Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

Once Upon a Cross – Part 3 (Oct 1992)

Filed under: — @ 12:45 pm and

by Thom Lemmons
October, 1992

6“Eric, could you hand me the second clarinet folders, please?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I love this kid. The quickest way to any teacher’s heart is “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Out of fashion though it may be, politeness has often been known to transform a C-plus into a B-minus.

Eric and I are preparing the sight-reading folders for the advanced band, which will meet next period. Already I can feel the fluttery nervousness gathering like a herd of rabid butterflies in the pit of my stomach. In a week, this group will go to compete at a local music festival, and an entire year’s worth of self-esteem will be on the line for me. I keep telling myself that it’s not that big a deal; the principal doesn’t care what rating the band makes, the other teachers at my school don’t care what the band makes, the kids’ parents don’t care. No one is going to give a flip about the rating they get …

Except me. Anything less than a “superior” rating from every single judge on the panel will be taken as a personal indictment of my character, my professional integrity and my fitness to continue drawing my paycheck.

Well, maybe not quite that bad. You can forget the part about the paycheck …

I hate festivals, and I love them. I hate the jitters and the pressure I put on myself. I hate the despair that threatens to overwhelm me every time I realize that the primary objective evidence of my expertise consists of a single performance by a group of hormone-addled seventh- and eighth-graders.

But I love the challenge – the chance to pull it off. I love the opportunity to measure my efforts and those of my students against a standard. I love the feeling of confident relief that comes over me when the last note is played, the last reverberation fades into the balcony of the hall. Because, the simple fact is – and I can never admit this aloud, for fear that the festival gods may punish my hubris – I am a good teacher, a good music coach.

Sounds a little crazy, even to me, this schizophrenic amalgam of cautious confidence and neurotic fear of failure. It’s how I imagine a sales person must feel before a major presentation, or an actor before an important audition. The only way out is forward.

“Should I do the low woodwinds now, Mrs. Thompson?” Eric asks.

“Yes, Eric. And it’s ‘Miz,’ remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” he grins. “Sorry.”

For some strange reason, Eric reminds me of the golden retriever puppy my family had when I was a kid. He has the same sandy-red hair, the same eager-to-please grin, the same big-footed clumsiness that Butch had. he’s a sweet youngster, and he lives and breathes for band class. I’m sure this doesn’t impress too many of his non-musical friends, but I don’t think Eric cares.

I guess I was a lot like Eric. My earliest successes came in music, and I suppose I never forgot that. I still remember the first time I played a solo at a music contest. I was petrified. My lips were so dry that the mouthpiece on my cornet clung like glue; my palms got so slippery I didn’t think I could hold my horn down without dropping it, and I’m sure the judge had to see my knees shaking. But, by some stroke of fate, I made a First Division rating – the best. My mother was so proud.

My father was out of town, preaching at a revival. Probably through no fault of his own, in all fairness. Music wasn’t really his thing, anyway…

I had to play the cornet, you see, because both my brothers had played the cornet. And I had not only to play it, but to play it better. So I did. I remember being almost the only girl in the cornet section in my high school band. All through junior high and high school, the boys hated it when I regularly clobbered them in auditions. But it didn’t matter – not the way I wanted. Try as I might, practice diligently though I did, my accomplishments were generally qualified by my gender – or so it seemed to me. I got dreadfully tired of being “that good girl cornet player at Smithfield High.” How desperately I longed for an endorsement that never came in exactly the model and shade I wanted.

I went to the local college, got my music education degree, and got an assistant directorship at the same high school where I had attended. After a year or two, I took the band job at one of the local junior highs.

But it didn’t work for me – not there. The problem wasn’t the kids, not the teaching. There simply wasn’t room enough in my hometown for me and my past. I came down with an acute case of biographically-induced claustrophobia. The only cure I could figure out was distance, taken in liberal doses as needed.

Besides – it had to be less stressful for Dad with me out of town, right? Less wear-and-tear on his pastoral circuitry, without having to witness an intransigent daughter dashing her pilgrim bark repeatedly against the rocks below his gospel lighthouse.

And there you have it, Eric, my lad: the story of Miz Thompson’s life, in 400 words or less. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?

Get over it, Janice. I toss the second clarinet folders on top of the stack piled in the chair of Jamal Lewis, first chair clarinetist and section leader extraordinaire. I glance at the wall clock. Ten minutes until the next period starts. Eric is finishing the last of the woodwind folders.

“Eric, did you already do the percussion and low brass folders?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I love this kid. Polite and efficient. I mean – what are the odds?

Linus eased the tool bag to the ground in front of the stone house and knocked at the gate. In a moment, he heard footsteps slapping against the stones of the courtyard inside.

“Who’s there?” a loud male voice shouted in Aramaic.

Linus recognized the sound of the large man who had engaged him. “It is I,” he replied in Greek, “the carpenter whom you saw in front of the inn.”

The steps slapped toward the gate, which was flug roughly open, barely missing the end of Linus’ nose. “Come in,” the large man bellowed in heavily-accented Greek, beckoning him toward the house. “I didn’t expect you until tomorrow, but come in, nonetheless.”

Linus paced across the spacious, stone-paved courtyard toward the wide front door of the house. The prosperity of the dwelling’s owner was evident in the fine dressing of its stones, the elegant carving of the wooden fixtures. Linus knew immediately that the large, loud man was well able to afford the cost of his craftsmanship.

“This way, this way,” his host blustered, leading Linus through the main portal and into a foyer which opened onto yet another courtyard, around which were ranged the various rooms of the house: the scullery, the sleeping rooms, the main room for dining and the entertainment of guests.

“Woman!” the man bellowed, making Linus wince. “Come here! Bring water! Sit there,” he finished in a softer voice which was still louder than warranted, pointing Linus toward a small bench against the wall.

In a few moments, a female appeared in a doorway across the inner courtyard, her head bent low in a posture of submission, bearing a water jar and a handful of linens. As Linus watched her approach, he sensed something familiar in her mien, her gait. Then she entered the foyer, and glanced at him over her veil.

It was Tabit, the woman at the well! Her eyes widened for a heartbeat as she recognized him in the same instant, then she immediately knelt, without a word, and began to remove his boots.

“When you’ve refreshed yourself,” his host commented, “join me in the main hall. That is where the table you will build is meant to be.”

Linus nodded, and the man turned to stride across the courtyard. The carpenter had quickly ascertained from Tabit’s manner and the harsh way the man had summoned her that it would not be advisable to speak to Tabit as if he knew her – at least not within the man’s hearing. From the slope of her shoulders and the self-effacing droop of her head, he knew that her life with the master of this house must be anything other than happy. He began to see more of the reason for her strange, fey manner at the well.

When he heard his host’s footsteps disappear into the doorway across the courtyard, Linus said, in a low voice, “I thank you for sending your husband to look at my work by the inn. As you have heard, he has engaged my services. I am grateful …”

“I said nothing to him,” she interjected in a low, fearful voice, without raising her head. “He doesn’t permit me to speak to him, nor to anyone else when he can prevent it. He hired you for reasons of his own. And …” She drew a long, shuddering breath. “He isn’t my husband.” She placed his boots to one side and poured water over his feet.

“Then, why …” began Linus in a pained, incredulous voice.

“As I told you,” she said, “I have acquired – earned, really – a reputation. I have no one, no other family, nothing. I do what I must to keep from starving. I have few choices.”

Linus could not accept that Tabit’s fate was completely without alternative. “Is there no one else in Sychar who can offer you shelter?” he asked softly. “Perhaps …” His mind grasped for any straw of logic or comfort to which he could appeal. “Perhaps there is someone here who shares your empathy for the Galilean. Your kinsman at the inn, maybe? Would he not take you in and rescue you from this, this … degradation?” he finished sadly.

She looked away, across the courtyard. After a few moments, she shook her head slowly. “When the Galilean came, many heard his words. Some even said they believed in him. But,” she continued, glancing back at Linus, “belief dies a far easier death than habit. Life in Sychar did not change greatly after he left,” she sighed. “And any alteration which did occur was shallower by half than my yearnings taught me to hope for.”

Linus’ chest ached with the pain of his pity. “Why are you telling me all this?” he asked. “I needn’t have known about your arrangement with his man. You could have spared yourself that humiliation, at least.”

She began wiping his feet with the linen. Then, for the last time, she raised her face to him, challenging him with her eyes. “When the Galilean came, he taught me to stop lying to myself. Having learned that, I can no longer lie to others. That choice, at least, remains to me.”

She looked down and quickly laced the thongs of his boots. Without a word, she rose, picking up her jar and soiled linens, and trod swiftly away, across the courtyard toward the scullery. She went inside without looking back.

This is an excerpt from Thom Lemmons’ forthcoming novel, Once Upon A Cross, ©1992 by Thom Lemmons, published by Questar Publishers, Inc., Sisters, Oregon.Wineskins Magazine

Thom LemmonsThom Lemmons writes novels and manages ACU Press/Hillcrest Publishing. His works include the bestseller Jabez: a Novel, published by WaterBrook Press; Mother of Faith, Woman of Means and Daughter of Jerusalem, published by Multnomah Books. Other works include He Who Wept, Sunday Clothes and King’s Ransom. He has three children.

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