OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Seven

For The Sake of Your Son

—Grasslands—

Ishtar tossed the last shovelful of earth aside and stared at the long, deep trench. He wiped sweat from his brow, laid the shovel aside, and plopped down, leaning back on his hands.

A glorious breeze ruffled his long hair, and children called in the distance. He glanced up. Eoban and Obed marched toward him with Barak trudging along behind.

Ishtar scrambled to his weary feet, his gaze level as the men approached. “To what do I owe this honor? Three dignitaries coming to view my” —he glanced aside and shrugged— “ditches.”

Obed laughed. “That’s why we’ve come. Word reached us that you’re digging canals to carry water to your village.”

“It’s just an idea…something I saw while traveling.”

Barak shaded his eyes and surveyed the long trench meandering from the base of the hill to the edge of the village. “You saw this?”

“I saw how water travels down from the hills. And sometimes it reaches the people. Sometimes not.” He rubbed his chin. “It seemed that a little assistance might give us what we need in dry spells.”

Eoban glanced at Obed. “It’s a brilliant idea. Surprised you didn’t think of it.”

“Wish I did.” Obed turned to Ishtar. “But it’s all yours. Except…” He laughed. “I might steal it and do something similar in my village.”

“Feel free. I’m too—”

Amin sprinted into view, jogged around stray sheep, and stopped with gasping breaths before his father.

Eoban gripped the young man’s shoulder. “What in the world are you eating, boy? Whole hogs? You’ve grown twice your former size!”

Ishtar’s smile broadened.

Obed nodded his agreement. “You’ll be ready to take the mantle of leadership off Ishtar’s shoulders soon.”

Barak frowned. “What is the matter, Amin? You look upset.”

Gulping his breath, Amin gazed from one man to another. “It’s Caleb. He’s not feeling well.” He turned to his father. “I told him to rest. I’ll do his work today.”

With a nod, Ishtar’s joy dimmed. “Fine. It was good of you to think of it.” He pointed to his efforts. “I’ll show them my grand scheme and come home in a bit.”

Amin glanced at the field and nodded. “I’ll get to work but keep an eye on Caleb too.” He stepped away.

Ishtar waved toward the base of the hill. “Let’s go. I can show you what I’ve done. You might have ideas to add.”

Eoban and Obed fell in line behind Ishtar.

Barak stopped and peered back at Amin. “You think he’ll be all right?”

Ishtar grinned. “Caleb is a wonderful child…but sometimes he doesn’t like to work, and Amin is more than generous.” He bit his lip. “I’ll have a talk with the boy.”

The three trudged upland to a natural land basin where Ishtar had enlarged the width and depth and added a channel leading toward the village.

As the sun descended, Lud and Gilbreth joined them, and they followed the trench into the village, making suggestions and exchanging ideas.

As he loped along, Eoban scratched his head. “Looks like Gilbreth has grown as much as Amin. What do you feed your children these days?”

Barak chuckled. “Anything and everything. Boys are always hungry. Ask Milkan.”

Rubbing his stomach, Eoban winced. “Speaking of food…”

Glancing from Eoban to the other men, Lud laughed. “That’s why I was sent…to tell you that a repast awaits at my home if you’d like to join us.”

Eoban leapt ahead like a yearling goat. “Don’t be sluggards! The boys will eat it all if we don’t hurry.”

~~~

Ishtar reclined on the ground after the repast, and everyone grew quiet as they sat around a modest fire. The warm evening air stilled, and songbirds settled in for the night.

Eoban glanced at each of the men. “So much has changed since we first met.”

His eyes widening, Lud sucked in his breath. “More than words could ever say.”

Barak nodded. “Aram has been gone for so long, I forget his face but never his strength. I only hope that the future will bring us more peace and less anxiety.”

Ishtar watched the flames flicker and the sparks intertwine as they rose into the sky. “I, too, hope we will know peace, but I wouldn’t wish to live without burdens or trials. It was a heavy burden that brought me to a place I could not run from. It was a painful trial that forced me to face the spirits that haunted me.” He sat up. “We must continually strive to become better than our former selves, or we stagnate and corrupt. I pity the man who is satisfied with himself.”

Barak shifted, his voice dropping low. “Even Aram struggled to become a better leader. He never really knew how good he was.”

Lud dropped another log on the fire. “As a father, I agree. One is never done learning.”

Stretching, Eoban yawned. “Since I am neither married nor have children, it seems that I have an easy life, but I tell you—in truth—I’m married to the entire village. I’m father to the young, brother to my men, servant to every woman who needs an extra hand, and uncle to the children near and far. I am the most married man I know!”

Chuckles rose with Eoban as he staggered to his feet.

The setting sun spread a pink and lavender glow over the village. The rest of the company stood, said their goodbyes, and started to their homes. Silence, the companion of each, framed the village in quiet slumber.

Ishtar strode along the trail with his heart at peace and knew that, for once, joy united them.

~~~

Amin raced up to Ishtar in the darkness outside his house, his heart clenched into a tight ball both furious and afraid. “Caleb is worse. I’ve done everything I can think of. Water, wine, broth, food…but nothing helps. He vomits everything.” He wrung his hands as he trotted at his father’s side. “He said his belly hurt, but I can’t see any wound.”

Ishtar peered through the darkness as he stopped before the doorway. “Did you call for the healer?”

Amin nodded. “She made him swallow an herbal brew, and he fell asleep.”

Ishtar paced to Caleb’s side and knelt on the hard ground.

Sweat beaded Caleb’s forehead. His cheeks were flushed an angry red, and he tossed with his arms flailing.

Ishtar stroked his son’s head, but Caleb brushed his hand away. Swallowing hard, Ishtar turned to Amin. “I’ll get Jonas. If anyone can understand what’s wrong, she can.”

Amin nodded, terror biting at his insides as Ishtar hurried outside. He dropped to his knees, clasped his little brother’s sweaty hands, and watched his every move.

Time slowed to a standstill. An owl hooted in the distance and a wild dog howled.

Caleb fell into a deep slumber, his body stilled, and his skin paled to a deathly white.

Amin’s eyelids grew heavy. His head dropped onto the edge of the bed and exhaustion took him.

When a bird chirped, Amin jerked awake and rubbed his eyes. A sliver of gold-edged the horizon and the sound of shuffling feet drew him upright. He stood and faced the door.

Ishtar ushered Jonas inside.

Striding to Caleb’s side, Jonas touched the little boy’s face and arms, and then carefully worked her way down his body, peering intently at each limb.

Ishtar tossed kindling onto the dying fire, flaring it into renewed life.

Jonas beckoned Amin closer. “Did he fall? Any accidents?”

Amin shook his head, his stomach churning. “He was fine up until a couple days ago. Then he said he felt sick and didn’t want to eat. After a time, he said his side hurt…and then his middle. He got so weak he could hardly stand.” Amin glanced at the rising sun, tears filling his eyes. “The more I tried to get him to eat, the sicker he got. Once the fever set in, he didn’t even know me.”

Jonas rose, soaked a cloth with cool water, and sponged Caleb’s head and wiped down his body.”

Ishtar crouched at her side and watched her every move. Amin paced away and added fuel to the fire.

As brilliant rays of light streaked over the horizon, Caleb awoke. Appearing calmer, he peered through red-rimmed eyes.

Jonas backed away and let Ishtar kneel closer. “Caleb?”

With a weak smile, Caleb grinned as his father took his hand. “I felt terrible. But I’m…better now.” He glanced aside. “Amin?”

Amin shifted near, kneeling by his father. “I’m here.”

Caleb blinked and frowned. “It’s so dark, I can’t see you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But I can hear you.”

Choking on strangling grief, Amin stifled a sob. Tears flooded his eyes. “I’m here, Caleb.”

Caleb closed his eyes, murmuring. “Father’s back, you know… So glad.” He gasped a rattling breath and exhaled slowly.

Amin squeezed his brother’s hand, but it felt cold and lifeless.

Caleb’s head drifted to the side, his whole body falling limp.

Amin shrieked. “Caleb!”

Trembling, Ishtar wrapped his arm around Amin and held Caleb’s fingers in his own.

Jonas nudged in closer and pressed her ear to Caleb’s chest, her eyes wide and staring.

Tears rolled down Ishtar’s cheeks, as a low groan escaped. “Please…”

Jonas blinked back tears. “He’s gone.”

Dropping his head onto Caleb’s chest, Ishtar sobbed.

A stabbing pain pierced Amin’s chest. He rose and fled into the searing light of day.

~~~

Ishtar sat outside his dwelling staring at a gray fire pit mounded with dead ashes. Beyond that, in the distance, a small grave lay covered with large flat stones.

Footsteps shuffled near and a shadow crossed over him.

Tobia knelt at Ishtar’s side. “May I sit with you?”

Hollow as a drum, Ishtar didn’t care who came or went.

“The wedding ceremony was beautiful. Obed outdid himself. Even Eoban behaved well.” Tobia crossed his legs. “Wish you’d been there.”

With a feeble effort, Ishtar waved him off. “Kamila was with you. That’s all that matters.” He closed his eyes. “I’m very tired.” He stretched out on the bench and clasped his hands over his chest, lying like a dead man. Something small and hard pressed on his chest.
Ishtar opened his eyes and peered down.

A little wooden boy with his arms outstretched lay over his beating heart. Ishtar choked and struggled for control as he sat up and clasped the figure in his hand.

Tobia peered into the distance, his voice as steady as if he were telling an evening story by firelight. “Long ago, Eymard told me that our mighty Creator made this world and took all life back to Himself when he willed it. It sounded good and made losing my father easier to bear. But when Vitus died, and I saw so much death and horror, I shoved Eymard’s story away and grew angry at God.”

He paused as if the words stuck in his throat. “Did our Creator have the right to punish Vitus for his foolish pride? Did the elders deserve to see the last of their line suffer imprisonment and death? Who was this terrible God I prayed to?”

Ishtar peered into the azure sky and blinked back tears.

Tobia’s voice rose. “But then someone told me that I was thinking like a man and not like God. Someone said that no one knows what goes on between a soul and his Maker.”

Dropping his face onto his hands, Ishtar rocked in misery.

“Pele lives beyond our sight. The same is true for Aram. Is it not true for Caleb too?”

Dragging his fingers down his face, Ishtar lifted his gaze and met Tobia’s honest eyes. “Caleb showed great promise. He would’ve grown up to be an honorable man— perhaps a leader among men. Why was he taken and not I?”

Tobia peered at the horizon. “I can’t answer your question. And neither can you.” He glanced aside. “Repentance brought you home, Ishtar. Let hope keep you here, for your sake and the sake of your other son.”

Straightening, Ishtar nodded. “You are honest and true, my friend. I’ll be a man again, but—”

Tobia turned to leave. “God did not abandon Matalah. He will not abandon you.” With a nod, Tobia paced away. Rising, Ishtar gripped the figure in his hand and let the sun pour over him as fresh tears fell.

“The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it…” ~Nicholas Sparks,

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nineteen

—Mountain and Desert—

Bury the Dead

Tobia glanced over his shoulder and shuddered.

As if tied to an invisible thread, Vitus traipsed blindly behind Tobia’s footsteps. It appeared as if he had no other purpose in life than to keep in step with his companion.

Tightening his jaw, Tobia changed direction suddenly, but Vitus, apparently seeing through his unseeing eyes, stuck close, like a chick to its mother. “Seven days of this. I’ll soon go mad.” Tobia stopped and shaded his eyes, surveying the mountainous landscape. He licked his parched lips. A sound turned his gaze.

Trickling water gurgled over the never-ending buzz of insects.

Tobia sighed and closed his eyes a moment in relief. “Thank God.” He rushed forward, scurried around a boulder, and encountered a tiny waterfall and a thin green patch growing from the mountainside. After slapping water into his parched mouth, he unslung his water bag from his shoulder and laid it on its side. Still licking his lips, he watched fresh clean water flow into it. Then he fell back against the white cliffside and drank a long slurping draught to his heart’s content.

After wiping his mouth, he peered up.

There stood Vitus, heaving deep breaths, stoop-shouldered, his clothes stained with sweat. His lips cracked.

“Oh, God, yes.” Tobia led Vitus to a shady spot and pulled the water bag from the man’s shoulder. After filling it, he put it to Vitus’ lips, praying that he’d drink willingly. Some days, Vitus let the water pour down his chin like a naughty child.

With his trembling hands limp at his side, Vitus tipped back his head.

Tobia directed the water into his mouth.

Vitus slurped and drank readily, an occasional grunted moan escaping his lips.

Tobia eyed the man. “That enough?”

Vitus didn’t answer. He never answered. He just stood and stared vacantly ahead.

With a quick shake, Tobia lifted the waterskin again and held it against Vitus’ mouth, but this time Vitus didn’t respond. The water merely dribbled down his chin. In resignation, Tobia slung the water skin bag over Vitus’ head and laboriously gathered his own bags. He didn’t have much left. Just a few trade items and what scraps of goat meat he had saved from their last meal.

Trudging along an animal track, they wound northward. When they finally reached the other side of the mountain, Tobia felt relieved, as if he had actually accomplished something. “There’s surely a clan around here somewhere…”

But there never was. Another bend, another vista, another trail to follow. But no sign of another clan.

Struggling forward, they passed between the mountains and wandered downward into a drier, desolate land where fine sand shifted underfoot.

Tobia stopped and wiped his brow. “The blind leading the blind.”

The land stretched before him as a vast panorama of open space. The intense blue sky spread wider than he had ever imagined possible.

In exhaustion, they stopped in the shadow of a high slope and ate the last of their food. They soon gulped the last of their water. Tobia’s heart clenched. He searched but found no stream or watercourse in sight.

With no other options, Tobia rose and started forward, always toward the falling sun.

Soon, his tongue felt thick and his lips bled. He glanced aside at Vitus. The man drooped like a wilted flower, his eyes as vacant as ever. “At least, he’s not complaining.” But a headache pounded in the back of Tobia’s head, and he groaned.

A dark speck in the distance caught his attention. Bracing his hand on his forehead as a shield against the light, he squinted. He knew it was useless, but he felt the need to speak out loud as if it might light the spark that would ignite Vitus’ intelligence. “What’s that?”

Forms wavered ahead.

Tobia forced himself to stand, though his legs begged to crumple. Dread warred with excitement, raising nausea from his middle. He glanced at Vitus. “How am I going to explain you?”

The shapes of men on plodding camels grew larger and more distinct, heading slightly to the north of his statuesque-like position, but suddenly they altered course and headed directly toward him.

Sweat trickled down Vitus’ flushed face, his back bent low, and his hands hung limp at his sides.

Draped from head to foot with a thin white material, the figures appeared to be heading someplace but not anxious to get there.

Tobia stepped closer to Vitus.

A tall, thin man with a dark complexion and black hair halted before them. “Hail, stranger. My master would like to know what brings you out in the heat of the day without beast to carry you or friends to protect you.”

Tobia cleared his parched throat, but his voice sounded raspy even to his ears. “We’re lost. My guide here” —he pointed to Vitus— “has been injured, and I am not fit to lead anyone—even myself.” He tried to smile but failed.

The men, looming so high above him, exchanged amused glances. The old man beckoned another to his side. This companion, his lower face covered in a cloth, appeared younger and more robust, though from his narrowed-eyed expression, Tobia sensed the wariness of an experienced warrior.

Tobia offered a respectful bow and nearly tumbled over with the effort.

The shrouded figure spoke in a husky voice that tingled in Tobia’s ears. “You’re not the first to get lost in these lands. But don’t despair; it’s possible to survive and even grow stronger through the journey.” He waved with a light flit of his hand to the north. “We’re meeting the sons of my patriarch here, but it may not be a happy reunion, or we’d take you with us.”

Desperation rose to a shriek in Tobia’s mind.

The man leaned forward. “Perhaps we could direct you home again. Where do you live?”

Griping Vitus’ arm, Tobia struggled to stay on his feet. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. Please, we’re exhausted and near death. Take us as slaves if need be, but don’t abandon us here.”

The old man nudged his mount forward. “We’ll assist you then, for it would be offensive to God to do any less.” He commanded his men to assist Tobia and Vitus to mount.

Like a weak child, Tobia straddled the camel behind the shrouded figure, and Vitus was set behind the old man.

As they started forward, the old man turned to Tobia. “Your name?”

“I am called Tobia, son of Obed of the Grassland, though we are now in alliance with the clan of Barak.”

The shrouded figure turned suddenly, his eyes widening.

Tobia frowned, and his pounding head swam in the heat. He closed his eyes and prayed for mercy.

~~~

Tobia awoke to a delicious coolness caressing his aching body. He propped himself on one elbow and glanced around. In the darkness, the light of a full moon slanting into the tent aided his sight. Sleeping forms lay near. He leaned closer and recognized Vitus’ emaciated frame and his familiar snoring broken by short bursts of blowing air.

After throwing off the light blanket, Tobia rose and started toward the open flap. He stretched and licked his dry lips. Rubbing his arms, he emerged from the tent into the chilly night air.

A silent figure stood alone, peering into the starry sky.

Stepping quietly, he made no discernible noise, yet the still form shifted as he drew closer. They stood together for a moment in silence. The stars, clustered in milky splashes, spread wide across the sky.

Without turning, the figure spoke. “I was hoping you’d awake before the others. The sun will rise soon, and then we must accomplish our journey.”

“You wish to speak to me?”

“I do, very much, though I doubt you’ll feel the same.”

Tobia swallowed a sudden fear.

The figure turned and faced Tobia. “Don’t you know me?”

Tobia stood his ground though his legs trembled. “Your voice sounds familiar, but so much has happened in these past months—I might not recognize my own family.”

The figure unwrapped the cloth that hid his face. Ishtar opened his hands, palms out, as if in surrender.

A jolt surged through Tobia’s body. “I thought you were dead.” He choked. “I didn’t mean—” He clenched his hands. “But no one could survive—”

Ishtar placed a gentle hand on Tobia’s shoulder and steadied him. “I did die. At least the man you knew died.” He let his hand drop to his side. “I am not the man I was.” His gaze returned to the horizon, now turning rosy with the hint of day.

Following Ishtar’s example and facing the new day, Tobia shuddered. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I couldn’t manage—” He glanced back to the tent where Vitus lay sleeping. “Another problem.”

“I didn’t say your problems are over. By coming with us, you join a doomed expedition—a father facing death by his sons’ treachery.” A bitter chuckle rose in Ishtar’s throat. “Fate never ceases to amaze me.”

Tobia’s eyes widened. “I once believed that growing up meant I would have more say over my life, but I was wrong.” He pointed to the tent. “But what about Vitus?” Stepping closer, he gripped Ishtar’s sleeve. “He can neither run nor fight. He’s as helpless as a child. Is there no safe place for him?”

Ishtar glanced aside. “I’ve prayed for an escape, but I’ve found no other path than the one we’re on.”

The murmuring of men’s voices turned their attention. Matalah’s men pointed to the horizon.

Tobia and Ishtar stared as a cavalcade of hazy silhouettes rose into view.

Ishtar licked his lips, and Tobia held his breath. “Who?”

Suddenly, from the right and left, armed warriors sped into view, surrounding the approaching group, thrusting their spears and swinging clubs.

Matalah’s men shouted and chattered, pointing at the battle playing out before their eyes in the distance.

Tobia frowned. “Are those men being attacked?” He swallowed hard and peered at Ishtar. “Are we being attacked?”

Folding his arms, his legs spread and braced, Ishtar watched the scene. A slow smile crept across his face.

Shouts rang through the air.

Matalah sprang from his tent and gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Must they rush the hour? Is there not time enough for our destruction?”

His voice low and controlled, Ishtar glanced at his patriarch. “They are the ones being destroyed.”

Matalah leaned forward, squinting into the rays of the rising sun, his lips compressed and his jaw ridged.

Suddenly, the lead rider turned and faced his pursuers. The pursuers encircled their quarry. A quick spear thrust missed its target. More spears loosed as camels were driven into the fray. Warriors swung clubs with abandon, many finding their mark and sending men tumbling from their mounts.

Tobia, Ishtar, Matalah, and his faithful men watched in heart-stopping silence.

Men and beasts lay sprawled on the desert floor. Only the loudest shouts and clinks of battle could be heard as the shapes rose and fell.

Matalah’s face drained of all color. “My sons! Are they among them? I must know!” He staggered toward his camel.

Ishtar gripped his arm, holding him back. “This morning your sons wanted to destroy you, but now you to rush to their rescue?”

Matalah tried to shake free. “They are flesh of my flesh. I cannot stand by and watch them be murdered.”

Ishtar glanced from Tobia to Matalah. “I’ll go. Stay with the boy.” Without waiting for further argument, Ishtar swung on his mount and trotted into the distance.

The battle appeared to end as quickly as it had begun. Ishtar approached slowly. A thick man from the second group advanced and a discussion ensued.

After a few moments, Ishtar broke away and turned back, though now the thick warrior followed close beside him.

Tobia rubbed his dry lips. “What does it mean?”

The old man stared in mute misery.

Ishtar drew near with his companion close behind.

The tall, heavyset man wearing a blood-smeared cloak stopped before the small group. As he descended from his camel, he nearly slipped but jerked himself upright. He strode straight to Matalah and bowed his head in respect.

His whole body trembling, Matalah returned the bow.

“My friend, it is my sad duty to report the death of your eldest son at my hands. I did not wish it but was forced to such action. If I did not act, your sons planned to kill me and my family.” He took Matalah’s hand in his own, pressing it firmly. “I do not hold his crimes at your door. I feel only your shame and loss.”

Matalah’s head dropped to his chest, tears trickling down his burnished cheeks. “I’m glad it was you who administered justice, for you would be neither weak in the face of a necessary duty nor excessive in revenge.”

Tobia stepped into the background.

Ishtar reached out and gripped his shoulder, holding him steady. He looked to the warrior. “Where are the others?”

“They, too, were set upon by neighboring clans.” He shook his head in shared sorrow and glanced at the old man. “I do not believe you have many sons yet alive, Matalah. I am truly sorry for your loss.”

Matalah choked out his words. “They met their chosen end.”

~~~

Ishtar stood aside as the body of Matalah’s eldest son was brought and laid before them.

As the young man stained his garments with his own blood and his head lay twisted at an unnatural angle, so Matalah seemed to bleed tears while his body contorted in agony. “Take me from this earth! I no longer wish to inhabit the land of the living. I have failed, and my sons will not join us in the place of rejoicing.”

Ishtar nudged Tobia forward. “Come, we’ll do this together and bury those past healing.”

~~~

Tobia swept his sweaty hair out of his eyes and leaned on his shovel.

Ishtar set a marking stone in place before the grave mound and stepped back. His long black hair clung to his cheeks and neck as drops of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

“What next?”

Ishtar glanced at the high sun. “We’ll take Matalah home.” He shrugged. “His wife and surviving children await his return.”

“If I knew nothing of you, I’d think you a marvel among men for what you’ve done for your friend. Because I know what you’ve been through, I’m even more amazed.”

Ishtar turned and stared at the flames of a fire that still burned in the remains of their camp.

Tobia followed his gaze and grew uneasy as Ishtar walked to the fire pit, seemingly entranced by the colorful flames. With his foot, he scattered the coals. “Don’t be impressed with me, for I’ve given back but a tiny portion of the kindness Matalah has shown me.”

Tobia peered back at Vitus, who stood aside staring vacantly into space as Matalah’s men readied for the return journey. “We buried the dead. But what will I do with the living?”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
~Mother Jones

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Love Anyway

I’ve never been particularly good with suffering. Avoidance? Insecurity? Hyper-control? Sure. Then my all-star qualities shine bright. But being insecure, hyper-controlling, and trying to avoid pain doesn’t a happy life make.

When I was twenty-one, I had the chance to meet my father after long years of separation at—of all places—the Art Institute of Chicago. I was meeting his second wife for the first time. And to make matters even more relaxed, I didn’t know a thing about modern art. But I did discover a latent sense of humor, which apparently shot to the surface like a geyser when under serious pressure.

I amused my dad, his wife, and even myself. Seeing absurdities in the uncomfortable world before me kept my eyes averted from haunting ghosts and garrulous gremlins. Our conversation never veered toward my mom, my brothers or sisters, loss of childhood, alcoholism, substance abuse, or neglect. The conversation stayed right where it needed to be, focused on pictures hanging on walls, which none of us understood.

Contrary to every psychological theory I knew at the time, communication was not the key to our relationship. After that initial reunion, I visited my dad regularly. He attended my wedding, got to know my growing family, and became a steady fixture in my life. Even at the age of ninety, we still connect at least once a week. He may not remember my name some days, but he always remembers that he loves me. And that I love him.

Over the years, we did have a couple of hard conversations about our family and the things that went so very wrong in our lives, but they were not all that productive. His simple admission, “I’m sorry,” was all I ever really needed to hear. And my, “I love you anyway,” was all he really needed to know.

In recent years, I have lost a husband, a brother, several friends, (I have a visitation to attend this weekend), my sense of worth, and even my heart, but in experiencing these losses, I have discovered that there is no fixing pain. There is only, “I’m sorry.” And “I love you anyway.”

Being truly sorry when someone is suffering shares the burden. It is one of the greatest acts of generosity that a human being can undertake.

Loving anyway explodes the walls of control, doubt, fear, hurt, avoidance, and insecurity. Love is not doormat material. Love demands decency, honesty, integrity, and heroism. But it doesn’t demand those qualities all at once in perfect order.

After a particularly brutal loss recently, my imagination conjured up the image of a wounded woman rising after tumbling down a hill. Not unlike Sam at the base of Mount Doom. How’s that for an “I’m sorry, and I love you anyway” scenario? But Sam rose again. Even when it was hopeless to do so. Even when pain had the upper hand. Even at the end of Middle-earth, he rose and loved anyway. And he wasn’t alone.

Pain and loss are twin hells that human beings experience in umpteen versions throughout the course of our journey toward heaven. We can’t fix reality, stop the hurt, make everything right, control outcomes, or even avoid tumbling down hills. Personally, I can crack a joke and laugh at absurdities to keep the ghosts and gremlins at bay, and that helps. Some.

But mostly, I can be sorry and love anyway.

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The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

One Aisle at a Time

Wilson stared at the blinking cursor and couldn’t think of a thing to write. His brain seemed frozen, unable to articulate one creative thought. All he could do was lean back on his swivel chair and let his gaze wander around the room. A midsized wooden bookshelf with five extra books arranged awkwardly on top. Lamp, coffee mug, printer, window, landscape painting hanging slightly crooked, dusty calculator, a crumpled stack of receipts, notepad, frogman…the one Sami had given him on Father’s Day—

Oh, God!

Searing pain clutched his innards. He closed his eyes and turned away. “This will kill me. A month after the funeral, and I’m still a mess.” He heaved himself out of his chair and paced across the room. He stopped at the doorway. Where could he go? To the kitchen? What for? He had no appetite. The thought of food made him nauseous. To the living room? Why? The couch was empty. No stuffed animals. No half-completed pictures. No 4th-grade math book shoved under the pillow.

His phone buzzed. Clenching his jaw, he returned to his desk and snatched up the phone. “Yeah!” He knew he sounded like an angry bull, but hell, he couldn’t help it. He was angry. Disgustingly, furiously, blindingly angry.

“Wil?” Camilla, his wife. She sounded strong. Too strong. Damn. She had no right to be strong. He swallowed and sucked in his cheeks as if chewing his own flesh might help him maintain a modicum of composure.

“Yeah, honey, what’s up?” His shoulders sagged as weariness enveloped him.

“I’m at the grocery store, and I forgot the list…could you get it for me and read it off as I go along?”

Before he could give his brain any formal directions, Wilson found his feet padding into the kitchen. Yep, sure enough, there was the list, written in his wife’s beautiful but tiny cursive. He’d be lucky if he could read it. “Got it.” He squeezed the phone between his chin and his shoulder and held the list out with both hands, far enough to read but not as steady as he would’ve liked.

Her voice calm and parental enunciated her next request. “Great. I made it past the chips and cracker aisle and now I’m stuck between peanut butter and cereal.”

Wilson frowned and leaned against the counter. “Yeah? It says peanut butter and cereal on here…” He shook his head. “Look, you’ve done this every week for years; you’ve got to have the entire store mapped in your head. Dang it, woman, you could do this in your sleep.”

Silence.

Wilson’s heart began to pound. “Honey?”

It was the softest sniffle in the world, but it nearly crushed Wilson’s will to live.

Camilla’s voice wavered through the air, into the phone, and pierced Wilson’s broken heart. “I just don’t know which peanut butter or what cereal…”

Flummoxed, Wilson felt a scream rise from his chest. “The ones you always get.”

A ragged breath brushed his ear and sent prickles of terror racing down his spine. “But we always got crunchy…because that’s what Sami—”

“Oh, God!” The phone clattered to the floor.

Waves smashed against his composure, heaving rocks at his innards. Black water smothered his airways. Vaguely in the distance, he could hear his wife’s plaintive voice calling from the floor.

“Wil? Please, I need to know. What kind of peanut butter? What cereal do I get—?”

Every ounce of his body wanted to grind the phone into smithereens with his heel, but his hands chose differently. He dropped down on a kitchen chair and pressed the phone to his ear. Camilla was crying. There were no sobs or wails. But he knew. She was probably just standing there in the middle of the aisle gripping the cart with one hand while tears poured down her face.

He leaned on one hand and waited. Muffled conversation rose over the distance. Camilla was talking to someone. Another woman…soothing words, a gentle tone… He pressed the phone harder. “Who the—?”

A voice rose. “Lost my son five years ago…hell on earth. Couldn’t pass his bedroom without breaking down and forget going out in public. Took me a whole year before I could go shopping by myself. Terrible. Yes, it is. God have mercy on parents who lose a child. Doesn’t matter how it happens…or how old. Just hell.”

Silence.

Tears streamed down Wilson’s face and meandered over the phone before they fell like miniature pools on the smooth kitchen tabletop. Then, like a tidal wave on the rise, his shoulders heaved and his whole body rocked with searing, overwhelming pain. God, the pain.

After a few moments, still clutching the phone, he heard Camilla sniff. And then a sigh. An embarrassed—giggle? “Cam, what’s going on?” Wilson sat up.

A distant conversation. “Yeah, I’m okay now. Thanks.” Camilla blew her nose. Loudly.

Wilson’s eyes widened. He wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“Wil?”

Teardrops smeared the phone. Wilson snatched a paper napkin, wiped it down, fumbled, and then smashed it against his ear again. “Yeah. You okay, honey?”

“No. But I’m…better.”

He could imagine her shyly ducking her head, winding a strand of hair behind her ear.

“A lady here…she understood…gave me a hug. It’s what I needed.”

Wilson nodded as his tears flowed again. He choked out his words. “So what’re you going to do?”

Camilla cleared her throat and undoubtedly squared her shoulders. “She suggested I try the smooth peanut butter and pick out a new cereal, one we never had before. So I grabbed a banana-strawberry granola mix.” Her voice dropped low, like a child begging for understanding. “Will that be okay?”

Wilson sniffed and grabbed another napkin. He wiped his nose. “Sure, honey. That’s perfect.” He swallowed back the ache in his throat and sat up. He fumbled for the list. “You want to do the rest of the shopping now or come home?”

Camilla’s voice steadied. “I’ll keep going…as long as you stay with me.”

“Course, honey. We’ll just take it one aisle at a time…”

~~~

A half hour later, Wilson returned to his desk. The curser was still blinking. He lifted his hand over the keys and tapped out five words.

One Aisle at a Time…

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

I May Never Know Why

I knew Elaine all my life. Like the sister I never had. Yet I could not make it to her funeral. I couldn’t. Perhaps I simply wouldn’t. She had died long ago…

Growing up on the east side, we knew we had it made. Life was good. Part-time jobs were easy to come by, school was never a serious challenge, and there was always tennis, soccer, or long walks by the lake.

I first started to notice a change when we were playing a game of tennis. She was always competitive, but this time a missed shot didn’t just spark irritation, it sparked rage. A repair guy on the roof nearby chuckled when she threw her racket. He sounded like the voice of God coming from a blue sky, “Shouldn’t lose your temper like that, girl.” Elaine looked like she’d heard a ghost, and I pretended not to know what she was talking about when she asked if I heard the voice. I just laughed.

But she didn’t. She looked scared.

Throwing a racket was a little out of her normal emotional range, but fear, real fear took her to a new universe.

I ignored the symptoms. I didn’t think they were symptoms. I thought she was just being silly.

Before I knew what was happening she was off to France to study for a semester. No big deal. I had plenty of studying at home to do. College and work-study kept me out of trouble. Well, for the most part.

But when she came home…something had changed. Her confidence had been shaken. It reminded me of another trip she’d taken the year before on some island or another. She had tried to explain about the people, their lifestyles…how different everything was… But I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t want to. Sounded pagan and vaguely selfish. Not a world I wanted to explore.

By the time she entered graduate school, she seemed bent on exploring extremes. If someone was having a wild time, she wanted to in on it. No matter what that entailed. The wilder the better.

I plodded through my courses and kept an eye on her. But I could not follow where she was going.

One day we walked along the lakeshore, and she explained ever so seriously that she was seeking help for depression. I shook my head. She had not the slightest reason to be depressed. She had a good family, an excellent education, she had traveled far and wide, and she had a wonderful future…if only she would see it.

But she couldn’t see it. She couldn’t feel it. A friend of hers had committed suicide the month before and it weighed on her mind. She was afraid it would spread like cancer. She’d be next.

I told her to shut up and quit thinking like that.

Elaine pleaded with me, stomping along like a little girl. “I need help. I’m sick…on the inside. Medication might help.”

I remember feeling so old. Worldly wise in my vast years of watching family members destroy themselves with drug and alcohol cure-alls. I grabbed her arm and glared into her eyes. “Medication can’t help you. Tough this out. Once you’re on that stuff…you’ll never get off it.”

She pulled away, dragging her fingers through her short hair the way she always did. “You can’t understand. I’m mentally ill. I’m crazy.”

I laughed. “By the very fact that you know you’re crazy, means that you’re not really crazy. In pain. Yes. Upset. Of course. But you can work this out…give yourself time. Not drugs.”

I might as well have been talking to the trees.

Before I knew what was happening, she was on an anti-depressant regime that would have knocked a rhino off its feet. It seemed to work. She finished graduate school without major problems…except for that map-laminating incident.

Then she went to look for work and torpedoed nearly every offer she got.

I took a job in another city and shut my eyes to her issues, hoping they’d just go away. Hoping she’d grow strong again.

She called me one day from a state out west. She was visiting family and thought she had accidentally taken her medication twice…enough to kill her. I told her to go see a doctor. She hung up.

By the time she called again, I was married, had three kids, and she was engaged. We agreed to meet up in our old hometown first chance we got. When we did run into each other months later, she looked very much like the girl who threw her racket across the court. But she smiled when she hugged my kids.

I sighed in relief. Time can heal even the most wounded souls. Even souls that should not be wounded at all. Even souls that appear to wound themselves.

Or so I thought.

The next call I got was from her brother. She had been killed crossing a street. She had stepped in front of a truck.

He wanted to know if I would fly out for the funeral. I was nursing my infant and it was the middle of winter…I had a lot of reasons not to go.

But I doubt I would’ve have gone even if her casket was next door and springtime flowers fluttered in the breeze.

Little by little Elaine had died. Not from childhood trauma, or teen rebellion, or even cultural clashes. Somewhere along the line her sanity, her identity, and her will to live a healthy life had eroded until there was only a thread left. And one day that thread snapped.

I may never know why.

A lot of years have passed…and I’ve never stopped praying for her. For the truth of it is, I now realize, she never really died.

Elaine will always live in spirit…and in me.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00