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Sharon Galveston was a normal little girl who liked to hang around in graveyards. For the most part, no one noticed. Sharon liked it that way. She liked to imagine that she was a ghost, the only one in the graveyard at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, thin and ephemeral and transparent. She floated unseen among the leaning granite headstones and cold marble angels, observing, listening, watching the clouds. No one knew she was there, and no one cared.

But the summer Sharon was eleven, this changed.

Saints and Angels
1982

Pastor James Johnson usually ignored the graveyard. Too many people he knew were buried there. He sat in a rocker on the back porch of the rectory, sipping his tea and not looking at the graveyard. The bright blue sky boasted wispy white clouds, and his tea was hot and not too sweet. The day was a bit cool for the middle of June, but he had finished his sermon two days early, so all was well with the world.

There she was. Pastor James sipped his tea and watched the little girl out of the corner of his eye, careful not to turn his head toward her. She had been coming since school let out for the summer, ducking inside the cemetery when she thought he wasn’t looking. Then she wandered happily alone along the rows of burial plots, the carefully tended and the old and neglected. He wondered if she’d been coming longer than this, and he hadn’t noticed.

The girl didn’t seem to be visiting loved ones. There was no pattern in her wanderings, no place she stopped and stared more often than anywhere else. Pastor James watched the dark head bobbing gently above the low gray stones and pondered.

Somehow he sensed that if he called out to the child, or even seemed to catch sight of her, she would run away and never return. He narrowed his eyes, thinking about the plan he’d formulated over the past week. Then he shrugged. It was worth a try.

Pastor James stood, his bones creaking with premature arthritis, and picked up the picnic basket his wife had packed that morning. Carefully he made his way into the graveyard and up the grassy hill, humming “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” On the top of the hill he spread out his checkered cloth, smiling at the old-fashioned simplicity of it, and laid out his sandwiches, cookies, and flagon of iced tea, not quite as good as the tea he’d been sipping on the porch.

He said a simple prayer and began to eat, munching contemplatively, watching the clouds for remembered faces. It was a bad day for cloud-watching—they were too thin and stretched. He sighed.

“Oh, dear,” the pastor said when he finished his sandwiches. “I seem to have brought far too many cookies. Maybe I can find a squirrel who might take a few.”

He looked around gloomily. “Nope. Not many squirrels in a graveyard.” He waited for childish giggles, and heard nothing. “Maybe there’s a little girl who would rather not go home for lunch somewhere about. She could help me.”

Again the pastor waited, wondering if he would have to try the experiment again another day. Perhaps he’d scared her off, despite his care.

But after a few long moments, the little girl stood from behind the red sandstone marker halfway down the hill and began climbing toward him. He did not blink when he saw her face, the huge port-wine birthmark covering the right side from chin to forehead. Her eyes were dark and serious, and she carried a pink, dog-eared spiral bound notebook under her arm.

Pastor James smiled and offered the plate of cookies. She sat beside him, gravely tucked her feet under her knees, and accepted. The notebook she set gently on the grass on her right side, away from him, and laid a blue Bic pen, chewed up and down its length, on top.

“My name is Sharon,” she said. “No, my parents don’t know I’m here. They think I’m at a friend’s house. I don’t have any friends, but it would make them sad to know that. So I come here instead.”

Pastor James nodded. “Thanks for telling me. My name is James Johnson. I pastor that church there, Saint Paul’s Lutheran.”

Sharon chewed a chocolate chip cookie. “My parents don’t believe in church. There are lots of saints in this town, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and Saint Anna, and they don’t do anything.”

“I see.” Pastor James squinted at the sky.

The girl swallowed her mouthful and reached for another cookie. “Do you believe in saints?”

“I believe that God’s people are saints. The Bible tells us that, in Revelation.”

“I wouldn’t mind being a saint. Or an angel, maybe. Except I wouldn’t want to be a stone angel.”

He chuckled gently. “I wouldn’t like that either.”

She suddenly picked up her notebook and flipped to a certain page, then thrust it into his hands. “Read that.”

saints and angels stand cold
under a dark storm
while the trees fall
and the wind whips the grass
the saints and angels don’t move
but I do

“That’s an interesting poem,” he said.

“It’s not a poem. I just like to write things down, sometimes.” She took back the notebook and hugged it against her chest

“But it is a poem, Sharon. And it’s very good. I would love to read some of your other poetry, sometime.”

She shook her head. “I like you. You’ve been watching me for a while and you haven’t told anyone. But this is my notebook.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she jumped up and ran down the hill. At the cemetery’s gate she turned back and called, “See you later!”

* * *

“The kids at school make fun of me,” she told him another time, again sitting on the hillside. It had taken two weeks of cookies and iced tea for Sharon and Pastor James to reach this point, but even so he had been astonished by how swiftly her confidence had developed. The little girl must have been starved for companionship, to so eagerly accept that of a middle-aged pastor.

“It’s because of the birthmark,” she explained. “They say I’m ugly and call me names. No one wants to sit next to me at lunch.”

“That must hurt your feelings.”

Sharon sighed, a wisp of air fainter than the worn engraving on the centuries-old tombstones below them. “I guess. I’m kind of used to it, now. But in the summer Mom is always telling me to go outside and play and let her watch her soaps, so I go outside. It’s nicer outside, but I don’t like people to see me. So I like graveyards. The one at the Church of God down the street isn’t very big, but this one is nice. Your church must have been around for a long time.”

Pastor James nodded. He twisted his fingers in the long grass, wondering absently how long it had been since he’d mowed in here. “Long enough. Would you like me to tell you another Bible story, or do you have a poem you want to show me today?”

“It isn’t a poem.” But she showed it to him, anyway.

no one hears her
the house is too big
the darkness swallows her voice
she feels very small
but she keeps talking
she doesn’t want to forget how to talk
she might forget, in this big house
with the hungry darkness

He told her the story about Jesus healing the dead little girl. Sharon smiled brilliantly when he repeated those wonderful words, “Maiden, get up.” She sighed happily when he finished.

“It’s like Sleeping Beauty.”

“Yes, except that this story is true. Do you believe the Bible, Sharon?”

“I’d like to believe. I think. Do you believe my writings?”

Pastor James hesitated, trying to watch her without seeming to stare. “Yes, I do.”

Sharon watched the clouds. They were fluffy today, better for shapes, though the day was edging toward sultry.

“Do you like making these little writings that aren’t poems?”

She shrugged.

“They’re very good. You should show them to your English teacher this fall. You’ll have Mrs. Gibbons, won’t you? She’ll be absolutely delighted.”

“I doubt it.”

Pastor James looked at the clouds and saw three vaguely tear-shaped ones clustered around an elongated oval. Sharon really believed that, he understood. She thought it impossible that anyone could find her delightful.

I’ll prove her wrong before the summer’s over, he promised himself, and began planning ways to accomplish this miracle.

***

Before he could find a way to do it, the house on Indiana Street burned down.

It was the fifth fire of the summer. Pastor James woke late on a July night, hearing the sirens before he opened his eyes. In the window he saw the red reflections. Two blocks north of the church, something was burning. Probably a house, his bleary mind suggested as he struggled up and looked for his clothes.

“Wha’s goin’ on?” Carolyn asked, feeling the bed shift as he stood.

“Fire. I’m going to see if I can do anything.”

Carolyn grunted affirmatively. She was used to this. In fifteen minutes, he knew, she would be up as well, packing cookies and koolaid to bring to the firefighters and victims. They were a cure for all ills, those cookies.

He arrived at the fire in time to watch the roof catch, bursting into flame like a zealously toasted marshmallow. But that was a frivolous comparison, and he chided himself for it even as he hurried over to the little family who sat huddled on the sidewalk, watching everything they owned transform into smoke.

The woman appeared relatively unscathed, wiping her tears and staring balefully at the firefighters, as if she suspected them of not trying as hard as they could. The man sat dazedly on the concrete, hugging the little girl in his lap, who likewise had her arms around his neck, wrapped so tightly that she touched her own shoulders. Both were covered in soot, and the skin under the tear-tracks on their faces was red and baked.

Between the flickering flames and the sooty faces, it took Pastor James a few moments to recognize Sharon’s port-wine birthmark, barely visible in the grime. Her hair was singed and shortened, and when he hurriedly approached and knelt beside them, he could smell her narrow escape, the heat and terror of it.

“Pastor James,” Sharon croaked out, smiling at him from under her father’s chin. “Daddy came through the fire and saved me.”

“Oh, Sharon.” He touched her shoulder. “I’m so very glad he did.”

They watched the house burn. After a while the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department put away their hoses and just watched to make sure nothing else caught. Carolyn Johnson arrived and offered cookies and koolaid all around, even to the gawkers.

“I don’t want any,” Sharon’s mother said.

“Are you sure?” Carolyn asked. “They’re coconut oatmeal, my very favorite kind.”

“I don’t want a cookie.”

Sharon’s father accepted, loosening his grip on his daughter. He looked at the pastor. “How do you know my Sharon? We don’t go to church.”

Pastor James sighed and explained, smiling as he watched Sharon gobble her cookies. She did not seem upset that he was sharing her secret now.

“I like Pastor James,” she said. “He listens.”

Her father looked disturbed. “Doesn’t anyone else listen to you?”

“No.”

The pastor looked the other man in the eye. “Sharon’s a very special girl, Mr. . . I don’t know your name, I’m sorry. But I would love to learn it, and to get to know you. I’d love for your family to visit this Sunday and have lunch with me after the morning service. In fact, come for the service, and learn some of what I’ve been telling Sharon over the summer.”

“No,” the mother said, looking away from the fire to give him the same glare she’d given the firefighters. “We don’t believe in church.”

”I do,” Sharon said stoutly. “I don’t know about all the saints and angels, but I like the stories Pastor James tells. It’s Galveston, Pastor. My parents are Jim and Renee Galveston.”

Jim Galveston’s shoulders slumped. He bit his cookie.

“Do you have anywhere to go?” asked Carolyn. “Any family in Vienna, any close neighbors?”

Mrs. Galveston flattened her lips. “My parents will take us in until the insurance company settles us. We don’t need your charity.”

“Of course not,” Carolyn said. “But if you need friendship, we’re happy to give it.”

The other woman opened her mouth, then closed it and looked back at the fire.

“Pastor James reads my notebook, Daddy,” Sharon said, looking up into her father’s face. “He doesn’t think it’s stupid like the kids at school did.”

The pastor nodded. “They’re beautiful little poems. Sharon has a lot of talent. And why do you keep insisting that they aren’t poems, Sharon?”

She gave him a look which suggested that he had been living under a rock for the past century. “They don’t rhyme.”

Mr. Galveston chuckled gently and tightened his arm around his daughter. “You never showed me your notebook. Poems don’t have to rhyme, sweetie. It’s a new thing.”

Sharon leaned her head back on his shoulder, her eyes thoughtful.

One last time, Carolyn took her plate of cookies over to Sharon’s mother. “Are you sure you don’t want one?”

Renee Galveston hesitated, looking from the plate to Carolyn’s face, to the fire and back again. At last, she reached out and took a cookie. “Maybe I’ll try one.”

“They’re good,” Sharon said. “You’ll like them.”

Mrs. Galveston took a deep breath, then nodded. “Maybe I will.”

***

once there was a little angel
who didn’t have a name
she was lonely and sad
no one talked to her
then one day she meant a kind saint
he gave her a name
and he always listened
and the little angel wasn’t lonely anymore

(The End)




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