*The following is the prologue to my novel formerly titled The Long Way Off
“Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. So they began to celebrate.” Luke 15:23-24
On the day when the last iris petal kissed the grass, the slaughtering of Elizabeth Matthews’ fattened calf occurred at an old stone church across the world from where her wayward journey began. Devoid of biblical fanfare, there were no party guests to share in the feast. In fact, the only witnesses were the petrified wooden pews with their everlasting crevasses trapping the whispered prayers of both the faithful and unfaithful for centuries. Beneath her face-cradling hands, tiny starbursts darkened the dusty stones as each salty tear carried away the grief and shame that prodigal living cruelly imbues until the time of redemption.
The feast’s celebratory music had been replaced by the call of a petite yellow-breasted bird in the rafters, a rising ra-ta-tat-tat like she used to hear a mile outside the stadium on Autumn Saturdays. She pondered the meaning of the blue tit’s song. Was it a prayer of humble repentance mimicking those who, once suffused in the beauty of Monet’s gardens, found their souls frightfully revolting? Was it a hymn absorbed after a lifetime living above the worshipful voices of the Église Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny? Was it the bird’s call to her long-lost love who still haunted the hollow of her bones without invitation? Or was it a jester’s taunt, unimpressed by a common American girl traveling across land and sea to forget whom she left behind?
The celebration’s only dancing was the waltz between the Father and his beloved daughter, not unlike the one she had futilely imagined at her wedding. Each graceful step was a benediction of the gospel displayed in her life. Beneath his shoulders, encircled by his loving arms, she now saw through the myth that a prodigal child is ever able to escape the love and mercy of the Father. The Lord had always been there, watching her in her foolish stubbornness protecting her when she didn’t care enough to protect herself, loving her unconditionally as she desperately tested just how wide and far and deep his love is.
Light illuminated the stained glass to her right. She imagined her own life depicted in the careful coordination of colored glass. All the tragedy, betrayal, temptation and fear that had ruled her began to quake. One by one, fragmented shards of crimson, emerald, and cobalt fell to the ground. The old has gone, the new has come.
Elizabeth, with only tears of joy remaining on her lightly freckled skin, arose taller than she had stood upon entering the church. The blue tit held its call as it listened to the creaking pew and the soft pats of Elizabeth’s feet against the limestone like a patient counselor allowing words to slowly drip from the client’s tongue. When the girl with a Midwestern accent and the loose curls dislodged the thick wooden door, a fresh breeze replaced the dank, musty air and her lungs rejoiced along with her soul.
On the threshold, she pulled out the ring Brian had given her almost four years ago. She turned the ring between her fingers slightly, allowing the sun’s rays to frolic across the precious stone. It was an artifact. Like those in a museum, it told a story. Her story.
An older woman hobbled up the crooked steps. In her eight months working at the Old Hotel Baudy, Elizabeth had come to know her as Henriette. Widowed thirty-two years, she prayed at the church every day at noon. Elizabeth grasped her small hand and uncurled her spindly fingers in a gentle manner consistent with her every encounter. In Henriette’s palm, she placed the ring, knowing it could feed her for a full year. She descended the steps before Henriette had finished thanking her. The ring wasn’t meant for her. If she was honest with herself, she knew it wasn’t the day she had accepted it from Brian, even before she first saw the green eyes that were so instrumental in piercing holes in her painstakingly preserved mirage of a joyful life.
Daniel. She felt an all too familiar pang of longing pierce beneath her sternum. Time and redemption could not quell his lingering presence.
Isn’t it exhilarating and perhaps even a little frightening how our whole world can change with just one choice? To fight or to surrender. To love or to discard. To stay or to return.
Daniel had spoken like the true prodigal that he was. Even now, years later, Elizabeth was still mesmerized by those words and the courage that birthed them. She could still see his eyes dancing to the impassioned rhythm of his voice. Maybe she and Daniel weren’t so different after all.
Ra-ta-tat-tat. Elizabeth turned her eyes back to the steeple, shielding her eyes. The blue tit appeared from under the eave. She paused a moment, cocked her head in Elizabeth’s direction and repeated her call before soaring away from the Church of Giverny, disappearing into the brilliance of the noonday sun.
The Holy Spirit whispered into Elizabeth’s soul and her chin gave a slight, worshipful nod. She twisted a curl around her finger and pulled it taut. When it sprung back into place in front of her ear, her lips curved in an incredulous smirk, as she prepared to return to the town she had once so desperately fled. In that moment, she debated whether she should hope for life in Neverell, Ohio and its inhabitants to be different or completely the same. Regardless, she knew she could rely on the unconditional companionship of her Savior and it was all the assurance she needed to face her past.