Meribah*

lightning-3

 

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300-year-old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time.  Other time-worn sojourners are here too:  gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak.  Even the carpet of huckleberry where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old.  Much older than I am.  Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf has been struck by lightning.  I see the long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from the topmost branch down to the ground. The wound is old, but a wound none-the-less, a visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant.  The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A ground-fire blazed up from the lightning strike.  A momentary conflagration in the great cycle of nature’s binge and purge.  Brief, yes, but intense.  The smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon were scorched before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames.  Such is the nature of summer storms.  Not always the tallest and strongest take the hit and suffer.  Sometimes innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket.  It is a talisman of a sort, a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon.  We are not protected from jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the quiet stillness of heavy air.  Such acts are not random, though they may appear so.  They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time.  No other way that they could be.  Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day.  No other place this trail could be.  No other time that it could be walked by me in this way in or this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line.  It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me.  I imagine from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough.  The soil is eroded and thin.  Nothing grows here for lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite.  This is where the timber-rattler comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again.  Another trail, faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope.  A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent.  Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know.  Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now.  I will go down the steep side-slope to the broad level land in the hollow below.  A creek flows there, although I cannot see it or hear its music yet.

A little spot near that creek is my destination.

 

*Author’s note:  Occasionally I like to write short fiction.  I wrote this short story in 2013, so I expect that not many of you have read it.  It is rather long for a blog format, so I will be publishing it here as it was originally presented, as a “serial.”  This is good and bad.  Good in that you will probably read it if I keep the word-count down so as to keep your attention.  Bad if you somehow read the next installment without understanding that something came before it.

Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.

Toughness

summer heat

I spent some time today in the seat of my John Deere, mowing pasture that has been mowed twice and will likely be mowed again before the end of August.  It is hot, dusty work, but I like seat-time because it is think time.  Not worrisome thoughts, just mental meandering through the uncut meadows of my mind.

Today I did some thinking about the heat.  Specifically summer in Alabama.  Not for the faint of heart.

The weather apps I have on my phone and the television weather people advise that it will be 92 degrees at two o’clock but it will actually feel like 105 degrees.

Well thanks for that.  Blesses my heart to know that I should be feeling hotter than I already do.

My thoughts turned to the last few weeks.  I spent my days teaching some young folk a little about forestry and logging.  They are “millennial” or “Gen Xers” or “Gen whatevers.”  I can’t keep up with all the classifications.  I could Google it, but it doesn’t interest me enough to bother with a few key-strokes to even do that.

I thought they were a bit whiny.  Actually, a lot whiny.

“It’s too hot out here.”

“You walk too fast.”

“Can we stop at the store?”

I rather liked that.  I am tough.  They are weak.  Can’t keep pace with the old man.

My generation’s view of the next.  Spoiled.  Can’t take it.  The “I got a trophy for showing  up” generation.  Comes out quickly in the Alabama sun.

The tractor and my mind turn down a new trail.  It’s old ground, but sometimes my thoughts need to cover old ground to be put right.

My daddy worked outside most of his life.  The cars and pick-up trucks he drove never had air conditioning.  So far as I know, he bought the first air conditioner he owned when I was about five, a “window unit” that we ran until bedtime.  Electricity cost money, and we didn’t have an abundance of that.

His daddy was a carpenter who worked outside all of his life.  Had a house with high ceilings and a floor fan with blades roughly the size of a Cessna propeller.

His daddy had no electricity because it hadn’t made it to the country.  High ceilings, shade trees and rain the only respite.

His daddy had nothing.  I have a list of his net worth when he applied for his Confederate pension at age 69.  It included 40 acres, one log cabin, four hogs, a clock, household furniture, and a few farming tools.  Total value $130.  Maybe some shade in the yard.  Hopefully a cool water creek on that 40 or at least not too far away.

Toughness is relative, by summertime heat or any other gauge by which we use to measure.

Supposed to be hot again tomorrow, but I don’t feel so tough tonight.

Skinny Girls and High Culture

ballerina

A forester and high culture are two things that don’t seem to jibe.

I imagine when I say I am a forester you assume my culture would be NASCAR, country music, and killin’ animals for sport.  That might be true in some cases.

Not this forester.  I aspire to explore higher levels of culture.

I thought I would give the opera a try.  I heard this Pavarotti fellow had a set of fine tenor pipes, so I thought I would give him a listen.  I downloaded “The Best of Pavarotti,” not knowing that this collection would total about 90 songs.  After three or four, I decided that the opera was not for me.  The man can sing, no doubt, but what is he singing about?  Does he know English?

Do you know how long it takes to delete 90 songs?  I do.

Then I tried ballet.  Now to be completely truthful (which I rarely am in my writing — that’s the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”), I attended a ballet at the request of a cousin, who I love very much.  She has a preteen daughter who is an aspiring ballerina.  I love her too.

My first ballet was “Zelda,” which was loosely based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Very loosely.  I know a good bit about Zelda Fitzgerald.  I’ve read most of her husband’s novels, and she was from Montgomery, Alabama where I work every day.

I was puzzled.  I found it very hard to relate what I saw to what I knew.

The next performance was “The Nutcracker.”  It had something to do with Christmas.

This past Sunday I attended “Frida!”  This one was about a Mexican communist with a unibrow.  I had to “Google” it to learn that much.

It took three puzzling performances to figure it out.  This kind of ballet is not about story.  It’s about teaching young girls the technique necessary to become ballerinas.

I can relate to that.  I have taught quite a few boys how to swing a baseball bat.  Perhaps one day I’ll teach one who will develop a swing as sweet as Ken Griffey Jr.  It’s a one in a million shot, but it’s worth the effort.

A girl has to start somewhere, and even if you don’t ever make Swan Lake, at the very least it should be worth something to know you had someone who loved you enough to drive a couple of hours to see you try.

I rather like the ballet.

 

Psalms

psalms tree

My sacred ground is a little clearing in the bottomland along a creek with no name.  I come here almost every day.  Sometimes I linger a bit.  Others I simply turn back toward a home on the hill.

The tree I call “Psalms.”  A water oak that has clung to the bank of No-Name for at least a hundred years.  Just a sapling when this bottomland was all corn.  Feed for the horses and mules.  A few barrels of meal and some roasting ears.  Maybe some traded to a family of famous bootleggers who still live over the ridge, the last now too old to do anything but piddle around the yard, tending fruit trees and flower beds.

Psalms will lose the battle with gravity one day when a hundred-year flood undercuts the bank.  I hope that I am not alive to see it.

Because this is sacred ground.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Two graves here, each covered with field stone.  One for a companion, a dog that I loved more than most people.  The second a sweet little lady who never was anything but.  I had her put down sixth-months ago, before the suffering of ruined hips became more than she or I could bear.

I have cried four times that I can recall in the last 40 years.  The first when I lost my dad.  The second when I found that some certainties are not.  The third and fourth over these two small graves.  Biblical crying.  Great sobs and blubbering.  Sorrowful moans worthy of sackcloth and ashes.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

He brought her here six years ago, because he is like me and this spot is sacred to him too.  Got down on a knee and asked her to be his wife.  A happy day, the kind that sticks with you forever.  Love that clings tenaciously to the bank of the river of your heart.

I came here today, as I am accustomed to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Two little ones riding along behind me in a pull-cart.  They look at trees and butterflies.  Ask a lot of questions.  Throw rocks and sticks into the creek.  My stony heart smiles.

It is written that an ancient Hebrew put up a stone on his sacred ground, a place where he met with God.

I have no stone, but I have Psalms.

Weeds

butterfly

The softness of twilight covers a multitude of sin.

A sunset ride through the open fields and along the woods trails.  Early spring growth hiding the depredations of winter.  A downed tree here.  Broken branches there.  Saplings leaned over.  Grass already knee-high, dappled with scatterlings of milkweed and thistle and flowers I cannot name.

My mount does not balk, but I must stop often to clear the path.  Unlike her namesake, she is reckless and her footing unsure.  Her name is Kawasaki.

These paths were clear last fall.  The grass was short.  My heart sighs.

Mother despises what we call neatness.  She will not tolerate it.  Tenderness is not in her vocabulary.

Establish.  Nurture.  Destroy with violence.

The Redhead despises what we call chaos.  She will tolerate, but not quietly.

Maintain neatness with equal violence.  Bush hog and drip-torch.

I will clear trails, fully aware that I will do so again and again and again, ’til death do us part.  Whether she or Mother, it matters not.

I will mow the fields even though I know what hides the rattlesnake also feeds the butterfly.

Because a thousand disappointed butterflies are better than one disappointed Redhead.

The Exchange

The Exchange

I wonder how such a thing can be so common, right out in broad daylight.

See it for yourself on any Sunday afternoon.  Get off Interstate 85 at exit 64.  Park around to the side of Joe’s.  Stay in your vehicle.  Pretend to read the newspaper or talk on your cell phone.  Be nonchalant.  This is, after all, none of your business.

A car rolls up on the far side of the lot.  No one gets out, so it is obvious they are waiting.  Shift a little in your seat and get ready.  Know the deal is about to go down.

After a few minutes the second vehicle arrives and parks near the first.

Both drivers get out.  One male, one female.  I should warn you.  Sometimes pleasantries are exchanged.  Other times, all business.  Not so much as a nod.

A back door opens and a child gets out.  A little girl with a small backpack adorned with a Disney princess.  Flinch a little as you recognize the twisted irony of that. Happily ever after.

Watch her walk around and get in the other car.  Recognize this for what it is — a contract broken.  A deal that has gone very, very wrong.

Two people who once stood together and said “I do” now say “I don’t.”  A child who never asked to be born is now human currency, passed back-and-forth every weekend like a one dollar bill.

You just witnessed the exchange.  How do you feel?

Me?  I feel no judgment for the decision these two made, only sorrow.  I don’t know the circumstances.  The Redhead and I could have easily been the parties in this transaction many times, and not so many years ago.

Yet I feel somehow complicit in what you saw.  My generation started this wreckage at this level.  I can count on one hand the number of my childhood friends whose parents were divorced.

Why?  I have no answers or excuses.  We children of the ’60’s.  We started a cycle of sadness that will not be easily reversed.

Two lives joined “in the sight of God and all these witnesses” is no fairy tale of continuous happiness.  “To love, honor and cherish, forsaking all others as long as you both shall live” is not a Sunday in the park.

Sometimes it results in Sunday in the parking lot.

The princess?  May she live happily ever after.