Be Glad and Be Good by Virginia Hughes

Do not eat of the tree. The warning is clear. Yet we run in our Sunday shoes and dress clothes. My two older brothers, ten and eight, and tag-a-long me at age six. Out we gallop to the ten foot cement wall between the mission home and the neighbor’s tree. My brothers shed ties and dress shirts while I am stuck in a dress. Shoes and socks are quickly removed. Carrying the stepladder together, climbing the last few feet of cement and scrambling to the top of the wall, we are met by glass shards stuck in the cement pointing menacingly upwards to keep thieves off the mission grounds where we live. We cut our feet immediately on the glass, but not enough to stop ourselves. The succulent guavas we have been told not to eat enticingly draw us. The rule to not eat of the tree is ours; given for our protection.

We reach and grab a few guavas. They are unripe and inedible. We wince, chew and want more, but can’t reach; so we jump onto the branches closest to the wall, swinging wildly and clambering deeply into the tree. Eating more unripe guavas, after a few minutes we feel queasy and very itchy. Jumping back over the wall our bare feet suffer more cuts. My calf is bleeding, but I want to be included on future brotherly expeditions so I do not cry when I want to cry. Washing the blood flowing from our feet with water from the yard pump, we jump and shake off the green caterpillars crawling all over us. My brothers button their shirts, attach their clip ties into place and run their hands through their hair. I notice a rip in my dress as I disentangle caterpillars caught in my own mass of hair along with twigs and leaves. We hastily pull on socks and shoes knowing we have played around too long; the yard near the house is quiet. We try to outrun our misdeeds and get to church.

Instructions to go help Dad set things in place for morning worship had been given to us earlier. He won’t be pleased to see us now. We trot along holding our aching bellies. Mother is walking back and forth in front of the church scanning the horizon searching for us. As we approach, she sizes us up: alive but askew. We know we are had, guilty and caught. What have we done? We were told to come straight to church. Where were we hiding? We caused great worry. They were about to send out a search party to find us. We cannot mask the guilty stains of bark on our hands, and bloody scratches on my calf trickle down into the white lace of my sock. Scratching uneasily at our itchy skin, red bumps form where caterpillars trail over our faces, arms and necks. Nausea has given us pinched faces as green as the guavas’ skins. We are marched straight home by Mom and Mama Benson, a loyal church member with twelve children of her own and functions as resident doctor, restaurateur and grocery store owner. Mama Benson’s doctoring bag is full of everything we dread: injections, bitter pills and stinging Merthiolate.

We confess where we have been and what we have done and are reminded it’s The Lord’s Day we have desecrated. I have disobeyed, torn my dress and broken the additional commandments of coveting, stealing and not honoring my father and mother. The boys are sharply reprimanded on every count; their offenses include blatantly leading me into a life of crime.

Our feet and other cuts are soaked in hot water, scrubbed with disinfectant and examined. The Merthiolate is poured on our raw broken skin and a smelly salve is rubbed into our wandering feet which are wrapped in clean white cotton bandages.  Thermometers register elevated temperatures and our bellies are poked and squeezed. Tetanus shots administered all around have our thin arms screaming with regret. Spankings and loss of privileges come later when Dad gets home. Once the weeping ceases, we are led to pray and ask God to forgive us. Then Dad talks to us about restitution.

Restitution is something we must pay to the neighbor because we have sinned against him. We must go ask his forgiveness and give him something of value. Something precious of our own that he will hopefully accept as payment for the guavas we ate belonging to him. At six, and not a woman of much property, I am stumped. I would like to offer siblings, the twins a few years younger often in my care, who plague me by falling into open sewers and cause a whole lot of trouble, but that is not allowed. I own three things: two kittens I consider my furry sisters Sunset and Midnight and a favorite chicken, Henny Penny. I cannot give up something I love. Not a beloved animal. Surely not any one of them. It is not fair.

There is no getting out of it. The price must be paid for restitution. Henny Penny does not appreciate being carried by her betrayer and deals nervous pecks to my hands and arms as I limp out of our gate following my brothers over to the house next door. The boys have to give their prized bolo knives which will surely end their glorious days of trailblazing like Daniel Boone. I sob for their heavy losses. We stand contrite and ashamed for what we have done, knocking on the neighbor’s metal gate calling out a greeting.

When the gate opens, we ask to speak to the master of the house. The owner comes and looks quizzically as three tear stained, freckle faced children so sorry for sins against him, offer up an angry chicken and two bolo knives. He has a guava tree? He does not know he has a guava tree. His servant nods and points in the direction of the tree back by the wall. Our neighbor does not miss the guavas, and has no need for the chicken or the knives. He shakes his head, “Thank you, thank you. No please, you keep . . . you are good keeds,” He smiles. He doesn’t know we are naughty “keeds.” We are surprised by his grace.

The boys grateful for this undeserving turn of kindness are ready to go, but I am afraid to return home with Henny Penny. Having received a spanking for disobeying, I know from experience that a second spanking may be earned if the first one doesn’t take. I set Henny Penny down at our neighbor’s feet and she lifts her wings to run only to be quickly retrieved by the servant standing nearby. Our neighbor and his servant walk us back home. The neighbor shakes Dad’s hand, and they talk for a short while. Henny Penny is released and runs to freedom. The neighbor nods and smiles reassuringly and returns home with his servant.  

We stand waiting as Dad shakes his head and hopes we have learned our lesson. Squirming as he looks us over, we wonder if we are still in trouble?  We learn that while we are forgiven, we will not be trusted to run quite so freely for many days as we will be doing extra chores. “Get to work,” Dad tells us. “You are little stinkers, you do not deserve it, but we still love you. Be glad and be good.”