SONGS FOR A MOCKINGBIRD
by Bonnie Compton Hanson
B-r-r-r-K! B-r-r-r-K! B-r-r-r-K!
Dear God, what was that?
Heart pounding, Melinda Currie looked up from her needlework. Not another shot from a guard's AK-47, please!
The radiant colors of the blouse she was embroidering and of the other garments piled high on her workstation contrasted starkly with her own drab gray scarf, apron, and shapeless robe, now dark with stains and perspiration. Blonde curls, soaked with sweat, hung limply over her forehead.
She pulled back the edge of her scarf to hear better above the whir and clatter of the dozen electric sewing machines all around her, operated at breakneck speed by a crew of similarly-dressed women. Not to mention the loud buzz of flies and bugs attracted by the pungent smell of this converted poultry shed on a sweltering summer day. Had she just imagined that harsh sound, or—
No, there it came again. But no one else seemed to notice it.
Peeking furtively through a knothole in the bare plank wall, she was almost blinded by brilliant June sunshine. Choking heat and dust rose in shimmers from the barren earth outside this building. Far away she could glimpse white clouds, blue sky, and rolling fields of knee-high corn on neighboring farms--picture-perfect Iowa farmland in all its down-home glory.
But mostly her view was blocked by her own farm's hodgepodge of unpainted wood and concrete buildings, crammed in graceless squalor around this sewing workroom. The commune headquarters of the End Times Disciples' Fortress of Faith.
What new danger had arisen out there? Were the Prophet and his guards target-practicing at the fenceposts again, or at birds hapless enough to land on the drooping clothesline?
Or did that grating sound mean that another accident had just occurred in the barn where her dear husband and son—
No! She held her breath and prayed. Then breathed again.
Of course! Her cornflower-blue eyes glistened with sudden recognition and relief. Leaning toward the diminutive thirteen-year-old sewing franticly beside her, she whispered, "Psst, Sister Deborah. Hear that?"
Her co-worker looked up. "Hear what, Sister Abigail?" she whispered back, using Melinda's commune name. Then listening, "Oh, that awful noise? What is it?"
Melinda resumed her needlework. "A mockingbird, dear."
"A mockingbird? But, Sister Abigail, mockingbirds are supposed to be happy. That one's not even singing. It-it sounds like its little heart's broken. What's wrong?"
Melinda sighed. Sister Abigail. Would no one ever call her by her right name again? And when could she ever call her young co-worker Shannon Obermeyer by hers? "Some cat probably robbed her nest, dear, so right now she has lost all hope. That's why she's lost her song. But one day she will sing again." Then, even though it seemed impossible, she added, "And someday our hearts will too."
The young girl's dark eyes filled with tears. "Oh, I hope so, Sister Abigail. Oh, I do hope so."
But someone had heard them: their silver-haired, hawk-nosed, ever-ready-to-discipline supervisor, Sister Dorcas. In honor of her position, she wore the only white scarf and gown in this roomful of threadbare gray garments. Rushing over with her vengeful Rod of Righteousness, the wiry older woman beat them both on the head.
"Lazy wretches!" she shouted. "You know no one is allowed to talk during Hand Ministry hours. For punishment, no noon rations today for either of you. Stay at your machines and pray that God's Prophet will forgive you!"
Sister Dorcas pointed to the already-filled boxes of exquisitely-sewn garments, carefully folded, packed, and ready for shipment to eager retail stores. "You know we must complete this shipment by the end of this week or the Prophet’s guards will beat us within an inch of our lives! And it would all be your fault, you--you--Jezebels!"
Cringing, Melinda and Shannon replied woodenly, as all Unanointed Disciples must at every infraction, real or imagined: "As the Prophet wills, Sister Dorcas."
Just then, a definite gunshot. Oh, no, did a guard get that mockingbird? Then heavy footsteps pounded the rickety wooden steps leading up to the sewing room. In strode Gabriel, the Prophet's Messenger, lips curled, holding his still-smoking revolver.
Even on this blistering summer day, he wore the high black boots and full camouflage uniform of the Prophet's Right Hands of Power guards. A very-visible semiautomatic rifle hung over one shoulder, while holsters at his waist held a .38 handgun and a cell phone. Sweat glistened on his closely-shaven cheeks and head. A sparkling silver chain with its Sign of the Anointed pendant circled his thick, well-muscled neck. His eyes were insolent; his teeth stained from constant wads of chewing tobacco.
Ramrod-stiff, Sister Dorcas ordered, "All rise!"
The roomful of women leapt from their sewing machines, worktables, and quilting frames, their thin, weary faces as colorless as their long, shapeless garments. "What message does our Prophet send, O Gabriel?" they chanted.
But he had words for only one. "Sister Abigail!"
Melinda trembled. Dear God, what have I done?
She forced her bare feet across the worn wooden floor to the Messenger to hear today's pronouncement, today's punishment. Why had she been singled out? Had she been sewing too slowly? Did she not laugh loudly enough at the Prophet's jokes? Had her son, seven-year-old Jeremy, spoken out of turn? Or her four-year-old daughter Amber failed at her chores?
Or did loyal, patient Josh Currie, her husband, heart of her heart and love of her life, he who had been brooding for so long, finally find the courage to say: "I want out"?
Head still bowed, she knelt at the Messenger's feet.
To the others, he barked, "Back to work!" As they plopped down in relief--they weren't the ones to be punished today!--he added sharply to the supervisor, "Sister Dorcas, your deadline has been moved up. Now the Prophet commands that all orders be completed, packaged, on the truck, and ready to leave our compound by Evening Prayer Feast tomorrow night. Promptly--or else!"
He smiled grimly. "I'm sure none of you wants to disappoint the Prophet. So, until the new deadline is met, no sleep or rations for anyone!" To Melinda, "Rise and follow, woman. Make haste. Your Prophet calls." Then he stormed out the open door ahead of her.
If only she could fly like that little bird. Better yet, scream and scratch this guard’s eyes out. But no Unanointed Disciples of the Remnant dared disobey either the Messenger Gabriel or the other guards. Not if they valued life and limb.
But it wasn't always so. Dear God, when did it change?
Why did it change?
As Melinda slipped outside, she gave a quick glance toward the fence where that forlorn bird had perched. Thank God, no pitiful body or bloody feathers; it must have escaped! She thought back ten years, a lifetime ago, when each day held hope, even laughter. When mockingbirds really sang. Josh, of course, could remember also. But her young friend Shannon barely could, and her own children—Jeremy and Amber--not at all.
Oh, to turn back the calendar a decade or more, back to her co-ed days at palm-shaded Verdugo Valley College near Los Angeles. Back when she met and befriended a lonely campus nerd named Harvey Osborn. Scrawny, awkward "Harve"--with his unruly hair, callow complexion, and prone-to-violence father--spent hours playing arcade and video games in a pot-induced haze or alcoholic fog; delighted in guns, real or pretend; ditched classes; banged joylessly on his worn bongo drums; and sought desperately for something or someone to believe in. Or someone to believe in him.
Back when she was bubbly Melinda Jackson, promising art student and "killer" softball player, with lots of talent. And even more anger.
Mostly, toward her parents, whose only "god," both before they split and after, was the "almighty" dollar. A Dad oblivious to anything but his thriving import business, golf scores, young new "trophy wife," and nothing's-too-good-for second family. Though Leland S. Jackson did send this unwanted offspring from his failed first marriage checks every once in a while, and cards at Christmas (signed by his secretary).
Plus a topnotch, chain-smoking real estate agent mother (who must always be called "Claudette," not "Mom"), who never had time or energy left over for her daughter. Except to criticize her for "dabbling around with those yucky paints that are just horrible for your fingernails, instead of learning something sensible. Besides, everyone knows that arty-types are losers. So why do you want to hang around losers?"
Melinda was always tempted to retort: "So why do you hang around with your loser of a boyfriend, Matt Scherinski?" But she never did.
Even as a child, Melinda knew the heartache of having neither parent ever show up for her school events. Not even for her birthday parties. They sent expensive gifts, professional clowns, and nannies—when what she really longed for was their hugs and kisses. She'd tried so hard to be a "good girl," to win their approval by excelling at tap, ballet, gymnastics, guitar--whatever Claudette signed her up for. But nothing worked. If it hadn't been for Melinda's sweet Grandma Jemima Jackson, a hard-working widow who loved the Lord and called Melinda her “sweetie-pie,” she would never have known real love and affection during those years.
Indeed, Melinda sometimes felt neither parent would even notice if she just dropped off the planet. Unless, of course, her paintings brought her instant, international fame. Or she nabbed a rich husband. Either of which she considered about as likely as her classmate, “Mr. Loser”--Harve, that is--turning into “Mr. Popularity Plus.” Why would she want to marry anyone, anyway, after seeing what happened to her parents?
And then one day she met still another student--Joshua Wayne Currie, tall, quiet, with dark, intense, longing eyes, and problems of his own.
An orphan, who jokingly called himself "Joshua the son of none," he had bounced from foster home to foster home from preschool to college. A certified computer genius, he won an award for designing the video game, Surf's Up! Produced by GottaHaveIt! Industries of Hollywood, it paid his junior year expenses and quickly became a cult favorite. Yet he was so lacking in self-esteem, so hungry for love, he could scarcely believe Melinda’s interest in him. In fact, Josh fell so hard for her, he soon followed his “Little Lin-Lin” around day and night.
He later fell in love with Christ just as hard and completely, the first time he heard Pastor Preston present the Gospel at the off-campus Latte's Going On Here Coffeehouse--immediately promising to go anywhere and do anything God willed.
Back when God's will--not the Prophet's--came first.
Now, as Melinda hurried behind the Messenger along the weed-and trash-choked path through the Plain of Jordan area of the compound, his heavy boots sprayed her with dust and pebbles. On all sides of this open courtyard rose junk piles and buildings in total and ominous disarray. The Plain itself was strewn with paint-peeled gas pumps, broken-down trucks and tractors--plus decrepit, fly-blackened outhouses, and "sanitary" fills, all reeking in the stifling air. As well as several well-used Repentance Punishment Posts.
In between, at least a dozen unmarked, overgrown mounds. The Disappeared Ones: sickly infants and children, women who died in childbirth (doctors were never called), and “rebellious” Disciples Under Blood Atonement. All forbidden to be mentioned ever again.
The only bright spots in the whole dust-covered shambles were the towering metal lampposts everywhere, their searchlights always on. And the huge, full-color portraits that hung from each one. Portraits of Harve and Agnes Osborn: their Prophet and Prophetess.
All around her, hardworking, long-haired, bearded men in tattered straw hats and torn overalls or jeans--the Unanointed, rank-and-file Disciples--labored in fields, gardens, and repair shops under armed supervision; faces grim, muscles straining, feet bare and callused.
Even though Josh was forced to continue his original responsibilities of maintaining the commune's computer and electronic equipment, he also had to pull full duty every day out in the fields. With scarcely a moment's rest in between.
Now, as Melinda neared the faded red barn crudely labeled “God’s Storehouse,” a mother hen and her chicks scurried past. Three hogs wallowed in a mud-and-filth covered pen near the sagging front doors, usually propped open. Across their peeling paint someone had scrawled a crude pitchfork, a pentagram, and the words: “Repent or Die.” She glanced at the doors, expecting to see her husband and son inside with a work crew, hauling old-fashioned rectangular bales of new-mown hay up into the loft.
My darling Josh, please be careful. When I saw you at Morning Prayer Feast, you looked so frail and exhausted. And do keep an eye out for our little Jeremy. Those old ladders up to the loft are dangerous!
But, strangely, the barn doors were closed. Alarmed, she glanced in through a broken window. The haylift was still in position, bales left where they fell. A few barn cats lolled next to a truck piled high with still more bales. But not a single Disciple in sight.
Had the Prophet suddenly called the hay crew away for more teaching? Or punishment?
Turning quickly, Melinda accidently stepped on a loose board--which flew up in her face, knocking her down.
"Idiot!" the Messenger cried. "Slut! You did that on purpose!" Grabbing her arm, he pulled her up--then slapped her hard across the face. Right where the board had hit.
"And if you think that hurts, female," he snorted, "just wait till the Prophet gets a hold of you. He'll have you begging for mercy. That is, if you survive. Now, move!"
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