THERE WERE ALWAYS TWO of Leah, and both of them breathed in the frigid air that day.
She tried bundling up, cinching up the pull knots in her soiled and tattered sweatshirt tightly to her throat, but the cold darted in anyway, penetrating deeper into her body. Leah shivered as she looked upward. Dark clouds swirled overhead as snow flurried off in the distance. Somewhere out over the river the winds were gathering again. Those winds had been relentless since dawn. So Leah clutched her Bible, the old King James her mother had given her on her eighth birthday, tightly against her shivering chest. Her mind, torn against itself, separated from the moment and went back to the past. As she trudged forward, Leah remembered the sound of her mother’s voice piercing her ears like it was yesterday.
“Cover up, child. The cold air will kill you. Do you want to die or something?”
Leah saw that gray January day, so many years ago, when she had been standing ankle deep in the snow. The barren trees were bending in the biting wind behind her, as her mother rushed angrily forward, a scolding finger pointed directly into Leah’s frightened face.
“Where’s your boots, child? I paid good money for them boots, and you done ran off and left them on the front porch again. How many times have I got to tell you: Snow kills younguns. You want to die next? Well, do you?”
Leah glanced up past her mother and into the grayness, afraid to look her mother in the eyes. “No, ma’am.”
“Well, it sure seems like it to me. Sometimes, girl, I swear you want to die. And the smallest die first, remember that. Where’s my switch? Oh, if I only had me my switch.”
Her mother had sure been right about smallest. Leah was ever so slight as a child. Her wrists and arms were tiny and narrow and she was as delicate as a fawn, but she was also pretty and full of life. Her big eyes, chestnut brown and radiant, had an irrepressible vivacity about them that every friend remembered. The neighbor ladies spoke of her often, saying she was as sweet as frosting on a cinnamon bun, sweeter still when she had to be. The neighbor ladies all said that when Leah wanted something from you, her fragile face tugging at your heart, just the slightest of sniffles could make you reach down and give it to her. Then she’d smile and skip away.
You’d laugh, thinking you’d been taken, but then Leah would turn ’round and mouth a kindly “thank you” from afar. She meant it, too. Mostly though, she believed in friendly faces and joyous laughter, and it showed to everyone who knew her, everyone, that is, except for Margaret, her mother, who beat her that day anyway, switch or not.
But time had sure changed Leah now. Still frail, but now older, like a sick and shaken deer, starving and forgotten, her once beautiful hair matted together in greasy clumps and the road-dirt caked on her skin like centuries of forest rot over a fallen tree. She looked so much older than fifty. She coughed painfully, her head pounding and shaking from the thunder in her chest, and her breath was hard to come by.
Leah trudged on for another city block, pondering how it might be fitting to die this time, the icy winds needling her face, freezing her bones, as one clear message repeated itself over and over again: It’s better to leave this place.
Somehow, as sick as she felt, Leah managed to tramp on that afternoon and one wish grew ever stronger: She wanted to lie in some fresh grass somewhere, to gaze up at the nighttime sky, to think about her life and what it had all meant, so that finally, she could understand her life completely. She sought someplace peaceful, away from people and away from shame, and where, if the Lord was willing, the sky might clear enough for a momentous contemplation, for Leah sought a feeling of wholeness as if it were her destiny.
She knew of a nice, quiet little park, protected from the wind, where nobody would notice her. She had been by once before, and had noticed then that it seemed especially serene.
She girded herself to try and find it against the stabbing wind, but the storm was a hammer that knocked her backward and Leah took refuge in an alleyway.
After a long pause of much needed rest, Leah trudged on for six more city blocks. She faintly recalled seeing a brick building near that quiet little park that day she had passed by.
Squinting, she thought she saw it again. Leah opened her sticky eyes as wide as she could and kept on trudging. She was glad she wasn’t toting much. Most of her belongings she had hidden behind an old storehouse, not far from the Willamette Valley Ale House, and as the weak sun descended beyond the horizon, Leah made out what looked like a few of the brick buildings situated near the tiny park.
“Please God, let it be,” she prayed into another chilling gust.
The purple that hugged the last of the sky had nearly faded, when just ahead Leah thought she saw some trees. She took a few more longing steps, her eyes straining for every last ember of daylight, stumbling as she spit blood again, her head ringing like a church bell at noon, her will failing and her spirit sagging with each new freezing gale.
“I’m so tired,” Leah prayed frantically into the darkness above her head. “I don’t know if I can go on anymore. Please God, help me. I need you now.”
Where before the patch had seemed dark, a light from one of the buildings suddenly shone down on it like a tiny spotlight.
All of the other windows in the building were black. There were no pedestrians or cars passing by, no planes overhead, and no moon. The glow in the office provided just enough light for Leah to see what lay in front of her.
She peered across the street at the obscure patch of ground. The little park sat there like a lost key.
“Oh God, my sweet and loving God,” Leah prayed thankfully into the night, her hands shaking at her face, as she wiped more gunk away from her eyes. “You haven’t forgotten about me.”
The grass in the park had grown winter wild. Leah made her way back to the far corner of the park where a long line of shrubs and low trees protected the area against the harshness of the wind. The dripping black wetness had moved further to the east. The winds at once seemed much less colder.
Once in the middle of the trees, Leah could see high into the sky as the last of the clouds were blown away, the faraway stars glittering brightly against the blackness of the night. Leah flopped down onto the ground, her wet bag unfurling as she did, and she laid back on it, resting her weary head.
Everything in her body ached. The search for the little park had taken a lot out of her. She sighed a long, deep sigh, the kind that quakes your body out after a good cry, and cradled her Bible to her side. She would start her remembering with her childhood, in the Nashville neighborhood she had once treasured so dearly, and as the night deepened Leah closed her eyes and thought of her home, her family’s home, where her life had begun.