It was hot enough, Laura Jo imagined, to turn even a lizard belly-up in the sun. And the rocks in front of her rose higher than one of her Uncle Walton’s tall tales. But Laura Jo didn’t want to stop until she had scrambled down the other side of the butte so that she could leave her confusion and hurt feelings behind her at the schoolhouse on the flats below.
She knew that at twelve years old she couldn’t run away from her problems. But she was sure that if she could put some space between herself and her grievance—that at the moment being Sarah Greely—she could perhaps at least calm down about not being asked by Toby Dunlap to share his box lunch at the school picnic.
Maybe I sometimes wear old clothes, she thought as she followed the little crooked path up the steep slope, but that doesn’t mean I’m poor in the head! She made her way down the other side of the red-rock ridge to the big lightning-split cottonwood alongside Yellow Bird River. It was quiet there, as quiet as a prayer, just as a secret place should be.
Laura Jo had come here more than once. The first time was the year before, when two missionaries had taught her family about the Book of Mormon. After they had read and pondered the book, Laura Jo came to the old tree to pray about its truthfulness. The feeling that had welled up in her that day had endeared the place to her.
Now, as Laura Jo gazed into the deep green water that glinted in the daylight, her disappointment seemed as deep as that river. Most of the kids were oblivious to her affliction by now—she was just another classmate to them. But Toby Dunlap was a new boy at school. In fact, today was his first day. It might have been the first time that he had seen gold ringlets as eye-fetching as Laura Jo Walker’s, because she was the one he had first approached to share his box lunch with.
That was before he knew about Laura Jo’s harelip. He tapped her on the shoulder, and halfway through his asking her if she would lunch with him at the picnic, Laura Jo turned around. Toby stopped, stared at her, then stated awkwardly that he suddenly remembered that he had already asked someone else.
It was only because Sarah Greely happened to be passing by, Laura Jo knew, that he ended up sharing his lunch with her. Still, Laura Jo had felt more unwanted than bad news. She leaned forward now and eyed her reflection in the inlet pond and for a moment wished that the girl looking back at her was someone other than Laura Jo Walker.
The sudden appearance of another face looming over hers in the water gave her a start. Then just as quickly she relaxed. It was Bishop Cole. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and a smile as big as a wasteland sunrise, and the latter, the girl’s father said, went on forever.
“Sorry if I startled you, Laura Jo,” he said kindly. “It appears that you and I have a liking for the same spot.” He leaned his fishing pole against the trunk of the old cottonwood and set his creel on the ground.
“I didn’t know that you like to come here, too, Bishop Cole.”
The tall man with the forever smile sat beside her, pushed back the brim of his hat, and squinted across the deep, wide ribbon of green water. “Almost as regularly as the sun coming up in the morning!” Then he added, “Well, at least once or twice a week. Bishops are pretty busy you know.”
Laura Jo nodded. “Do you come here to fish?” she asked, not able in her low mood to think of anything more sociable to say.
“That I do, honey,” Bishop Cole returned. “And to think.”
“So do I—to think that is.”
Bishop Cole beamed. “It must mean that Heavenly Father put enough quiet here for both of us.” He regarded her for a long moment, and his look shifted to one of quiet concern. “Is there anything that I can help you with, Laura Jo? Behind those beautiful green eyes I detect a look that’s more out of sorts than a bee in a poked hive.”
“It’s that easy to tell, huh?”
“It’s part of a bishop’s calling to be able to sense those kinds of things.”
Laura Jo’s bottled-up emotions started to seep out of her eyes. She brushed at her tears and found a release in the bishop’s listening ear.
Late afternoon shadows were creeping out from behind the buttes when Bishop Cole pulled a pocket watch from his vest and checked the time.
“I’m sorry, Bishop Cole,” Laura Jo apologized. “I’ve taken too much of your time.”
“Not any more than I’ve taken of yours.” he reassured her. “I was just wondering if school is out yet—we don’t want your folks worrying about you.”
“It only takes me a half hour to walk home from school, bishop.” She stood up and brushed herself off. “It’s not any farther from here if I take that path over there.”
Bishop Cole stood up too. “Why don’t I take it with you, young lady? I’ll walk you home.”
“I’d like that.” Laura Jo beamed, then hesitated. “But you didn’t even get to fish yet.”
“One doesn’t always have to aim for rainbow trout to have fished. It just so happens that today I went fishing for the whys of a certain young lady’s fretting.” He pointed toward the little red-rock path skirted with spatterings of sego lilies as he added, “And I didn’t do too badly. Between here and your place, I’d like to talk to you about them and about a few of my feelings.” He removed two large sandwiches from his creel. “And maybe you can help me eat all this food my wife packed for me. There’s enough in just one of these sandwiches to last until the Lord’s second coming!”
Laura Jo smiled inside as well as out. Someone was sharing a lunch with her, after all. And not just anyone. Bishop Cole.
That night when Laura Jo brushed her hair before the small wall mirror in her attic bedroom, she smiled at the golden-haired girl looking back. She couldn’t remember everything that the bishop had told her on the walk back to her house that day. What she remembered most—besides the fact that a person is different only to the extent that she is herself and not anybody else, and that real beauty lies in one’s heart and soul—was that Bishop Cole was her friend. And she was his. He had taken time for her. She mattered. She was, he had said, “a precious soul in his eyes, in the eyes of her family, in the eyes of a lot of other fine people—and,” Bishop Cole had then testified, “in the eyes of Heavenly Father.”