The Minstrel

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Williams was in the conference room with the rest of the elders. They were holding a prayer vigil for Emmanuel Jackson and giving thanks for the release of Tony Jones Velda, who once more had taken his rightful place in the church choir, joyfully giving thanks to the Lord, jumping high with glee, playing his tambourine. A simple man, but a beautifully joyous one. All were glad to have him back in their midst again. (Casper takes him under his wing, Velda was never part of church before this). He had been missing for too long, these years. The Lord always rejoiced when a stray sheep was returned to the flock. All the elders praised the Lord in acknowledging the good news.

Silence ensued as all the men in the room gave thanks privately to the Lord, beginning their meeting. Williams felt led to speak, to reveal the knowledge that was given to him in confidence not long before. Emmanuel Jackson’s life was hanging in the balance, a man whom Williams had nearly considered a son. His crime was a secret amongst the congregation, even perhaps the elders knowledge that would incriminate his permanently in their minds. It was question of justice. God had put the Christian men in this world to show the right way. Certainly, a horrid crime had been committed against this minstrel person, two to be exact. But it gave him no right to take justice in his hands, to irrationally spew it about him, sending it in directions where the innocent lost their lives. That was the poison of anger, even justified anger. It oozed in directions far beyond the original reaches it was meted upon; it took over the man and became him in one swipe, taking its liberties in striking down whatever was in its path, more than willing to lay the blame on the host it fed on. He who knew all including the heart of Satan, knew what a parasite anger was, however justified.

Mark Timothy Haines was dead. Williams tried to feel sorry for the boy, but in his brief nineteen years, his criminal career had taken off like hellfire. His death was by no means Williams’ first encounter with him; just a year ago, Haines and his cronies vandalized three or four of the buildings on the street, one of them being the Covenant Church. He was a known cocaine dealer in the better areas, an infamous crack dealer where the living was harder. Once Williams himself had tried to preach to the boy, to tell him that Jesus was the better way. In return, Haines spit at him and told him he was a dirty nigger. Williams wanted to slap him; he’d felt the anger welling up in him, but he had done nothing. And Haines had seen Williams’ anger. It brought a smile to his face, evil belying innocence. It was the smile of the devil.

He had to choose, to tell, to not tell. The indecision would paralyze him. He could actually feel the Holy Spirit being sucked from him at that instant. Jesus, be with me, he prayed. Jesus, help me.

He found himself speaking, saying words he hadn’t planned to speak. All eyes were intent upon him, at first for breaking the interlude of silence, then for what was being said to them. They were learning they hired a murderer for their pastor. Williams read their expressions, a myriad of them. Anger. Indignance. Disbelief. Pity. Compassion. Such a variance of emotion expressed on these eleven men’s faces, a variance which Williams found himself was routinely subjected to. Once he allowed the news to settle in, he interjected his theory before anyone could protest why, when the black man was trying to eradicate the image of slum trash in the minds of the white power, had they entrusted their most to a killer who hadn’t even served time for the crime? He knew the question was in their minds, he could read it in their faces, he wanted to know the answer to the question himself. Its answer could wait. Now, justice had to be served. That was supremely more important.

Emmanuel was a victim of vendetta. This mad had lost his family to him. He’d come upon him once again, and he was mad. Who could fully blame him? But it was a crime. And, he was a suspect in the killing of this young boy. Granted, Haines’ life wasn’t much to speak of, but even the evil had been given a right to a full life in which they could right their lives. No one had the right to take that away. And, this man stole the life of the righteous as well.

Others weren’t convinced. They weren’t as united in solidarity as Williams hoped they would be. He had thought they would all unite and fight for their fellow brother. They were thinking and intellectualizing what they just heard.

After much debate, they asked Williams what he expected them to do. And then he spoke his mind. Told them that they should stick up for a man who was a victim of circumstances. My God, he was at death’s door at a hospital.

The elders looked at one another, more explicitly, at the two white men and one Latino who had literally become white at this outburst. The reaction was a clear answer.

This was not a black church. He had been wrong to approach them this way. Twenty percent of the church was white. The three elders, at 32 and 34 years of age, were the youngest of the bunch, but they were still elders. And they were not black. Williams found himself momentarily embarrassed. Stumbling, he explained it would be added ammunition against a murderer. Knowing this story, there would be circumstantial evidence against this minstrel. He had a motive, big time.

Radcliffe, one of the white elders, shook his head. “How long ago did you say this crime happened?”

“Fifteen, sixteen years ago. I’m not really sure,” Williams admitted.

Radcliffe shook his head again. “It doesn’t make sense, that this man would suddenly take his revenge. Why now? Why so long?”

“Evil has no timetable,” Williams snapped, a little more harshly than he’d intended.

“I heard a rumor that he performed a miracle,” Eduardo Conchito put in. The sole Latino in the group, he stood out with his brittle staccato personality, fierce black eyes, and a mouth that he constantly scrunched up, matching the derision he usually mirrored. His skin color was that of cappuccino, perfectly centered between the whites and the blacks that he had to compete with for standing and power. Williams admitted only to himself that he was afraid of Conchito. It was rumored that his uncle had been a violent gang member, and was grooming his son for the business. Though death was something that Williams had no fear of and pain nothing that he was a stranger to, Williams was afraid nonetheless.

And he had heard the rumor, too. A beautiful pregnant girl had allegedly been assaulted by Haines and some of his cronies in the most vile of ways. She had been on the verge of death. Then along came the minstrel, and suddenly she was brought back to life, fully restored and healed. The whole story rang of preposterousness. Certainly, he believed in miracles as much as anyone else, but since when had they been performed by a crazy maniac who had killed in cold blood at least one, possible more people? For healing to take place, the Holy Spirit must be present, through a baptized Christian. Certainly the Holy Spirit would not be present when such diabolical evil existed in a man’s heart? The rumor couldn’t possibly be true. He managed a kind smile in the face of the passionate Latino, not wanting to offend him. Conchito was looking for a hero just as the blacks had for many years. Conchito, like Williams’ brothers, were going to have to learn to look to themselves and to the one true God. Human heroes were too delusional and led to disappointment.

“The only one willing to confirm the miracle is her lover and his homeboys. Other than that, we have no proof that she was injured to begin with,” he tried to convince Conchito, the paternal smile still on his face.

“Then why was she in the hospital if she wasn’t hurt? My aunt spent most of her shift examining her. She was full of scars, all recently healed. My aunt said so.”

He sounded like a child, ‘my aunt said so’. Carmen Sanchez was a good woman, but Williams tended to be skeptical of the religious claims of a woman who chanted incantations to Mary and every other Catholic ordained saint while lighting rows of candles and bowing before marble statues despite the second commandment. Besides, she had only been a nurse for eight years. How would she know about something only a trained doctor could diagnose?

He looked at Conchito once again, his eager loyalty spilling onto all his features that made him look like a fierce warrior ready to defend his kingdom. Williams wondered and admired at the apparent willingness for Conchito to fight for one of his own, even for one he didn’t know and who probably was a criminal. Williams wished he could see more of that dedication among his own black brothers.

“She was in the hospital for shock and general observation. She wasn’t used to seeing all the violence there,” he explained quietly, regretting the words as soon as he said them and almost expected what came from the youth next.

“The girl was born in the Bronx. She has lived in the projects her whole life. Her father died of drugs. Her mother is an addict now, and her fiancÉ is in a gang. And you have the audacity to say she isn’t used to seeing violence? Where to you get off?” By this time, Conchito was standing. The rest of the elders were visibly nervous. John McDermott and Elijah Corbitt, each seated adjacent to Conchito, stood up alongside him, resting their hands on him to get him to sit down once again. Their efforts were futile. Conchito, in a last frustrated gesture, threw the two elders off of him and sauntered out of the room, knocking into Williams’ chair before he left. Williams felt the jolt as a shock. All sat in the stunned silence of the aftermath, all afraid to utter a word for fear it would ignite something or someone further. Much time passed before Williams broke the calm, adjourning the elders’ meeting and postponing its finish to after Sunday service. An embarrassing and defeating gathering had thankfully disbanded. A quick prayer was said, and all bolted (relatively speaking for conservative ministers) out the door into freedom.

Williams sat in silence during the aftermath. Entrapment and defeat welled inside the protective exterior that the world always admired as strong. He had let them down, his people and colleagues. Somehow, he had lost his footing as their leader. Perhaps they would convene later and appoint a new leader, maybe a new associate pastor to take his place, and maybe a new pastor altogether.

He went to the hospital, sitting beside the boy he had come to love as a son, crying for him to leave that the boy could not do in his present state. All these years, Emmanuel Jackson had worked hard to overcome his gangster image to become a respectable member of his community, and now that he was in trouble, no one wanted to come to his aid, all because of his past. God threw his sins into the sea of forgetfulness. Why couldn’t they? He never should have said anything, he thought as he stared into the face of his surrogate son.

Suddenly he gave a start from the impact of a fleeting thought that wasn’t so fleeting. A child was dead and an aggrieved father was running the streets like a crazy man, all because of this man lying here in this bed. Even Williams himself who taught Emmanuel everything that he knew, had been duped. Where had been his trust, that he had refused to confide in a the man who had taken him off the streets, gave him a home, encouraged him to study for the pastorate and smiled with pride and joy as he was appointed leader to a congregation that he, the mentor, helped build? Why hadn’t he told him sooner? Why had Emmanuel lied to him and everyone else who trusted in him? Williams stared down at the immobile body, almost feeling the coldness emanating from the shell there. It seemed deeper than the wounds that rendered him unconscious. The coldness seemed to be Emmanuel Jackson himself.

Williams began to back away. The ice that hung over what was his surrogate son seemed to suddenly lift and head straight for Williams himself. Satan, get from me, in the name of Jesus, I command you, he breathed. But the entity still came.

He ran, leaving his vigil bare and deserted, stopping to gratefully gulp air that didn’t stink of evil. He stood straight, regaining his composure once more, becoming the venerable respectable Elder Williams once again before he exited the hospital and entered the world once more, feeling secure in God’s protection once more.

But not before he heard the hollow laughter come from the room he’d just escaped.

Emmanuel Jackson felt the presence of Williams leave the room. He was watching his body from an inner eye he never knew he had. Terrified, he watched as Williams left the room. For a brief moment, he had felt peace and security once more. Now, he was alone again, watching the shell of his body lie there. He didn’t have any concept whether he was dead or alive. Trying to reason proved futile; every time he tried to logically think through anything, his whole thought process seemed to totally shut off, as if he was trying to access some part of himself that was totally blocked from him.

If he was dead, was this heaven or hell? Had he, in all his lessons, been lied to about the real ending of life? Where had the face of God been when he was judged? How come he did not remember him, whether in the sheer anguish of having lost the most beautiful entry into the universe, or in total ecstasy of finally uniting with him forever? Most certainly, Emmanuel Jackson was not in heaven. But neither was his pain the greatest he’d ever felt. It had been greater whengreater when— who? Lost to him–. His head, or what he thought was his head, hurt. But why was his body below if he felt pain above? Was there really a purgatoryoh God, he hurt. No more thinking.

God, where are you? Who are you? Are you there? Do you exist for me? Do you exist anywhere?

Who are you?

The day was just breaking its waters to birth the night when the farmer returned the minstrel to the depot. The farmer offered for him to stay at the big farmhouse, as the nights were now dipped in frost, but the minstrel had already stayed there for two nights. The longer he stayed away from the city, the more he drifted from the path that the angel of Raulita led for him. He could not afford to lose that path. So he returned to the city, despite whatever travails nature had planned for him. For he was not afraid– he knew God would not let anything jeopardize his safety until he found his destiny.

The farmer and he shook hands goodbye, their customary farewell. In five days, the farmer would return for him once more. The minstrel departed from the truck, satisfied at his accomplishment of supporting himself, his pocket full of cash to carry him until the farmer returned. He was grateful to God for the ability to work. Many others he knew were not fortunate enough to have that privilege. He passed by those ghosts as he made his way back to the house that he and Pedro were sharing, ghosts who had been lured by the demons of alcohol, vacant eyes whose souls had been buried under layers of dark sediment of pain. He said a prayer for those unfortunates, as well as a prayer for those who did not have a place to sleep that night. One day he hoped they would know the love of God as he did.

The darkness settled as he passed by the alley where he and the angel of Raulita had found the body of the man from the abandoned church. He stopped, surprised his walking had taken him here. The wind seemed to curl around in direction, as though fate was challenging the tide of life. The alley rested in a bleak slumber, the windows boarded up as though no one wanted to ever look upon the sight. Garbage rested everywhere, inside a dumpster and outside it as well, the only inhabitants of this wasteland. He thought of the man who had fallen here, wondered if he had survived. He wondered what evil had taken the man so that he would die in such a place as this. This was also the last time he had seen the angel of Raulita. Perhaps this was why he was led here, to see her again.

He sensed the presence of another without seeing it. Inside his mind he felt the voice of the Holy Spirit tell him that the person meant him harm, but not to be afraid. The minstrel asked Him to guide his actions, knowing that the Spirit of God would have a plan for him. His vision fixated on the dumpster, near the spot where the angel and he had found the body. He could not see anyone there, but it was illuminated with an aura of light that gave away any soul’s hiding place. Despite the divine brightness, he sensed evil; not evil in the sense of fallen mankind, but evil that was completely devoid of God’s love. He prayed in the language of the Spirit as the early Christians had when they undertook spiritual battle, knowing that he would need to be fortified to confront this situation in victory.

The Spirit prompted him to go forward and meet the unseen figure. Each step he took was with conviction. The aura surrounding the dumpster became darker, as though the evil one residing there was engulfed in fear of a desperate kind. Evil itself was always fear, because it was devoid of love, but sometimes fear gave the impression of false power through brutality. The fear he sensed now was an acute sense of powerlessness, like the being had lost its footing on a cliff and was dangling in the air. Perfect love cast out all fear, and the minstrel felt compassion for the one who was here. Whoever it was, he or she was one of the unfortunates who had never known the love of God. The minstrel took pity on the soul without ever setting eyes on its owner.

He heard the footsteps before the figure even came into view, footsteps fleeing from the place that was no longer hidden, then the sound of metal clanging to the ground, a talisman dropped in haste. The minstrel caught a glimpse of the figure as it dashed away: a man, not terribly large but with a build that would make him a contender in any fight, and he wondered why the man had not simply challenged him to a fight. The harm he had meant had been a death wish. The minstrel looked the way the man ran, and suddenly had a memory of when he was here with the angel, of a man who nearly run him over with a motorcycle before speeding away. Then the man turned, reaching into his pocket. The minstrel recalled the reflex action from a memory where he heard Raulita screaming, and he ducked just as two bullets soared past him, their trajectory being his former staid. Yelling came from the street where the marksman fired, yelling in a familiar deep Spanish voice, and the same footsteps that had escaped the dumpster now fled into another direction. The minstrel remained where he was for several moments listening to his breathing, grateful that he was still alive to do so. He could feel God’s hand on his shoulder, a balm to the adrenaline that was bursting within him. When his breathing returned to its natural pace, he felt the Hand give him a gentle nudge, prodding and assisting him to rise and leave.

Emerging from his place of protection, he discovered the metal object that had been dropped by the marksman. It was a butcher knife, the kind he used when he carved steaks in the days when he cooked for Raulita and Lupe. This knife had been intended as an instrument of evil, to take his life. He looked at the knife a second more before throwing it into the dumpster.

Someone was walking towards him asking if he was all right. It was one of Pedro’s friends Luis, a young man from Paraguay whom he met at the deport. The minstrel assured him that he was all right, As they spoke, the overwhelming sense of evil melted like snow in San Juan, and the minstrel gave thanks to God for his protection as he and Luis walked together towards Pedro’s home for the night.

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