It was that time of year again; I’d been keeping an eye out the window of my shop, half-hoping not to see what I expected. Every year the whole village watches when Wanda trudges down Main Street with that grungy old backpack weighting her down. Such a horrible thing, the accident that led to this bizarre behavior of hers. Wasn’t even her fault. Those kids and their foolish games, hiding down in the gravel pit. Wanda couldn’t have known that in her maneuverings of the massive scoop loader, a loosened boulder would roll and crush the littlest guy. I shook my head, remembering the long-ago tragedy.
Things got busy for a bit as I saw to several customers and when I looked at the clock, I realized it was past the time when Wanda usually made her pilgrimage.
Stretching across the counter, I found my assistant restocking the shelves underneath. “Catalina, did you happen to notice if Wanda’s been by yet?”
“No, ma’am.” She looked up from her kneeling position. “We won’t be seeing that penitential march this year or any other year. I believe her burden’s been lifted.”
“Are you saying she’s…passed away?” I asked in consternation.
Catalina stood. Leaning forward and placing her elbows on the counter, she folded her hands under her chin and rested that dimpled attribute atop. Her eyes glimmered.
“No, she hasn’t died,” she said. “But some old things have passed away.”
I gave her my best boss impersonation. “Okay, Miss Cat-Who-Swallowed-the-Canary, you’ve got a story to tell me. And I’m all ears.”
Catalina swiveled gracefully and rested her hip against the counter. Although a relative newcomer in town, she had quickly gained what was common knowledge. And she told it from the beginning.
Wanda’s job at the gravel pit had surprised nobody. She’d never shied away from what the rest of the gals thought of as life’s rough and tumble side. Nary an eye blinked over her not finding the tea parties an activity she couldn’t miss. But after the accident, except for that one occasion every year, she was never seen in town at all. She didn’t stop to converse on her yearly trek, and when anyone addressed her, she’d turn away. It hurt to watch her, knowing her steps traced a five-mile course to the cemetery and back while carrying in her backpack a collection of stones.
Wanda had never married. Several years before the accident she’d disappeared for a while. Gossip flared about the possibility of her having run off with some man.
Catalina paused in her recitation and cleared her throat. “She had a baby, you know. That’s why she left town. She gave him up for adoption. In a twist of fate, the family that adopted him moved here. The little boy killed in the gravel pit?” She looked at me. “Yeah, hers.”
Around the lump in my throat I choked out, “Oh the poor, poor woman.”
“She felt her guilt double-fold,” Catalina explained.
“How did you learn about this?” I asked.
The dimple deepened as she pursed her lips, “You know my aim in life is to show love to as many people as I possibly can. My signature macaroon cookies are hard to resist. I’ve been visiting Wanda every week. Besides the cookies, I think she was just ready for friendship.”
“And that’s what’s lifted her burden, as you said earlier?”
“Oh, I can’t claim credit for that!” Catalina raised her hands, palms forward. “Wanda was surfing the web and came across a site that posts passages from the Bible. It changed her life.”
She nodded. “Yeah, it was from Hebrews? The tenth chapter, I think, where it talks about sacrifices. She realized that trying to atone for her sins by carrying that load of rocks on her back every year was useless, and sort of crazy to boot.”
“That’s what we’ve all said here in town,” I pointed out.
“Guilt does that to people,” Catalina cocked her head. “We don’t all carry around literal rock-laden backpacks though. Anyway, Wanda started chatting on the website and they helped her see that she is forgiven. She’s still the kind of person who won’t socialize a lot. But her soul is free to enjoy the remainder of her years.”
The bell on my shop door jingled, interrupting our conversation. But I made a mental note to examine my own spiritual backpack. And maybe make a pot of my signature chili for Wanda.
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