Friday, May 22, 2020

A Funeral for a Sparrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2020

An Acre of Peace- Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Independence Day

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