The Wren

by Cheryl Murfin


The field between the school playground where Emmy is standing and the the stream below the church seems as wide as an ocean.

Emmy is walking alone as she does every Sunday--her mom says it’s safe to be alone on the military base where they live. Those big GI’s will always help you, she says. They’re just like your dad.

Emmy’s mother doesn’t go to church. Emmy thinks she would go if she could, but her mother got divorced and that isn’t allowed in church. So each week Emmy goes to catechism alone. She doesn’t know why she goes. Her mom never makes her. In fact her mother thinks Emmy is a little crazy for getting up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Every time her mother tells her:

  “Go back to bed, Emmy. Kids need their sleep… God will understand.”

Then she rolls over and tries to take her own advice. But Emmy won’t listen. She can’t. She knows that God would understand. “But he would miss me,” she says to no one listening.  

Emmy thinks about God a lot. She can’t help it because he’s always talking to her, right into her ear. They chit-chat just like she does with her friend Sarah. Except God listens.

“How are you today?” God might say.

“I’m OK,” Emmy says. “My Dad used the wooden spoon last night. My leg hurts.”

“I know, I saw. It made me real mad” God replies.

“Me too.”

He doesn’t try to fix things, just hears her out in a knowing sort of way. God commiserates her mom would say.  

Sarah tells Emmy she should run away. God doesn’t. He just gives her a place to go to if she needs a little space for figuring stuff out, someplace that she knows is inside herself but feels farther away. Like a vacation. God is a safe place to hide from spoons and screaming and middle-of-the-night wake-ups. In her mind she flies up to God, body and all, and they sit there together and watch what is happening in her life – like it’s a movie. But then he always sends her back to her body.

“Why can’t I stay here,” she sometimes asks. But she knows the answer.

“Because you are needed there.”

So, every Sunday, Emmy heads out to church by herself – not because she can’t chat with God anytime she wants to, but because the priest says it’s a good idea to get to know his story and the best place to do that is in God’s house.

So far, here’s what Emmy thinks about that story:

God’s childhood seems a lot better than hers, but his later years really stank. She wonders where he went in the hard times – like, did another God visit him and take him away during the hard parts and then send him back to his body when it was all over too?

She likes the stories and she likes that she alone chooses to go to God’s house just like he chooses to come to visit hers. Fair’s fair, her mom likes to say. It’s like a sleep over – first you go to your friend’s house and then the rule is they have to come and sleep at your house.

It’s almost Easter and today her class is going to learn about The Great Sacrifice, which is a word that seems to have so many meanings Emmy can’t keep them straight in her 8-year-old head.

Her mom is always talking about sacrifice – how Emmy doesn’t appreciate how much her mother sacrificed her own happiness for Emmy’s, doesn’t know what a sacrifice it is to discipline Emmy.

“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” her mother will say as the leather belt or wooden spoon or the back of her hand wasp-stings across Emmy’s behind.

And her dad is always whispering what a sacrifice it is for him to teach Emmy the things she needs to know about life; like when he crawls into her bed in the wee hours of the morning, pawing her like a dog and grunting like a stupid pig.  

“We all have to sacrifice,” her parents will say. “We all have our crosses to bear.”

Emmy’s sister takes her doll, Ronnie, every night. When she does, Emmy tries to remind herself of that – we all have to sacrifice. But really she think it’s stealing. She hopes maybe in Sunday school she’ll learn the difference.

It takes her 23 minutes to get from her house to the church. She knows this because she got a new watch for Christmas and it has a stopwatch on it. It takes 11 minutes to get to school. 17 minutes to get to the commissary.

Emmy goes down her street and over the big drainage bridge which she hates to cross at night, even in a group, since her mom snuck her in to see “It’s Alive,” a movie about a killer baby that gets around through the sewer system and claws people to death. Every time she crosses the bridge she swears she can hear that horrible baby’s “Wha,Wha, Waaaaaaaaaaaaa….” It makes her insides buzz. For a while she heard the same sound coming from the bathroom toilet and so she had to go in every night and sleep on her parents bedroom floor much to her dad’s frustration.

“You are too old for being scared!” he’d say, flaring out one hand to smack her head. But Emmy is fast and so eventually she learns to just go directly over to her mother’s side. She’ll never watch a scary movie ever again she promises herself.

After the drainage bridge she has to cross the school playground before coming to the wide grass field which no one ever cuts. If she lived in another state Emmy would say it was a wheat field because she has seen them in pictures and they look alot like this, just taller. People have walked a path through the field, stamping down the grass to nothing right through the middle.

She always hesitates when she gets to the edge of that field. She knows there are no killer babies out there, but she can’t count how many times she has been warned about snakes and other poisonous creatures.

  “This is Oklahoma!” her teacher, Mrs. Evans, tells the class at least once a week, warning kids to stay in the playground. “You can’t be too careful.”

Mrs. Evans runs a snake drill every Monday. Emmy doesn’t think any of the other classes do the drill. Her mom says Mrs. Evans is paranoid of snakes and thinks about them too much and that she’s crazy. But Emmy likes Mrs. Evans and thinks of snakes all the time too. That’s because She learned in church that snakes represent the devil and so whenever Emmy is thinking of doing something she probably shouldn’t she thinks of a snake hissing in her ear. Did you know there are seven types of poisonous snakes in Oklahoma? Sure must be lots of sinning in Oklahoma Emmy thinks.  Sometimes she sees snakes appear out of nowhere.

Like when her dad pulls out the wooden spoon, it turns into a snake. And when he crawls in her bed and pulls down his pants, that thing between his legs turns into a snake too. Emmy thinks maybe her dad is the devil. This is what she tells God.

“You know who wins that war, don’t you,” God assures her when she brings it up now and then.

The snake drill is pretty simple: Mrs. Evans asks students what they should do if they hear or see a snake. Then everyone gets up from his or her desk and stands very, very still for 10 whole minutes. They don’t move a muscle, not even to blow a tickling hair off a hot sweaty face. Not even to take in a deep breath. The first person that moves has to write a snake safety essay for Mrs. Evans. But first she shouts, “Quick, get the anti-venom kit for Johnny!”

  And then we laugh.

So she thinks about snakes and the devil when she starts across the field on the path on her way to church. But to get her mind off it, shes starts talking to God.

 “Are snakes really evil?”

“I’m not sure I believe in evil.”

“What do you mean you don’t believe in evil? You’re GOD!”

“Yes, I know, but honestly, when I created everything it was good, especially snakes! Think about them. They are so smooth and they move so fast. They are colorful and if you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.  I think people just like to put scapegoat to their own bad decisions. But I don’t know about evil. Even bad decisions are part of what makes the world move forward in beautiful precision.”

Emmy has to think about this – she just learned the word precision on Friday and she knows he’s testing her. He’s always using words from her weekly spelling list.

She is half way across the field, trying to picture “precision” on her spelling list, when she sees a flash of black out of the corner of her eye.

At first it does not register. It’s just a blur, a movement. She takes a step forward just as the trill of anxiety starts to flow through her body. If she were older, in high school like her sister Kimmy, she would know this is her body’s fight or flight system warning her and she’d try to stay calm, breathe slowly. Kimmy knows a lot about the body. But Emmy is not older, and so her heart is racing and she starts to feel dizzy instead.

The funny dizzy buzzy feeling is just hitting her stomach when Emmy sees him - a black snake ringed in a grayish pattern, his head sticking out of the grass less than six inches from where she has just placed her foot.

She stops. Frozen. She can hear her heart in her ears.

Like a dirigible pulling a sign behind it, Emmy sees a ribbon of commands roll when she blinks. Don’t breathe. No movement. No thinking. No talking, not even to God, who she knows would give her fine advice right now if she could just ask. But she can’t.

 All she can hear besides her own thundering heart is Mrs. Evans’ mantra “Stock still, kids! Stock still!”

The snake looks at Emma. His tongue flicks, sensing for movement. Emma is sure the serpent can feel her blood rushing and pounding within her. She is sure that snake will shimmy up her bare leg and plant her teeth right in her shaking thigh. She is wearing a dress. Sunday is the only day she ever wears a dress.

The snake eases out a bit further, three inches from Emma’s sandaled foot, which is sweating and trying very hard not to twitch.

He slithers further out of the grass heading straight for the girl’s sole, her tongue flicking the whole time. Emma feels the lick of it on the top of her foot. She wants to scream, to run. One bite of those fangs and she knows she will fall quickly. The poison is fast acting, Mrs. Evans told them. Whatever you do, don’t mess with a water moccasin. That’s like the second lesson of first grade. You learn it right after the capitol of Oklahoma.

But then Emma steps outside herself. She can’t sit with God right now and watch what happens because she can’t talk to him. But I can float above myself, she thinks. And so she does. She floats up like a balloon and watches the snake. He is so beautiful. The gray flecks are like ash on a mountain and his body makes a perfect S as he stops for a moment on the top of Emma’s foot. He must be looking for the stream.

It feels like hours that Emma watches him, ages that the thing rests there on top of her foot. She knows it is not even two seconds.

The snake crosses over one foot and Emma lets out a little sigh of relief.

She forgot the rules.

No movement. But it’s too late to undo it. The snake senses the change of breath and turns his head in Emma’s direction, mouth open, fangs bared, head drawn back, no longer a gentle S but a coiled circle of pain.

He is big, three feet long, and now that Emma is really seeing him and not just gazing through a fog of fear high above herself, she sees that his mouth is huge. Huge and inches from Emma’s right ankle.

Had Emma been a high schooler she might have thought this is the snake’s fight or flight system kicking in, and maybe given him a little sympathy, poor scared thing. Instead, she succumbs to shock and starts to feel her head spin, her mind flickering like one of those firecrackers you nail up on a post to watch it spin and spark. Knowing it is almost over, Emma breathes fully and tells herself what she tells herself so many nights: Fly away.

She knows it will hurt. She believes she will die because Mrs. Evans never told them what happens after a bite. Maybe that’s a second grade lesson. All she can think is that it’s too far back home or to church and no one comes here on Sunday. She wonders when someone will find her.

  And then, another blur moves into her peripheral vision. A flash and flutter.

She looks forward and just a foot in front of her big toe, where the snake is poised to strike, a tiny wren has landed with a thump. As if he were trying to get their attention, the snake’s and hers. She’s never heard a bird land so loudly.

The bird cocks his head up toward Emma and looks him straight in the eye.  If birds could smile, she would swear that little bird did. That perfect little wren cocked his head and smiled, an impossibly quick smile, and in his tiny eye Emma saw a reflection of something - what? Of herself, she thought, and of something more.

Faster than movement, lightning quick, the snake surges forward and strikes the small thing right in his proudly puffed out chest and in that flash of a moment Emma jumps up and over the now-entangled creatures. Suddenly she is four feet away from where she once stood on the path. She turns briefly to look at them, the bird’s wings beating, slowing, the snake’s mouth around his head. A split second Emma watches and then she is up and running, running like an Olympic star, her heart racing, her eyes tearing, her feet like lead but moving, moving. In seconds she is at the creek and she two-steps across the board bridge and makes like a crazy girl up the hill and to the church.

 She is sweating and shaking when she gets to that door. She slumps down on the steps. She’s not sure why, but she realizes she doesn’t need to go in anymore. Not for today’s lesson.

 The lesson today is that her parents are liars. Because suddenly Emma understands that it is a lie what they have told her – that sacrifice is what you lose, what gets taken away, what gets hurt. This truth makes her heart melt into both anger and sadness.

 “No,” God tells her, piping in as if they’ve been having a long conversation this whole time. “True sacrifice is always about giving, never taking.”

  “That poor little bird…”

  “Was the strongest, freest bird in the universe.”

  “But why?”

  “Because he didn’t have to give - he chose to. And that’s the strongest power you can ever have.”

  Emma thinks on this a long, long time before she leaves the church and walks the long way home, along the road instead of through the field.

 All the while, even with her own eyes open, she can see his tiny eye looking into hers. She can see his smile. Was that a look of joy? Joy in sacrifice? And why did she see only herself in that eye?

 No answers come. It’s all very confusing. No answers, but this:

 Emma wants to be that wren. All my life, she thinks, I want to be like that wren.