Friday, June 5, 2020

As It Is In Heaven: Part 1




The shift had been long and busy with more hospital admissions than the doctor could remember in some time. All of the patients who had been avoiding the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were returning in droves sicker than ever because of that delay.  He was glad to leave the chaos and noise of the emergency room behind and gladly greeted the silence of the dark parking lot as he pushed open the side doors of the hospital. Although he was glad to leave the chaos behind, he enjoyed a love/hate relationship with it as the noise served as a distraction from the loneliness that often plagued him. He was never in a particular hurry to go home, as only more silence awaited him there. There were too many memories, and the death of his wife only a little over a year previously was still as fresh as ever.
    The night air was cool as the evening breeze blew through his hair. His truck was parked on the far side of the lot and the overhead lights reflected off of the dark paint. Reaching the vehicle, he opened the door, sat in the driver's seat and placed his stethoscope and name badge in the compartment between the front seats before shutting the lid. Pressing the ignition button, the engine roared to life and the headlights beamed across the mostly empty parking lot. He sat motionless for a moment, his hands gripping the steering wheel, before inhaling deeply and putting the truck in gear. The gate opened automatically as he approached it and he passed swiftly underneath, his brake lights soon disappearing into the darkness.
    The drive home was familiar and generally took him about twenty-five minutes to cover the distance. Many of his partners lived much closer to the hospital, but he had never disliked the drive as it had always given him the few minutes that he needed to clear his thoughts. The initial part of the drive was in the city and was well lit and only when he got into the more rural areas of the county did the artificial lights begin to fade and his headlights would stretch out to their maximum limits to illuminate the road ahead. Deer were plentiful and unpredictable at those hours and his greatest fear had always involved the sudden unexpected appearance of a large buck that desired to make itself a permanent fixture as a hood ornament. For that reason, he was never in a hurry on those isolated two-lane roads.
   Traffic on those roads at that time, however, was more unusual and so the single headlight beaming in his direction as he rounded a particularly sharp curve immediately caught his attention. The headlight was still at least a quarter of a mile down the road, but the fact that it was beaming at him from his side of the road struck him as unusual. Knowing the potential devastation of an intoxicated driver all too well, he slowed  his truck even further. However, he was surprised to see that even as his truck crawled forward, the single headlight seem to remain stationary. His foot pressed gently on the gas pedal and the engine hummed as he closed the distance for a closer look. As his headlights illuminated the scene ahead, he could make out the instinct outline of a single vehicle which had veered off of the road after leaving a long trail of rubber tire marks on the asphalt. The car had swerved across his lane and had impacted the trunk of an enormous northern Catawba tree whose white blooms had rained down on top of the immobilized vehicle. The front end was completely crushed, the windshield was shattered, and thin wisps of steam rose from beneath the hood.
  Finally realizing what had likely happened, the doctor pressed firmly on the gas pedal until he had fully closed the distance and then brought the truck to a screeching halt in front of the immobilized vehicle. Leaving his lights on for better visibility and grabbing his first aid kit, he flung his door open and approached the wrecked vehicle. He could smell the smoke from the wrecked engine but there was no evidence of an open flame. Turning on his phone flashlight, he quickly moved over to the driver's side of the car while calling out to see if anyone would answer. At first, all was silent except for the hissing of steam until his ears finally detected the faintest of voices. Shining his light through the driver’s side window, he could see a young woman pinned against the steering wheel. The car was an older model and was not equipped with airbags. The young woman had been wearing her seatbelt,t but the force of the impact had smashed the entire front of the car and crushed her against the steering wheel. The driver's side window had been shattered and he immediately put his hand through the open window and placed it on her shoulder.
   “It’s ok,” as he tried to comfort her. “I’m here. I am one of the doctors from the hospital. I'll get some help and then we'll get you out of here.”
   The young woman seemed less concerned with herself but instead was motioning toward the back seat.
   “My baby,” she gasped between labored breaths.  “My baby is back there.”
   He immediately focused his attention on the backseat where, amazingly, a young child remained safely secured in its car seat. In spite of all the chaos around it, the child was not crying but looked at the stranger gazing in through its window with curious, glassy eyes. There was absolutely no evidence of any trauma.
   “Is she ok?” came the labored question.
   “She’s fine, perfectly fine,” he responded as he returned to the front window. “You stay still. I’m calling for help but I’m not going anywhere.”
   He quickly placed the call, giving all the pertinent information and their location in the most efficient way possible.
   “ Hang in there. Help is on the way,“ he reassured her as he finished the call.
   “It was the deer,” she began to explain. “It was on top of us before I knew it...I swerved to avoid it, but...”
   “It’s alright,” he reassured her. “It wasn’t your fault.”
   He then focused his attention once again on her door. He tried to open it, not necessarily to move her but to be able to better assess the extent of her possible injuries, but the door was hopelessly jammed.   As he continued to inspect the door, he kept conversing with her, telling her about every mundane detail of his recent life in an attempt to keep her attention focused on something else besides her current condition.
   “If it’s ok with you,” he continued as he realized that getting her door open was hopeless. “I’m going to get your baby out, if I can, so you can see her. I’m just amazed at how quiet she has been through all of this.”
   “She’s...she’s a good baby.”
   He then momentarily left the mother’s side to move to the rear window where the child still sat completely content, inspecting the chaos all about her. He examined her more closely this time and realized that she had remained completely restrained in the car seat and that there was absolutely no evidence of injury. He looked at her little head, followed by her arms and legs and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He was able to reach in and unbuckle her car seat straps without any difficulty, and, after having done so, he lifted her out with ease.
   “Oh my goodness, “ he said with his best baby voice. “Look at you. What a brave girl you are!”
   He then brought her up to the front window and knelt down so that her mother could see her. Immediately, the terror and uncertainty of the last several minutes washed over the young mother’s face as the tears welled and began to rain down her cheeks. Her breath was already short and her rising emotions only worsened that.
   “What’s her name?”
   “Lydia.”
   “Just like the seller of purple in the Bible?”
   The mother nodded with a weak smile.
   As he spoke with her, the doctor noted that the mother's color begin to take on a more ashy hue as her breathing became more short, and labored. Trying to avoid drawing too much attention, he slid his hand down to her wrist and noted that her pulse was very rapid. He inspected the area around the driver again, but there was no evidence of any external bleeding.
   Blunt trauma. He was no trauma surgeon, but he had seen the scenario enough to recognize it. Blunt trauma from something like a steering wheel could be far more devastating than a penetrating injury as many times the blunt force would tear one of the large internal blood vessels. Often there was nothing that could be done and the young physician begin to recognize a growing sense of his own helplessness. The mother, without ever directly expressing her own concerns, seemed to be aware of her dire situation, nonetheless.
   “Listen,” she instructed as she struggled to express herself.  “I don’t have anybody... nobody.”
   She gathered her strength before continuing.
   "I've got nobody to look out for Lydia...you can't let her just get thrown to the system. I've tried so hard..."
   The doctor listened in silence.
   "Promise me...promise me you won't let that happen."
   A thousand responses flooded his mind. Why would she ask this of him, a man that she didn't know at all? He was in no way prepared or qualified to accept the responsibility; a widower himself with no children.
   "Promise me."
  "I promise," he responded quietly to her insistent request, if for no other reason than to bring what little comfort his promise could afford. She smiled and nodded in response. She raised a weak arm and stroked Lydia's cheek.
   "Hey there, sweet pea... you're going to be ok...you won't be alone...I just know it... "
   The mother's arm dropped as she no longer had the strength to lift it. Her gaze, shifted from her daughter to the man kneeling just outside her door. She was staring directly at him, but seemed to be focusing on something in the distance.
   "I...I think I'm going to be ok...it doesn't hurt anymore."
   The doctor held the mother's hand, the iciness expanding by the second.
   "Tell her...tell Lydia...tomorrow we'll go to the playground..."
   With utmost reverence, and still stunned by the whole experience, he slowly released her hand and sat back on the ground next to her car door, Lydia still in his arms. He remained there, even as the sounds of the approaching sirens began to reach his ears.

  He was only vaguely aware of the rest of the evening as the previous events seem to cloud his vision. As a physician, he was no stranger to death but this was different. This was personal, and he had been helpless. It was a realization that made him admire his fellow soldiers and first responders who dealt with that situation on an almost daily basis. As he held Lydia, he observed, almost as from a great distance, the paramedics pry open the driver’s side door and reverently remove the young woman. Per protocol, resuscitation efforts were started, but he knew instinctively that their efforts would be in vain. He was suddenly overcome with a sense of grief. He didn’t even know her name.

   “Was the baby hers?” a sudden deep voice suddenly shocked him back to reality. Standing I front of him was a local policeman, taller than him with a spotless deep blue uniform.
   “Yes,” he responded.
   “We’re trying to contact family now.”
   “She told me she didn’t have any. She was pretty adamant about it.”
   “Well, there’s always someone. Did you happen to see what happened?”
   “No. Everything had already happened by the time I got here. She was able to tell me that she swerved trying to avoid a deer when she lost control of the car. She was pinned inside and there wasn’t anything I could do. The baby, thankfully, was fine.”
   “So what do you plan to do now, Doc?“
   He took a moment to look at the small child in his arms.
   “I’m not sure. She asked me to take care of Lydia.  I owe her at least that.”
   “Well, that’s a very nice sentiment but we're still going to have to do this by the book. We can’t just go handing babies out to everyone.”
   “No problem there. My wife and I were approved for the foster program before she died. We didn’t have children of our own.”
   The office looked up form his notebook.
   “I’m sorry to hear that; about your wife.”
   “Thank you. It was a little over a year ago.”
   “Was it an accident, if you don’t mind me asking?”
   The doctor shook his head.
   “No. It was cancer.”
   The officer nodded his head compassionately.
   “Well, all I know is that she’s quiet right now, but that’s not going to last. It’s late and she’ll soon need a change, a bottle and some sleep before it’s all over.”
   “I don’t have any of those things at my house,” the doctor responded. “But I’ve got plenty of folks back at the hospital that could help me out, at least for tonight. Just clear it with the judge so it’s all official. Here’s my license. I’m sure he’s going to love you waking him up.“
   The officer smiled in agreement as he reached for his phone. While he gave the appropriate information to the judge, the doctor took Lydia back over to the smashed remains of the car and lifted her car seat through the back window. Opening the rear door of his truck, he reinstalled the car seat using his free hand. Soon, Lydia was safely strapped back in. She begin to whimper and rub her eyes as the lateness of the night and the trauma she had sustained begin to settle in.
   “Here’s you a blanket,“ the officer handed him the blanket and his license as the doctor snapped the last strap in place. “ Looks like you check out. We haven’t been able to locate any relatives as of yet so it looks like you’ll have her at least for tonight. You’ll be hearing more from the powers that be tomorrow, I’m sure.“
   Turning back to his truck, he draped the blanket over Lydia’s legs and noticed that she had begun to whimper even more as large tears begin to well up in her soft eyes.
   “I know, “ he responded compassionately. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that your mommy can’t be here for you now. I’m sorry that you don’t know me and all of this is very strange to you. I’m sure nothing feels right. Maybe it’s for the best that you’re too young to remember.  Someday, when you’re older, maybe we can explain this to you where it will make some sense, but I can’t make you any promises about that. There’s still so much I don’t understand myself. What I can promise you is that I won’t leave you. I gave your mommy my word.  I’m with you for as long as God lets me stay.”
   Tucking in the blanket securely, he gently closed the back door and then climbed into the driver’s seat. He then looked back to check the security of the seat one last time.
   "And tomorrow, I'll take you to the playground."
   The engine roared to life once again and, humming the tune to “This Little Light of Mine,” he turned his truck back in the direction of the hospital.
 



Friday, May 22, 2020

A Funeral for a Sparrow




 The Late October Saturday had dawned clear and bright, but as the day had progressed, a cool west breeze brought with it a gray and overcast sky. Those clouds, however, brought no rain with them but did have the effect of smoothing out the contrast between shadow and sunlight. If he were to be completely honest, that was the young boy's favorite type of weather. He was quite glad to have finally gained some reprieve from the summer’s heat as fall had finally arrived in South Georgia. He did not have much in the way of homework that weekend and so he grabbed his air rifle to walk along the dirt road behind his home. The young man had a vivid imagination and he would often walk along that deserted highway and collect the aluminum cans that people carelessly tossed out their windows. When he had collected what he felt was a sufficient amount, he would find an appropriate patch of ground where he would neatly line them up in organized rows to re-create some famous battle that he had read about in the books in his parent’s bookcase. He, a sharpshooter in his own imagination, would then set to work by picking off each member of the opposing army until his homeland had been completely defended. After heavy rains, he had even recreated naval battles by floating and subsequently sinking the aluminum cans in the flooded ditches. Such were the creations of his overactive mind.
   The harvest of cans that day was particularly productive as the sunlight gleamed off of the silver lids of many newly discarded items.  As he reach down into the ditch to pick up another item, his gaze was captured by a particularly colorful and shiny specimen in the taller grass in the opening of the field on the far side of the ditch. Unable to resist this new find, he quickly hopped over the divide and rescued his new treasure from among the broom straw. As he hopped back over the ditch onto the sandy road, the coarse sound of his shoes on the dry packed earth almost completely blotted out a much more subtle noise. He couldn’t quite describe the noise but it was, nevertheless, enough to catch his attention and he turned to look back toward the underbrush.
   As he was still trying to decipher the origin of the noise, he detected a rustling in the underbrush. From between the strands of broom straw and briars emerged the most pathetic of creatures. It was a small, tabby kitten and its tiny meows were the source of the noise that had earlier caught his attention. It was very young and small, probably just old enough to have been weaned, and it was obviously suffering from exposure and neglect. Because of the isolated location of the boy’s home, someone had probably released the unwanted animal into the wild in hopes of getting rid of it. Even at its young age, it still was not afraid of humans and was trying to reach the boy even in its weakened condition. The boy kneeled down, suddenly losing interest in his collection of cans. The kitten, with its matted fur and protruding ribs wobbled over to the boy. Even in his curious state, the young boy was careful enough not to pick the kitten up as he certainly did not want to risk getting bitten. He spoke kindly to it and scratched its little head between its ears as the pitiful meowing continued.
   “Well, I certainly can’t leave you here. You’ll just have to come with me.”
   Picking up his air rifle, he begin to walk slowly back down the dirt road in the direction of his home calling the kitten as he did so. The little animal wobbled dutifully behind him, sensing safety with the young boy and having no desire to remain alone in the wilderness.
   The house was not far but the return journey took much longer as the kitten could only maintain a certain speed. The boy's compassion finally took over as he watched the struggling animal and he soon reached down and scooped up the kitten with his free arm. The kitten weighed next to nothing and it was difficult for the boy's senses to fathom if he was actually caring anything at all. The boy's new friend seem to appreciate the ride and its head turned back-and-forth to look at the passing scenery with large, glassy, and fatigued eyes. The boy soon covered the remaining distance and he skipped into the garage before placing the kitten at the bottom of the steps.
   “You stay here,” he gently commanded as if he expected the kitten to understand. He then turned and opened the house door where he saw his mother busy in the kitchen.
   “You’re not going to believe what I found!" he exclaimed after getting his mother's attention. "Come here and look!”
  “What did you find?” she interrogated as she wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and made her way toward the door.
   “Just come here and see!”
   She arrived at the door and peered out over her son's shoulder where she caught her first glimpse of his new companion.
   “Oh my word,” she breathed as she slowly pushed past the boy and down the steps.  “Where did you find it?”
   “On the back road at the opening to the field. I was picking up cans when it just walked out of the bushes.”
   “Someone must’ve just thrown it out.  And not just yesterday either, from the look of things.”
   His mother picked up the kitten as she gently searched it for any obvious injuries.
   “Well, you’ve got yourself a little boy here. It doesn't look like he's hurt but he’s very malnourished.”
   “I want to keep him," the little boy said.  "He has to be tough to have already beaten the odds and survived this long.”
   His mother began to shake her head.
   “Now you know we already have pets, and I can already tell you what your father is going to say about it."
   "I know," the boy confessed.  “But I have to help him. At least I have to try. I promise I will take complete care of him. You won’t even know he’s here.“
   “ Uh huh,” his mother responded. “Now, where have I heard that before?”

   “You get out of my yard!” the sudden boom of his father's voice echoed inside the garage and startled them both. The kitten, likewise, shrunk down in a defensive stance.
   “What are you yelling at?” inquired the boy’s mother.
   “It’s the Pearson’s dog again!” his father responded. “That stupid dog is about to eat me out of house and home. He somehow keeps getting out of his pen and then he wanders down here.”
   His father then entered the garage and stopped suddenly as he instinctively sensed the presence of a new creature. His eyes then settled upon the diminutive animal nestled on the floor next to the boy.
   “And exactly what is that?”
   “I found him on the back road.”
   “We already have too many cats as it is.”
   “I’ll take complete care of him. You won’t have to do anything. He can stay outside and I’ll make him a place to sleep.”
   “Listen, it’s not that I’m trying to be cruel, but he’s obviously sick and who knows what his vet bills  will be when it’s all said and done.”
   “I can pay them", the boy promised. "I can use all my birthday money and I can always find jobs to do to make extra money.”
   The boy’s father could tell immediately by the expression on his son’s face that he was fighting a losing battle. Also, something about the little abandoned kitten tugged at his own heart strings and so his demeanor softened and his shoulders relaxed.
   “All right,” his father responded. “But just remember that I expect all of your schoolwork and chores to be done first.”
   “They will! I promise.”
   “Oh,” his father responded with a smirk as he turned to go. “And please remember that I would prefer that you not write ‘Here Lies the Cat Man’ on my tombstone.”

   The boy began to work diligently to care for his new friend as soon as he had received permission from his father. He found an empty cardboard box and used his mother’s sewing scissors to cut off the top. He then lined the inside of the box with an old, but clean towel that his father sometimes used to dry the car. He placed the kitten onto its new bed so that it could get familiar with it surroundings.
   “See, it’s all yours,” he encouraged as he scratched its tiny head.

   His biggest concern involved feeding the kitten. Immediately upon bringing it home, the boy had offered the kitten water in a bowl along with some crushed dry cat food that the other cats ate. The kitten lapped up the water quickly and tried to eat the dry cat food as well but would inevitably not be able to keep it down.
   “It may just be because he’s malnourished,” his mother advised. “Or it may just be because he’s so little and his system can’t handle adult food.”
   “What should I feed him?”
   “Well, we used to give goat’s milk to young kittens without a mother. Ms. Nichols at the end of our road has goats, so she might let you have some. At least until he can eat more solid food.”

   His mother gave him a quick ride down to Ms. Nichols' house where the elderly woman was more than happy to share her goat milk as she was quick to tell the boy that she already had more of it than she knew what to do with. He offered to pay her for the milk, but she assured him that was not necessary and that what he was doing was an honorable thing. As soon as the boy poured some of the milk into a saucer, the kitten began to hungrily lap it up. Much to the little boy’s relief, the little ball of fur seemed to be able to keep the milk down without any problem.

   Over the next several days, the young boy kept his promises to all of the involved parties. First of all, he made sure that all of his homework and chores were done just as he had always been required to do. In addition to that, the little boy made sure that his kitten was cared for as well. He made sure that it had plenty to eat and drink. He always made sure that it had a clean place to sleep. In addition to that, the boy would spend most of his afternoons playing with the kitten under the garage. He would pick it up in his arms and stroke it while he listened to its tiny but robust purring. As its nutrition improved, the kitten’s energy begin to improve as well and he especially loved to chase the strings of yarn that the boy would drag behind him along the garage floor. No matter the challenges that the young boy faced at school, he always could look forward to arriving home and stepping off of the bus to see the small furry head peeking out to greet its new master.

   So, the young boy found it particularly unusual when he hopped off the bus on a sunny Thursday afternoon and found no furry face waiting to greet him. He entered the garage and looked into the kitten’s bed, but it too was empty. The water bowl and food dish remained half full. He got down on his knees to look beneath all of the vehicles and appliances but still he found nothing. He then walked outside but could find no trace of the little animal even after calling it repeatedly. His parents soon arrived home from work and, seeing his concern, joined in the search. His father, having much more experience searching for lost animals, begin to search places further from the house, while the young man continue to search in the typical places where he and the kitten had played.

   It was late in the afternoon and getting close to suppertime when the boy saw his father returning from his search. He was walking slowly,  his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his jeans. The boy stopped his search as an increasing feeling of dread begin to wash over him. His father walked over to his side and looked down at him with a look of compassion, finding himself at a loss for words.
   “Did you find him?”
   His father nodded slowly.
   “I found out what happened to him.“
   There was a tremble in his father’s voice. The boy could not find the courage to ask the obvious question.
   “It was the dog. The Pearson’s.”
   A vision of the escaped dog that frequently roamed uninvited through his family’s yard flashed through his mind. The boy would not accept it. The kitten had never harmed anyone. Why couldn’t the dog have left it alone?
   “I’m so sorry.”
   Unable to hold back the tears any longer, the boy sprinted off into the woods hoping to find some solace among the trees.
   “You should go after him," his mother stated quietly.
   “I will,” his father responded. “But I’ll give him a few minutes first. He at least deserves that.“

   Through tear-dimmed vision, the boy finally made his way through the darkness of the woods and into the brightness of the open field where he had first found the kitten. With the setting sun casting long shadows through the broom straw, the boy collapsed on the ground and begin to trace pictures with his finger into the sandy soil. He could still see the neglected animal wobbling through the underbrush and his ears were still filled with the sound of his tiny cry. The evening breeze swirled through the broom straw, but the boy soon became aware of another sound as he hear his father‘s familiar footsteps approaching from the direction from which he had just come. With his head hung low, the boy could see his father's feet come and stand beside him before he knelt down and sat beside his son. Out of respect for the boy's grief, he said nothing but with closed eyes raised his face to heaven to bask in the last light of the fading day.

   “I remember," his father began when the time was right. "Something that my father told me right after the passing of my sister. I was just a boy. He told me to look out across the field and try to count the tiny sparrows that were fluttering about in the underbrush. He explained to me that nobody really pays them any attention. For all practical purposes they are ignored and insignificant. For most people they might as well not even exist. Yet, he went on to say, God attends the funeral of every single sparrow that falls to the ground, never to fly again. And He attends them alone, for no one else cares to go.”
   The boy looked up for the first time, his cheeks stained with tears.
   “So, now you have a choice to make. You can choose to be bitter and hate all dogs and swear vengeance on them wherever you go. You can blame the Pearson's. You can blame God for taking away something that was precious to you; a little defenseless thing that you were trying your best to help."
   His father paused momentarily.
   "Or, instead, you can choose to envision the God of the universe kneeling down to attend the funeral of a helpless kitten.”
   The little boy wrapped his arms around his father and pressed his face deeply into his chest, his muffled sobs joining the music of the evening wind in the surrounding pines. His father compassionately stroked his hair.
   “You're going to make it. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”

   The following day, with the sadness still lingering, the little boy hopped off the bus into the parking lot and, after adjusting his backpack, begin to cross the parking lot toward the entrance to the school. As he did so, a single sparrow unexpectedly hopped out from behind one of the teacher’s cars and stopped directly in his path. It stayed there momentarily before tilting its head slightly to the side as it investigated the boy in front of it. An unexpected smile crossed the boy’s face.
   “I understand,” he said quietly.
   With that, the tiny bird spread its wings and fluttered away into the vast blue of the October sky.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

An Acre of Peace- Part 2






 The axe and sling strokes fell repeatedly as the young man fought for every foot of ground. Every tree he cut remained in an upright position as it was matted in place by a tangle of vines and thorns and required chopping into several sections before it could be fully removed. None of the trees was large, but the sheer number of them more than made up for any deficit in size. The very earth itself seemed to resist him as every ragged branch, blackberry brier and vicious cat briar vine tore at him as he pressed forward. The rising sun joined the fight and beat mercilessly down on  him through the thickening humidity. Before noon, he had already absorbed as much punishment as he could stand. His shirt was already torn and his hands were raw. The heat from that point would only worsen as the day progressed and so he paused, shouldered his tools, and turned his face toward home. Turning briefly, he surveyed the small dent he had made in the underbrush. A long road lay ahead.
   "Is that the best you can do?"

   "Oh, my word!" his mother exclaimed as he walked through the back door. "What happened to you?"
   There was little doubt that, for all practical appearances, that he had definitely gotten the worst end of the fight. He was a mess, drenched in sweat and scratched and bloodied on ever exposed section of skin. His mother, trying to understand all that happened in such a short stretch of morning, simply stared in disbelief.
   "Um," he began. "Could I have some water?"
   His request snapped her out of her trance and she quickly got him a glass of ice water.
   "Now, get back there and clean yourself up before lunch. And take your boots off, you're tracking dirt in the house. And...wait...are you bleeding, too? Put some peroxide on those scratches.Your dad is coming in from the garden in just a minute."

   During the most extreme heat of the day, the young man remained inside, rehydrated and recuperated from his morning trials. His father brought him his own pair of work gloves to protect his hands and the young man wondered why he had not thought to borrow them earlier. He also traded his torn short-sleeved shirt for a long-sleeved one. He wasn't thrilled at being in the heat dressed in long sleeves, but his arms were taking a beating and needed better protection.  Besides, he never knew his grandfather to be dressed in any attire other than overalls and a long-sleeved shirt regardless of the heat.
   He was worn out when he had returned home earlier, but once he had rested and recovered, his youth rebounded and he found himself anxious to return.  He put on his boots again and found his two tools leaning against the back porch right where he had left them. He hoisted them over his shoulder and turned in the direction of the thicket. The path was getting familiar and the journey seemed shorter than previously so it was not long before he emerged on the far side of the barrier.
   "Back for more, boy?"
   Looking past the small area that he had cleared earlier, he located the top of the closest of the two small remaining pines and used it as a marker. Before he returned home that evening, he decided to cut a path to that particular tree and use it as a starting point to divide the overgrown acre into different sections. He could then, literally, divide and conquer.
   He dove, once again, into the fray with the resistance of the wilderness proving just as staunch as before. With his hands and arms better protected that time, his axe swung relentlessly to clear the trees from his path while the slashing of his sling cleared the underbrush away. Into the clearing that he had made earlier, he dragged the cut trees out of the way and began to make a pile.
   His target pine tree inched closer. He could see through the tangle that the small area immediately surrounding the struggling pine was spared from the usual overgrowth, likely spared from that fate in part by the thin covering of pine straw on the ground. With a final push, he broke through the last barrier of vines and finally stood at the base of the first of the only two surviving pines. It was likely spared by the forestry crew as it was only a seedling when the thicket was harvested. Long needled pines grow very slowly so the tree was only about forty feet tall and its shape and overall condition reflected its harsh early life. Catching his breath for a moment, the young man looked up to gaze at the sky through its small green canopy. The evening breeze blew gently and he heard the familiar sound of the wind as it coursed through the needles. This small, unimpressive tree was a descendent of the trees from his childhood.  He placed his hand on its slender trunk and stood motionless for a while.

   "As they used to say back in the day," his friend observed at school the next Monday. "You look like you just got over a hookworm treatment."
   His friend paused for a minute before continuing.
   "And then got into a fight with a rabid cat."
   The young man nodded in agreement.
   "That's kind of the way I feel, too."
   "So, how long is this little project of yours' going to take?"
   "Not sure exactly," he responded. "But it's definitely not a weekend project. I barely scratched the surface."
   "Well," his friend responded with a smirk.  "More than just the surface got scratched, I can tell you that.  All I'm saying is that you might want to consider sponsoring a blood drive before you tackle those cat briars again."

   Every Saturday, and any other free day in between, he faithfully returned to the thicket, his boots slowly wearing a well-trodden path in the soft earth.  His silent companions, the axe and sling, were always sharpened and never took a reprieve from the struggle.  They never doubted him, never mocked him and obediently went where he led.  He endured everything the elements could throw at him, whether it was the unforgiving sun, the unrelenting humidity, or even the covert wasp nest tucked into the thick bramble of briars whose angry occupants succeeded in swelling his right eye shut for several days.  He learned from his mistakes, however, and soon observed that cat briar vines have very few thorns near the base and by cutting them there he could avoid many of the injuries they inflicted when he tried to tackle them further up the vine.  He also soon became a self-made expert in the use of an axe.  He learned by experience that cutting straight into a tree did very little except to tend to make the axe bounce off with minimal effect.  Cutting with the axe at an angle, he discovered, was a different story and the blade would then bite deeply into the wood.  His goal became to make every notch a "V" shape and he became very efficient with the tool, even on larger trees.  He became a force to be reckoned with and soon liberated both of the surviving pines as the piles of cut brush continued to grow.

   The thin, unassuming boy that first stepped into the thicket began a slow transformation as time passed and the seasons changed.  His shoulders broadened and his arms began to define as he continued to wage war on the beast.  The swings of his axe became a thing of silent beauty and accuracy which most men and their modern saws could never duplicate.  He was alone in that secluded place, and yet no longer lonely.  He never spoke but his ears were filled with the sounds of the music of the breeze.  The laughter and the taunting were gone and replaced instead by the silent tribute of the liberated pines.  No longer did he gaze at the ground at school.  His trials had earned him the right to look everyone in the eye, and to understand that everyone, no matter their status, was fighting his own battle.  But, he was determined to win his.

   He could never quite recall the exact day when the final blow from the axe fell, or when the last tree was piled on top of those cut earlier. The day he first stepped into the thicket remained etched in his mind, but, in the end, his memory only preserved the image of him standing in the midst of his acre, the stumps of the old trees now clearly visible across the cleared thicket floor with the two survivors swaying in silent tribute to their fallen companions from another time.  Not a single cat briar remained in opposition. On that early spring day, before the forest had erupted in its new shade of green, he ignited the base of each of the brush piles and watched as orange flames soon erupted and consumed the dried brush in swirling infernos. In only a matter of minutes, the remains of his past opposition were completely consumed, leaving behind their ashes to fertilize the new generation of pines.

   He had saved his money to purchase the Improved Slash pine seedlings and so he purchased one thousand of them as that was the smallest amount that could be ordered. He remembered being particularly excited upon their arrival from the forestry service and he sat for a long time with the healthy, young plants and enjoyed their turpentine scent that he would soon return to the thicket. Packing them gently, he grabbed his axe and travelled once more along the well-worn path. Upon entering the now subdued acre, he could still detect the scent of burnt wood made more prominent by a recent rain shower. He then carefully marched off distinct rows and, at exact distances, drove his axe head into the soft earth. Into each of those slits, he would then place the roots of a pine seedling and gently close the earth around it. One tree at a time, in a continuous methodical manner, the pine thicket was replanted.

   To this day, the trees still grow there exactly as they were planted, although no evidence remains of the struggle that bought them their new home. Growing trees is a slow business and so the young man was never able to fully enjoy the mature and fully restored pine thicket from his dreams before the winds of life took him away to continue his journey elsewhere. But he never forgot the lessons learned there and never passed up an opportunity to tell the story. Whenever asked if he was disappointed that he never got to enjoy the full benefits of his labor, his answer was always the same. He had come to fully realize that clearing that single acre by hand, as life-changing as it might have been, was never really for him. His hope was that somewhere, much like himself, there would be a child in much need of an acre of peace, and that the restored pines in all of their majesty would find their way into his dreams.
  



  



  


 

  

Sunday, April 19, 2020

An Acre of Peace- Part 1

 



 That day, like many others in the teenager's life, had come to a merciful end. He had actually enjoyed the temporary reprieve during the recent quarantine, but now that life had resumed a somewhat normal schedule, he realized that little had changed.  The constant noise and chaos of that school day had momentarily faded into the distance and the young man found himself once again surrounded by the familiar calm of the forest of his South Georgia home. There was homework yet to be done, but he left his textbooks in his room where they could certainly wait until he had taken a moment to clear his mind.
    The toe of his shoe dug through the layer of leaves into the dark soil underneath. His hands slowly caressed the rough surface of the remains of the solid heart pine log upon which he sat. His lungs filled with the open forest air made even more pristine by the approaching nightfall. His ears heard no laughter upon the breeze. No scornful names were called. The trees did not judge his appearance or base his worth on unrealistic expectations. All was as it should be and, yet, he knew that it could not remain so. With a sigh, he rose to his feet and left the temporary calm of the forest to return to the world as he had come to know it.
  He had been reassured on multiple occasions by multiple persons that high school was challenging for everyone, but there was little doubt in his mind that it was far more difficult for some than others. In that period of life when he searched desperately for his own identity, he grew weary of being told who he was by others who drew conclusions based only upon what they saw superficially. And their judgments had become quite persistent.
   He retraced his earlier steps along the familiar path back home. Twilight had arrived by the time he noticed the warm lights of home through the trees. He plodded up the back steps and into the kitchen where his mother was just finishing with supper. She was drying her hands on a hand towel when she noticed his arrival.
   "Getting your thoughts together?" she asked gently, for the most part concealing her concern..
   "Yes," came the respectful response. "Seems to be my routine."
   "And how was school?" she asked in more of a rhetorical sense.
   "About like always," he replied honestly.
   He then turned down the hall to wash up when he heard his mother call his name.
   "You know," she began slowly. "I don't have to know everything to understand that you are much more than they think you are. I hope you understand that, too."
   "I think so," came the even more honest response.

   With his schoolwork done and another full day facing him the next morning, he wrapped himself in the comfort of his own bed and quickly drifted off to sleep. His dreams were unreliable in those days, but that night his wearied mind drifted back into the days of his childhood. He suddenly remembered a place, long forgotten, where the sunlight filtered down from a crystal blue sky through a canopy of long leaf pines. The ground was completely covered with a neat, thick carpet of the fallen brown needles which was almost knee-deep to the young boy. The breeze blowing in from the open field in front of the stand of pines made a soothing sound like no other as it whistled through the trees' outstretched arms and carried with it the unmistakable scent of turpentine. The entire scene had an almost heavenly feel to it, the kind of childhood sensation that one hopes to regain during the years of adulthood, but with rare, and then often only fleeting success.

   The dream had brought a welcome change of pace but also left him with several questions that lingered until the breakfast table the next morning. His father, as usual, seated himself next to him and poured himself a bowl of cereal before he gave thanks and subsequently standing up to look for his reading glasses.
   "Dad," he began with the dream still prominent in his thoughts. "Do you remember that stand of pine trees that we used to walk to?"
  His father pondered the question briefly, having found his glasses.
   "Oh, you must be talking about the old pine thicket. Well, at least that's what my daddy called it.  He always told me that when he went to plow one spring, the entire corner of his field was sprouting these old Southern long-needled pine trees. You've seen these young pine trees, how they all go through this grass stage where they look like a clump of bear grass. I guess he didn't have the heart to plow them under, so he let them grow. We used to take you back there to get pine straw for our flower beds."
   His father then again took his seat and poured milk on his cereal.
   "What happened to it?"
   "Well," his father responded with a hint of regret. "I had them cut several years ago when you were still very young to pay for a new roof for your grandmother's house. Her roof was leaking and, to be honest, neither us had the funds to cover the cost at the time. So, I sold those trees to cover the expenses."
   The young man stared into his own bowl of cereal, his curiosity not yet satisfied.
   "Where was it, exactly?"
   "In the southwest corner of our property," his father responded between bites.
   "What's it like now?"
   His father shrugged his shoulders.
   "Not sure. Haven't been back there since the trees were cut."
   His father stopped eating for a moment.
   Anything in particular that's piqued your sudden interest? "
   "Not really,' the young man responded. "Just a dream. I hadn't thought about it in years and I was just curious."
   His father nodded in understanding as he finished his breakfast.

   That school day was Friday and, as always, he was excited for the weekend to arrive with its associated reprieve from school. However, after his talk with his father, he was even more excited as he was now quite curious to find the old location of the pine thicket. He was surprised that he had not stumbled on it earlier during his frequent treks through the woods but, being a creature of habit, he tended to follow the same routes and so he had not usually passed in that particular direction. His thoughts during the day were preoccupied with the images from his dream and the peaceful sensation of that location. Was it possible that the place still existed, or was he only being deceived by a distant memory seen through the eyes of a child? The trees, according to his father's story, were gone but perhaps a new generation had taken their places. There were still too many unanswered questions and his persistent curiosity made it seem as if the end of the school day would never arrive.
   Before the echoes of the final bell had faded away, he had already gathered his books and headed out to board his bus. After giving his standard greeting to the bus driver, he sat in his usual window seat. The bus drive home that day seemed endless and he was relieved when the bus finally lumbered to a stop in front of his home. After wading through the dust from the dirt roads, he entered the house and quickly greeted his mother before he darted to his room to change clothes and put on his work boots. Grabbing his .22 rifle to defend against the occasional Eastern Diamondback, he was out the back door in a flash after explaining to his mother that he was going "exploring." Her only request was that he be back by supper, which he agreed to.
   On his journey, he deviated from his usual forest path and veered southwest according to his father's instructions.  He crossed near the old collapsed log cabin belonging to his great-grandparents and he could still see the serpentine handle of the rusted well pump through the underbrush. He then crossed through a grove of pear trees before passing through a stand of planted pines. His family's land extended seventy-five acres and so it was only a few minutes before he approached a corner of the property, at most an acre in size, that he did not remember noticing before. The border directly in front of him was a semicircular stand of young trees consisting mostly of young red and laurel oaks.  The border was nonetheless thick enough to prevent him from seeing what was on the other side. As he approached, he saw the glow of sunlight as it penetrated the far side of the border, but he was unable to see anything distinct. Shouldering his rifle, he lowered his head to pass through the leafy border. Having pushed through the last barrier of oak branches, he rose to his full height and surveyed the scene in front of him.  
   What he saw in front of him was as far away from paradise as was imaginable. The subtropical forest of South Georgia had completely engulfed the area which was now a thick tangle of wild blackberry briars, beggar's lice, wild grapes and cat briar vines with some of the most vicious looking thorns that he had ever seen.  Everything growing there was completely hostile.  The state of that patch of earth was in such poor condition that he began to question whether he was in the right place at all. Only the existence of two young, struggling long-needled pines and the sporadic stump of a long ago felled pine tree marked it as the correct spot.  He took a few cautious steps forward but soon realized that his feet were completely hidden by the thick briar underbrush and his imagination regarding what might be hidden underneath began to get the best of him. Removing his pocket knife, he sliced through a few cat briar vines directly blocking his path but that seemed a completely futile effort against such a tangle.  Defeated temporarily and realizing that he could push no further, he returned the way he had come, but not before glancing back over his shoulder at the chaos behind him.

   The walk home was somber as he could not reconcile his memories of the beautiful place from his childhood with what he had just seen. Simultaneously, he was not surprised by it either as everything beautiful in life always seemed to be short-lived. King Solomon had been right. Everything under the sun was futile and passing away. This was merely his latest reminder of that.
   But there was more to it than that. The story could not simply end there. From childhood he had been taught that one of the most beautiful and selfless acts was the sacrifice to make something new again. To buy something back, so to speak, by giving of yourself so that something, or someone, could live again. So, in that moment of realization an idea began to take shape in the young man's mind, but it would cost him more than he could have ever imagined at the time.

  It was almost suppertime when he arrived back home. The metal tool shed was just to his left as he exited the woods.  Instead of passing it by as usual, he slid the rusty doors open instead and stepped inside. Looking specifically for two items, he gave his eyes time to adjust to the dim light. In the far right corner, his gaze rested on two tools, both covered in dust and several layers of cobwebs. He grasped the wooden handles of both and took them with him to the garage to borrow an additional item from his father's tool chest. Opening the top drawer he moved aside a hammer and several screwdrivers before removing a flat sawmill file. He then sat on the cool concrete floor and inspected the two tools that he had brought with him from the shed. One was an old axe whose wooden handle was weathered and faded but in which the hickory remained serviceable. The steel axe head was still solidly attached to the handle and there was some surface rust but otherwise there was no significant damage. The most concerning issue at hand was its incredibly dull blade.
   "Wouldn't cut hot butter," he mumbled as he felt the edge.
   The other tool was an L-shaped, heavy duty sling suitable for cutting through heavy brush. Its condition was almost identical to the axe with both of its edges dull to the point of being unusable.
   "That's something we will have to remedy," he stated, reaching for the file.
   For the remaining time before supper, he placed the blades on a firm surface and carefully used the file to grind away the years of disuse from the edges. As he did so, he could see the bright silver of the exposed steel as he restored the blades to their previous usefulness. He then cleaned the dust and webs from the handles and placed a light coat of oil on all the other metal areas.
   "Good as new," he stated with satisfaction before placing both of the tools in the corner of the garage and heading inside for supper.

   "So, what did you find on your journey today?" his father asked at the supper table later that evening. "Did you find it?"
   He nodded in acknowledgement.
   "I did. It was right where we left it."
   "So, what's it like?"
   "Well, it's a disaster if you want to know the truth."
   "Really? Well, I guess I'm not surprised. It was left just as an open piece of land. The woods here tend to overtake land like that."
   "The woods sure did a good job with that little acre."
   "Well, that's to be expected."
   The young man paused momentarily before responding.
   "I've decided to do something about it."
   "Really?" his father responded. "Like what?"
   "I'm thinking about clearing it. You know, opening it back up and then maybe replanting it in pines when I'm done."
   "Great idea, but that's quite a job you're talking about. I'll go back there with you and bring the chainsaw."
   "That's ok, Dad. It's kind of something I want to do myself. It's not like I have to be in a hurry."
   His father paused momentarily.
   "I understand. Just be careful. You may have bitten off more than you can chew."
   The young man nodded sheepishly.
   "We'll find out tomorrow."

   The next morning dawned to find the young man already awake and ready. He ate breakfast quickly so as to save time and get to work before the heat of the day became too overwhelming. Stepping out the back door, he could already feel the humidity clinging to him and adhering his thin short-sleeved shirt to his skin.  Exiting through the garage, he found the axe and sling right where he had left them, the early morning sun shining off the bare metal of the newly sharpened blades.
   The morning dew still clung to the ground as he retraced his steps from the previous day. The wet leaves made little noise as his boots pressed them into the soft, sandy soil. He again passed the rusted well pump and crossed the stand of pear trees. It was not long before he saw the barrier surrounding the little acre that had once been a part of his childhood. He then followed the zigzag path through the barrier oaks and stood in the thicket where he had stopped the previous day.
   It was then that he heard it. Felt it, more than heard it, as there was certainly nothing audible. There he stood, a skinny and awkward teenager against the full fury of a subtropical beast. He was no one's hero. His name would never circulate in the crowds of the popular. His story would never be told to encourage future generations and his only two companions were an outdated axe and sling, both barely clinging to life after being snatched from the corners of a dusty shed. And for those reasons, he understood exactly what he was feeling.
   The beast was laughing at him.
   "You may have bitten off more than you can chew."
   But instead of running, he propped his rifle and sling up against the closest barrier tree and gripped the handle of the axe. He then stepped closer to the first tree inside the thicket itself, the briars viciously tearing at his faded jeans as his legs passed through them. Firmly planting his boots in the sandy soil, he quickly glanced at the top of the tree before picking a spot on its trunk for his axe to strike. The axe then swung over his shoulder, the sunlight catching the gleaming edge once more before it sliced the air in its downward fall.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Song in October

 



They were just going to the dance as friends. At least, that’s what he told himself and everyone else who inquired about it. His statement was certainly made with the best of intentions. He meant nothing derogatory toward his date, it was merely the facts as he currently saw them. Be that as it may, a high school senior year comes about only once in a lifetime and he could not bear for her to be without an escort for the fall dance. That went without saying that he himself also lacked an escort to the same event but he told himself that that was beside the point. Only a few days earlier, she had described to him a particular dress, bought with her own savings, which she, as of yet, had never had the opportunity to wear. The vision of the dress, hanging lifeless in the dark recesses of a closet was too much for him. Having decided to invite his friend to the dance, he was somewhat surprised by the amount of courage that it took to actually offer her the invitation. Perhaps it was just a mere lack of teenage confidence, but he never felt quite certain that a positive response to his invitation was an absolute certainty. Perhaps she would take it the wrong way or maybe she was hoping that another particular classmate would invite her instead. He was justifiably relieved when he finally gathered enough courage to ask her and her response was a polite nod followed by the most innocent of smiles.
  
She had been his close friend for as far back as his memory could reach, even extending back into the distant memories of childhood. As in the lives of many, his acquaintances over the years had come and gone much like the seasons of the year. However, she had been different. Constant. Steady. Quiet, but strong. The effect of her presence had often reminded him of sitting on the tranquil banks of Spring Creek and listening to the clear water rushing over the exposed limestone. She was not like many of the other girls, loud and always seeking to be the center of attention. It was as if she knew, from an early age, exactly who she was and she needed no other human being to affirm what she already knew to be true. Perhaps that quiet confidence was the exact reason why she was not first in the mind of all the young men in her class. The reason certainly had nothing to do with her features, for her olive skin and auburn-tinged hair which fell in an cascade across her shoulders should have been the envy of most. She fell instead into that unfortunate category where most lovely, quiet and kind-hearted people fall. She was easily forgotten.
   So, when the night of the dance finally arrived, he was excited for the chance to put on his best suit, take pictures, and drive out of their small town to eat at an up-scale restaurant, but had truly not given much thought to the other events of the evening. He had made sure that he had saved enough money for their meal and had asked his father ahead of time to borrow the car.
   "Always remember who you are and Whose you are," came the familiar reminder from his father and mother as he left the driveway. Driving to his date's house, he repeatedly checked his hair in the rearview mirror to make sure that no strands had shifted out of place as it would have been unthinkable to have messy hair commemorated in a photo that would follow him for the rest of his life and then likely turn up at his wedding.
   Upon arrival, he rung the doorbell and was greeted by the familiar but somewhat suspicious face of her father who, along with her mother, invited him inside.
   "Now, listen for just a second," her father encouraged with a smirk as he placed a strong arm across the young man's shoulder. "I've known you for a long time, but when you see my girl come down those stairs, always remember that I was a marine sniper back in the day. I have a rifle and a shovel. No one will miss you."
   "I understand completely, sir" came the honest reply.
   Just at that moment, his attention was captured by movement at the top of the stairs. Taking a few steps back to get a better view, his eyes were greeted by a vision that he was not expecting. At the top of the stairs, where his friend should have stood, was a young woman whose attire and demeanor could only be described as elegant. The dress was exactly as she had described, the navy color complementing the olive tones of her skin. Slightly off of her shoulders, the modest neckline of the dress highlighted the strand of faux pearls borrowed from her mother. Her hair, the auburn-tinged curls usually flowing below her shoulders, was swept up and secured delicately with another borrowed hair clip. She stood motionless for a moment (which seemed like an eternity) before moving down the stairs to join her date. Standing in front of him, the delicate scent of her perfume surrounded him as she looked him directly in the eyes before reaching up to straighten his tie.
   "It was a little crooked."
   "I'm not surprised," he responded, not having fully recovered from seeing her. "It was all your dress' fault."
  "Why, whatever are you saying Mr. Butler?  Surely you don't mean this old rag?" she replied with a smile and her best Scarlett O'Hara accent.
   "I really doubt that you made such a beautiful dress from the curtains."
   "Well now, if I did, that'll just have to stay my secret, won't it?"
   After quickly grabbing her matching clutch purse and saying goodbye to her parents, the couple made their way to the car. As he opened the passenger door for her, he caught another half-threatening look from her father. He then moved to the driver's seat and the pair was off to begin their evening.
  
Tallahassee was about 40 miles away and it was a familiar road. The short trip was filled with stories and laughter from a lifetime of youthful experiences and he was again amazed by how easy their conversations were. Never was there any awkward silence. He loved the way she saw the world, her understanding penetrating far deeper than what was readily apparent. And more than once, he found his gaze mesmerized by the beautiful woman next to him.
   He had to admit that he became aware of a growing sense of pride as the pair was escorted to their seats in the restaurant. Yet, he was also becoming aware of the accompanying and unexpected sensation of sadness. At first, he could not place his finger on the exact cause and he found the presence of the emotion on such an evening perplexing. However, once he became completely honest with himself, he realized that the sensation of sadness found its source in the reality that this evening would inevitable end, and that life would subsequently resume its previous course. The elegant dress would go back in the closet and the necklace back in her mother's jewelry box. Then, the loneliness would return and it, that aching, gnawing emotion would take her place and would once again become his familiar companion.
   He looked up from his menu at his companion across the small, square table.
   "Anything look good?" he asked.
   "Hmm.." she replied. "Everything does. It's too hard to decide!"
   "Well, if someone told you that you could have anything you wanted with no strings attached, then what would you pick?"
  "Probably this," she responded by showing him her menu and pointing at the item she had chosen.
  "Well, then there you have it. That's what you should get."
   She leaned in closer, a concerned look wrinkling her forehead.
  "It's just so expensive."
  Her sincere concern only increased his sense of pride.
  "Listen, it's fine. I've planned for this. I want you to have it."
  The emotion of her face changed to one of gratitude without ever voicing a word.

   The drive back from Tallahassee following their meal was just as pleasant as before and it seemed like no time passed at all before the lights of their hometown began to glow upon the horizon. She must have thanked him at least ten times for spending his money on her and buying her one of the best meals that she had ever had. His honest response was that he could not think of a better way to spend it.
   Within only a few minutes, the pair had driven up to the high school and parked outside the area where the dance was being held. As he opened her door, he could already hear the music coming from within. The pair was greeted by the familiar faces of teachers and chaperones who all wished them  a wonderful evening. Even more familiar faces were waiting inside as they mingled with their classmates and shared their stories of the evening. No matter where he went, she never left his side and seemed perfectly content to enjoy his company.
   As they were mingling, he became aware of a change in the music as the DJ changed the previous upbeat song to a much slower one.
   "So, may I have this dance?" he asked bowing slightly.
   "Of course, kind sir," she responded. "But I feel that it is my duty to warn you that you probably should have worn those steel-toed work boots you always wear when you cut wood."
   "You're not that bad of a dancer."
   "I'll let you be the judge of that."
   The darkness enveloped them as he gently took her hand and led her to an open area on the dancefloor. They were only dancing as friends, he told himself, so his intention was to place his hands around her waist at arms' length with her arms in turn across his shoulders. But before he could do any of that, she had already moved close to him and placed her arms around his neck with her hands resting on the back of his hair. Close enough to hear her sigh, he felt her place her head on his shoulder as they began to sway to the music.
   He was not prepared for that. For a moment, time stood motionless. The feel of her breathing, the smell of her hair and the perfection of the entire evening washed over him.  He tried to hold his emotions in check but he found himself slipping further into a place of swirling music and color. Trying to focus on the room, those dancing around them and even the image of her father with a loaded rifle was completely futile. Almost in completely surrender, he let his head fall forward until his forehead rested upon her shoulder. Her head leaned further against his as the waves of auburn hair seemed to flow all about him.
   How did she know? Had she read his thoughts? Did she somehow sense the loneliness that had become his almost constant companion? What insight did she have to understand that the time he spent in his beloved forest could never substitute for the warmth of another human being? He had never spoken of it openly. The heavenly scent of the pine needles of home were no competition for her nor could the sounds of the wind in the oak leaves ever compare to the evening breeze playing with strands of her hair.
   No words were exchanged. None were needed. Their friendship had long surpassed that need. Long surpassed it, but he was only now becoming aware of that fact. The song was ending, and the sadness was returning. As the last note of the song lingered, he felt her arms slip down to grasp both of his shoulders as she stared up into his eyes.
  "See," he said quietly as he could think of nothing else to say. "My toes are fine."
   "I'm glad to hear that," came the quiet response.

   He remembered little about the rest of the evening until the time came to leave so as to make sure that she was not late getting home. Walking arm in arm out of the dance, his gait was a little slower and he was not nearly as talkative as he had been earlier. As he opened her door and turned to go to the driver's side, he heard her voice call his name.
  "Is there something wrong?"
   He turned to see her standing by her open door, her brow furrowed with concern.
  "Nothing at all. In fact, I can't remember enjoying myself as much as I have tonight."
   "You just seemed a little sad."
   She shifted onto her other foot and looked down at the ground briefly.
  "Listen, if, I mean if our dance earlier..." she began.
   "Heavens no," he interrupted gently. "Please don't apologize. There's no need."
   Her eyes returned to his. Now was his opportunity. Now he could tell her how he had struggled this whole evening. How he now saw with blazing clarity that life without her was unbearable. How he had been a fool for not recognizing it earlier. A thousand thoughts filled his head, but he finally settled on the simplest truth of all.
   "I just didn't want tonight to end."
   Her facial expression seemed to change to express both relief and understanding. She then looked down at her right hand and removed something from her ring finger.
   "I have something for you."
   She walked over to him and taking his hand in hers, she placed her Claddagh ring in his palm. He had never seen her remove it, nor could he remember a time when she didn't have it.
   "So," he stated slowly. "I'm not really familiar with how you wear one of these."
   "Well," she began. "If you're not married you wear it on your right hand. If you're available, so to speak, then place the heart so that it faces out. But..."
   She seemed to pause for emphasis.
   "But if there is someone special in your life, then face the heart inward."
   He looked at the small golden circle in his hand. It was too small to fit on his ring finger, so he placed it on his fifth finger with the heart facing outward. Then, without saying a word but never taking his eyes off of her, he turned the heart to face inward. He then brushed her cheek and swept aside a wayward strand of hair.
   "Tell me honestly," he then asked after looking quickly at his watch and realizing the time.  "Does your father really have a rifle?"
   "And a shovel," she replied with the most innocent of smiles.

  





As It Is In Heaven: Part 1

The shift had been long and busy with more hospital admissions than the doctor could remember in some time. All of the patients who had...