Skipping stones to heaven

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The church bells would sound across their little town every Sunday morning.

By Sharon S. Aruparayil

The missionary was a simple man, or so he would like you to think.

He carried himself with ostentatious ease, thinning black hair slicked back to cover his bald spot, a whiskery mustache, which rustled when he talked, and a large potbelly tucked into a cheap polyester suit. He walked with small, purposeful steps, trembling hands clutched tightly into a fist as a chain of rosary beads hung limp between his fingers. 

“Can you stop that?”

His wife’s grating voice shocked him out of his prayers, and he considered what a mistake it was to marry such a pitiful woman. She was once beautiful, hair the same color as the kohl that lined her eyes, trailing down her back in soft waves as she threw her head back and laughed at his jokes.

They met when he was only fifteen, a young man that fell head over heels for the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood. They would sneak glances at each other during class, and he would wait for hours every evening just to catch a glimpse of her drying her beautiful long hair on the balcony. She was the oldest of five sisters, and they eloped as soon as he turned eighteen. She never passed tenth grade, and they had their eldest daughter soon after. 

He was not prepared for being an adult so quickly. He imagined that they would travel, fingers intertwined tightly as they explored the lush backwaters of Kerala or the stunning glaciers in Ladakh or even the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal. He wanted her to explore the world with him, but now they had a child to look after, and adult responsibilities like bills and taxes.

He found a job as a clerk in a bank, spending most of his days filing irrelevant financial statements in a dusty, windowless room. He would dream about traveling, of Kerala or Ladakh or Agra; yet, as soon as he came home, his wife greeted him with another expense. It was time to get vaccinations, she would say, or new clothes for the baby. He was trapped. 

Like clockwork, the church bells would resound across their little town every Sunday morning.

The church stood in the distance, tall and unwavering as he walked to the market, watching as people flocked in, dressed in their best clothes. He hated the superficial nature of religion, as they wore their little gold crosses around their neck and shoveled money into the deep pockets of the reverend. He considered them to be sheep, stupid and brainless, following pointless rituals guided by their own selfish desires and fear of the unknown. All they really wanted was the assurance that they would get into heaven, forgetting every word of the sermon as soon as they stepped past the heavy mahogany doors. 

He trudged home with heavy bags full of fresh produce, heads of spinach peeking out of the canvas as he tried to avoid stepping on the broken tiles in the verandah. As suddenly as he realized that she stopped laughing at his jokes, her laugh chittered across the walls of the house. He walked into the living room to find a strange man, head full of hair accompanying a sickly-sweet smile, a cheap polyester suit and a worn-out Bible sitting on their coffee table. 

The strange man called himself a missionary and recounted his wondrous tales of bringing the revival and the apparent “word of God” to hundreds of people across the world. He told stories about tiny tribes tucked away in the jungles of Meghalaya, of smartly dressed businessmen in the bustling metropolitan of Kolkata and of simple people, just like him and her, in little towns across India. 

“We never travel,” she said, with a tone that could only be used to garner sympathy and cast accusations about his financial ability to afford said travel. 

Her statement made bile rise in his throat, bitterness flooding his chest as he recalled every single instance, he tried to bring up the idea of traveling. 

She always said that they didn’t have enough money, and when they did, they did not have anyone to look after their children. There was always an excuse. Still clutching the bags of produce, he watched as his wife ate the words off the strange man’s palm, nodding aggressively like she did back in school, and laughing at his pathetic attempts at being funny. 

The missionary spoke with so much conviction, assuring them that the only path to heaven was through accepting his religion, and helping other “sheep that wandered away from the flock.” As he took his leave, with a signed check that his wife all but shoved into his slimy hands, the clerk began to wonder if this was a sign from God, a mission that would take him away from his miserable life and to the wondrous beauty that awaited his travels.  

He joined the flock of people that he so desperately disliked the following Sunday, dressed in his best clothes, with his wife trying to quell the argument between their children trailing behind him. The chatter did not irritate him anymore, for he finally knew the solution to all his earthly woes.

He would be free again, and all he needed to do was to call himself a missionary. He would get to travel the world, and people would just hand him money. He found himself a simple path to heaven, and all he had to do was to embrace religion. It would be easy, as easy as it was for him as a young man to throw smooth stones skillfully into the lake, skipping as they caused ripples in the still water.

He was free.