For you, friends —
Throughout this season, I’ll post four original short stories, old-fashioned in some respects but timeless in the Advent themes they celebrate: hope, peace, joy, love.
This particular short story was written a few years ago, for a narrower audience than the other three — but perhaps if a thirtysomething writer and mother can strike a common chord with an eleven-year-old boy, you might also find something to hearten you in this simple tale.
A Love at Eye-Level
“You call that clean?”
Joel winced as his pail clattered against the wall. His older brother stood over him, almost shaking with rage.
“What kind of help do you think you are?” Asher bellowed as he pointed at the streaked, muddy barn wall. He took a step closer, and Joel curled himself up tightly. “Go inside, now. Go find Hannah and bother her instead. Go!” Asher flung a dirty rag after Joel as he took off.
As Joel ran into the house, his fear slowly melted into hot anger. Why was his brother always so hard on him? Would it kill him to be a little nicer? His eleven-year-old hands clenched tight, along with his jaw.
Once inside the kitchen, he found a whirl of activity. It seemed more like he had ten older sisters rather than three as they ran from task to task, braids whipping. In the corner, Hannah stood with her brow furrowed, mixing up another batch of bread while muttering something under her breath. Joel knew without getting closer that she was reciting a list of things to do, so he didn’t even bother approaching her. Instead, he stalked away to find his dad.
“Dad?” Joel peeked around a doorway.
“Yes, son. What brings you in? I thought you were helping Asher.”
“I was. I mean, I tried — but he blew up at me again.” Joel tangled his fingers together. “I don’t know why everything has to be so perfect with him all the time, Dad. And it’s not like I wasn’t doing what he asked me to do.”
“Were you doing your best at it?”
“Ye–well, not exactly,” Joel gulped as he looked into his father’s kind eyes. “I didn’t use two buckets like he showed me… and I was thinking more about getting the neighborhood kids together to play later… but still, Dad. It’s not fair! He’s only seven years older than me but he acts like it’s twenty!” He shuffled his feet and looked miserably at the floor. “I want to do chores with you instead.”
“I know. But you helping Asher is one of the greatest ways you can help me. It’s important to me not only that the work gets done, but that you learn something from working together. Son, it’s the same with me. It’s not easy for me to get along with everyone, but I do it because I live under God’s roof, and He asks me to love my neighbor.” He paused for so long that Joel raised his head and looked at him. “Let me ask you something, Joe. Do you love your brother?”
“What?” Joel fidgeted uncomfortably. “Yeah, I guess I do. Of course I should. And now you’re going tell me that if I love him I should just let him be mean to me.”
“No, that’s not what I’m going to say.” His father’s eyes twinkled above his thick beard as he knelt down and put his hands on Joel’s shoulders. “If you want to know what to do, and to love Asher better, get on his level.”
“Get on his level,” his father repeated. “Real, full love takes you into the shoes of the person you love. If you get on Asher’s eye-level, and think things through from his end, you’ll experience some of what he does. When he’s mean, you’ll know it’s wrong, but you’ll also know more about him… and that will help you love him. And out of love — well, out of love comes the right response.”
“Okay,” said Joel slowly. “But what if I follow him and he punches me?”
“I’ll take care of that. Go ahead and give it a try.”
So after breakfast, Joel followed Asher closely, though far enough to be out of arm’s reach. Asher didn’t say a word. When Asher scrubbed the barn wall, Joel scrubbed beside him, making three or four passes so that he cleaned as thoroughly as his older brother did. When Asher chopped firewood, Joel stacked the pile. Asher didn’t take a break from chores all morning, so Joel didn’t either, even though his feet burned and he wanted to lie down and groan himself to death when their father gave them another task. Halfway through lunch, Hannah told Asher that some guests had arrived. His plate was still half full, but Asher took a handful of olives and got up from the table. Joel followed him doggedly.
By evening, Joel was so tired he wanted to fall asleep where he stood. After a full day of working beside Asher, he knew his brother’s work was a big reason why their household ran smoothly. When Asher did something, he did it well, because he didn’t have time to waste. But even though Joel was young, he had also noticed that Asher carried around more than Hannah’s orders and Dad’s trust on his shoulders: he put an invisible weight on himself, like he was afraid of disappointing anyone. Like he couldn’t ever be less than perfect.
Joel didn’t find it surprising anymore that Asher would snap at him, under all those burdens. Instead of feeling angrier, however, he found himself wishing he could help Asher. Maybe this was a real brother’s love? Yet, to free Asher from those invisible bonds, he’d have to be a… a giant. Or a tried-and-true hero. Or God. And he’d have to be somebody with the most perfect love ever, to really know how to help Asher. He was only eleven, and he’d just learned the right way to wash a barn wall.
Joel sighed as Hannah came into the room again. When she asked Asher to ready the space for their overnight guests, Joel interrupted. “It’s okay, Asher. I’ll do it; you sit and rest a little.” At the very least, he could help him with his responsibilities.
Joel felt Asher’s surprised gaze follow him out of the house. “God, I am under your roof too, yes?” He looked up at the dark night sky. “So teach me a little more about getting on other people’s levels… and maybe someday I’ll understand how to love like Dad does. Like You do.”
As he dropped his gaze, he spotted the two new guests walking around the corner of the house, the wife swollen great with child. He thought about what it might be like to carry a whole baby around, and he smiled as he grabbed a shovel.
If they were going to sleep in the barn, the least he could do was clean out the manger.
By Amy Baik Lee. Originally published in the English edition of Sena: Devozine for the Next Generation, Dec. 2012, 92-95. Reprinted with permission.
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