God’s Candy Bar

Candy BarI recall neither my misdeeds nor the spanking, but I do remember the humiliation when my dear mother demanded that I lower my panties to show my buttocks. The sight must have been worrisome, because for the first time in all my three years, she took me to the grocery and bought me a candy bar. I don’t think I understood her regrets over the punishment, but the unexpected treat elated me.

Jan and I promised that we would never raise a hand against Aisha. However, I confess that I am guilty of raising my voice regularly. I love my daughter more than life, but when she pushes the limits of my patience or defies my parental authority, my self-control tends to grow wings and fly out of the window.

A source of recurring friction is Aisha’s lack of sense of time. Every single school day, I have to urge her, “Come on, honey—it’s late, hurry up now.” I’m always the first to get in the car, waiting for her to race out of the house, her jacket dangling by one sleeve as she holds socks or earrings to put on.

One morning last week, she dragged herself out of bed at 7:45 once again. She got dressed, packed her school bag, and gulped down her yogurt. While she was brushing her teeth, I headed outside to the car. The engine hummed as I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel for more than five minutes. Only the concern that I might wake up my husband prevented me from honking the horn in a frustration frenzy. Finally, Aisha jumped into the car. The clock showed 8:08.

“What took you so long? You know we need at least twelve minutes to get to school—you’ll be five minutes late.” I backed out of the driveway and drove as fast as possible around the potholes in the dirt road.

Instead of replying, Aisha flipped down the vanity mirror. “Yuck! My eyeliner is a big failure today.”

As the car roared uphill, the implication of her words hit me. “What? Did you put on makeup when you were already late?” My voice grew louder. “And I sat waiting for you in the car?”

Silence.

I slapped the wheel and further increased the volume. “How in the world did it enter your mind to put on makeup at a moment you’re supposed to be on your way to school?”

No answer.

“Today you won’t escape, young lady. I’ll have to sign a tardy slip, and it will go on your record.” I knew she loathed the idea. “That will teach you.”

A glance to the side revealed that she had her eyes shut. I knew she was praying to be allowed in without a tardy slip; she always does when she’s late.

Well, sweetheart, your prayer won’t help you this time.

8:20—The gravel crunched as I parked the car in front of the school. Impossible—the doors are still open. Aisha grabbed her school bag and rushed inside the school building without saying goodbye. Surely, they won’t let her pass.  I opened the car and was about to step out when she appeared in the doorway and gave me a thumbs up, her face flushing with triumph.

I slumped back in my seat. God, what are you doing? She deserves a rebuke! I could use some backup in my attempts to educate my daughter. How will she ever take me seriously?

Grumbling, I reached for the key.

What do you remember—the spanking or the candy bar?

My hand froze in midair. As the thought sank in, a sigh escaped my lips, and I bowed my head. Okay God, You win. I’m sorry. Not my way, but Yours.

Feeling small before the great God of grace, I started the car and drove home.


photo credit: Mars Honeycomb split via photopin (license)

I first submitted this article to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Pride.”

Greedy for Mushrooms

Truffle HuntingWhat’s that car doing down there, at the entrance of our pasture?

I descend the steep dirt road and notice a man approaching. “Buongiorno.”

Signora.” The man avoids looking at me.

“Excuse me, but what were you doing?”

“Searching… tartufi.”

Truffles? Our grounds contain truffles?

“Uh—black truffles?” I try to sound casual.

He shuffles his feet and thrusts one hand into his jeans pocket. “Well…no, white ones.”

The white gold of Umbria—worth up to €3000 per kilo.

A nervous excitement seizes me. “Did you find any?”

Beh, not really. It hasn’t been raining enough.”

In an instant, I’m transported back twelve years…in France…

***

The scent of resin enveloped me as I left the path and ducked under low branches into the pine forest. By the light of dawn, I scanned the soil for porcini mushrooms. Nothing. Had someone gotten here before me? Although I hadn’t detected any signs yet—mushroom stems, cut at ground level—the mere idea of an intruder was enough to infuriate me. Never mind that it was a public forest; I discovered this porcini-rich area. It was mine.

My gaze fastened on a bulge in the earth. I brushed aside needles to reveal the light brown cap of a mushroom. After removing the soil around the fungus, I cut its stem and inhaled the creamy, nutty fragrance. My spotless treasure, weighing at least a pound, filled me with exhilaration.

Just as I closed the lid of my basket, a rustle called my attention. I froze. I caught a glimpse of a rival’s boots as he wandered past, his stick lifting the underbrush along the path. Needles pricked my face; my back ached. But I refused to budge.

While waiting for the threat to recede—my eyes ever roving—I spotted a mushroom above ground, about ten feet away. As soon as all was clear, I crawled to it and found it wasn’t alone. This wasn’t hunting; this was mining! I worked feverishly. My knife hovered over some small ones; if I left them, tomorrow they’d be much bigger—but no, I couldn’t risk anyone else discovering them. The entire porcini family disappeared into my basket. They were mine.

On my way back home, I overtook my foe.

“Porcini hunting?” He asked with more than normal interest.

“Yes, but it’s a bad year.” I twirled my basket as if it didn’t weigh five kilo.

“You’re right—I didn’t find anything either.” His plastic collecting bag fluttered in the breeze.

***

The man’s whistle calls me back to the present. A beagle comes running and sits down at the feet of his owner.

“Does the dog help you to find truffles?”

Si, signora. When he sniffs them out, he starts scratching the ground, and I dig them up with a scoop.”

He takes his hand out of his pocket and shows five marble-sized truffles. “Do you want them? They are yours after all.”

They’re mine…

I ignore the whisper in my head. Thanks to Jesus, I’m not the person I was twelve years ago.

“No, please keep them. I only asked because yesterday, I found a dead badger with snare wounds around its snout. I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t put any traps out here; they would hurt our dogs.”

“Thank you.” He puts the truffles back in his pocket.

“Will you sell them or eat them?”

“Definitely sell them, signora. I recently lost my job. Since my wife works only part-time, and we have two small children, I am looking for ways to make some money.”

Before he closes the door of his old Fiat Panda, he lifts his hand in greeting. “Grazie, signora. Arrivederla.

A trail of grey smoke marks his path as he drives up the road.

I set out for my walk back home. Despite the steep climb, I manage a spring in my step.


I published this article first on FaithWriters.

Photo credit: Stefano Cellai/age fotostock

Keyword for 2015: FOCUS

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

December 30, 2014

Wind gusts stung my cheeks. Two degrees below zero, but the temperature didn’t stop me from taking my daily walk with the dogs. I squinted as I admired the ever-enchanting, Umbrian landscape from the top of a hill. Sunrays warmed my face, and I relaxed.

These last weeks of the year, I felt tense. Of course the frenzy of the period leading up to Christmas contributed (including a rare cleaning rage), as did having guests, breaking the daily routines due to school holidays, watching the new Hobbit movie, shopping, cooking, visiting friends, and worrying how to get our daughter to the long abided Christian winter camp in a snowy Abruzzo.

As much as I loved to write, I simply didn’t get to it. At times, my mind was skimming the surface of potential subjects, but whirlwinds of irrelevant thoughts blew them out of reach. The continuous distraction irritated me.

“God, please give me focus so that I can write again.”

Focus on Me, and you’ll have the right focus in anything you’ll do.

Bible verses popped up. Hebrews 12:2, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Isaiah 26:3, You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

I realized that I had spent little time with Jesus, because my days were filled with other activities—activities I didn’t even fully enjoy, because I constantly felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”—yes, just like Bilbo Baggins after years of owning the master ring of evil.

Allowing my own program to drag me away from the source of light, I gave darkness the opportunity to further distract me, steal my joy, and become superficial and ineffective.

“Forgive me, Lord—again.”

It wasn’t the first time and it probably won’t be the last time I let circumstances reign my life, but I know that it’s best when He is King.

In the first week of 2015, I dwelled in His presence every day, and enjoyed every single thing I undertook. Including writing this post.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

Catching Horses at Midnight

Horses

Pepita and Darius

My cell phone on the nightstand buzzes just as my daughter and I snuggle under the covers.

“Please silence it, Mommy. I’d hate to wake up tonight.”

“Sorry–with Dad gone, I prefer it up and running.” I put it back after reading my husband Jan’s message that he had a great day, a thousand miles away. “You could go sleep in your own bed, honey.”

“No, I want to stay with you.” To Aisha, sleeping in the king bed is the only benefit of Jan’s absence—never mind she’s fifteen.

Hugging her tight, I pray for a restful night. We both need it. Aisha had a sleepover at a friend last night—super fun, Mom—but of course, they did anything but sleep. Taking advantage of my solitude, I had been wordsmithing an article until 3 a.m.

I switch off the light, turn over onto my side, and fall asleep instantly.

Drrring, drrring.

Groggy, I reach for the phone. The display informs me that my neighbor, Valeria, is calling me at midnight. “Hello?”

“Milly, sorry to bother you at this hour, but it’s urgent—your horses escaped.”

“What?” I jolt out of bed and start getting dressed with one hand, while she tries to reassure me. “I’m blocking the road with my car, so they can’t go any further.”

“I’m on my way.”

I hastily explain to a drowsy Aisha that I must catch our two horses.

Mamma mia, my luck. They’re always docile, but now Jan’s gone—these few days a year—they decide to get away. I grab a carrot, a headstall, and a flashlight. Outside, I discover the flashlight has a dead battery. Sure, bad luck accumulates. Thankfully, the moon in a cloudless sky lights up my path as I descend the steep dirt road to our neighbors’ house.

Instead of a car and horses, I meet dead silence. “Valeria!” My voice carries off into trees, shadows, and an empty pasture. “Valeria!”

Oh no—forgot my phone.

After a strenuous run uphill, I’m chuffing into the receiver. “Valeria, where are you?”

“Almost there.”

Outside again, I see headlights come around the bend of the road. Despite stress and fatigue, I can’t help but smile at the sight of the equine pair, sauntering toward me in front of the creeping car. I wave to Valeria and put the headstall on the gelding, who willingly exchanges his freedom for a carrot. The mare follows us into the pasture.

Moments later, while they’re munching hay in the shed, I realize that I forgot to feed them since Jan left, yesterday morning. Probably, the late-autumn fields left them greedy for greener grass.

“Now, where did you break out?” I mutter, as I rub their crests and inhale their sweet scent. For a moment, the gelding interrupts his chomping to nuzzle my hand.

Before checking the fence, I phone Valeria to thank her. She warns me, “The gate at the bottom of the hill was open. I closed it as well as I could, but you better check.”

“Mama!” Frustration echoes from Aisha’s voice as she calls me from the doorway.

“Here I am, sweetheart.” I snatch my car keys. “Now, go back to bed. I’ll join you in ten minutes—just need to check the gate.”

“No. You can’t leave me alone.”

“Okay, put on your shoes and jacket and come with me.” Great, now we’ll both be wide awake.

When I inspect the double gate in the beam of the headlights, I discover that the bolt slide isn’t shut. What hunter, truffle seeker, or other nature explorer would leave our gate open after having benefited from our grounds? Groaning—the iron gates are not level—I slide the bolt in place.

When we finally tumble into bed, Aisha mumbles, “You’d better say another prayer; God didn’t hear you the first time.”

I’m about to agree, but all of the sudden, my perspective shifts. “I think God heard us well, honey. He wasn’t the one who forgot to feed the horses, to close the gate, or to recharge the flashlight. He is the One who led me to leave my phone on, made Valeria come by at the right moment, cleared the sky, and calmed the horses…Honey?”

Aisha’s slow breaths reveal she’s sleeping. To whom am I preaching?

Thank You, Lord.


 

This article was first published as an entry in the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

Civita di Bagnoregio – The Dying City

Photo: AndreaPucci

Photo: AndreaPucci

I first visited Civita di Bagnoregio twenty years ago. Through the fog of mist and rain, only the memory of the dank odor of damp tuff and the image of desolate alleyways endure. Most appropriate for the Italian town that is known as La Città che Muore—the Dying City.

I saw her again ten years later, on a golden November day. Gloriously clinging to her high rock amidst a vast valley, Civita etched herself in my memory as she resisted her epithet.

No cars, no busloads of tourists. Only a Vespa buzzing past as I climbed the 300-meter long footbridge to the Porta Santa Maria—the only one left of the original five city gates. Sculptures of lions grasping human heads witnessed of an older resistance, when the city threw off the yoke of feudal oppression at the end of the fifteenth century. A worthy entrance to a place little changed since the Middle Ages.

When I entered the tiny souvenir shop behind the gate, the shopkeeper laid aside her needlework to share Civita’s tragedy with me. “Although the city looks like she’s been pulled from a fairy tale, in reality she’s been suffering from erosion and earthquakes. In 800 B.C., the Etruscans founded Civita on a large plateau between two valleys. However, the plateau wasn’t solid rock—it was brittle volcanic tuff.”

“So it just weathered?”

“About 1500 years ago, the erosion increased when the area was deforested to create farmland. The rivers and the rain had free reign and steadily washed away the sides of the plateau, leaving nothing but a narrow ridge.”

“And the earthquakes?”

She nodded. “Two earthquakes, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, reduced the ridge to a pinnacle. And the erosion continues. A hundred years ago, Civita could still be accessed by a donkey path. Now we need a bridge.”

I suddenly became conscious of the fragility of the ground under my feet. “Aren’t people afraid to live here?”

“Most families fled after the last earthquake, because their houses were damaged. Despite the recent restorations, there are now fewer than ten residents.” Her face softened. “One of them is Maria. I’m sure you’ll meet her.”

Strolling through the narrow streets, I marveled at the omnipresent traces of history. The windows of a facade showing the blue sky—the house probably swallowed by an earthquake. Column stubs of a Roman temple in front of a Renaissance church. An alleyway ending in a chest-high wall that prevented me from stepping into the void. The grindstone of an ancient olive press that used to be operated by a donkey-powered treadmill until the 1960s.

I could not imagine that one day this timeless city would slide away.

As I rounded a corner, a soft voice greeted me.

“Buon giorno, signora. Do you want to see my garden? It gives a good view over the Calanchi Valley.” Blue eyes under silvery, well-groomed hair gently beckoned to me. Her right arm hung limp against her floral dress; her right foot was bent at an awkward angle.

Maria.

“I’d love to, grazie.” I reached inside my purse and placed two Euro in her opened left hand.

She smiled. “You will also love my little museum.”

On one side of her yard, a wall displayed a collection of worn garden tools, Etruscan artefacts, and giant potsherds.

“Look, there’s a Roman armor piece.” Maria pointed to something that could be a breastplate.

On the other side, the oblong garden invited me to walk to its far end, where a surreal landscape awaited me. Across the valley, gulches cut through barren hillsides, leaving sharp crests of white clay. In the distance rose the purple silhouette of the Apennines Mountains.

I sat on the wall that enclosed the garden, absorbing the view and the silence, amazed that such destruction can birth such a beauty.

This year, I returned to Civita, hoping to spend time in Maria’s garden. The small town was still perched fiercely atop its pinnacle, seemingly unaffected by wind and water. Flowerpots adorned balconies and staircases. From an open window, the aroma of garlic and tomato sauce wafted towards me. Cats were dozing in patches of sunshine. But I didn’t find Maria. Her garden was closed, the artefacts removed.

At the souvenir shop, I learned that Maria had deceased.

As I left Civita that day, I realized that the city is dying. But it is not only because she is losing her ground. She is dying because she is losing her souls.

***

This article was first published at the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

For an aerial view of Civita di Bagnoregio, watch this short video on Youtube.

Human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy

 

childtrafficking

 

Sadly, the following story–first submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge–is based on facts, although the girl is fictional. I combined a personal testimony of a girl we met in Orvieto, with details I read on the Internet.

 

 


Hope

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. I’m the girl on the street you try to ignore as you hurry past. Just before you turn your head away, I see your cold eyes, the corners of your mouth pulled down. Don’t worry—you don’t have to buy what I’m offering. But why do you despise me? Is it the color of my skin? My poverty?

I lived with my family in a village in Edo State, the South of Nigeria. My parents were jobless. We were always hungry— sometimes, my mother cooked tree leaves for dinner.

When my brother met a man whose niece in Italy would have work for me, I was thrilled. I could help provide and give my little sister the opportunity I never had—to go to school. The man promised, “You’ll get rich working as a hairdresser.” I’m good at plaiting hair. He even advanced me the travel expenses. Little did I know that it was a ruse.

Before I left, my brother took me to a juju priest for good luck. The grim man, all dressed in red, cut off some of my hair and took blood from my hand. Then he made me kneel before him and swear to pay my debt and be obedient to my sponsor and his niece; otherwise the evil spirits would torture me and take my soul. He marked my forehead with clay, so the spirits would recognize me. I longed to go to Italy, but the pictures next to his shrine scared me—the horribly disfigured faces of girls who had broken their oath.

I didn’t travel alone. We were crammed into the open back of a truck, more than thirty Nigerian girls. At day time, fine desert sand penetrated our clothes as we drove under the scorching sun. At night, the escorting men raped us. I struggled to break loose, but they had knives. “You’d better get used to it,” they scoffed. Some girls complained that they didn’t get paid for the job. They were going to Italy to be prostitutes and mocked me when I said I was going to be a hairdresser.

To cross the Mediterranean Sea, we loaded into a rubber raft, which almost sank under our weight. We had no food, no water. One of the girls fell into the choppy waves. She screamed, but the boat continued steadily forward.

When we arrived in Italy, I found out the other girls were right. The niece had no hair salon; she was a madam. She said that I would have to work hard to pay my debt—50,000 Euro. I had no idea it was so high. At first, I cried every night standing on the curb, shivering and barely dressed. Tears attract no men and no money, so Madam beat me often. Running away was impossible—the evil spirits would find me. I just tried not to feel anything.

One night, I met Victor. He didn’t want sex; he just gave money. He asked my name and talked with me. “Hope, do you know Jesus?”

“Yes. My grandma told me about Him—said she liked Him more than the other gods she worshiped.”

“Jesus is the only God. There are no others. And He loves you.”

“How can God love me?” I wondered. “I do bad things.”

Victor read from his Bible how Jesus blessed and restored women like me. “If you want, I can help you start a new life.”

“No. My oath…the spirits—”

“Jesus is stronger than any evil spirit. You’re safe with Him.”

Victor got me to a women’s shelter where Madam cannot find me. I also met his wife. She teaches me about Jesus and helps me to get my documents, so that I can find a real job.

For now, I’m still on the street, but instead of selling my body, I sell fabrics and other household items. I don’t make much money, but I can send all my earnings to Nigeria. My family is proud of me. And my sister is going to school! I pray that Jesus protects them from the evil spirits, and from the men who threaten them because I escaped.

I’m not afraid anymore.

“You want to buy tissues, ma’am?

“Sir, do you need socks? Two pairs for five Euro only.”

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. Please, don’t ignore me.

***

For more information on human trafficking in Nigeria, see:

Two of a Kind*

cat and dog“Max, no! Go back.”

I groaned as I struggled in vain to push our Golden Retriever back inside the house. He lunged at the cat, which narrowly escaped climbing the nearest tree. Her hisses and snarls mingled with Max’s staccato barks.

Why did Vincent ever get this dog? I told him it would go after Molly.

Using my husband’s favorite ham, I managed to lure Max back into the house.

After cuddling a purring Molly, I headed for the car. Two pairs of gleaming eyes stared at me through the car’s side window.

“Okay, boys. Let’s get you back to your Mom and Dad.”

Sweat beads had formed on my forehead. I switched on the air-conditioning and eyed the eight-year-old twins in the rear-view mirror.

“Why do dogs and cats always fight, Grandma?” asked Jason.

“Because they’re different kinds of creatures, I guess. They don’t speak the same language.”

“They don’t talk, Grandma,” he scoffed. “They just hiss and bark at each other.”

“Yeah,” added Harold, his twin. “Just like you and Grandpa. But you don’t climb a tree!” They rolled with laughter.

“Watch your mouths, young men. Don’t make fun of me.” But a smile made its way up my face at the image of my sixty-five-year-old self, sitting on a branch, hissing at my husband.

The kids were right; Vincent and I squabbled a lot. For no apparent reason, I would grumble, or he would raise his voice.

I sighed as I merged the car into the highway traffic. It’s probably what forty years of marriage do to a couple.

Vincent’s work had always been demanding. I homeschooled our two daughters and later, combined volunteer work with a busy social schedule. Vincent had never developed any hobbies, so when he retired five years ago, he expected me to spend most of my time with him. I wasn’t ready to give up my activities; spending time with my husband was just one more item on my agenda.

Feeling neglected, he bought Max so that he would have a friend around when I was busy. Still, I felt constant pressure to entertain my husband.

Maybe we never really adapted to this new phase in life.

Grandma?” Jason interrupted my thoughts. “If God made both cats and dogs to live in our homes, why are they so different?”

“Good question, honey. I think they both have a role to play in people’s lives. But their roles are different. Cats are quiet company. They can stay home alone. Dogs can be real buddies, but they need more attention.”

“Why doesn’t God help them to understand each other?”

“Well, maybe they would get along better, if they were able to listen to Jesus.”

“So why don’t you and Grandpa listen to Jesus?” asked Harold. “You’re the same kind, aren’t you? It should be even easier for you to be friends.”

I almost missed the exit. “Harold! How Grandpa and I are getting along, is none of your business.”

The boys were quiet until we reached our destination. In the silence, thoughts about my marriage gnawed at my mind. Maybe it is time for a change. But how?

***

Upon my return, I telephoned a fellow volunteer to confirm tonight’s meeting. As I waited for her to answer my call, I realized that the house was empty. Vincent was probably walking with Max, now that the worst heat of the day was over. Or he took the dog for a swim. I smiled–they made a good pair.

Suddenly, a thought popped up. Why don’t you surprise Vincent with a dinner for two?

When I got my friend’s voice mail, I heard myself saying, “Hello, it’s Martha. I…uhm…I can’t make it tonight. Sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”

***

I just finished a garden-grown bouquet when Vincent came back. I quickly reached for the lighter.

“Max, no!” The dog stormed into the living room and was about to ruin my long dress with his filthy paws.

“Sorry dear, I didn’t know you were home.” Vincent entered as I lit the last candle. His eyes scanned the set table. “What–?”

“Surprise!”

“But…why?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist. “Because we’re two of a kind. And I love you.”

Vincent enveloped me in a powerful hug. “I love you too, darling.” He kissed the top of my head.

I looked down to see Molly brushing up against Max, who sat peacefully on the floor, wagging his tail.

 


 

*Another article (fiction) that I submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Cat and Dog.”