The Master would be coming soon, coming for Leah. I had known the time was approaching; her spirit lit the darkness like a new sun.
A light patter drummed on the roof, trying its best to persuade the world to slow down. The message was broken by the spray of road water from passing cars: cars piloted by those deaf to nature’s plea.
The coffee pot clicked on in the kitchen, and as the aroma wafted into the bedroom, Leah stirred. One milky blue eye squinted open. “Francis, where you at? Here kitty, kitty. Come and see Mama.”
A geriatric feline plodded into the room, bringing with it the smell of fresh rain and droplets of mud. She had been roaming outside again. Even rain couldn’t tame the creature. She turned her head in my direction and hissed. I hissed back - just enough to cause Francis’ damp fur to stand on end. She mounted the bed as fast as her scrawny back legs could manage. I chuckled. There were perks to this job and scaring cats was one of them.
With one hand Leah stroked the nasty animal and with the other, she grabbed her Bible and reading glasses from the bedside table. Fingers, thin and frail, caressed the yellowed pages as she soaked and basked in their afforded comfort. Hymns followed, sung in a strained, high-pitched voice. But the melody was still sweeter than what flowed from the most prestigious of songbirds. Heaven must have agreed for soon, the Spirit Himself joined the worship. By great effort, I resisted singing my own songs of praise, but Leah couldn’t know of my presence, not yet anyway.
She had stopped singing and was engrossed in the Gospels when I felt Him. I hit the floor as His brilliance filled the room. Does Leah see? Does she know who’s here?
I didn’t dare lift my eyes, but I heard Leah’s soft cries, her prayers, and her praises. As the light dimmed, His voice gripped my heart. “Hediah, I’ll be back for Leah this evening. Guard my child well; help her finish strong.”
There wasn’t time to ponder the command. As soon as Leah placed her Bible and glasses back on the nightstand, she shot up out of the covers faster than a treed squirrel. “Come on, Francis, time to get up! Today’s no day to be a’wastin.” The cat was unceremoniously dumped on the hardwood floor. She growled at the offense, stuck her nose in the air, and scooted out the door. Leah stretched out her arms and shuffled to the closet, grabbing the corner of the bureau on the way. Quickly, she donned a loose-fitting cotton dress and ran a comb through her wispy, gray hair. Right before she left the bedroom, she picked up the framed picture on the bureau and rubbed the back of her thumb across Robert’s face. All these years, and she never forgot.
Soon, the oven was humming, the dishes were rattling, and flour floated in the air thicker than gnats in a fruit market. The biscuits were first to appear. Were they for later or a breakfast treat? Maybe both as Leah paused in her work to enjoy a cup of brew and a steaming biscuit chilled by a layer of homemade jam.
An obnoxious ring squelched the serenity of Leah’s breakfast. The ‘time thief’ vibrated in its stand on the side counter, demanding her to answer its beckoning call. Leah popped in the last morsel of biscuit and hurried over.
Her muffled, “Hello” caused a few soggy crumbs to splatter on the receiver. She proceeded to try to listen while wiping them off with the back of her hand.
“Hi Mom, you there? It’s Hannah.”
“Hi baby, whatcha need? You still coming tonight? I’m fixing turkey and dressing.”
There was no answer, not right away. But the plants drooped, the lights dimmed, even Francis chose that moment to escape by way of the litter box.
“Mom, I’m sorry but I called to say I just can’t make it tonight. Evan’s working late hours, and I’m trying to pick up a few extra shifts as well. We want to pay off the mortgage before we’re too old to enjoy some freedom. Can we try again next week?”
Leah bit at her lower lip. I leaned down and whispered some verses I thought might be helpful.
“Mom? I really am sorry. I know I missed last week too. If you want, maybe I can come down on Sunday. Go to church with you. Would you like that?”
Leah straightened up and butted off the door frame she had been leaning against.
“Yes, baby. That would be just fine. And don’t worry a bit about tonight. I have a friend that may come by anyway.”
“Really? Who’s coming over?”
“Oh, don’t you go prying. That’s my little secret.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s fine, I’d appreciate the break. I’ll see you soon, ok. Call me if you need anything.”
“Hannah ….” Leah’s voice went a little high at the end causing her to pause and start over.
“Hannah, I love you baby girl. Always. And I’m so proud of you.”
“Mama, you sure you’re ok? I … I can come tonight if you need me to.”
“No, no. Don’t you think any more about it. I just wanted to let you know. I don’t say it as much as I should.”
“Well … I love you too, Mama. I’ll see you soon.”
There was another pause while Leah swallowed and breathed deep. “See you soon, Hannah.”
The phone clicked dead, and Leah slumped back onto the door frame and slid to the linoleum. Falling tears accompanied the rain on the roof as she rocked back and forth. And then there were the sobs – raw, soul-shaking sobs. I bent over and blanketed her with light. Love must hurt terrible.
Leah’s sobs tailored off and shifted to snores punctuated by an occasional sniff. She slept on till noon as I sung lullabies from generations past. She might have slept longer if a ray of light from the window hadn’t crawled up her lap and tickled her nose. The rain had stopped.
“My, oh my, what time is it, Francis?” Leah asked, looking around the kitchen floor for the cat. Francis appeared from inside the pantry with her face covered in breadcrumbs. Who knows what havoc she had wreaked during Leah’s nap?
Leah crawled over to the nearest kitchen chair and with much grunting and heaving, pulled herself up. “I’ve slept the day away and this wasn’t the day for that. We have work to do, Francis.”
The kitchen was once again a clamor of cooking chaos. Dishes appeared on the buffet, awaiting their appointed time: banana pudding with meringue draped like garland, stick cornbread, cranberry salad topped with roasted pecans, and even a bowl of collard greens coated with shiny bacon grease. The turkey stuffed with dressing was still roasting in the oven. As Leah tackled the dishes, she had to stop often to take deep breaths. Even with the nap behind her, she struggled for strength. She worked and she prayed. “Lord, help me. You know I don’t want anyone else cleaning up my mess.” Strength came as needed, but she still heaved a thankful sigh when she finally finished and sat down at her place.
Her arms cradled as her head began to dip. Bout the time her gray curls brushed the table, her head shot back up. “Francis, I’ve done forgot something.”
She glanced at the microwave clock and picked up the phone.
“Hi, Doctor Lee. I know it’s after hours, so I’ll just leave this message. I’m not feeling well this evening. I was wondering if you could stop by tomorrow sometime and check on me. I’ll probably be resting, so I’ll just leave the front door unlocked. Come right on in. I’d really appreciate it. Thank you, Dr. Lee.”
As the phone clicked back on the table, Francis jumped on her lap. She stroked through the gray fur, trying to untangle some of the knots. “Well, Francis. That’s taken care of. I can’t think of anything else. You stay close now, tomorrow. No roaming. I put some extra kibbles in your bowl this morning to last you through tomorrow. Hannah will surely remember and come get you. You’ll have such the nice new mansion.”
Francis purred and for once I detected a feeling of empathy from the feline. Perhaps the cat has some capacity to care.
Leah loved on Francis a few more minutes before padding off to her bedroom. When she reappeared in the kitchen, she was dressed in her favorite Sunday dress. Around her neck hung the string of pearls Robert had given her on their 50th. Her hair was fluffed and sprayed. She had even put on lipstick.
The doorbell rang, startling me more than Leah. This wasn’t the way I’d expected the Master to arrive.
Leah hurried to the front window and peeked out. A grin pushed back the wrinkles in her cheeks as she turned the deadbolt and swung open the door.
“Mason, come on in. You here by yourself? Where’s your Mama?”
“Hi Ms. Shephard. Mom told me to come by and fetch your mail.”
“Oh, thank you, Mason. Y’all are such wonderful neighbors - a blessing for sure.”
Mason’s brown face lit up bright enough to chase away the evening shadows gathering in the foyer. He stepped around Leah to place the stack of magazines and what looked like doctor’s bills on the arm of the couch.
“Wow, it smells like Heaven in here.” he said, leaning his head back and breathing in deep from both nostrils.
Leah chuckled and put her chalky white hand on his back. “I can assure you; this is not Heaven. But come on in for a second. I think I may just have some molasses cookies in the jar waiting on ya.”
Mason left a while later with a milk moustache, innumerable treats stuffed in his stomach, and a cool whip container bulging with cookies. Leah didn’t turn the deadbolt.
The darkness of dusk crept into the little house, but Leah set out candles - new candles right from their box - to light the kitchen. Under golden halos, she arranged the dishes and two places with her wedding china. She tuned the ancient radio that sat on top the microwave to 90.5 FM, her favorite Christian station. Praise songs floated alongside the aromas of the feast.
Leah sat down and bowed her head. The light from the candles exploded in brilliance. All was a sea of white light. The sound of rushing wind drowned out the praise songs. He had come. The impulse to sing and dance was too great to resist. I cried out for permission, and my head was lifted. My eyes met Leah’s. Her blue eyes, clear and alert, twinkled for joy. She whispered a thank you for my service.
Her hand was in the Master’s as He lifted her from her seat. He too looked me in the eyes but that was too much as I fell before Him. He placed his other hand on my shoulder and in another rush of wind, we were free.
The table in the Master’s home was set like Leah’s - full of food prepared with love.