It was my second mission and I was sent, this time, to a young woman. I tried to glean as much information as I could from Mamoud. How old was she? 25. How long had she been his? 2 years. How long had she been held? 3 months. I paused at that. If she had lasted three months, she was unlikely to give in now. Unless… Any family? A little girl, barely over five. My heart sank.
“You can do it”, said Mamoud.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to, and my fear must have been evident because when I met his eyes, it was full of compassion.
“The Lord be with you”, he said and disappeared.
I found her in a small, dark cell, a tiny thing curled up in a corner. The room smelled – a consequence of a chamberpot in another corner, which may or may not have ever been cleaned. She was fast asleep and from her posture, I could tell that she was cold. I approached slowly so as not to disturb her and covered her with my coat.
Quick as lightning, she was awake and screaming. Her eyes went wide, signalling fear. When I reached to steady her, she shrank back. She looked like a cornered animal, I realized, which was bad. I backed away slowly, arms at my side so she could see that I was unarmed.
“Don’t be afraid”, I said in my calmest voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. You were cold, so I covered you up. You can go back to sleep.”
I would have put her to sleep, but I was certain she would scream again if I took a step forward. She stared at me and said nothing. Her distrust was evident, but she clung to my coat rather than throw it back at me. She must have been very cold.
I sat as far away from her as I could. When she didn’t close her eyes, I continued. “You asked for help. The Lord has sent me. I can’t take you out of here, but I will help in any way I can. I can put you to sleep if you like. You must be tired.”
At first she just stared, silent. Then she started laughing. Softly at first, then progressively louder till her voice echoed off the stone walls.
“Do any women actually fall for that?” she asked
I hadn’t expected her to believe me right away, but her response was confusing. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re a coward. The others just come in, take what they want, and go. You have to make up stories. I suppose it makes you feel better, makes you feel like the women want it. Or maybe you’re just not strong enough to subdue a woman.”
The derision in her voice stung and I must be slow because it took me a few moments to understand what she was suggesting.
“I swear, I have not come to take advantage of you or hurt you in any way. I am sorry that other have done that.” Sorry, and hurt, and angry, because her reaction now made sense. “I know you don’t believe that, but I won’t come near you if you don’t want me to. You’re safe.”
She made a sound which, though it was familiar, I was certain expressed disdain.
“You should hope your plan works before morning”, she said. “because the warden comes to see me then. And he doesn’t like to share.”
With that she went silent and closed her eyes. She was still for a long time, but still quite awake. I soon realized that she might not sleep while I was there, so I made myself invisible. It took a while, but she was soon asleep.
I prayed, calmly at first and then with desperation. Here was His child, weak, hungry (it was obvious) and left in isolation to be abused by evil men. “Save her”, I prayed “please, save her”.
Time passes strangely in their realm. It is no wonder they sleep so much of it away. It is strangely exhausting to let it pass. Two hours passed before I heard another sound – the door being opened. She heard it too and awoke and in the smallest of movements, wrapped my coat around her like a cloak, looking like she could disappear into it.
The man who had walked in was definitely not one of His. He was burly, dirty, and unshaven and I could see his intent clearly on his face. I clenched my hands into fists. He locked the door and approached her.
“Let me stop him”, I prayed. There was no response. “I will not hurt him. I will only restrain him. He should not – He cannot-“. The words got stuck somehow as my thoughts got scrambled. The silence jarred me. “He’s going to hurt her.” I said finally, desperately.
So I stood still and watched. I must have become visible at some point because she was looking at me. The man glanced in my direction once, but saw nothing.
Mercifully, it was over quickly. She sat where he left her, naked and crying softly. As I approached, I met her eyes and saw shame mixed with her pain. I gritted my teeth, fighting the urge to find the man and make him pay. Instead, I picked up my coat and covered her up.
“Do not be ashamed. You have done nothing shameful. He can hurt you, but only for so long. And he will never get away with it. No one does. But you, I see Him in you, and because you are His, you will see him someday. That day, he will make all this nothing – mere dreams, dreams that have lost their potency. He will make it right.”
She did and said nothing, so I had no idea if this helped, but I went on anyway because I could do nothing else. “Every day he holds little ones like you who have suffered much and when they leave his presence – nothing can describe their joy. And they will tell you, that they wouldn’t trade this”, I gestured to the walls enclosing us, “for anything. I don’t know what he tells them. But he makes it right.”
Her sobs changed to weeping then, and she threw herself into her arms, partly, it seemed, to keep me from seeing her shame and partly for comfort. I could not see how much she hurt, but I could imagine it. And I hurt with her.
I don’t remember how long she cried before falling asleep, but I held her the whole time. It was irrational, but I felt like I could protect her – from everything – if I just held her tightly enough.
Day came soon enough. There was no more light in the little room, but I could tell. For her, it might have seemed that the sun ceased it cycle. I had heard of those who suffered for his sake and were filled with joy and contentment, but she was just scared. She had moments of peace, when the Lord let me give it to her, but they were few.
A guard was making his rounds, throwing small plastic bowl into each cell as he passed. She woke up at the sound. I brought her the bowl. She took one look at it and sighed.
“They say you eventually get used to prison food. If so, I have a long way to go. I don’t suppose you could turn it into something better.”
I shook my head, “I’m Sorry”
“You’re useless.” she sighed.
It was only the second day and I was already starting to dislike her. “That’s rude and untrue”, I protested.
“Not in my opinion.”
She drank whatever was in the bowl in one try – I suppose for the same reason that a bandage is ripped off quickly. Almost immediately, the door opened and two guards came in. One threw a dress at her and commanded that she get dressed. The rag (because that was what it was) was filled with holes, but kept her mostly covered. Once she was dressed, they led her out of the room and into a bigger one – the interrogation room. And on the floor in that room, bound, was a little girl.
“Maya!”, she screamed “Let her go!” She tried to rush to her daughter, but was quickly restrained. A man, the warden, appeared.
“We’ve been here a long time”, he said “And you still won’t listen. I don’t want to hurt you – or her. But I will.”
One of the men began to tie the little girl to a chair.
“We’ll start with her teeth”, the warden continued “And then her finger nails. We’ll make it last, I promise. And you will give in in the end – unless you don’t love your daughter”
I heard a strangled sob – hers. Pleading eyes turned to me. “Please”, she sobbed, “Please, help her. I’ll do anything. I’ll give anything. Just please help my daughter.”
I stared at her, helpless, knowing that this was why I was here. The girl was going to die. It was her time. The only question was whether her mother would hold out. But I didn’t say that. I held her face and looked into her eyes. “You know what is right. You know that they will hurt her either way, but that you can spare her some suffering. I only beg you to make the best choice. Your daughter will soon be safe, far away from any who can hurt her.” I wiped the tears from her face, but more fell to replace them. “But I don’t want them to have you. And they will if you turn on the Lord.”
I was asking a mother to watch while terrible things were done to her daughter, but I had to. I was the strong one; the one who hadn’t been starved, beaten and raped. And it was my job here to share that strength with her. I held her right hand, squeezing as I prayed for strength for her. the torture started.
If I live to a billion years, save God’s mercy on me, I will never forget the screams of the girl, her pleas and her mother’s. I will never forget the look on her face as she told her captors over and over again. That she could not renounce Christ. That she would if she could. That they could do whatever they liked to her if they let her daughter go. All that fell on deaf ears. It must have felt like an eternity to her. I held her the whole time, murmuring what comforts I could, praying and encouraging her to pray.
Mamoud visited once and I told him what I knew. She was strong, but she wouldn’t hold out much longer. A mother can only bear so much. Eventually, the girl’s cries grew weaker. I don’t know if they got tired or discouraged, but they eventually left her to die. It was the first time they had left her alone and the mother crawled towards her child, to comfort her perhaps. I restrained her.
“If you hold her, you will do anything but let them touch her again. All she has suffered will be for nothing. She will soon be at peace.” I held her much longer, until the child’s breathing grew silent. She wasn’t dead, but she was almost there. I freed her from her bonds then, and placed her in her mother’s arms. Then I said the words of the rite, entrusting her to the Father’s care. I said them mostly to comfort her mother, but the words might have been hollow because the pain in my chest did not relent. I just found myself holding two little ones, yearning to take away their pain but unable to do so.
He died a little after midnight. When I could coax her out of the arms of her mother, I wrapped her in whatever cloth I could find and left her body for the men. I was glad the mother did not resist much. The bundle of flesh was not her daughter, but it was all she had left.
We were led back to her cell at some point. Food was brought, but she left it untouched. When two more meals came and she did not eat, I thought she had decided to die. But I only had to feel the warmth of her skin to understand that she was merely sick. I did not disturb the silence by speaking to her. It was good for her to grieve and I grieved with her. On the fourth day after the child’s death, I judged that it was time to speak, but what words can give consolation to a mother who (however unjustly) feels responsible for the death of her child?
So, I sang. I sang of God’s power and justice and mercy. I sang of the comforts and justice he offers the bereaved. I sang of his wrath on the wicked and of his steadfastness. The songs comforted her for a time, but by the sixth day, she would hear no more of it.
I had forgotten how rude she could be until she spoke up “Shut up. I don’t want to hear any more of that.” she turned on me and I had never seen her so fierce. “What mercy did He offer Maya? She had done nothing wrong, but He let them hurt her, over and over again. He could have stopped them.” Her voice got progressively louder. “Why then did he have to do that?! Was I lax in my service?! Did I not keep his laws?! Did I not confess his name over and over no matter what they did to me?! Whatever you may have been told, mercy is the one thing he does not have. All I have seen here is cruelty.”
I let her blasphemy slide. She was in pain. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
She scoffed. “You’ve never had to watch your child suffer. Be glad.”
Pictures washed over me as I recalled a day I have tried so hard to forget. I spoke like one in a dream.
“He often leaves us wondering too. When he sent the divine son into the womb of a woman, we were all astonished. We wondered what it meant, but he did not reveal his plan to us. We watched him grow and live like one of you. We watched him fall and cry and could not understand how he should be subject to such things. But we trusted the father. He loves the son more than you could ever love anyone. He would do anything for him. And the son would do anything for his father.
“But when he cried in the garden, he looked so scared. We were certain then that the father would let us help him. We asked, but he refused. It got even more confusing. The precious son was treated like a criminal, beaten, humiliated.” I pinned her with my eyes. “You must understand. The son, the father’s love, the one whose glory fills the heavens, at whose feet all men should crumble, was being beaten by those same men.
“We were outraged. Every angel was ready to fight, but we had gotten no command. Finally, Michael was summoned and we were told what was to be. The Father was making a trade. The son for all of you. The enemy could do whatever he wanted to the son, and in return, he must cancel your debts. It made no sense. If all of you were combined into one, you would be worth nothing compared to the son. The whole universe is worth nothing. But the father was giving his most prized possession for you. He was consenting to turn his face, to harden his heart to the cries of his son, to save you. You think you know pain? You know nothing. We saw the father’s pain. His child, even more innocent than your Maya, was beaten and stripped and nailed and hung to die.
“It was no wonder the father did not tell us. It killed us to watch, to stand back and do nothing. We begged. We offered to take his place. We tried to reason with the father. We told him you were not worth it, that the son was too precious. We courted blasphemy that day. But we soon remembered that what we felt was nothing – nothing compared to the father’s pain. If you had seen his pain… He could have killed you all – every last one of you. He wanted to, but he heard the son’s plea. So he turned his face and let them kill him.
“He asks much of you, but he asks a lot less than he has given. You and all your possessions are his. He made you, and then he bought you with his son. Yet he asks as if he has no right to it. And what’s more – whatever he takes from you he will give back in abundance.”
Her anger must have dissipated at some point and she was crying now. I was crying too, I realized.
“He loved you, little one, you have no idea how much. And your suffering hurts him too. He will not rest till he makes all this right.”
She is with our Lord now and she knows the joy that I spoke of. And want you to share this with your charges. Let them know that they are loved.