Monday, June 27, 2022

Independence Day

 

                                          Drawing by Martin-Lyn 



   An olive-toned hand, the right third finger adorned by her grandmother’s ring, reached out somewhat hesitantly to open the door to the main campus library before halting in mid air and dropping to her side. She had rehearsed this so many times but, in spite of her preparation, her courage began to fail her and she turned quickly back to the bathroom to gather herself. 

   As her shoes softly trod back up the hallway from whence she had come, she passed a group of male  students who, with nothing better to do, had taken up positions in one of the common areas. 

  “Well, hey there, Elena!” the lead young man called out to her as his gaze swept the young Cuban woman from head to toe. 

  “Why don’t you call or text me anymore?” he persisted, his arms outstretched. “I’m starting to think you don’t like me!”

   A chuckle and a least one wolf call arose from his companions as Elena returned his question with the most polite smile she could muster, but without giving a direct answer. The bathroom door opened mercifully before her and she ducked quickly inside. Leaving the world temporarily outside, she turned on the water and watched it flow gently between her cupped fingers. Splashing a small amount of the liquid on her face, she gripped the sides of the white ceramic basin before staring at her reflection in the mirror just above it. 

   The woman who stared back at her was nearly flawless, or at least that’s what she had always been told. Flawless at least from a physical standpoint. Few seemed to care about what remained unseen. A droplet of water traced a path down the smooth olive skin paralleling the course of a strand of long, deep chestnut hair that waved ever so slightly as it outlined the Spanish eyes. Taking a deep breath, Elena released her grip on the ceramic basin and turned toward the door. 

   Completely ignoring the calls from the young men outside as she exited, Elena retraced her steps to the library yet once again. This time not allowing herself time to reconsider, she grasped the handle, opened the door and walked inside. 

   As she began her search for that one particular face, her mind returned to the time when she first began to visit the library more often than she had previously during her college career. Not that she did so because of the requirements of her courses, as all of the young men reminded her ad nauseam that a woman with Elena’s beauty had no need for book knowledge. Hurtful though those statements were, those emotions paled beside the curious new sensation that she experienced when in the company of one particular young man. He was a quiet soul, at least in public, but he thought deeply and Elena was mesmerized by his view of the world. When she spoke he listened, always gazing into her eyes without scrutinizing the rest of her figure as almost all others were in the habit of doing. Perhaps best of all, as their friendship had deepened over the past year, he had never once spoken openly of her outer beauty but spoke instead of something much deeper and more eternal. That, to Elena, was refreshing; and completely foreign. 

   But, as far as she knew, his feelings for her did not extend beyond friendship. And so the inner torment had risen to an unbearable level even as she had slowly forsaken her previous superficial circle of friends for the comfort of his presence and the fascination of their conversations. With him, she was free. 

   As she rounded the final stack of books and looked beyond,  she once again saw him at his usual table and in his typical position, his textbooks open in front of him and his pen writing continuously in a notebook. Alone, and yet not so. Her pulse quickened as it had been prone to do so recently in his presence, but perhaps more than previously. Her less than confident legs made the final few strides toward the table where she gently pulled out the end chair and slowly took a seat. His attention diverted from his work and he put his pen down and observed her familiar face. A smile shattered the precious expression of concentration as a warmth enveloped his whole countenance. 

   “Elena…”

   Her name. It rolled from his speech seasoned with a Tennessee accent like the sound of the evening breeze in the treetops.  No whistles of approval. No suspicious glances with ulterior motives. She managed a smile in return. 

   “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

   He looked briefly at his watch. 

   “Absolutely not. In fact, you’re a few minutes late today  and I began to worry that you weren’t coming. Believe me, I need the study break.” 

   He stretched his arms out in front of him to loosen the stiffness. 

   She smiled again.

  “Glad to be of service.”

   Elena did her best to hide her emotions and to continue with their usual conversation but her more anxious appearance did not long go unnoticed. 

  “Are you alright?” he asked genuinely. 

  “Oh, of course. Just, you know, some things on my mind. Nothing really.”

  “Anything I can help with?”

   Her eyes glanced up from the table to connect with his. She knew the time had come, but once done there could be no undoing. 

  “That depends,” she replied softly. 

   He appeared understandably perplexed. 

  “I’m not sure I understand.”

   She inhaled deeply and placed her right index finger on the library table almost as if she intended to inscribe her thoughts into the wood itself. 

  “It’s…well…I mean…have you ever had something to say…something you wanted to say…but had no idea of how to express it?”

   The young man nodded his head. 

  “Which suitor is it this time?” he asked. 

  “No…it’s not like that, I mean it kind of is, but not like you would imagine.”

   His brow furrowed almost with a touch of concern.

  “Elena… I’m sorry, I just…I’m just not really sure what you’re asking of me.”

   Elena nodded in understanding.

  “All I know is that…” she began as her finger gently scrawled on the table. “Well…”

   Her head dropped in disappointment.

  “What am I doing?” her question hung in the air.  “This would be easier in Spanish.”

   Her fingers combed through the shiny brown strands.

  “But then I couldn’t understand a word you say.”

   Her gaze lifted once again. 

  “That’s why it would be easier.”

   He thought for a moment before responding.

  “Spanish is your heart language. Think of what you want to say in Spanish, and then tell me in English.”

   Closing her eyes briefly, she recalled the whole reason that she was there. The language in her mind began to flow once again and her pulse rate slowed. She opened her eyes and, exhaling slowly, began to speak. 

  “I’m so tired,” she began softly as he continued to listen. 

  “Exhausted, to tell the truth.”

   She paused before continuing.

  “When I close my eyes, I can still see those faces and hear the voices that have called out to me for all of my life. And, as I listen to them, I find myself astounded by how few if any cared anything about me at all. I was their addiction; their distraction. I was their ticket to popularity. I was their idol to set upon the mantelpiece and worship whenever the mood would strike.”

   The young man did not move. 

  “Look at me…” her eyes began to well and the voice began to tremble. 

  “I don’t care what your eyes tell you. You’re being deceived. What you’re seeing is the loneliest person on the planet. Without value. Without a true friend and surrounded by a sickening amount of expectations and superficiality.”

   Her hand wiped her cheek. 

  “I was exhausted…but then you came.”

   The tears were unstoppable. 

   “Heavens above, what am I going to do? How do I tell you this? I come here to hear your voice. I look for you wherever I go and pine for you when I am not with you. Others call to me constantly but I only hear you. You see the unseen. You are like none other.”

   She buried her face in her hands.

  “I should be sentenced to eternal purgatory for throwing my emotions on you like this, but I am living in one now and so it makes little difference to me. Heavens above, what am I going to do?”

  “Elena,” the kind voice responded. The reddened eyes lifted to see him passing her a box of tissues that he carried in his bag. 

  “Elena,” he spoke her name with a distinct hint of disbelief. “My life has not been the same since you entered it. It’s just that…”

   His gaze focused on the smooth olive tones of her hands. 

  “I’m not sure I’m worthy of you.”

  “Please don’t patronize me,” came the swift reply.  “I know something of value when I see it.”

  “I would never do that to you, Elena. You are a treasure and a jewel among the stones of which I am chief. I have nothing to offer you and have nothing in common with those who have surrounded you.”

  “You plead my case for me,” the young woman replied. “I would not have fallen if you were merely a copy of what I had grown accustomed to.”

   He inhaled deeply, almost as if it was painful to speak. 

  “Please forgive me,” his head dropping as if in shame. “But I must know.”

   He exhaled slowly.

  “Are you certain that you are in love with me, or merely the idea of me?”

   Elena had already anticipated the legitimate question as she had, in all honesty, already asked it of herself. As she observed the fair skinned gentleman with emerald colored eyes, she was keenly aware of their differences but even more aware that those differences were what had captivated her to begin with. 

  “Look at me,” her response began. “Look at me and tell me that the thought of a life together has not entered your thoughts. Tell me that the eyes of our future daughter have never once crossed your mind.”

   He paused before answering, but raised his eyes to meet hers before doing so. 

  “She has soft, beautiful brown eyes…just like her mother.”

   He gently closed his textbook and notebook as their gazes remain fixed. He reached out and gently took her hands in his.

   “You are the bravest woman I have ever met. If it’s alright with you, why don’t we just sit here for a while?”

   Elena, now for the first time a free woman, nodded in response, the oppressive weight no longer resting relentlessly upon her shoulders. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Angels On Our Shoulders

 



   The sergeant had moved swiftly up the dusty Okinawa road half at a jog and half at a sprint as the ominous black clouds drew nearer. Hearing nearby gunshots, he lowered his head and advanced toward the American infantry line, his M1 carbine in hand and his pack, recently lightened by the loss of a few Hershey’s chocolate bars, bouncing rhythmically on his back. His platoon was pinned down by heavy mortar and machine gun fire to their front and had been pushed back from their previous position. Now on his belly, the sergeant crawled forward until he drew close to one of his men, the metallic ping of the soldier’s empty magazine ejecting from the Garand rifle echoing just as the sergeant arrived. Raising his carbine to his shoulder, the sergeant squeezed off a few rounds before leaning over to get a status report. 
  
  “It ain’t good sir,” the private yelled over the melee. “There’s tons of ‘em out there right in front of us and they’re lettin’ us have it.”

   A mortar round screamed over their heads and exploded behind them sending dirt and rocks ricocheting off their helmets.

   “I think we’re too close to them for our artillery,” the private continued to scream. “They’ll probably hit as many of us as them and in any case…”

   The private motioned to their front. 

   “Jackson is out there.”

   The sergeant followed the pointing finger to where he could see Jackson’s prostrate body and the radio equipment on his back.

  “And we can’t radio anything in without that.”

  The sergeant could not see any movement from Jackson but he was not willing to leave his man behind to fall into enemy hands. Removing his backpack to lighten his load, he tightened his grip on his carbine and prepared to sprint. Just as his legs prepared to spring forward, the entire line to his front burst open with the shouts of enemy soldiers screaming as they charged the line at a full run. The American soldiers  opened up with everything they had as the sergeant emptied the clip from his carbine. Even if they all fired as fast as humanly possible, there was simply no way to stem the human tide swarming toward them. The sergeant slapped a replacement clip in place and chambered a round as he resolved himself to the fate of being overrun. But, he wasn’t going without a fight. 

   Suddenly, above the chaos, another sound reached the sergeant’s ears. It was high pitched and rising rapidly in intensity. Looking to his right for the source of the disturbance, the sergeant was greeted by the blur of a blue Corsair diving in for a bombing run. Something detached from underneath the fighter and in only a moment the entire attacking line erupted in flame. 

————————————————————————-

   Emory Tucker had seen the firefight through the canopy of his Corsair fighter not long after he had spotted the new billowing column of black smoke. Banking to the left, he could see the massing enemy forces and the painfully thin American line facing it; and those two lines were awfully close.

  “Hold your line, fellas,” Emory whispered as he remembered his crop dusting days and lined his fighter up for an attack run.  

  “Just dust the row, Emory, just dust the row,” he repeated to himself as he leveled out, the island terrain streaking beneath him in a blur. Small arms fire pinged on the skin of the Corsair but he was already on top of the attacking Japanese line before releasing his payload. It skipped briefly along the line before erupting and blooming into an orange inferno. Emory pulled up on the stick, gained altitude, and swung around for another pass. 

————————————————————————

   The sergeant shielded his face from the heat with his hand and arm as the fireball rose heavenward. The placement of the ordinance had been precise and the attacking line fell back. Jackson still lay exactly where he had been previously. Realizing that the reprieve would not last, the sergeant quickly sprinted to where Jackson lay, the heat from the flames increasing incrementally as he did so. Squinting against the heat, he placed his hand on Jackson’s shoulder. The wounded man responded with a moan as the sergeant rolled him over and grabbed the front of his uniform to lift him over his shoulder to carry him back across the American line. Just as the sergeant planted his feet for the lift, several Japanese soldiers broke through the far left side of the flames and leveled their rifles at the sergeant. They opened fire but shot wide with one bullet passing through Jackson’s radio equipment. The sergeant knew they wouldn’t miss again. 

   At no more than treetop height, the Corsair suddenly reappeared from behind the American line. The sergeant heard the characteristic whistle as the plane with its distinctive bent wings hugged the ground at so low an altitude that even the Americans ducked their heads. The fighter opened up its .50 caliber guns and swept away the enemy soldiers with impressive precision before climbing away in a deafening roar. 

   Taking advantage of the opening, the sergeant quickly hoisted Jackson into his shoulders and began to lumber awkwardly back toward the American line, his fellow soldiers providing covering fire. Foreign voices began to emerge behind him as his comrades yelled and motioned for him to hurry back to the relative safety of the American line as the enemy closed the distance behind him. His shoulders ached and his legs and lungs burned as he struggled over the uneven terrain, short though the overall distance was. Almost to point of collapse, the sergeant’s gaze returned to the horizon ahead where, once again, the Corsair appeared over the ridge and dove straight toward him. Appearing even lower than before, the Corsair raked the field with its guns, the tracers seeming to fly just over his head to fall heavily on an unseen enemy close behind him.  The fighter swooped over the line, pulling up at the last moment to roar into the blackened sky above. 

   The sergeant collapsed across the line and was immediately surrounded by his comrades who assisted with Jackson. Easing the wounded man to the ground, the sergeant grabbed the nearest medical kit and canteen before lifting the soldier’s head. The young man’s eyes fluttered open and stared at the sergeant, appearing for a moment not to recognize him. A smile then weakly crossed his face. 

  “Well, hey, Sarge,” he rasped weakly. “You came for me…I didn’t even think you liked me.”

   The Corsair roared overhead once more, repeatedly beating back the enemy line with its relentless attacks.

   “That guy is crazy, Sarge,” one of the privates observed as his gaze followed the fighter plane. “And he ain’t leaving us either. Not ‘till he’s out of fuel or bullets I suppose, whichever comes first.”

   Jackson was fading quickly, in spite of his comrades efforts to stabilize him. His breathing became more labored and he waxed in and out of consciousness. During periods when he was able, he would ask for his family, thousands of miles away basking in the freedom that he and his companions had purchased at so great a cost. 

  “Sarge?” Jackson asked, his voice barely audible. 

   The sergeant leaned closer so as to not miss a word.

   “Tell mamma…tell her when you see her on Sunday…that angels really are all around us…just like she said…and I finally got to see one…”

   The sergeant remained motionless as he studied the still features of the young man before him. The unmistakeable sounds of a powerful piston engine soon captured his attention and his gaze slowly lifted to the heavens where a metallic angel soared above their heads and wagged its wings in salute. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Easter on Okinawa

 





   It had always seemed a little sacrilegious to commence an invasion on Easter morning, the marine sergeant mused as his boots kicked up the dust from the Japanese island road. Then again, war had little respect for anything other than its own timetable and religious holidays were some of the most easily expendable luxuries. 
   
   The sergeant shifted his M1 carbine onto his opposite shoulder as he quickened his pace along the path. The boom of artillery, the sharp crack of rifle fire and the ever present foul black smoke, as if rising from the very mouth of hell itself, all seemed to warn him to turn and run in the opposite direction. His orders, however, instructed him to do the exact opposite and, as any good soldier would, he continued to rush headlong toward where angels themselves feared to tread. 
   
   Easter morning of April 1, 1945 seemed an eternity ago when his boots first imprinted on the wet sands of Okinawa. At first, all remained quiet following the beach landings and the American forces had faced little initial resistance. Yet, their anxieties continued to mount as they pushed inland, expecting the surprise attack to happen at any moment. When the attack finally came, it was with a brutality that exceeded anything seen before in the Pacific war; and that statement alone was staggering. The casualties mounted as every inch of the island was purchased at an incredible price. The atrocities mounted, and the end remained elusive. 

   Shielding his eyes from the early afternoon sun, the sergeant was able to make out a flurry of activity on the left side of the road ahead. Drawing closer, he could see a few American medics and clergy apparently busily tending to the mounting casualties. That sight was not uncommon and the sergeant was almost to the point of ignoring the scene altogether for the sake of his own sanity when he noticed that the typical presence of wounded soldiers was absent. In their place were several children, all Japanese and apparently uninjured, at least in the physical sense. The uniqueness and unexpected nature of the scene caused the sergeant to stop momentarily for long enough to allow the dust to settle around his boots. His presence was immediately noted by a corporal who strode up to him but, being deployed in a combat zone, he skipped the customary salute. 

  “Orphans,” the corporal began while motioning toward the children. “Some of them lost their parents after they were forced into combat by the Japanese.”

   The corporal then turned and pointed off into the distance in the direction of the closest beach.

  “But a good number of the rest lost their parents, well at least their mothers, when they jumped off those cliffs.”

   The corporal shook his head in disbelief.

  “The Japanese soldiers pumped them full of stories about how terrible we Americans are. I suppose they believed them,  ‘cause it seems they figured they’d rather die than face torture or worse.”

   The corporal continued to stare off into the distance. 

  “Why would they tell them something like that?”

   As the corporal continued to give his explanation, the sergeant’s attention was caught by one small Japanese boy sitting separately but obediently in the afternoon sun.  He was very small and the sergeant estimated that he could not have been more than three or four years old. His most striking feature, other than his disheveled and muddy appearance, was the trembling of his entire body. There were no tears, and the shaking was certainly not from exposure as the temperature was sultry. The child’s head and eyes looked about in shock, darting from one face to another among strange people speaking a foreign tongue which brought him no comfort as his native language would. Continuing past the corporal, the sergeant stood over the child with his frame blocking the Pacific sun and casting a shadow which shielded the child and the surrounding sand. The helpless eyes peered up at the curious marine. 

   Temporarily postponing the urgency of his orders, the sergeant sat down next to the child and placed his carbine beside him. His steel helmet came next as he slipped it from his head and placed it on his other side, the metal making an abrasive noise as it contacted the earth. The young eyes facing him studied the newly revealed features as the sergeant’s face was suddenly bathed in sunlight. He sat quietly for a moment and studied the diminutive and trembling figure next to him. How similar were the child’s features to the men who now strove to slam their bomb-laden aircraft into the American ships just off shore. How many friends and brothers had the sergeant lost to fanatical defenders who charged with terrifying screams from mouths that were almost identical to the child’s?

   Reaching around for his pack, the sergeant placed it on the ground in front of him and rummaged through it until he found his C-Rations and continued searching until he located the packaged bar whose label read “Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate.” It was not nearly the quality of a traditional Hershey’s chocolate bar from back home, but it had been formulated not to melt in tropical climates and was slightly better than the older D-bar. He then quickly mixed the powdered drink mix from his rations with the water in his canteen, his young companion’s eyes examining his every move. 

   Tearing the wrapper on the bar, the sergeant broke off a piece of the chewy chocolate formulation and offered it with an extended hand to the motionless child. Withdrawing his hand, the sergeant placed the piece of chocolate in his own mouth and allowed a smile to brighten his face as he broke off another piece of chocolate and handed it once again to the child. This time, the child accepted the treat with some hesitation and placed it gingerly in his mouth. The sergeant then offered the canteen, his companion drinking the sweet mix while some dripped from his chin onto his already soiled clothes. 

   So, for a brief moment in time, the two strangers sat and ate the military chocolate and shared a canteen as the world fell apart about them. The shells screamed over their heads before erupting into plumes of earth and fire. The ebony smoke curled up and hissed at them as the sergeant continued to peel back the wrapper. Corsair fighters, in close air support roles, whistled in at low altitude to drop the inferno of napalm while the child enjoyed temporary sweetness in a world where he had known only tragedy. With each morsel of candy, the child’s trembling subsided as the marine hummed a lullaby sung to him by his mother long ago. 

   When the end of the chocolate bar came and the last drop from the canteen had been drained, the sergeant removed his last chocolate bar from his pack and gave it to the child, along with several cans and a spoon from his C-Rations. Reaching out his hand, he placed it gently on the child’s head and brushed the straight, dark hair to the side. Reaching to his side, he lifted his steel helmet and returned it to his head. Rising slowly to his feet, he shouldered his carbine and gazed compassionately into the brown eyes staring up at him, the faintest rim of chocolate surrounding the child’s mouth. With a heaviness of heart, the marine turned to face the inferno roaring in the distance, his boots once again stirring the dust of the Japanese road. 

    



   
   

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

There’s always a Carpenter- A Valentine’s Story

 



   Valentine’s Day had arrived as it did every year, but with each successive holiday the day seemed to carry less relevance to the young barista as she rechecked the coffee makers one final time in the moments before the doors of the coffee shop opened and customers began to roll in. All seemed to be in order as the aroma of the varied blends began to fill the shop with their welcoming scents. The fresh pastries were all arranged in an appetizing manner and the counter and surrounding tables were spotless. 

   Folding her cleaning cloth, she inhaled deeply and stared momentarily out the front windows of the shop into the predawn darkness. She tried to fill her mind with the temporary peace of the scene but no lasting calm was to be found. Organizing the shop seemed so simple, so why had organizing her life proven so complex? Her thoughts strayed to the start of that morning, her bedside alarm sounding at an insanely early hour. Rolling out of bed to the annoyed grunting of her partner she rose through the haze of old cigarette smoke and stumbled to the bathroom. No sentimental cards or bouquets awaited her in the early morning silence. The handle squeaked as the faucet turned and water began to trickle from the spout into the sink below. Letting the warm water run between her fingers she then allowed it to pool in her cupped palms before splashing her face and attempting to rub the sleep from her eyes. Suddenly aware of the rawness of her nerves as she faced yet another day, her eyes had settled on the half empty glass of whiskey on the counter. She briefly stared at her reflection in the mirror above the sink, the water dripping down her cheeks and onto her chin. Swiftly she reached out and downed what was left in the glass.  No one had to know. 

   Her mind drifted back to the present as the sudden opening of the shop’s front door and the associated ringing of the bells attached to the top of its frame grabbed her attention. Placing the folded cleaning cloth out of sight on the back counter, she turned to meet her first customer, forcing a smile while doing so.

   She knew almost all of her regular customers, yet the younger man who crossed the floor on his way to the front counter was unfamiliar to her. He was of average height, not too tall or too short with a broad, genuine smile that shone through his olive skin and neatly trimmed beard. He was dressed in a red flannel shirt and jeans, all faded but clean and neat. His work boots came to a halt on the engineered wood floor before greeting the barista warmly and studying the menu. 

   “Let me ask you a strange question,” he began, the smile never fading. “You wouldn’t happen to sell any Turkish coffee would you?”

   It was the first time the barista had heard such a request.

  “I’m afraid not.” 

   His expression revealed only minor disappointment. 

  “I figured so,” he responded. “Just thought I’d ask. It’s kind of nostalgic for me since so many people back home drink it. It’s strong, though, and definitely not for the faint of heart.”

   She was preparing to dig deeper into her new customer’s request but he continued his order before she had the opportunity. 

  “In that case, give me the strongest roast in the house.”

  “Alright, then. Coming right up. Any milk, sugar or creamer?”

  “What? And mess it up?” he replied with an even bigger grin. 

   The barista turned to the back counter and began to prepare the shop’s strongest blend. As the rich aroma rise from the grinder, her new customer continued to speak. 

  “You know, I was just thinking,” he began motioning to all of the coffee makers. “I’ll bet it would be nice to have one of those that was always full of coffee. You know, one that  never needed to be refilled or cleaned.”

  “I suppose it would,” she responded.

  “I mean, coffee is such a staple of life,” he continued as he leaned on the counter. “Imagine all the goodness and happiness that it brings to people and then imagine it coming from a source that never runs dry.”

   She turned momentarily. 

  “Are you sure you’re just talking about coffee?”

  “Ah, you’re very perceptive,” the man replied with a continued grin as he wagged his finger at the barista. “But when you think about it, happiness does have a tendency to run dry doesn’t it?”

  “Or never comes at all,” the barista replied but regretting her words almost immediately. 

   The customer looked compassionately at the barista almost as if he could sense the longings that remained voiceless within her. 

  “You know,” he began again after a moment. “I know where you can get coffee unlike any other, but that will never run dry.”

   The barista laughed. 

  “Show me that and I’ll never have to work again.”

  “Now, wouldn’t that be nice, Rachel?”

   The barista turned at the unexpected sound of her name. 

  “How did you know my na…?”

   The customer was already pointing at her name badge.

  “Oh, yeah, I forgot…” Rachel replied with a shade of crimson creeping onto her cheeks. 

  “But seriously, Rachel, I know exactly where you can find joy that never ends. A joy way better than coffee.”

   She was vaguely intrigued.

  “Now where would that be?”

  “Well,” he began. “Why don’t you bring your husband with you to church at the chapel down on the corner this Sunday?”

   She paused before responding. 

  “You’d just get a visit from me alone, I’m afraid. You see, I don’t have a husband.”

   The customer’s countenance suddenly changed as he made eye contact with the slightly embarrassed barista. His face held an expression that Rachel found hard to describe and yet which she found to be completely benevolent. Buried within the kind features seemed to shine a knowledge which far exceeded what she would have expected from someone dressed in the manner of the customer. 

  “You’re right, Rachel,” he responded with a note of sadness. “You’re not married, and the man you live with now refuses to give you the dignity of his last name.”

   There was not a hint of ill will in his voice. Only compassion. 

   “Who are you?” she asked as her hands began to tremble. “And how do you know…”

  “But there is One,” he gently interrupted. “Who is closer than a brother, and He has always been there.”

   God? Could this stranger actually be talking about God? The God she knew, if He existed at all, had long since fled the disaster of her life. Rachel was sure that He wanted nothing to do with her and, if she was honest, a distinct sense of fear, or perhaps even dread accompanied the thought of Him. 

  “Rachel, Rachel,” the customer continued compassionately. “You are worried about a great many things.” 

   He shrugged his shoulders as if considering all points of view. 

  “And, if you listen to the noise of the world about you, many would say you have every right to be worried about all of those things. After all, isn’t the whole world chasing after those things that they spend their entire lives worrying about?”

   Rachel found herself speechless but astonished at the simplicity and yet depth of the customer’s wisdom. 

   “But, if we’re honest, all of those anxiety producing things are passing away, just like all of your excellent coffee.”

   Rachel slowly passed the steaming cup of black coffee to the customer as he reached into his pocket and placed several bills on the counter which were far in excess of the price of his purchase. 

  “There’s only one thing that needs attention, when you really think about it.”

  The customer took his first sip of coffee and his expression revealed his approval. 

   “And what is that?” came the curious response. 

   “You need to be free.”

   “But I am free,” Rachel protested. 

  “You’re not free,” the customer responded while once again expressing a hope that Rachel had not yet realized.

  “But you could be.” 

   The customer sipped his coffee once more.

  “Now that’s just the way I like it. Strong enough to float an iron wedge. Turkish coffee still has first place in my heart, though.” 

   The customer turned to leave and, although she could not explain the cause, Rachel felt sadness in his departure. 

  “So,” Rachel called out just as the customer reached the door. “Are you telling me that God actually wants to rebuild my life? I mean, put all these pieces back together and maybe even give me a place called home?”

   The broad grin returned.

  “There’s always a Carpenter.”

   The customer opened the door and set one foot outside the door before turning briskly back toward Rachel as if he had forgotten something. 

   “Oh, it almost slipped my mind. I have a good friend named John, and he wrote a book, well actually he co-wrote several, and you’ll find them near the back of that bigger book you keep in your night stand.”

   He backed slowly out the door.

  “You’ll find the Carpenter there…”

   Rachel’s attention was suddenly distracted by the sound of a car alarm blaring from the next door parking lot…


—————————————————————

   Rachel’s arm reached out instinctively to turn off the bedside alarm on her clock radio. So much for a car alarm, Rachel thought, as she suddenly remembered the noise from her dream. In spite of the jolted awakening, there was a lingering sense of peace that compelled Rachel to remain in bed to savor the ebbing sensation. 

   Remembering the last words of the mysterious customer, she sat up gently and opened the drawer of the night stand to find the book that had been her grandmother’s long ago. Scooping it out of the drawer, she tiptoed into the bathroom and flipped on the light. Her attention was broken momentarily by the half full glass sitting on the counter, but she ignored it and instead sat on the edge of the tub and flipped toward the last third of the book. The book with John’s name appeared underneath her fingers and she gazed down at the opening words. 

   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

 

  In Him was life. She held the book in her embrace in the stillness of that early morning Valentine’s Day and allowed those words to settle over the rawness of her anxieties. Then, looking once more at the glass on the counter, she picked it up and poured the contents into the sink. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Let This Be Your Last Battle- A Christmas Story






 

   The rich, dark tones of the slice of pecan pie contrasted sharply against the background of the white porcelain dessert plate. Pecan had always been Emory Tucker’s favorite and it took him no time at all to slide the plate off the edge of the table while simultaneously grabbing a fork from the other end. Turning from the table, he surveyed the church’s fellowship hall for the distinctive sight of Hannah’s blonde hair and soon spotted her off to his left. 

  It was Christmas 1946, but in many ways the war still raged on for Emory. Not even the familiarity and joy of his church’s annual Christmas pie social could completely expunge the memories of the South Pacific. But, where other methods failed, Hannah had succeeded. The young German woman’s presence had, since he first met her under the tall evergreen pine in their school days, superseded all other worldly influences. 

   But as Emory turned toward Hannah, his path was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Francis Bellrose, a widow known by Emory since his childhood. She had always been the meekest of persons and interposing herself in Emory’s path seemed to take extreme effort in addition to causing significant emotional discomfort as well. A woman in her late 50’s, she stood before the taller young man dressed in clothing which had been more stylish prior to the war and which had faded with the passing of many seasons. Her shoulders were slumped forward as if expecting a reprimand and her nervous eyes peered out from beneath a crown of graying hair and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses to make intermittent contact with Emory’s. 

  “Well, hello, Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began. “I mean, excuse me for stepping in your way.”

   She smiled and laughed nervously while pushing her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose.

  “Are you enjoying yourself tonight?”

  “Why, yes I am, Mrs. Bellrose. And, as you can see…”

   Emory held up his plate of pecan pie.

  “I have returned for a slice of your award-winning pecan pie.”

   Mrs. Bellrose laughed again nervously and her gaze dropped to the floor as if she felt the compliment was undeserved. As she did so, it was almost as if Emory could physically see the weight she bore upon her shoulders. She had lost her husband many years ago in a well-known but tragic farming accident and had raised their only son, Henry, alone.  Her hardship was not that she had lacked support from her church family, it was just that no matter what path Francis chose, it inevitably proved to be the most difficult. Nothing ever came easily and life in its typical merciless tendency had left its unmistakable mark. Loneliness and financial burdens had etched their lines into her journey, and Henry had fared no better.  

  “Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began, her gaze still fixed on the floor. “Forgive me for asking, especially at this time of year, but I fear if I do not ask now then I will never have the courage to ask again.”

   Her gaze rose to meet Emory’s. 

   “I can’t imagine the memories and scars that you must bear. But I also know that you served with Henry. I also know that you never speak of him, and have not since you returned home and he did not.”

  Her gaze fell to the floor as if the request was too much to bear. 

  “I must know what happened to him.”

   Even before the question had been fully posed, the surroundings of the church’s fellowship hall began to fade and Emory once again felt the warmth of the South Pacific sun streaming through the glass canopy of his cockpit and heard the engine’s roar as his mind returned to a place and time far away…

————————————————————————-


   The hit on Henry’s Corsair had undoubtedly caught him completely off guard although Emory, from a higher altitude, had seen the Japanese fighter swoop skillfully onto Henry’s 6 o’clock position and rake the American fighter with heavy machine gun and cannon fire before breaking off. Smoke began instantaneously to trail from the engine as Henry struggled to maintain control and altitude. Emory rolled his Corsair into a shallow dive.

  “Hang on, Henry,” Emory called into his microphone. “I’m on my way.”

  “I didn’t see him Emory…” Henry replied. “He was on me before I knew it. He hit me hard.”

  “Are you hurt?”

  “No, I’m ok, but my plane didn’t fare so well. I’m losing pressure and my altitude is dropping.”

   Emory scanned the horizon and saw multiple American warships to the east of a nearby lush green Pacific island. He pulled alongside Henry’s mortally wounded Corsair. 

  “Can you keep her nose up?”

   Henry was obviously struggling.

  “Afraid not…”

   Emory peered through Henry’s clear canopy at his young friend at the controls and, even from that distance, he could sense the panic intensifying. He and Henry had known each other from grade school and this was certainly not the first time that Emory’s assistance had been required in a crisis. Henry always meant well, but the fortunes of nature and destiny seemed always opposed to him. He had lost his father as a child and had been subsequently raised by his mother.  Because of Henry’s frequent failures, he lacked confidence which in turn hampered his social skills as he seemed almost innately to believe that he was a poor substrate from which a proper friend could be formed. 

   Emory had always been sympathetic to Henry and his mother but also felt great apprehension for his well-being when Henry expressed the desire to join Emory in the Marine’s air corps once they had both reached combat age. Henry had no flying experience while Emory had helped to support his family by crop dusting the fields of Southern Georgia in a surplus Curtiss Jenny biplane left over from the Great War. Emory had gently expressed his concerns to Henry, but his friend’s mind was set as he explained that he felt as if his life had never really served a purpose and that, additionally,  he had as much right as anyone to defend his nation. 

   Emory wondered if Henry regretted that decision as his Corsair continued to lose altitude. 

  “Listen, Henry,” Emory continued. “You know what to do. You can’t maintain altitude. Bail out while you still have enough altitude for your chute to open.”

   Henry responded with a thumbs up sign and immediately ejected his fighter’s canopy. He then unbuckled his safety harness and rolled the Corsair over on its back. With the assistance of gravity and the plane’s airspeed, Henry slipped out of the cockpit and sailed unscathed past the tail fin. It was a textbook bailout and within a few seconds Emory saw Henry’s chute blossom against the blue of the Pacific below. He breathed a sign of relief as he banked his fighter to get a better view of Henry’s descent.  

   But the relief was short-lived as a flash from the sun reflecting off of a metallic surface at three o’clock low caught Emory’s attention. To his horror, he noted a Japanese fighter, presumably the one that had downed Henry’s Corsair earlier, closing in rapidly on Henry’s chute. 

  “No…” Emory whispered recalling the well known tactics of some of the Japanese pilots. He rolled his Corsair over into a steep dive to intercept the enemy fighter but his instincts already were screaming that he would never make it in time. Almost as if time slowed to a crawl in spite of his plane’s swift descent, Emory saw the enemy fighter level out directly in front of Henry’s chute, open up its guns, and surround Henry with tracer rounds. Even at that distance Emory could see Henry’s body lurch under the impact and swing downward at an awkward angle as one of the rounds severed one of the parachute straps. The enemy fighter then veered off into a steep dive toward the ocean.  

   Time seemed to crawl forward for Emory, his propeller appearing to slow almost to the point of stopping altogether as the sound of his engine grew fainter. The white chute remained suspended in midair carrying the lifeless body of his friend whose single desire had been to find purpose. For people to stop laughing at his misfortunes. To give his mother, who had known nothing but sorrow, something to be proud of. Emory envisioned Henry’s mother, awaiting the return of her only boy, the single blue cloth star displayed prominently in her Georgia home’s front window. With complete clarity, Emory knew what he had to do. 

   The propeller suddenly spun at full speed and the engine roared anew as Emory opened the throttle and banked into a steep dive to follow the tiny speck now diving toward the tropical island off to his left. His Corsair was superior in almost every measure, but the Japanese plane already had a significant head start and, after witnessing his attack on Henry,  Emory sensed that his enemy was a skilled and deadly pilot. 

   The Corsair easily pushed 500 mph in its steep dive; it’s distinctive whistle piercing the air as it did so.  The Japanese fighter grew slightly larger through Emory’s canopy as the enemy plane leveled out and flew straight toward the island. As he closed the distance, Emory could see his opponent glide just above the waves and fly straight toward a gap in the jungle vegetation which extended back from the beach and cut into the tropical forest beyond. The gap was the mouth of a river, and it was to this landmark that the enemy was headed. 

  “You think I won’t follow you in there,” Emory growled, fully understanding the danger ahead. “You couldn’t be more mistaken.”

   His attention momentarily passed to the photo of Hannah mounted on his control panel. Even in the black and white photo, her features remained stunning and his hand stretched out to touch the treasured image. 

   “Es tut mir leid, meine Liebe, aber ich muss das tun. Für Henry.” (I’m sorry, my love, but I have to do this. For Henry.)

   The jungle soon swallowed the Japanese fighter with Emory closing the distance rapidly in pursuit. Emory threaded the eye of the needle with the beach and river bed streaking by only feet below the underbelly of his fighter. The rugged Corsair was immediately swallowed as well by the lush greenery with the line of trees along the river bank providing very little maneuvering room. Here, he could afford no mistakes. 

   Emory hugged the river bed matching every curve and turn of its flow, all the while closing on his prey. He could see the enemy fighter ahead but a clear shot did not present itself as the aircraft would curve around a bend in the river before Emory could pull the trigger. Edging closer with each turn, the Corsair hugged the water so closely that spray from the river flew up in a fine mist in its wake.

   Emory’s focus was unwavering as the South Georgian crop duster employed every skill ever learned to maintain pursuit and avoid the treacherous terrain threatening him from all sides. A gentle spirit by nature, Emory nonetheless tenaciously clung to his adversary. Henry may have been his latest victim, but Emory would assure that he would be his last.  

   Banking to the right to navigate the next turn, Emory caught sight of the tail of the fleeing Japanese fighter. Rolling up to his left, Emory lined up and opened a brief burst from his six .50 caliber guns. The tracers surrounded the rear third of the fighter and Emory saw debris fly off as the deadly projectiles struck home. 

   No sooner had Emory’s guns fallen silent that Emory heard an ominous and rhythmic boom to his rear, followed by the flash of tracers flying by outside his canopy. There was no need to investigate their source, for Emory already instinctively knew that he now had an enemy fighter on his tail. The hunter had become the hunted.

   Undeterred, Emory pressed the attack as the damage his guns had inflicted, while not a killing blow, had seriously hampered the lead fighter and its maneuverability had been compromised . Curving around the next bend, Emory eased inside into firing position and released another blast full broadside into the lead fighter which immediately trailed smoke as the engine caught fire. 

   Immediately, Emory saw the canopy of the doomed plane fly open and the pilot began to emerge. Bailing out was not an option at that altitude as it was far too low for his parachute to open and Emory understood that it would be far more honorable in his adversary’s mind to take his own life rather than to have it claimed by this tenacious American. 

  “For Henry…” Emory whispered as his guns roared and poured deadly fire directly into the cockpit even as a shell from his attacker took a glancing blow off of the Dural armor protecting the Corsair’s canopy. The forward fighter disintegrated and erupted into an enormous orange fireball as it slammed into the tree line on the far bank. Pulling back on the stick, Emory eased his Corsair into a climb out of the riverbed, over the tree line and through the fireball itself. Realizing that his pursuer would lose sight of him temporarily as he passed through the flames, Emory immediately cut his throttle and, with the skillful use of flaps and ailerons, placed his Corsair into a slide which rapidly bled off the plane’s speed. As his pursuer flew past him, Emory held the trigger down and raked the fighter with point blank fire. The fighter shuddered under the pounding and burst into flame before plunging into the jungle, the Corsair rolling and climbing swiftly out of reach of the inferno below. 

   Emory’s sturdy Corsair had been hit but shrugged off the damage as it soared above the lush green of the island dotted by two blemishes of rising black smoke. Turning his head in all directions, Emory saw no sight of friend or foe. His actions had been witnessed by no one save Him who sees all, and Emory, out of respect and humility, resolved not to report his two victories. Instead, he allowed his mind to accept the calm of the Pacific below and settle on the silhouettes of the American warships cruising in the distance. 

————————————————————————


   Such was Emory’s accurate remembrance of the account, but it was not the way that he chose to retell it. As the memory of the South Pacific faded and returned to the church’s fellowship hall, he found himself unable to tell the grieving widow before him of the humiliating death of her child. Instead, but not without some hesitation, Emory gave his story to Henry as he told his mother the story of a young man who lost his life among the Pacific clouds, but not before sending a threatening enemy ace crashing to the earth in flames. As the story unfolded, tears began to fill Francis’ eyes and her trembling hand covered her mouth, but this time without shame. Her countenance brightened and she directly returned Emory’s gaze. Her shoulders straightened as the weight lifted. With her brow furrowed in gratitude, she touched Emory’s arm and returned to the social with more pride than he could every remember, leaving the young man standing alone holding his porcelain pie plate.

   A familiar touch on his arm brought Emory back to reality as he turned to gaze into Hannah’s sapphire eyes. However, his eyes soon returned to the pie plate as he stood reliving the story over and over. As his eyes closed, Emory’s emotions began to overwhelm him. 

  “You gave her your story,” Hannah whispered as she leaned in and placed her chin on his shoulder. “There is no greater gift.”

   Emory, nodded, his gaze still downcast. 

  “It’s Christmas. Why should we both suffer?” 

   It was the only response Emory could manage, an audible tremble building in his voice. Hannah immediately recognized that he was in danger of being swept away. 

  “It’s alright,” she whispered gently turning his head until she  met his tearful gaze. “Look at me…look at me…only at me…it’s alright…”

   Pulling him close, she placed her arms around his neck. 

  “Lass das dein letzter Kampf sein,” she repeated gently.  “Let this be your last battle.”

   Refusing to release her hold, she felt the tension ease in Emory as she saw at a distance and over his shoulder the smiling figure of Mrs. Bellrose, finally at peace. 

  “And for you as well,” Hannah whispered.

Friday, November 19, 2021

What Remains Unseen- A Thanksgiving Story

 




   The young woman eased back in her high-back chair as she surveyed with satisfaction the scene in front of her. The Thanksgiving table had been thoroughly plundered by the members surrounding her grandfather’s table and the quantity of turkey, cornbread dressing and sweet potato casserole was significantly less than it had been at the beginning of the meal. The faces and voices were all familiar as were the frequent bouts of laughter that accompanied each retelling of those old familiar tales, many dating back to the years of World War II and the Great Depression. She had never tired of hearing them and had even found herself sharing many of them with her college acquaintances, but she had to admit that the richness of the tales seemed less appreciated within the circles of young people whose attention seemed to be dominated by the urgency of the insignificant.

   It was good to be home. 

   Dessert, including pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies had just been completed and many of the family members were sitting comfortably sipping their coffees when the young woman’s father stood up and gently tapped his half empty sweet tea glass with his spoon. 

   “Alright, you crazy people,” he began. His greeting was met with the usual good natured family discussion about which one of them was actually the craziest. 

   “I hope that you all have enjoyed yourself as much as I have today,” his gaze suddenly shifted toward his brother-in-law.

   “Stop making faces, George, or you’ll have to sit in the corner like you did last year.”

   “Do I get to wear the cone hat, too?” George responded. 

   “Believe me, George, we wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re basically unrecognizable without your dunce cap.”

   The table erupted in laughter. 

   “But, seriously I am thankful for you all and thankful for my father-in-law, otherwise lovingly known as ‘Papa,’for hosting this unruly bunch once again this year for Thanksgiving.”

   The shifting of everyone’s focus to the older gentleman seated in his preferred seat in the middle of the table was accompanied by a round of applause. He nodded politely in response. As was his custom, he was clad in one of his newer pairs of bib overalls with a clean and pressed khaki-colored shirt underneath. For as long as she could remember, the young woman could never remember seeing her grandfather clothed in any other manner. 

   “So,” the young woman’s father continued. “We’ve come to the part of our meal where we traditionally take turns around the table and thank God for a specific blessing.”

   His gaze suddenly shifted to his sister.

   “Now, Susan, I know that I am by far the biggest blessing you have ever received but you really are going to have to control yourself. You took up way too much time last year and everyone needs to have a turn.”

   The laughter returned.

   “You do know I asked mom and dad to return you to the store after you were born, right?” Susan responded. 

  “Yes, well, moving right along…”

   The young college student continued to snicker at the thought of her aunt asking her parents if they had kept the bill of sale so that her new little brother could be returned to the store from whence he came. 

   “I am very thankful that my daughter is home from college,” her father stated with pride as he returned to the more serious subject at hand. 

   The young woman smiled sheepishly. 

   Taking turns, each family member recalled a specific blessing for which they were especially thankful. Many were for the usual blessings such as family, health, and healing but each was nonetheless quite sincere and served as a reminder of just how truly blessed they had been. 

   The first person to give thanks after the young woman’s father was sitting to Papa’s right and so each person proceeded in order until Papa was the final person remaining. As his turn arrived, Papa’s head leaned forward slightly as if he was looking at something he was holding, although his hands were empty. 

   “Well, I’m thankful for a good pair of work boots and for trees.”

   As he finished his simple statement, he lifted his eyes and connected with those of his daughter whose eyes had already begun to fill with tears. The rest of the table remained silent save for a few whispered ‘amens.’ Papa had always been a man of few words but this still struck the young woman as an odd response.  The college student half expected a round of laughter to follow her grandfather’s statement but there was none, as if the others understood his sentiment exactly. 

   “And I can’t think of a better way to end,” the young woman’s father continued. “Now let’s help with cleanup before we plop down to watch the game.”

   There soon followed the spirited sounds of clanging dishes, cups, and silverware as the entire family pitched in to clear the table. All items were then neatly arranged in stacks near the kitchen sink and dishwasher before the ladies and gentlemen retired to their traditional places; the living room for the former group and the den, where the television was located, for the latter. As the groups settled in, the young woman noticed Papa gaze about with an air of contentment, and then quietly slip out of the room to head down to his workshop. Not yet ready to retire to the living room, the college student decided to follow.

   Papa had always been a quiet soul, but full of simple and yet profound wisdom. He had always enjoyed woodworking and the young woman had spent many hours with him in his workshop as a child. She had always been amazed at how his calloused hands could turn scraps of wood into elegant furniture and works of art. In many ways, the young woman felt as if she and Papa were kindred spirits. She, too, was not prone to speaking much or often and that characteristic many times left her feeling isolated in a world which praised the loud and the flamboyant. When the loneliness would inevitably strike, she would often think of Papa, hard at work in his shop, and the image would bring her a sense of tranquility that she felt few other times. 

   Her hand reached out and turned the handle to the workshop door and she stepped inside after easing the door open. She was immediately greeted with the familiar and  sweet scent of sawdust and cedar shavings. Papa was inspecting some of his current projects on the far bench when he saw her come in. 

  “Well, hey there, Pumpkin,” he greeted her using the nickname he had given her years ago. “I’m not being antisocial, but I did need to break away for a few minutes.”

   He looked at her over the top rim of his glasses. 

  “You understand all about that, don’t you?” he said with a grin. 

   She returned his question with a nod.

   “Come over here and take a look at what I’m making,” Papa invited. “Now, mind you, don’t go telling everybody as some of these are going to be Christmas gifts.”

   She promised that Papa’s secret was safe with her. As she stepped over to his work bench, she was greeted by the sight of multiple projects nearing completion. As Papa pointed them out one by one she saw a Lazy Susan for her mother, a wooden snowman family complete with hats and scarves for her aunt, and a finished heart carved from cedar. Gently, Papa picked up the cedar heart and handed it to his granddaughter.

  “Now, this one is for you,” he began. “Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything because it’s not your Christmas present from me. I just thought you might sometimes need a little reminder when you’re away.”

  “A reminder of what, Papa?”

  “A reminder of what remains unseen.”

   Her brow furrowed slightly with confusion. 

  “Does this have anything to do with the blessings you mentioned after our meal? You know, work boots and trees?”

   Papa chuckled. 

   “Maybe.”

   “I have to admit that I really didn’t understand, although I think everyone else did.”

 “Oh, that was just your Papa being silly.”

 “You’re many things, Papa, but silly isn’t one of them.”

   For a moment, Papa smiled in response and then, as his weight shifted from one foot to the other, his gaze fell to the floor as his memory travelled to a distant time and place. 

  “People used to ask me all the time when I was young as to why I was always wearing my work boots wherever I went. In fact, I’m not even sure that I noticed that I was doing it until it was brought to my attention. Everywhere I went, they went with me and it didn’t really matter what the occasion was. I would have even worn them to church had not my mother absolutely forbidden it.”

   Papa smiled as he recalled the image of his mother wagging her finger at him.

  “When I was a little older, maybe much older, I put some thought into it and finally understood what was happening. My early life definitely had some long and lonely stretches and in those days I would spend time in the outdoors to clear my head. You know, trying to figure out why I was different from everyone else. I spent some of the most beautiful times of my young life in the forests and fields of home doing some of my most favorite things. And, whenever I would look down to make sure of my footing, there were my boots. Of course I had more than one pair over time but that made no difference. I wore them everywhere because they brought a little bit of tranquility with them. Almost as if they scooped a little bit of heaven from the very fields themselves and brought it along to some very desolate places in my life.  They always served as a reminder that things would get better. There would, Lord willing, be another Saturday morning in the forest, or another time to cut firewood with my father. And, if that peace never returned in this life, then surely it would in the one to come.”

   Papa then smiled again. 

  “I remember a trip to New York City once when our family decided to go sightseeing. This was before you were born. Talk about a fish out of water. I suppose you can imagine what footwear I chose to take with me?”

   The young woman smiled in response. 

  “I remember standing in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by lights and people and noises like I had never experienced before. I looked down at my feet standing on that surface of concrete, dirt, and old bubble gum and saw my old friends, complete with a patch of red clay clinging to the side of my right sole. I was a long way from home, but I had brought a little bit of home with me. After that, I didn’t feel nearly as nervous or out of place.”

   He then placed his hand on her shoulder. 

  “Well, that’s my silly little story. But you’ll find your reminder too. Something in your life will remind you of the good times and blessings and whisper to you that they will come again. Even if it takes a lifetime. You may not know what that reminder is now, but you’ll know it when you find it.” 

   His calloused hands then opened her palm where she held the carved and finished cedar heart.

   “As for trees,” he whispered. “They all have hearts, hidden deep within where most folks will never seen them.”

   Papa motioned for her to observe the smooth carving closely. 

  “Just look at that wood grain. Do you know where I got this piece? It’s from the center of a cedar tree that I cut for a friend. Now, why in the world would God put something that pretty in the heart of a tree where no one can see it?”

   The young woman looked up at Papa as she awaited his answer. 

  “The same reason that He buried such beauty deep inside your own heart. Somebody has to be intentionally looking  for it to see it.”

   She nodded her head in agreement.

  “So,” Papa continued. “One day that certain man is going to cross your path. You make sure he sees the heart of the tree. If he can’t, he’s not worth your time.”

   He then folded her hands around the elegant carving.

  “So, boots and trees?” she asked with a smile.

   “They can teach you more than you might imagine. And for that, I’m thankful.”

   Papa then turned back to his work table. 

   “We’ll, I guess we’ve been antisocial long enough. Let’s head back up and see how the game is going.”

  “Papa, it’s the Lions. There’s not much doubt which way that game is going.”

  “True,” Papa replied as he put his arm around her shoulder and walked toward the door. “I’ve never even been to Detroit.”

   “Well, if you go, wear your boots.” 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Under The Infernal Sky- A Halloween Tale



   The unexpected sound of the doorbell snapped the middle aged man back from his intense focus on packing. Large cardboard boxes, many of them partially packed, already filled many of the rooms of the house with their towering stacks. The moving trucks planned to arrive tomorrow and, as always, there seemed to remain more tasks yet to do than remained time to accomplish them. 

   Dropping the packing tape roll onto the floor, he rose from his kneeling position and weaved his way through the narrow passages between the boxes, passing the empty rooms of his children as he made his way to the front door. Without fail, passing those empty bedrooms always brought back pleasant memories of countless mornings of love, laughter and smiles. And yet, those mornings were not countless at all, for they came to an end and time subsequently swept his children away to school and left the empty shells of their rooms in its wake. He had done all that he could for his family, and yet he could not deny the nagging suspicion that he had missed passing on something of great importance, although he was at a loss to know what it was. 

   The doorknob turned in his hand and as the door swung open he saw Susan, his 14 year old neighbor standing on his front porch holding a stack of books. 

    “Here’s the books your wife loaned us,” Susan stated with a broad grin. “My little cousin loved them when he came for a visit. I read a bunch of them over and over to him.”

   “Well, thank you for returning them, Susan. Our kids loved them when they were little, too. Did your cousin have a favorite?”

   “Definitely Miss Suzy.”

   “Yep, definitely a favorite of ours too. Who could resist a story about toy soldiers rescuing a kind-hearted squirrel’s home from a bunch of unruly delinquents?”

   Susan giggled at the man’s attempt at an English accent when pronouncing the phrase “unruly delinquents.”

   “It was one of my brother’s favorites as well,” he replied in a more somber tone. 

   Susan shifted her weight uneasily.

   “I’m really sorry.”

   “Oh, it’s ok, Susan. It’s been almost a year now and I really didn’t mean to mention it. It just kind of slipped out. Listen, thanks again for returning the books and tell your folks that I said ‘Hello.’”

   Susan assured him that she would as she smiled and headed across the lawn to her house next door. Then, easily carrying the light stack of books back into the house, he closed the front door behind him before stacking the books temporarily on the kitchen table. As he did, the stack became unbalanced and tipped over spreading the books across the table. As he began to reform the pile, one book seemed out of place among the familiar children’s titles. It was bound in soft, black leather and was much thicker than the others. Picking it up and staring at its front cover, his mouth turned downward slightly in a indication of disdain. 

   “Holy Bible,” he read the large silver print aloud. “Well, giving that to me was certainly a mistake. I’ve never needed one and certainly don’t now. I’ll return that in just a bit.” 

   He then tossed the book across the table where it landed with a thud. No sooner had he done so when a strange smell entered his nostrils. The scent was akin to that of smoke, but not a pleasant scent as that from a campfire or fireplace. It was distinctly unpleasant, almost like that of burning hair. It lasted only momentarily but caused him to look back for any possible source. Only a slight fluttering of the curtains met his gaze. He thoroughly investigated the downstairs and upstairs for a source but there was no indication of fire. However, upon entering the master bedroom, he was confronted by the same unpleasant smell once again, only this time stronger and fouler, mixed with the rottenness of sulfur. Turning once again, he saw a wisp of black smoke coming from the master bath in the direction of the walk-in closet. The smoke clung tenaciously to the air until it was whisked away by the overhead air vent. Rustling and stumbling sounds emanated from the same direction but quickly fell silent. The man could perceive a distinct increase in his pulse rate as he was the only person home, and yet these strange findings could not be ignored. He cautiously moved forward and peered around the door of the master bath to see that the opening to the walk-in closet was ajar but was still swinging slightly on its hinges. His pulse increased another notch as he remembered clearly that he had closed the door earlier. 

   “Who’s there?” he called out his challenge. There was nothing but silence. The smell, however, intensified and another puff of black smoke wafted through the open door.

   “If this is some king of joke, then let me warn you I’m calling the police!”

   He inched forward until he could see fully inside the walk-in closet. Nothing appeared amiss. Placing his head cautiously inside the closet, he turned on the light and gazed around the space. Moving in further inch by inch, he still saw nothing out of place until suddenly he was almost blinded by a thick puff of black, foul smoke whose appearance was accompanied by the sudden slamming of the closet door behind him and extinguishing of the overhead light. Immediately, there followed a scream of agony from directly behind him. In sheer terror, he lunged forward and came to rest under the lower rack of clothes, pushing them desperately aside as he turned to see the source of the hideous scream. He peered ahead in complete astonishment, the clothes about him still swinging on their hangers. 

   Standing before him and completely blocking his way to the closet door was what appeared to have been, at one time, a human male. The dark, hopeless eyes were deeply sunken into their sockets and the barest threads of clothing hung from his emaciated form. He trembled from head to toe as if in constant fear and the dark, foul smoke rose from his shoulders and head, filling the closet with its nauseating stench. 

   “Who are you?” the question boomed in panic from underneath the lower rack of clothes. “Get out of my house!”

   The pitiful form slowly opened its trembling mouth before responding with a gravelly voice that resembled one exposed to chronic heat and smoke inhalation.

   “I am not leaving until I have said what I came to say…”

   The voice only served to increase the man’s terror.

  “Shouldn’t you be saying ‘Fear Not’ or something like that?”

   The attempt at humor was ignored.

  “That is the last thing I would say to you…”

  “Then where are you from?”

   The pitiful form slowly turned its face to the ceiling and made an awful gurgling sound mixed with a noise that resembled sobbing.

  “From under the infernal sky.”

    The visitor’s entire form shook violently as it cried with a screech-like voice.

  “And, oh, He’s not there!! He’s not there!!”

  “Who, who’s not there?”

   “The only One that matters!!”

   A hideous scream followed.

   “He’s not there!!”

   The man hiding under the clothes rack covered his ears to block the screams but they filtered through his fingers nonetheless. 

   “I don’t understand!” the man screamed back in hopes of finding some clarity. The screaming ceased momentarily as the focus of the visitor shifted from the ceiling to the man  partially concealed by clothing. Resembling the opening of a casket, the right arm slowly rose to point a gaunt finger at the hiding man. As the visitor slowly sank to his knees he began to speak.

  “Step by step and day by day you strive to join me under the infernal sky where the fires never cease.”

   “What do you mean? What have I done to deserve your torment?”

  “Everything…”

  “Impossible.”

  “So I also thought. Until I stood under judgement before Perfection.”

   The awful gurgling sound returned as the visitor’s face twitched in agony and his joints cracked as if under pressure. 

  “Your life mirrors mine. The same fate awaits.”

  The concealed man fought the terror rising within. This was not real. This was a lie. His life could not be deserving of this. Yet, there was no denying that, as the visitor spoke, he could feel the very tongues of the flames themselves. The same foul smoke that rose from the visitor seemed to cling to his shoulders as well.

 “The same fate awaits…”

   It couldn’t. 

  “You have rejected the only Cure…”

   Other options had to exist. 

  “The same fate awaits…”

   There remained no will to resist. No avenue for reasoning or bribing. His fate was sealed. 

  “If what you say is true…how long?” he asked somberly. 

  “Only He knows. But it is already so much later than you think.”

   A response began to form on the man’s lips when the visitor interrupted. 

   “Seek Him while He may be found, for He does not abide  under the infernal sky!!”

   The hopeless voice screamed in agony.

  “He is not there!!”

   The pitiful voice of the visitor suddenly bore a shred of familiarity as he gazed again into the hopeless eyes in front of him. 

   “David?” 

   It was the name of his deceased brother. 

   Without another word, the floor underneath David opened into a chasm as the pitiful figure clawed hopelessly at its edges as it swallowed him whole. 

  “No…No!!!”

   The shrieking then faded as David was dragged into the chasm as the floor closed intact above him. A single puff of black smoke escaped but soon dissipated as the sounds of neighborhood children playing returned to fill the room. The closet light illuminated once more and the closet door gently swung open. Left underneath the lower rack of clothes was the trembling form of the still living brother. 

   He remained there only momentarily as the lingering terror would not allow him to delay. Bolting through the now open closet door, he stumbled down the stairs and headed straight toward the stack of books. At first unsure as to why he was drawn there, he nonetheless soon became aware that the Bible jumped into his hands.

  “There has to be an answer,” he whispered as he frantically thumbed through the pages. Completely unfamiliar with the book, his fingers flipped faster and faster. 

  “I don’t even know where to start…” he groaned when the Book suddenly slipped from his fingers and slapped against the hardwood floor.  As he leaned to pick up the book with a trembling hand, he noticed that it had fallen open to the Gospel of Luke. As he looked more closely, the words seemed to leap off of the page. 

   “Then Abraham said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

   The ringing of the front doorbell startled him back to reality although he initially did not move but remained motionless staring at the open book. The second ring jolted him to his feet and he shuffled toward the front door. As his hand reached out for the knob, he hesitated as his mind pondered what might be waiting on the other side. The strange events of the last hour caused him to fear the worst. Inhaling deeply, he turned the knob and found his young neighbor Susan, standing on the porch with a broad grin and a stack of books. Upon observing the man’s face, Susan’s expression changed to one of concern.

  “Are you OK?”

   The man straightened his shoulders and ran his fingers through his hair. 

  “Sure,” he responded hesitantly with a shaky grin. “I just wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

   Susan’s expression changed to one of confusion. 

  “Back so soon?”

  “Yes, I mean after you brought the books by earlier.”

   Susan looked down at the stack of books. 

  “I’m not sure I understand. This is the first time I’ve come by today. I have your books right here.” 

   He could tell by studying Susan’s face that she was sincere. Besides, Susan’s personality was not the practical joking type. The man studied the stack of books for a moment before inhaling deeply.

  “Then let me guess,” he began. “Your cousin's favorite was Miss Suzy.

   Susan nodded her head. 

  “How’d you know?”

  “Lucky guess.”

   Susan then smiled once more before handing over the stack of books. The man turned to enter the house when he realized that he was still clutching the Bible. Gently placing the books on the front porch, he called after Susan who was already crossing the front lawn. At the sound of her name, she turned to face him. He held the Bible out toward her. 

   “Susan, you and your family know this book pretty well, right?”

   Susan nodded. 

   He chose his next words carefully. 

  “Is there hope inside?”

   Susan smiled. 

  “From cover to cover.”

   “Well then, will you sit here with me on the porch and show me?”

   He was fighting back the tears. 

   Susan stepped forward to respectfully take the book. 

  “The Gospel of John is a great place to start…”



   The man’s wife returned from her errands carrying a grocery bag up the brick sidewalk when she noticed her husband and Susan sitting on the front porch. As he looked up to greet her, she had to admit that she had never found her husband’s expression to be more serene; almost as if a great weight had been lifted. 

  “So,” his wife began with a smirk . “I assume that not much packing has taken place in my absence?”

  “Maybe not,” he began. “But, boy do we have something to tell you…”



Independence Day

                                            Drawing by Martin-Lyn     An olive-toned hand, the right third finger adorned by her grandmother...