Trees, in their giantess of spirit, talk to me on a daily basis. Thank God, or I don’t know who I’d go to for advice.
It’s the end of a long day—a Monday to be exact—and as hectic, overflowing Mondays have the uncanny habit of following slow, afternoon-nap Sundays, I fight the desire to head out to the edge of my property and simply be with my dear friend. No words necessary. Oak always understands.
I wouldn’t have to go into the tedious details concerning the weird dream where I painted a dirty wall then promptly tossed a blanket over a messy box that really deserved to be cleaned out, but, in dream-world impossibility, the blanket would simply have to do.
No need to explain the emails. How does one respond to sincere attempts to communicate in a world where opinions rampage like charging horses in a medieval joust, and it’s frankly disloyal—perhaps even disingenuous—to cheer?
Gordian knot, you’re playing with me.
Today’s foraging through the shops demanded keen instinct—keep to the designated list despite the fact that items left over from the holidays were practically a steal. Who wants to steal holiday decorations when looking forward to spring? Yeah, sure, there’s always next year… But tonight’s dinner quandary demanded my attention more. Fruits and vegetables. A last stand between winter and spring festivities. That or admit that ol’ Oak and I have more in common than I’d like to admit in matters of girth.
Noon found me strolling. Oak greeted me, always the gentlefolk, waving last seasons crumpled brown leaves, rustling a soothing tune. I still had a story to write, online school plans to cajole, money matters with which to contend, and dinner to devise.
Oak didn’t mind a bit of it. The wind blew. Clouds scuttled. With plaintive meows, cats arched their back in invitation, and dogs raced like puppies. A red bird shot onto the woods, a blue bird flashed by, and an eagle soared. If I wasn’t one with nature, it wasn’t for Oak’s lack of trying. Steadfast par excellence.
Pasta with two kinds of toppings kept the kids’ bodies and souls in happy coexistence. Presently sage and citrus incense burn over the glowing heater while Henrietta hamster daintily chips away at her carrot. I am staring at dark windows, knowing full well that Oak is still and quiet this time of night. He doesn’t need to speak. He just needs to be.
Maple out my bedroom window wakes me each morning with waving branches, seasonally decorated. I’m waiting for the spring-fairies to visit. Any day now. Pines pierce the sky, tossing their still-green branches in see-what-I-still-have proud display. A forgotten nest sways, unbroken, a hopeful reminder of summer guests.
In a time-is-running-out reality dotted with doubt, my arboreal familiars offer more than words can say. They speak in rustles, rough texture, variegated colors, off-white tones, but most honestly in their very existence. To be is their way.
No proof. No judgment. No certitude or pride.
To have been created says all. Alive. Perhaps not always perfectly. Rot infests the best of us. But speak, they do well.
Advice is best offered after sampled, and so, I find it true.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”
Grey clouds, gusty winds, and flapping curtains—frantic, as if no one was listening—held Aisling on the threshold, waiting, but for what, she could not say.
Her husband, Diarmuid, hustled an overfilled wheelbarrow across the yard. His muscles strained with the effort, though he whistled a lively tune while he worked.
At the back of the greening-up yard, along the still-winter-dead hedgerow, her youngest son, Collin, swung on a frayed rope tied from a high branch. A dip in the land allowed him to free fall, enjoying the heady drop without any real danger.
Neither husband nor son seemed the least bit concerned about the pending storm. A neighbor had mentioned as they passed at the post office that morning, “Lots of rain coming. Eager spring planters best hold off a bit, or every seed’ll be washed away.”
A sharp crack and snapping branches caught Aisling’s attention. A damaged tree that had kept a stretched roothold into the bank of the ever-widening river had given way and was now lodged in the crook of a straight but world-weary tree.
Having dumped his load of compost, Diarmuid looked over, a rake motionless in his hand. “Ya see that?”
Collin pelted across the yard, a spring kite off its tether, his shirttail flapping behind him. He skidded to a stop at the crumbling bank. “Hey, da! See what it’s done!”
Aisling met her husband at the crooked river bend where the tree fell and got caught.
“It’s them strangling vines that done it. They’re taking over the back lot, sucking up the water and soil, so even the young starve where they stand.”
A swift kick to the gut could not have stunned Aisling more. Dread chased logic right out of her mind. “Niamh got the job.”
Darkness deepened the glint in Diarmuid’s eyes. “I hope she knows what she’s about. There’s no telling what life’ll be like that far from home. Can’t harvest a garden in a city apartment.”
Motherly defenses rising, Aisling crossed her arms, a barricade against fears that can’t possibly understand. “It’s her life. She has to find her own way.”
“The land holds true when people fail.”
A gust of wind toppled a chair on the porch, sending Collin sprinting across the yard. “I’ll get it. Just hope the house don’t blow away!”
With a sharp turn, Diarmuid paced back to the half-tilled garden.
Under her breath, Aisling prayed. “I hope so too.”
Late that night, as the house stood quiet and the curtains hung limp and lifeless, Aisling wiped the counter and wrung the dishrag dry. She lay it on the edge of the clean sink, took a last glance around the orderly kitchen, and turned off the light. She headed for bed.
Moonlight shone through Collin’s window, and the toe of his boot glinted from under a chair.
She padded down the hallway, the sound of the shower grew louder in her ears. In the master bedroom, she peeled off her shoes and socks and then readied her bedclothes. Her computer screen had gone to sleep, but she knew there were emails and financial business to attend to early the next morning. A stack of biographies, novels, and historical epics lay beside the bed. Lots to read, to imagine, to consider, but her exhausted brain couldn’t fathom anything more than her bedtime ritual.
The shower spray stopped with a sudden halt, the floorboards groaned, and she could imagine Diarmuid drying off in his own methodical way.
Everything was peaceful now, and Aisling wondered at her dread-filled fears during the storm. She searched her mind for the emotional landmines that had sent her down such a treacherous rabbit hole. Niamh’s new job? She shook her head and pulled down the covers on the bed. There was no reason to fear that a grown woman living a mere hundred miles away would come to a bad end just because she worked in the city.
The bathroom door opened, and Diarmuid, dressed in his sweat pants and little else, strolled in, toweling off his hair. “We’ll have to take two cars. She’ll need one till she gets settled in. And there’s a zoo near the place Collin might like. We can make a weekend of it. Once she finds out what life is like there, she might appreciate home a bit more.”
Aisling nodded. There was no arguing her husband’s brand of logic.
She plodded to the bathroom, stripped, and got into the shower, and turned it on piping hot. Luxuriating in the steaming spray, Collin’s words ran in her mind: hope the house don’t get blown away.
Suddenly her fear made perfect sense. She wasn’t afraid of losing her daughter but losing the home her daughter could return to.
What makes my life? My home?
“Hey, honey, where’d you put my reading glasses?”
Aisling smiled at a memory. “You left them by the printer this morning when you got the paper stuck, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. That.”
She heard his chuckle and knew he had remembered too. She slipped on her nightclothes, brushed her teeth, and shuffled into the bedroom.
Diarmuid sat propped against a pile of pillows, a biography in his hand. He looked over his glasses and peered at her. “You doing okay?”
A gust of wind hit the house and startled the curtains.
But the house still stood.
A deep abiding peace settled Aisling’s soul. “Yeah. Life’s good. I like your idea about taking two cars and visiting the zoo. I’m going to take a tomato plant in a crate so Niamh can have a little bit of home in her apartment.”
“Huh. Nice thought, but it won’t be the same.”
“No. But we all have to start somewhere. Then we start building and try not to get blown away.”
“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”
Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.
“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.
Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.
She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”
She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.
Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.
She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”
Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”
She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”
Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”
She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”
“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.
With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”
“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.
Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”
His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”
“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.
Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.
The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”
Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”
His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”
Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.”
Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”
A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”
Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”
“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”
The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.
Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.
He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.
Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”
She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”
“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”
A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.
“I’m ready for a break. You?”
She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”
Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”
She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”
He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.
They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.
A trio of squirrels scampered past.
Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”
Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”
“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”
A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.
Two plump robins hopped nearby.
He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.
She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”
She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”
He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”
“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”
Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.
“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”
Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.
“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”
Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”
“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”
A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”
He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”
She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”
He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”
Jacob read the quote twice before he put the fragile newspaper aside. Cleaning had never been his favorite job, but after his grandma passed two months before, he knew that he couldn’t sell her old farmhouse until it was completely cleaned out and that meant sorting through all the junk from her past. A long past full of cards, letters, mementos, pictures, and even great-granddad’s old house key. The woman saved everything.
He sighed, shifted his crouched position in the dim, dusty attic, and glanced at the carefully cut-out article again. Who was this man that she bothered to save his obituary? And was he really missed? He had died so long ago, those who cared were long gone. Doesn’t matter now.
Rosie’s voice, melodic and enticing, still sent chills up his arms. He could hardly believe she had married him and that they were expecting their first child in the spring. After sweeping the last stacks of papers off the shelf, Jacob bundled them into the over-filled plastic container and grunted as he hefted it to the top of the steps. “This is the last of it. I’m coming down now.”
With her rounded belly giving shape to her bright maternity top, Rosie peered up from the bottom step. “Don’t carry too much. You might fall.”
With a half-laugh, Jacob defied the silly notion and started down the narrow steps, slipped on the fifth, and landed with decided “Ugh!” and a sharp pain in his back.
As if to add insult to injury, the box tipped and spilled its guts all over the floor.
Suddenly commander and chief of healthcare, Rosie dove into action, her hands fluttering. “Stop! Stay where you are. Let me see if your—”
Ignoring her attention, Jacob tried to stand, then muffled a series of profanities as he fell again.
By late afternoon, Jacob had been x-rayed, found he had slipped a disk, and was sentenced to bed for the duration with enough pain killer and vegetable soup to keep him alive though not uncomplaining.
After arriving at their single-story ranch home, Rosie made the necessary phone calls, informing work, family, and friends that her “strong-man” was doing fine, though he wouldn’t be getting around for a few days.
Jacob could hear her voice from the bedroom as she prepared dinner, soothing away worries, insisting that she didn’t need any help, and glorying in the fact that she had tried to warn him, “But you know how he is…”
He considered popping another pill to dull the humiliation.
Cute as always but with a hint of smugness, Rosie toted in a tray just as the winter sun set. A roast beef sandwich with barbecue chips, coleslaw, and a glass of milk gladdened his eyes, bringing his salivary glands back to life, though he looked twice at the glass of milk. A faded newspaper article lay complacently under the fork.
“You need extra calcium. The doctor specifically mentioned that you should drink milk and get more exercise.”
Jacob’s brain spun, trying to think of a non-profanity-laden retort.
“Oh, and Mrs. Miller put the box in the car and carried it into the living room so we could go through it.” She tapped the paper. “I found this article on a great-great-uncle of yours. Sounds like he was quite a guy.”
His brain had frozen at the image of Mrs. Miller carrying the box to the car. “The woman is seventy-six years old! How could she carry—”
“Very carefully. She wouldn’t let me touch it because of the baby. And she knows how much we want to get the house cleaned out. Her son said he’d bring his boys over, you know the twins, Jim and Jerry, to do the last of the patching and painting. Then it’ll be fit for the realtor to put on the market.”
Picturing the middle-aged brothers, grizzled farmers who lived down the lane, Jacob stifled a groan. When did my life slip out of control? “Really, I think we should hire someone to—”
Rosie perched on the edge of the bed and shook her head, eternally patient wise-woman. “Don’t be ridiculous. There isn’t a carpenter to be had—no professional wants to go into these old farmhouses unless you want a complete refurbish job. Which we can’t afford. Jim and Jerry have done tons of work on their own place; they can handle this. We’ll pay them, and the house will be fine.” She nudged the milk closer, glanced pointedly at the article, and climbed to her feet. “Eat and rest. I’m going to see how many hearts and likes we got on Facebook.”
Oh, heck… Jacob shoved the Facebook humiliation out of his mind and chomped down his meal. He ignored the article. But as he couldn’t eat it, there wasn’t a television or a computer within reach, and he had left his phone in the car, his fingers inched toward the yellowed newspaper.
He read it three times. His eyes filled with tears on the second round and flowed after the third. How could he have had such a relative and never heard? But then he remembered. Grandma had spoken of her Uncle Thomas, a priest who had served his flock in love and devotion, who had died unexpectedly. But he had never paid it much mind. Some old relative who had passed away long before his time.
Rosie hummed as she switched off the last of the lights, waddling closer, her happy disposition radiating through the house.
Suddenly, Jacob envisioned the web of interconnected lives. The great uncle who had powerfully influenced his mother, who had formed him. The long descent of relatives who arrived and left the human stage in numberless succession, changing the landscape for each generation.
Rosie stopped in the doorway; her eyes widened in alarm as she stared at him. “What’s wrong, honey?” She hustled close, arms ready to snuggle and comfort.
Jacob breathed her unique scent, soaked in her gentle touch, and knew, beyond all shadow of a doubt, he had been richly blessed.
Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.
Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.
His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”
Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”
One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.
“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”
Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.
Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?
She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?
His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have Ilost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”
Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”
An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”
With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.
Elmer stared. Why?
She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”
Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”
“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”
His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.
Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”
Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”
“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”
A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.
An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.
His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.
He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.
Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.
His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.
Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”
A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”
His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”
Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”
Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.
He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.
She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”
Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.
Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.
He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.
“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”
Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.
“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.
Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.
A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.
His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.
Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.
Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”
“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”
Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”
She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”
Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”
Christmas—the birth of God as human being. What a concept!
For my kids’ generation, I have to translate it in terms of an alien coming to Earth, revealing Himself as the seed of human origin. We are more likely to believe in aliens than angels these days. But, be that as it may, the human experience, despite 5000 years of conversations with God and 2000+ Christmases, our life-on-earth journey remains much the same. We are born, we live, and we die.
As I consider this unlikely year 2020, amid all the changes and challenges of our fast-paced technological developments, social and political upheavals, a contracting world amid an expanding universe, pandemics, increasing information, and diminishing trust, I have chosen to focus on what really matters to me.
Family, home, community, my critters, and the little piece of Earth under my care, given by God, offer my life purpose and meaning. Joy even. The happiness of service, becoming a part of more than my petty self, my particular needs, my thin view.
Each day, I attempt to manage my daily-do, taking care of those within my family and community sphere. But the larger world matters, too. In that respect, I have been blessed to interact with three generous stewards of God’s life and love. I am sure there are many others as well.
The mystery of Christmas, for me, is not so much that God became human and offers us Eternal life with Him in Heaven—He being God, that perfection is reasonable, even expected—but that despite our faults and failings, our petty selfishness, we humans can and do respond with generous spirits, in imitation of the God who made us.
To join with fellow human beings who so love the world that we offer our lives, in big and small matters, in monetary offerings, time and talent, heartfelt conversations, prayer, solace, nobility of spirit, courage, anonymous kind acts, speaks to a humanity that can rise and grow beyond our worst tendencies, our weakest links, our nefarious faults.
This Christmas season, I choose not to focus on our many problems or the murky swirl of an uncertain future, but rather, I lift my gaze to God in gratitude for His presence among us and for my fellow human beings who live in generous, noble love. Nowhere do you shine so bright as in these dark days. May your light continue to shine in the coming months and years, and may the Good God who created you for Eternal life, offer you the strength and hope to persevere, come what may.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16