Sunday, April 19, 2020

An Acre of Peace- Part 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Song in October

   They were just going to the dance as friends. At least that’s what he told himself and everyone else who inquired about it. His statement was certainly made with the best of intentions. He meant nothing derogatory toward his date, it was merely the truth as he currently saw it. Be that as it may, a high school senior year comes about only once in a lifetime and he could not bear for her to be without an escort for the fall dance. That went without saying that he himself also lacked an escort to the same event but he told himself that that was beside the point. Only a few days earlier, she had described to him a particular dress, bought with her own savings, which she, as of yet, had never had the opportunity to wear. The vision of the dress, hanging lifeless in the dark recesses of a closet was too much for him. Having decided to invite his friend to the dance, he was somewhat surprised by the amount of courage that it took to actually offer her the invitation. Perhaps it was just a mere lack of teenage confidence, but he never felt quite certain that a positive response to his invitation was an absolute certainty. Perhaps she would take it the wrong way or maybe she was hoping that another particular classmate would invite her instead. He was justifiably relieved when he finally gathered enough courage to ask her and her response was a polite nod followed by the most innocent of smiles.
She had been his close friend for as far back as his memory could reach, even extending back into the distant memories of childhood. As in the lives of many, his acquaintances over the years had come and gone much like the seasons of the year. However, she had been different. Constant. Steady. Quiet, but strong. The effect of her presence had often reminded him of sitting on the tranquil banks of Spring Creek and listening to the clear water rushing over the exposed limestone. She was not like many of the other girls, loud and always seeking to be the center of attention. It was as if she knew, from an early age, exactly who she was and she needed no other human being to affirm what she already knew to be true. Perhaps that quiet confidence was the exact reason why she was not first in the mind of all the young men in her class. The reason certainly had nothing to do with her features, for her olive skin and auburn-tinged hair which fell in an cascade across her shoulders should have been the envy of most. She fell instead into that unfortunate category where most lovely, quiet and kind-hearted people fall. She was easily forgotten.
    So, when the night of the dance finally arrived, he was excited for the chance to put on his best suit, take pictures, and drive out of their small town to eat at an up-scale restaurant, but had truly not given much thought to the other events of the evening. He had made sure that he had saved enough money for their meal and had asked his father ahead of time to borrow the car.

   "Always remember who you are and Whose you are," came the familiar reminder from his father and mother as he left the driveway. Driving to his date's house, he repeatedly checked his hair in the rearview mirror to make sure that no strands had shifted out of place as it would have been unthinkable to have messy hair commemorated in a photo that would follow him for the rest of his life and then likely turn up at his wedding.

   Upon arrival, he rung the doorbell and was greeted by the familiar but somewhat suspicious face of her father who, along with her mother, invited him inside. 

   "Now, listen for just a second," her father encouraged with a smirk as he placed a strong arm across the young man's shoulder. "I've known you for a long time, but when you see my girl come down those stairs, always remember that I was a marine sniper back in the day. I have a rifle and a shovel. No one will miss you."

   "I understand completely, sir" came the honest reply.

   Just at that moment, his attention was captured by movement at the top of the stairs. Taking a few steps back to get a better view, his eyes were greeted by a vision that he was not expecting. At the top of the stairs, where his friend should have stood, was a young woman whose attire and demeanor could only be described as elegant. The dress was exactly as she had described, the navy color complementing the olive tones of her skin. Slightly off of her shoulders, the modest neckline of the dress highlighted the strand of faux pearls borrowed from her mother. Her hair, the auburn-tinged curls usually flowing below her shoulders, was swept up and secured delicately with another borrowed hair clip. She stood motionless for a moment (which seemed like an eternity) before moving down the stairs to join her date. Standing in front of him, the delicate scent of her perfume surrounded him as she looked him directly in the eyes before reaching up to straighten his tie.

   "It was a little crooked."

   "I'm not surprised," he responded, not having fully recovered from seeing her. "It was all your dress' fault."

  "Why, whatever are you saying Mr. Butler?  Surely you don't mean this old rag?" she replied with a smile and her best Scarlett O'Hara accent. 

   "I really doubt that you made such a beautiful dress from the curtains."

   "Well now, if I did, that'll just have to stay my secret, won't it?"

   After quickly grabbing her matching clutch purse and saying goodbye to her parents, the couple made their way to the car. As he opened the passenger door for her, he caught another half-threatening look from her father. He then moved to the driver's seat and the pair was off to begin their evening.

Tallahassee was about 40 miles away and it was a familiar road. The short trip was filled with stories and laughter from a lifetime of youthful experiences and he was again amazed by how easy their conversations were. Never was there any awkward silence. He loved the way she saw the world, her understanding penetrating far deeper than what was readily apparent. And more than once, he found his gaze mesmerized by the beautiful woman next to him. 

   He had to admit that he became aware of a growing sense of pride as the pair was escorted to their seats in the restaurant. Yet, he was also becoming aware of the accompanying and unexpected sensation of sadness. At first, he could not place his finger on the exact cause and he found the presence of the emotion on such an evening perplexing. However, once he became completely honest with himself, he realized that the sensation of sadness found its source in the reality that this evening would inevitable end, and that life would subsequently resume its previous course. The elegant dress would go back in the closet and the necklace back in her mother's jewelry box. Then, the loneliness would return and it, that aching, gnawing emotion would take her place and would once again become his familiar companion. 

   He looked up from his menu at his companion across the small, square table. 

   "Anything look good?" he asked.

   "Hmm.." she replied. "Everything does. It's too hard to decide!"

   "Well, if someone told you that you could have anything you wanted with no strings attached, then what would you pick?"

  "Probably this," she responded by showing him her menu and pointing at the item she had chosen.

  "Well, then there you have it. That's what you should get."

   She leaned in closer, a concerned look wrinkling her forehead.

  "It's just so expensive."

  Her sincere concern only increased his sense of pride.

  "Listen, it's fine. I've planned for this. I want you to have it."

  The emotion of her face changed to one of gratitude without ever voicing a word.

   The drive back from Tallahassee following their meal was just as pleasant as before and it seemed like no time passed at all before the lights of their hometown began to glow upon the horizon. She must have thanked him at least ten times for spending his money on her and buying her one of the best meals that she had ever had. His honest response was that he could not think of a better way to spend it. 

   Within only a few minutes, the pair had driven up to the high school and parked outside the area where the dance was being held. As he opened her door, he could already hear the music coming from within. The pair was greeted by the familiar faces of teachers and chaperones who all wished them  a wonderful evening. Even more familiar faces were waiting inside as they mingled with their classmates and shared their stories of the evening. No matter where he went, she never left his side and seemed perfectly content to enjoy his company.

   As they were mingling, he became aware of a change in the music as the DJ changed the previous upbeat song to a much slower one. 

   "So, may I have this dance?" he asked bowing slightly.

   "Of course, kind sir," she responded. "But I feel that it is my duty to warn you that you probably should have worn those steel-toed work boots you always wear when you cut wood."

   "You're not that bad of a dancer."

   "I'll let you be the judge of that."

   The darkness enveloped them as he gently took her hand and led her to an open area on the dancefloor. They were only dancing as friends, he told himself, so his intention was to place his hands around her waist at arms' length with her arms in turn across his shoulders. But before he could do any of that, she had already moved close to him and placed her arms around his neck with her hands resting on the back of his hair. Close enough to hear her sigh, he felt her place her head on his shoulder as they began to sway to the music. 

   He was not prepared for that. For a moment, time stood motionless. The feel of her breathing, the smell of her hair and the perfection of the entire evening washed over him.  He tried to hold his emotions in check but he found himself slipping further into a place of swirling music and color. Trying to focus on the room, those dancing around them and even the image of her father with a loaded rifle was completely futile. Almost in completely surrender, he let his head fall forward until his forehead rested upon her shoulder. Her head leaned further against his as the waves of auburn hair seemed to flow all about him.

   How did she know? Had she read his thoughts? Did she somehow sense the loneliness that had become his almost constant companion? What insight did she have to understand that the time he spent in his beloved forest could never substitute for the warmth of another human being? He had never spoken of it openly. The heavenly scent of the pine needles of home was no competition for her nor could the sounds of the wind in the oak leaves ever compare to the evening breeze playing with strands of her hair.

   No words were exchanged. None were needed. Their friendship had long surpassed that need. Long surpassed it, but he was only now becoming aware of that fact. The song was ending, and the sadness was returning. As the last note of the song lingered, he felt her arms slip down to grasp both of his shoulders as she stared up into his eyes.

  "See," he said quietly as he could think of nothing else to say. "My toes are fine."

   "I'm glad to hear that," came the quiet response. 

   He remembered little about the rest of the evening until the time came to leave so as to make sure that she was not late getting home. Walking arm in arm out of the dance, his gait was a little slower and he was not nearly as talkative as he had been earlier. As he opened her door and turned to go to the driver's side, he heard her voice call his name. 

  "Is there something wrong?"

   He turned to see her standing by her open door, her brow furrowed with concern.

  "Nothing at all. In fact, I can't remember enjoying myself as much as I have tonight."

   "You just seemed a little sad."

   She shifted onto her other foot and looked down at the ground briefly.

  "Listen, if, I mean if our dance earlier..." she began.

   "Heavens no," he interrupted gently. "Please don't apologize. There's no need."

   Her eyes returned to his. Now was his opportunity. Now he could tell her how he had struggled this whole evening. How he now saw with blazing clarity that life without her was unbearable. How he had been a fool for not recognizing it earlier. A thousand thoughts filled his head, but he finally settled on the simplest truth of all.

   "I just didn't want tonight to end."

   Her facial expression seemed to change to express both relief and understanding. She then looked down at her right hand and removed something from her ring finger.

   "I have something for you."

   She walked over to him and taking his hand in hers, she placed her Claddagh ring in his palm. He had never seen her remove it, nor could he remember a time when she didn't have it.

   "So," he stated slowly. "I'm not really familiar with how you wear one of these."

   "Well," she began. "If you're not married you wear it on your right hand. If you're available, so to speak, then place the heart so that it faces out. But..."

   She seemed to pause for emphasis.

   "But if there is someone special in your life, then face the heart inward."

   He looked at the small golden circle in his hand. It was too small to fit on his ring finger, so he placed it on his right fifth finger with the heart facing outward. Then, without saying a word but never taking his eyes off of her, he turned the heart to face inward. He then brushed her cheek and swept aside a wayward strand of hair.

   "Tell me honestly," he then asked after looking quickly at his watch and realizing the time.  "Does your father really have a rifle?"

   "And a shovel," she replied with the most innocent of smiles.


Independence Day

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