Compassion, Beauty & Honesty

This is the latest in TMN staff writer Allison Maschoff’s collection of short fiction stories.

When she finished telling him the tragic story of her life— with the names of every person changed, even her own, as if it was nothing more than a recitation of a novel she’d once read— she sat back in her high back chair and watched him. He was young and lithe, a boy growing into a man, with kind chocolate eyes. She was old and tired, a woman who knew her days were numbered, who might be mistaken for a ghost if the lighting was just right.

She could see the story traveling from his ears to his brain, seeping into his consciousness and gliding through his processors. He was thinking, trying to figure out what to say. Waiting didn’t bother her. She had told him as much before beginning the story. She wanted his honest opinion on a not-so-simple matter: was the girl in the story a good person? Was she a worthy protagonist?

Finally, taking a deep breath, he said, “She made mistakes, but we all do. She may not be a hero, but she is human, and perhaps that is better.”

The old woman closed her eyes, feeling tears begin to well. The words were like a warm shower of clean water after 40 years in a desert. They were a heavy weight lifted off the chest of a woman who nowadays struggled to even reach up to open the door of her kitchen cabinets after having been weighed down for so long. With her eyes still closed to hold in the tears of relief, she whispered, “Thank you.”

“Why do you care so much?” the boy asked before he could reconsider. “About the girl, I mean.”

The old woman smiled sadly, allowing her eyes to open and focus on the boy’s gentle, well-meaning face. He was so innocent. He had so much life left to live.

“Because the girl in the story, the one I called Mary and the one you called human, she is me. I am her. Her story is my story, and you have judged it in a way that I thought no one ever would.”

“Why did you not tell me it was the story of your life before you started telling it?”

“Could you have told me to my face that I was a horrible person if we’d reached the end of the story and that’s what you thought of the girl who lived that life, who did those things?” The woman shook her head in a way that she meant as a compliment but the boy took it as a judgment against him until she said, “I doubt it. You are far too kind.”

“I do not have to be kind to know you are not a horrible person, ma’am.”

The old woman tried to think back to a time when she might also have believed such a bold statement. She said a quick prayer that the boy before her would hold on to his idealism longer than she had been allowed to. It would take him down a much prettier path.

“Compassion is what creates beauty in brokenness,” she told him softly. “There is a myth among us that sadness and heartbreak and pain can be beautiful. Yet we only ever see that beauty in the pain of others— whether it’s a novel or a television show or a story in a magazine. We cannot see the gentle curves of our broken-down bodies, the pure humanity in our strained faces. We can only recognize it for what it truly is on the face of another, separated from our own pain and yet deeply felt in our own hearts. We can only see the beauty from a vantage point of compassion. You have had compassion on my story; I have seen it on your face. It is the closest to forgiving myself that I have ever come. You have given me quite a gift.”

The boy was stunned into silence. When his mother had told him their elderly neighbor needed him to visit her this Saturday afternoon, he’d assumed she wanted him to lift or fix something. Not take her confession. Not bear witness to her absolution.

“Why me?” he asked the woman. “Why not one of my sisters?”

She settled even deeper into the plush cushions of her chair, cushions that had soaked up tears of grief and pain and regret for so many years, but today drank tears of forgiveness and hope. Of rebirth.

“There is honesty in your eyes,” she told the boy. “It has been there since the first day your mother brought you to my house. Grace in your body, kindness in your voice and heart, but honesty in your eyes. That deeply rooted honestly was about the only thing I could trust after all this time.”

The boy absentmindedly pressed the tips of his three middle fingers to his temple and let them brush against the corner of his eye. When he said his own prayer, he asked that he always have the courage to act upon the honesty this woman had seen in him, had expected of him— had needed of him.

“Thank you,” the woman said again.

The boy smiled. “My pleasure, ma’am. Truly.”