Crushed chocolate cookies

Foster childDing dong!

“There he is.” I smiled at Craig as I finished placing the freshly baked chocolate cookies on a plate. We walked to the front door together.

“Hello, Mr. White. Mrs. White. Good to see you.” The social worker placed his hand on the child beside him. “This is Benny.”

The boy stared down at his sneakers, which seemed too big for his body. He held a sagging plastic bag.

I kneeled down. “Hi Benny, I’m Karen. I’m so glad you’re here.” He avoided my eyes. When I touched his arm, he stiffened. For a second, I feared he would bolt.

“Please, come in.” Craig’s invitation reduced the tension of the first contact with our eight-year-old foster child. We were to be his third family in the four years since he saw his mom die from an overdose, and we were determined to be the last.

While Craig and the social worker completed paperwork, Benny sat on the edge of the couch, still studying his shoes and clutching his bag.

“I made chocolate cookies; do you want to try one?” I held out the plate.

After what seemed an eternity, he raised his hand, grabbed three cookies, and stuffed them in the pocket of his hoodie.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, these are for later. Why don’t you take another one for now?”

He shot me a glance, then took one more.

Craig saw the social worker to the door and came back with a ball and glove. “Hey Ben, would you like to play catch?”

“Sure.” The last cookie disappeared in his pocket.

From the window, I watched Benny trudge alongside Craig to the playground. Looks like a good start. I turned around to see his bag lying on the floor. I was about to bring it to his room when I thought better of it. We’ll do that together.

By the time Craig and Benny returned, I had started cooking, and food aromas filled the house. “Drumsticks and French fries—I hope you like it.”

Benny slumped into a chair.

“Honey, please, wash your hands first. Craig, can you show Benny the bathr—”

“Nooo!”

I almost dropped a dish as Benny sent the chair crashing to the floor.

“I hate you! I hate you!”

“Benny, what’s wrong?”

Craig reached for the boy, but Benny slapped him, ran to the couch, and seized his bag. “I won’t stay here! Tell Social Services to get me!”

“They’re closed at this hour, Benny. Why don’t you come and eat something?”

“No! I hate you!” He whacked the couch.

“You want to see your room?” Craig tried to distract him.

“I want to leave!” Tears streamed down his contorted face.

“We’ll see about that tomorrow. But if you don’t want to eat, I’ll bring you to your room so that you can sleep.” Craig picked him up, seemingly immune to the yelling and frantic kicking.

I followed them upstairs. When Craig put him down, Benny threw himself on the bed—shoes and all—and hid under the blankets, crying all the while.

Craig whispered, “I’ll eat something, then leave for my night shift. I’ll pray.”

The next moment, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the bedroom, its bright colors shouting failure.

God, I need You.

I sat down at the bedside and laid my hand on the crumpled heap of a child.

“Leave me alone!” He wriggled away from me.

“No, Benny, I won’t go anywhere when you’re so sad and upset. I’ll stay right here with you.”

The leering racing car on the bedspread seemed to mock me as I waited and prayed for a breakthrough. Finally, the sobs subsided.

Following a hunch, I asked, “Benny…may I hold you? I mean—like a baby?”

To my surprise, he pushed back the blankets and climbed on my lap. I held him in my arms and gently rocked him, until his body relaxed and he was fast asleep.

Carefully, I took off his shoes and pulled down the covers—revealing crushed chocolate cookies. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped them from the bed and tucked Benny in. Then I bent down and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Dear Father, You loved us before we loved You. Please, now help us to love this child. Even if our love will be crushed…like a chocolate cookie, under the weight of his pain, we want to persist in loving him. Amen.

***

AUTHOR’S NOTES

This short fiction story was inspired by:

• “Removed,” a short film about foster care. See www.removedfilm.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOeQUwdAjE0.

• An newspaper article about foster care. See http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/verwaarloosde-en-misbruikte-kinderen-wie-helpt-ze-nog~a3889487/

Karen’s prayer refers to the following Bible verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).

photo credit: via photopin (license)

 

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My Treasure

Red Necklace

“A precious stone,” the owner of the souvenir shop had assured me. I loved the shiny pendant, so we spent our last birrs on the necklace before flying back home. Now the fading red paint reveals plastic, and I know that I’ve been scammed. But I don’t mind.

About seven years ago, my husband and I spent ten days in Ethiopia—days we’d been looking forward to so long. We had planned to make it a vacation, to explore Addis Ababa and its surroundings; to get to know Aisha’s country, and to give her the opportunity to say goodbye. Photos of monuments would serve as memorials of her roots.

Instead, the Lonely Planet Guide we pored over during our preparation, lay unopened on my nightstand. We spent most of our time in and around our hotel, immersed in bonding with the nine-year-old girl who now was our daughter.

Aisha bubbled with energy, despite the restless nights she spent coughing and tossing between us. She was relentless in her demands, but her little voice wafting through the air as I pushed her on a swing—wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa—made me give in every time. The first time in the swimming pool, she tripped and nearly drowned. It didn’t stop her from soaking in the pool an entire afternoon, until her golden skin showed goose bumps—and my teeth were chattering. We played Memory at least a hundred times. I only won once—the first time. That was when I explained the game to her.

She liked joking. During dinner, we felt something tickling our knees, and Aisha explained, “A cat. A big cat.” Looking under the table, we didn’t see anything but a pair of little hands. “Oh—it’s gone.” Her laughter at the look on our faces echoed through the room.

Milk and cheese were labeled “me no,” whereas chewing gum was at the top of her list of favorite foods. Our “no” to some of her wishes triggered several crying fits. I spent an hour rocking her, holding her tight and whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” to reassure her that even if we didn’t allow her to watch television all day, we still loved her.
Standing in front of the mirror for hours, she adorned her short, curly hair with pink ribbons and countless flower clips. Her best friend was my lipstick.

What little we experienced of the city affected us deeply. Modern office buildings rose high above corrugated iron shacks. Goatherds and donkeys wove through rows of honking cars. Elegantly dressed businessmen strode among begging lepers.

Each day, on our way to the nearby breakfast bar, we passed a person so marred by leprosy that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or woman. We always put some money in the stump that was once a hand. One morning, my husband shared the Gospel. In the absence of a lower jaw, the person could only nod to confirm his words.

Just as we were about to continue our walk back to the hotel, Aisha cried, “Wait!” From her pocket, she fished the chewing gum we bought her that morning. Carefully, she pushed one—then two—sticks out of the package and laid them in the stump. The person nodded again, and Aisha skipped away, right into my arms.

We didn’t make photos of monuments, but monumental moments in our first days as a family were forever engraved in my memory.

So today, as I put on the red necklace with its fake gem, I feel grateful; a worthless souvenir from a country that birthed my greatest treasure—Aisha.


Although she doesn’t speak it anymore, Aisha’s native language is Amharic. Her song on the swing, “wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa” (written phonetically, as I heard it) means “back, forth, back, forth.”

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.”

Brainwash

beek3Sunlight filters through bright green spring leaves and tenderly illuminates my favorite place beside the stream. Sitting on a stone, I close my eyes and relax. 

A breeze caresses my face and carries the scent of fertile soil. I inhale deeply. 

The water murmurs a happy song that clears my mind and refreshes my soul.

How fitting that God uses clean, running water as the image of purification.

When I hear gurgling laughs mingle with the music of the whirling water, I awaken from my reveries. Upstream are about ten children and the pastor of the church they belong to; they have come for a day to our house in the countryside.

City children. 

I guess they’re between six and fourteen years old. Perhaps the closest they have ever come to streaming is the downloading of images from the Internet to their tablet through a Wi-Fi connection while they watch an online film.

Digital generation children. 

Ten minutes ago, just after we arrived in the gorge, the older kids complained that their smartphones didn’t pick up the mobile network signal. I notice they’re now chatting with each other instead of with some distant friend through Facebook. 

The smaller children, insecure at first, enthusiastically explore their new environment. Little fingers, trained to manipulate keyboards and touch screens, dive deep into the wet clay and mold grey blobs. Hands, used to holding game boys and joysticks, pick up stones and build a dam. Ears, unplugged from MP3 players, register splashes and gushing water. Eyes that normally cling to TVs and computers follow the course of a floating stick that is searching its winding way between the rocks.

Running along the banks, sprinkling one another, they scream and laugh. Some boys try to follow the water downstream as far as possible, jumping from stone to stone, occasionally stepping into the shallow water. A few girls, huddling together, hold their hands under a mini waterfall, and share their awe of the never-ending flow of clear water.

Cloths are smudged, eyes light up. Barbie shoes are beyond recognition, cheeks glow pink.

When it is time to leave, the pastor reminds the children to rinse their hands. I get up to join them. One of the smallest girls stands on the other side of the stream and stretches out her hands, dripping with mud. She seems desperate. 

I look at her, concerned. “What’s the problem, honey?”

She doesn’t answer, but looks at her dirty hands, then at the water she can’t reach. 

“Would you like me to help you?”

She nods. 

I stand on a rock in the middle of the stream, in front of her, and take hands full of fresh water to clean hers. Scoop after scoop, I wash away the mud from her pulses, her palms, her fingers, the edges of her nails. While washing her, I say a silent prayer.

Please, Lord, let this visit become a vivid memory of living water that cleanses these children’s heads from the digital flow they dive into every day. Not just their hands, Lord, but their minds. Let their minds be purified.

I lift my eyes from the girl’s hands to look at her face. She smiles and, with a spring in her step, rejoins her friends.

 


(I submitted this article also to the Writing Challenge on the FaithWriters website. The topic was “Digital Detox”. The occasion I describe took place on April 25.)