There once was a land that was like a graveyard – covered by a thick carpet of snow that was as heavy as iron and as unfriendly as a jail cell.
It was a land where things were buried – not things, exactly, but children. Children whose parents did not want them. They lay asleep under the ice with no hope of being woken up, still with the stillness of death. They had death at their throats like a chain. Some were born without arms or eyes or much of a mind; some were victims of war.
But in heaven, they have seen the face of God and lived to tell about it. It was the day that Jesus came with his shovel and dug them up from the snow and fashioned eyes for the girl who had none and arms for the boy whose were missing. He built new legs for one child and a whole new head for another. Here they all hold hands in a circle and are taught a wonderful song. Jesus loves me.
Among them is a boy who grew up here, who now tramples the snow under his feet, laughing without a care, warmed by the light of the sun that melts the snow. He smiles at the circle of children, knowing his place had once been there, how the girls twist briars together and make themselves crowns of roses, how the boy race one another with all their strength; it never runs out.
Aside him is the Commander’s Daughter – who you may remember, but there is no use retelling her story now. She is wearing white that is so pure it is blinding to the eyes, with tangly hair falling at her shoulders and a necklace of gold that was given to her by Jesus for No Reason.
On earth the boy’s parents once gave him a name that means “peace”.
“I have no interest in getting involved in war,” he says, shaking his head. Wars broke out in those years like festering boils – the Commander’s Daughter knows all too well what it is to be a victim of war. “I am from a peaceful tribe, from a peaceful people … but, oh! They are choked with thorns!”
He has a strength in his bones – the strength of peace – as though carved out of iron and marble and all sorts of strong things. He was once given a sword but he never uses it. It is Peace Time. He was born in Peace Time and went to live with Jesus in Peace Time – it was afterwards that his mother and father fled for their lives in the face of war, living in tents, suffering in the cold. His heart is troubled as Jesus sits him by a fire just like the kind they warmed themselves by that winter they escaped through the mountains and sat amongst the coals, barely able to keep them alit for the night. He tells him the dark stories of the days of suffering. Now it is Peace Time, but there are many burdens. His mother pulls a heavy cart behind her day after day, night after night, like a beast of burden, and never rests. His brother is a skeleton who lies in the snow, like miserable branches of a dead tree snapped off and stepped on, unable to move anything but his throat which is scraped on the inside by many screams, and his eyes which squint back tears that might freeze in the frozenness.
His father is a wealthy man choked by many thorns – the deceitfulness of wealth. His little sisters wear smiles but only as masks. Underneath their fine clothes and gaudy jewelry they are empty as shells – shells of lavish finery their father paid for. There are many tears, but by now most are dry. He is concerned for his family who lives in Peace Time, who has strayed from desert to desert in an empty pit where they stack towers of gold coins and worry excessively about What People Will Say.
“I just want my mother to be happy, and my father not to be afraid of people.”
So Jesus says he will illuminate their lives with many lights, and he does. He finds small pieces of joy, dusts them off, and brings them to the Peaceful Warrior’s family. Now his own name – Jesus – has been spoken in their house – his own songs have been sung there and even prayers have been prayed to him there. The cross has been spoken of with honor in their house, and someone once laid hands on his sister and prayed for her there.
But there are thorns, and enemies … black snakes poised to bite their ankles and drag them down to the grave. Too many rocks, he says, looking at their hearts, why do their hearts have to be so heavy? Why can’t they dump out all those rocks?
He listens and watches especially when they go to the Tombs. He sees his little sisters draped in black, and there is no movement in the air, only the stillness of death. They mourn for him like it is a duty, so heavy are their hearts that with every word more rocks fall into them and their hearts become gaping pits for rocks. They pray for him with a dull sort of sadness that suffocates itself with thoughts of the next fine clothes, clouded in despair and choked with worldliness. Don’t pray for me, he laughs and shakes his head, then to turns to Jesus and prays for them: bless my little sisters.
Meanwhile the Commander’s Daughter is never allowed to see her father – he is forever veiled from her in shadows and darkness, a vague form she can’t make out writhing behind the curtains that Jesus covered him with and will never allow her to see. She wouldn’t be able to handle it. She is so overcome and her spirit so enflamed with passion – a kind of sadness and love and pity all at the same time – that she wants to cry but no tears will come out. It only builds inside her, waiting to burst. You can’t cry in heaven. But at one point someone wordlessly passes her a torn photograph of a middle-aged man with a thick beard and big glasses. It was taken some fifteen years ago, around the time she was born. Her heart turns over inside. This is my father? He vainly props his chin on his fist and lifts his simmering eyes to heaven. They are like searing coals lofty in their vainglory. In the background is the flag of his army – a very, very black flag with a hideous inscription carved by the finger of Satan himself. He is wearing ugly brown clothes and a vest. But she can barely make out his face because the photograph is ripped and wrinkled nearly beyond recognition. The paper is worn and tattered and there is writing all over the back – some nonsensical little words and numbers in smeared ink that the Commander’s Daughter doesn’t understand. The condition of the photograph is so bad that there tears in it and one half dangles by a thread. Somewhere around his eyes or his glasses or his forehead are a few drops of melted wax, now dried and crusted to the paper.
“Why …” she asks one of the angels, concerned, “Does my father’s picture look like … that?”
She doesn’t understand and her lip trembles in terror as the angel puts his arm around her and leads her by a quiet stream where even the birds sing songs that ring inside their heads like the sound of bells carved of crystal. The angel sits her along the bank and lets her watch the beauty of creatures leaping back and forth uttering worthy is the lamb, mighty in battle. He lets her rest in the cool of the grass under the shade of palm trees bowing in the breeze, then explains.
The picture belongs to someone who keeps it hidden in a little box full of such pictures, but it is by far the one in the worst condition. Every day someone takes it out and prays for the man in that picture, and the prayers have become so many for so long with fervor and intensity and urgency that that picture ended up that way. The writing on the back is of Bible verses, and the wax dripped on there when a candle was lit for him and some it spilled on it and dried there.
At this, the Commander’s Daughter is so overcome with emotion that she runs off to her room and can bear it no more. She weeps as no one has ever wept before, but it is a good kind of weeping. Then Jesus comes and puts his hand on her shoulder and suggests they sing a song. Someone remembers.
But there are other children of War Time and Peace Time, Jesus reminds the Peaceful Warrior and the Commander’s Daughter as they rejoin the circle to teach the little children all the songs they learned. There are others who didn’t have it like you had it. You were the lucky ones, but they stayed on earth and lived. He tells the story of little lion cubs who lived all their lives in a cage with bloodshot eyes – eyes that had seen too much blood. They could not smile – they did not know how. They were like children sacrificed to idols dragged in their father and mother’s fangs by the sruffs of their necks into the Battlefield. Their minds had been made all sick with lies and clouded with Satan’s spirit of murder and hate. They were born this way, he mourns.
He talks about wanting to stroke their mangy fur and tell them to stop licking their bald patches and their sores. He wanted to feed them because their ribs were showing. The Commander’s Daughter is silent, but her spirit speaks. That would have been me. If I had not been taken from the earth, I would have become like one of those children. But for the grace of God …
He tells of another Victim of War, who he left on earth – just barely, because he was left to die, left in the garbage. I like his spirit, it is light, he says. But he gradually became complacent and full of mocking. He was ashamed of his war wounds, and he tried to speak so much and so loudly in hopes that no one would notice them because they would hear only his grating voice. He tells of a little girl who only got sicker and sicker, left to a mother who ignored her to run off and bow in Satan’s temple, draping herself in the burial shrouds of black and a father who cared really nothing for either of them, and darted around cheerfully looking for loopholes to excuse everything he did.
“What about justice for them?” the Commander’s Daughter asks, tears still not dry. “Will not the judge of all the world do right?”
He assures her that he will, and asks them to rejoice for a little while – they must rest up and rejoice because it has been a heavy day, and he shuts the whole topic like a dusty book, heavy with many pages but whose story has ended for now. Rest up for the war … it isn’t yours to fight anyway.