I was a sickly baby. That’s why my parents had me locked away. It was for my own safety.
You needn’t be horrified. It wasn’t a physical confinement. It was spiritual. These days, our atheist community would rubbish the concept as superstitious. But I run ahead of myself.
Many babies in our area are given a pretty little lock on a chain. When they reach their twelfth birthday, there is a joyful celebration. ‘Kai suo’, it’s called – ‘opening the lock’. It’s usually fun, but meaningless. However, in my case, it was done properly.
I was a small baby. A sickly baby. That’s why my parents asked Mrs Bai to be my ‘godmother’ … at least, you’d call her a ‘godmother’ in English. My country doesn’t believe in gods anymore. My godmother bought an ancient copper coin, with a hole in the middle. She braided the cord into the centre of a magnificent red knotted string. The word ‘knot’ in my language sounds like ‘lucky’. She placed it over my downy head and gave me a complete set of new clothes. From that day on, I was considered ‘locked away’ so the spirits wouldn’t attempt to take me. I was also seen as belonging to my godmother – the spirits would think I’d gone and not bother my family any more.
It worked. I survived infancy. On the eve of my first Chinese New Year, my godmother added a second knotted string with an old coin, placing it over my head. On the fifteenth day of the lunar year, both were taken off and carefully stored away.
On the eve of my second Chinese New Year, both red strings were placed over my head and a third one added. I wore all three for the next fifteen days. A mischievous toddler, the strings and coins were to remind the spirits that I was locked away for safekeeping.
Year after year, my godmother repeated the pattern. By the time I approached my twelfth birthday, I possessed a thick wad of these beautifully knotted red ropes and coins.
My birthday finally arrived. No more would I ‘belong’ to my godmother. I was strong enough to withstand spiritual attacks. They demons had not succeeded. It was time to ‘open the lock’.
Except for my father’s sister, the whole extended family assembled in the open courtyard. I was dressed in new clothes, which my mother had lovingly made for me, as well as a wide red sash looped over one shoulder and around the opposite hip. Around my neck, I wore the heavy weight of strings and coins. A basin of water was placed on the ground. Grandmother clutched a gleaming sharp cleaver. Everyone held their breath as both grandmothers called me forward.
“Lily, today we break the lock that protects you from the evil spirits.”
At that, one grandmother held the thick mass of strings away from my flesh, while the other grandmother sliced through them in one smooth motion. They threw the ropes and coins into the basin of water so they were completely submerged. My family yelled, “Run, Lily!”
Running like the wind, I leapt over the bowl of water, as I’d been instructed, and raced to the nearby doorway of my aunt’s home. She held a large metal hook, which she deftly slipped through my red sash. With tears in her eyes, she led me back to the family.
It was time to celebrate. We crowded into a nearby restaurant, where my father had organized a banquet. My parents and I were seated at the head of the table. Mother piled my plate high with delicious food.
No more would I ‘belong’ to my godmother, Mrs Bai. I am a young woman of the Wang family, and proud of it.
See how healthy I am today. My grandmothers insist that it’s because I was locked away from meddlesome spirits. My atheist friends would argue that such a view is unscientific. Yet observation of my world suggests to me that there is a spirit world out there … good and bad spirits alike. Certainly, there is a relationship between our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. I’m living proof of that.
I was ‘locked away’ for my childhood. But I’m free now. Having thoughtfully conducted some investigations, I’ve made a choice. I have handed myself over to God, the greatest Spirit of all.
I do this for my own good. See, as one who belongs to God, I am truly free. Free and safe.
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