Suffer the little children


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Suffer the little children
By Bobby Neal Winters

The leaves had long fled the trees. What few were left on the ground rolled along in fits and starts periodically taking time to dance in a whirl with their neighbors.

Naomi paused at the edge of the street which was empty except for the bands of leaves. Nevertheless she looked left and right, each direction a long time, to make sure no one was coming. She put her cane in the street feeling with it like she might’ve dangled her toes in the edge of a stream when she was younger. Finding it solid enough, she followed her cane into the street and began her journey across.

Her cane was the four-footed kind that sounded with an aluminum click each time she put it to the ground. The wind blew another cluster of leaves past her feet and whipped the scarf that was tied tightly around her face. She came to the other side of the street and heaved herself up onto the sidewalk just in time to be missed by a car which had made a left hand turn onto the street which she had crossed.

She looked ahead of her down the block at the next corner to see if the children were there yet and they were not. They would be by the time she got there, she knew. They always were, and it had been so for the last year or so. Time had ceased to mean anything to her. The seasons whirled away like the leaves that were rolling down the street. Time to her was like a yardstick with no marks on it—except for Sundays.

Sundays were the days she went to church, rain or shine. Only ice kept her away. At her age, there was a well-worn litany that began “she was in good health and could’ve lived to be a hundred, but then one day she fell and broke a hip,” and ended with a man in a collar and a robe standing by a casket on a rainy day.

Her faith had kept her moving long after everyone else in her life had gone on ahead. The husband was first with a heart attack twenty years ago and then the son in a car accident ten years after than. Now she was alone except for the people she saw at church and, she had almost given up on that weekly ritual until the children started coming.

The neighborhood in which she lived had changed. Old white people were dying or moving away. Young black people were moving in and they weren’t going to her church. The people thinned out until everyone had a pew to himself, and then there were pews that no longer had people. Her ritual trip from the loneliness of her house was now ending in the loneliness of her church. She’d continued going throughout the decline with the thought that if she stopped going she would die, but eventually she decided that perhaps dying wasn’t a bad idea.

Then the children came.

She remembered the first day she’d seen them. There was a little girl of about 5 years and a little boy of about 5 years and 9 months, each with nappy hair and skin so black that it shined. Their parents were nowhere to be found. She saw they were confused.

“Are you by yourselves?” she asked.

“Yes’m,” said the boy.

“Come and sit with me then,” she said. And they had.

From then on, they were her boon companions. At first if they came in after she did, they walked up the aisle to where she was sitting and sat on either side of her, or if they arrived first, they were watching the door when she came in and took her by either arm and walked her up the aisle.

Then one day they happened to meet her on a particular street corner and they walked her to church every Sunday thereafter.

Naomi found them to be open in the manner of children of that age and asked them questions.

“Why don’t you invite your momma and daddy to come with you?” This seemed to her to be a fair question.

“Daddy’s not around much,” the boy said.

“He works,” said the girl.

“Why not bring your momma then?”

“She stays home and visits with our uncles when they come over,” said the girl.

The boy’s face contorted at this.

“You’re not s’post to say that,” he said. “Momma said.”

“She said not to tell daddy,” the girl whined, stressing the last word.

“Well,” Naomi said, “I won’t tell anybody.” And she was sure about that.

Naomi came to the corner and her cane clanked to a stop, and the children were simply there. Their faces were shining and their eyes were bright in spite of the fact they were dressed too lightly for the late autumn day.

“Aren’t you freezing?” Naomi asked the girl who was in a light dress which was much better suited to September.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I don’t gets cold.” Her lips curled in a toothy—minus the front two—smile that never failed to charm Naomi.

They wore the same thing every week and ever since the weather changed she’d been asking them if they were cold and they always denied it.

She had grown to love them as if they were her own in spite of the fact she only saw them an hour or so one time a week. There were times when this astounded her and the depth of her feeling toward these children scared her.

One of these times was a month or two previous on a Saturday morning when she read the paper. They’d been a murder in the neighborhood. A man had come home unexpectedly from a trip and found his wife with another man. He’d gone into a rage and had killed his wife, her lover, the couple’s two children, and then himself.

Naomi had fretted all day Saturday, but on Sunday as she walked to church, they’d met her at the same corner as always.

She didn’t know what she’d do without them. The previous Sunday they’d kept her from embarrassing herself when she’d fallen asleep during the homily and started dreaming. She dreamed that the children had flown from the pew beside, up to the front of the church, and across the rail. Then they circled around and around the tabernacle. When she jerked herself awake, the children were tugging on her arms.

“You were asleep,” the boy said.

At that she’d held the little girl close to her side and kissed the boy on his forehead.

The sidewalk that she and her little friends were walking on took them by a park and as they neared it, she found herself becoming a bit winded. As they came to a park bench, she found herself unable to continue.

“I’ve got to sit down a minute or two” she asked. “I’m not as young as I used to be. You can go on ahead if you want. I don’t want you to be late.”

“We won’t leave you,” said the little girl.

“We won’t be late,” followed her brother.

She sat down and closed her eyes to steady herself and thought she must have fallen asleep because when she woke up the world seemed different. The wind had subsided. The leaves weren’t doing their little dance along the street.

“Are you ready to go?” the girl asked.

“I believe so,” said Naomi. And she was.

The church was only a block and a half further on and they walked it with the children’s hands on top of Naomi’s.

The service had already started. Indeed, the celebrants were already lined up for mass. The children lead her past the line of people who didn’t seem to notice her, past the priest who was administering the sacrament to one person after another, complete oblivious to Naomi’s presence.

Behind the priest stood a man she thought she knew. His clothing was white as snow, and his face was both gentle and frightening.

“Who are you?” she asked with much difficulty fearful of interrupting the service was going on all around her.

“Come and see,” he said as he extended a hand to her. She looked at his hand and saw.

She dropped her cane and followed him with a child at each elbow.
Oh Okie...beautiful. It's made me cry.

My dear Aunt passed away just last night...she was not so alone as Naomi, but I can see her being led forward by her husband, my Uncle, and my cousin, her son, both of whom preceded her.

Hi lunamoth--I just saw your post. I love you, and you know it is all okay. Lifting you up.

You never cease to amaze me with your writing, Okie! Glad to see you back around, and congratulations on all the new opportunities.

Luna, you and yours are in my prayers, as always.