Spiritual Love Story
Nourishing His Spirit
Characters from the stories Leopold and Unless You Give Up in the short story collection, It Might Have Been and Other Stories.
In this Spiritual Love Story, two strangers navigating life’s dilemmas discover that each has a gift the other needs to develop their lives more fully.
Leaning back on his rustic porch chair, Grant rested his hands over his son’s sketchbook and exhaled a slow breath. His gaze flowed across the rushing river twenty feet away to the rocky cliff on the opposite side. A pair of maple trees branched up from the hard surface, their roots intertwined, one curving over the river, the other stretched tall toward the mountainous clouds overhead.
The quiet cabin maintained a serene expression, its windows open to the late summer breeze. He patted the sketchbook. These are good…really good. His heart should have rejoiced in that knowledge, happy that his son, who had struggled for so long to find purpose in his life, had finally created something that revealed the immense value of the man hidden inside. But will anyone see it? Commercialize it, maybe…
A chill swept over Grant at the idea of Jon selling his artistic skills to an advertising agency. Still, he could make lots of money—become financially independent. Maybe find a wife…raise a family. The sudden cold hardened into deep frost. Repetitive years working at a job he barely tolerated, his own yearning poured out in stories that were only read by a small online following, set the stage for the image of his son’s imploring face, those deep-need brown eyes. No. He’ll find his own way. A better way…Please, God!
His inborn scream was choked off by an odd sight…a canoe zig-zagging down the middle of the river. A woman, her frazzled gray hair pulled into a haphazard bun, paddled with frantic strokes, trying to navigate the placid stream. He smiled. Shouldn’t be hard, but she’s struggling like a drunken sailor trying to walk a white line. Probably never paddled a canoe before…
Without thinking, he called out, startling a flock of crows from surrounding woods, cawing as they rose into the sky. “You okay? I mean…do you want some help?”
Grant stepped over to the edge of the porch, no railing to hinder his view. His cozy vacation cabin—perched on the edge of the river with a rickety dock that staggered a few feet from the boulder-strewn shore—was his greatest concession in a life of dedicated hard work and few pleasures. If Judy was out there, struggling… He swallowed back ancient memories; his gaze darted to his boat tied to the pier.
“I’m fine.” The woman swung a wobbly smile at the cabin as if she couldn’t tear her eyes from the water long enough to fix on his form.
A nauseating sensation twirled like overcooked spaghetti in Grant’s stomach. “Better watch out for those sand—”
He hadn’t even seen the bleached-white log with a snarly branch, but he definitely heard the rough skidding as her canoe scraped the hidden sandbar. The look of panic on her face as she dug her paddle deep into the sucking blackness, her entire world suddenly immobile, sent Grant into immediate action. He laid Jon’s sketchbook on the small end table, leaped forward, then ran down the short steps and made it to the pier before she even realized she was well and truly stuck.
With the expert finesse of a man who has spent every vacation either hiking the trails or out on the boat, he freed his craft and headed her way.
At his approach, her surprise spun from chagrin to gratitude in a matter of seconds. Whatever else, she was no fool.
“Thank you.” She accepted his offered glass of lemonade with the same quiet fortitude of someone long used to recovering from harrowing experiences.
Though it hadn’t been harrowing in the slightest. He had rowed over, maneuvered his boat just behind and to the side of hers, avoiding the sandbar and the ensnaring log, and then towed her canoe across the current to his rickety pier, where she disembarked as if his invitation had been voiced and her acceptance duly noted.
Somehow, the silent exchange made their communication all that more powerful. They had managed to converse on a level he had rarely experienced before. Not even with his long-dead wife.
Supernatural apparition? A story he had written several years ago flashed across his mind. Something about an angel coming to the aid of a dying child… Nothing like this. Besides, I’m the one giving aid, and I’m hardly an angel.
Once on the porch and perched on the edge an overturned barrel, he took a sip from his glass, condensation dribbling over his fingertips, splattering drops on his shorts.
She leaned back on the chair, much as he had done earlier, a sigh escaping her lips like a sparrow released from a snare. “I’m sorry to have bothered you like this.” She winced, squinting into a memory. “I used to be able to steer a canoe down this river without any help. And I knew full well to keep clear of sandbars and such.” She shook her head. Her gaze refocused, and she finally looked him full in the face. “But that was many years ago.”
He understood. Though the way she said it, she spoke of ages, not years. At sixty, he was near enough her age to comprehend the situation, but yet, she didn’t seem to make the connection. As if he was still a child in her eyes.
“There’s been an unusual amount of rain this summer, and autumn is closing in fast. The river rushes, like everything, these days.” He stopped talking and took another sip, panicked that he had suddenly lost the power to make coherent sense.
She eyed him, holding the wet glass in one hand, her thumb rubbing the side, almost a caress. “Not everyone.” She shrugged and set her glass on the side table. “Some of us have come to a full stop.” A wry smile. “Literally.”
No words. Sympathy, yes. But he couldn’t begin to explain.
Suddenly, her eyes widened and she leaned forward, wiped her wet fingers on her shorts, and then reached out. “Sorry. I never even told you my name. Miranda.”
He accepted her work-hardened hand, ignoring his surprise, and gave it a gentle shake. “Grant.” He looked around, not sure what came next. A comment about the weather? No, did that already. He glanced at her hand again. No ring. No husband? Family? Why in the world is she out here trying to manage a canoe all by herself?
As if she really did have supernatural powers, she answered his unasked question. “I’ve got family…down the river aways, just over the border in Montgomery County. Live with my niece and her family on a 20-acre place. Nice and all, but I thought I’d do something different. Get away and find my direction in life.” A twist to her smile, and a slight harumph. “I thought I knew how to paddle my own canoe.” Another head shake. “Guess, I’ll strike that off my list of accomplishments.”
Pity…or was it sympathy? filled Grant. “If I scratched all the things I can no longer do off my list of accomplishments, it would be mighty short, indeed. Don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work, you know.”
Miranda sat up, alert, a spark of hope in her troubled eyes.
A sudden wind streaked through, ruffling stray locks of her hair and rippling the pages of Jon’s sketchbook.
Fear shot through Grant. The damp glass was touching the fragile pages. With a quick, “Excuse me,” he shot over and retrieved his son’s work. He clasped the book to his chest, sat down, and then laid it on his lap, trying to cover his anxiety with absurd casualness.
Her eyes followed his every move. Interested. Or Intrigued?
Abashed, he smothered a bitter laugh. “Oh, it’s not mine. I can’t draw stick figures so as you could tell them from trees.” As if baring his soul, he lifted the sketchpad, exhibit one in his life story. “My son Jon draws. Really well, actually. But…well, he’s had a hard time finding his place. Didn’t do well in high school and wouldn’t go to college. He works construction during the day but draws at night. Just doesn’t know what to do with them.” Heat flushed his face. Why am I talking so much?
“May I?” Hesitant, apparently fearful of scaring his trust away, she held out her hand.
He passed the sketchbook over, uneasy qualms shaking his confidence. Would Jon mind? If he met her and she asked him like she did me?
She lifted the cover and stared at the first drawing, studying it, her eyes roaming over the page, taking in the details. Slowly, she passed onto the next page, her eyes widened, and her chest stilled as if she was too caught up to bother breathing. And on she went, page after nerve-wracking page, sometimes doubling back and reconsidering an earlier work.
Finally, after an eternity, the sketchbook still resting on her knees, clasped in both hands, she looked up and met Grant’s waiting gaze.
“You’re his father?”
Confused, Grant nodded. “Yes, Jon is my son.” He blinked, sensing something so powerful he wasn’t sure his heart could take it. “What? Why do you ask?”
She stared into his eyes and plunged into his soul. “You must be a wonderful father to have encouraged such sensitivity. I don’t believe anyone could have such skill without it being given to him from above.”
A relieved sob rose into his throat. “You really think so?” He wanted to hug this strange woman. “I mean, I’m no expert, but I thought they were good, too. It’s just that artists can’t make a living these days, and I wanted him to have an independent life, so I encouraged him to go into construction, work with his hands, do something useful…” He heard the defensiveness in his voice but couldn’t redirect the current of his words. “He gave me this before I took off for vacation, asked me what I thought. But I just can’t see him selling his skills to some commercial industry…like advertising. He’d be miserable. A sellout. That’d ruin everything for him.”
Her gaze fixed on Grant’s face. “And for you?”
His mind blanked. “I’ll get refills.” He jumped to his feet, held out his hand for the sketchbook and then tucked it under one arm, then he snatched the two glasses and rushed through the open doorway into the living room. He placed his son’s treasure on the table by the couch, safely away from dribbles and other dangers.
Speedy refills, a calming breath, though his mind remained blank, he returned to the porch.
The sun had sunk halfway to the horizon. Evening would fall quickly this late in the season.
Miranda stood, waiting, ready to leave. “I really should not have kept you this long. First you rescue me, then you serve me refreshing drinks, and I reward you with interrogations.”
Unaccountably, his heart plunged into an abyss. “No. Nothing like that.” He gazed over the placid water and the hidden sandbar, the grasping branches of fallen trees, and faced himself. “I didn’t mean to rush off like that. It’s just that I should have asked Jon if I could show his pictures.”
A smile of understanding and she stepped to the edge of the porch.
He shuffled after her, right to the top step. Then it hit him. She couldn’t row herself home. Not safely. Not in the dark. “I’ll row you back home. Your niece can come pick up the canoe anytime.”
He could almost hear her thinking, I got this far safely, and a twitch in her eyes spoke of rebellion, but then her gaze met his, and she relented with a humble nod.
As the sun settled behind the hills, warm beams of light crawled up the tops of the trees, enflaming their leaves.
Once she was seated comfortably in his boat, his muscles relaxed into the calming pattern of even strokes as he rhythmically rowed the light craft. Peace enveloped him and words unfolded in the soft light. “You really think Jon has talent?”
Sitting primly on the hard seat, her hands clasped on her lap and her legs folded to the side in an almost girlish fashion, she smiled. “Yes. He does. What is your hidden talent, may I ask?”
Amazed, Grant cleared his throat from sudden dryness. “Well, no one would call it a talent, but I like to write stories. I put them online and sometimes people read them. Don’t make any money, though. Just a hobby.”
“I’d like to read them.” Her eyes pondered his face, searching, perhaps waiting.
“And you? What do you like to do?”
She shook her head—perplexed or amused—he could not tell. “I used to love being a nurse and a wife…till my husband got sick, and I helped him through his last years. I loved being a mom, but my son moved with his wife to the other side of the world, so I hardly ever see them now. I enjoy being with my niece and her family—wonderful husband, dear kids.” A wistful expression filled her eyes.
A vice gripped his heart. “I asked what you like to do…but you still didn’t tell me.”
She met his gaze directly. “I think I did.”
He swallowed hard and braved his way forward, his oars barely stirring the calm water. “You could meet my son and tell him why you like his work.”
Evening light added sparkle to her eyes. “I could.” She stared over the glinting water. “I know a company that commissions art for hospitals, nursing homes, educational settings…Lovely paintings that encourage weary souls. He could send in some of his work. I bet they’d love it.”
As he passed between the brilliant maple trees lining the shore, refreshing strength filled Grant. He considered the woman who he had never, in his wildest stories, ever imagined, and rejoiced in his son’s talent, which he could never emulate. For once in his life, he flowed peacefully with the current that took him, he knew not where, nourishing his spirit as it went.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 18 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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