Evangelism Team, Northern France, Spring 1977
I read in one of my textbooks that hypothermia is a peaceful death. One thing keeps me from letting go and crossing over—fear of my grad picture being flashed across the evening news, Walter Cronkite shaking his head, announcing, “Tonight’s top story: Thirty-four virgins found frozen in tent on remote farm…” I dig through my duffle, layering into what clothes I have left.
I packed for India, not Northern France experiencing the coldest spring on record.
Spreading my poncho under my sleeping bag fails at keeping permafrost from leeching into my bones. Socks secure green scrubs over my legs. My boots remain on. A pair of panties cap my head. My friend Noni’s idea—to contain body heat. Most of us wear them now. I just wish mine were more European. Red or black with a hint of lace. White cotton is so tragically Canadian. That was a sinful thought, wasn’t it. God, forgive me—again.
The virgin thing is an assumption on my part. We’re all around the same age, early twenties and I’m guessing, like me, everyone has racked up hours of purity sermons.
In the tent, Noni’s spot beside me is empty. Defeated, she left this morning. I sat with her, absorbing the rocking until the bus arrived to take her home. I miss her stifled weeping. It muted the clatter in my head.
Six weeks of this has killed off all but four neurons. They ricochet around the cavern once occupied by my brain. Three of them rapid fire: deny, sacrifice, surrender. The fourth pecks like a chicken: where’s my passport, I’m hungry, let me sleep, don’t let me die before I have sex.
I button my thin sweater, mitten my hands with socks then cup them over my iced nose.
Distant summer trickles into frozen dreams. The hammock folds like a pod around two sister peas. Swing and sway follows a hot July wind. Small hands meet in a bag of liquorice allsorts. Leaf shadows shiver on the turning pages of ‘The Mystery of the Tolling Bell’—
A ladle spanking a saucepan rallies us for midnight prayer. I unzip my cocoon and reorient. Forgive me, Lord. Do you count dreams as sin? I’m awake, now. I remember: to be a disciple, I must deny family, hate my sister.
The girls’ pavilion empties before the boys’. My feet are stones. I throw them on the road and run, grabbing a handful of long grass on the way back. It’s musky-sweet to gnaw on. Noni used to swallow it, saying, “If it doesn’t hurt the sheep, it won’t kill us.”
Warriors march, sing, plead. I hitch myself to the fence post to keep from spilling like boiled noodles onto the dirt. Blessed noodles, buttered, cheesy noodles… I swallow the gritty mulch in my mouth.
David is not among the intercessors—again. He’s proving a hard nut for them to shatter. Though, maybe he’s got a point when he complains, “Ya daft gits. Shouldn’t God know He’s got bloody problems to fix without me tellin’ him?”
I pray, Dear Lord, deliver me to David’s warm sleeping bag… snuggling… drifting… Water swirls around sister pirates launching boats in the creek. A snake swims against the current disappearing into the bank—
My eyes spring open as prayed-out soldiers are dismissed to their cots. Luminous hands signal 5:20. It’s the longest I’ve slept in weeks, three solid hours. My watch survived the luxury purge. Back then, it seemed an essential tool for a nurse. Now I’m thinking none of us has a pulse for me to check. Think not. Get up and run.
I stretch the mandatory five kilometre run into six to generate warmth. Gold limned clouds smash with the pinking sky. I want my camera, the solid little Olympus. I miss it. Miss the giftedness of it. The only present my father ever bought for me. I miss the silly face he made as we posed for the camera’s first snap. Deny your father and take up your cross.
As I loop back, first light spilling over the ridge shimmers up whiskers of frosted grass. Boys, jockeying for position, race uphill. David lags behind. “Jesus H Christ, it’s bloody freezing.” He packed for India too.
I break the sliver of ice on the trough, slapping more than washing. I stink worse than the manure pile, but not even the Finns among us brave the sub-zero showers.
Six tea bags float in the giant caldron. I untie days-old white bread bundled in cloth. Breakfast for sixty is served. David sighs, “What I’d give for a strong cup of coffee. I haven’t had a shit in ten days.”
I miss coffee more than familiar music and a BM would be bloody marvellous. Sorry, Lord. Crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires.
I’m not nursing or evangelizing. I’m assigned to laundry duty. Boiling water in the iron pot calms me. Soap stinging my cracked hands affirms there’s still life in me. By noon, shirts and pants ripple on the line like a boneless choir.
During the hour set aside for prayer, I follow the stone wall, past the mill, into the village. I’ve memorized the salvation message. It could roll off my tongue with élégance musical. A woman nods hello and I tell her that her lilacs are ‘très joli’. To the old man reading in his yard I say that his blonde horse is ‘magnifique’. He puts down his crumbling book to join me in stroking the mare’s velvety muzzle. Over the wrought-iron fence his hand, more leathered than my bible, offers a hardboiled egg, salted and peppered. He winks a smile when I say, “Merci.”
An ancient cupboard, burnt sienna and turquoise, rests against his stone cottage. Ivy cascades down its shady side. He follows my gaze then taps my temple with his finger. “Pensez.”
Oui. Think. No, don’t think. Trust in the Lord. Do not lean on my own understanding.
Afternoons, I weed and hoe. David cuts withered potatoes for planting. He drops an eye into the furrow. “Dr. Spud, PS, at your service.”
He’s fresh out of medical school, Cambridge. His accent makes my belly flip. I ask, “Why’d you sign up?”
He pops a fleshy bit into his mouth. “I’m one lucky bastard. A little payback seemed due. Figured India would be a good place to balance accounts. You?”
I scan the fields. “Heard the vanishing point of God’s disappointment was there.”
“Ya daft git. Find your own perspective.”
“I thought personal perspective was sinful.”
“You miss a psych rotation?”
“Doesn’t hearing voices telling you to live in a garbage bin not seem bonkers to you? I’ve never heard such rubbish as what’s being shovelled here. Apparently, I’m not a good follower. Baa, baa baa-loody right, I’m not. Bet you got told you needed dropping by a peg or two”
“You’ve done this before, right?”
“Columbia, Ethiopia, Northwest Territories. First time with this organization, though.”
“Be proud, bloody proud. You’re one of, you are.”
His hair is an explosion, like music escaping a bandshell. Beyond him the meadow blushes lavender. I’ve heard French girls lay back in such places and boys follow. With the sun this high the earth wouldn’t feel as cold as it did last night. I’m a depraved sinner, this I know. He offers a slice of potato and I eat it.
Orientation, Minnesota, Six weeks earlier
I arrive for lessons on cultural sensitivity, hygiene, key phrases, some inspirational talks…
By day five my mind is powder.
v“God demands brokenness! Live life for Him and Him only. Deny yourself the pleasures of this sinful world. Embrace the cross and die to self…”
My stomach grumbles. Breakfast was porridge, no milk, no sugar. It sat in my bowl like a pale brain. Could it think? Did it understand how bad it was? The hair of the girl in front of me is buttery, no, more like melted white chocolate. I bend forward to muffle the quaking in my belly. Her hair smells like coconut.
Mercifully, we stand. We pray. We walk up the stairs and out the door. Hallelu—no, no, no. We turn left, back into the auditorium, down the steps, across the front, up the stairs. Someone starts singing, “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion…” A rope of sacred music pulls us ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round, a conga line for Christ. Eons later we snake toward baskets of oranges.
The fasting faithful bypass lunch. My fingers tighten around the fruit’s skin with an affectionate squeeze. I exit the building in search of oxygen. A greening tree offers a low branch, like an upturned hand. I accept. I recline. I hold the orange against the brilliant sky before breaking the skin. A squirt of juice lands on the back of my thumb. I lick it. I’m ten segments rich, savouring each one before sleep swallows me. Breeze flutters my skirt… hair hangs like willow tendrils…arm sags…fingers release peel… My sister calls, “Heather, laaaunch.” August sand burns my feet as I race from the lake to the blanket. I bite into a peach—
“Is this how a Godly woman presents herself?”
Cradled in a spring-waking tree? Yes. Absolutely. “No.” I snap up and off the branch. “Sorry.”
“The road to hell is paved with sorries. Come along, please.”
I follow the Iron Maiden, the devout ironer of men’s shirts and pants, likely their socks and underwear, too. I’m not a woman of iron—yet. By God’s grace I’ll become a Proctor-Silex, without the steam option.
The leaders are Iron Men. Their words weight my pockets with lead, saw me like a log into manageable pieces and anchor me in my place. I study pairs of laced-up shoes while they breathe holiness. “Praise you, Jesus,” sucks in. “Pride, obedience, sacrifice,” torpedoes on sharp exhales. Then, the benediction: “You’ll be going with the evangelism team to France. Amen.”
“…but…I’m a nurse.”
“Go, memorize 1 Samuel 15:22 and James 4:6.”
To obey is better than sacrifice. God opposes the proud. Before volunteering for India, I worked on an oncology ward. A patient lost his tongue, yet somehow he smiled, more than most. I gave him a gift, a Laurentien twenty-four pack. He used the pencil crayons to talk in colour. When I said goodbye he wrote, ‘Hope is a chameleon. Absorb colour wherever you go’.
The words coating my tongue now, taste…black. “Yes, sir.”
I’m dismissed. I feel proud—well, not so much proud as shocked, that out of eighty shining candidates I’ve been seen at all, that there’s something in me worth noticing. I pause at the growing monument in the foyer and survey the worldly pleasures we will leave behind: curling irons, make-up, money, my red sweater with the pearl buttons. I resist reaching in and stealing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Iron Maiden speaks from behind. “Can I share my heart with you? The way you dress. I’m sure you don’t mean to tempt the men.”
My head drops, hair closing like a curtain over my yellow T-shirt. My thumb snags the small rip at my wrist as I tug on the sleeve. The tongues of my boots lick the hem of a layered peasant skirt. My Joseph socks, a multi-coloured gift from my niece, puddle up my shins. Kodiaks clad my feet. Solid boots that have made me unafraid to walk in the countries of anacondas, pit vipers and mambas. I’m afraid of snakes. I’m terrified of snakes. I was prepared to face cobras in India. I don’t know what lurks in France. I don’t even know the French word for snake.
I rummage through my remaining possessions, shroud myself in a voluminous sweater then return for more instruction.
A finger attached to a pious hand punctuates the air. “This is not a holiday. This is war! Are you a soldier for our Lord and Saviour? Will you surrender? Will you give Him your all?”
A raspberry-cheeked boy in a white shirt rises in the rain of ‘Amens!’, descends the steps, falls to his knees. Others follow. I exit the auditorium, retrieve my little Olympus and lay it on Mount Sacrifice.
It’s three AM. The raspberry-cheeked boy now walks in determined circles to keep sleep from winning. Seventy-nine minds remain focussed on God. Coloured floaters bob in my left eye as I pray for deliverance to my six-by-four sleeping space on the gymnasium floor.
Mission Headquarters, Belgium, Fall 1977
A microsecond before I disappear like dust banged out of an eraser, reanimation begins. The leaders say, “Good girl. God has a place for you.” An old lorry rattles my remaining cells as I’m transported from France to Belgium. Rain-washed miles turn David, the farm, the pavilions into opaque smudges. Like a Dali landscape, time, sequence, connections…melt, collapse. I wake at headquarters, rise from the centre of my chalk outline and follow directions.
I fold towels hot out the dryer. Smooth sheets into perfect squares. Pile clean clothes into stacks. A mechanic retrieves coveralls for the garage. He shy-smiles, says “Danke,” and places a chocolate bar on the ironing board.
All morning I think about chocolate, trying to remember what it tastes like. Can I love it without wanting it? Is there wanting without love? I check it’s in my pocket as I walk away the prayer hour.
On the footbridge over the pond I study a swan searching deep into the water. Is she admiring her bill mirrored like a tempting shade of lipstick or does she see it as a rose offered from the deep?
The distant feather-touch of the old man’s finger tapping my head startles-up my neck hairs. Pensez.
Yes, think, think. No, stop it. Keep the mind stayed on the Lord… my God. The Lord is my shepherd. Be a good sheep and follow. What do lambs circling the trough see when their heads bow and pale pink tongues disturb the reflected sky? The Lord is my shepherd; I want lipstick the shade of scarlet rust.
Esther pulls me from the laundry and sends me to open up the infirmary. My knees feel installed backwards as I descend the steps. New recruits, grasping their aching heads, fill the chairs. The caffeine withdrawal of my first week still throbs behind my memory. I rummage through the medication cupboard trying to decipher the foreign labels. Could be ASA or arsenic for all I know.
I snitch coffee from the private kitchen, dissolve Nescafe into paper cups, break the chocolate bar into medicinal squares and minister to the suffering.
A Dutch recruit helps. She reminds me of Noni. Her slender finger, lined white where a ring recently sat, slides the last piece in my direction. My head wobbles ‘no’. She asks, “Where are you from?”
She laughs easy. “You are funny.”
I used to be.
My back teeth twitch when Esther whispers, “Someone has asked for you.”
Short-termers are forbidden to date. For us, the fully committed, there’s a kind of ordained courtship, initiated and negotiated by hopeful males. I’ve heard David deserted the Lord’s army to take a position at the Children’s Hospital in London, so it must be the chocolate-gifting mechanic.
The raspberry-cheeked, surrendering boy from orientation sits across from me, earnestness and reverence flanking him on either side. He snatches a look at my face then woos my canvas sneakers. “God has called me to the Middle East. I believe He has a plan for us to serve him together.”
Submit. Obey. Iron. My lips are numb. I can’t hear my own breathing but the walls bend by fractions, inches, yards, miles.
I have a warm bed. I have a pillow. I’m still awake as the slate gray dawn slips through the window. I shall not want.
I receive two letters.
One from my sister: ‘Shauna earned her starfish badge. Blackberries plumped thick by the creek. A rogue mouse skittered up John’s pyjamas…’ I fold my want into the pale blue paper and tuck it inside the envelope.
I open Noni’s epistle.
‘…the feeling of abject wretchedness is fading, slowly. Questions remain. What father delights in his children’s suffering? Who celebrates control and deprivation? That’s sick, isn’t it?
They broke me. Now, the fragments are mine to reassemble. I’m teetering, precariously, exhilaratingly (is that even a word?) between faith and reason. It’s such an expansive place with room inside for wonder and wondering, universes inside universes. Yesterday, I read this gem by Rumi, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field, I’ll meet you there.’
I am only a train ride away. Ticket enclosed.
P.S. Sheep have a stomach for grass. People don’t.
P.P.S. Elvis died August 16th.’
I run the footpath around the pond. As I round the curve, a swan stretches its neck, unfurls yards of wing, runs on water, then lifts. I follow its flight until it vanishes into absolute blue. On the walk back, my sweater peels away under a warm September sun. The ticket in my pocket weights me like a feather. Neurons spark, fire. I follow the light. In Holland I could walk with Noni through the streets where my father fought in the war. I’ll earn airfare home by planting bulbs that bloom rainbows in the spring. Come summer, my sister and I will shop for panties, French silk, we’ll swim in the creek and paint the old cupboard at the cottage sienna and turquoise, highlighting the carved flowers lavender.
I sit on a nubby avocado chair while the faithful discuss their plans for my life. The image of me splayed in the desert, a Bedouin shepherd poking my ice-cased body with his staff flashes across my closed lids. White underpants of surrender shimmy up the pole as Noni’s wisdom shivers down my spine: “The limbs furthest from the heart are the parts that freeze.” My eyes drift to burnished trees licking the silver sky outside the window. Words form on my tongue, spicy, red hot. “I…I’m leaving. Return my passport, please.”
Disappointed gods strike at my heels as my sturdy boots turn, moving me toward a point of light where I might begin.
Published in PRISM International