Patience and Punishments

By Lia Hadley

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IT WAS SPRINGTIME and the air was full of a new, tender warmth that invited me to unzip my jacket as I made my way home from the tan brick elementary school on the far side of the field that separated it from my neighborhood. I walked past the Burton’s house, our backdoor neighbors. Their house had always struck me as being like a bun wrapped so tightly against the back of a woman’s skull that she couldn’t move her eyebrows. The sun that came through their windows always seemed to be cooler, bluer, than the sun that came through our windows at home.

Part of the intimidation of this house emanated from its mother. Her name was Patience, which always confused me. I wondered if there were two types of patience, and if maybe she had been named for an older definition of the word, like my mother’s friend Gay. Patience was a brisk woman with a quick, sharp voice that could stop my small heart with a word. When I went to play with her daughter Amanda, I often felt like I was entering a minefield.

But I wasn’t thinking about Patience at that moment. The tulips were showing their royal hues to the sunlight, and the trees were all in bloom. In front of the Burton’s house stood a cherry tree filled to glory with perfect white blossoms. I could smell the heady pollen in them as I approached, my face smiling freely as I looked up at the cloud of flowers. I inhaled their perfume and felt that this must be what the Celestial Kingdom was like.

And then I saw my mother’s face in my mind’s eye. She had been inside the house all day, folding laundry, doing dishes, cleaning up after five small children. She hadn’t been out yet in this miraculous primavera. We didn’t have a cherry tree in front of our house. What if I brought some of it to her—a little piece of heaven?

I could see her eyes lighting with joy as I presented her with a twig of blossoms. I could see her taking out the glass vase with the frosted flowers on it; filling it with tap water; telling me what a sweet, special girl I was—how glad she was that I had thought of her; placing the twig in the vase and setting it on the sunlit window sill.

I reached out my small hand and pulled down the lowest branch of the cherry tree, surveying my choices before breaking off a sprig of the freshest, whitest blossoms. With my prize in hand and excitement brewing in my stomach, I half skipped, half ran the rest of the way home. My worn tennis shoes barely clung to the pavement as I propelled myself closer and closer to the perfect moment.

I ran up the stairs to the side of the house so I would come into the kitchen where I was sure Mom would be . . . where she had been in my vision. I pulled the screen door open and twisted the knob to the inner door, letting the screen bang closed behind me. And there she was—standing at the sink, washing the pot that had held our oatmeal earlier that morning.

“Mother, oh mother, look what I brought you!” I held out my offering, panting with the exertion of the sprint. She turned to look at me.

“Where did you get those?”

My giddy stomach dropped at the tone of her voice.

“I . . . I just took them off the tree in front of the Burton’s house,” I stammered.

“But haven’t I taught you that you should never, ever take things that belong to others? You shouldn’t pick the flowers that grow in other people’s yards.”

My mind raced. “But there were so many . . . on the tree . . . I thought . . . I thought . . . ” But now my mouth was dry. It didn’t matter what I had thought.

“You need to bring those back and you need to tell Sister Burton how sorry you are that you took them from her tree.”

It was a statement beyond anything I could have imagined. To think that I had to somehow gather enough courage to knock on the door and talk to Patience! And tell her that I had wronged her! I felt faint. I would rather take a week of spankings from my father. I would rather eat nothing but frozen mixed vegetables that all tasted like a hybrid of carroty lima beans. Yes, I would eat that for the rest of my life if it allowed me escape. My mind whirred with horrible possibilities, grasping for anything that might allow reprieve.

“I’m going to stand at the side door and watch while you go back and apologize.” My mother walked forward, shooing me out the door. Then she took her post, standing on the small set of concrete stairs and looking out over the back fence to where an identical set of concrete stairs stood attached to the Burton’s house.

With a frantic mind, I stumbled down the steps and began my slow march toward certain doom. What could I do? I knew—I just knew—that I couldn’t face Patience. Why couldn’t my mother just be happy with the blossoms? They were going to die now. There wasn’t any way to restore them to the tree. At least they would have lasted a day or two in the glass vase on the windowsill. But now they would die. Maybe I would die, too.

I hadn’t been trying to do anything wrong. I had been trying to do something right, something good. And here I was, laden with the most terrifying punishment of my entire life.

Once I was out of Mom’s sight, I was flooded with thoughts of running away from home. But I remembered that she would be watching . . . that she would see that I had disobeyed.

And then my mind delivered me. The idea could have won a prize, it was so ingenious.

Chances were Patience wouldn’t see me approaching her side door. It didn’t have a screen, and the door opened inward, so my mom wouldn’t know if the door were opened or closed. I could just . . . fake it.

Like a thief approaching a sleeping dragon, I mounted the side steps to her door. With my heart pounding, I glanced over the fence to see my mother, a tight pang of guilt gripping my stomach. She nodded at me. I raised my hand and pretended to knock.

I stood and waited for what I thought was an appropriate amount of time for a hypothetical Patience to come to the door. Then I looked up at the sun-faded spot on the closed door where her face would have been and started talking in a quiet voice.

My churning stomach worried that the real Patience might somehow hear my voice, open the door, and destroy me. So, I quickly explained my sin, asked forgiveness, and then nodded my head at what would have been an impossibly merciful reply—one that left me alive—and descended the steps with the wilting flowers nodding on their woody twig.

I ran for home as though something were after me.

When I arrived, my mother was waiting, a warm, welcoming smile on her face. “Aren’t you glad you did the right thing?” she asked. I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded, feeling queasy.

With the gloom of a young, newly-damned soul, I kept company with my wilting blossoms alone in my bedroom. They were in a stubby Tupperware cup with a curled lip, denied the glory of the frosted glass vase. I laid down miserably on my bed. The Celestial Kingdom was gone now. My soul was lost.

Sick with sorrow, I rolled onto my side and looked out the window at the afternoon sun, into the blue sky beyond. I wondered how many more blossoms I could steal before I used up the grace of the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdoms, flinging myself into Outer Darkness to gnash my teeth forever.

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