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By J. Pugh
Winter was just beginning to loosen its hold over the hills, and Lazario dutifully went out to chop more firewood. The villagers would be in short supply now, and he wasted no time in getting out to provide more. Although temperatures were just a little above the melting point, Lazario wore only light clothing. Aside from being a stocky man and able to tolerate the cold, he found that the discomforts of winter gave him some satisfaction. Cold, frugal living, and dwelling as a virtual hermit miles away from the village were some of the penances he had chosen for himself. A sinner such as himself could scarcely hope for forgiveness aside from strict penance. As Winter thawed into Spring Lazario’s activities became more diverse. He went into the forest where he was able to find woodland herbs, flowers and roots needed in the village. Firewood was still needed, and he was able to hunt for food and skins to sell. One morning he had just started off into the forest when someone behind him cleared his throat. Lazario turned with a start, and saw a young boy leaning against a tree. His skin was pale, but his hair was thick and dark. Lazario began to say hello, but stopped short as he met the boy’s direct gaze. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, like windows into the depths, yet on the surface they sparkled like the lake when the sun shone on its rippling waves. The incongruity of such eyes on the face of a child abashed Lazario and he stared for a moment before recollecting himself. “Hello, young man. A bit far from home, aren’t you?” “I’m home wherever I am welcome.” Ignoring for the moment what might have been a request to be welcomed, Lazario asked the boy, “Do you have a name?” “Call me... Manni.” he replied slowly, as if he were picking from among several alternatives. An alias. Lazario started to ask the boy if he was in trouble, but realized that he would not get a straight answer if this child were. So he decided to fish for information more slowly. Lazario stared again for a moment. The boy’s age was difficult to guess. From his features he might have been no more than nine, but his height could have been that of a twelve year old. And his eyes didn’t seem to match either guess. Even so, boys in that general age range tended to make Lazario uncomfortable. He had experienced more pain in those years...
“And what is your name?” the boy asked. “I’m Mister...” he thought for a second, then said simply “Lazario.” “Ok, Mr. Lazario. Pleased to meet you.” Manni said with a smile and shook the man’s hand. “I’m looking for work around here, could I please help you today?” Lazario shook his head, “I’m afraid I’d have nothing to pay you.” Not to mention that you should be home and I could be sheltering you from the authorities. Lazario found that despite his thoughts he was smiling. “I don’t need money, although lunch would be super when it’s time. Let’s go.” With that the boy started off as if his confused acquaintance had already said yes. Lazario followed, deciding that at least he should keep this strange kid out of trouble. He did, in fact, work the whole day with Lazario. Not surprisingly, however, Manni also turned out to be almost mischievous, often engaging in jokes and antics that, like spices on a well-seasoned dish, added a lively touch to the work without hindering its purpose. He took to showing up at irregular intervals over the next few weeks, often helping Lazario prepare skins and cords of firewood to sell to the villagers, or make small gifts to give Mrs. Anna, a middle aged woman who had been widowed after only six years of marriage. Lazario felt no romantic pretensions toward Anna, but he did feel a certain solicitude toward her and her two daughters. In addition to working, Manni graciously accepted Lazario’s invitations to come inside and eat meals with him, under the condition that Manni be allowed to say grace. Etiquette and custom notwithstanding, Lazario was more than willing to allow the boy to say the prayer; he felt himself too much a hypocrite to pray in front of others. During the first meal Lazario asked Manni about his home and family, but Manni’s answers were so politely evasive, without a hint of fear or guile, that Lazario soon gave up. He had never found it easy to force information even from books, and he felt it too rude to press the boy. Lazario was vaguely inclined to feel guilty about this situation; any decent man would have either reported the vagrant to the local magistrate or offered to house the boy himself. He, on the other hand, had long since ceased to consider himself a decent man, and the eventuality that the boy might ask to sleep over filled him with dread.
One night Lazario passed into a dream; one that he had had several times. He was fifteen years old and knocking at the front door of a man who had befriended him as a child. He was aware of just having had a heartbreaking experience, but he could never remember what the event was. The man came to the door, seemingly irritated to see Lazario, and quipped “Go home. You’re too
old to play children’s games anymore!” At the sound of the door slamming he awoke. It was still dark. After a moment he rolled over and fell into a dreamless slumber. The next day, the memory of his dream came back to him. His memory of his one-time friend, Henri was his name, was always bittersweet. He had genuinely liked Lazario as a child; Lazario’s youth was to him something of value. They had become very close for a few years. But when Lazario had gotten older, Henri took to avoiding him. Their encounter at the front door was the last time they had spoken to each other at all. This had hurt Lazario deeply. There were times in his lonely childhood when he believed that Henri was his only friend. Henri had told him at times that he would always be there for him. Just like you told Pablito when he was a kid. Lazario thought to himself. Before you.... You’re no better than Henri, you filthy...
In addition to saying grace, Manni began to say one Our Father before each time they ate. Lazario tried to pray it with him, but he faltered when it came to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Manni seemed not to notice, but this haunted Lazario and he found himself replaying his past in his thoughts when he wasn’t otherwise occupied. He could not figure out whether he had more to forgive or to be forgiven of. A day came when Manni asked Lazario about how he got along with his father. Lazario found the question irritating, but he answered politely, “My Papa was, well, a very busy man. He did not have much time for us children. When he did, well, my older brothers were more to his...they gave him more to be proud of.” Manni was silent for a moment. “He didn’t tell you he loved you much, did he?” When Lazario did not answer, the boy continued. “Once, just once, my Papa turned his back on me when I needed him most.” Manni was staring into space, but there was a fixity to his gaze that suggested he was reliving that painful moment. “But we got back together and everything’s ok now. It’s only when people don’t make up that a hurt becomes a scar that lasts.” Despite Manni’s last statement Lazario came up and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. They remained so silently for another moment, then Manni looked up. “How come you’re not married, Lazario? You’d make an awesome papa.” Lazario stammered for a second, looking rather like a cornered animal, then said quickly, “There’s more to being a good papa than being kind and hospitable. Here, let’s get supper started.” Lazario did not work on Sundays. Although he did not feel fit to enter a church, he kept some religious strictures. No point in adding to my guilt. He usually spent the day walking or drawing
in a notebook. Upon returning from a walk one Sunday early in the Summer Lazario found Manni swimming in the lake. “You gotta come in this time!” Manni had tried to encourage Lazario to swim with him a week earlier, but Lazario had turned him down. Skinny dipping was common for the boys Lazario grew up with, as with those now in the village, but since he had always been overweight, Lazario never joined in. Between that and the fact that modesty was very strictly observed in his home growing up, he had never learned to become comfortable with his body. Lazario chuckled nervously for a moment. He was becoming more comfortable with Manni as time went on. Actually feeling that a brief swim might be OK after all, he started to unbutton his shirt, then stopped. Manni was looking at him with an impish “any day now” look. His courage melted away. “I’m afraid I’m too old and ugly for skinny dipping!” He said, trying to turn a wry smile. “Who told you that you were ugly?!” Manni snapped, striding up out of the water. Lazario retreated a step; the boy actually seemed angry. Standing before Lazario with his fists on his hips, he asked, “Do you think being old makes you ugly?” Then he seemed to relax. Smiling as if at a secret joke, he quipped, “You’re not even fifty, but don’t say old is ugly to my Papa, he’s real old! Anyway, kids are good looking because they’re young, is that what you think?” Lazario shrugged, then nodded. “Well, you’re sortof right. Kids don’t have to do anything to be beautiful, they were made that way. But take the child’s mama, for example. She grows old over the years she spends giving and serving and caring for her children. This makes her a lot more beautiful than her children, even as her own mother’s beauty is even more because she gives both to her children and grandchildren. See what I mean?” Lazario again nodded, unsure if he were humoring this youth or was truly impressed. “Beauty is skin deep only for children. As they grow up, if they, how does it go, “grow in wisdom and grace,” the beauty works its way inward. Many mature, loving people are more beautiful than the angels.” “And I suppose you’ve seen angels, huh Manni?” Lazario asked, shaking his head. “I’ve seen all of them” the boy replied, giving Lazario a wink and a smile. Lazario had become accustomed to Manni making absurd statements like this, and he was content simply to humor them. “Your words are kind, Manni, but they leave me uglier than before. I’ve not spent my life caring for others, and I’m quite a sinner. I think I am uglier on the inside than on the outside.” “You are truly a humble man, Lazario. Being humble is one of the most beautiful qualities a person can have. And you are a kindly man. You’ve been very kind to me since I trespassed on
your property, and you are also very kind to the widow that lives in the village. If you let God forgive you, then He can look at you like his own son, and He will love the sight of you.” Manni paused for a moment and let the words sink into Lazario’s heart. Then, with a wink, he said, “Come to the water. We can take turns dunking each other!” Without waiting for a reply, Manni ran back into the lake. This is crazy! Lazario thought, but in a few moments his clothes were in a heap next to Manni’s and he soon found himself cavorting in the water with Manni as if they were a pair of six year olds. That night, Lazario lay in bed trying to figure out why something as mundane as swimming with Manni struck him as being so remarkable. After a while, the though came to him: He trusts me! Followed simultaneously by the two thoughts Idiot! And Wow! It rather bothered Lazario that Manni clearly saw something in him that just couldn’t be there, but for some reason the thought pleased him as well.
“May I tell you what I’ve been thinking about your Papa?” Manni asked once while he was skinning a hare. “I think he loved you, just not very well, or in the way you wanted. We all think that love is like one thing, when it can be many things.” “I don’t know what you mean.” “Some people think that you show love with hugs, some people think that you show it by spending money on the person, or time. Sometimes the person who loves shows it in a different way than the person who is loved, and they never know that they’re being loved. It’s like a friend I had once whose Papa was never home.” Manni began. “I mean it. Not once after the kid turned six. He sent money, wrote letters to his wife and kids, sent Christmas presents, all that. But he was never home. For a long time he hated his Papa until one day when he was eleven his mother told him that his Papa had just died. He had had leprosy. He stayed away because he loved his family, but his wife didn’t have the heart to tell her children. Sometimes it’s like that. Love isn’t always what it seems to be.” Lazario lay awake that night thinking. Had his father loved him? He had always felt rejected by his Papa. Certainly he had favored Lazario’s older brothers in many ways. Lazario had always...assumed that if his Papa loved his brothers more, then he didn’t love him at all. On the other hand, his father certainly had not been cruel to him, and he worked hard to provide for them all. Was it possible to love a wife and six children without any one of them feeling neglected? Was a father’s neglect unforgivable? Irreparable? Questions that seemed to have no answers sent Lazario off into an uneasy sleep. Walking around the lake one evening, Lazario knew that he had no reason to wait any longer. Manni’s prayers and comments had made him realize just how much Lazario was crippling
himself with bitterness. He knelt down and prayed. Not the rote prayers that he said privately as his penance, this time he let the words come from his heart. Asking God to help him, he stated his choice to forgive everyone who had hurt him. Beginning with his papa, and the rest of his family, he went on to his peers growing up. They had picked on him frequently, but that, too was not unforgivable. Then came Henri. He always had difficulty blaming Henri, much less forgiving him, because Henri had in so many ways been kind. But no amount of kindness can excuse cruelty, and Manni’s words notwithstanding, there were some things that should never be taken for an expression of love. Henri had known better. He didn’t really deserve to be forgiven, Lazario knew. But then forgiveness would not be forgiveness if it depended on merit. Taking a deep breath, Lazario forgave Henri as well. Forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who have trespassed against us. Now Lazario went on to ask forgiveness for himself. For everything. Even for what he had done to Pablito, though he had known better. And he accepted forgiveness. And Lazario wept.
After a time he got up. He didn’t feel fireworks in his heart; he didn’t feel a rush of love or joy. He simply felt that an old weight had finally been lifted off his shoulders. He walked home and, more exhausted than he realized, he fell fast asleep.
After a day of working together, Manni and Lazario sat down in his cabin to eat a dinner made for them by Mrs. Anna. During a visit that lasted longer than usual she had commented positively on a recent change in Lazario’s demeanor, at which Lazario simply blushed and returned a lame compliment. “You know, Manni, since I met you I have changed more in four months than I’ve experienced in the past ten years.” “Not enough, I think.” “What do you mean? Do you think I need to change more?” “Well, I don’t think it’s good for you to live all alone out here. Have you ever thought about moving back in to the village where your friends are?” “Well, I don’t really know if they’re actually my friends.” “Are they mean to you?” Manni asked. “Oh, no. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with them, but...I don’t really fit in, you know.”
“I’d bet if you worked at it, you’d fit in as time went on and you’d be happier for it. You know, as long as you don’t give up.’It is not good for the man to be alone,’ eh?” “Maybe you’re right... I’d have to think about it.” “Do you think that while you’re thinking about it, I could stay over for a while?” Lazario thought for a minute. He had intended to turn down this request, though he never came up with a pretext that Manni would believe. Something warring against his caution, however, welled up inside him. Before he knew what he was saying, the words came out, “I guess so. You can stay in the spare room. I have a cot I can set up.” In response the boy jumped up, cheered, and ran outside. Before Lazario could catch up with him he returned with a small bag that he must have left just outside the front door.
Lazario tossed and turned in his bed. He could well understand what Manni had said about different ways of expressing love. Manni had shown him so much love in many ways, although they had not expressed affection physically to the extent of a single embrace. Lazario wondered why that was. The boy certainly wasn’t uncomfortable with touching. When Lazario was younger he could recall feeling that Henri alone had loved him because Henri alone gave him physical affection. He wondered whether Manni would be comfortable if Lazario expressed his affection more tangibly. Certainly a little more closeness would not be too tempting. He rose from his bed and crept toward the boy’s room. The house was silent. The boy’s door opened with a creak, but Manni did not stir. Lazario looked into the boy’s room. On his back he slept with one arm draped across his eyes, shirtless due to the heat of the July night. His breast was covered only by cool moonlight which washed in through the four-paned window above him, laying the shadow of a cross upon his prostrate form. Even as an old ache tore at Lazario’s pounding heart, the innocence and purity of the child before him broke through like the first gleam of sun after a six-month polar winter. He could not articulate it, but somehow he was aware that the boy had already given him what he really needed - nothing more tangible was necessary. After a moment Lazario closed the door and walked softly back to his room.
After staying for only three days Manni had taken his things back, promising to return soon. The following Sunday, after a half-hour of indecision, Lazario had gone into town to follow up on some advise Manni had given him. Returning home he sank into his chair and closed his eyes. He could not get over the fact that he, Lazario, had actually gone to confession - and been given absolution! After that, he had stayed for Mass, even received communion, and walked back through town with his head upright and able to look his neighbors in the eyes. Several of them had smiled at him, obviously noticing his change of demeanor. He felt now in his heart that he was ready to begin plans to move back into town. Maybe Manni would let him adopt him despite his references to his “papa,” he apparently had no one to take care of him. And perhaps Mrs. Anna...he merely shrugged and put that thought aside for another day.
Manni returned that evening for supper, just before a heavy rainstorm hit. . He asked Lazario about his week, and, when he heard about his reconciliation with his church, Manni jumped up and hugged his friend warmly. They stayed up late in the night talking about plans for the future. Lazario invited the boy to move in permanently. Manni smiled and said, “I’d love to do that, but can we not talk about it just yet? But I’d love to stay the night rather than go back in the rain.” Lazario accepted this statement hopefully and decided to wait. Lazario awoke late the next morning and walked to Manni’s room. He knocked softly but there was no answer. After knocking a second time he went in and found the room empty, but on the bed there was a note. “Dear Lazario, Thank you so much for everything. Although I’ve enjoyed spending time with you more than I can say, I had to get back to my Papa. I would have taken you with me but there are people in the village who need you. Please take care of them for me. By the way, I had a talk with young Pablo. He’s ready to forgive you; before long you should visit him and ask for it. Tell him I sent you. It will be OK. I’ll come back for you when the time is right. Love, Immanuel” I never told him about Pablito, he thought. Laying the note back down, Lazario ran outside and looked around. The torrential rains from the previous evening left a muddy swath all around the cabin. As a proficient trapper, Lazario could spot tracks left by the smallest mouse. He was not surprised to see the absence of any tracks that a boy might make.
copyright 2002, Joseph G. Pugh. All rights reserved.
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