Monday, November 23, 2020

The Years The Locusts Ate

 







Joel 2:25

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten...”



  


   I was in the most sullen of moods when the alarm went off at five in the morning. My feet begrudgingly hit the floor to face yet another day at work. Another day of taking care of ungrateful sick folks; smelling their smells and being blamed for things far out of my control. Understaffed. Sleep deprived. Unappreciated. 


   And that day of all days. Why could I not celebrate that one day with my family? Was that really asking too much? It was Thanksgiving, after all, and my extended family had travelled from out of state to visit and spend the holiday with us. Now, with the hospital patient census soaring through the roof and our lack of adequate staff, the day would be practically over before I ever got home. I knew how it would feel arriving home, dragging myself through the door to meet their smiling faces all the while grieving over the time I had lost. Time that I could not regain.


   So, with those thoughts hanging gloomily over my head, I grabbed my coat and, as quietly as I could, stepped out into the cool and dark November morning. I tossed my stethoscope over into the passenger seat of my truck as I turned the ignition and the engine roared faithfully to life. With the press of a button, the garage door squeaked open and I was soon dodging deer on the familiar drive to the hospital. 


   The sun had still not yet risen as I eased my truck into the deserted parking lot. I crossed the shadowy parking lot and scanned my badge to open the side entrance and stepped out of the brisk air into the warmth of the hospital hallway. Taking a right turn, I retraced my usual steps to the administrative conference room where I always received my newly assigned patients. Opening the door to the room, I was greeted by the fatigued face of my partner who had been the overnight admitting physician. 


   “Your expression says it all,” I said in greeting as I managed a smile. “Looks like it was a rough night.”


   She managed a weary grin in response.


   “You know,” she began. “You’d think a hospital would be the absolute last place that people would want to come on the night before Thanksgiving. But, as last night proved, I never cease to be amazed.” 


   She then fumbled through the neat stack of papers near her right hand until she found the specific sheet she was looking for. Her arm then stretched forward as she handed it to me. 


   “I wish the number of patients was better, especially on a holiday,” she began. “But, unfortunately it’s not. Everyone is going to have a lot of patients to see today.”


   I responded by telling her that it was no less than I expected and that it was not her fault, but truthfully the lengthy list did nothing to elevate my mood. 


   “If it’s any consolation,” she added as I turned to go. “The last patient that I gave you on your list is a comfort care only patient. End stage cancer. I’m not trying to be morbid, but if you get delayed in getting to see him, you may not get to see him at all.”


  I nodded in response and turned once again to leave and begin the day. 


   The day progressed no better than I had expected. The patients remaining in the hospital over the holiday were understandably melancholy and with so many of the ancillary staff out for the day it was difficult to make much progress with treatment. The nursing staff, as always, tried to make the best of the situation and many of the staff had brought their holiday specialty dishes to work as part of the annual Thanksgiving potluck lunch. On each floor that I visited, I was invited to try many of the dishes as there was always plenty of food, but each time I politely declined. I was empathetic with the suffering of those around me but I could also never quite rid my mind of the thoughts of my family at home without me and I did not want any distractions that would delay me from getting home. It was already going to be late enough. 


  I had just finished turning down yet another offer to try someone’s grandmother’s famous pecan pie when I realized that I was on the same hospital floor as my comfort care patient. My original intent had been to see him toward the end of the day as there was really very little that I could offer and the nursing staff was always excellent at contacting me if a patient’s symptoms were not controlled. However, I realized that it would be much more efficient just to go ahead and see him while I was on the floor and make sure that there was nothing that he needed. It would also allow me to avoid having to make a special trip back to that floor at the end of my rounds. I quickly grabbed a free computer and logged on before grabbing my stethoscope and placing it around my neck and heading down the hallway.


   As I headed down the hallway, I began to think about the man that I would meet in just a few moments.  In those situations involving comfort care, all possible medical therapies had been exhausted and the only options left were completely palliative and intended only to provide comfort. Comfort care patients have a way of reminding those who are healthy about the reality of the brevity of life. Any illusion of health is only temporary, as death inevitably comes for us all. Some much sooner than others. 


   My mind was occupied by these thoughts as my hand reached out for the door handle leading to the patient’s room. The door slowly swung open as I gently knocked on the frame to announce my arrival. As my head peaked around the edge of the door, my eyes begin to adjust to the dimly lit room where my attention focused on the patient lying in bed with the head of the bed elevated. At first, I thought the patient was sleeping but he soon turned to face the door and greeted my entrance with a weak smile.


   He was a middle-aged man who was very thin and pale, his skin color evident even in the low light. His cheek bones were very prominent and gave his eyes a sunken appearance. His extremities were mainly skin and bone. A morphine infusion was connected to his IV line to help control his pain. His smile, while genuine, seemed to take great effort to produce. I introduced myself and stepped over to his bed. 


   “It’s nice to meet you, doc,” he began in a raspy voice. “I appreciate you coming by, but I’m sorry it had to be on Thanksgiving.“


   I assured him that I didn’t mind, knowing all the while that I was being hypocritical.


   “So, how are you feeling?” I continued. 


   “You know, today is actually not too bad,” he responded. “Now, I mean no disrespect whatsoever but it sure does improve a fellow’s demeanor to have such pleasant ladies take care of him. I just feel badly that they have to do everything for me these days.”


  “Don’t feel badly,” I responded. “It comes with the territory.”


   The multiple IV lines hanging from the nearby steel pole suddenly reminded me of the purpose of my visit.


   “How is your pain?”


   “Well, “ he said motioning to his morphine pump. “As long as my friend here keeps working, I’m fine for the time being.”


   My attention was then diverted to his bedside table where I saw a food tray sitting, apparently completely untouched, with the silverware still unopened. I lifted the plastic lid to reveal a classic Thanksgiving meal, complete with turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes. Not a bite had been eaten. He looked wistfully at the tray as if remembering a time when such things mattered. 


   “Appetite not too good?” I inquired. 


   He shook his head.


   “No, I I knew that I wasn’t going to eat it even when I ordered it. I’m not hungry, but it just made me feel better having it here, with it being Thanksgiving and all. I guess kind of like Christmas decorations always lift your spirits. But, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s kind of wasteful.”


   I told him I understood. 


   “Is your breathing OK?” I inquired.


   “It’s fine for now.”


   “Ok. If any thing changes or if there is anything I can do, just let me know. Let me take a quick listen to your heart and lungs here.”


   With those words, I removed my stethoscope from around my neck and assisted him with sitting up in bed as he lacked the strength to do so on his own. I pressed my stethoscope over the usual areas of his back and listened to his shallow breaths, all the while noticing the protruding ribs that ran in prominent ridges on either side of his spine. As I did so, I could tell that his attention had been captured by some other distraction. 


   “Isn’t it amazing just how many of those we get to see?”


   With the tips of the stethoscope in my ears, his voice was muffled, but I was nonetheless still able to understand him. However, I wasn’t exactly sure what he was referring to.


   “I’m sorry,” I said as I removed the stethoscope from my ears and helped him to ease gently back down on his pillow. “I didn’t catch what you were saying just now.”


   Without speaking, he pointed out his room window which was facing westward toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. The evening sun was beginning to set and was already painting the evening sky and the scattered clouds on the horizon with beautiful shades of orange and crimson. The gray shapes of the distant peaks cut sharp silhouettes into the straight line of the horizon as they stretched heavenward. I would have been too distracted to notice had he not redirected my attention. 


   “I mean, think about it,” he began. “On many if not most evenings we get the privilege of seeing that kind of a masterpiece. Most mornings, too. No two are just alike. And yet, because they happen so frequently, we don’t even notice them. They aren’t even something that we deserve.”


   His focus remained outside his room, caught up in that far off place of swirling colors. Without changing his expression, he breathed a profound sentence.


   “I made a mess of things, doc.”


   I did not know how to respond, but his redirection of my attention to the beauty painted in the evening sky made me forget my previous melancholy. Without speaking, I pulled up a chair and took a seat beside his bed. 


   “When I was disrespectful to my parents,” he continued. “The sun still faithfully rose. When I stormed out of my parent’s home and left behind the two people on this earth that loved me the most, the evening sky was still painted with the colors that you see outside now. When I found that precious young girl and mistreated her when all she wanted was someone to provide and care for her, the mountain laurel still bloomed. When I loved alcohol more than anything or anyone and would wake up from my drunken stupor, I would still hear the rain falling outside.”


  I remained silent and mesmerized.


   “And I reaped what I sowed. I deserve what I got. There is no one left to blame.”


   His voice began to tremble. 


   “But for the life of me, I promise you that when I look back, He repaid me with good in return for whatever evil I did. Beauty in exchange for ashes. He blessed me in exchange for the years the locusts ate, even though it was of my own doing.” 


   My eyes fell to the floor as his words brought to life the wasted years of my own life. 


   “So you see, doc, I deserve to die alone. There is no one left in my life to push away. But, I can see now that He has been pursuing me my whole life.”


   He paused as he drew a deep breath.


   “I won’t be lonely much longer.” 


  There was nothing for me to say. What could I say? He had summed up human existence in his short discourse. No matter the size of a person’s debt, it remained a sum that could never be paid by one’s own merit. But, to be paid back with good in exchange for evil? No greater love existed. Out of respect, I remained silent. 


   “So, what is your favorite food?” I asked when the time was right. 


   “I’ve always been a sweets person if you want to know the truth,” he said with a grin.


   “Fair enough,” I responded. “What’s your favorite dessert?”


   “Pumpkin pie.”


   “Well, you are in luck. My mother-in-law is in town and, I have to admit, her pumpkin pie recipe is one of the best. I’ll bring you a piece tomorrow. Even if you can’t eat it.” 


   He smiled in return.


   “Just like decorations at Christmas.”


   I nodded. 


   “Just like decorations at Christmas.“


   I finished rounding and drove home in the darkness with a completely different mood than I possessed during my morning drive, and one that could be best described as guilt. I had done nothing but complain. Yet, there he remained in the loneliness of his hospital room, dying, and thankful for one more sunset. 


   I walked through the door of my home into the warmth of love and family. Gone was the regret of what time I felt had been lost, replaced by thankfulness for the time that I had. I immediately found the pumpkin pie and cut a slice before sealing it in a small plastic container for the next day. 

   



   The next morning found me back at the hospital before dawn with renewed purpose. I had been very careful to make sure that the single piece of pumpkin pie remained unscathed in its container. It was the least I could do for someone who had reminded me of what in life was truly eternal. 


   But, when I arrived at his room, I found it unoccupied with fresh, crisp sheets covering the bed and a recently mopped, spotless floor. Fearing the worst, I found his night nurse, before her presence was required at morning report.


   “He passed away around one this morning,” she said respectfully. “He seemed at peace. I think he passed in his sleep.” 


   I gazed down at the container with the piece of pie. I could think of nothing to say. 


   “It’s always a comfort to me,” she stated as she searched for something to break the silence. “That maybe patients could learn something from us to comfort them in the end.”


   I turned and walked away slowly, mumbling that he had taught me more in fifteen minutes than I could have taught him in a lifetime.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Visitation- A Halloween Tale



“Don’t be afraid,
 Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for 21 days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me...

Daniel 10:12-13


   The cool, fall breeze rustled through the surrounding maple trees while dislodging some of the amber colored leaves before twisting and spinning them to their final resting place upon the ground. That time of year had always been her favorite. Although it marked the end of summer’s reign of bountiful life, warmth, and flowers, there was always something energizing about that particular change of seasons. 

   That particular late October evening was no exception and she waited with anticipation for all of her costumed visitors to arrive. She had never been one to celebrate the dark side of Halloween,  but she also couldn’t resist the fun of passing out large quantities of candy to eager neighborhood children who had waited patiently all year for this opportunity. Seeing their smiling faces at her door, always lifted the young woman’s spirits, as she had no children of her own.

   But, there was more to her story than that. Having no children was far too simple an explanation. Even as she greeted the smiling faces at her door each year, there was always an accompanying element of sadness which she was very careful to suppress as much as she could. She strove to find some solace among the laughter, but it remained elusive. Countless had been her prayers. Countless had been her tears. The heavy weight remained. 

   Perhaps that year would be different. She poured the assorted bag of candy into her large, orange Halloween bowl and placed it by the front door in anticipation of her first visitors.  She was sure that the evening would follow the same pattern as it had most other years. Usually, in the late evening before sundown, the youngest children would arrive first having been driven by their parents so that their short legs would not fatigue too quickly before they had gotten their limit of candy. The older children would then arrive next with the final group being the young teenagers whose love of candy still outweighed any embarrassment produced by wearing a costume.  She took one last quick look outside her small home to make sure that she had remembered to turn on both the outside house lights as well as the orange colored decorative lights that she had strung around her front porch banister. She then stepped back inside to grab a quick bite to eat.

   Like clockwork, the children began to arrive exactly as she expected. The youngest children were always the cutest and she adored watching them waddle up her steps in their costumes to reach with wide-eyed excitement into the bowl of treats. She didn’t mind them taking more than one handful of candy as their hands were small and she had made sure to buy plenty of candy that year. Even before the youngest groups had completely finished, the slightly older children begin to roll in with larger numbers than the previous year. She didn’t recognize many of the families, most likely because they had come from surrounding neighborhoods. After all, the better candy you offered, the more trick-or-treaters you could expect. She found herself so caught up in the excitement that she almost failed to notice one small child who was dressed as a ghost in a simple white sheet. Her initial thought was that the child resembled one of the ghosts on the Charlie Brown Halloween special. However, as far as she could tell, he had not been brought by any adults or family members but seemed to appear in the group on his own. The small phantom would never approach her with the other children to get his treats but would simply stand at a distance, motionless. She was unable to see his face and yet she had the uneasy sensation that the pair of eyes underneath that white sheet were fixed directly on her. She attempted to approach the child after greeting the other children, but as soon as she refocused her attention on him, he had vanished.

   For a short period of time, she did not see him again until, to her surprise, he reappeared later in the evening when the older kids begin to make their rounds. She was handing out candy to a larger group of teenagers when she suddenly noted him again circulating outside of the main group at the bottom of her front steps. He again made no sound and did not approach but continued to place his full attention on her. He seemed larger than before, almost as if he had grown to match the age of the trick-or-treaters. The other children who were present seemed to pay him no attention, as if he was not there at all. She also noted that the ghostly covering was no longer purely white as it had been previously, but had a crimson hue which seemed to darken with the shadows. Disturbed by this mysterious visitor, she had made the decision to approach and confront him but she was delayed as the last of the teenagers stepped into her path to get her share of the candy,  However, the ghost had disappeared as soon as the young woman turned again to face him. With all of the trick-or-treaters temporarily gone and the evening getting later, the young woman looked around her porch and in the surrounding landscaping for anything suspicious but saw no sign of her strange visitor. Satisfied for the moment that she was alone, she walked back up her front steps and opened the creaking storm door before entering her house. Perhaps because of that evening’s visitation, she turned and bolted the door, something that she usually did not do. Then, cradling her bowl of candy in her lap, she sat down in the front foyer and watched her front door in the event that some late trick-or-treaters decided to arrive. She was swirling through the remainder of the candy in her bowl when the weariness of her day finally caught up with her. Leaning her head back against the wall, she drifted off to sleep.

   A scuffling sound on the front porch awakened her from her slumber. Her first thought was that the noise was likely from a raccoon or possum as both animals tended to roam through the neighborhood at that time of evening. A flash of crimson/white flashed briefly across the window causing her pulse rate to quicken. What appeared next was even more terrifying as the head of the earlier phantom, still clothed in his crimson-tinged covering, slowly tilted into the frame of the front door’s window to stare in directly at her. The apparition was even taller than it had been when she last saw it. Startled, the young woman quickly stood to her feet, dropping her bowl of candy onto the floor. As the treats scattered across the wooden floor, she watched in horror as the front door knob turned and the door opened slowly, its lock still remained firmly bolted but yet offered no resistance. As she continued to back away, the door suddenly flung open fully and revealed her unwanted guest. 

   “Who are you?” she cried in terror, continuing her slow retreat. 

   “You don’t remember me?” asked the inhuman voice. It’s tone held no redeeming qualities, full of only hate and malice.

   “How could I?” came the trembling response. “I’ve never met you before tonight. And even if I had, you’re completely covered.” 

   “You spoke the truth when you said you’ve never met me before. You made sure that would never happen. But, oh, you remember how close our connection was.”

   She continued to back away.

   “We shared life. You felt me move.” 

   It couldn’t be.

   “Don’t you remember what you did to me?” the voice hissed as the visitor’s covering changed completely to blood red. 

   “Oh, my heavens...no...” came the weak response as all of the old pain and guilt burst into new flame. She bumped into the hallway table and the lamp fell to the floor with a crash and the sound of shattering glass. 

   The crimson apparition suddenly lunged for her and with a scream she turned and ran to her bedroom at the end of the hallway, all the while feeling its foul breath on the back of her neck. She immediately slammed her door and locked it knowing full well from her earlier experience just how ineffective that would be. She collapsed sobbing onto the floor, fully expecting the door in front of her to open just as the previous one had. However, the door remain closed and the only sound was the sound of scratching on the other side of the door as if claws were scoring the wood.

   “Try to hide,” the hissing continued. “It’s what you do best. But you can’t hide from me. From what you did. From the innocence you so selfishly took.”

   She covered her ears but nothing could drown out the words. As horrible and terrifying as the voice was, perhaps the most terrifying part of all was that she could not deny the truth. 

   “If you have anything against me, you need to take it up with my Father...” she spoke as she tried to resist with what faith she had, but her answer was interrupted by unearthly hissing and spitting from the other side. The door trembled and the claws dug deeper into the wood. 

   “Your Father!” it bellowed from the other side. “Your Father! I’ve seen your so called Father and He wants nothing to do with you! You killed one of His own! Is that something that you think He merely overlooks?”

   “Father, you promised...” she whimpered. 

   “An eye for an eye, little girl. That’s what He wants. That’s why I’m here. It’s what you deserve.”

   A pale, clawed hand shattered the middle of the door and broke through to the other side. 

  “Please...”

   “Beg all you want. He’s not listening.”

   “Help me...”

    Just as her words fell, all became silent as the young woman became aware of a new sound. It was not associated with the creature outside her door, but was nonetheless close by. It had the distinct sound of feet hitting the ground, reminding her of a landing paratrooper. Organized. Not chaotic. The pale hand withdrew from the ragged hole in the door. 

   “That is enough!” a new voice boomed.

   “I thought I taught you a lesson.” the hissing responded.

   “I’m a terribly slow learner.”

   The entire house was then suddenly filled with the sound of an intense struggle. There were the constant sounds of booming and shattering accompanied by hissing and screeching. Initially paralyzed and unable to move, the young woman finally gathered enough strength to crawl to the door and peek through the jagged hole. What she saw before her defied all logic, yet she could not deny what was directly in front of her eyes. 

   Her tormentor remained in the hallway but was no longer wearing his crimson covering either by choice or because his adversary had ripped it off.  She could now see that he was tall, thin and very pale, almost like death itself. His long, spindly arms terminated in fingers armed with the same dagger-like claws that had destroyed her bedroom door. The mouth snarled and hissed constantly. His most striking feature, however, was the pair of eyes which glowed with a pale chlorine green color and protruded from the gaunt features of his face. 

   But he was not alone. Opposing him was what appeared to be a smaller man dressed in what most closely resembled a military uniform, although its design was completely foreign. On his shoulders were emblems that appeared to be two winged creatures facing each other with their heads bowed and their wings swept forward with the tips touching. His most striking feature, in direct contrast to his opponent, was also the pair of eyes but in contrast his shone with an unearthly but beautiful shade of blue from which only compassion and sacrifice poured. No matter where his pale opponent attacked, he continued to interpose himself between the creature and the shattered bedroom door.

   But he was hopelessly outmatched. The blows with which the creature struck him rattled the entire house. The soldier fought back valiantly for every inch that he was able to push the creature back from the door. Yet, the gains were only temporary as a quick counter attack by his opponent threw the soldier back against the bedroom door, drawing a scream from the terrified woman. The creature then grabbed the front of his uniform and swung him violently against one side of the hallway and then the other, completely smashing him through the drywall. The white, chalky dust swirled throughout the hallway and engulfed the two combatants as the soldier was forced to his knees.

   “You should have never come back,” the hissing chided

   But just before the final blow was to be delivered, there followed a second sound of feet hitting the ground. Almost instinctively, the creature released the defeated soldier and turned to face a new arrival whose sudden appearance behind him was almost hidden by the cloud of dust. 

   What the young woman saw through the haze was what appeared to be another man dressed similarly to the first soldier, but whose uniform bore insignia which appeared to indicate higher rank. He was much larger than the first soldier and was even larger than the creature itself as his head barely cleared the ceiling. The same piercing blue eyes shone from his face, filled with duty and determination.

   “You...” the creature hissed. 

   Without another word, the creature savagely attacked the new arrival using the same blows that he employed to defeat the other soldier. This time, however, the blows were completely ineffective and the second soldier stood like a stone wall absorbing everything that was thrown at him. When he had finally endured enough of the bothersome attack, the second soldier’s hand flew forward to grasp the creature’s face before violently smashing him to the ground. With incredible speed, he flipped the creature over on its face and pulled his arms behind his back before securing them there with a large chain. With the creature hissing and screaming the entire time, the second soldier then lifted the creature as easily as the proverbial sack of potatoes and disappeared around the corner.

   The complete silence that followed was broken only by the young women’s anxious breathing and the pounding of her own pulse in her ears. The second soldier and the creature were gone but the first soldier still remained slowly rising from the dust and brushing off his uniform. He then turned his attention to the bedroom door and peered kindly through the hole.

   “It is alright,” he said gently. “He is gone now.”

   At first, the young woman did not respond. 

   “No one is going to hurt you.”

   Her trembling hand reached out and opened the door. The man on the other side greeted her with a compassionate smile.

   “I thought he was going to kill you,” she muttered, not knowing what else to say.

    He smiled again, his sapphire eyes gleaming.

   “It does not exactly work like that for us,” he responded. 

   His hand then reached up to stroke his jaw where many of his adversary’s blows had fallen.

   “That, however, does not mean that it does not hurt.”

   He then pushed the bedroom door gently until it was fully open and after taking one step inside he sat down on the floor a few feet away from the young woman.

   “Who are you?” she asked.

   “A friend.”

   “Of whom?”

   “You. And many others for that matter.”

   “Why me?” 

   “I was sent because you asked for help. I am here because your Father does not approve of His children being treated like that.”

   “And,” she began, almost not being able to speak of him yet.  “What was that thing?”

   “A liar.”

   She did not know how to respond. 

   “But a very strong one,” he continued again rubbing his jaw. “I could not stop him alone. But, Michael came to help me.”

   “But what it said about me was true,” she continued, the tears welling up and overflowing into her cheeks. “Years ago, they told me it wasn’t really human yet. I was so afraid then...I did kill one of His own...”

   The man reached out gently and brushed one of the tears from her cheeks. 

   “I do not fully understand these,” he stated softly while studying the teardrop on his finger. “But I have seen bottles of these that your Father has collected. Many of them yours while asking Him for a second chance. None was unnoticed. The charges against you have been erased.” 

   The young woman wept as the events of the evening began to weigh fully on her. 

   “I don’t deserve that.”

   “Nor does anyone else. Do not try to earn, only accept.”

   With those words, the man rose to his full height and looked down upon the young woman with great compassion. 

   “It is time for me to take my leave for now. But do not be afraid. I will always be near. From the place where Michael is taking that liar, he will not be returning.”

   “But he told me that he was my child. He spoke about all the terrible things I had done.”

   “That was not your child.” 

   “How do you know?”

   “Because I spoke to your daughter right before I came to you.”

   Before she could ask any further questions, he reached down and placed his hand gently on her head and she immediately fell into the most peaceful sleep she had ever known.  


   The next morning she awoke back in her bed with sunlight streaming through the window. She sat up with a start as she suddenly recalled the events of the previous evening. However, as she looked around her room, she noticed that all was in order. There was no gaping hole in the bedroom door. She leaped out of bed and flung open the door to find that the hallway and walls were in perfect condition without the least trace of dust. In the foyer, the empty candy bowl was not on the floor but still on the front table. She lifted her head and breathed deeply, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted. 

   “Thank you,” she breathed into the morning air. “And please, tell my daughter that I look forward to meeting her.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Evergreen

 





 That particular brisk November morning, as had been the entire Fall season to that point, was colder than usual for the southwest corner of Georgia. Emory could hear the familiar sound of the soles of his feet scrape across the coarse sandy surface of the road. His pace was quickened that morning, but not simply because of the temperature. He knew that Hannah would be at her usual spot and he didn't want to keep her waiting.  

   The school bus stop was about half a mile from Emory's house and was a familiar route once all of the harvesting was finished and the school year rolled around. Emory, an outdoor person by nature, nonetheless looked forward to the reprieve offered by the school year. His favorite class had always been biology, although history was a close second. Math was useful but still a little dry for him. His whole environment was immersed in life and to obtain a greater understanding of that diversity had always been fascinating. Now, more than ever, his and his family’s existence depended on the land. The Depression and the seemingly never-ending war overseas had stretched resources beyond their limits and what the land could produce and your hands manufacture were all that anyone had. And none of that was guaranteed. Emory had friends who would beg him for the left-over core of his apple at lunch. He gave away all that he could, but he had very little to offer to begin with. 

   In a world where there was little to possess and little to hope for, there was one bright spot in Emory’s life. His jacket. More specifically, it was his bomber jacket. It might have seemed almost laughable to someone from a larger town or from a family possessing greater means, but to Emory it meant the world. It was exactly the same kind of jacket that the American bomber crews wore on their high altitude bombing missions in Europe. The exterior was entirely leather while the inside was lined with a thick layer of fleece that would deflect even the staunchest winter winds. He had saved what he had earned from working the previous summer and purchased the jacket after combining those summer earnings with his entire life savings. He was too young to go and fight, but only barely so and wearing the jacket was a small way of respecting those who fought and died daily. After all, they were his heroes.  

   Emory knew that he was getting close as he approached the familiar bend in the road. The leaves of the large red oak to his right had turned brown and were slowly, one by one,  succumbing to the November winds. The small fishing pond to his left had been a scene of constant activity and socialization during the warmer months but was now secluded and alone. Yet, closer to him and just beyond the edge of the road was a lofty long-needled southern pine whose girth and height indicated a tree of great age and majesty. Never losing its needles in the coldest of seasons, it remained a symbol of hope that perhaps all would be well. Yet, the beauty and dignity of that tree seemed to pale in comparison with the diminutive young woman who stood beneath it. Hannah, her blonde hair playing across her face in the cool morning breeze, was standing beneath the tree engrossed in a book. As Emory approached, his movement caught her attention and she looked up with a smile that made the morning pause to take notice.

   Hannah was German. That was the simple truth of it, and usually the only knowledge necessary for most people to pass judgement. It seemed to make little difference that she and her parents had fled Germany for the distinct purpose of avoiding the Nazi regime and were already settled in their new home by the time hostilities had begun. It was enough merely to hear her speak, her English decorated with a slight Bavarian accent, and gaze upon her long golden hair and sapphire eyes to realize that she was one of the enemy; no matter how pleasant her demeanor might first appear.

   Emory, however, saw her differently, although he had never spoken openly of it. When he had first met her at school, he had immediately felt great compassion for her at being so far from her home. The flat coastal plain of southern Georgia held little resemblance to the foothills of the Alps from which she had immigrated. She already spoke English, but she nonetheless still faced a society who did not speak the language of her heart and whose culture was markedly foreign. Not to mention that within the short period of time that she had lived in her new home, her native country had declared war upon it. 

But Hannah was certainly not helpless and that fact, perhaps, made Emory respect her all the more. He had often remarked to himself that if all of the German people had the same strength of will as Hannah, it was no small wonder that they made such staunch fighters on the battlefield. She also possessed a keen mind and Emory, although a good student himself, had to admit that Hannah was likely more gifted than he. And, in spite of all of her attributes, it had not escaped Emory’s attention that one of his favorite things about Hannah was just how pleasant she was to look at. Superficial, but true nonetheless. 

   Hannah’s smile, as she stood beneath the Evergreen, warmed his heart as it always did on those cool fall mornings.

   “Guten Morgen, fraulein!” Emory greeted her proudly as his breath condensed in the cool air. 

   “Ah, du sprichst Deutsch?” Hannah replied. “Wie geht es dir heute?”

   “Alright, I give up,” Emory responded by throwing up his hands. “I need you to give me more lessons. I didn’t understand a word you just said.” 

   “Perhaps, if I had a more diligent student you would already be fluent by now,” Hannah responded jokingly.

   “That's not funny,” Emory responded with a smile as he joined her underneath the evergreen tree. At that exact moment, the unmistakable rattling of the 1931 Ford school bus reached their ears. It seemed on most days that every bolt holding the old green vehicle together would rattle itself out of place but it had, with constant diligence from the maintenance crew,  somehow managed to hold itself together. The dust kicked up from the sandy roads by the bus’s tires rose above the dormant fields and made it quite easy to track the path of the vehicle.

   “Do you think we'll make it to school today without breaking down?”

   “Not sure. But, that’s one of the things that keeps life so interesting.”

   The vehicle pulled up beside the pair and the door swung open revealing the serious face of Mrs. Davis, the bus driver. The two got onto the bus and took their usual seats about midway back on the right hand side of the bus. Hannah pressed in a little closer to Emory for warmth which was never unwelcome as she always smelled like cedar. 

   “So, how is your piano playing these days?” Emory asked. 

   “Fine, I suppose,“ Hannah replied modestly although Emory had heard her play before and was not fooled in the least.

   “I’m sure that it’s much better than just fine. I remember the last time you played at church. I'm certainly no Mozart, but I thought it was flawless.“

   “You are too kind, sir,“ Hanner replied with a smile while putting on the air of a medieval princess. “And I dare say I would be happy to play on a much more frequent basis, if only they were more Lutheran churches in town.“

   Emory chuckled before responding.

   “Now, you know good and well that there aren’t any Lutherans in this town, but you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Baptist Church.”

   Hannah nodded in acknowledgment.

   “At least Mrs. Johnson still lets me practice on her piano. She has really been very nice about the whole situation and has allowed me to play whenever I need to. I’m not sure, but it seems as if she enjoys the music as it takes her mind off of the emptiness of her house.”

   “I’m sure it does,” Emory responded. “I can only imagine having a house full of the noise of that many children and then how quiet it must be when they all move away.“ 

   Emory then looked over at his companion and she thumbed through her sheets of music.

   “In fact,“ he offered. “You can come and play the piano for me anytime when all of my children have moved away.“

   Hannah then returned his gaze and curled her lips over her teeth as to give the appearance that she had none.

   “You mean when you’re old, with no teeth like this? “

  Emory couldn’t help but chuckle, in spite of his friend’s teasing.

   “Now, you just hang on a second there. I’ll have you know that I’m planning to keep all of my teeth.  And my hair, too.”

   “Oh, I see.”

   A thought then suddenly came to Emory. 

   “You know, it really has been a while since I’ve gotten to hear you play. The school recital is coming up in a couple of weeks and that’s something that everyone in town always looks forward to. Maybe I’ll get to hear you then.“

   Hannah smiled as a respectful gesture but did not respond verbally.

   “You’re going to play then, aren’t you?” Emory  asked. “You’re one of the best piano players that I know.“

   “And just how many piano players do you know?”

   “I’m serious. You have to play. You would be great.”

   “I don’t know,” Hannah responded, still thumbing through her sheet music. Emory could tell that something was bothering her but he was not sure exactly what it was. 

   “I know it can be a little intimidating getting up in front of all those people,” Emory continued sympathetically. “But I certainly wouldn’t let that stand in your way.”

    “No, it’s not that.”

   “Is it everything going on with the war?”

   “No,” Hannah shrugged her shoulders. “Not really.” 

   Emory could still tell that something was bothering Hannah, but he also did not want to push her if it was something that she really did not want to talk about. Almost as if she had read his mind, Hannah suddenly  turned to him as if to share a secret that she could no longer bear to keep hidden. 

   “You can’t tell anyone. Promise me.” 

   “I promise.”

   “I’ve seen pictures from other years,” Hannah began. “And I’ve been to other recitals and I know how the girls are dressed.”

   Hannah paused to collect herself. 

   “Papa’s crop was not as good this year as we had hoped. Our family doesn’t have anything extra for something as impractical as a new dress. Right now, I don’t own any clothing that would be considered appropriate for a recital. My parents feel terribly about it but I believe it would be more embarrassing to them for me to go ahead and play publicly dressed as I would be than to not play at all.”

   Emory listened respectfully.

   “But you know what?” Hannah continued with a more optimistic tone. “Papa took us to town the other day and we walked by Alderman’s store downtown. In the window was this beautiful blue evening dress with a neckline just perfect for showing a string of pearls.”

   Hannah smiled wistfully. 

   “Maybe one day, after this war is over, I can have some things like that. If only every now and then. I guess what I’m really wishing for is something constant. Something dependable. Something unchanging. Like that evergreen tree that we meet under every morning for school. Immergrun as we say in German. Evergreen.“ 

   Emory's face was filled with compassion. 

   “I’m sorry, Hannah.” 

   She smiled in return.

   “I know that things are tough now for everyone. I just wanted you to know. But, please, don’t tell anyone.”

   “I promise, Hannah.”


   For the rest of the school day, Emory could think of nothing but Hannah and the blue dress hanging in Alderman's window. Emory knew without doubt that Hannah would be the most talented musician at the recital, but he greatly respected her unwillingness to embarrass her parents or herself for the sake of putting herself on display. As the day progressed and just before school ended, a solution began to form in  Emory’s mind. Wishing to honor his promise to Hannah, he kept his ideas to himself. 


   The next day was Saturday and Emory’s brother, James, had several errands to run for the family in town. Catching James by himself, Emory made his request.

   “Why in the world do you need to stop by Alderman’s?“ James asked with a perplexed expression. “Unless you’ve come into some money that the rest of us don’t know about, you don’t have any business going there.“

   “Listen, I just need to go there. It’s not for me.“

   “Then who is it for?”

   “Can’t tell you. I made a promise.“

   “Is it something that’s going to get you into trouble with mama and daddy?”

   “No. They would approve.”

   James appeared a little disappointed.

   “Then you should go tell them about it.“

   “I will. But I have to keep my promise first.”

   Reluctantly, James agreed to take him with the stipulation that Emory would owe him a favor to be cashed in at a later day. That stipulation didn't bother Emory in the least and he grabbed his bomber jacket before heading out the door behind James. 

   

Following the eight mile drive into town, James eased the farm truck into the parking area on the city square in front of Alderman’s. 

   “Now listen,” James began. “You’d better be done with whatever business you’ve got to do by the time I get back from the hardware store. Don’t think that I won’t leave you here if you start interfering with my schedule.” 

   Emory pretended not to hear as he slammed the truck door and made straight for the front entrance of the clothing store. Before going in, he paused for a moment and stared into the right front window. There, just as Hannah had described, was the blue evening dress. She had certainly been right about one thing; even Emory could easily imagine the dress accented by a strand of pearls. Gathering his courage and taking a deep breath, he then entered the store.

   The woman who assisted Emory was very kind and listened patiently as he explained his proposal. 

   “Well,” she began once she fully understood what he was asking. “It’s certainly a reasonable thing to suggest, especially with times the way that they are now. It’s just that I was wondering if this is really something that you wanted to do. Especially at this time of year.“ 

   “Yes ma’am,”  Emory replied immediately. “I’ve given it a lot of thought.“

   “I’m quite sure you have. It’s just the mother in me that makes me ask questions like that. Very well then, let’s get this all set up for you.”

   “And if you don’t mind, would you mind wrapping it? Nothing fancy.” 

   “I think that we can arrange that.”


  

 “What in the world is that?“ James asked as Emory climbed into the passenger seat carrying a package.

   “I’ve already told you. I’m not going to tell you right now. I made a promise and I’m keeping it.“

   “So, it doesn’t bother you at all to keep me in the dark about all this and yet use me to give you a lift to town?”

   “Not in the least,“ Emory replied. “You were coming this way anyway. I’m also not going to feel bad about asking you to stop by Hannah's house on the way home, either. But don’t park out front. I want you to drop me off where no one from the house can see me.” 

   “You certainly are causing me a lot of problems today.“

   “Yes,” came the sultry reply as Emory stretched his arms across his package. “But I’m worth it.”


   The following Monday, the brisk November air was even colder than it had been the previous week. Emory once again settled into a hurried pace so as to not keep Hannah waiting. He always looked forward to seeing her, but on that day his excitement was above its usual level. As he navigated the familiar turn in the sandy road, he once again saw Hannah reading her book beneath the spreading arms of the evergreen pine. Noticing his approach after looking up from her novel, her face burst into the largest smile that Emory had ever seen. 

   “Herr Tucker! “ Hannah began using one of her playful names for Emory. “You will never guess what happened this weekend!“

   “Well, don’t leave me in suspense! Spill the beans!”

   “Do you remember me telling you last week about the blue dress at Alderman’s? The one I dreamed about having for the recital?“

   “Of, course. The one that would go really well with a strand of pearls.” 

   “So, you were listening!”

   “Of course I was.”

   “Well, Sunday morning papa had gone out back to feed the livestock before church when he found a package on the back porch. We had no idea where it came from. We certainly had not ordered anything and the postman never leaves anything on the back porch. It had no address. We didn’t want to keep something that wasn’t ours, so we decided to open it to see if we could find out who it belonged to. Emory, you’ll never guess what was inside.” 

    “Tell me.” 

   Hannah paused for a moment as if she still could not believe her own story. 

   “It was the gown.”

"What gown?"

"You know which gown!"

   “The blue one from Alderman’s?”

   “Yes! That exact one.”

   Hannah paused again. 

   “I don’t want to keep something that is not mine, but I would not even know where to begin to find its owner.”

   “Sounds like an answer to prayer to me.”

   “I thought you told me that God didn’t hear Lutheran prayers. Only Baptist ones.“

   Emory chuckled. 

   “I may have been stretching things a little bit there.“ 

   “Then what should I do?”

   “I think you were meant to have that dress. I think you should wear it and attend the recital and take your place among the other ladies. It’s where you belong. You’re out of most of their leagues anyway.” 

   Those last words rolled out before Emory could restrain them, but once they were free upon the November air, he did not regret saying them.

   “At least that’s my opinion. For what it’s worth.” 

   “Danke,” She replied softly, the harshness of her German accent having almost completely faded away.

   “Bitte,” came the honest reply. 

   Hannah smiled again and, this time, allowed her blue eyes to linger a little longer than usual, interrupted only by the sound of the arriving school bus. As the pair boarded the bus and slid into their usual seats, it seemed to Emory that Hannah moved in a little closer than usual, making the welcome scent of soap and cedar even more prominent.

Hannah’s gaze then moved back to Emory as she observed his hands and how strong but kind they were. They had seen more hardship than a person of his age should have endured. She was noticing the worn cuffs of his shirt, no doubt a hand-me-down from his brother, when a thought suddenly occurred to her.

   “Emory, where is your jacket?”

   Emory looked down at his shirt, attempting to feign surprise. 

   “I must have forgotten it. I was in a hurry.”

   “Today was one of the coldest days of the year so far. And besides, you never go anywhere without that jacket.“

   Hannah was far too keen for a detail of that nature to go unnoticed and Emory suddenly felt very foolish to have thought that he could have ever kept it from her.

   “It was you, wasn’t it?” Hannah started as the details began to fall into place. “You traded your jacket for my dress . An expensive jacket that you bought with your own money.”

   Emory did not respond at first, a part of him regretting that his sacrifice had been so obvious. He had somehow hoped it would go unnoticed. To watch her enjoy her dress and recital from a distance without any need for compensation. But that was a very childish idea. 

   “When I told you about the dress last week, I never meant for it to sound like I was…”

   “Of course you didn’t,“ Emory interrupted gently. “Of course you didn't. It was never taken that way.” 

   Emory’s gaze fell to the floor boards as a silence settled between the pair. He had already made a fool of himself. He might as well complete the task.

   “I would rather be cold than to ever see you embarrassed or to have to go without.” 

   He was quite sure that he had ruined everything and that his priceless friendship with the beautiful young woman next to him was over, when he suddenly felt the soft touch of Hannah’s hand as it grasped his. He suddenly realized that he had never touched her before and this new sensation was in no way unwelcome. Emory’s gaze returned to Hannah and he could tell in the softness of her gaze that her German fortitude was crumbling. 

   “You know what they’ll say about you when word gets out, don’t you?”

   Emory nodded. 

   “It doesn’t really matter.”

   She smiled once again. 

   “Immergrun,” she whispered.  “Evergreen.” 

   “Evergreen,” he responded. 


   




   


The Years The Locusts Ate

  Joel 2:25 “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten...”        I was in the most sullen of moods when the alarm went off at f...