Rodger walked along the trail leading to the front door of the mission. Sister Pearl came running toward him, crying out in her broken English.
“Oh, God’s will! A miracle!” Breathless, she sucked in air loudly while striking her chest.
“What miracle, Sister Pearl?” Rodger kept her at arm’s length, his hands pressed against her shoulders.
Her face cracked with all of the joyful emotion her soul could not contain. “God’s will! Mary Elizabeth lives again!”
Rodger hunched down so that he could push his face close to hers and demanded, “You mean she’s all right?”
“Yes, yes, all right!”
Sister Pearl snatched Rodger’s hand and dragged him along, her little feet churning up dust balls along the way. Rodger hurried behind her, fanning at the dirt, until at last she deposited him at the garden’s gate. Snapping off his sunglasses, he peered over the top of the rotting, wooden slats, squinting his eyes hard until he could make out the three images of Father McBride, LinChing and Mary Elizabeth.
The two men sat with their backs toward Rodger, with Mary Elizabeth standing before her father, her hand resting on his knee. The treetops rustled and insects skirred.
Father McBride’s laughter erupted through the silence. The sound of voices, soft like a faraway engine, came to his ears, and for a moment he lingered with his eyes shut. When he pushed against the gate, all three turned to him.
Although he knew LinChing was blind, Rodger couldn’t help smiling and waving at him. Mary Elizabeth jumped away from her father at the sight of Rodger, her smile frozen into a ghostly expression on her beautiful face. Rodger hesitated and stopped in midstride.
Mary Elizabeth bounded forward and in three swift leaps, clasped her arms around Rodger’s neck. “Oh, Rodger!”
Standing upright, with Mary Elizabeth dangling from his neck like an ornate pendant, Rodger was shocked by her lightness. He hugged her closer to him, feeling the thumping of her heart. She drew away from him and stared into his eyes. He kissed her cheek, squeezing her tightly once more.
“Long time, Bright Eyes.”
The clean smell of her newly washed hair, the fragile softness of her body made all of his senses hurt for the joy of holding her. He wanted to stay holding onto her for as long as he could.
But the moment passed, and Mary Elizabeth began chattering about people he didn’t know.
“Wait, not so fast. What is it you want?”
“I want you meet my Aunt Josephine and Uncle Toby. They’re coming tonight. You will, won’t you?”
“I don’t know, Bright Eyes. If there’s enough food.”
“I helped.” She peered through her thick, dark eyelashes.
Father McBride had LinChing on his arm, inching the crippled, elderly man over to them. Rodger could see that LinChing winced in pain with every step. Father McBride’s face had mellowed, the stiffness in his features gone as he patiently helped LinChing along. Even the nuns had a radiance about them. Rodger felt like laughing out loud, wishing there were some way he could throw a party for everyone.
“Major, your added presence at our supper tonight will be most welcomed.”
“Thank you, Father McBride.” He put a hand upon LinChing’s arm. “I brought the papers with me. I’ll go over them with you.”
Father McBride nodded briskly, as did LinChing. “Perfect. Let’s all go into my study for a celebration drink.”
Mary Elizabeth giggled, giving her head a saucy toss. Rodger set her down, sliding his hand over hers as they walked down the corridor to Father McBride’s study.
LinChing spoke. “Mary Elizabeth drew a sketch. Go now, child and get it.”
She bounded off to her room, returning a few moments later with a portrait of a woman in a veiled hat. Rodger leaned forward in his chair and took it carefully into his hands and studied the likeness of a beautiful, dark-haired woman with an engaging smile, who might have been a movie star. “Who’s this, Bright Eyes?”
Mary Elizabeth blushed. She leaned close to whisper in his ear. “I copied it from a picture of my mother.”
“Is it very good, Major Brown?” LinChing’s quiet voice mixed certainty and anxiety.
“Yes,” Rodger handed it back to Mary Elizabeth. “Be sure to pack it so you can take it with you.”
Mary Elizabeth balked, her eyes widening and flashing in fright. “Leave? No, no leave. We stay here with Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobias. Then go their home. Isn’t that right, Father?”
Rodger’s heart contracted painfully. He damned sure hadn’t counted on a custody fight.
“Hush, child. We speak later.” LinChing patted the air impatiently.
Before Rodger could reply, Sister Pearl scurried in the room to announce the arrival of missionaries, Josephine and Tobias Standord, from the outlying village of Binyang. Rodger shifted his weight in his chair so that he could see through the doorway into the entryway.
As soon as the couple entered the room behind Sister Grace, Rodger understood. There, shaking loose her wide‑brimmed, veiled hat was the lady of Mary Elizabeth’s drawing.
Rodger stared at Mary Elizabeth’s aunt, more beautiful than Carole Lombard, mesmerized by her smile, blooming slowly as she turned to face all of them. She paused, then leaned over to speak with Sister Grace before turning to her companion, a portly gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a quick smile. The woman took the coats from her husband and handed them to the flustered nun. Removing a dainty handkerchief from her sleeve with a graceful motion, the woman daubed at her face, pressing her lips last, and with an audible sigh, seemed to step from her own world into the reality of this place of strangers and relatives.
Father McBride rushed forward. “Josephine and Tobias! How wonderful to see you!”
Father McBride’s head bobbled as Tobias pumped his hand. “Do you remember meeting last year at the Bishop’s reception?”
Tobias laughed heartily. “Indeed! Indeed, I do!”
Father McBride extracted his hand from Tobias’s grip and proffered it in a courtly gesture to Josephine. Rodger wistfully thought that he would like to hold her hand, too, as Father McBride introduced her.
“Major, this is Mary Elizabeth’s Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobias.” He turned his back to Rodger and spoke in a low whisper, “Major Brown is responsible for Mary Elizabeth and LinChing going to the United States.”
Josephine smiled, extending her hand to Rodger. “So pleased to meet you.” Leaning into him, she murmured, “I’m sure you meant well, Major. But now that we’re together again, it’s best for us to stay a family.”
“Call me ‘Rodger,’ Ma’am. Pleased to meet you,” he shook her hand lightly. “Perhaps LinChing has something to say about it.”
“Oh, Major!” she said, then whispered. “He’s Chinese and I don’t think he knows really what’s best for Mary Elizabeth!”
Then she lifted her head and pronounced gaily, “My husband, Tobias, Major Brown, ah! Rodger,” and stepped back as Tobias grasped Rodger’s hand in a fierce handshake.
“Rodger, glad to know you, old man,” Tobias boomed.
Mary Elizabeth held tightly to Rodger’s other hand. He winked at her, then looked directly at Tobias. “War has a way of aging the best of us.”
Mary Elizabeth giggled. Sister Grace came to the door, asking them to come in to supper. Mary Elizabeth squeezed Rodger’s hand harder, until he looked down to see her holding the marble in her palm. Then she quickly slid it back into her newly patched pocket.
Rodger was seated between Josephine and Mary Elizabeth, across from Tobias. He wouldn’t think of calling either one “Toby” or “Josey”; they addressed him as “Rod-ger” to the point he had to smile. They may not have been pretentious, but they certainly observed a rigid decorum.
“And you, Rodger,” Josephine leaned closer to him, as she did to anyone she addressed, as if she made herself a sponge to absorb all that was said, “are from what part of the States?”
“Aunt Josephine!” Mary Elizabeth blurted out with a wave of her hand. “Tell Rodger what you told me! You will come once a week!”
When Mary Elizabeth interrupted the conversation, Josephine turned and gave the child her full attention.
“Yes, I did say that, Mary Elizabeth. I will teach you how to read.”
“My aunt will teach me to read out of her book.” Mary Elizabeth spoke to Rodger, all the while she cast glances around the table, ending with a smile at Josephine. “And Uncle Tob…” she faltered at the pronunciation of his name and Rodger noticed Tobias visibly wince every time she referred to him.
“Dear child,” he corrected yet again, “my name is pronounced Toe-buy-us.”
Abashed, Mary Elizabeth looked down at her plate. “Uncle, I am sorry.”
“Oh, there, dear child! Forget it!” he chortled and flapped his napkin theatrically. “You can just call me Uncle.” Tobias shifted so that he spoke directly to Father McBride.
“How is your work coming along here? I understand that you have been working on an irrigation system.”
It amused Rodger to watch Tobias and the priest trying to talk to one another without mentioning religion. LinChing said nothing as he ate with chopsticks, never requiring assistance. For the most part, he was disengaged, yet his composure spread over the assembly like a transparent cloth.
“And you, Rodger, what are you doing in this part of the world?” Josephine riveted her sapphire-blue eyes on him.
Rodger pushed away his plate, laying aside his napkin. It occurred to him how odd it was that cloth napkins should have been brought all the way out here; another example of how, in some way, each of them tried to hang on to a part of their prewar life.
“Pearl Harbor.” At the mention of war, everyone grew somber. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cast a dark shadow on the evening. What are the both of you doing here?”
Pleased, Josephine replied, “We are Mormon missionaries.”
Before she could elaborate, Tobias spread his arms over them as if in blessing and spoke loudly, punctuating his words carefully and distinctly. “We’re here for the same reason you are, Major. In fact, I venture to say that is the reason we’re all here: to make it a better world for all to live in.”
“How long have you been here?” Rodger turned his attention to Josephine.
“Fifteen years. Fifteen long years.” Josephine, shocked by her own admission, clenched her napkin, then sat upright as if to correct herself.
Tobias squared his shoulders and frowned meaningfully at her. But she was determined to continue. “My younger sister, Elizabeth Marie, came with us. She met LinChing in his village while she was there teaching the children reading and writing. She died in childbirth, when Mary Elizabeth was two. Oh, she was a good mother! And a dedicated teacher and missionary! She would have wanted Mary Elizabeth to follow her example.”
Mary Elizabeth squirmed. The clattering of her fork onto the wooden floor arrested the conversation. Her mouth turned downward, as if she might cry. Sister Pearl rushed to pick up the fork, hurrying away with it to the kitchen. Sister Grace leaned over, clucking, patting Mary Elizabeth on the arm.
Rodger and Josephine exchanged a long, keen look between them.
“Well, Bright Eyes, I have time enough to go for a short walk before I leave.”
He turned again to those at the table. “If you’ll excuse us. Most delicious dinner.” He winked at Sister Pearl. “Father McBride, I’ll be back Friday, and we’ll take care of business.”
He stood, offering his arm to Mary Elizabeth. She pushed away her chair and, with the daintiness of a gentlewoman, as her aunt might have done, took his arm. Standing tall and grinning at him, she let him guide her to the garden.
“You must look like your mother, too.” Rodger was appalled by his own morbid curiosity.
“Yes.” She tugged on his arm, stopping them. She spoke intently. “Mother’s voice…like summer wind in grasses. She sang to me. I remember sometimes…how I felt when she held me.”
Rodger felt Mary Elizabeth shudder. “What is it?”
Mary Elizabeth puckered her lips and flicked her hand at the mission. “Aunt Josephine and Uncle Tobeye-us don’t like…” she stopped and wiggled her fingers as if to catch the words, “father and me. I can tell,” she looked steadily at Rodger with a pinched brow. “One breath I will read, and next breath I will teach; I will be this, and I will be that. And she never asked Father, not once, Rodger, no one time, did she ever ask Father!” Flustered, she shrugged and stopped speaking.
“It’s only for a little while, Bright Eyes.” Rodger began to walk again. “I know it’s hard for you and your father, especially now that he is blind. Will you promise me that you will take care of him—-just like you took care of us guys at the base? I won’t worry if you say you will.”
“Yes, I will,” she replied soberly, reminding Rodger of LinChing. “I will do all that I can and all that he wishes me to do.”
“Good girl,” Rodger hugged her arm into his side. “Tell me, do you need anything?”
She dropped her head, shaking it. Rodger stopped and scrutinized her. “All right, do you want anything?”
She clutched his hand in both of hers. “I would like some watercolor paints.” When he nodded, she looked into his eyes. “Tell me about this place in America.”
“I have this friend I’ve known since I was six years old. I bet she’s a lot like your mother was. She’s soft‑spoken and generous. She always knew the right thing to do when I was hurt, angry or lonely. The best part of it is, I can be near you when I come home.”
She gripped him tighter, words rushing out. “Oh, Rodger! I thought you not want to see us any more. I hear awful things about how people are sent away to foreign places.”
Rodger stopped abruptly. “You don’t really think I would do that, do you?”
Her eyes darkened, spilling forth tears. Rodger bent down and hugged her close, stroking her long, black hair until she had stopped sobbing. “Hey, Bright Eyes, this is supposed to be a happy time. How come you’re always crying?” She shook her head. “Hey, think of what Will’s gonna say about me having dinner with you!”
“Promise me, Rodger?”
Rodger nodded, alarmed by the seriousness in her voice. He held onto to her arms, giving her a little squeeze.
“Tell them I pray. Two or three times, I go to the church and kneel on my knees and say my prayers.”
“I’ll tell them Mary Elizabeth. Give me hugs and kisses for the whole lot and I’ll pass them on.”
She threw her arms around him and she covered his cheeks with kisses. “I have special one for you,” she said, reaching into her pocket.
Just then Sister Grace called to her. “Mary Elizabeth! Come now! Say good‑bye to your Aunt and Uncle.”
“Go, Bright Eyes.” He gave her a little push. “I’ll be back in two days and we’ll have time for just the two of us.”
She dashed off through the garden gate. Rodger stood watching her until she was out of sight. He bowed his head, chewing on his bottom lip. “Well, thanks, God.”
He turned to leave. He saw Tobias and Josephine walking side by side toward Binyang. They were a compelling sight, as if they might have been a duke and duchess strolling along the Thames rather than gliding across the brown, dying grass. Tobias’ stoutly figure cut a dignified space around him; Josephine might have stepped out of a fairy tale in her long, flowing, yellow dress, although worn thin and patched. They stopped, suddenly turning to face one another.
Rodger called out to them. “Want a lift?”
Josephine reached up to tip her hat back slightly so that she could look heavenward. Shadows of clouds moved over the ground.
Then Rodger heard it, too.
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