Grace McCleen The Land of Decoration



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* * *
THAT EVENING FATHER lit the fire in the front room, which meant he was in a good mood. The front room is where all of Mother’s things are: the black piano with the gold candleholders, the Singer sewing machine with the pedal underneath, the three piece suite she made white and pink covers for, the lupine and hollyhock curtains, the cushions she embroidered. I will be allowed to use Mother’s sewing machine when I am older.

It was nice in the front room, like being in a boat. Dark and rain buffeted the windows but couldn’t get in. The wind clamored and the waters rose higher and spray spattered the sides, but we were safe and dry. Father sipped his beer and poured me a lemonade and listened to Nigel Ogden while I lay on my belly in the half circle of firelight.

I was drawing the angel standing on the earth from the Book of Revelation who gave the apostle John the little scroll that was sweet and then bitter. That was what the old man in the dream said about the stone I had chosen, and I still didn’t know what he meant. I wondered if it mattered whether the sweetness came first or the bitterness did and tried to remember which way round it had been but couldn’t.

I liked Revelation. It was mostly about the end of the world and the last few chapters were about what it would be like afterward, in the Land of Decoration. “What will Armageddon be like?” I said.

The biggest thing the world has ever seen,” Father said, and his voice was calm and good tempered. He was settled deep in the chair and his legs were stretched out.



I sat up on my knees. “Will there be thunder and lightning?”

Perhaps.”

Earthquakes?”

Maybe.”

Hailstones and balls of fire rolling down streets?”

God will use whatever He sees fit.”

But it’s strange though, isn’t it?” I said. “Killing all those people…”

Not really,” Father said. “They will have been warned for years, remember.”

But what if one or two didn’t get the message,” I said, “and it couldn’t be helped? Like–what if they didn’t listen because someone had told them not to? Would God let them off?”

I looked at my drawing. The angel’s face was stern. Muscles bulged from his arms. He didn’t look like he would let anyone off.

God can read hearts, Judith,” Father said. “We have to leave these things to Him.” I felt better when I remembered that and went back to drawing the angel.



When I had finished, I showed it to Father. The angel had blue eyes and hair like the sun. He had one foot on Egypt and one foot on Algeria. “There’s the Great Rift Valley,” I said, in case Father missed it.

Father said: “Very good.” Then he said: “Why are both the angel’s feet on the land?”

What?”

One of his feet is supposed to be in the sea.”

Is it?”



I turned to Revelation, Chapter 10. Father was right. But if I colored over Algeria with blue, then it would end up purple and it would be the wrong shape. I said: “Does it matter a lot?” But I knew that it did, because the angel wasn’t just a parable but symbolic, which meant it had a larger significance, like Prefiguration, and even the smallest detail had much bigger meaning. So I picked up the eraser. And then our letter box crashed. Three short bangs.

Father went to the door. He opened it, but I didn’t hear any voices.

Who was it?” I said when he came back.

No one.” He put some more wood on the fire and took a sip of beer.

No one?”

No.”

Oh,” I said.



I began to erase the angel’s foot, but the drawing underneath just got messy.

I sighed. “Maybe the angel moved around a bit. Maybe his foot got cold in the sea.” And as I spoke, the letter box crashed again, three short bangs.

This time, just before Father opened the front door, I heard the gate click and laughter. I peered through the curtains but couldn’t see anyone.

When he came back I said: “Who was it?”

Boys playing games.” He put more wood on the fire.

Oh,” I said.

Father was being very calm but I knew he was angry; he hated people knocking on the door hard or even slamming it, because the door had a beautiful picture of a tree in the colored glass, which Mother had restored. He often commented on how pretty it was.

I took a new piece of paper and drew the angel’s head. I didn’t want to think anymore about what Father had said, I had just begun coloring the face when the letter box crashed again.

This time Father went to the back door. I heard a shout and the sound of running feet, then the garden gate clicked.

A minute later Father came into the front room, laughing. He said: “I surprised them!”

Who?”

The kids.”

A wave of heat passed over my body. “What were they doing?”

Making nuisances of themselves.”

Have they gone?”

Yes. They ran off when they saw me. They didn’t expect me to come up the lane.”



I looked down at the angel. “What did the kids look like?” I said.

Boys. No older than you, I should think. One had blond hair. Big kid. D’you know anyone like that?”



I had felt hot but now I felt cold. The angel’s blue eyes looked back at me. “No,” I said. “I don’t know anyone like that at all.”
Sunday
SOME THINGS EVEN miracle workers can’t get out of. Today I discovered Josie has knitted me a poncho.

May said: “No, it’s a shawl.”

No, no,” said Elsie. “It’s a poncho.”

Orange with shells and tassels,” said May.

Were they shells?” said Elsie. “I thought they were pearls.”

Shells,” said May. “The small ones you can thread.”

Anyway, she’s looking for you,” said May.

Aren’t you lucky?” said Elsie.

I spent the rest of the time before the meeting hiding in the toilets.
* * *
ALF GAVE THE talk. His tongue was in fine form, flickering at the corners of his mouth. “What is God asking us to do, Brothers?” he said. He glared around, his face red, his eyes bulging. After half an hour it made my head ache to listen to him, but it could have been the fumes coming from Auntie Nel; they were stronger than usual this morning. Even the yellow plastic roses were looking the worse for wear.

Alf’s voice got louder. His arms thrashed. I thought he was going to get them tangled in the microphone cable. “What is God asking us to do ?” he repeated. When he said it a third time I couldn’t bear it any longer and stuck up my hand and said: “Fill in our report cards?” because this is usually the right answer. But everyone laughed. Father explained afterward that Alf was asking what is called a rhetorical question, which is just meant to hang there and no one is supposed to answer.

Alf said I was right–of course, God did want us to fill in our report cards, but He also wanted us to have faith.

I pushed my nail into the side of my Bible. I had faith. More than anyone knew. I’d made things happen they couldn’t even imagine. If they knew, they wouldn’t laugh at me. If they knew, they would be amazed.

I couldn’t help thinking it was strange no one had noticed I was God’s Instrument. I’d expected it to be showing by now. I decided that I would ask Uncle Stan for Brother Michaels’s address. I was sure he would take me seriously.
* * *
AFTER THE MEETING, I went up to Uncle Stan and tapped him on the arm. I said: “I wondered if you could give me Brother Michaels’s address. Or his phone number.”

Brother Michaels?”

Yes.”

Why’s that, pet?”

I need to tell him about the mustard seed and how a miracle happened.”

He smiled. “Right you are.”

What?”

Well, I’ll get it for you.”

Oh…”

Remind me if I don’t bring it next meeting,” Stan said. He began putting papers in his bag.

Perhaps he hadn’t heard what I had said. “Uncle Stan,” I said, “I made a miracle happen! I made it snow!”

Did you?” he said.



I said: “What do you mean, ‘Did you?’” The heat was coming back.

Judith…” he said, and put a hand on my head.

I’m not making it up!” I said. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but then it just slipped out–that’s why I need Brother Michaels’s address. This is serious. I need to know what to do next. With my power.”

Well, I’m sure Brother Michaels will be able to advise you, sweetheart,” said Uncle Stan. “Now I’ve got to see Alf about something…”



But he needn’t have worried; I saw a bright pink hat with peach feathers coming toward us. Josie was scanning the room.

I have to go too,” I said, and slipped to the end of the row. It looked like if Josie didn’t get hold of me soon, she would send out a posse.


The Fifth Miracle
WHEN I WALKED into the classroom on Monday, a woman was standing by Mr. Davies’s desk. It was difficult to know how old she was, because she was quite small, but I thought she must have been about Father’s age. She had red hair pushed back with a hair band and round glasses and small hands that looked raw. Her hands were as red as her hair. I liked her hair. I thought how good it would be to make it for one of my little people. I would use bright orange wool and tease the strands apart.

The woman was trying to open the drawer and the whole thing was moving forward. “You have to bang the top,” I said.

Oh.” She frowned, banged hard, and the drawer slid open. She beamed at me. “Thanks. Who are you?”

Judith.”

I’m Mrs. Pierce,” she said. “I’ve come to replace Mr. Davies for the time being.”

Oh,” I said. “What’s happened to him?”

He’s not very well. But he’s going to be fine.” She smiled again. She had very small teeth, and at either side one of the top teeth lay sideways so that the edges stuck out. I liked Mrs. Pierce’s teeth. I liked her voice too. It reminded me of green apples.



She said: “Don’t you go to assembly, Judith?”

No. I have to stay separate from the World.”

Oh,” said Mrs. Pierce. She blinked. “What’s wrong with it?”

It’s a Den of Iniquity,” I said.



Mrs. Pierce looked at me more closely, then she sniffed and said: “Well, you’re not missing much.” She banged the desk again and the drawer shot out and caught her elbow. She closed her eyes and said something under her breath. Out loud she said: “This will take some getting used to.” At that moment the door opened and everyone came in.

They stared at Mrs. Pierce. She sat on top of Mr. Davies’s desk and crossed her legs. “Good morning, class eight,” she said. “My name is Mrs. Pierce. I’ll be looking after you for a while.”

Where’s Mr. Davies?” said Anna.

He’s not well,” said Mrs. Pierce. “But I’m sure he’ll be better soon. In the meantime we’re going to have to get used to one another. I have my own way of doing things, so there’ll be a few changes around here.”

There was scuffling at the back of the room. A second paper airplane hit my head. On it was written LOSER. Mrs. Pierce sniffed and reached for the attendance book. “For a start,” she said, “we’ll have you three boys–yes, you–sitting at the front. Would you mind telling me your names please?”

Matthew, James, and Stephen, Miss,” said Neil.



Mrs. Pierce smiled. “Fortunately, Mr. Williams has drawn me a seating plan; it wouldn’t be Gareth, Lee, and Neil, would it?”

Yes, Miss,” said Matthew. “I’m Matthew, and that’s James, and that’s Stephen.”



Mrs. Pierce jumped off the desk. “Come on, boys.” She began to move two tables together. “On your feet!”

I can’t, Miss,” said Neil.

Why is that?”

I can’t find my bag, Miss.”

Oh,” said Mrs. Pierce. “When did you lose it?”

Don’t know, Miss,” said Neil. A smile slunk across his face. There was laughter.

Well, you can still come and sit here,” said Mrs. Pierce.

Neil pretended to be caught on the chair and tugged this way and that at his coat. “Oh dear,” said Mrs. Pierce. “It is difficult standing up, isn’t it? Can someone give Neil a hand?” Everyone laughed again but this time with Mrs. Pierce.

Neil freed himself from the table and swaggered to the front. Mrs. Pierce held out a chair and he sat down backward, looking at the class. Everyone laughed again.

Mrs. Pierce smiled. “You’re quite a comedian, aren’t you, Mr. Lewis? There’s just one problem. You’re in my class now and I don’t have time for jokes. Now, would you get your books out? You see, we are waiting for you to begin.”

Neil rubbed his head. “I can’t, Miss.”

Why is that?”

Lost them, Miss.”

Your books?”

Yes, Miss.”

What, all of them?”

Yes, Miss.”

Do you often lose things, Neil?”

Don’t know, Miss.”

There was more laughter.

Mrs. Pierce walked to the back of the room and pulled a bag out of the corner. “They wouldn’t be in your bag, would they?”

No, Miss. That’s not my bag.” Neil turned to Lee and grinned.

Oh,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Well, in that case, I shall keep this bag and its contents until the owner claims it. In the meantime, I will expect you to replace the books and equipment you need by the end of the week.” She threw Neil’s bag into the art cupboard, slammed the door, turned the key, and pocketed it.

Neil said: “Hey!”

Yes?”



Neil scowled and turned to the front again. He shoved the desk. “I don’t want to sit in this crappy seat!”

Cheer up, Neil,” Mrs. Pierce said. “This way you can see the blackboard more easily.”



I laughed out loud. I put my hand over my mouth, but it was too late. Neil turned round and his eyes flashed. But for some reason, instead of looking away I looked right back.

Well, now that’s sorted out,” Mrs. Pierce said, “let’s get on with our lessons. We’re going to be reading poetry today.”

Poetry?” Gemma said.

That’s right, Gemma,” Mrs. Pierce said. “Nothing wakes you up like a good poem. That’s because poets never say exactly what they mean–or not the best ones. Instead they find other ways of saying it. They paint a picture or they talk about it as if it were something else. We use pictures in everyday speech too–for instance, we say ‘the leg of a table,’ ‘a sunny disposition,’ ‘I wouldn’t bank on it,’ ‘an icy stare,’ ‘boiling hot.’”



She wrote the phrases up on the blackboard. “See if you can spot how many pictures this poem uses to describe the sun: It’s by Robert Louis Stevenson and it’s called ‘Winter Time’:
Late lies the wintry sun a bed

A frosty, fiery sleepy head;

Blinks but an hour or two; and then,

A blood red orange, sets again….
So,” said Mrs. Pierce when she had finished reading, “did anyone spot the pictures?”

Yes,” said Anna. “The sun in bed.”

Good. And how does that help us understand what the poet is trying to say?”

Because the sun gets up later in the winter,” said Anna.

Good,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Yes. There’s less daylight. Anything else?”

The sun is a blood orange,” said Matthew.

Great,” said Mrs. Pierce. “And why is that applicable?”

Because of the color.”

Yes,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Have you noticed how much redder the sun can be in the winter? There are brighter sunsets too. Anything else?”

The wind like pepper,” said Rhian.

Yes,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Now, that’s strange. Why do you think the poet wrote that?”

Because it hurts your nose in the cold?” Rhian said.

Yes. Excellent,” said Mrs. Pierce. “I can see this class is full of budding poets! The wind also tickles sometimes too, have you noticed that? And I suppose the poet could even be referring to hail. Now do you see how the pictures make the poem richer, more interesting?”

There’s the picture of his breath like frost,” said Stephen.

Yes, the patterns his breath makes in the air are like the patterns the frost leaves.” Mrs. Pierce smiled. “There’s one more picture the poet uses to help us see more clearly.”

The land frosted like a wedding cake,” said Luke.

Excellent,” said Mrs. Pierce. “And how does that help us see more clearly what the poet is saying?”

Because the snow is like icing sugar,” said Luke.

Yes,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Or it could be frost. Sometimes frost is very heavy and as thick as snow.” She turned to the blackboard and wrote up each phrase. “Now”–she turned back to us–“does anyone know what those pictures the poet uses are called?”

She waited, then picked up a piece of chalk and turned back to the words on the board.

Metaphor,” said Gemma. She looked at me and smiled.

Well done!” said Mrs. Pierce. “Yes. Metaphor is when we talk about something as if it was something else. Can anyone give me another example of a metaphor?”

A leap of faith,” I said. I looked at Gemma.

Excellent!” said Mrs. Pierce. “Though that might be a little bit difficult to explain: Faith is believing in something. To say faith is like a leap is to say it’s like stepping into thin air, to leap from one place to another without getting hurt. Is that how you would describe it, Judith?”

I nodded.

OK,” she said. “But in fact, going back to our poem, only four of the five ‘pictures’ Robert Louis Stevenson uses are metaphors; the last picture, the one where the poet compares the wintry landscape to an iced cake, is in fact a ‘simile.’” She wrote the word “simile” on the blackboard. “Can anyone see the difference between the metaphors and the simile?” said Mrs. Pierce.



I stared at the poem. I didn’t see what Mrs. Pierce was getting at. And then suddenly I did. I put up my hand.

Yes, Judith.”

The land is like a wedding cake,” I said. “It isn’t one.”

Indeed,” said Mrs. Pierce. “Can you explain that to us, Judith?”

The sun is in bed; it is a blood orange; the wind is pepper. But the land is only like a wedding cake.”

I felt Gemma’s eyes on me.

Mrs. Pierce’s cheeks were quite pink. “Did everyone get that?” she said. “A simile says something is ‘like’ something else. But a metaphor says something really ‘is’ the thing you are comparing it to. So, we have similes and metaphors, both pictures, both interesting ways of saying things. But”–and now her voice became quieter–“one is stronger than the other; one is much more powerful. Which one do you think it is?” She raised her eyebrows encouragingly. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t expect you to know this.”

Was one more powerful? I wondered. The similes and the metaphors seemed to be the same. But I looked again and there was something about the line that said the sun was a blood orange that was missing from the line that said it was like a wedding cake. And then I knew why: It didn’t sound as good.

Mrs. Pierce beamed when she saw my hand. She said: “Yes, Judith.”

The metaphor is stronger,” I said.

Why do you say that?”

I flushed. Now I looked stupid, as if I had guessed. I hadn’t; I just couldn’t explain why I knew for certain.

I could feel Gemma looking at me. Neil too. But it was no use; I couldn’t explain. Mrs. Pierce turned back to the board.

There’s a clue in the word. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two Greek words: meta, which means ‘between,’ and phero, meaning ‘to carry.’ So metaphors carry meaning from one word to another.”



And then I remembered something someone had said: that it wasn’t enough to imagine what the new world would be like, we had to be there. It was Brother Michaels. He said faith could do that for us. “Because we’re there,” I said suddenly, without putting my hand up. Everyone turned to look at me. I flushed. “I mean, it’s there. I mean–it’s not side by side.” My cheeks were hot. “Metaphor isn’t imagining, it’s the thing itself.”

Mrs. Pierce’s eyes were so sharp they should have hurt, but they didn’t. They were like a current of electricity passing from her to me, and the current flared and warmed me.

Yes,” she said at last. “The words aren’t talking about something; they become the thing itself.” She put down the chalk, and we looked at each other for a moment, and it was as if I was flying. Then the moment passed and she dusted off her hands and said: “Right, class, I’d like you to write poems using metaphor.”

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