The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…
Elder Russell’s greenie was the most diligent, obedient missionary he had served with so far in Spain. There was only one problem: he wouldn’t stop drumming. During breakfast, lunch and dinner; phone calls, visits, and discussions. With his fingers, his fists, his feet, his knees, his mouth. With forks and spoons, pens and pencils, pamphlets and notebooks, twigs and breadsticks. On the bus and on the metro; on the table and on the counter; on the elevator and on the stairs. On his chest and legs and arms. On his scriptures, on his dinner plate, on his backpack, on his bed. On every door frame, every handrail, every seat back, every street sign. And even sometimes on Elder Russell.
Elder Russell strongly felt that this habit was not only annoying, but also sacrilegious. He wanted to say to the greenie , “Elder, stop! Be still. You can’t keep the Spirit with you if you always are drowning it out by pounding a beat out.”
But he didn’t. His greenie was so good in every other respect that he dared not bring it up. He had seen too many companionships ruined over petty things. Had ruined a few of them himself. And this was not a mistake he was going to make again.
At the 10 day mark, Elder Russell considered asking for a transfer. Up to this point he had prided himself on not being one of those elders who drains the mission president’s time and patience, but he found himself so tense, so wound up that he knew the situation was apt to explode if something didn’t change soon. Every beat his companion laid down now was another drop in the irritation darkly pooling in the back of Elder Russell’s mind.
He would lay awake at night still hearing the rhythms in his head long after his companion had fallen asleep. Sometimes the greenie’s breathing even seemed to be doing it. The longer he lay awake the more he swore he could detect a slight extra aspiration on every other exhalation or a double draw on every inhale. And that was the thing. Elder Russell had had companions before who would do the knee jiggle during discussions or who had other annoying tics or habits. But this wasn’t some nervous expression, some weird, infantile thing never grown out of. His companion was beating out complex rhythms. There was usually a back beat. There were fills and rolls and crashes. And sometimes it even seemed like the greenie was getting in to complex syncopations and polyrhythms.
“Elder,” he said one day. “Tell me about your drum kit back home.”
“Oh, it’s not much. Just 21 pieces. Some toms, some cymbals, a snare and a bass.”
“Do you miss it? I know my brother missed his when he served.”
The greenie shrugged. “Not much. It’ll be there when I get back.”
Elder Russell didn’t know how to take the discussion further, how to tap in to the flow of obsession that all normal missionaries had when talking about a girlfriend, football team or motorcycle left behind. He tried to channel the rhythm into other outlets, but the greenie was not interested in any of the bootleg tapes — flamenco, jazz, disco, Euro-pop — that Elder Russell picked up cheap from a dealer at Mercat Del Encants. The greenie rolled his eyes at the drumsticks and the castanets and the bongo and laughed at the rinky-dink drum machine and left them all untouched .
And he never stopped drumming .
One day they were teaching an older man about the Apostasy and the Restoration and priesthood authority. A former academic and government minister, the man spoke Spanish rapidly and in a manner that was syntactically complex and full of asides and digressions. Elder Russell was trying his best to answer the old man’s lengthy, esoteric questions. The greenie was drumming as usual. Elder Russell found this especially distracting since he was struggling to understand the old man, and he could feel his blood pressure rising with every beat.
Then, just as he was about to snap, the greenie changed his beat. This startled Elder Russell, causing him to drop the wall of tension that he had been building higher and higher for three weeks now. The rhythm rushed in, and at first haltingly, but then with increasing confidence Elder Russell found a flow of flawless Spanish coming out of his mouth. He had no trouble understanding the old man’s verbose reply. The discussion rolled on this way: the greenie drumming; Elder Russell and the old man conversing in perfect understanding (if not always agreement).
And the rhythm was no longer just fingers tapping. It was the flickering of the flame, the snap of the overseers whip, the crack of gun shots in Carthage, the bleating of lambs and the cooing of doves in the temple in Jerusalem. It was the trembling footsteps in Gethsemane. The stumbling footsteps on the road to Golgotha. And the burning footsteps on the road to Emmaus. The roar of the parting of the Red Sea, the pulsing of white stones touched by the hand of Jehovah, the creaking of handcarts and ox-drawn wagons, the murmur of prayers, the shouts of Hosanna, the sighs of relief. It was the beating of hearts, the shatter of raindrops, the whispers of tree leaves, the folding of proteins, the winding of DNA, the vibrating of light or intelligence or truth .
The old man did not commit to baptism, but he did promise to come to church that Sunday.
That Thursday Elder Russell was transferred to Zaragoza where he served out the final six months of his mission. No matter how much he practiced or studied, he never spoke nor understood with that flow and clarity again. He took to tapping his fingers incessantly and refused to speak any English at all with his companions. At night he would lay awake and listen to the flamenco tape on his Sony Walkman and babble silently in imperfect Spanish .
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Wm Morris is the founder of the Mormon arts and culture blog A Motley Vision, the co-editor of Monsters & Mormons, and a fiction writer, editor and critic. A longer bio and full catalog of his work can be found at: williamhenrymorris.com.
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