The heart knows its own bitterness.
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Craig was only twelve, but that was two years more living than I had under my belt, so naturally I believed him.
“I know why that old German lady is crazy,” he told my cousin and me, gesturing to the house next to his. His was the skinny in-between farm, flanked on one side by my grandparents and on the other by the lady in question.
I didn’t doubt Craig. He knew just enough more about everything else that we never thought to question his facts.
He paused to check our privacy, glancing discreetly to the right and left. “Yep, I know the reason.” His voice dropped to a hushed, conspiratorial tone, as if he had to hold himself back; as if there was such power in his twelve-year old vocal chords that the wind might carry his gossip across the fields and right into the woman’s kitchen.
We leaned in close to catch the details and block a little of that betraying breeze.
“Her heart is broken,” he said. He sat back and looked at our faces, waiting for the full effect of his words to settle over us before explaining. When satisfied we were sufficiently awed, he continued. “Her son died in the war, and her husband couldn’t take it. One day he went out back to the barn … “
We turned as one to look at the weathered red building at the far end of the woman’s pasture.
” … tied a rope to the rafters … “
Our eyes widened.
” … and hung himself.”
I shivered, and stole another quick glance at the barn that had once contained a dead, swinging-from-the-rafters body. Craig’s story was a doozy, all right, and I supposed that explained things fairly well. I supposed that would be heartache enough to account for the woman standing on her porch on windless nights and singing at the moon in German. But for some reason, even hearing that story, I wasn’t nearly as afraid of the barn and its ghost as I was of the living corpse in the farm house.
*. *. *
I’d heard her night songs myself over the years. Safely tucked in Grandma’s back bedroom, my heart would lurch at the first notes of grief. Even with the fields and walls between us and my grandparents in the other room and a hound dog out back who I was pretty sure could chomp a leg in two with one bite, my blood still froze at the sound of all those foreign words. I’d listen without breathing until she finished her wailing, and I’d pray every time that she wouldn’t get a sudden notion to take her show on the road and make an unappreciated appearance at the back bedroom window.
Late that same summer — the summer of Craig’s enlightenment — I saw the woman for the first time. One warm night, while seven of us girls (sisters, cousins, and a girl from down the road) camped out in a big yellow gazebo on Grandma’s patio, I unzipped the tent to run in the house and visit the bathroom. Just as I shoved my feet into my barn boots and began to cross the twenty feet to the house, I heard the first of her plaintive, ghosty notes hit the air. I stopped in my tracks, turned, and caught a glimpse of the old woman leaning on the railing of her back deck, staring toward the barn. The moon was so startling bright that night that it lit up the fields and the fences and everything in my line of vision; so bright I could see her upturned face and gaping mouth from two farms over. Her dirge drifted over the corn stalks, straight to me.
This time, I knew the story behind the song. Craig’s whispers rose in my memory like a mournful violin and played between her words, buoying her notes, holding her melody, dropping away at all the right parts so her soul could be heard unhindered.
I could almost speak German that night.
Of course, I never understood exactly what she sang. I only heard the heart behind the notes. And as the years have gone by and I’ve found my own railings to lean against and my own grief songs to sing, I’ve come to realize how alone we really are, in the end. You can hold my hand or hold me in your arms; you can pull me close enough to feel my heartbeat, but you’ll never really know the deep-down language of my pain, nor I yours.
When we’ve had a loss so big that no one else can touch it, that’s when we most need God. He speaks German, and Anguish, and Regret, and all the other languages of the heart.
I hope she learned that. I hope on one of those lonely nights, with her heart wrung out and her face turned up toward heaven, that woman stopped her song long enough to hear Him sing back.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” ~ Psalm 147:3
Excerpted from A Whisper In Winter: Stories Of Hearing God’s Voice In Every Season Of Life by Shannon Woodward
Photo credit: Madge Bloom @ theviewfromrighthere.com