Mae had overslept. A small panic hit her heart, picked up rapid pace, flowed through her chest, rose-up to her throat and caused the muscles in her body to spring into an upright position. She was late again, which meant the switch.
As Mae pulled back the curtain from the cart where they slept, the cool dew of the morning was cleansing the dusty nights’ events. Washing away the smell of strong drink on the breath of men who stayed up late carousing, staggering in alleyways, relieving themselves. Looking down the dusty road several other merchants were setting up shop and the roosters had long since crowed the mornings arrival.
It was Mae’s responsibility to open the cart, lay out the rugs and place the small wooden carvings in just the right position to accentuate the best artistry. As she delicately and swiftly laid out the carvings, Mae’s thoughts meandered back to her sister Lea. She feared the thought of one day having to leave her family and take up house with a stranger. This duty was expected of her. Whomever offered the best price to her father meant good fortune to the family. Lea was sold to a family that owned livestock. Her father deemed this good luck. But, Mae thought Lea’s husband looked mean, rugged and old. Lea would be his fifth wife. What Lea must be enduring now terrified Mae and made her stomach turn.
Just then, a hot, swift sting hit the back of her neck as Mae’s mother struck her with the familiar bamboo switch. She cursed firmly into Mae’s ear, just loud enough as to not wake Mae’s father. “Why are you always late? Lazy girl, always daydreaming, never mindful!”
“Yes Mama, sorry Mama.” Mae whispered back. Although, she did not fault her mother for her actions. Her mother’s small frame, weathered mocha skin, and fine lines around her eyes and lips showed the hardship she endured on their long travels going from town to town.
“Jerusalem has never been so busy. Lots of visitors. Put out the turtles, the elephants in front. Remember Good Luck, wealth and fortune, prosperity. Tell them.” Mae’s mother reminded her in their native mandarin tongue. Mae nodded dutifully back. Ingrained in her since childhood Mae knew each sculpture embodied a unique fortune from the gods.
Just then everything stopped; an instantaneous vacuum of utter silence. The small hairs on Mae’s arms pricked up, a quickening in her stomach. A gust of wind so strong and loud, like a tsunami wave of hot air rushed through the corridor of the streets. Carts toppled over. Dust clouds of debris, fine silks, small fruits instantly sucked blocks away up the street.
She was on her feet walking fast, drawn like a leaf caught up in the wind, following others towards the hill. This was at odds with the fear in her mind and fast beating of her heart. Soon, Mae found herself standing among the crowd in front of a two-story dwelling looking up at the windows. Though the wind had died down, a dark shadow had ascended the town. She could see the flicker of flames in the window and a commotion of movement in the house. The crowd around her spoke in loud, hurried deliberations in a mosaic of foreign languages she did not understand.
Then, a man standing in the upper doorway of the dwelling began speaking. It was as if no other voice but the clear, distinct sound of this man’s words could be heard. Glancing around at the crowd she could see that everyone was staring, stunned hanging on his every word. Then the crowd began mumbling in agreement, but now it was as if everyone spoke the same language. She understood everyone. “How is this possible?” thought Mae, trying to calm her beating heart. Her breath just now coming back to her.
“Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The man’s piercing eyes and words like tunnel vision directed right to her. No man had ever looked at her with such conviction. “He’s talking to me. He’s talking right to me.” firmly implant in Mae’s mind.
The river was flowing lazily, its muddy waters carrying sticks and particles of clothing down-stream. Mysteriously her body followed the crowd to this place. She was in a semblance of a line, caught up like a dream. Mae’s thoughts were at odds, she should go back to her cart, help her mother clean up. But, something strong stirred deep within her that she had never felt before, commanding her to stay and follow the people into the river.
He put his hand gently on the small of her neck. She winced from the reminder of the bamboo switch marks; the result of her own inequities. Piercing brown eyes once again stared directly into hers. “I am Peter, be not afraid. Today your sins are washed clean. Know that the Lord your God, Jesus, has died so that you may live forever. May you receive His Holy Spirit.”
She fell back, suddenly submerged in the sweaty warm waters of the river. Under water for a fraction of a second, but in that moment, it was as if time stood still again. The mysterious dream-like state that had beckoned Mae to follow the crowd was broken away like chains released from her body.
Standing beside the river, Mae watched the others with a compassion and clarity in her thoughts she had never known before. She was not afraid anymore. She felt warm inside, comforted and secure. Reassuringly, her own small voice spoke in her head, although it was not a thought that had ever come to her before. “These are your people, you are home.”