A Righteous Fire
There is a deadly fire that burns within the hearts of some who love God. It is a burning that drives them to use it to rationalize any action, regardless of the cost to themselves or the people who love them. It obliterates all other thoughts, obscures vision, and is the prime motivation for all actions. When my parents became missionaries I was barely a year old. My parents had received some basic education about the country we were going to, and an intensive study of the language they would need to understand and speak. It wasn’t long enough, nor were there enough vaccinations to protect them from all the diseases they would come into contact with. I know their parents were very worried about them going, but there was no stopping them. The fire had already begun to burn in my father’s mind and nothing would stop him from his mission.
I don’t remember much about our arrival, or the long trip across inhospitable terrain to the town where they had been assigned. The heat, I remember well, because as time went on our family grew and one of my little sisters developed something called prickly heat, a rash that covered her whole body, and which necessitated our going to a cooler place during the hot summer months. My father stayed in the city, but my mother, sisters and I were sent up into the mountains where the air was cooler. We took what was considered the minimum number of servants along to help us. My parents had initially refused servants, but when the Director of Missions explained that it provided jobs and an improved way of life for the people my parents had come to serve, they reluctantly accepted. By the time my sisters came along, they didn’t even think about it. We had a nanny, a gardener, a cook, and a man who fixed things and could sew anything my mother showed him a photo of in each of our sizes without a pattern. When we went to the mountains, just the nanny and the cook came, and my father stayed in the sweltering town. Another cook was found for him, and he continued his job of teaching English in the boys school. My mother never seemed afraid or lonely, and made any difficulty into an adventure. She never failed to point out how lucky we were in comparison to many of the children we played with in the village. We never went without food or clothing and our mother made sure we understood what a privilege that was.
We loved our time up in the mountains. We had our mother all to ourselves, and she would play games with us, read us stories and lay down with us for nap time in the afternoon. In the night if we had bad dreams, she would throw open her covers and let us snuggle up next to her until we fell asleep. Even when we were sick, we couldn’t do this when we were down in the village. Father was jealous of anything that took our mother’s attention away from him, which is where he felt it rightly belonged, and we spent much more time with the nanny. We loved our nanny, but it wasn’t the same as being with our mother. When we were staying in the mountains our father would visit once every two to three weeks, and we dreaded it. Our father had a ferocious temper that tended to leap out unpredictably. He would strike out at us, at our mother, even at our nanny or the cook sometimes. He felt the nanny “coddled” us, because she would beg him to let her pick up my infant sister when she was crying in her crib, wringing her hands and saying in English, “Please, the little one cries, please” holding her arms in a cradling posture. Our father would not relent, and seemed to get pleasure out of showing everyone he was the boss, even when it hurt us. He was kinder to the boys he taught, although he was still strict with them. He saw all of his actions through the lens of religion. The fire of his passion for carrying out the Word of God could always be justified by a passage of scripture he had memorized. Our mother’s gentle, kind nature could at times calm him down but other times it inflamed his self-righteous anger even more.
The servants were afraid of him, and we were too. Only our mother seemed able to love him, and she would try to find ways to ease the sting of his words, the lash of his temper.
The last summer they were missionaries we planned to go up into the mountains as we usually did and he planned to stay in town. The night before we left my parents had a terrible fight, and he struck my mother physically for the first time. It was obvious, despite the make-up she put on to cover it, and he did not seem to feel any remorse for his actions. This was when I noticed that the servants stopped respecting him. Leaving the village was a relief, and my mother’s spirits seemed to rise with the altitude and the distance we put between us. The handy man came along with us. This was unusual, but not so much so that I was alarmed. We sang as we made our way, and it seemed like the trip was over quickly. That first night in the mountains, the nanny put us to bed and I asked her why with my limited knowledge of her language. “Mama sad,” she said, and pantomimed a woman crying. I wanted to go and see for myself, but the nanny stayed in our room with us that night and I was so tired after our long walk to the mountains that I didn’t wake-up until morning.
We awoke to the sound of my mother singing, and when we went to find her we saw that she was teaching, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to the servants. When she saw us she stopped and excused herself, coming to help get my little sisters dressed. The evidence of my father’s violence was still evident on her face, and it made me very angry. I asked my mother if she was angry with him, and she replied, “Oh no, dearest one, your father is merely trying to help me to be more accepting of God’s will.” “It’s nothing, and the mark will be gone before we see him next. You know you must always treat your father with respect, just as we do with our Heavenly Father.” This did not make much sense to me, and I told my mother it didn’t. “Darling,” she said, “you just have to trust in our Lord as I do, and when we see your father in a few days, you must treat him with respect and be obedient.” “Do you understand?” she asked. I nodded my head, although I had misgivings about all of it.
My father came to visit that very weekend. He seemed edgy and irritable. Nothing any of us did or said made him happy, and he kept picking fights with my mom. He was miserable, and wanted all of us to share in his misery. The strange thing was, we didn’t know what was making him so angry. It was like he was possessed by some evil spirit. He made each of us cry at some point during the evening meal, and we didn’t see my parents after that. The nanny put us to bed, and after we were tucked in I could hear her whispering with the cook but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I knew they were planning something, and I vowed to myself that I would protect my mother no matter what the cost.
In the morning there was more evidence of my father’s temper on my mother’s face. Her eyes were almost swollen shut, and the nanny spent more time trying to care for her than she did for us that day. I saw many knowing looks passing between the servants, and as the day wore on the handy man started a large fire. I was so upset about my mother that I didn’t really pay attention to it, but as afternoon became evening the fire grew larger and larger. My mother did not join us for dinner, which was a quiet meal, my father spending most of his time lecturing to the servants about the fires of hell, and punishment for sins. He spent extra time with the handy man, talking with him as he tended the fire. I couldn’t stop worrying about my mother, wondering what had happened to keep her from us. When it had gotten quite late, I heard the cook talking to my father. It sounded like she was telling him he needed a good nights sleep and the she had made a special drink that would help him find ease in his slumber. My father had another set of ears he could dominate, another soul he could warn about sin, hell and eternal burning. From what I could hear the cook just listened, letting him go on and on but gently encouraging him to drink from time to time. When he had finished it, his words sounded funny, like they were slurred together and he told cook he was going to bed and that he would pray for her soul. Cook thanked him and soon I heard him snoring in his bed. I was too afraid to go and check on my mother, and promised myself I would find a way to do so in the morning, no matter what my father said. I fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed my father was lecturing us about scripture as he was consumed by flames.
When I awoke in the morning, nanny told us that our father had gone and that our mother was still ill and needed rest. Since I didn’t have to worry that my father might be hurting her, I obeyed nanny’s broken messages to let my mother rest and did my best to help her entertain my sisters. The handy man continued to tend the fire, from which a foul odor of burning meat came. Cook said a wild deer had stumbled into the fire overnight, that it must have been deathly ill to have done so and that was the source of the smell. She had not even tried to save any of the meat because the heat of the fire had been so intense. By the time we went to bed that night, the smell had dissipated, and we slept soundly knowing we were safe.
My mother greeted us the next morning, her face still swollen from father’s beating, make-up a poor cover for the dark purple bruises on her cheeks. As the days passed we regained our happy mood, and played all sorts of games with our mother and asked for all of our favorite stories. Two weeks later a member of the mission came to visit, and said that our father had gone missing, that no one had seen him since he had come to visit us. Our mother was very concerned and asked the servants if they had any knowledge of where he could have gone. All three gave the same answer, that he had warned them about the wages of sin and eternal burning, that he had taken his leave to go to bed, and that they hadn’t seen him since. They had assumed he went back down to the village without waking anyone, something he had done many times in the past. We continued to stay in the mountains for a month, with no word and no evidence that anything had happened to my father. The mission board urged my mother to take us back home to America, and wait for the news there. They were no longer sure of our safety, although our servants had been even kinder of late than they had ever been. My mother reluctantly agreed, and packed up our things for the trip back to the village, the first step in our journey back home. The morning we were to leave, I was outside the cabin playing and saw a dog near where the fire had been. I called to him and he trotted over proudly carrying something in his mouth. When he came closer I saw that it was a bone from some animal. I threw it for him and he played fetch until my mother called me to leave for the trip home.