly back and forth from each of his, searching for a crack in the love she found there, “How did you…I…?”
He smiled, now taking her face in both his hands and leaning in to kiss her soundly before responding. “My love, in this year that I’ve known you, anytime children came up, whether it was about the dream of having our own or spending time with your brothers’ children, a deep sorrow that you cannot hide has overtaken you. A shadow falls across your face and though you smiled and nodded and played along, I knew that you were deeply hurting, and considered that the secret you held so dearly between us may be that you were barren.”
“You’ve known this whole time?” Annette was aghast, her mind was reeling.
Andrew tilted his head, “I surmised, and I’ve taken steps to plan for this, in case I was right.”
Annette shook her head, her shock deepening, but a sense of joy stole over her. Not only was Andrew, a man she felt she didn’t deserve not turning her out, he had known. He had guessed that she was keeping her pain from him and had planned not only to keep her but had been so compassionate and gentle, waiting for her to speak her pain for the sole purpose of comforting her.
“What did you plan exactly?”
“Oh, well”, He looked thoughtfully off and rubbed his chin with the back of his hand, “I’ve been looking into adoption agencies and getting the paperwork from our end of things ready.” He brightened, “In fact, I’m really quite encouraged, the adoption agency I’m working with has found a hospital down in Belize that specializes in sexually abused children, finding them care and love here in the United Sates. That is,” He paused frowning and looking down at her, a question in his eyes, “If you’re willing, I mean. If adoption is something you’re interested in?”
She shook her head looking at him in amazement, tears of joy now glistening in her eyes. “You are, Andrew James Edwards, the most amazing man I have ever met, and I love you.”
He smiled pulling her close and kissing her again. “I love you too.”
And there they sat for a long time in the little church on the hill; the happy couple, their grief gone, their joy complete. And only the future before them.
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