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Crooked Lines, Chapter One
Rebecca Meyer White Gull Bay, Wisconsin, Summer 1985
It didn’t occur to me at the edge of the pond that I’d broken the sixth commandment, actually committed murder. I was busy working out a deal with God, swearing to Jesus I’d become a nun if He helped me breathe life back into my baby sister’s limp body. At the time, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t Catholic.
Now, a week after the funeral, Mama set me straight while flipping pancakes in the kitchen. “Daddy blames you for Kara’s death.” She said it like I’d let the milk spoil because I hadn’t put it back in the fridge, but the weight of her words cemented my bare feet to the green linoleum.
She reached for a platter and set it under the open window. The morning sun highlighted old stains, batter spills, and cracks on the brown laminate countertop. A cool morning draft rustled the faded yellow gingham curtains. Mama got a deal on that material from Woolworths before Kara was born. Along with curtains, she sewed four sundresses for each of my sisters and me. It wasn’t fair that the fabric was still with us, fluttering over the sink, yet Kara came and went as quickly as the wind.
Mama transferred pancakes to the plate.
My plan to breeze through the kitchen and escape the house unnoticed should have succeeded because for a week, I’d been a ghost. None of the people in the house—my parents or any of my brothers and sisters—spoke to me. I’d lived a cloistered existence with my blue notebook and unsettling thoughts.
Now, I only wanted to sit under the maple, read the Kara stories, and wind back time.
I tightened my arms around the notebook, holding it to my heart like a talisman, as if my words of love for my sister could erase the raw sting of truth in Mama’s words. Since that day at the pond, I’d been carrying that notebook everywhere, even sleeping with it. In my lake of sadness, in my whirling murky thoughts, those sacred pages had become my life preserver.
Mama snapped the griddle knob off and faced me. “We left her with you that morning. She was only seven.” Her words rushed out in a seething whisper. My shoulders fell and hope slid from them and disappeared out the kitchen window.
Only a month ago in my white cotton confirmation dress, I cited the Ten Commandments and professed my faith at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church.
So confident. So holy. Mama baked a cake.
Now, because of me, Kara was dead. I tugged a loose string on the frayed edges of my cut-offs, then looked back up at Mama. Her short blonde hair was a tangled mess. Her red-streaked eyes shot angry darts laced with sadness. C’mon Mama. Don’t you get it? The deep muddy waters consumed Kara. She’s gone, but I’m here, still drowning.
I ran my big toe over a rip in the linoleum, wanting to bolt, take off and run as far and fast as my long legs would carry me, but Mama’s eyes told me she had more to dish out. I sucked in my breath, stuck out my chin, and met her stare, my five-foot eight-inch frame matching hers. I could take it.
But she walked away, left me standing there. Every fiber in my soul told me to run after her, beg forgiveness, and cling to her legs until she hugged me and told me everything would be okay. That’s what mothers were supposed to do. But no longer a child, those days were over. I winced when the slam of her bedroom door, like a gavel, sentenced me.
“Becca, bring the pancakes.” Tom rose from the dining room chair and waved his fork.
“Hurry up!” Bobby pounded a fist on the oak table. “I’m starved.”
At least one thing at home remained the same; after morning barn chores, my brothers only cared about food.
My limbs loosened. With shaking hands, I grabbed the platter, set it on the table, then tore up the stairs—two at a time. I didn’t look at my brothers. They probably blamed me, too.
In my bedroom, I kicked a pile of dirty clothes and hit something solid, a tennis shoe. I crouched and peeked under my bed. The other. Good.
I kissed the notebook, then stuck it under my pillow. I’d started writing Kara stories in it a week before she died—the funny and intuitive stuff she’d said and done. I even taped her photos inside the pages. How could I have known to do that right before she died?
Tugging on my shoes, I wondered if the Holy Spirit had prompted me to create the Kara notebook when I was still a child of God. He’d visited me once. I remembered Him, not ghostly and elusive, but someone so real. Someone who loved me.
When I was six, He came to me in the meadow. I danced and sang for Him. I couldn’t see Him, but He was there. In my yellow butterfly dress, I laughed and twirled with the dandelion seeds, my blond hair bouncing in the breeze as I basked in His immense love. I stretched my hands high and offered songs of thanks for the creator of the ladybugs, the zippy dragonflies, and the warm summer sun.
God knew me. I knew Him.
But that was then.
I rested my foot on the vanity bench, tied my laces, then looked into the mirror. Eyes dull and ringed by dark circles stared at me, not my bright green ones. Since that day at the pond, I slept in fitful interludes in the hallway in front of the door, me and the notebook with my pillow and a blanket.
I wanted to sleep in my bed, but Kara and I had shared the room since she was born. Every night she left her bed, crossed the room, stood beside me, and called my name until I woke and lifted the covers, inviting her in.
Standing outside the door each night, my fears would grow and shrink me from a teenager into a child, scared Kara’s ghost would come knocking.
What if she came to my bedside and called my name? Would her eyes have the same accusing stare as Mama’s had? Did she hate me, too?
Chills tickled the back of my neck. I yanked the other shoestring tight, then fled downstairs and out the front door. At the end of the driveway, I turned and ran past the silos toward Lake Michigan. Tears blurred my vision as I ran past fields and farmhouses, cows and cornfields, apple orchards and cherry trees. I ran past evergreens, Indian Paintbrushes, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Black-eyed Susans. Fuzzy cattails poked from marshy lowlands.
Miles later, when grassy ditches turned sandy and the scent of pine replaced the earthy smell of cow manure, I slowed. At Evergreen Lane, I shoved the bad stuff out of my head, leaned against the weathered fence post, and kicked off my shoes.
Summer bungalows loomed over the tops of cedars on both sides of the gravel pathway that allowed public access to the beach. A few silhouettes—like mannequins in store-fronts—faced the lake. Who were they? What did they think? And where would they fly back to before the first flakes of winter fell. Those lucky visitors came to the peninsula of White Gull Bay to escape from places I’d never been, places I’d always longed to run to.
The whoosh and trickle of the whispering waves beckoned me to the shoreline. Gulls screeched and circled around dead glittering minnows. Chilly water rolled over my feet and lapped my ankles.
I scanned the beach for glass stones, bent over and picked up a round flat black one. I tried to skip it, but it sailed straight into a small cresting wave. No luck today.
A long ship crept across the horizon, cutting a path between the cerulean sky and the blue-green lake. Next week, Daddy would be out there sailing on one of those iron-ore freighters. He only came home when November gales churned the icy waters and during spring planting and fall harvest—and for a death.
I watched the vessel disappear until guilt rode on the waves like bobbing driftwood and landed on the shore before me. Daddy would miss Kara sitting on his lap on the John Deere. I didn’t blame him for hating me. I didn’t blame Mama. Kara was the baby, the ninth. I was the seventh. Seven wasn’t a lucky number.
My legs quivered. I sat, hugging my knees. Tears plopped tiny craters in the sand. I was guilty. A sinner with no hope because it was worse than anyone knew. I couldn’t admit to anyone all that had happened at the edge of the pond. How could I say I knew Kara would die that day and I did nothing to stop it? How could I talk about the way I freaked out and ran away when I saw her form in the murky water, even though I knew I’d find her there?
My childhood was over.
“Where do I go from here?” A wave rolled in and nearly swallowed my small voice.
Ignoring the plaintive cries from the screeching gulls, I stood, straightened my shoulders and looked to the horizon. Only two more years of high school. I’d plan. Work hard. I had one thing going for myself. Everyone considered me the smart one because I got good grades and read a gazillion books. Yes, I was smart, smart enough to figure out my escape. I’d find a place of peace, far from White Gull Bay and the awful stuff I’d done.
Then, I’d find someone, somewhere, who’d love me.
Sagai Raj, Sheveroy Hills, Tamil Nadu, South India, Summer 1985
“Sagai, wake up. It’s time.”
He opened his eyes. His father, kneeling on the dirt floor beside his reed mat, held out a small tin cup. Sagai reached for the milky sweet coffee. In the soft glow of the hurricane lamp, he sat, sipped, and glanced around the room at the curled, sleeping forms.
His father struggled to his feet with a grunt. Limping since last year’s bicycle accident at Little Lake, he hobbled toward the door, lifted the metal latch, and disappeared into the predawn darkness. Sagai admired the elder man’s quiet noble manners, his wise words, and the kindness he showed toward everyone. Had he caused his worry?
He slid his hand under his mat and pulled out the invitation. After a month at camp, he’d been chosen. He’d been carrying the postcard around for a week, praying his father would give his blessings. Time was running out, school would begin soon, and his destiny did not lie in Sheveroy Hills.
Soft snores from his mother and siblings filled the room. He stepped around them, kissed his fingertips, then touched the Sacred Heart of Jesus picture on the wall by the doorway, as he did every day.
In the small courtyard, the cow mooed and shifted, full with milk. “Don’t worry Muttura Madu, you’ll be milked soon.”
He stepped beside his father, almost shoulder to shoulder now. Appa heaved a deep sigh, then turned and faced him with an outstretched palm.
“Appa?” Sagai rested his hand on top, then his father covered it. An unspoken message of love. Top hand covering and protecting, the bottom holding and supporting.
“You’re my seventh child. Seven is a good number, a heavenly number. My hope was that you, the smart one, could become a doctor and help the family—”
Appa raised a finger. “—but God has a different plan.” His tone sounded peaceful, accepting. “Now, run along.”
He let go of the breath he was holding. “I may go? Truly?”
“Yes, son. You may go. You will leave on Saturday.”
Sagai bent down and touched Appa’s cracked calloused feet. He pressed the postcard to his pounding chest, then returned to the house and tucked it in the edge of the framed picture of Jesus. He rushed outside, said goodbye to his father, and stepped onto the narrow cobblestone road. Unable to hold back any longer, bubbling laughter rose from his chest and escaped into the misty morning air. He raised his arms toward heaven as he ran, thanking God for this true blessing.
For the past eight years, God’s love had pulsed through his soul, fueling his zeal as he ran the four miles each way, every morning. God’s love came with the morning’s rays, His kiss in the whisper of a breeze on hot afternoons, His presence in the mist that settled over the Tamil Nadu hill station at dusk. And as Sagai sloshed through pounding rains during monsoon season on roads reduced to muddy footpaths, the Lord never left his side.
Now, Sagai’s smile wrapped around his heart and traveled to his feet, hastening his momentum. The five o’clock Muslim call for prayer reverberated in the hills when the road became packed dirt. The chants, low and monotone, interrupted the lulling crickets and broke the sleepy quietness of the night. He ran over another hill, then down, leaping over slushy mud holes in low areas.
A cock crowed. Another answered, encouraging dawn to break. They always crowed right before his half-way point—the Hindu shrine. At the base of the huge Banyan tree with its intertwining aerial root vines dwelled a Hindu deity, a huge cobra coiled in a snake pit. A shock of hair tacked to the tree indicated a recent exorcism. Instead of speeding past in fear of the snake striking his legs, Sagai stopped. At age fifteen, about to leave home forever, he shouldn’t shake like a small child at this place.
Today, he would defeat his fear. Under the dim streetlamp, he forced his gaze into the ebony eyes of one of the two angry soldier statues that guarded their deity. A tongue sticking out from the huge oblong face challenged him.
Frowning, he looked from one statue to the other. “You two aren’t so frightful.”
A rustling in the bushes shot a jolt of fear through him that rattled his bones and made his heart nearly thump out of his chest. He tore past the shrine, made the sign of the cross and sent a flying prayer to Jesus. On the way back, in daylight, he’d look those horrible fellows in the eye and tell them he wasn’t frightened of them or the snake.
Alongside the old stone fence dripping with purple bougainvillea, he ran. Tamil hymns blasted from homes and out of church doors. “O Jesus you are my all. O what a joy…” Only the Protestants could shower the streets with their hymns like that. The tune stuck in his head all the way to Little Lake, where dawn had painted a pale orange streak over the calm surface.
Fascination and fear of Little Lake slowed his pace. Last month his cousin happened upon a dead body floating in the water. The source of life-giving water lured suicidal villagers as well as recreation seeking Brits and rich Indians who came to Sheveroy Hills for holiday. Their grand bungalows stood like jewels around the lake.
He often wondered what their eyes beheld when they looked out from their fancy homes. Did they see his cousin, the boatman who offered a leisurely ride for two rupees? Did they notice Sagai and his brothers catching fish for Amma’s curry? Where did these visitors return to when God breathed His peace into them from this fertile hill station of monasteries, convents, and spirituality centers?
Bells chimed from the tower of the Catholic mission church, alerting Sagai. Six chimes meant he must arrive at the silver Mahatma Gandhi statue in the town center. He ran…one…two…three…faster…four…five…and six. Gandhi came into sight.
He ran past the statue, past Jack fruit trees, past cypress entwined with pepper vines, and orange groves. A grey stone fence, now speckled with tiny blue flowers continued to snake along the curvy pebbly road. At Pullathachimedu, Pregnant Ladies Hill, he sped by the resting stone. No time to rest. The bell at the novitiate gonged. Fifteen minutes to go. The white steeple spiked over the top of the umbrella trees, sliced with morning sunbeams and decorated with bright orange flowers.
Reaching the wicket gate just in time, he witnessed nearly one hundred novices in habits, slightly bowing and silently processing, two by two, into the church. He slipped in after them. Mosaic tiles cooled his tired bare feet. Thanks to God and his landmarks, he’d made it on time to assist Father Louis at Mass.
In the sacristy, Sagai tightened the cincture rope around the red cassock, then pulled on his white surplice. When a very small boy, he had held mock Mass at home. Amma would pin one towel to his front and one to his back—his chasuble. Circles cut from cardboard served as the host, fruit juice as wine. He’d light two candles and arrange everything on a small table. Vijay, his younger brother, acted as altar server. By age six, he had memorized all of the prayers of the Mass.
Now, ready for the real service, Sagai knelt before the crucifix and promised to stay on his path toward holiness and keep all of God’s commandments. He rose when Father Louis arrived to vest, and handed the priest his cincture, stole, and chasuble.
After the service, Sagai shuffled his bare feet in the dirt at the wicket gate, watching the retinue of nuns file into the refectory. Waiting made him feel like a beggar. If he left, Sister Mercy would think her daily offering of a few slices of bread was not appreciated.
Peals of laughter drew his attention across the road. The private school had already begun their quarter. Two enormous lion statues guarded the compound beside the white pillars that shot up to a high arch where St. Alban watched over the village hill station atop a golden dome. Fenced in by black wrought iron, school children—Brits and rich Indians—in suit jackets, ties and long pants, trickled out of the dormitory for breakfast.
Sagai slid his hand inside his shirt where the two buttons were missing, then tugged the frayed edges of his faded shorts, patched in the back. Sometimes after serving at Mass he’d watch the boys put on leg pads and knee guards, and use real bats on their lush green field. At his school, on the other side of the village, they used a flat stick and played cricket barefoot on a rocky uneven patch.
Hoofs tapped the hard packed dirt road. A cow plodded past.
Sagai rubbed his rumbling stomach and returned to the wicket gate. He was tempted to pluck fruit from the guava tree, or at least pick up one of the many that lay on the ground rotting, but that would be stealing. A sin. The cow, not knowing better, could eat the fallen fruit. He should not.
He knelt and picked up a small round stone and rolled it in his hand. Perfect ammunition. Those pesky monkeys, now awake and watchful, were known thieves. Would knocking one of those screeching troublemakers out of a tree be a sin? Before he could ponder further, a young novice approached, smiling.
“For you.” She smiled and handed him a package.
“Thank you.” An entire loaf of bread. Enough to share with all at home. Sister Mercy must have asked her to give it to him. The novice bowed, nodded, and walked away.
Before he could run, Sister Mercy marched toward him. She eyed the loaf tucked under his arm. Her nostrils flared. Smack. Her palm cracked against his cheek.
“No, Sister.” He pointed, blinking back tears. “That novice gave it to me.”
Sister Mercy wagged her finger. “Even so, you know that I usually give you bread. You should not have accepted it.” She snatched the loaf from Sagai and thrust her slices at him.
He turned and ran all the way to Little Lake without stopping, horrified he’d be branded a thief. Would his future lie in jeopardy?
On the grass beside the water, he stared at the bread. He never went to church to get free bread. He went to serve. He rubbed his cheek. A monkey eyed him from a rock. Sagai tossed the bread. “Have it. I don’t want it.”
He wouldn’t mention the incident to anyone. He prayed that Sister Mercy wouldn’t report it to Father Louis.
A flat black stone caught Sagai’s eye. He skipped it on the lake. One, two, three, four times it bounced before sinking. Lucky day. He leapt to his feet and ran toward home. God would make sure his dream came true. He’d been chosen. He would go to seminary and become a priest. His older brothers and sisters dropped out of school by seventh standard, but surely Vijay would do the needful—finish school, and go to college. He must. Someone had to take care of the family. His place was no longer in Sheveroy Hills.
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