Innocence

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Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

 

A 9-year-old girl sat alone, dark curly hair and nerves, running her fingers through the soft grass of summer. Honeybees carried pollen from flower to flower, busy at their work and paying her no attention, which she enjoyed because she could observe them up close as they gathered for the hive. Ada was blowing dandelion seeds into the wind, watching them dance and twirl and fly away, when a call for morning prayer required her participation. She walked tentatively toward the circle of Christians holding hands to find her place among the safety of the “adults,” summer camp counselors no older than 25. The words were never familiar to her, so she mouthed along as best she could – it was easier to fake it than to be the only one abstaining from the ritual. Jesus, sin, God, these words carried little meaning to her.

After prayer, there came activities. The camp offered “noncompetitive sports,” a blatant oxymoron, and “arts and crafts,” consisting of stark white paper and a hodgepodge of dried out markers and broken crayons. Ada chose the latter, always. She had recently discovered perspective and decided to practice some landscapes with cypress trees in the foreground and distance, mimicking a Van Gogh painting that was stuck in her mind with its swirling lines and colors that blend together when viewed up close, but stand out distinctly after taking a few steps backward. The further away, the clearer the image, until the distance is so great that the image blurs again like a memory.

“That’s cool!” another little girl offered, peering at her drawing from across the picnic table where they were seated together in the pavilion. Ada’s cheeks reddened as she thanked her sheepishly. Seated to their right, a couple of other children leaned over to view her drawing and one asked, “Why are those bushes so small?”

“Actually they’re trees, but I don’t think they grow here. They’re small because they’re farther away than the other ones,” Ada replied.

“Oh,” the child said, still appearing a bit confused, and then asked, “Why don’t you ever say the words when we pray?” The first little girl abruptly resumed coloring cartoonish hearts in bleeding red, avoiding eye contact.

“How… How did you know?” Ada asked, unsure of where this was going.

“Francie said that when she stood next to you before in the circle, you pretended to pray, but didn’t really. Why don’t you?”

“I don’t know the words.”

“Why? Aren’t you Christian?”

“Not really, I mean, I guess I’m half-Christian.”

“How can you be half-Christian? You either are or you aren’t.”

“My Mom is Christian, but my Dad isn’t. He’s Jewish.” An uncomfortable silence settled like a thickness in the air disguised as summer’s humidity.

The child continued, “Were you baptized?”

“No.”

“Well then you and your Dad are going to Hell.” This statement was as blunt as the colored pencil the child still held in hand.

Tears filled Ada's eyes as her throat tightened. She choked out, “You’re a jerk!”

“Well you are. The Bible says so,” the child spewed back callously, at which point a camp counselor approached the group to intervene. The gang of Christian children disbanded as the counselor sat down next to Ada and rubbed her back. As they left, that first little girl, the one with the compliment, stopped to look back over her shoulder, eyebrows pointed towards Heaven in concern, and then walked away.

 “What happened, sweetie?” the counselor asked.

Ada explained while the counselor listened attentively, nodding. Ada sniffled, soothed by vindication in telling her story. And then, something astonishing happened. The counselor cooed softly, “I’m sorry Ada. They shouldn’t have done that. It was a cruel thing to say.” There was a tentative pause before the counselor continued, “but… the Bible does say that.”

Ada stopped crying. She stiffened, hardened as this experience wedged itself into a room of her mind’s house. The room was small as a child’s world and had a glass door, which wouldn’t open again for many years. But while the glass door acted as a physical barrier concealing the details of this memory, its transparency couldn’t obscure the pain that came from it. The memory itself was static, an unchanging event in history, but the pain had a life of its own. There were many rooms of different sizes in her mind’s house, enclosed by doors of different composition – wood, iron, glass. Some doors were locked, while others could open with the turn of a handle if she wanted to see what lay on the other side. Wooden doors could be broken down with some attentive effort, glass doors even more easily, but not iron doors – her darkest memories stalked behind those, pacing back and forth, their desire to escape growing palpable with time.

For now though, all she could do was sit still as the wave of shock passed, watching the bees buzz about in the distant sunlight. They seemed angrier than before, enraged and dangerous, so she hid from them in the shade of the pavilion, hoping to not get stung.


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