Mommy's little angel

Marshall Ball can't talk. So he listens to God. Everyone else listens to Marshall.

A large leather chair has been set up in a corner of the living room, and Marshall spends the afternoon ensconced there, in Troy's lap or Cindy's. Troy has brought a carton of Kiss of God for sale, and Marshall will be available to sign copies by pressing his finger into an ink pad and then transferring his fingerprint onto the title page.

The living room and kitchen, laid out with a spread of finger foods and soft drinks, are crowded with poetry aficionados whose five-dollar entrance donations will benefit the festival. Some will bid on items up for auction, including local restaurant gift certificates, original artworks, and an early edition of Kiss of God.

Others have come simply to get close to Marshall.

Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Deron Neblett
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.
Deron Neblett
Troy Ball always knew there was something more to her handicapped son Marshall's painstaking utterances.

One woman with a British accent has driven up from Katy. She has an autistic nephew in England, and after seeing Marshall on Oprah and reading about him in People, she bought several copies of the book to send overseas. Kiss of God has been an inspiration to her family, she says, and she has taken the liberty of working up some of Marshall's writings into small, decorative wall hangings, the words printed on good linen paper and surrounded by embroidered cloth frames. She hopes to receive permission from Troy to expand on this project with future writings. Perhaps they could be sold.

A thin man with a thin mustache and searching eyes identifies himself as a local chiropractor. He also has come specifically to meet Marshall, whom he considers a great healer.

The thin man tells me that as a child he was often disregarded in conversation and told to be quiet, and that out of these experiences he developed a stutter and a shell in which he retreated from the world. He has been embarked on "healing work" for the past 20 years, he says, and Marshall's book touched him. He set about reading Kiss of God closely, "one letter at a time, the way that Marshall wrote it," to more properly plumb the book's depths. The more he reads, he says, the more depth he finds.

The poetry festival's president, a portly man in a bright vest, stands to address the crowd, recognizing Marshall and the "powerful impact" of his poetry, its ability to "change lives." He himself has purchased multiple copies of Kiss of God to distribute as gifts.

Laurence Becker stands next, introducing himself as Marshall's "mentor, student, and friend" and telling the story of transcribing "My Harmony Prevails to Be Free," which changed his life as well.

"I was blown away," he says.

The president, a pediatrician by day, stands again and reads his own poem, dedicated to Marshall. The poem is about "wildflower children," and even its author wasn't sure of its true meaning, he says, until he met Marshall.

As he reads, a woman sitting on the fireplace hearth nods her head and makes frequent noises of agreement -- "yes" and "uh-huh" -- loudly enough for anyone in the room to observe that she's getting it.

Next an elderly woman with platinum hair and a purple silk shirt reads from Marshall's book, followed by the event's host, who does the same.

Marshall sits on Aunt Cindy's lap in the leather chair, wearing khaki slacks and a blue oxford shirt. At the boy's feet, on the floor, holding his knees to his chest and gazing upon Marshall adoringly, sits the thin chiropractor.

Troy is introduced, and she stands before the crowd to recount the highlights of the story again.

Marshall's poetic use of the language is discussed, and Troy tells how she has been tripped up by certain words that were unfamiliar to her, Old English usages or archaic Scottish words like "brough," which Troy looked up and found translated as "halo."

The crowd oohs and ahs at this discovery, and Troy shrugs to acknowledge the mysterious wondrousness of it.

"Now you tell me..." she says. "I can't do that."

Then there are words that Marshall has simply made up for their pleasing sounds, like "lornful" and "Tacirring" and "Mearwild," the latter two of which are names Marshall has given to his grandmother's ranch near Brenham and his family's summer property in Colorado, respectively.

"Where this comes from," Troy says, "I have no idea."

The festival chairperson, a heavyset redhead in a leopard-print pantsuit and white Reeboks, with a heavy purple amethyst hung around her neck, nods in agreement.

Miracles, as they are commonly defined, are not uncommon. The Virgin Mary's appearance in a pancake, the amputee who paints with his nose hairs, Stephen Hawking, Bobby Fischer, all manner of seemingly inexplicable oddities -- savants and geniuses and unlikely permutations of the species -- pop up with enough regularity to keep biographical history interesting. The only thing more common may be the pedestrian world's hunger for the miraculous.

Marshall sates this hunger. He has been both allowed and encouraged in this task by a family intent on providing for him every available enrichment, every possible opportunity for growth and fulfillment. A family driven by love to view him as complete in and of himself, a perfect child who, said another way, is faultless. Troy and Becker both use the metaphor of seeds: You must care for them and nurture their potential long before you have any inkling of the sort of tree they may grow to become.

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