The Van

The twelve of us shivered in an awkward, don’t-touch-me sort of penguin huddle in a parking lot, waiting to load our luggage into the vehicles. We were about to get underway on a week-long choir tour of the Northwest, and I was no longer sure that it was going to be the exciting adventure I had told myself it would be. I was also the official driver of the large white fifteen-passenger van that functioned as our luggage transport and carried six people, including myself. I had never driven one before. It felt like a Great Dane cavorting through Grandmother’s crystal when we passed through the midst of gleaming, new swathes of vehicles on the interstate. The least mis-step threatened collision, stopping took much longer than was reasonable, and the problem child that was our gas pedal only responded to abusively heavy treatment.

The wind was picking up and the sky was spitting menacingly when we scraped our piles of assorted suitcases, bags, backpacks, dufflebags, instrument cases and equipment together, loaded it in like a Tetris puzzle and then began to sort out who wanted to ride in the mini-van and who wanted to ride the dangerous looking behemoth. As people wavered, and looked longingly at the new air-conditioned, sparkling, sporty minivan, I turned to my charge and was underwhelmed. No cushy individualized seating here, just one-size-seats-all benches. No slick passing and slipping between traffic, but slow waits and oh-come-on muttering. I could see the gloomy looks settling into the faces of those around me who were considering the whole week-long trip they faced in this bottom-heavy monster. Then, out of the grey sky, a curious little mood lighted on my mind. This was going to be good. I wanted the challenge. I wanted to wrestle the behemoth and show him what I could do and make it respect me. I wanted, suddenly and oh so badly, for everyone to want to ride my bus. I could not promise comfort, but the muse was tickling, and one thing I knew I could promise: a good time. In an inspired moment, I circled my right hand high in the air like I was rounding up a squad of soldiers, and shouted “If you’re all ready, the Fun-vee is rolling out.” The muse pulled off the unlikeliest of shots, and there it was: that magical hint of a smile on one girl’s face, and then it was all over the place, like someone let loose a toddler with a marker. Everyone smiled, and in that moment, the trip was made. The individuals galvanized, grouped, and entered the van like a single unit. If I was going to be a bus driver, then I was going to be a lively one. I don’t know if the behemoth was fishing for me, or me for it: but either way, it was in for a ride.

The doors slammed as the grey sky broke and fell in on us, too late to soak us, huddled inside our van with a rear full of luggage, instruments, and expectations. It was snub-nosed, ugly as sin, and if it ever tried to twerk, we’d have needed the Richter scale to properly judge it, but beyond all reason and common sense, it was ours. I have never felt so possessive of anything in my life, except my wife: and I know that my occupants felt the same way. How did I know? Except for once, all week, not one of my passengers ever tried to switch out of the big van. In fact, we talked about the other vehicles in a tone of slight pity, as if they wished they could all be driving with us. It probably wasn’t true: really it wasn’t at all, but it was, for us. They weren’t members of the Fun-vee, which was clearly a prestigious and exclusive privilege, bestowed once, and discontinued thereafter. Whatever happened, we were a gang for a week, and Lord, but we had fun. There was a time I had to request a break from the fun because my mouth hurt from smiling too much, and my driving was clearly suffering when I laughed long and loud. Yes, that thing was a behemoth. But true to biblical prediction, we would never forget the attempt to ride him.

Advertisements

Remember

When Roland fought his victory
On the field of Roncevaux,
And Don John of Austria
Achieved his mighty blow,
And Martel’s iron hammer
Smote the Paynim horde,
The vanguards of a Christian Church,
They knew for what they warred.

But though the land and sea they swept
With chivalry’s dying breaths
The sky unblemished yet remained:
The air had not seen death.
But in Our Lord’s remembrance,
A thousand years had fled
Before the Paynim hosts would strike,
A second dragon’s head.

No knights, no Christendom saw they,
Only the West, corrupt.
They swore a bloody vow and bond
To meet where Mahound supped.
And in the sky at last they seized
The swords they lusted for,
To wield against the West’s strong towers;
The Paynims flew to war.

Strange thing! That in their flight,
Three of four would strike,
Flying but not fleeing,
Victory and death alike.
Three modern churches soared in flame:
Our country’s five-side shield,
Two monuments to commerce fell,
And then the fourth: a field.

For Roland’s spirit rose again
And held the common heart,
Again Don John of Austria
Would fight his valiant part.
For common men, uncommon souls
Their heritage reborn
Unarmed, unyielding, undismayed
They answered Roland’s horn.

And they the martyrs, for they took
That sword in their own breast.
They fought and died for others lives,
And joined in Roland’s geste.
The wailing of a stricken siren sounds
Flight 93 is mourned.
And yet we pause, in silent praise,
On this September morn.

Turtle Thief

The turtle in this science lab
Clunks uselessly in his plastic
Cooler, prison.
Sometimes I am that turtle
Gawping uselessly at those
Impermeable walls.
Legs are hopeless here,
But the turtle is not.
I wish him luck, because
Sometimes things happen.
Sometimes students re-pond
Furtively stolen turtles.
Sometimes grace falls on your stubby head
And beaked face and your stupid, stubborn shell.
I’m just saying,
There’s nothing impossible
About that.

Be free. Eat many fish. Flummox many predators.

Wet Walk

This is a short free verse poem in which I recycled another poet’s line, as an exercise. See if you can guess which one is the borrowed one!

On one of those rainy days, when the sun seemed so far away
Under the spatter and
drip
of the then,
You told me you did not want my umbrella.
You were perfectly content to let the
sky
Fall on your head,
And somehow the world seemed suddenly
To make sense that way.
So I put away the sound of the gibberish that the rain
Was typewriting on my umbrella,
And talked to you like a normal human being.
We were wet, us two walking in the afternoon grey,
While the umbrella’s steel tip clicked patiently along,
Metronoming with its tick
Our quiet concerto of talk, and laughter,
The grey and agreeable silence.
I still think you’re strange.

Fairy Tale Tangent

In reading Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” I had a thought. He says that if man ever reached the point where he was not interested in truth anymore, then he would also lose interest in fairy tales, since the delight in such stories comes from the knowledge that we are subcreating. The story goes that some people felt depressed or suicidal when they saw Avatar, because the beauty wasn’t real. Is this a symptom of good fantasy, or the side-effect of a postmodern abandonment of truth?
Good fairy tales allow you to enjoy the juxtaposition of our creation with God’s. Do bad ones make us hate the real world and long for the story? I think so. In that case, I would submit that the story has ceased to be a story and has become a lie. The beauty of fairy tales rests in God’s good world, not apart from it.

Coals

(This is a tribute to Dostoevky’s novel Crime and Punishment. For those who have not read the work, this man Raskolnikov is a murderer who has killed an old moneylender, and is suffering from guilt. He is being investigated by Porfiry, the astute and worringly intelligent police detective. Raskolnikov has a tendency to talk to himself, and frequently drifts off into philosophy. His whole goal was to transcend the laws of ordinary men by getting away with murder, and thus become extraordinary, but he has failed, for his conscience will give him no peace. We enter the story several nights after the murder.)

Raskolnikov was walking during the night. He was wearing a yellow coat, not the one from that night. This one he had borrowed from Razumikhin. The night was cold against his feverous forehead. He was talking to himself. The memory of the money which he had given away to that poor family for the funeral grated on him. Didn’t he have need for that money just as much as them? How would a truly extraordinary man do anything without the power, not even power, the basic necessity, of money? The cobblestone under his thin boots was cold and hard. He reflected on his own conscience. His heart was not like this cobblestone, was it? Or rather, was it not becoming like a cobblestone? He had murdered two women in cold blood, and that cold blood flowed through his heart this very moment. Could all the remorse in the world warm that cold-hearted moment again? “But what am I saying?” he exclaimed to himself. “What happened to my resolve? Am I truly planning on turning myself in? If anything could take away my cold heart it would be that. But that is the one thing I cannot do. No, I must stick to my resolve. But this misery…it is not to be borne. There must be an escape… a release for the man who thought himself extraordinary and broke himself over the laws of the ordinary man. For that is it! I am an ordinary man.” And he despised himself. But his thoughts fell around his mind like a cold twilight.

Suddenly Raskolnikov became aware that he was lost. Where had his thoughts led him so blindly? It was no part of the town that he frequented, but his stomach tightened and bile burned in his throat when he realized that he was only a short way from her house…what devil had drawn him so blindly towards the open grave of his guilt?…His guilt should have died with the old woman, but instead it rose again with blood on its head, and stalked behind him in the empty streets. He looked around himself and found that although it must have been past midnight at this point, there was a glow on the horizon. “Could it be the sun?” he asked in confusion. But that would be impossible: it must rather be some large fire that was giving off this light. The cold of the night and the shapelessness of his own musings pushed him towards the fire, like a moth to a candle flame that is sure to scorch it in the end. As he drew nearer, he could hear a hubbub rising over the rooftops and winding its way down the streets towards him. There were cries, and shouts of directions: plainly the fire had struck a house, and men were attempting to put it out. As he rounded a final corner, he saw that his deductions were correct. A large and rich-looking house was flaming like a star in the night. Its beams were blazing with a fierce flame, withering in the tumultuous destruction. The surrounding houses were in danger of catching fire, and men were dashing buckets of water over their walls, attempting to shield them from the destructive lashes of flame that burst out from the house frequently, as some wall or other collapsed inside. The wind was blowing the flames away from the rest of the house, so that it burned quite slowly. Continue reading

A Time for Growing

(This is a revised version of the previous story “Potato.”)

The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan wasn’t working on his eulogy. He was digging for potatoes in the garden.

The work-polished handle of the spade comforted his hands. The smell of damp and freshly turned soil comforted his nose. The steady, rhythmic “chink, chink” of the spade biting into the earth rubbed away the roughness of his thoughts. Everything always became clear if he worked in the garden long enough. It had to. He had been there since morning, and the late fall afternoon tree-shadows were starting to stretch their way across the lawn. For all his work, he had only a single crate-full of potatoes. They were brown potatoes, simple and rough. Like Brendan. Stab ground, foot down, turn over earth. It was an easy motion, and it was hard to keep his thoughts on it. He desperately wanted to avoid letting his thoughts think about anything else. Because if he thought about anything else, he would think about Lynn.

His sister’s daughter Lynn had been staying with him and Mary for two weeks. Her mother Janice had left after a few hurried greetings that bumped into the back of the goodbyes. She had stood on the doorstep, a pale, nervous-looking teenager, bangs down over her eyes. She was wearing a hoodie, hands curled up inside the sleeves as if she was cold. “We’re so glad you could come for a visit!” Mary exclaimed, wrapping her in a warm, full hug while Lynn just stood there. Later that night in the living room, he and Mary had talked about her.

“She’s so cold,” Mary said. “And quiet. And skinny too, for all that. At least we can feed her properly while she’s here.” She looked over at Brendan, waiting for him to speak. It usually took a few sentences of conversational priming before he would say anything. “I don’t know why Janice wanted her to visit so suddenly. How many letters have we had at Christmases over the years? Two? Three? Not even signed. Of course, I didn’t really expect her to write us after she married that welder and ran off to Seattle.” She glanced over at Brendan again, still rocking back and forth in his chair while the clicking of her knitting needles marked the seconds. Finally, he spoke. “Something’s not right. Janice wouldn’t just drop her off like that if everything was alright. It wouldn’t be right to pry into the girl’s life, though. Not when she’s all alone like this. She barely knows us. We’ll just leave her be. Not ignore her, just be there to talk if she wants to.” Mary nodded over the nearly complete baby blanket: it was the only thing to do. Keep on as normal and hope Lynn opened up.

She didn’t open up. She walked around the house the first day, looking for the TV, and went outside, stalking bars with her iPhone. Apart from a few sentences over meals, she was silent. She spent most of her time away from Mary and Brendan, either hunched over her phone in a chair, or staring listlessly out the window at the golden grain-rich hills. Brendan was worried. Most children her age would have been more friendly, even if only from loneliness. At church on Sunday, her lips barely moved over the words of the hymns, as she glanced around to make sure no one was looking at her. She was confused over the communion, and Brendan had to show her what to do: apparently her church at home had given up the practice.

The thoughts came closer. Yesterday. He was at the kitchen window, peeling carrots into a stainless-steel sink. She was going home tomorrow, and Brendan was making a last big farmhouse dinner to see her off. He glanced through the window towards the small pond and the grey dock. Lynn was sitting on the end of the dock, hunched over faced away from the house. She was probably listening to her iPod. He went back to peeling carrots.

He looked out the window again. Why was Lynn swimming in the pond? With all her clothes? She was thrashing around, splashing, too uncontrolled for swimming, it was more like… His legs flooded with adrenaline, and he picked up speed through the kitchen, through the back door, no shoes, deck and dry grass, and the thrashing was weaker already, not as much water splashing, but then he charged into the water moving full speed, and then a lunging, wading rush that churned the water into eddying, spinning whirlpools as he surged and strained forward and then he grabbed one flailing arm. There was no control: she couldn’t grab onto him. Her eyes were rolling back under her wide-open eyelids. He half-carried, half-towed the jerking girl to the bank. Then she stopped jerking.

“Lynn? Lynn!” He slapped her face, rolled her onto her side. The foam from her lips dripped onto the dark, clayey soil. She wasn’t breathing. He saw her arm where the sleeve had come back, and saw a row of needle-marks. He decided to risk it, and turned her onto her back. He grabbed her jaw, pinched her nose, and put his lips to her cold, slimy mouth. There was a sour taste of bile and vomit. He blew hard, then released the pinch and placed his rough hands on her skinny, water-logged chest. He could feel her ribs flex as he pumped one, two, three, four, five, six, plunging like a potato spade, down, down, down. Back to the cold mouth with another lungful of air. He forced his breath into her, harder this time, trying to force his life into her. One, two, three, four, five, six. Breath, and now his tears were falling with the chest compressions. He felt her ribs crack under his weight. One, two, three, snap, five, six. Choke in another breath, give it to her, gasp for life again, this time for sure, one, two, three, four, five, six. She wasn’t dead, of course, because she was young, she had only been in the pond a minute, she was a good kid. One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two. One.

And then death had him with all of its wrongness. He closed her eyes gently with those rough fingers of his, so that she wouldn’t see him cry.

Mary found him that way in the dark, long after the bruised sun had set behind the rolling wheat-fields, rocking back and forth. He was thinking about his sister.

*****

The funeral was tomorrow, and Brendan was digging potatoes up out of the ground, stealing life from the earth. Today he took a potato from the ground, and tomorrow they gave the ground a body. His mind revolted at the comparison, and he snorted with anger at himself. He stabbed at the ground with his spade. His thoughts swirled around him like ash over a burnt field. Janice blamed him. She had arrived the day before, her face grey with grief and anger. Condolences were said, full of phrases, meaning nothing. His feeble words floated over his own grief like water-striders, unable to break the surface. He had endured her silence, and then fled to his garden again. The potato crate was full, and he picked it up, eyes on his own thoughts. He walked and found himself with sudden confusion standing over the pond on the dock. He set the box down slowly, and then straightened. He held a potato in his hand. He stared at its brown solidness, felt its rough, leathery skin. His anger struck, a slow storm over a prairie. He threw the potato at the water. The still mirror shattered into droplets and waves, splashing onto his boots. Ripples echoed over the surface. He threw another, then another, and another, again, one, two, three, four, five, six. They sank to the mud on the bottom, burying themselves under the thick silt, invisible. He stopped just as suddenly as he started. He was breathing hard and his eyebrows were knotted over his grey, wet eyes. He heard a footstep beside him on the dock and turned to meet the sound.

It was Janice. She was crying. Her mascara had run, and her jacket sleeves were pulled up over her hands, her stiff arms folded tightly over her stomach. Dry spasmodic sobs shook her as she fought for control. “It wasn’t you,” she said. “I knew Lynn had a drug problem. I’ve known it for a while now. And I thought, I thought if I could get her away from Seattle, away from those people for a while, it would just go away. I didn’t think…I didn’t mean…” She broke, and Brendan stepped to her, and her arms were suddenly around him. He held her, quiet and still, like someone who won’t let go for a long time. He rocked her back and forth while her tears soaked through his shirt onto his shoulder. Then after a while they went in the house, and the house lights stayed on like a little sun in the night while they talked together. The funeral came, as funerals always do. The grave was dug, and Lynn was sown in the earth, sown like a farmer’s seed. Janice went home the next day, with promises to return. Brendan and Mary watched her grey car pull out of the gravel driveway, and waved as she disappeared around the first curve of the hill. The autumn drifted away into a winter, a good winter, one with reunions and gifts and family, and then the snows ran away with the grey skies and spring came and the pond finally melted. The farm stirred to life, while the tractors turned the cold earth into good fields. Brendan waited patiently for the potatoes to sprout in the garden. There was other work to do. Their time would come.