Yet, as it is necessary that while we are endeavoring to attain our purpose, and bring the understanding into the right path we should carry on our life, we are compelled first of all to lay down certain rules of life as provisionally good. – Spinoza
Usually it was just Zoë and Jesus up on the top of the hill, with the woods behind them, the white and green buildings of the stock farm below them, and eastern Massachusetts rolling out through the low hills to the coast. Zoë didn’t much like company, but the limestone Jesus didn’t bother her. For one thing, his painted brown eyes seemed to be focused elsewhere, somewhere in the middle distance between the stock farm and the unseen Atlantic. To keep an eye his Bostonian flock, Jesus would have had to look up and a little to the left. And, although his arms were raised in the traditional mode of blessing, Zoë thought that if you looked at his posture from behind, it seemed that he was warning the outer world to keep its distance. Zoë wanted the outer world to keep its distance.
In any case, Jesus was an acceptable companion. Quiet. And he didn’t have a rifle or a dog or a child in tow. And in gratitude for such good behavior from the Son of God, Zoë always said a silent prayer. Not that she was a devout in any formal sense, or even a true believer. The prayer was said more to the hills she could see and the ocean that she couldn’t as to the depicted Savior. Dona nobis pacem. Such was her only prayer. Give us peace. She had three years of high school Latin, and it seemed to Zoë that there should be some kind of special language for prayer. Even good old Lutheran Bach returned to Latin for his mass. And Zoe was quite sure that there was only one thing worth praying about. Peace. All kinds of peace. Mental peace (her mind). Bodily peace (her body and the space that it occupied). World peace (everyone and every place else). Pacem covered a lot of territory. Or, it often seemed, none at all.
What disturbed the peace was definitely other people, and Zoë even suspected that they was also responsible for her (everyone’s) headaches, heartaches, and indigestion. Of course, theoretically, Zoë’s nobis included everyone, and Zoë was willing to wish humanity peace from a distance, but from up close the only peace she was interested in was the partner of quiet. Pacem et silentium. Amen. Generally, this little pilgrimage she made daily to the top of the hill was quiet, meditative – except when she ran into pets, hunters or chatty strangers.
Zoë thought that Jesus probably did not much like company either. All of the wisest people were compelled by the desire to escape. Jesus left home and kept going off to the wilderness by himself. True, the apostles claimed that he recruited them to keep him company in his travels, but it was the apostles who lived to tell the story. The Buddha ran away from parents, wife and child, and Socrates spent most of his life trying to escape from Xanthippe – and even when out with his friends he could often be found standing on the porch by himself. Even at the end when he was getting ready to drink the hemlock, he seemed oddly relieved to leave his companions behind – having already sent the wife and children away.
Fortunately, there were seldom many people at the stock farm. To begin with, it was not at all obvious that one was welcome there. To walk on the gravel paths, you had to know enough to park behind the barns – and that no one would care if you did so. And there was seldom anyone to ask. The stock farm was perfect for Zoë. She had started coming here a year ago last March after the clerk at the post office suggested it as a safe and easy place to walk while Zoë was recovering from an twisted ankle, the result of a hike on an icy day on much rougher terrain. On her third visit, she met the owners – eighty-some-year-old Owen and the fat dachshund in his lap – who pulled their tractor over as it approached by the pond that caught the runoff at the bottom of Jesus’ hill. Owen, looking down from his high seat with Sophie huffing and panting between his knees, told Zoë that he didn’t live on the premises, but was always glad to have a “pretty girl keeping an eye on his property.” Zoë was twenty years younger than Owen, but she still thought he was stretching things to call her a girl of any kind. She ran into Owen about once a month and they always had pretty much the same conversation. She thought he must be religious − Jesus was shadowed by a large metallic cross at the top of the hill and there was a Mary surrounded by a fairly ornate garden by the barn – but there was never any sign of it in the rote liturgy that passed between them periodically. While Zoë very concertedly kept her interaction with other walkers to a nod, she wanted to stay on the good side of Owen. Once she knew the script and added a smile, this took very little energy.
And so it went through the late spring and early summer when the hay was growing and the bob-o-links were nesting and could be seen perched on the swaying grass, into mid-summer when the haying started and the bob-o-links were replaced by gleaning Canadian geese and turkeys, and into the fall when Zoë sometimes saw hunter-type trucks parked at the farm, and winter when she went up even if she had to use snow shoes. Jesus never changed much. There was a day in the spring when he was covered in lady bugs, and another day in mid-summer when it looked like blood was dripping from the palms of his outstretched hands. Closer inspection led Zoë to conclude that birds must have perched on his fingers after feasting on near-by blueberries. Until the next rain, the effect was quite dramatic. Zoë would go up, survey the landscape and the cityscape (dependent on visibility), nod to her limestone companion, say her prayer, and wonder if she would ever, indeed, find peace.
Zoë had gone through five seasons making this trek, and what had started as one of many walks had evolved into a habit and then to a ritual. And then almost into a necessity. She pined on those few days when obligation or severe weather kept her indoors. But she stood at the top of the hill on the week before Memorial Day and took in the vibrancy of new leaves and almost felt that – at least at the moment – she didn’t have to ask for peace. Aging, missing husbands, voracious relatives – none of it seemed to matter. For a moment, at least.
“Do you know the rules?” Zoë twirled around so fast that she made herself dizzy. She hadn’t seen anyone at all coming up and there had been no cars behind the barn. But as she focused on the shadows of the trees behind Jesus, she could see a girl sitting against a tree looking right at her, but swinging her head toward the Savior of Mankind as she spoke.
“Do you know the rules?” The girl in a pink sweatshirt and green sweatpants spoke again, a little louder, as if only deafness could excuse the fact that she did not get an answer the first time.
“What rules? Which rules?” Zoë was both disoriented and confused. She wondered if the girl was accusing her of trespassing.
The girl inclined her head to Jesus again. “His rules. You know. The rules you have to play by to get him to do things for you.”
Zoë tried to reorient herself. A child talking about religion seemed kind of scary, but there was curiosity, but no awe in the thin voice. Hopefully, a seeker rather than a proselytizer. “I’m not sure that’s how it works. It’s not magic. Or, at least, I’ve never been able to get him to do anything for me. Nothing magical, anyway.”
“A fat lady who was up here told me that you had to go by the rules. Get baptized – they didn’t get me done. Behave yourself – almost never according to my mother. Give money to the church – don’t have any. Be nice to poor people – I think I’m the poorest person I know. And if you do all that, then he,” she nodded to the statue again, “will make things nice for you. According to the fat lady anyway.” Each time the girl interjected her relationship to the stated rules, she raised her face to the statue and swished her brown ponytail back and forth in helpless indignation at her inability to accommodate the requirements for “nice things.”
Zoë tried hard not to smile, but failed. “That man right there didn’t follow anyone else’s rules. He made up his own rules. And he never got baptized until he was a lot older than you are.” Zoë hated the fat lady sight unseen.
“What do you mean he made up his own rules?” The girl got up and walked over until she stood opposite Zoë, but she didn’t look at her. She stared up at the limestone face with its brown eyes.
Zoë assessed the child in front of her. About nine years old, skinny but not in a malnourished kind of way, and dirty in the sense that the clothes might have been played in for a couple of days, but had not been worn for a week. Her shoes – pink and white sneakers – were in good shape and puberty didn’t seem to have hit yet.
Unlike the fat lady, Zoë knew better than to talk too much religion with someone else’s kid. And Zoë didn’t quite believe anyway. But a historical discussion about the man in front of them seemed innocent enough and the girl obviously wasn’t going anywhere.
“Let’s start with names. I’m Zoë. I live in town. I like to walk here.” And I’m old enough to be your grandmother she thought, still wondering why the child was interested in talking to her. On the other hand, the child was desperate enough to talk to evangelical fat ladies.
“Franny. And I live at the farm.” Franny pointed down the hill. “I used to live with my mother in Fitchburg, but she got too uptight. Or tight. Or something. So, Daddy’s got me. Like it or not, he says. He works down there during the day and bartends at night sometimes. This is better, but I wish I could ride the horses.”
“And why aren’t you in school today? How old are you?”
“Ten. Just turned ten. And since it was almost the end of the year when I moved we’re waiting until fall to enroll me in the new school. Which is fine with me. I hate school. And I hate the Brownies. Talk about some bad rules.” Franny nodded to the statue. “Did he go to school?”
“I doubt it. At the temple, maybe, for religion – to learn those rules. He knew a lot about the Bible – the Old Testament, that is. But, as I said, he didn’t like the rules, so he made his own up.”
“What’s the Old Testa-thing? Like what rules did he make up?”
“The Old Testament is the first part of the Bible. They didn’t write the new part until this guy had his say. And, he did make new rules. For example, he wasn’t supposed to work on Sundays under the old rules, but he helped people then anyway. Really made people mad.” Franny thought about this very seriously while she hitched up her pants leg and scratched a nasty-looking rash on her right shin while continuing to contemplate the limestone Messiah.
“Do a lot of people made up their own rules?”
Zoë thought that this was a very good question. “I think so. Yes, I do think so. Maybe we all do.”
“Do they write them down like he” she nodded toward the statue, “did?” For some reason Franny did not seem to want to use a name to describe the white statue.
“Well, he didn’t write them down. Other people – like the apostles – wrote them down for him. Lots of others. There was the Rule of St. Benedict, for example, telling monks how to lead their lives.” Zoë thought for a moment. “I guess we do all live by rules though – but most of us just carry them around in our heads. I’d guess most of us couldn’t even write them down if you asked us. I probably couldn’t.”
“I think we should write them down. I was going to write a story about a girl and her horse this summer, but I think we should write a list of rules too. Every day we could think of a new one and when we meet, we could talk it over.” Franny finally looked at Zoë and then back at Jesus as if this were something that the three of them were going to do together. Zoë followed her gaze to Jesus wondering how to answer a proposal that would involve daily contact with a ten-year-old, but there was no help forthcoming.
Franny went on. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow. You bring one rule and I’ll bring one.”
“Let me think about it,” said Zoë and paused. “I need to think about it. And I can’t always get here at the same time every day. I have things to do, you know. Matter of fact, I have to go now. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow. What did you say your last name was?” Zoë was quite sure that Franny had never said, but she wanted all the facts she could get about her potential collaborator.
Franny looked puzzled as to what her name had to do with developing a written manual for living, but she also looked like she didn’t want to give up her best opportunity to put some interest in her long days at the farm. “Petry. My name is Frances Elaine Petry, but don’t ever call me Frances or use Elaine. Franny Petry. It rhymes. And I have one more question.”
“Are we going to talk about the rules we follow or the ones we think we ought to follow?”
“Ought to. Let’s start with that.”
“ See you tomorrow.” And Franny took her wagging ponytail off into the woods, having set forth her own rules in regard to names.
Zoë walked down the hill to her car, and when she got there she noticed that the doors at both ends of the largest barn were open and she could hear someone some rattling and scraping. Zoë had never entered any of the buildings, but she stepped into the central corridor of the barn and stood for a moment until her eyes adjust to the dim light. A man was just coming out of one of the stalls with a wheelbarrow.
He stopped and let go of the barrow.
“Are you the new boarder? Have you got your animal here with you? Joe told me you were coming tomorrow.” He said it in such a way that either Joe or I was in trouble for not sticking to the program. Rules again.
“No. I don’t have a horse. I just ran into your daughter up on the hill and she has in mind for us to do some kind of . . .” Zoë hesitated looking for a description for the proposed creation of a new decalogue, “creative writing project this summer. Just wanted to make sure it’s okay with you.”
The man just stood and stared at her as if he were still wondering about the horse.
“I wouldn’t take her off the farm or anything. Or interfere with her activities. It might not even happen. But I didn’t want to plan anything with her without talking to one of her parents.”
“It was her idea – not mine.” Zoë was just filling the silence as she waited for a response.
“Was she bothering you?” He looked concerned and it occurred to Zoë that Owen might not realize Franny was living in the bunk house.
“Not at all. No sir. And I am glad to spend some time with her if you have no objection. Not here – up on the hill. As I said, won’t take her anywhere. You’d always be able to find us.”
Mr. Petry picked up the barrow again and nodded. “No problem. Just stay off the trails if anyone is riding and don’t believe everything she tells you.” He looked hard at Zoë and then echoed her own words as if he thought he should. “And don’t take her anywhere.” He turned away and headed out the other end of the barn with his load of horse shit. Conversation over.