The Greatest in the Kingdom

   ** I wrote this piece when I was sixteen. It’s a long read but it’s one of the pieces that first made me realise just how powerful words are to make people feel.**

 

   The sky is carnival blue without a hopeful hint of cloud. The little white cross rests beneath a drooping tree, content against the resplendent backdrop of the dark, thirsty mountains. In the distance there is the sound of children playing and snatches of their song comes dancing to me on the warm breeze.

   To my left and a little way off stand three enormous whitewashed wooden crosses shining in the heat of the afternoon. The small cross peeks up at them from the shade, content and humbled as ever to be in their presence. The children are singing their song again but now they finish as they go in for their afternoon nap.

   But this place is rarely without music and stuttering chords fill the air from one of the rainbow houses perched precariously on the next hill along. A group of boys have tuned up an old guitar they must have found in a storeroom somewhere.

   I close my eyes and breathe in the sweet air mingled with the magic of their experimental harmonies.

   “Hari ini adalah lembaran baru bagiku… Ku disini kar’na Kau…”

   I open my eyes again as I stand a moment and the little white cross looks up at me with a smile as I consider the words of the boys’ song:

Today is a new start for me…I am here because of You…

x     x     x

Laughing, I waved over my shoulder to the teachers, some of whom grinned and waved back, pausing a moment from spooning rice into their bowls. Still smiling, I stepped out into the sunlight, momentarily stunned by the blinding light and the burning on the soles of my feet. But children in their bright blue uniforms flew past everywhere in their unknown games. As always two or three parents sat by their motorbikes beside a stumpy tree, helmets on the wall beside them and a cigarette on the lips of at least one.

Reaching the far side of the playground I waved to them and they returned the smile and a shy nod before returning to their animated talk. Even now, I don’t know what deep and complex matters were discussed every day beneath that palm tree. But the man with the cigarettes sure got through a lot of them.

The yellow school bus was waiting. Barnabas tipped a nod and a smile as he climbed up into the driver’s seat, slamming the door. Two small girls hared past, rocketing into the van in a pile of giggles. I grinned and stuck my tongue out as Novi and Mikha made silly faces at me. Barnabas’s head appeared out of the cab window, round, cheerful, and in need of a haircut.

“Okeh?”

I nodded, taking a seat as Novi and Mikha threw themselves across the bus and began shouting out the side behind me.

“Okeh!”

The bus yawned and coughed but the girls were still hanging out of the side. Instinctively, I grabbed the backs of their backpacks and the bus bucked over the drain and began juddering up the hill but they carried on regardless.

“Tina! Tina!”

I glanced up at the stocky figure in her blue pinafore stomping through the long grass, resplendent with her scarlet backpack bumping up and down behind her.

“Tina! Tina!”

Mikha’s voice cut through the thick dry air and Tina turned, her bight red buttons glinting in the sunshine. Her broad Dayak face widened into a cheeky grin as she crested the hill and stopped by the edge of the road to watch us.

As she raised her hand to wave, the world fell away and it was just Tina standing at the edge of the road in her school uniform, grin wide on her face. It was one of those moments where the world slows in warning. Where you see so suddenly and so clearly the beauty in someone or something and you just want to hold it forever and never forget.

In that moment, my heart captured and treasured the sunlight on her beautiful face; the dark hair which was finally beginning to grow; the deep brown faithful eyes; the flat nose and the wide mouth stretched impossibly wide in her trademark grin. My heart took in the pinafore that she had been so embarrassed about because it had had to be altered in length because she was too stocky for one to fit her height and the orange streaked socks and scuffed black shoes. And that smile. There was so much in that smile.

Then she turned and was gone, running across the road and out of sight.

x     x     x

I stare at the cross and it watches me. Dead leaves crackle against the stony dust where some of the girls have made an optimistic attempt to plant flowers. I rub my feet together absentmindedly to rid them of the ants and offer up a quick, constant prayer for rain.

   None comes and I stand alone on the hill in the heat of the day, a sudden wave of exhaustion overwhelms me and I crouch, arms around my knees and the parched grass scratching at my bare feet. I turn again to the big cross, the same as I have always done, ever since I can remember, turning to the cross when I don’t know what to do.

   I have no words. They don’t mean anything but so many questions and memories bombard me that I open my heart like a book and lay it before the cross, open at the page which shows a young face with a smile to rival the dusty sun.

   Still there is no rain although there is the faint hint of a cloud on the horizon. The place is gasping for water. There has been no proper rain in weeks. The boys have reached the chorus of their song and the enchanting crescendo is heartfelt above the ebb and flow of their fantastic harmonies.

   ‘Dan bila aku berdiri, tegap sampai hari ini…’

   Considering this, I rest my chin on my folded arms, my eyes following the movement of one of the many little sparrows amongst the drooping branches of the forest.

   Lord, I don’t have any words left. Words can’t mean anything but you know my heart.

My thoughts turn again to the words of the song and the fourth cross watches me, bemused, as I ponder what it has known for a long time.

   And when I stood, strong until this day…

x     x     x

It hadn’t rained in nearly two weeks and the whole place was choking. I jumped out of the car and over the drain with a quick wave and a thank you, grateful to be back in time for the clinic for once. My friend rushed away across the tiles to the hall to collect the key and let the girls in. I hurried off in a different direction.

“I’ll get the water!” and I headed to the common room to fetch a bowl in the hope of saving time later. I grumbled, as always, as I tripped over the abundance of flip-flops that so many people deem wise to leave in doorways but I didn’t say anything as I searched out a bowl and waited for the urn to boil.

All the while, Gerry-Ann bustled around the room, sniffing constantly and not really doing anything. I cast a sideways glance at her puffy eyes and the lines down her tanned face with growing anxiety.

Bad news from home?

“Are you alright?” I laid a hand on her arm.

When she turned, the look in her eyes startled me. They looked so very blue against their pink rims. Though her expression was a shock, it was her words which tore the world apart, stealing my breath away like a punch in the chest and making me feel sick to my stomach.

“Hafen’t you hert?”

I swore under my breath.

And we were there holding tight to one another like two small children and there was a twisting pain somewhere which had stolen my voice and was pouring from my eyes into thundercloud patterns on the pink of Gerry-Anne’s t-shirt.

It was like the earth had suddenly stopped spinning, leaving us all reeling and floundering for air, blind and disbelieving.

x     x     x

They say that your eyes change colour when you cry. There were so many eyes, shocked and searching, so dark that they were colourless. Their soaked faces, raw with shock said ‘we will not cry’ but our hearts spoke truth through our eyes.

I sat, clung to and the faces came and went. Faces, which I had only ever seen shining and the light was now gone from them. The eyes came and went, pair after pair going into the low pink building hopeful and denying and minutes later they returned broken and dark with all hope gone from them. Pair after pair after pair, praying for a miracle until I couldn’t watch anymore.

I didn’t want to see.

So face after hopeless face and then we were all seated, muted and sick and I couldn’t eat but food appeared on my plate, forced down by badgering and then I was sat in front of a computer screen, replying mechanically to emails about food, motorbikes, giant insects and roommates. It seemed that everyone wanted to speak about something but no one was there to talk to.

It was the thunder that woke me.

It was right overhead, a flash and a sound like a bomb had been dropped nearby and the whole place was in darkness in an instant. Only the faint glow of the only working computer left casting an eerie glow on Kalis’s grim features. He looked at me.

“We’d better go outside.”

I nodded and left, walking slowly in the darkness, running my hand along the cold wall of the hall and stepping out into the warm night. Almost immediately children were clinging to me. All around were silhouetted groups holding tightly to one another. Another deafening explosion caused the hands to cling more tightly but everyone knew that the fear ran far deeper than any thunderstorm. One of the older girls wrapped her arms around me and I stroked her hair, murmuring what I hoped were reassuring words.

There was fear in many of the faces peering around but I wasn’t afraid. There was only a deep, angry disappointment that the lighting had come alone, ignoring my pleas that it might herald a miracle.

Cries of surprise rose from amongst the chaos as one of the older boys switched on the truck lights, directing them towards us. I turned to Kalis again, his features closed and drawn and at that moment I just wanted a hug from my big brother. I wanted myself just to have someone to hold on to who would hold my hand and tell me that everything was fine. But with the whimpers and the trembling hands in mine I just met his questioning gaze.

“What now?”
It wasn’t the question that I wanted to ask. But we were distracted as the electricity flickered to life but gasped and died again a moment later.

Come on Mark. You can fix it.

He looked at me again, forlorn and I tried to smile. Then at last, I managed to get my question out.

“Can we pray?”

It was a cry from my heart but the lights flickered and the thunder bellowed overhead. But this time the electricity remained on and in the chaos that ensued Kalis was gone. One of the children had my hand and I followed her, allowing myself to be swept into the hall along with everyone else. Thursday was meeting night anyway so we huddled there on the tiled floor, fragile from the events of the day. The lightning strike had just been the last of many things for us and it seemed as if heaven was shouting but still there was none of the rain that we all longed for.

Finally Kalis stood up, raising his hands for silence. His face said that he wouldn’t cry but his voice took a couple attempts to steady. Calmly, he explained as the lights flickered that we had been struck by lightning, Mark and his team were trying to fix the generators. Tonight we weren’t going to have a normal meeting. Tonight we met to commit all that had happened to God and seek Him.

“Mari kita berdoa.”

Let us pray.

And the thunder continued and the lights flickered but still there was no miracle.

x     x     x

No rain, still. There has been no proper rain in weeks now. Not from the sky anyway. I look up, blinking against the unyielding sun.

   Please, God, we’re nearly empty. We need your rain.

The double meaning strikes me once the words have left my lips but my prayer is not lost on God. I know He understands but still I feel so distant from Him. He understands everything about me but I don’t understand Him. I have so many questions for Him but He just doesn’t seem to answer.

   I look up at the three crosses again and my own mortality tries to take me by surprise but that has never been an issue. It is the mortality of others that causes my heart to stutter and my gut to twist. It is the fact that my loved ones are going to die that brings me to my knees. But they say that that is the best position in which to pray. I guess that it never occurred to me that the people I loved would die.

   Especially not my little ones.

   As if somehow by loving them, that could stop them from leaving.

  The boys across the hill seem to be singing to me even though they can’t know that I am here. Their words choke me like the luminous dust, bringing tears to my eyes.

   ‘Bukan kar’na kuat dan hebat ku…”

   Not by my strength and power…

And the sky is funeral blue without a trace of rain.

 x     x     x

I have always associated the colour white with death. Even more so now. I’m not sure why. Snow and lilies and shrouds and cold and emptiness are all white. And hospital wards. And jeeps.

The little box that they brought out and laid on the tiles in front of the Training Centre was white too. We gathered round and stared in silence at the sleeping shell. Except that I didn’t want to see. I had said my goodbye hours before we even knew anything was wrong. And I was scared.

I was frightened of what I might see because I knew that she wasn’t there.

Chrissie came and stood beside me. She took my hand without even looking at me and gave it a gentle squeeze.

If Pak Ronny preaches, it’ll be Matthew 18. I just know it and God; I don’t want to hear that.

   People were coming all the time until we were all there, our faces set. Some of the short termers lingered at the fringes, their detached curiosity like a knife in my heart and the man with the camera has been told to take photos but the disengaged sympathy on his face causes me to turn me face away and each click of the shutter is a twist of the knife.

Then Pak Ronny was there with his Bible in his hand and he talks us through a couple of verses in Matthew 18 and my face was wet again like I didn’t want and Chrissie’s arm was round my shoulders. I wasn’t the only one though. And Pak Ronny saw our tears and told us a story from barely a week ago and smiles broke through the tears. We all smiled and murmured our amens and as Pak Ronny requested that we pray together, it is the only time that I have ever seen him cry.

So we prayed. Together. And all of our prayers go up as one in a jumble of broken voices until it fell quiet once more.

Then we sang.

“Hari ini adalah lembaran baru bagi ku…”

And we prayed.

And we sang again.

“ Meskipun badai silih berganti dalam hidupku, Ku tetap cinta Yesus selamanya…”

And we prayed.

Though the storms may rage in my life, still I will love Jesus forever…

   And we prayed.

And we sang.

‘Terima kasih Yesus.”

Then they took the white box and laid it in the back of the grubby white jeep and the boys climbed in with it as it rolled away. We followed it as one up the hill past the brightly coloured houses, the sand hot between our toes. Some held hands and some walked alone but we were all walking together, following the child to the foot of the cross.

The sky burned, refusing to rain but it felt like our tears were enough to sate the ground’s thirst and more besides. Still we followed the four by four with the box in the back. But our tears couldn’t choke down the orange dust, leaving clean, salty streaks on our down turned faces.

No one spoke as we crested the hill and began to stumble and slide our way down the slope to the cross, leaving the buildings far behind. The three crosses stood together on their hill, towering and white as though they had known we were coming and had been waiting for us. I looked up at them as I did every day, a daily remembrance of the place where life crushed death all of those years ago suddenly held new meaning.

We huddled together to one side of the crosses, gathered round a hole in the ground. We watched in silence as the box was lowered into the hole and Pak Ronny prayed again.

Then there came the most terrible, final, unforgiving sound that I had ever heard and one that I will never forget: earth echoing on the lid of a coffin. It sounded like the thunder the night before but so much louder and unyieldingly final that I felt sick to my stomach. This was it. hope was gone and there was no turning back.

But from nowhere a guitar was produced and tuned up and we began to sing again. Though there were tears, the songs were bright as we raised our voices in praise.

Love of Jesus, wonderful oh wonderful!

   Smiles returned through the tears as some of the little ones began to do the actions. The older children looked at one another and I saw in their eyes both pain and peace. They had met with this before and many of them more times than they cared to count. I looked around at so many people gathered and then back to the little white cross at the head of rapidly decreasing hole, my eyes skimming in surprise over the neat black numbers and letters. A strange peace broke through the sadness and the questions in my heart as I searched the faces of the ones that were left behind. They were mourning but at the same time there was a genuine celebration of life and the privilege of being a part of that.

We were learning that life goes on.

And as the garland was laid, I wrapped all of the pain and grief and anger in tissue paper, laying it in a box and pushing the lid down tight as I tucked it away.

Then, turning, I walked with my children back up the steep slope, praying that God would help me to care for the ones that He had left for me. And in my heart, I silently committed to Him the first child He had ever given me and the first He had ever taken away.

x     x     x

I hear someone calling my name and know that it is probably Tomas and Rio, two of my little boys wanting to play. Standing, my eyes never leave the crosses. I’m glad of what little time I have had here but though I know that I want to visit this little hill again, I know that it is my last afternoon visit while I am here this time. In less than two days I leave the village but it’s like I’ll never leave completely. A small part of me is buried here beneath the clay.

The white cross looks at me sternly, reminding me that three hundred more little parts and one big part of my heart are running around the village. It makes me smile to see the picture pinned to the cross. The laminate of a broad face with huge chocolaty eyes and a grin that reads ‘trouble’ flaps slightly in the breeze.

   I reach into my pocket and draw it out again, laying a small, round, grey pebble on one of the bare of the cross. It is smooth but for a small engraving on each side. It is nothing special but home made, a small token of love like the childrens’ drawings held down by stones or the pink hairclip or the shrivelled palm garland or the wilting flowers.

   The boys across the hill are just coming to the end of their song and as the last line fades away, I echo their prayer.

   “Terima kasih Yesus.”

   Thank you Jesus. I know she’s with you now and she’ll be so happy but give her my love. Give her all of our love and tell her we can’t wait to see her again. Till then, take care of her Lord, I pray.

When I turn and begin to trudge back up the dusty hill, I look up and there are Rio and Tomas standing there, calling to me. Then Rio begins to wave and Tomas joins in and an image springs unbidden to my mind. I push it away and hurry up the hill to the land of the living, to the ones that God has given me to care for now.

   But I know that Tina will never be truly gone. There is a box in the ground and an extra cross on the hill, one with her name on it but to me the box will always be empty and the cross is a sign of life. She won’t ever be dead to me. She will always be alive, dark eyes and a charming smile, standing on the hilltop in the midday sun, light in her eyes and her hand held high in greeting or perhaps: raised in farewell.

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