Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Key, Chapter 32

The Key
by Eloise Hawking

Chapter 32

     I didn’t think the prayer in my head this time and I didn’t whisper it.  I cried it.  I cried and sniveled and snorted and sniffed out behind the woodpile.  The smell of mud and old garbage wafted into my nostrils with every breeze.  It seemed like a strange place to pray, but it was the first private place I could find in my yard, especially now that I lost my tree house.  I remember from Sunday school that even Jesus himself even went out into the garden and pray by himself. 

     “Please don’t let it be true, God.  Please bring Rocky back.  Please God I would take good care of him.  Then people would finally believe that you were real.  Me and Rocky could go all over the world and tell people about the miracle and everyone would stop arguing about religion and everyone would believe.” 

     I cried and talked to God from my heart.  I knew he heard me because I could feel it.  I didn’t have a single doubt that he did. 

     I cried and sniveled and sobbed and eventually caught my breath. For a moment I sensed someone was near and was afraid to look.  I thought maybe Jesus came to go get Rocky out of that grave.   I steadied my breath and opened my downcast eyes preparing to see the very sandals of Jesus that I was so unworthy to touch.  But instead I saw two boots,  the brown, muddy steel toed kind peeling and worn from years of wear.  They were the feet of my grandfather. I felt him place a hand on my head and pat it twice.

     I pushed back onto my knees that were now soaked through from the rain of last night’s storm.  “Rocky died, Grandpa,” I said looking at him through my tear clouded eyes.

     “I know Ellen,” said Grandpa more softly than I ever heard his voice. He paused as if to think of what to say next, seemed to hesitate a moment.

Then Grandpa said, “You know there is a time for everything.  Everything has its season; a time to plant and a time to harvest, a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to be silent and a time to speak, and even a time to be born and a time to die.  Today was Rocky’s time, Ellen.  No amount of praying can bring him back, but you can be happy for the time you got to spend with him.  Rocky found someone that loves him, and that was you.  Finding love is what matters most in life.”

     I looked back down and nodded, knowing that Grandpa spoke the truth.  More silent tears welled up in my eyes and I was suddenly embarrassed at my loss of control.  Grandpa reached out his hand to pull me up.  He moved his hand between my shoulder blades; turning me gently and guiding me back to home.

     Grandpa and I walked silently through the yard to my house, where I saw my Mother waiting in the driveway for me.  “Come on, Honey,” she said exchanging glances with Grandpa, “let’s get ready to go to church.  It is especially important to go when you are hurting.”  For once, I didn’t argue.

     Together we walked into the kitchen.  The house was still a shadowy dark, even during the day.  Out of habit I flipped the light switch to turn on the overhead kitchen lights.  “Ugghh.  I forgot.  Still no electricity.”

     “I know.  I keep doing that, too,” Mother  agreed.  “I like things lit up, too.” 

     I could see that mother was making something as the kitchen counter was littered with bowls and utensils and peelings.  She was preparing, apple pies. 

     “How are you gonna bake those if we don’t have any power?” I asked.

    “Going to,” she corrected.  “I’m getting them ready because I have faith that the power will come back on eventually.   When it does, I will be ready,” said mother confidently. 

     It looked like it was quite an undertaking.  The kitchen counter was solid with newspaper to hold the peelings, the cores set aside for the composter, the old wooden spoon that I once received a spanking with, and a fine layer of sugar covering the surface.

     “Are one of those for us?” I asked, suddenly aware of my growling stomach.  My mouth watered at the very thought.

     “Yes,” mother said.  “I made three--one for the Thompsons, one for us to share with your grandparents, and one for Farmer Richter.   Pie always makes someone feel better when you are hurting.”

     I had forgotten about Fangs temporarily.  I wondered again if he made it through the night.  “Can we stop there on the way to church to check how he’s doing?” I inquired.

     I could almost see Mother grimace at the thought.  What if we were delivered the news that Fangs had died, too.  Two dog deaths may be just too much for her little girl to handle.  She paused a moment, squinted her eyes up like she does when she thinks, and said, “Sure, we can do that.”

     I walked by the bowl and could see the heaps of sugared apples and plucked one off the top and ate it.  He was the just right blend of tart and sweet.  It tasted good in my mouth.  I looked to see one pie complete with the top crust on.  Mom had poked in her fish symbol into the top to vent it. 

     Some people put X’s in the pie’s middle to allow the steam out.  I’ve seen others with hearts and even ones with initials of the baker.  But Mom always put in the ichthys, the Christian fish symbol.  Early Christians used it to mark secret meeting places when they needed to escape the persecution of the Romans.  Some people recognized it right away and others saw it as an autism awareness symbol or perhaps an award ribbon.  I asked her why she did this once.  Mother Eloise told me that you could always spot a true believer if they recognized symbol as a fish and not a ribbon.

     I could see she was at the best part of the pie baking process, rolling out the dough.  My mother is not the best baker.  She is messy and disorganized and the kitchen looks like a bomb hit it when she’s done.  Mom always struggles getting the pie crust into a nice, neat circle.  

     “That one looks kind of like Africa,” I said.

     “I know,” said mother grinning at her own shortcoming.  “I was thinking of baking it just like that and bringing it to school and let you kids make a topographic map out it.”

     I shook my head at her goofy idea and was hoping that she was kidding.  You never know with my mother.  I took a step to walk away but mom stopped me.

     “Ellen, there is one last apple that needs to be added to the bowl.  Maybe you can help me with it.”

     There sitting on top of the counter amid all the clutter was an apple that looked vaguely familiar.  It was on the smallish side, but perfectly round with a bruise on the one side.  It had a stubby  brown stem that protruded up from the indent  at the top.  It would have been a picture perfect apple, except for the bruise.

     “I pulled this apple from the pocket of your shorts pocket last night,” said Mom very calmly.

     My stomach dropped.  She knew.  It really is true what people say about mothers, they have a way of finding out everything.  It was the only thing I had ever stolen and it was only a fallen piece of fruit, and she still found it. I opened my mouth to stammer a response, and mother went right on.  

     “This one’s a beauty,” mom said, picking up the apple and gently tossing it up and down in her palm.  “My guess is that she’s a fallen one.  I can tell by the little brown stem.  See here,” said mom leaning toward me, tipping its top into my line of sight, “the stem is short and she has a bruise on her backside from where she fell.”

     Again I opened my mouth to try to explain, but mother glanced away and started in on the apple with a peeler. 

      “I’ve got to be careful with this apple.  It’s the last one for the pie, so it’s the most important.  She’ll make it just the right size.  Without her, the pie would be too thin, and if she was any bigger, the pie would overflow into the bottom of the oven and set the smoke alarm off.”

     Mother carefully twirled the apple in her hand as she smoothly worked the peeler round and round its pretty red skin.  “You remember Grandma’s game, don’t you Ellen?  If you don’t break the skin and you toss the peel over your shoulder, it will tell you who is in your heart.” 

     I stood quietly beside my mother as she gently carved off the last inch of red, smooth skin.  “There,” said Mother, “perfect.”  She carefully held the peel in the palms of her two hands as if you would hold a delicate egg.  “Would you like to try?” 

     Finding out the initial of who I was going to marry was not on my list of Top Ten Things To Do Today.  But at least if would be a temporary distraction to my sadness, so I played along.  

     I extended my hands, palms facing upwards with the edges pressed together as if I were about to receive Holy Communion.  The red skin of the apple filled my hands and felt as if it belonged there for some reason.  I looked down at the curled exterior and said my silent prayer, “Please don’t let it land in a K”.  I could not stand the thought of possibly marrying Kenny.  I held my breath, closed my eyes, and tossed the skin behind me.  I heard the plop and turned to see the outcome. 

     Mom put her hand on my shoulder and I could feel the warmth of her closeness.  “J again,” I said softly.
     “Again?” my mother questioned.

     “Grandma made applesauce the other morning and we tried it and that’s how it came out.”

     “And so it will every time,” smiled my mother.

     I looked at her quizzically.  “So I am going to marry someone whose name begins with a  J?”

     “Ugghh!  Your Grandmother!” said Mother in exasperation. “ Did she tell you that?” she said rolling her eyes.

     I nodded yes.

     Mom closed her eyes and shook her head.  “Grandma always changes the rules of every game,” she explained with a tone of annoyance.  “The skin doesn’t land in the letter of the person you are going to MARRY.  It lands in the shape of the letter of who is in your heart.   I’ve done this my whole life, honey, and the shape lands that way every time.”

     We turned to examine the apple peel again.  It did look like a fancy J, like the cursive kind that we learned in school.

    “Sometimes you have to walk around your toss and look at it from other angles.  There are many ways to make a J. Mine lands in that shape every time.”

     “But doesn’t dad get jealous since his initial is an L?” I asked.

     “No,” she smiled, “he could never be jealous of this person, because he lives in the hearts of many. Those who believe, that is.”

     Mother stopped and let that hang in the air for a moment, and then turned to place the naked apple on the cutting board.  She poised the knife above the mid-line of the while flesh, running horizontally between the stem and the base.

     “This man lives inside all of us, and eating an apple every single day  reminds me of it.”

     I was confused.  What man?  Someone with the initial of J who was not my father.  Why was she telling me this?  Why today?

     Mom stared to press the knife gently through the juicy flesh then used a bit more force when she got to the core.  The knife hit the cutting board with a snap as it slid through the rest of the way, and the top half of the apple fell like a severed head on a guillotine.  The top wobbled and rocked and eventually steadied itself,  core up, to face me.  There on the inside was a perfect little star.

     My eyes widened and I took a step closer to make sure I was seeing what I thought I did.  I reached out and picked up the apple and brought it closer to my eyes.  I smelled the sweet aroma and felt the cold moisture of its white flesh in my hand.  A star.  A star was inside the apple.

     Our eyes met.  It was a moment when words do not need spoken.  Understanding filled the space between us.  I figured it out.  I had found the little red house with no windows and no doors, a little brown chimney and a star inside.  I did complete my Quest after all.

     “Mom………”  my voice trailed off because I simply didn’t know what to say.  Mother reached out and enveloped me in her arms, squeezing me tight, the apple pressed between us.
     I felt her kiss the top of my head.  “I knew you’d find it, Sherlock.  It just took you a little while to figure out that you did.”

     “Why didn’t you tell me last night?” I asked.  “Why didn’t you show me this before?” I said, breaking the rule of no rapid fire questions.

     “Some things are better learned when you discover them yourself.  Yes, you did solve the riddle about the little red house, but there is more to it.  Let’s see if you can figure out the rest.  Let me show you something.”

     Mother reached to the counter and took the bottom half of the apple and held it out next to mine.  “See the star?, she said, “Does it remind you of anything?”

    “A star,” I said.

     “Yes, of course that,” she said, but what does it remind you of?  Anything here in this kitchen?”

     My eyes scanned the room looking for anything with a star on it.  Nothing on the cupboards, nothing in the wallpaper, nothing sitting on the counter.  What was it?

    Finally my eyes rested on it.  There on the window sill, sitting in a tiny frame above the kitchen sink, was the picture of DiVinci’s man.  The naked guy that everyone made fun of, that my mother called “art.”  The way he was standing kind of looked like a star.  His arms and legs were the four points and his head was the fifth point on the top.

     “The naked guy?” I asked.

     Mom laughed her throaty laugh, tossing her head back.  “Yes, him,” she said.  “Now look at your apple peel, she said.”

     “Was the naked guy’s name Jim, or Jeremiah or something like that?” I inquired.

     Mother smiled and shook her head.  “What lies at the core of every apple is a star, which to me looks like the shape of a man.  He is the man who was born from the seeded womb and came to save us all.”

     I got a warm feeling through my body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.  It was the feeling I sometimes got when I was really happy about something or when I felt like a prayer had been answered.

    “Jesus?” I whispered softly.

     My mother nodded slowly.  “Yes, honey, Jesus.  He walked this earth for 33 years and it is he who lies in the heart of all of us, waiting for us to discover his love.”

     This revelation was quite a bit to process after the last twenty four hours of my life.  My head was spinning as I was standing there in my muddy socks.   I could not believe that I had not only solved the riddle unknowingly, but also now knew why my mother ate apples every day of her life.

     “Kind of like, Edward,” I mused aloud.

     “Like who?” Mom asked, puzzled.

    “Edward Tulane.  The rabbit.  From our story.  He was looking for love, right?” I asked.

      “Oh my gosh, I almost forgot about that,” said Mom.  “You really do have a good mind, Cinderella.  Yes, that is exactly what Edward was waiting for---to find love.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before, Mom?”  I asked.

     She replied,  “There are just some things that you need to discover on your own, when you are ready.  That is why I didn’t allow Sam to go on your Quest, because he wasn’t old enough to understand yet."

     “What about Jack and Emily?  Are you going to tell them?” I asked.

     “They will figure it out someday soon too.  Maybe they will come to me and ask.  Maybe they will ask you.  I have the faith that they too will complete this Quest.   I know it because I can feel it.”

     “So if that is the answer to the riddle, is that the answer to your great thinking question of last week?   What is the Key to all things?  It’s the apple, isn’t it?”

     “No, Sherlock, but you are getting closer,” Mom smiled.   “Since the beginning of time, the apple has been part of our human history.  An apple tree existed in the garden of Eden.  The apple was important, but I don’t believe it was the key to all things.  I think if you wait a bit and let your brain process it, you will come up with a better answer.  When you do come to me.”

     I nodded my head and smiled, feeling satisfied that I solved the riddle and somewhat gloaty because I figured it out before Jack and Emily.  I brought the apple again to my face, bringing it closer to my nose and inhaled.  Somehow that apple smelled sweeter this time.

     “We just need to add the secret ingredient to this pie.  It is in the refrigerator, so when I tell you the secret, you have to go in there and grab it quick so the food stays cold.”

     “OK,” I said, “what is the secret ingredient?”

     Mom waited a moment to let the anticipation build.  “It’s a little pat of butter!” Mom said in an excited whisper.  “Just a tiny pat before you put the top crust on.  It makes your apple pie taste extra special.”

     “Where did you learn that?” I asked Mother.

     “From Grandma, who learned it from her mother.  Now I feel proud to pass this secret along to you, Dear Daughter.  Guard it well.”

     My brain was dancing with all of these secrets.  My emotions were churning inside and I felt like I was on a roller coaster.  I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, squeal or scream.  I walked to the refrigerator to retrieve the butter from the flip door that keeps it fresh.  As soon as I opened the door, my attention was diverted to the bright orange string that hung around the milk container.
     “Hey, Mom?” I asked.

     Mom turned to me and tipped her head to the side a bit.

    “What are your keys doing hanging on the milk?”

     Before she could even respond we  heard little footsteps crossing the floor above us and knew they were they were Sam’s.  “Hey!  Who turned off the lights!  These lights won’t work!”

     Mom and I smiled as we could hear Sam using the toilet as he had to leave the door open so he could see.

    “EWWWW!  It smells in here.  MOM!  Onion broke the lights and then went pee and didn’t flush it!  She’s in trouble.  Onion needs to go on the Naughty Stool!”

     Mom and I looked at each other and laughed.  There was no explaining this to my brother.  Mom was right, he was just too young to understand some things.  In time he’d learn about electrical storms and water pumps and little red houses with stars inside and that butter was the secret ingredient for a spectacular tasting apple pie.  But for now, he was three and a half and I was content to take the full blame of breaking the lights and forgetting to flush. 

     None of that seemed important now.  Only minutes before I was afraid to open my eyes out behind the wood pile because I was sure God sent me Jesus, but instead I saw the steel toed boots of my grandfather.

     But I didn’t think wrong, I thought right.  God did send me Jesus, but in the form of a star inside the apple and a peel in the shape of the letter J.  Jesus would be with me today and every day for the rest of my life.  I stopped in mid stride and took a bite of that sweet, tart apple and made a silent vow to eat one every day for the rest of my life. Delicious.    

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