Waves murmured against the hull of the dugout canoe. Borani’s bronzed muscles rippled as he dipped the paddle in and out of the Tarasutinai River. At the stern, Tanawi synchronized his movements with those of Borani. The canoe sliced the river surface with little sound.
From her seat between them, Miriam Evans peered toward the dense undergrowth of the jungle. A capybara, its brown fur slick from swimming and grazing on water plants, clambered up the bank as they neared. It turned its face, so much like that of a huge guinea pig, toward them as they passed. This ‘water pig’ was small, about two feet in length from nose to stumpy tail.
Miriam chuckled. The last time she was in the village of the Suritinai people, she confronted a capybara gnawing at the foundation posts of the mission hut where she and her husband Henry lived while on the field. Brandishing her dried palm leaf broom, Miriam screamed until three tribesmen came with spears. The roasted meat they shared that evening with those men was much like a pork chop with a slight fishy taste.
She sighed. Thirty years had passed since her anguished return to the States without her beloved Henry. Other missionaries had been sent to the Suritinai people, but the seeds Miriam and Henry planted in the minds of the villagers took root in their hearts and flourished.
Miriam was visiting a tribe who now shared her fervent love for the Lord. A pang of uncertainty flooded her heart. How many of the villagers would remember her?
She glanced at Borani, his paddle glistening in the early morning sun. One of Miriam’s final acts of ministry had been to help his mother deliver him into the world. Shortly after Borani’s birth, a messenger came from a distant village with news that Henry had been murdered, his body partially cannibalized.
Miriam wondered if Rasana, the shaman who orchestrated the ambush, was still alive. Had he renounced his spells, incantations, and dead ancestral spirits to serve the living Lord?
“Varan, tai!” Borani shouted, pointing with his paddle toward the shore. Several yards away, a makeshift dock constructed from kapok wood and palm leaf fibers jutted into the river. Borani and Tanawi drove their paddles into the water with renewed vigor.
Miriam squinted at the waiting villagers on the muddy shore. She recognized several of the women. Rasana was nowhere in sight. For a reason she could not comprehend, his absence troubled her.
Then the canoe was dockside. Borani leapt onto the deck and held out his hands to Miriam. Her legs were unsteady from the long travel upstream. She wondered how she must appear to the tribal members. Her once-raven hair was streaked with silver strands, and her unblemished pale skin had developed the creases and scars of age. She no longer remembered their language well enough to converse. Would they still see the Lord reflected in her?
A youthful white-skinned man grasped her hand in a firm handshake. Behind him, a woman smiled a welcome.
“Mrs. Evans, we are so happy to finally meet you,” she said and held out her hand. “We’re Jim and Peggy Lange.”
The crowd divided as the couple led Miriam from the dock to their mission home. Women who were part of her distant past reached out to shyly touch her as she passed by. Once or twice, she paused to speak a few words to a special acquaintance, Peggy serving as translator.
Miriam gasped when she saw her old mission home. Corrugated tin had replaced the thatch roof. Tears came to Miriam’s eyes when she spied the small open air church beyond the house.
“Why are you sad?” one of the Suritinai women asked with alarm. “Have we done wrongly?”
Peggy translated, then answered the woman. She smiled.
“I told her you were very pleased. Now, what would you like to see first?” Peggy asked.
“I would like to visit my husband’s grave,” Miriam answered.
The forest canopy shaded the tiny clearing where the grave was located. Miriam knelt at the base of a cross and breathed a prayer. She caressed the rough wood but did not cry. Her tears were spent long ago.
Rising to her feet, she asked, “But what of Rasana, the shaman? ”
Jim shook his head in regret and pointed to a mound of rocks at the edge of the clearing. Miriam wept, her heart broken for Rasana’s stubbornness and lost soul.
Author’s note: The Suritinai tribe as well as the Tarasutinai River exist only in the imagination of the author. All characters are fictional. The realities of life on the mission field are not.
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