Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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Evidence
BETWEEN THE KITCHEN and the front room is the middle room. The middle room is Father’s room. It’s dark and smells of leather and sheepskin. There is a moth eaten tapestry of creepers and snakes, a clock with no pendulum, and a chaise longue with no springs. There’s a threadbare fur rug and a picture of angels and a coat stand made from a tree. There’s a large black fireplace with birds of paradise tiles. And on either side of the fireplace is a cupboard.

In one cupboard there are photographs of Father and Mother before I was born, cards and piles of letters and lots of photos of people I don’t know–Mother and Father’s families before they came into the religion. Now the family doesn’t speak to us, all except Auntie Jo, Father’s sister, who sends us a Christmas card she has made every year inviting us to visit her in Australia. It annoys Father a lot because she knows we don’t celebrate Christmas, but he can’t bring himself to throw them out.

In the other cupboard there are a lot of books. There are books about the planet and the universe that have pictures of superclusters and black holes and cells and things. Father gets these out sometimes. But most of the books are written by the Brothers and these have titles like: Then They Will Know, The Lord’s Day and You, and You Know Not the Hour . I knew I would find out about miracles in one of those books.

The problem was, the cupboards were Father’s and I should ask before going in there.

I waited for him to go out all afternoon, but he didn’t. He stoked the fire and made an omelet. He read the paper. He made dinner. He washed up. Then he got the look he gets when he’s about to make something and went into the garage. In a while I heard sawing, and I went into the middle room and closed the door.

My heart was banging as I opened the glass doors. This was a sin, but a sin in service to a greater good, so in the grand scheme of things it could be overlooked.

The first book I took down was called The Gentile Times Have Ended . It was full of charts and numbers, and I put it to the side. The next book was called Gog of Magog: The Arch Deceiver . That didn’t talk about miracles either. I took down another. A pile began to form beside me on the carpet. I could still hear Father sawing. Every so often there was the sound of the blocks toppling to the floor. My heart was beating so loudly that the room was vibrating.

I was beginning to think I would never find anything about miracles, when I came to a book with a dark green jacket and a bush, pale green and burning, pressed into the cover. It was called Gifts in Men .

Inside, there were pictures of people walking on water and the dead coming to life. A man was praying in the belly of a fish. Another in a fiery furnace. Another in a lion’s den. The book spoke of gifts and signs, of messengers and callings . Miracles, it said, were God’s calling card, His credentials, seals of divine mission. It said: For where miracles are, there certainly God is. I sat cross legged on the floor.

What is possible with God is seldom possible with men, the book said. From times of old, faithful ones have known this. God knows no order of difficulty. There are no limits to His ability to intervene on behalf of His loyal ones. Age is no barrier to the outworking of God’s purpose. Remember the Midianite maiden who far from home afforded the cure of Naaman’s leprosy and the child Samuel who heard God’s voice night after night in the temple, warning of the downfall of Eli’s household. There is no knowing whom God will deem a suitable vehicle for the manifestation of His powers, nor how He will choose to reveal them.

My heart was still hammering hard but my blood was singing now and I felt very light, as if I was hovering a few inches above the carpet. The greatest period of miraculous activity was when Christ walked the earth, I read, but the Lord’s Day will also afford limitless possibilities for God’s expression of His Kingship. Christians should be on the watch for signs in the sun, moon, and stars and other supernatural indications that the end is at hand. This will be a time when to discerning eyes God’s hand will be seen at work in the lives of His servants.

God has been known to intervene in lives on more than one occasion when the supplicant is earnest and real faith has been demonstrated. It should be remembered that to skeptics acts of God will always be attributed to earthly sources. This should not deter faithful ones from taking heart. They are lights shining in the darkness, and the darkness is afraid of light. I held the book to my chest and closed my eyes.
* * *
I DON’T KNOW how long I sat there, but after a while I realized I couldn’t hear sawing anymore. I opened one eye. A pair of legs were standing in front of me. I opened the other eye. The legs were attached to Father’s boots. Father’s voice said: “What are you doing?”

Reading,” I said, and stood up.



Father said: “How many times have I told you to ask before getting these books out?” He bent down and began piling the books one on top of the other. He opened the cupboard doors and slotted them back into place, thwack, thwack, thwack.

Father.”



Thwack.

Father.”



Thwack.

My breath caught me and hurt inside. “Father, it says here that we can still see miracles today.”

He sighed sharply. “What is all this miracle nonsense?”

I bit my lip hard, then I said: “I think something happened on Sunday. I mean last night. I think the snow was a miracle.”

Father looked at me, then he took the book and blew on the pages. He shut it with a snap and put it back with the others.

I said: “The book said we may meet with disbelief, that we shouldn’t be downhearted! It says most people don’t realize they have seen a sign–”

Sign?”



Father shut the cupboard, took me by the elbow, brought me outside, and closed the door. He said: “I’m getting just a bit tired of this. It snowed because it does sometimes. Even here. Even in October. Now, that’s an end to it.”

My heart was making it difficult to breathe. “I heard a voice as well!” I said suddenly. “Like Samuel in the temple. It told me what to do.”

This is making me cross now, Judith. You know how serious it is to lie.”

I’m not lying!” I said. “I don’t know where the voice came from but I heard it!”

Father’s face was flushed and his eyes were very black. He said: “Judith, you’re always imagining this or that. You live in a complete fantasy world.”

Well, this is real,” I said.



Father looked at me for a moment. Then he said in a low voice: “I don’t want to hear any more about this, d’you understand?” and he went into the kitchen and the door shut behind him. I looked at the door for a long time. Then I went upstairs and sat on the floor in my room and I looked at the Land of Decoration.

And though I was sad to begin with because Father didn’t believe me, after a while I was glad I hadn’t said any more, because it would be best to wait until I had more proof and for that I would do a test, to find out whether the snow was a coincidence. “And then we shall see,” I said to no one in particular.

We certainly shall,” no one said back.


Why Seeing Really Is Believing
PEOPLE DON’T BELIEVE in very much. They don’t believe politicians and they don’t believe ads and they don’t believe things written on packets of food in the grocery store. Lots of them don’t believe in God either. Father says it’s because science has explained so many things that people think they should be able to know how everything happens before they believe it, but I think there is another reason.

I think people don’t believe things because they are afraid. Believing something means you could be wrong, and if you’re wrong you can get hurt. For instance, I thought I could climb the whole way round my room without touching the floor, and it hurt when I fell down. All the important things, like whether someone loves you or something will turn out right, aren’t certain, so we try to believe them, whereas all the things you don’t have to wonder about, like gravity and magnetism and the fact that women are different from men, you can bet your life on but you don’t have to.

I used to worry when Father said we shouldn’t believe in God blindly because the type of evidence for God is either too much (the apostle Paul says it is “inexcusable”) or not enough (Richard Dawkins, a scientist the Brothers like to argue with, says it is “superstitious bosh”). I used to worry it meant that I was thinking for myself. But believing isn’t just about evidence, and here’s why.

People take the same bit of evidence and jump to different conclusions. Mr. Williams, the headmaster, said I was “extremely bright” for my age, which is why I am a year younger than everyone else in my class and Mr. Davies says I have the best grasp of language he has ever seen in a ten year old. But Neil Lewis says I am a “spastic.” Mr. Davies told us about fossils and he said: “This is how living things evolved,” but Father says: “Mutations never survive.” Mr. Davies thinks religion is a mirage. He and Father had a debate at the last parents’ evening. Mr. Davies said I should be taught the facts about how the world came to be, and Father said those were only the facts as Mr. Davies sees them.

There are mirages in space, crosses and arcs and circles that are the reflections of galaxies that existed billions of years ago and that show us what happened in the past, and Father says that scientists want to see things as much as religious people, he says they make leaps all the time. The fossil record for evolution isn’t that good, but the scientists had already decided creation wasn’t an option so they made fake fossils and covered them up. And you would think, being scientists, they wouldn’t. But scientists make leaps of faith all the time, because there’s a lot of guessing and waiting, and some of the best discoveries, like Albert Einstein’s, were made that way. Father says the only people who don’t leap at all are agnostics.

Scientists say miracles couldn’t happen because they are miraculous, but that doesn’t make sense, because they believe in plenty of “miraculous” things, like the universe coming from nothing, and the odds for that are mathematically impossible. Years ago people thought an eclipse of the sun meant God was angry with them, but it isn’t a miracle now because we understand it, and neither is radioactivity or an airplane or germs, though things like bees are, because we still don’t understand how they are able to fly. One day someone will explain it, and then bees won’t be a miracle either.

It makes you think lots of things are miraculous, like the chances of me hitting exactly the same bit in my mouth with the toothbrush that I did a few seconds before, or of my tomato squirting Father on the nose at dinner, or the chance of me being me instead of millions of other people. But they are very small chances, and a bee isn’t a miracle either, only a wonderful thing, because miracles are made to happen.

Evidence isn’t all there is to believing, and neither is being able to explain it. Even if people can’t explain something–like seeing a ghost or being healed–once they have experienced it, they believe it, though they might have spent their whole life saying it was nonsense. Which means that people who say something is impossible have probably just never experienced it.

Of course, they might still want to explain it away and look for a rational explanation. But they are doing what Father is doing and missing the point. Which is that miracles are what you see when you stop thinking, and they happen because someone made them and because someone, somewhere, had faith.
The Test
WHEN I WOKE on Tuesday, the sky was blue and empty and the sun was winking in the windows. Already the snow piles by the front doors and along the sides of the road were softening. I said: “Now for my test.”

I went to the trunk and I got out my materials. I rolled up the sky in the Land of Decoration and in its place I hung gauze. I unhooked the clouds and in their place put a blizzard funnel of wire mesh and tiny polystyrene balls. I removed the cotton fabric and laid cotton wool over houses and steeples, railway lines, mountains, and viaducts.

Colder!” said a voice, and again I felt as if I had caught light.



I put the tiny people inside their houses. I bundled them in blankets and coats. I put hot cups of cocoa in their hands. I lit hurricane lamps. I sprayed frost on windows and made ice for the roads with sheets of Plexiglas.

Colder!” said the voice.



I tore the paper lighthouse beam and on top of the waves laid shards of floating plastic ice. I glued icicles to the masts of the ships, turned on the fan, and flurries of paper hail stung sailors’ hands and faces. Snowmen sneezed. Polar bears shivered. Penguins danced to keep warm.

Then I said: “Snow,” just like before. And I saw the town and the steelworks and the mountain sewn up in it, heaps of snow, more than anyone had ever seen here or ever would again.

I said: “Now I must wait.”

I waited through breakfast. I waited through lunch. I waited as Father and I brought in the last of the wood to dry in the lean to and we pondered Jesus dying to save the world. I waited as we sat by the fire that evening and Father listened to Nigel Ogden playing his organ. I waited all night, checking and looking out at the stars and the white waste of the moon. I ran to the window next morning, but the sun was shining so brightly it hurt my eyes and a steady dripping was coming from above my window.

I felt sick and sat on the bed. I said: “What did I do differently?” I said: “Perhaps I just have to be patient.”
* * *
THAT MORNING WE went preaching. Father said it was the ideal time for it. What he meant was that people would be in. Getting people in is a problem for us, because though we are trying to save people, they will do almost anything to avoid it. They don’t answer the door, they tell lies (“My grandmother just died,” “I’ve got a war wound and can’t stand up for long,” “I’m on my way to church”), they get nasty (shouting, letting the dog out, threatening to call the police), they run away (this is a last resort, but it does happen; once someone took off running when he saw us at his door and dropped some of his shopping in the road). These are all what Father calls Tactics of Evasion. We have tactics of our own, which include asking thought provoking questions, turning Conversation Stoppers into Conversation Starters, and knocking twice the same morning (though once someone threw a bucket of water over Father’s head when we did this, so perhaps that was not such an effective tactic after all).

We met the group at the corner of King Street. There were small hills of snow on either side of the road. Elsie and May were there, Alf and Josie. Stan, Margaret, and Gordon. Josie was wearing a fur hat and a cape and a knitted all in one suit that came down to her shins. She said: “I looked for you on Sunday. I brought you something.”

I went round to the other side of Father. “We must have missed each other,” I said.

What do you think of this snow?” said Uncle Stan. “Beats everything, doesn’t it?”

The Tribulation is on the way!” said Alf.

Elsie said: “My joints don’t like it.” She offered me a Ricola Locket.

Nor my chilblains,” said May. She offered me a Werther’s Original.



Well,” said Father, “we’ve got a good show of spirit in any case.”

Uncle Stan said the prayer and we started. Elsie worked with Margaret, Stan worked with Gordon, Josie worked with May, Alf worked alone, and I worked with Father. It was cold. Our steps rang on the pavement. Father said hello to passersby. Some of them nodded. Some said hello. Most ducked their heads and kept walking. Despite the ideal circumstances, not many answered. Sometimes a curtain moved. Sometimes a child came and said: “No one’s at home,” and when that happened there was laughter.

The sky was incredibly blue. The blueness bothered me. “It could still happen,” I said to myself. “It could still snow.” But two hours later, when we met on the corner, the sky was just as blue as before. “We don’t seem to be having much success,” said Uncle Stan. I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

Father and I said goodbye to the group and went on Return Visits. Return Visits are people we always call on; they don’t hide from us. Mrs. Browning sat up bright as a pin with rollers in her hair and invited us in for tea and butter puffs. There were dog hairs and grease on the plate, and the cups were brown inside. Usually I can’t drink the tea, which is made with condensed milk and only just warm, but today I swallowed it without thinking. Then Father asked me to read the scripture and Mrs. Browning said: “Such a bright girl! I bet you’re looking forward to going back to school.”

Father raised his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t bank on it.”

We left Mrs. Browning and went to see Joe and his dog, Watson. Joe leaned against the porch as he always did, there was a stain on the wall he had done it so long. Watson dragged his bottom across the step.

Father said: “Any day now, Joe.”

And Joe said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Father said: “You have to believe it or you won’t see it.”

Joe laughed, and a chain rattled in his chest. We left some magazines with him, then Father said we’d have to get back or the fire would be out.

I could see my legs going in and out beneath me all the way up the street. There was a lollipop stick lying in the gutter. I usually made garden fences with them but this time I stepped over it. “I won’t make anything ever again,” I said to myself. “It would have been better for me never to have made the snow at all if it was just a coincidence.” Suddenly going back to how things were before was too terrible to think about.

We went up the mountain road in the tracks left by the cars, and the sun was coming through the fir trees in long molten strokes, stammering and jabbering through the branches. Father took long strides. His boots splattered slush sideways in little showers. I listened to the crunching of boots and the flapping of sheepskin and my Bible bag bumping about on my back and I wanted everything to stop. Father said: “Come on! What are you dawdling for?”

I’m not dawdling,” I said. “I’m tired.”

Well, the quicker you walk, the sooner we’ll be home.”

The mountain seemed higher than I remembered. We reached a curve in the road and it went up again. We reached another and it went up still further. The higher we climbed, the whiter it got. The whiteness got into my clothes. It pierced the stitching, the buttonholes, the wool of my tights. I shut my eyes, but it pricked through my eyelids and made patterns there.

We reached the top. Father kept going, but I stopped in the road. I listened to his footsteps as they went away, and for a minute I didn’t mind if they never came back. I put my hands over my eyes and stood very still and all I could hear was the emptiness around me and for the longest time I didn’t think anything at all. Then a cold gust buffeted me and I opened my eyes.

The sky wasn’t bright anymore. It was thick and it was whirling. Something was drifting in front of me. Something was lighting on my coat and my nose and my cheeks, touching me then disappearing over and over. I stood very still, and somewhere inside me a bolt slid home.

There were tears in my eyes but not from the cold. And then I was running down the steep mountain road, running and shouting: “Wait for me!”

I ran past him and swung right round, slipping and laughing and just staying up. “It’s snowing!” I shouted.

I had noticed.”

Isn’t it wonderful?”

It’s a pain in the neck.”



I began running again, blinking, spreading my arms like a bird. Father said: “Watch you don’t fall!” And I ran even faster to show him I wouldn’t.
Snowflakes and Mustard Seeds
MIRACLES DON’T HAVE to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places. Sometimes they are so small people don’t notice. Sometimes miracles are shy. They brush against your sleeve, they settle on your eyelashes. They wait for you to notice, then melt away. Lots of things start by being small. It’s a good way to begin, because no one takes any notice of you. You’re just a little thing beetling along, minding your own business. Then you grow.

High in the heavens snowflakes are born. When they fall to earth they are so light they fall sideways. But flakes find brothers and when they do they stick together. If enough of them stick they begin to roll. If they roll far enough they pick up fence posts, trees, a person, a house.

A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown, the birds of heaven lodge in its branches; a grain of sand becomes a pearl; and prayers that begin with very little or nothing at all are spoken, because if there is enough of something it begins to grow, and if there is more than enough a great thing will happen which was there from the start in the smallest of ways.

Which comes first, the prayer or the particles? How can the smallest of things become the biggest of all and the thing that could have been stopped unstoppable, and something you never thought would amount to much amount to it all? Perhaps it’s because miracles work best with ordinary things, the more ordinary the better. Perhaps it’s because they begin with odds and ends–the greater the odds, the bigger the miracle.


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