The Journey On Highway COVID-19

Cover Photo: t0.gstatic.com

“Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free.
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me…”  (1968)  “The Weight”  Recorded By:  The Band.  Composer:  Robbie Robertson

The Anvil

By:  Alan Scott Brown

There’s nothing like heat in the desert rising off a paved road.  They’ll say, “Oh, but it’s a dry heat.”  Just tell that to the sweltering backpacker, Levon “Fanny” Gates.  He shockingly found himself in the middle of a wilderness, on the road to a place called, Nazareth, just on the other side of the state line.  I say, “shockingly” because before his boots felt the searing concrete of this wasteland, he had been dreaming of the village with its rolling hills, orchards, and well-established vineyards.  His freshly cut front lawn was the launching point for a pleasurable outdoor hike through the pines, the cool brooks, and lavish meadows.

As if he had awakened from a dream of the plush land of plenty, he now absorbs the dangerous sunrays, feeling every drop of sweat rolling down his torso.  His canvas hat certainly covered his head, but the scorching heat invaded his scalp as if he wasn’t wearing anything at all.  Even his denim backpack was soaked in sweat.  If it wasn’t 112 degrees Fahrenheit, it would be soon, when the afternoon sun comes piercing through.

gray concrete road
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Not much vegetation thrives out here, with the exception of sage, cactus, and the occasional Yucca plant.  Refreshing rains are welcomed, but scarce and quick.  Fanny prayed for, what they called back home, a “gully-washer.”

With each step, he seriously worried about the soles of his old hiking boots.  The baking surface of the road is far from friendly, and he felt the waves all the way up to his sunburned face.  At first, he wrestled with the thought of his soles melting in the staggering temperature.  Then, as he caught up with his fast-forward mind, he envisioned a potential hole in the rubber sole.  None of the options were comforting to imagine in this desolate landscape.

Prior to walking into this wilderness, he knew how many miles he had traveled, but now all had changed.  His harsh surroundings overwhelmed his calculations, thrusting him into a mystery without a map.  A solitary roadside sign mentioned a couple of towns being 200 miles ahead, but they were unfamiliar to him.  The miles seemed unending, without a mile marker.  Disorientation was setting in as a menacing reality.

Rather than stopping for rest, he made the decision to push himself forward in hopes the next curve, the next hill, or the next valley in the road, would reveal a much needed oasis.  Hooked to his belt, he had one full canteen of water, which needed to last longer than anticipated.  Fanny was self-rationing his meager provisions with intent.

“I can do this,” he whispered with uneasiness.

landscape photography of rock formation near highway
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Keeping his eyes on the road ahead seemed to help him psychologically.  Yet, wild stallions in search for water, a lone service station, or another traveler with a tent would be a sight for soar eyes.  But each time he glanced to the left or the right, it proved to be discouraging.  In fact, most of the view reminded Fanny of NASA’s photos of the surface of Mars.

The feeling of abandonment was authentic, bleeding from his inspirational thought bubbles of solitude.  He tried to be hopeful by telling himself Nazareth must be within 3 miles, 5 miles, or maybe 10 miles.  The attempt to distract himself from the tide of broiling air failed at every turn of the road.  Before the desert sun could bake his mind completely, he scanned through multiple thoughts, thoughts which could fill a library, only to fool himself with wisps of self-constructed hope.

While pushing his legs to walk an incline in the road, he noticed something he had felt once before on this journey.  A pain, a specific pain in his back.  Of all the body aches he had endured, this backache was king of them all.  Hiking slowly up the side of a hill introduced him again to the racking misery coming from his lower back muscles, mainly from the right of the spine.  It was a bit of a mystery in that he hadn’t injured himself, and never had an old trauma from his athletic history.  He suddenly was reminded of the adage, “No pain, no gain” from his high school baseball coach.  He said it aloud, thinking it would be a magic charm the universe would accept.  It wasn’t.  Still, his inward need to persevere pushed his weary bones onward.

As he reached the plateau, he celebrated his efforts shouting into the hot breeze,

“BY GOD, I WILL DO THIS!”

As the late afternoon sun played havoc with his vision, Fanny cocked his head to one side as he caught a distant rumble of an engine.  Since he had begun to adjust to the mirage of water puddles on the pavement, he tossed it up to “hearing things” due to a bit of dehydration.  After a chuckle, he took a couple of strides when he stopped in his tracks.  The sound was getting louder.  He looked up in the blue sky to see which direction the plane was coming from.  It sounded like a single engine airplane from the 1920’s.  As he was hunting for the aircraft, he recognized the distinct sound wasn’t a plane at all, but rather a vehicle approaching from behind.  He quickly turned to scope out where it originated.  Wiping, then squinting his tired eyes, he saw an old blue pickup truck bouncing down the road toward him with its radio blaring a 1940’s big band tune with heavy brass.  He wondered where it came from since the area was void of ranches or farms.  As it approached, he could see only one occupant in the cab.  There was nothing impressive about the old truck, with the exception of the fact it was an older model one might see in a vintage car show, and overly worn, to boot.

 

blue single cab farm truck on brown grassland
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As the truck began to downshift, coasting slowly as it pulled alongside him, he could see more clearly the one behind the wheel.  The driver looked as if he had just fallen off a hay trailer.  He was donning faded grey pinstriped overalls, like the old train engineers used to wear.  His misshaped straw hat went well with the old beat-up truck as it, too, had seen better days.  With a metallic squeak, the truck came to a halt.  It was clearly in much need of a muffler replacement.  The ragged driver turned down the radio and leaned over to roll down the passenger side window.  It was then Fanny could take-in what the man looked like.  He was an old-timer with a weather-beaten face.  His bushy eyebrows were salt & pepper mix.  His chest-length beard was white and wiry.  He had piercing ice-blue eyes which displayed a kindness, all by themselves.  Before Fanny could speak, the old man greeted him.

Spoken with a healthy snicker, “Howdy there, young man.  Nice day for a stroll in the badlands, wouldn’t ya say?”

The backpacker detected an accent, which reminded him of the deep south of the United States.  He wasn’t sure if he was being mocked by the question, or if it was an attempt at levity.

“Yes, sir.  It would seem so,” said Fanny, as he took his hat off and wiped his wet forehead.

Without hesitation the elderly man asked with a nod, “What’s your name, kiddo?”

“I’m Levon.  Most everyone calls me, Fanny,”  revealed the traveler.

The old man broke out in a belly laugh, “Well, who on earth pinned that nickname on ya?”

Fanny grinned, uncomfortably so, looked away and explained, “Yeah, that’s a long story, I’m afraid.”

“I bet so,” replied the old man.  “The name’s, Christopher.  Through the years, lots of folks have called me by a slew of other names.  But, Christopher will do.  So glad to meet ya…Fanny.”

“Happy to meet you, Christopher,” the young man said.  “Hey, where did you come from?  I’ve been on this road all day and I’ve not seen one house, truck stop, or vehicle coming or going in either direction.”

“Oh, don’t ya know?” asked Christopher.

“Know what?” inquired the trekker.

Pushing his hat back to the crown of his head, the old man responded, “Well, it’s very possible you were never informed.  This is a one way road you’re on in this dust.  Always been that way.  It’s true, only one-way traffic on this stretch.  That’s the reason why I drove up behind ya.  I’ll tell ya, that afternoon sun is brutal through the windshield.”

“Tell me about it,” agreed the young hiker.  “You know, maybe you can tell me something.  Would you know how far Nazareth is from here?  I really thought I would have spied it by now on the horizon, but nothin’ doin’.”

“Nazareth?” inquired the old one with one raised eyebrow.  “Is that where you’re off to?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Fanny.

While pointing his finger, the old man said, “Well, kiddo.  I can tell ya this, ya won’t get there carryin’ that anvil.”

Puzzled, the young man froze.  He looked behind him, turned back again and asked,  “Anvil?  What anvil?”

The elderly one broke out in laughter once again at Fanny’s answer.  “Boy, it’s that 95 pound chunk of solid iron at the end of the rope, the rope draped across your right shoulder there,” Christopher pointed out.

“Ah, yes.  THAT anvil,” Fanny stated with pride.  “Frankly, I forget it’s there.”

The elder wrinkled up his nose in an inquisitive expression, “You mean to tell me you’ve not felt every muscle in your body burning from the weight you’re towin’?”

“Come to think of it…yes.  Yes, I have,” Fanny admitted.

“Well, if that don’t beat all,” Christopher said in response.  “I’ve got the perfect solution for ya, Fanny.  Take a look inside the bed of my truck.”  Seeing the young man’s hesitation, he continued sharply, “Go ahead, son.  The Loch Ness Monster ain’t gonna jump out and bite ya.  Feel free, take a look.”

Fanny took a cautious small step toward the side of the pickup.  As he leaned closer to get a peek, his mouth fell open with a hushed gasp.

The old man said, “Tell me what ya see, boy.”

Fanny took a big swallow to say, “It’s a truck bed full of…well…full of anvils!”

“A whole stack of ’em, I’d say,” described the old driver.

In amazement, the young man questioned, “But, why are they there?  I mean…what are you doing with all of those anvils?  Are you selling them?  Do you work for a salvage yard or something?  I’m shocked this old antique can carry the load.”

“Fanny, I guess you could say I collect ’em,” answered the old rugged driver.  “In fact, I’ve been addin’ to my collection for many moons now.  I could tell ya how many travelers have allowed me to take the load off their backs, but you’ve been sun-baked enough today to appraise anything.”

The young traveler concurred, “You’re right.  I’m a bit fried.  However, these travelers you’re talking about, are they on this road?  I’ve not seen a soul until you drove up.”

“Yes, but everyone has their own journey, and most have similar burdens,” replied the old man.  “At the same time, some heavier than others.  As you can see, there’s various sizes of anvils here.”  After a brief pause of silence, Christopher added,  “Here’s my offer, kiddo.  If you trust me with your anvil, every pound of it, I’ll help ya toss it behind us, addin’ to the pile.  You can unload, and load-up in the cab with me for a straight shot to where you’re meant to be.  I just love playin’ the Uber out here.  But…keep in mind, the anvil stays in the back.  Alligators aren’t allowed in the cab with me neither, ha-ha-ha…”

Fanny looked down at the scorching concrete between his hiking boots and bit his chapped lips in thought.

Christopher, seeing the struggle to find words, added, “There’s rockslides out here, ya know.  As ya get close to a hillside, or an upcomin’ canyon, ya might stumble over a stone in your path.  When your strength is wrenched, you’ll find it difficult to keep your stance.  It’s even worse to find footing after a heavy fall with nobody around to shoulder the load.”

Shaking his head with a look of uncertainty he replied, “No, sir.  I have made this trip on my own strength, and I intend finishing it on my own.  Besides that, you’re a stranger to me in a beat-up old clunker.  No offense, but who’s to say you could get me to Nazareth?  I’m sorry, sir, but your offer doesn’t look promising from where I stand.  I will do this on my own fuel, and navigation!”

The old man smiled, put his right hand on the stick-shift, looked deeply into Fanny’s eyes and said, “Boy, ask yourself why.  Why don’t ya wanna take your load off?”

After a quick mental search, Fanny answered with a tone of resolve, “Christopher, the only honest answer I can come up with is, I’ve grown accustomed to my anvil.”

With a serious timbre in a lower register, Christopher asked, “And the weight of it?”

“I deal with it, just like this unexpected desert,” explained the young one.  “Do you understand, old man?”

“Oh, I do, son.  I really do understand,” replied Christopher.  “Listen, dusk is knockin’.  No need for walkin’ in the darkness.  I’d say, grab some winks for a fresh start in the mornin’.”

As the elderly man began to roll up his window, he grinned through his long mustache and said, “Well, I know you’ll give it your all.  Still, keep in mind, it’s needless for ya to take this desolation, with all its loneliness, and the weight you’re carryin’ solo.”  With that, he put the truck in gear, turned up the radio, and off toward sundown he drove.

silhoutte of a man
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Fanny continued his trek with a bit of angst in his steps.  Christopher somehow offended him with the offer of a free lift, as if the old man thought him weaker, frail, and without survival skills.

He began grumbling to himself, “How dare that ancient dinosaur-of-a-coot say I needed help through this parched piece of earth.”  Still, in the attempt to bolster his decision, he raised his voice a notch, “Who does he think he is?  He’ll see me in Nazareth, sitting under the shade of an apple tree, sipping on a glass of their best vintage.  He’ll be shocked to see me resting on my anvil, without any aid from his sorry rack of rust.”

With all his energy depleted by his rant, Fanny began to look for a safe spot to sleep for the night.  Darkness had fallen, but the moonlight helped in the hunt for a place to bed-down.  Soon, he located a soft sandy mound with his name on it.  He found sun-dried chaparral fit nicely for kindling.

Overnight hours passed and the silence was deafening.  As usual, he used the anvil as a pillow, even though the shape was not friendly for his head.  He found the surface of the iron was still warm from the sun, which was welcomed as desert nights tend to issue a chill.  Unfortunately for the camper, as the nature of anvils, its surface turned cold.

From time to time he heard a small rock roll off the side of a rise just feet from where he was laying.  Another time, he was awakened by what he thought was the flapping of large wings.  He imagined buzzards mistaking him for a dead man.  He then tried to keep one eye opened, but exhaustion won the moment.  Another awakening caused him to jump when he heard an insect scratching on his ear.  He began to inwardly acknowledge his sleep would be thin at best.

Without knowing why, he opened his eyes from a sound sleep.  It was just before dawn.  Across the road from where he camped, he swore he caught a shadow figure racing from the road into a ravine on the other side.  Startled, he bounced up to a sitting position while fixed on the area where it vanished.  What he wouldn’t do for a pair of night-vision goggles.  After a minute or so, and a few hyper heartbeats, he shook his head and took a helping from his canteen.

Unable to go back to sleep, Fanny stretched his legs, and his sore back, in preparation for the day ahead.

“The sun is winking at me from over the hills, ” he said as he reached for his anvil.  “There’s no time like the present.”

He peeled back the wrapper of an energy bar from his cargo pants thigh pocket, finishing it in record time.

With the young morning sun at his back, and the anvil dangling once again from the rope hoisted over his right shoulder, Fanny felt new aches making themselves known in his calves, ankles, and feet.  He thought to himself that if he just put one foot in front of the other, the pain would work itself out.

As he made his way, his mind was flooded with the movements and sounds he heard overnight.  He convinced himself that he was in no real danger…or was he?  Like a video clip running through his mind, he couldn’t erase the glimpse of the unknown shadow figure dashing away from his makeshift pallet.  As hard as he tried, he remained at a loss concerning its identity.  In the end, he boldly rationalized the thought.  He determined the quiet swiftness indicated a cougar, or a coyote.  The “what might have beens” gave him a sense of authentic fear he had not felt before.

Hill after hill, ridge after ridge, no sight of his goal.  With every turn, curve and valley, he had hopes of seeing the ornate village painted in his mind as the heated hours wore on.

During the mid-morning, the searing winds kicked up with a devastating blow of a wall of dust and sand from the west.  Immediately, it became a battle for each inhale.  Fanny pulled his hat over his nose and mouth for protection.  Vision became sparse.  Tiny grains of sand stung his skin like miniature darts speeding from a horizontal projection.  Through the torrent of hot dust and sand, he spotted a boulder nearby and ran to the east side of it, blocking the onslaught of the turbulent blast.  After what seemed like an hour or so, the sandstorm passed.  With tremendous relief, Fanny came out from behind the boulder, grateful he had discovered it when he did.

With a couple of clearing coughs, he thought to himself, “What else can happen on this journey?”

bird s eye view photography of road in the middle of desert
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By early afternoon, he was running low on water.  His fear rose each time he shook the canteen to hear the lessening of the swish.  His quads were beginning to burn in his thighs.  His shoulder was bruised from the rope slung over it, cradling the anvil.  A growing headache, once only a nuisance, now pounded from the top of his head.  Realizing he was experiencing a deeper dehydration, he guarded against panic.  He was beginning to despise the constant mirages of heatwaves appearing as glimmering bodies of water.  Suddenly, he heard Christopher’s words from the day before, challenging him with the question of why.  “Why don’t ya wanna take your load off?”  He found himself flirting with the question.

Mid afternoon descended.  After following a sharp curve in the blistering road, Fanny peered into the shadow of a small canyon wall just ahead.  The shade spread all the way across the road, and then some.  There, on the shoulder of the roadway, about 40 yards away, was a figure of some kind.  Cautiously advancing toward it, there, in the shadow of the rock wall, he saw Christopher casually leaning against the tailgate of his blue pickup.

“It seems we meet again, kiddo,” shouted Christopher with a wave.  “The shield of a nice-sized rock in a desolate place is mighty fine, wouldn’t ya say?  It’s nice and comfortable to me.  Come on over, I’ve been waitin’ for ya.”

Fanny found he was somewhat relieved to see the old man, and a convenient shade.  He smiled, shook his head in amazement, entering the cooling shadow of the canyon.

As Fanny got closer to the truck, he scratched his head and asked, “How did you know I would be here at this time of day?  Are you stalking me, old man?”

Christopher laughed at the question and replied, “Who knows?  Maybe the old truck is equipped with radar for weary travelers.”

Wiping his hands on the front of his well-worn overalls,  the elder turned to the pile of anvils in the bed of the truck where he pulled out ice cold bottles of water from a Styrofoam ice chest.

“Here ya go!  Fanny, take a load off.  You deserve it.” ordered Christopher.

Right away, before breaking the cap seal, Fanny first put the cold bottle against his neck, and then his forehead.  With a deep heavy sigh, an expression of relief fell over his face.

“Ahhhhhh, that feels so good,” said the hiker.

“No doubt,” answered Christopher.  “Tell me, how did ya sleep last night?”

After opening the bottle for his first couple of gulps, the backpacker responded, “I hate to say it, but it wasn’t that great.”

“Oh, really?” replied the old man.

Delaying his answer with another long swig of water, “Let me tell you, the desert may not be my kind of surroundings.  I heard noises I couldn’t examine.  There were sounds coming from everywhere, including what I think were buzzard wings.  That’s way too close for comfort.”

“Is that right?” Christopher said slowly.  “What else?”

“You may think I’m nuts, but I spotted a quick shadow I couldn’t identify just on the other side of the road,” described Fanny.  “It’s not something I look forward to seeing ever again.  By the way, just how many miles is it to Nazareth from this canyon?  As far as I can tell….”

“Ya know, owls are night hunters,” Christopher interrupted.  “They keep rabbits and rats on the run for sure.  Wingspans can be impressive.  Such a wonderful creature.  As for nocturnal critters in general, I could write volumes on the kinds and species out here.  They’re everywhere in the cool of the night.  Some folks just let their imaginations run away with them like a train on grease.  Truth is, they all were created with excellent night vision.  In that respect, they’ve got a leg up on ya.”

The young traveler admitted, “It sure made for an uneasy night.”

While checking the lose left side of his back bumper, the elderly man stated, “Ya know, fear is an enemy.  Fact is, it comes in many forms.  You might even compare it to a parade coordinator-sending one flatbed float rollin’ by after another, all designed to frighten every person from every walk of life.  Your walk of life happens to be on this very road, in this very desert.  But always remember, fear is a liar.  It promises the worse case scenario in most all situations under heaven, and yet rarely delivers.  Son, it’s always best to think of all things as fleeting.”

Fanny laughed and belted out, “FLEETING?  Ha, this desert isn’t fleeting  Did you see that sandstorm?”

“Hang on now.  A liar’s performance is to convince his audience,” stated the old one.  “The sudden desert you approach will be full of woes.  Hard things happen.  Expect it.  It’s part of the learnin’ curve.  Oppression bubbles up.  Depression develops.  Illness lurks here and over there.  Pain arrives, creeping into your skin, your muscles, your mind, and even your very soul.  Soon, a lacking drains your strength, your joy, and eventually, your reasonin’.  Yes, the desert is all of that and more.  It’s a beautiful place, too…in its own way.  The colors and scattered shades are brilliant.  Yet, there’s danger out here.  There’s isolation expected, married to obscurity.  It’s all about who ya face it with.  But the sweet truth is, when journeying through the desert, like ya are, you’ll find it’s only temporary.  All parades must end, even sandstorms.”

The young man paused for a moment before speaking, “But if there is a learning curve to suffering, what and where is it?  I mean, where’s the final exam in this hellish classroom?”

Christopher stroked his wiry beard for a moment.  He turned toward a scenic view of the desert and explained, “The better question would be…Why experience it alone?  Look out at this barren ground.  Each step is a test.  You are gettin’ an education, albeit in a lesser degree without an instructor.  My offer still stands, kiddo.  Let’s take this anvil off your back and put it where it belongs…behind ya, without a rope attached.”

Fanny bent down to tighten his boot laces during an uncomfortable silence.  He then stood up, adjusted his canvas hat, looked at Christopher and responded, “No, sir.  I will finish this challenge I’ve walked into.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate your free offer, but, there’s something to be said about knowing my own conditioning will push me to my destination.”

The elderly man’s ice-blue eyes twinkled as he challenged the young traveler, “And when your anvil of comfort breaks your fleeting, temporary strength, with no one there who is stronger to save ya…what then?”

“Thus far, I’ve adjusted to its weight.  It’s okay, really it is,” said Fanny in a softer, kinder delivery.  “It may take me a while, but I will get through this desert.  But, I can’t wait to feel the soft, cool blades of grass in Nazareth under my bare feet  The universe will give me strength.”

“Don’t count on the universe.  She’s unforgivin’, and unable to love, ” said the old one.  “You, my young man, will find you’re bein’ schooled in the land of waitin’.”

With that said, Christopher watched Fanny strap on his anvil for the journey out of the shadow of the rock wall.  Just then, the old man pulled out a brown paper bag and two more bottles of water from the bed of his truck.

“Okay, kiddo,” holding out the items.  “Here, ya take these.  You’re gonna need it.”

Fanny displayed a large grin at the kindness Christopher displayed.  “What’s all this?”

“Well, there’s various items of protein in the bag, some nuts, dried figs, jerky, and some cold sliced pineapple you’ll wanna eat pretty soon,” explained the elder.

Laughing, the hiker inquired, “Pineapple????  Where did you get pineapple out here?”

Christopher just giggled with a lovely childlike delivery as he opened the door to the truck, got in, and started the rattling engine with a backfire.

“Here’s to hopin’ we will see one another again, ” said the old man.  “Ya know, hope is a healin’ thing.  Even in a deserted place.”

Fanny replied quickly, “I could use that for sure.”

“I know ya do, son.  I know ya do,” stated Christopher as he put on his sunglasses.  “Be aware of the shadow figures, Fanny.  It’ll serve ya well.  But, with that said, I’ve never read an obituary where a shadow killed anybody.”

With a whistle on his lips, and his hands on the wide steering-wheel, Christopher began to slowly drive back into the punishing sun.  The young trekker raised his hand slowly to wave the old man off.  Just then, Fanny realized he never thanked Christopher for the provisions.

Two days and nights passed.  It was about noon when Fanny found himself dragging his feet, literally, across the baked concrete in near total exhaustion.   With each painstaking stride, he began scanning the horizon for the old man’s pickup.  His energy was virtually depleted, and he knew it.  The morning delivered some scattered clouds, which aided the weakened young rambler, but now, nothing but abusive piercing sun shutdown all effort.  He felt himself wanting, even craving, a visit with the caring driver.

Just as Fanny journeyed down a slope, from a crest in the roadway, he tripped on something.  As if in slow motion, he fell forward, hard onto the hot pavement, in unison with a loud ringing thud as the anvil met the road.  He screamed in pain from the impact and fierceness of the raging temperature of the road.  He quickly turned over on his backpack as a buffer from the concrete.  It took him a minute to collect his mind.  He looked for wounds, finding a few scrapes and cuts to his elbows, cheek, and the palms of both hands.  He noticed his pants were ripped at the left knee as blood began to find its way through the khaki fabric.  Troubled at what caused him to lose his traction, Fanny looked around to find the object which caused the fall.  There was nothing there.  Unable to bend his left knee, he struggled to push himself up on his right leg.  With the rope still in his hand, he tested his body for limping to the side of the road.  The pain in his knee was crippling.  It was a mammoth project as he slowly hopped his way to the sandy shoulder, dragging the anvil against the hot pavement.

Assessing his ability to trek ahead, he noticed something protruding from the bottom of the toe of his right boot.  A closer look revealed a piece of the sole of the boot had come loose, and had partially folded back while dragging his feet during the endeavor to keep walking.  Whether it was heat exhaustion, the brutal conditions, or a pure wake-up call from injuries, the young hiker admitted being trapped, for the remainder of the day, right where he sat.

As the sun slowly descended into the western sky, Fanny tried to lift his spirits.  Finding a small bit of shade under some brush, he began to sing every hit song he could recall from his teen years-songs that made him smile.  He busied himself mentally listing his family tree as far back as the war of 1812.  With each mental exercise he was surprised at the slowness to fire-off a thought, or memory.  He wondered about heat stroke.

“It would seem the elements are doing a number on you, Mr. Gates,” he sarcastically mumbled to himself.  In pain, the hiker laid under the tiny shade of the brush for any relief he could manage.

Sounds seem louder when sleeping.  Fanny jumped with a start from a nap he didn’t intend on taking.  After a few seconds of clarity, he realized he was hearing the tail of a rattlesnake.  By sheer instinct, Fanny turned over from his position, discovering in the sand to his left a five foot rattler, curled up maybe 12 feet away.  Fear raced through his senses.

close up photo of a brown sidewinder snake on sand
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Somehow the young man pulled himself together and looked around for a rock.  There, by his left boot, were five golf ball-sized sandstones.  His eyes once again shifted back to the poised snake.  Visions of film footage of how quickly snakes can crawl and strike ran through his head.  Unable to bend his left knee without shooting pain, he grabbed the anvil rope, tossed it at the rocks, maneuvering one within reach.  He thought to himself, “I have one shot at this and it better be right, or I’m toast.”  He methodically, but slowly, reached the rock, grabbed it, then threw it at the rattler with a shout, all in one motion like a professional shortstop.  Speedily, the snake reacted, slithering out to the middle of the road and stopped.  Fanny trained his eyes on the reptile as it turned its head toward him again.  The hiker pitched another rock toward the snake, but this time unmoved.

“Oh, no you don’t, you little beast!  Don’t even think about it!” threatened Fanny.

Keeping his eye on the snake, he examined his precarious position.  Unable to move quickly, due to his knee, and without a weapon at his disposal, he knew he was a sitting duck.  The unexpected desert miles had been cruel, but he covered much ground.  Just as he began to question his endurance to reach the other side of the wilderness, he now might see it end-thanks to a new enemy-and a damaged sole.

Surveying every item within reach for a defense, the young traveler’s anvil caught his eye.  His mind landed on the reality of the weight of it.  Mentally, he began to blame it for his current dilemma.  Ninety five pounds of iron needlessly held him down from where he wanted to be.  In the assumption he could’ve run from the snake just minutes prior, the anvil would’ve proven to be the end, holding him back for the snake’s lunge.  However, in a sick, twisted thought process, his admiration for the useless anvil melted the angst.

Late afternoon approached, and Fanny’s nemesis remained vigilant in a curl, with its expressionless cold stare from the road.  The scene was looking darker for the injured young man.  He imagined the worst.

Feeling a bit delirious, the trapped hiker’s anger boiled, “So, do you have a nest around here?  Maybe you have a brood nearby you’re protecting.  Is that why you’re gawking at me?  They’ll all make terrific belts, you pile of scales!  How does that make you feel?  Tell me, is your crawl really quicker than my hop?  Look, I know what you’re waiting for.  You can’t fool me,” he said, taunting the rattler.  “When darkness comes, you’ll slither your measly self over here and take chunks out of me, as I slowly kill over from your venom.  I know your kind.  I was married to someone like you!”

Fanny was massaging his emotions to accept his coming death.  Dreams were dashed, hope only a dream, and his efforts toward his goal had been wasted energy.  In a moment of clarity, he looked over at his companion: the anvil.  In the light of his circumstances, he knew it suddenly didn’t seem to hold much value.  True, Fanny had grown accustomed to the weight on his back, but in the reevaluation, it seemed foolish to have imagined it to be part of himself in daily life.  In an odd, and maybe an ironic way, it took a trauma in a desolate place to see the fulfillment of the truth.

Another hour slipped by, closer to the coming dusk.  Fanny suddenly had gained a fever.  He could feel chills and cold sweat rolling down his chest.  His time waned in the growing darkness.  His new enemy seemed to detect Fanny’s weakened state, raising its head off the pavement.  Desperation danced through the stranded hiker as he grabbed the empty canteen, the only defense against the waiting venomous reptile.

During a somewhat morbid consideration, Fanny pictured where the fangs might sink in first.  Like a strategist, he began to maneuver his body so that the strike of the rattler would target closer to his hands and arms for a better shot at defense.  About that time, his ears detected a familiar remote sound.  He cocked his head as he zoomed-in on the distant echo of what appeared to be a big brass band, combined with the hum of an engine.  The young man smiled as he identified the modulation of old pistons, pushing an antique pickup in his direction.  Fanny caught a glimpse of the old blue truck rounding a curve, where it began to slow down with its radio blaring away, until coming to a complete stop.  As it did, the right front tire crowned the head of the cunning rattler with a defining crunch.  The driver’s side door opened and out stepped Christopher.

“Well, if it ain’t young Fanny restin’ on his laurels,” he said with warm grin as he walked toward the young man.

Fanny had gasped when the truck’s tire parked on the snake.

Christopher sarcastically asked, “Son, are ya hungry?  Your mouth is wide open like a newborn sparrow in the nest.”

“You…uh, I guess you know, you rolled right on top of that rattlesnake.  How did you manage to do that?” quizzed the injured traveler.

“Oh, practice, I suppose.  It happens,” answered the lighthearted elder.  “I see ya got yourself all banged-up there.”

Sheepishly, Fanny began to explain,  “Yes, sir.  Earlier today I was so spent.  Not realizing my toes were dragging, my sole separated a bit from my left boot, causing me to trip and…well, here I am.”

While scoping out the young man’s injuries, Christopher mentioned the obvious,  “Ya fell on your face, I see.”

“In a manner of speaking, I sure did.” admitted Fanny.

The old man knelt down to get a closer look at Fanny’s damaged boot.

“Hmmm, yep, I’m no cobbler, but I see what happened,”  speaking slower and in a softer tone, “Ya know, where the ‘soul’ separates is a lonely place to be.  What have ya learned, kiddo?”

One side of Fanny’s bruised lip raised as he said, “Seeking shelter is a wise thing.”

“Is it now?” stated Christopher.

“No doubt, ” admitted the young trekker.  “I have come to realize that I’m not ‘all that’.”

“Now, give yourself some credit in this journey of yours,” the old one said.

“What?” asked Fanny.

Christopher explained, “Ya didn’t think about how ya said it.  In all your boldness and anger, ya once shouted, ‘BY GOD, I WILL DO THIS!‘”

Beside himself, Fanny raised his voice in astonishment, “Hey!  How did you know about…I mean…that was a few days ago now…and on top of that, I was in…”

“In the desert, all by yourself.  I know,” interrupted Christopher.  “You might as well have had on a wireless microphone.  That was actually the beginning of your learnin’ while on this path.  With all the wreckage in your life, you were searchin’ for solitude.  Most people do.  Ya see, there’s a big difference between solitude, and isolation.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  In your isolation, ya never really were alone.”

The young man being perplexed raised his voice, “Excuse me, but I still don’t understand how you…”

Christopher interrupted again, “Not many do understand, kiddo.  Even the ones who are most scholarly, with all those initials after their names, can’t get their arms around it all.  Some, the honest and most humble, will even admit it.  I’d say you’re in good company.”

Fanny still reclined there, looked down at his skinned hands and torn pants in a sense of surrender.

Breaking the uneasy moment, the old one spoke up, “Now son, here’s the deal for this time, for this place of desolation; will ya accept my offer?  You’re in the middle of this trip, but near the end of your journey.  I won’t return to these parts for some time, and here, in the waitin’, is the opportunity for decisions.  Trust me on this.  Take my hand and I’ll give ya a lift to where ya wanna be.  As a brash up-and-comer, a lad once told me, ‘It doesn’t look promisin’ from where I stand.'”

The young man accepted without delay, “Yes, sir.  I’m ready to move out of this God forsaken place.”

“Uh, not really… ‘forsaken’,” Christopher said with a familiar snicker.  “You have much to learn, young Fanny Gates.  Come on, I’ll help carry ya to the truck.  Ya ain’t heavy.”

With Fanny’s left arm around Christopher’s neck, and the anvil hanging from his sore right shoulder, the duo methodically made their way to the old truck.

After a couple of steps, Fanny asked Christopher a simple question, “I take it you know where Nazareth is, right?”

The old man opened the passenger side door, helped the younger into the truck and informed him, “Well, of course I know where Nazareth is.  As far as the eye can see from this spot, it’s nothin’ but desert.  Still, Nazareth is not too far from here.”

Just before Christopher closed the passenger door, he asked,  “Uh, son, aren’t ya forgettin’ somethin’?”

Fanny looked bewildered until he saw Christopher gazing at the anvil sitting in his lap.

He responded, “Christopher, do I really need to give it up?  It’s been with me for as long as I can remember.  Over my lifetime I’ve adjusted to its weight.”

“This is the very crux of my offer, Fanny,” Christopher uttered with a straight tone.  “Somewhere down the line, you were lied to.  You only ASSUMED ya needed this weight.  Ya must unload what has weighed ya down in order to come with me.  Now, tell me straight up.  Are ya willin’ to allow me to toss it behind us, to put it to bed?”

Seeing the sincerity in the old one’s ice-blue eyes, understanding it meant everything to him, Fanny agreed to let go.

(CLANG!)

With the anvil among the others discarded in the bed of the old truck, the aged one cranked-up the engine, took control of the steering wheel, and began to make a u-turn.

“Hey, Christopher, you’re going in the wrong direction!”, the traveler said with alert.

“You were hopin’ to go to Nazareth,” stated Christopher.  “Number one, ya wouldn’t have been able to get there by your own power.  Number two, I’m your only Uber out this way.  Number three, you were headed west on a one-way road.  Nazareth is east of here.  Always east.”

“Oh, yeah?  Well, I’ll just have to trust you on that.” said Fanny.

With that, the old man replied, “Yep, yep ya must.”

“Christopher, there’s just one thing of concern here,” Fanny said.  “I don’t have any cash on me for your fuel.”

After a satisfying smile on his old weathered face, along with a slight shaking of the head, Christopher replied, “That’s another thing, kiddo.  Ya never could’ve purchased your way to Nazareth.  It’s all been paid for ahead of your arrival.  Burden-free, son.  Burden-free.”

When loaded down, crushed with the stuff of life’s curses, unload with fuel for the race.

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.’   For He will deliver you                                                from the snare of the fowlera and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”  – Psalm 91:1-6 (ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EMPTY! But Why?

If you read my posts you will find this to be a bit different in flavor.  My request is that you read this one, leaving bias or preconceived ideas at the door.  Just humor me for now.

Imagine, you wake up in the back of a transport van.  Your wrists and ankles are shackled to a pole attached to the metal bench you’re laying on.  Looking down you find you’re dressed in an orange cotton jumpsuit with your full name sown into fabric across your chest.  Next to you is an assigned armed guard watching.

“What have I done?” you ponder silently.  In frustration you inquire aloud to the guard, “Excuse me, sir.  Why am I here?  Why have I been apprehended in this way?  Where are we going?”  The guard sits there ignoring you, as if you spoke nothing.

Imagine, the van stops just about the time you decide to ask the guard once more, with attitude.  The back double doors fly open as two more armed guards await your wrists and ankles to be unlocked from the pole.  As you continue to wear the shackles, dragging the chain between your feet, you begin to struggle to walk toward the open van doors.  The guards reach out, taking you by both arms, pulling you out of the vehicle.  They walk you into an enormous courthouse, a stately building, you do not recognize.

Imagine, you gasp at what you see as you are led into a large, wide hallway filled with other people who appear to be in the same circumstance.  You are struck by the incredibly long lines of the incarcerated, hugging the walls to the right and the left, as they stand single-file down endless corridors.  Each prisoner lacks the individual ID numbers, as you would assume.  Instead, each one has their name etched across their torsos, just like yours.  As you stumble with the shackles hindering your stride down the hallway, you read some of the names, ordinary names…Bohoah Yudo, Jack Nelson, Zhang Wong, Sherry White, Jesse Mundos, Amy Jones, Ahmad Siddiqui, Running Bear Parker, Angelique Pascal, Lorenzo Giordano…all assorted from every corner of the earth.

Imagine, you have been escorted to a guarded giant set of double doors, made of bronze.  This is odd, considering nobody else is in line for this entrance.  As you are led to the threshold, the thick doors are opened.  As they reveal the interior, your eyes widen in awe of a high judge’s bench made of, what appears to be, the finest mahogany.  There are no spectators, or spectator’s chairs.  In fact, this courtroom lacks a jury box, as well.  Only court officers and clerks are present.

Imagine, an announcement is made that all should rise as the judge is preparing to enter from his chambers.  The chamber door opens.  An amazing, distinguished, and striking robed man makes an appearance, taking his place at the judge’s seat.  You immediately notice the baffling brilliance of his eyes.  If you were to describe them, you would say they were transparent, somehow.  When he looks into your eyes, you feel as if he has known you all your life.  There is a sense he can see through the shell you often use with strangers.  What’s more, he never blinks.

“Are the books opened?” he asks the clerks with a reverberating bass voice.  You didn’t hear the response as you found yourself mesmerized by three enormous antique books, bound in gold leaf.  These books were so thick, it took four clerks to open the volumes.

“Bring the perpetrator before the court,” demands the judge.  “The transgressor will remain bound through these proceedings,” the judge adds.  As the guards nudge you forward, immediately you wonder what kind of judicial system this is.  You know you’ve done nothing wrong, and yet the judge seems to not believe in “innocent until proven guilty.”

Imagine, you stand before this awesome judge as he gazes at your name found in one of the colossal bindings.  As he calls you by your full name, including your middle name you never reveal to anyone, the chains hanging off your limbs rattle as you slightly tremble in fear.  Furthermore, your very soul quakes as you feel the injustice hovering over you like an anvil ready to drop.  His next statement causes your face to go pale as you fight the feeling of tears pushing against your eyelids.

“Are you aware of the charges made against you in this case?” he asks with piercing authority.

You take a deep breath, as if it were your last, and proclaim in a louder voice than you had intended, “No, your honor.  I am stunned I am here at all.”  The judge nods as if to acknowledge he has heard this before in his court.

With a laser-beam glare, the judge turns his unusual translucent eyes toward a rather polished-looking man standing behind a half-wall, where the jury box would normally be located.  He is a handsome looking gent, dressed to the nines, with his hair slicked back in perfect order.  To say he looks wealthy and studious would be an understatement.

In a lower tone, unlike any sound from his voice thus far, the judge states, “The prosecutor, your legal adversary, will now recite the charges against you.  It is imperative you remain silent, without outbursts, during his delivery.  Prosecutor, you may begin.”

The prosecutor rolls out a thick stack of legal documents from his briefcase.  He begins thumbing through the papers.

“Your honor, this one has violated every law you so diligently protect,” the prosecutor quickly cites with a silky, smooth voice.  He continues, “Naturally, you have the full record already prepared in your book.  I will summarize from my copies.  To begin with, this one uttered false notions to the parents multiple times, starting at infancy.  Later in life, while in heated unjustified anger, there would be thoughts of assault, without striking out.  As a preteen, there was a candy bar taken without payment from a local convenient store.  There have been periods of lashing out with words of destruction, targeting the spirit of others, with intent, and without good cause.  Starting during the teen years, this one followed through with lust for others in the classroom.  Then, if that wasn’t enough, your honor, there are countless traffic violations.  Yield signs were neglected, yellow traffic lights turned red while in the process of driving through the intersections. At one point underage drinking took over, with bribery in full play, to keep the infraction quiet.  While on the subject, there was one DUI, but got away with the transgression.  There was an event concerning road rage where the defendant cursed another, while utilizing a selected finger, signaling a violent nature of the heart.  I have a list of selective years this one cheated on taxes, unseen by the government.  The record shows the act of false statements to a supervisor concerning sick days.  When a neighbor bought a bigger house out in the country, this one became secretly envious, followed by malicious desires, developing into severe covetousness.  There are charges of delinquent bills from time to time.  The removal of love comes and goes.  The act of pre-judging fellow man is outrageous on its own.  Even discriminatory hatred, applied to others, appears over the decades.  Admittedly, there is no guilt of carrying out the act of murder or adultery, but on several occasions the mind entertained as much concerning others.  You, yourself, your honor, claimed if one even thinks of murder and adultery, that one is just as guilty as the one who acts upon the thought.  May I remind you, this ruling came from your court, your honor.  It is your prerogative to expunge the law you so graciously gave, if it serves the defendant well.”

(CRACK!)  The gavel came down extremely hard.  The walls seemed to vibrate at the crashing sound of the impact.

“ENOUGH!  My law set forth is who I am.  The law is my very essence.  It will be defended.  The law is a school teacher, educating the public of a guide for a life of goodness.  It will be carried out.  Each law will be filled and completed, and will never be removed.  Once more, I will remind you of the rules of my court, prosecutor.  You have heard it said from this bench in prior cases.  As long as there are lawbreakers, if you violate my rules, here, in this place, I will call for your banishment and have you held in contempt.  You may continue,” the judge remarks with the pointing of his finger.

“As you please, your honor.  As usual, I could go on.  The rap sheet is lengthy.  The guilt is undeniable inside every day, of every month, of every year of this one’s life.  Beyond all, perhaps the most grievous crime, this one wallows in a lack of faith in the Lawgiver, the law’s sincerity, with total disregard of the ramifications.  My office recommends extreme punishment to the law’s fullest extent, as written in your own manuals, your honor.  I rest my case, your honor.”  With that, the prosecutor shuffled his documents as he returned them back to his thick briefcase.

Imagine, you are bursting at the seams to defend your good name.  After all, you never thought of yourself as a lawless individual.  Most everyone you know would stand by your side, testifying to the fact that you’re a pretty good person overall.  Just then, the judge interrupts the thought.

After calling out your name, he asks a hard question, “Do you have counsel to represent you here today?”

You quickly respond in helplessness, “No, your honor.  I am without a defender.  I do have friends that can testify on my behalf, but…”

“Unfortunately for you, they too are in the halls of lawlessness.  Your deeds done are not to be measured by a lawbreaker’s plumb-line.  Your peers are not the surveyor.  The human heart is faulty.  They will morph as their opinions shift.  However, the law changes not and is unforgiving.  It was etched in ancient stone for a purpose.  It is relentless and ferocious.  The law is…quite simply…unable to be kept, ” the judge points out.

Imagine, your jaw drops.  You are in shock, more than you were in the beginning.  You are being prosecuted for transgressions which you always deemed as minimal, unimportant infractions, and now your judge admits nobody can keep the law in its entirety!

In your chains, you melt at the idea of hopelessness.  Somehow you are able to catch your breath from this gut-punch, “Your honor, I cannot defend myself against these charges.  How can I?  The law list is too heavy.  It rules over me in such a way that there’s no escape.”

“Yes, the law is rigid.  It was written to be so.  Where one law is broken, all laws are broken collectively,” the judge explains.  “It instructs that no one is good enough to keep its commands as a whole-not even one person outside these walls.  As you stand before me, the written record concerning your life is damning, indeed.  I find you are guilty as charged.  There is a certificate of debt which I will sign.  It has my seal.  It will state you were born guilty, without self-remedy.  The law is clear.  The payment for your offenses will be…certain death.”

Imagine your fear, your terror, your inability to redeem yourself.  You feel like someone has demanded that you jump across the Grand Canyon.  It can’t be done.  All you can do is hang your head in shame as the tears begin to build and fall.

Imagine now, at that point, a gentle hand strokes your hair, like your mom did when you were a kid.  It startles you, causing you to flinch.  Your head snaps back up in reaction.  You look quickly to your right to see a man standing next to you.  Your eyes glanced his way earlier, but he was unassuming, sitting back away from the proceedings in a shadowed corner.  This man would be easily ignored if you strolled by him on the street.  He isn’t dressed well for an officer of the court.  As you wipe the tears from your eyes, you can see his face more clearly.  There’s nothing really handsome about him.  In fact, it seems he’s a bit on the weathered side.  His hair, clothes, and shoes are unclean and unkempt.  His hands are rough, stained from dirt and grime, like a construction worker at the end of a day’s work.  It’s a mystery to you just why he is in the presence of such a pristine majestic courtroom.  He places his arm around your shoulders as if to comfort, or encourage.  You are moved that you find it warm, even consoling where he touches you.

With kind eyes, he speaks softly to you, “Wait here.  I will return.”

He addresses the judge with great admiration, “Your honor, this one doesn’t understand how this guilt shrouded life.  They don’t know what they are doing.  I will approach for private deliberation.”  Openly, he is welcomed.

He walks toward the judge’s bench.  You can see in their faces that they know one another very well.  Instead of asking the judge’s permission for a side bar consultation, the soiled man makes his way unhindered around the mahogany structure, walks by the clerk and bailiff, as they step aside, and straight up the steps to the judge himself.  He places his arm around the judge’s shoulders as they begin to consult.  You would give anything to hear what is being discussed, but the topic remains a mystery to you, as well as everyone else in the courtroom.  Soon thereafter, the man comes down from the judge’s seat, approaching you with a comforting smile of resolution.

He says only one thing as he leans to reach your ear, “You must trust me.”

With that, he steps back from you, turns, and stands between you and the bench, blocking your view of the judge.

The prosecutor, who has been closely watching the unusual conference, speaks up, “I object, your honor!  This is highly irregular, and certainly…”  (BOOM!)  The gavel pounds the bench in force.

“Objection overruled,” declares the judge.  Silencing the prosecutor soundly, the judge continues, “It is now official.  May the record show the defendant has court appointed counsel at this time.  Counselor, I will ask you one more time for the court record.  Is it your intention to now represent this defendant, this one who has already been pronounced guilty of lawlessness?”

“Yes, your honor.  This one belongs with me,” remarks the defender.

“May it be so.  May the record show I have agreed, thus appointing the defender to this defendant,” states the judge.

Your defender faces you once more.  He finds you’re fixed on the prosecutor’s smirk as he straightens his tie.  At the same time, you feel the eyes of your counselor penetrating your focus.  You turn your eyes to his.  You sense an assurance from him.

“Believe in what I will do for you,” he says with a deep sound of conviction.

With that, he is escorted out a side door by two guards, as if in protection mode.

You seem frozen at the moment at what just happened, even though you do not understand it.

The judge addresses you once again, “Fortunately for you, there is one of this court who has agreed to defend you, even though you have been found guilty and sentenced already.  Many documents must be written and published.  There are facts in this case which will be entered into the ledgers.  This will take some time.  Because you have previously been found guilty by this court, you will not go free, as you count freedom.  You will remain shackled and placed in the hallway of lawlessness with the others, who are due in court.  There you will remain until you hear your name called.  At that time, you will report to the doors of this court for the details of your final sentencing.  Do you understand these words I have spoken them to you?”

You hesitate but respond in puzzlement, “Yes, your honor.”

Almost sounding like a counselor himself, the judge speaks to you one last time in a softer tone, “Let it be known, it is not required for you to understand the timing and ways of this court, or its officers.  Trust your defender.  Listen for your name.”

(BOOM)  The gavel comes down as the judge orders, “Court adjourned!”

At this juncture, you are led, with chains rattling, to your hallway of waiting.

Imagine that it seems no time has passed at all when you hear your name called.  You look up to see the bailiff standing outside the courtroom doors with documents in hand.  Right away, your brows wrinkle, as you whisper to yourself, asking where your defender has been.  You fully expected him to consult you in the hallway at some point, but he never arrived.   There’s a feeling of unmistakable abandonment as you try to pick yourself up.  You stumble a bit with your ankle chains as you attempt to make your way across the hallway toward the waiting bailiff.  You approach him.  He looks at you as he restates your name, even though it is plainly written across your chest.  You acknowledge with a nod of your head, not wanting to hear the outcome of your defender’s work.  That is if any work has been done at all.

Imagine your amazement when the bailiff’s next words are, “You are free to go, if you choose.”

The wrinkles on your concerned face vanish as your mouth drops, “WHAT?”

“Yes, you may walk away, if you so desire,” replies the bailiff.

“Wait a minute.  How can this be?  My defender hasn’t shown his mug at all,”  you quickly point out.

“Oh, your defender arrived exactly at the appointed time.  The judge is appeased.  You were not present to witness it, but he made his appointment,” states the officer.

You cock your head at his strange reply, “What ever do you mean?  He arrived?  Where?”

“Your defender’s father was there to witness his work on your behalf, until it he could no longer observe,” said the bailiff as he enveloped a document.

You eagerly inquire, “My defender’s father?  Who is that?”

The bailiff seems struck by your lack of information, “You didn’t know?  How could you NOT know?  The judge is your defender’s father.”

In a state of perplexity you try to find the right words to ask, “I don’t get it.  That would be a conflict of interest, right?”

“No conflicts between them, ever,” replies the bailiff.

“What did my defender do for my case?” you ask.

At this point the bailiff offers you a document from the court.  As you look closer, it is the certificate of debt, describing your crimes, along with the sentencing of capital punishment.

“Your debt has been paid,” explains the officer.  “Freedom from the judgment rendered is now available.”

“How…what did…I don’t understand,” you admit.

“A reckoning has been accomplished.  Your defender volunteered to pay the debt to the court on your behalf,” explained the man.

You mutter almost under your breath, “You…you mean he…”

“Yes.  Your judge and his son, your appointed defender, agreed to release you from your lawlessness status.  Your defender volunteered to be sacrificed in your place,” replied the officer.  “I was there to witness it.  It was brutal, but it was decreed.  The judge, once the sacrifice was accomplished, was satisfied with the work of your defender.  Retribution has been completed.  There is nothing else needed to be done.  The court considers the matter finished.”

The magnitude of the news stuns you.  You take the certificate of debt from the bailiff as you attempt to summon the right words to the question in the very core of reasoning.

“Why would the judge agree to do this?” you ask.

“Love,” replied the bailiff.  “The judge not only pities your plight, but also expresses great compassion from an endless well of love for you.  He and his son designed this incredible plan together.  Now, it is up to you to accept this gift you have been offered.  You can remain in your shackles, or accept this act of the court’s finding of love toward you today.  Keep in mind, if you choose to deny it, you will remain condemned.”

“How can I thank him for this?” you inquire.  “My defender is dead, but I can still show my gratitude to the judge.”

The bailiff spoke up quickly with urgency, “First, you must take the certificate of debt to the court cashier on your way out.  If you choose to accept this offer of love, hand this certificate to the cashier, stating the debt has been paid.  The cashier will then stamp it, ‘PAID IN FULL!’  After sealing it, your shackles will be removed.  You will then be given new clothing to wear.  It truly is a phenomenal great exchange.  You will discover the doors are already open for you.”

Sheepishly you bring up the obvious, “I hate to be the devil’s advocate here, but what if he changes his mind and sends his guards to bind me again?  Is it possible he will reverse his decision?”

The officer responded, “The judge now sees you as blameless because of his innocent son taking your condemnation upon himself.  Trust this decision.  It will always be a matter of trust.”

Really, you don’t have to imagine.  This is what occurred when Jesus offered Himself to be crucified.  For thousands of years it was foretold this was God’s plan.  The Old Testament is blanketed with the prophecies of where it would happen, why it would happen, the week it would happen, and how it would happen, including the specific wounds he would receive.  On several occasions, Jesus Himself told His followers what would transpire, making it clear He was choosing to give His life away for the redemption of humanity.  At the time, they didn’t quite understand it either.  Although He had multiple opportunities to change plans and escape the arrest, the sentencing, and the cross, He went out of His way to stand ready for it all.  So, some 700 years before Jesus was born, the Old Testament passage was written to assist on identifying Him,

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted.  Yet He did not open His mouth.  Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.” – Isaiah 53:7

When you think about it, forgiveness takes sacrifice.  It was that way in the Old Testament, as God dealt with humanity’s ills, and the guideline continues today.  When forgiving someone who has raped your good name, or one who offended you, you first must swallow down the idea of your gut reaction.  When being slandered publicly by someone who walks all over your integrity, your first thought is to ring his neck.  A kidnapper takes your four-year old and murders him.  Immediately, you want to hunt him/her down to take retribution to satisfy your screaming grief and rage.  Am I right?  If you’re an average person, you would agree with me on this.  To forgive, as you have been forgiven, is to sacrifice your hot satisfaction of revenge.  It’s so much easier to punch the offender’s lights out.  Forgiveness says, “No.  I will not satisfy the overwhelming desire to inflict my retribution on the offender.  Instead, I will wipe away the debt I want to levy.”  This is what Easter is all about.

Theologically, there is so much more to explain concerning the cross of Christ, along with the plan to redeem fallen humankind since Genesis, and the work of Jesus in the future.  However, simplicity was what God decided to spotlight in this case, so we may not have an excuse to ignore His gift.

So, the tomb is empty.  But why?

Buried in a borrowed garden tomb of a secretive wealthy follower, Jesus was wrapped, placed in the tomb, and a large stone was rolled over the door with a Roman seal.  Several Roman soldiers were placed there to guard the tomb.  However, Jesus would not be held by death, or a sealed grave.

Since the payment for our sin is a death sentence, He needed to show proof of His deity.  Once a guilty inmate is pronounced dead by lethal injection, he stays dead.  That’s the finality of capital punishment.  The penalty states, your life is quenched forcibly.  Over a three year period, Jesus publicly raised other corpses to life.  Even random people came out of their graves the same day Jesus walked out of the tomb. (Matthew 27:50-53)  The account in scripture says the righteous dead appeared to many in the city.  An event uniquely placed for Jesus’ miraculous actions during this time.  He was not bound by nature’s law as He was from outside of nature, looking in.  On Easter, Jesus not only proved He once again had power over death itself, authority over the payment for sin, but He also was following through with His teaching of new life offered.  Death is final.  We all know that.  Conquering death is something the living can not do.  With Jesus, it is a gateway to eternity for the soul.  His sacrifice-replacing my debt for my chronic lawbreaking, satisfied the Author of the Ten Commandments.

The resurrection of Jesus was witnessed by Jews and Gentiles alike.  For some forty days after that Sunday morning, He ate, walked, and talked with all of His friends and family.  In fact, scripture has an account that speaks of a crowd of over 500 who saw Him after the resurrection.  The news of it couldn’t be stopped by the local governing class, or even Rome’s iron fist.  Early Christian history is filled with the accounts of Jesus’ followers being tortured, burned alive, and crucified because they would not stop with their testimonies of the risen Messiah.  Ask yourself what you would be willing to die for.

So yes, the tomb in Jerusalem is empty.  My certificate of debt was paid in full and He, being Who He is, survived it all.

I have been purchased with a great price.  My life was changed from old, to new.

 “I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men (His disciples) testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.” – Charles Colson   (Special Counsel to Pres. Richard Nixon, commonly known as Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”.  He was also named as one of the “Watergate Seven”.  He plead guilty to obstruction of justice and served prison time.)

      “…having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” – St. Paul – Colossians 2:14 (NAS)

“…that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.   For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.…  – Jesus –  John 3:15-17 (BSB)

The Ragged Bride – An Allegory

Artwork:  My wife, Michelle Niles-Brown

“I’ve got an everlasting love, so tall, so wide, so high above the rumble of thunder down below.  It’s your love I need.  It’s the only show.  And it’s you on an everlasting dream can take us anywhere…(where) are the tears of yesterday?  We killed the pain.  We blew away the memories of the tears we cried.  And an everlasting love will never die.”  – An Everlasting Love, (1978).  Recorded by:  Andy Gibb.  Composer:  Barry Gibb

Author:  Alan Scott-Brown

The pain in the heart of this prince couldn’t be matched, especially when he witnessed his betrothed in strife and struggle.  He whispered to himself, “It is not yet our time.”

****

Long ago, a radiant prince discarded his crown, his robe, and his royal ring for a brief journey to his father’s subjects in the village below.  The time had come to fulfill his duty as a suitor.  As his father’s custom, as well as the tradition of the community, there had been an arranged marriage for the regal son.  The prince was to be betrothed to a commoner.  First, he agreed to shed his garments of nobility, exchanging them for the humble attire of the land.  After all, this betrothal ceremony was to be unassuming, intimate, and somewhat mysterious to the fellow-villagers.  The footmen and trumpeters made ready, but there was to be no fanfare.

For him, it was strange to walk freely among his father’s subjects, without his accompanying courtiers.  He found tremendous pleasure visiting with the peasant farmers,  the laborers at the village well, and the boisterous shepherds by the lone stable.  Conversations among them all were telling of village life.  On the walkway, one by one, citizens passed him, not recognizing his joyful face, or his distinct speech.  It saddened him to see a grave disillusionment on each face as they carried out their daily routines.  The burden of life wore heavily on the countenance of the people.

Nearby, a poor young maiden’s father and mother were expecting the prince to arrive.  Not calculating the time the prince’s father decreed, they left an oil lamp burning in their window, ready and waiting.

It was the midnight hour on a full moon when the soft knock at their door came.  Scurrying about, the parents awakened her.  In haste, the mother set out the best goblets and rugs just before the third and fourth rap on the lintel.  When her father opened the door, he saw a single man, dressed as a lowly workman, with a small bag hanging off his shoulder.  The maiden’s mother spied through the lit window, expecting to see white horses bridled to chariots of gold, accompanied by a host of noblemen.  She leaned closer to the pane, blinked once, twice, a third time, but there was no royal entourage to be seen.  With expectation’s unfulfilled, the prince was invited into the house and offered a seat at their table.

As the young maiden remained in her chamber, the prince, withholding nothing, openly shared his true identity with her parents.  He spoke of things only royalty could.  He presented a scroll, marked with the sovereign’s seal.  He broke the seal himself before presenting it to the father of the maiden.  Enclosed were the fine details of a costly dowry to come, a dowry with a high price, generously offered by the father of the prince.   For the moment, the parents were amazed, even silenced.  Although he wasn’t arrayed like a prince, or traveled as a prince, there was understanding that he had been sent from the royal castle on the hill.  Nonetheless, a mystery lingered in their minds.

The maiden was called to enter for a presentation by her father.  Her entrance displayed a beautiful young maiden, adorned in a pristine, but common, white linen gown, weaved for the occasion.  Just below her striking hazel eyes, a thin light blue veil was fastened.  The prince arose from his chair in respect, coupled with great delight.  At once, her brows raised as she was inquisitive concerning the appearance of the prince.

With suspicion in her speech,  “Uh, father, this man is a commoner.  I thought he…”

The father sharply interrupted her, “Young one, the time has come for you to sit at the table of decision.”

Sheepishly, she took her designated place at the table, across from the prince.  In a softer tone, her mother explained that she, and her husband, would retreat to the back courtyard for a time.  The kindly prince, who admired their traditions, remained standing until they made their exit.

As the parents took their leave, they couldn’t help recalling the last time a suitor appeared with the promise of a dowry.  There was an older daughter at that time, the firstborn, who was of age for marriage.  The charming suitor claimed knighthood from the sovereign’s court, complete with squires and armor-bearers.  One hour after the betrothal ceremony, he returned, stealing her away, leaving the family in ruin.  The daughter was never to be seen again.  Rumors hovered for years that the damsel was enslaved, bound to serve in the chambers of a ruthless king in a far country.  The infliction left them with undeserved fears echoing in their minds.

Time seemed to stand still as the prince, and the maiden, spoke privately of family, faith, and freedom.  An immediate connection was being fashioned.  There was laughter for a time, only to meld into soft tears as he spoke of the hopelessness he witnessed among the villagers.  For her, she had grown accustomed to it, never anticipating a change.  As prince, he vowed to her, he would present the entire community with a free gift of insight to a life well beyond the boundaries they had set for themselves.

He reflected on his father in great reverence and love.  She was all agog concerning the enigma of the castle, and life within it.  The more the prince unveiled about the state of royalty behind the great wall, the more she wanted to cast aside speculations.  The maiden wanted to know more of his majesty’s likeness, his persona, and his plans for them both.

“My father embraces all manner of loveliness and is rich in laughter,” he explained in boldness.  “Not one thing has he ever withheld from me, as well as those he holds in his heart.  The land is unaware of his immense compassion for his people.  Soon, he will prove it to them.  In time, as he greets you, you will find we are alike.”

The sheer enthusiasm in his voice moved her to a place she had never been.  Although his speech was authoritative in nature, there was a soft grace about him.  The maiden acknowledged how his simple joy invaded the distrust nesting in the caverns deep in her soul.  In her very core, she wanted to escape the cloud surrounding her people.  Her dreams cascaded with the memory of her sister who had vanished at the hands of the evil knight.  Yet, for this moment, the maiden found she was wooed by this lamb of a prince, as well as the words of his promises.

Despite the night seemingly frozen in place, the time had come for them to separate.  The prince reached into his bag, pulling out a small loaf of bread, just enough for the two of them.  He explained the loaf was baked by him alone, and not the royal chef.  She was eager to taste of it.  Just before her hand reached for the bread, he then presented a small jar of clay filled with red wine.  He told her it was just enough for one goblet.  The color was brilliant against the table’s candlelight.  She asked him in which vineyard was it harvested.  With a sparkle in his smiling eyes he answered, “This is from my father’s vineyard.  The vine comes out of the earth with ease by his nurturing hand.”

Pinching off a piece of the loaf, he offered it to her.

Just before the maiden bit into the bread, he said, “No doubt, even though I must go, you will always remember this bread when you think of us, here tonight.”

As her eyes gleamed from the flavor of the loaf, he fetched the holiday goblet her mother had set out.  As he poured the wine in the cup, he reminded her of the tradition of the act of betrothal.

In humble sincerity he spoke directly, “Recall that you have a choice remaining.  You can decide now to refuse to drink of my wine, decline the dowry, and the arrangement will be dissolved.  Or, you can drink from this goblet, sealing the covenant that our wedding will take place.  By this, you will forsake all other suitors who come after I depart.”

As he explained the tradition of their culture, he placed the cup in front of her while watching intently with overwhelming eagerness.  She slowly wrapped her fingers around the goblet, holding it in her hand while sniffing the aroma.  Her mind raced with what her future might be as a princess of a great land.  With that, the maiden closed her eyes, placed the the cup carefully beneath the veil, and drank all of it.  Without hesitation, the two of them cheered, clapped their hands, and shouted in the excitement of love’s contract.  They hugged, they danced around the table, leaving them longing to catch their breath.

The table of decision was over.  It was time for him to journey back up the hill.  A sense of melancholy fell over the room.  He held her hand tightly as he reached into his sleeve, retrieving a beautiful scarlet scarf of silk which had been concealed from view.

As he carefully wrapped it around her left wrist, he gently explained, “This silk scarf is to always remain fixed onto your wrist.  Wherever you go, it will be a sign for others you have sipped the royal wine of the prince.  For you, it will always be a reminder of our bonding as one mind, one heart.”

“I will, sweet prince.  I will,” she gladly proclaimed.

The prince continued, “Meanwhile, there is preparation to be done for the coronation.”

With a gasp the maiden shouted, “A CORONATION?”

Delivered with a chuckle, “Yes, you are to be queen of the kingdom.  The wedding itself will be like nothing this village has ever seen, or put to ink.”

“Tell me!  Paint my mind with the image,” the maiden replied as she closed her eyes.

“Of course,” he remarked, “There will be multitudes of guests who will be at the pinnacle of awe.  You will be given the brightest snow-white gown, with a train that will fill the castle.  You will be clad in the finest of jewels, mined from the ends of the earth.  Kings and queens will ask to kiss your white gloved hand adorned with rings.  I am certain even the animals will bow down to you.  (They both reveled in laughter.)  With each step you make, my father’s servants will dip in affirmation of your right as queen.  All of the kingdom’s knights will bend the knee.  They all will be at your disposal.  This is how you will be welcomed.”

The maiden’s exuberance seemed to glow about the room.  Yet, her eyes looked puzzled.

Seeing her bewilderment, he added, “Yes, now you do not realize, but YOU are to rule over the company of the noble knights.”

At this statement, she saw an odd transformation melt over his face.  His countenance turned to concern.

“You look troubled, my prince.  Is there more I should know?” asked the maiden.

He sat her down, leaned toward her in solemness, “There is a caution to disclose.  To this point you have trusted in my words.  So trust this, as well.  Long ago, before you were born, there was a revolt among a remnant of the knights of the kingdom.  Profane words were spoken in the very courts of my father.  A coup was attempted to overthrow the throne.  A war ensued.  Many a knight joined in revolt against his majesty.  Yet he, being greater than them all, cast the insurgents from the highest walls of the castle.  To this day, the rebels do all in their power to spread myths about my father.  They are strategically crafty with fallacies concerning me, and this very kingdom.  With stealth, they charm, deceive, and even slaughter citizens here and foreign lands.”

His shoulders slumped, as great sadness washed over his eyes like a wave.

After a slight pause, “I know the dark knight who swindled your family, the one who robbed you of your sister,” he explained.  “This one is a mighty adversary.  He, and his brood’s code, is to do whatever it takes to end life as you know it, take possession of your treasures, and desolate all innocence.  You, my precious, will be a trophy for their league.  You will be marked by those who hate my father and our sovereignty.  In fact, they will despise the sign of the scarlet gracing your wrist.  There will be those who will even attempt to seduce you.  Efforts will be made to dye your scarf of scarlet into a faded gray.

“How can this be?” asked the young maiden.

“They hate me, so they will hate you, as well,” he replied.  “So, be on guard.  Even some of your own friends and family will despise you.  It is no secret that many of your neighbors do not favor my father.  It all leads back to the uprising.  So listen, and rest on my words of hope and triumph.  There are multitudes of my warriors clothed as I am today, covertly living in this village.  They keep watch.  They are faithful to report.  They will protect.”

The maiden responded to his curious, but comforting words, “Yes, I believe you.  If I find myself enclosed by the enemy, I will look up to the castle for rescue.  I will call out for you.”

The prince, speaking in a different manner, “I will listen for your voice…always.  Know that I will attend to you.  When you begin to doubt, just look at the scarlet of your scarf to remember this night’s cup.  For now, I must return to my father with this joyful news of our betrothal.”

He turned toward the door to start his journey home.

The young maiden jumped from her chair with a quick response, “When will I see you again?  Will we revisit with your bread and wine?”

Stopping as he heard her words, he turned slowly to face her.  Gazing gently into her eyes he said, “Take comfort, precious one.  Know that I will not be back for another filled goblet.  But, I will drink a more superb vintage with you when you enter the castle for all time.  For now, I must go.  The time is short.”

The maiden spoke out with some sense of exasperation, “You didn’t say when I will see you again?  When will we wed?  When should I make ready?”  Clasping her hands together and holding them to her chest,  “Oh, I have a thousand questions to ask!”

“I understand, more than you know,” he replied.  “The traditions of the land are clear.  Betrothal, legal betrothal, can be short, or lengthy.  It is not for the groomsman to dictate.  My father created his calendar.  He has his seasons.  He alone designates the year, the day, the time concerning us.  However, you will feel the time nearing, when others will not.”

The maiden challenged, “Since you and his majesty are alike, why can’t you tell me of his seasons?  Why must the days pass so slowly?”

The prince answered, “They will pass as they should.  No more, no less.  While I am gone, I will be busy tailoring a whole new wing of the castle just for you.  It will be more evidence that I will retrieve you for myself.  Before the coronation and the wedding feast, his majesty expects the construction to be complete.  It must be accomplished prior to your arrival.  Don’t fret, I am known to do well at the process of building.  Until then, you are to remain here, live here, and thrive here.  All the more reason to hold to what happened in your father’s house tonight.  Hold to my promises.  Hold to your goblet.”

At this, he opened the door.  At the threshold he stopped, turning to her one final time.

“Light your lamp in the window for me,” he said with a sparkling grin.  “I will not be adorned like this again, but you will recognize me from the glow of your lamp.  Meanwhile, you will hear from me often.  Take heart, my love.”

With a better understanding, she accepted his words, “I will.  My oil keg will be full.”

As the prince walked out the door, she leaned against the lintel, struck in a swelling impression of amazement and awe.  The young maiden kept her eyes trained on him in the light of the full moon, as he traveled back up the hill toward the castle in the distance.  Just then, a peasant stranger carrying a clay pot of water was passing by the house.  At first thought, she felt it odd, for the hour was late.  She only acknowledged his presence by moving her head slightly, as the man obstructed her view for a wisp of a moment.

The stranger nodded, and spoke with certainty as he walked by, “No need to worry, dear one.  If he promised to come for you, he will.  If you watch, you will see him arrive from that very gate.”

She was stunned at the peasant’s knowledge.  She wondered if he had overheard from the window.  In her daze, she looked up to the hill once again.  After he disappeared from view, she was enraptured by the hours they had spent.  Later, the maiden was taken aback to learn from her parents the length of his visit was only thirty-three minutes.

The hours turned to days.  The days turned to months.  The months added years to the longing of unification.  Daily the prince stood watch at his window from the castle tower.  Day and night, his eyes were roving over the entire village below, keeping watch over his beloved.

Forces from the enemy of the kingdom covertly eroded the lives of each citizen of the community, even the following generations.  There were evil times of plunder and pillage throughout the land.  Knights of the court reported each detail back to the prince.  The wicked hordes raided deep in the night, destroying and abducting for their own sadistic possession.  Although the royal knights, loyal to his majesty, who stayed among the commoners were far more superior in strength than the adversaries’ agents, the battles delivered burdensome tolls.

The prince, wanting to encourage his young princess, wrote love letters to be sent directly by his heralds.  Knowing the times of turmoil, he wrote words on his scrolls like, “Endure,” “Love the villagers and their enemies, just as I have loved you,” “Tend to the wounded,” and “Watch and wait until I come for you.”  Such writings were a treasure chest of his heart and mind.  The maiden read them often.  His words assured his love was not only intact, but active.  So powerful were the words, the maiden began to emulate his heart as she lived out her days without him.  Her quill copied the letters word for word in efforts to share them with her village neighbors to guide and incite a defense against the rebels.  Couriers were dispatched for public readings in village squares elsewhere.  Over the years, multitudes heard the words of the prince because of the copies.  During that season of the kingdom, there were twenty-seven letters in all.

Soon after the scrolls of the prince were known, suitors from across the land came with false dowries, scheming to woo the young maiden away from the prince.  A number of them arrived wearing the regal robes.  Their armored steeds were fed by envy, mixed with a hunger for power.  Yet, she held to his promises from that first moonlit night long ago.  In the midst of it all, the villagers were being persuaded to proclaim allegiance through the art of mimics, misdirection, and misleading tactics.  Like trained blind animals, many turned from the reign of his majesty and his gifts.

As the years moved through the realities of that time, with her view washed in clarity, her soul surged within her, developing an everlasting, faithful love for her groomsman.

Standing at his tower window, the pain in the heart of this prince couldn’t be matched, especially when he witnessed his betrothed in strife and struggle.  He whispered to himself, “It is not yet our time.”

It was a night of the new moon, when the maiden’s house was burned to the ground by enemy torches.  Her parents were placed on a wagon and taken outside the village.  They, as well as many others, vanished in a far country.

Although the maiden survived, her eyes shifted to the hill crying, “How long, oh, prince?  How much longer?”

During the changing of the seasons, after counseling with his father in his chamber, concerning the plight of his people, he returned to the tower window.  The prince observed the streets once again.  The maiden appeared at the far end, drawing water from the community well.  His heart was sore as he witnessed her draped in old soiled raiment, stained and tattered from the doings of trials, coupled with trauma.  She had grown older while still in her youth.  Her skin was weathered from a battered life among the continuing struggle.  Although seemingly weak outwardly, he beheld her as strong.  Although ragged and stained, he counted her as clean as virgin snow.

Moved again with compassion for her, he sent spoken words to be delivered aloud.  Special selections were made for the messengers to dispatch.  The words were consistent with his love letters of the past.  As she listened to the messages, her aged, scarred hand clutched her scarlet silk scarf of promise.  In a still, unassuming voice within her, she heard the words, “It is not yet our time.”

For some groomsmen of those times, a blemished, soiled bride in ragged garments was often denied promises established during more fetching days.  However, this groomsman beheld the truth of her ragged, stained, peasant garment, yet loved her still.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him the glory.  For the marriage of the lamb (prince) has come, and His bride has made herself ready.  It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.  Then he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb (prince).'”  And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”” – (The writings of John.)  Revelation 19:7-9 (NAS)

 

 

 

For Something You Love More – A Short Story

By: Alan Scott Brown

The holiday season of 2009 was a lean one for many.  Doug Benford was eager to see the year fade off into the realms of history.

He didn’t hear the alarm this particular Friday morning.  Sparks, his beloved tan and white Jack Russell Terrier and Dachshund mix, jumped on his chest with an ample supply of tongue lashings to the face, warnings for outdoor bladder relief.

“Okay okay, pal, I’m up!” Doug said with a bite to his groggy voice.  “Hop off the bed.  I’ll meet you at the back door.”

On his way to the closet he asked himself common a question, “My better-half brought him home, saying he was part rooster.  Why can’t he just wait for the alarm?”

Doug laid-out his clothes for the day – jeans, flannel shirt, and leather jacket.  As he was changing, he heard a familiar scratching coming from the back kitchen door.

“Hey, Sausage!”  (His wife’s nickname for Sparks.)  “So help me, if I wind up painting that door I’ll have your hide on the garage wall!” said Doug as he threw on his shirt on his way to the back door.  As Doug opened the door, Sparks let out his high pitched terrier yelp.  Just then, like a flash, the short-haired companion headed for his favorite backyard spot.

The Tennessee morning had a light dusting of snow on the ground which gleamed with intermittent rays of sunshine, coming through the high clouds.  As his routine of late, Doug walked slowly across the frosty lawn, taking in each step, each sight, as if organizing a mental photo album.

A streak of unfortunate circumstances had disabled his income.  He had adjusted surviving on what little savings was left, as well as weekly unemployment checks.  He had one more CD he’d not cashed-in, but the clock was ticking.  After almost fifteen years at the Spring Hill GM plant, the layoffs cast him into a devastating position.  He had to put his SUV up for sale just to make it through a few months.  Now, an antique Ford pick-up took up the driveway space.  The truck was a project he once enjoyed, making efforts to refurbish it.  For now, its bed served to hold branches, twigs and scrap lumber.  Doug had resigned to warming part of the house with wood he had chopped-up from selective trees on the property.  He feared cutting electricity altogether, as he considered resigning to a log cabin with a potbelly stove.

With foreclosure looming in the near future, he turned to gaze slowly over the home he and his wife moved into some years ago.  In those times it was sheer dreams of Americana, complete with a house full of visiting kids from the block and friendly next-door neighbors.  Standing in the cold morning air, while facing the back of the house, he caught a quick glimpse of an apparition.  Through the frozen fog of his exhales, he saw a little girl peering out an upstairs bedroom window, wearing an innocent grin only adoring parents could memorize.  For a moment, just before her image melted away, she held out her hand with a slow wave.  After a pregnant pause, he came to himself, shaking his head after a few seconds in the midst of waving back.

Grieving families know all too well how quickly an automatic smile can be transformed into the frown of loss.  Dreams of the tragic car crash on a wet highway that took his wife, Cheryl, and his four year old, Emily, haunted his days and nights.  The years seemed like weeks, since that deadly sword of fate carved a trench in his heart.  What was intended to be a wonderful July 4th get-a-way to the Smokies, had plunged his world into an abyss, so dark and so deep, that only a day’s work at the plant could distract his focus from the torture.  Now, he could no longer use full-time work as the medication of choice.  Jack Daniels was his new covert friend.

The house was filled with echoing vacancy.  Doug’s depression pained his physical body as he stepped up to a young Loblolly Pine tree, the “King Pine” of the South, planted firmly along the back line of the lawn.  It was now the lone tree, carefully nourished and treasured with love.  It was a tree of so much pride, wrapped in a father’s heart.  He got the idea from a neighbor to plant a seedling in the yard on the day Emily was born, a symbol marking the start of a precious God-given life.  As she and the tree grew, he nailed a pink ribbon to the trunk each year on her birthday, gauging her height.  On the day of high school graduation, Emily was to stand next to the tree, in full cap and gown with cameras flashing, as he was to nail the last pink ribbon to the trunk.  Now, the tree grows as a stark reminder of the missing pink ribbons, which would never be added.

A tear slowly rolled down into his salt-n-pepper stubble thinking of what might have been.  He and the family dog were now struggling in the wake of this unexpected cosmic eraser of hopes and imaginings.  As he blinked to see his wristwatch, Sparks broke the heaviness by taking wild, full-beans laps around Emily’s tree.  With a half chuckle he hollered, “Yep, let’s get it together, boy.  The kids will be waiting.”  As much as he wanted to reminisce, the day’s schedule wouldn’t allow it.

The old rusty Ford sat in the driveway nearly every day as Doug took the economically-forced bus ride to his annual part-time gig.  He gave it a pat on the hood as he walked by on the way to the bus stop, some two miles from his house.  After boarding, the sprinkling of a late November snow was already beginning to say its good-byes to the morning sun.  As he traveled from intersection to intersection, watching the angry holiday traffic, he was reminded of the dreary miles to a job he had learned to despise.  His circumstances had soured his very bones, which caused a dismal filter on everyday life.  It was only short-term; a job to keep the water bill afloat with soup cans on the shelf for another month.  Sitting next to another city traveler he whispered to himself, “Homelessness is for February.”

The local mall was overwhelming the day after Thanksgiving.  The insanity of consumerism was in fast forward mode, with shoppers only taking time out for a dash at any empty table in the food court.  Black Friday stress was evident on every face, full of hustle and bustle, and way beyond the expected annual rat race.  A year of recession had taken its toll, especially for low and middle income households.  Customers needed good deals.  Coming down the escalator were platoons of humanity with shopping bags in both arms, trying to recall where they had parked.

At the bottom of the moving stairs, where the steps vanished into the first floor, families were lined-up.  In a roped maze line, displaying a parade of holiday weariness, children were decked out in their festive best.  There were little girls sporting satin gowns, coupled with silk ribbons in their hair.  The boys were squirming, pulling at their neck ties of Christmas colors.  Mothers were busy working on uncooperative strands of hair, along with fathers staring absently into space, eating steaming hot pretzels, in efforts to tune out the mayhem.  And there in the distance, in the center of the activity, was a throne, laced in gold metallic paint and red velveteen, fit for a…Santa.  Cameras were locked and loaded for personal documentary, at a fat cost.

Each morning on the way to the outside employee entrance, Doug passed an elderly Salvation Army kettle volunteer ringing his little tin bell, greeting potential donors loaded down with holiday cares.

“Hello, young fella!” the old man belted, with a sincere warmth that could melt frost.  Doug never wanted to appear as a Scrooge, so he always responded like an award-winning actor on the red carpet, “Good morning!”  The old guy always seemed to pick up on Doug’s tossed spirit.  Wishing to cheer, the jolly man responded, “Yessir, it’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”

Doug stepped up his pace, thinking to himself, “Do the most good by staying home, that is.”

Every day – weekdays and weeknights throughout the month – the routine was the same.  And, every day he thought of alternative ways to get to the employee entrance without passing the old man at the red kettle stand.  In his sleep he heard, “It’s always a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.”  At times he wondered if he said it aloud after Sparks would wake him, jumping up in the high antique bed, landing on his chest, whining and sniffing his face.

The door of the break room flew open as Doug came stumbling in, murmuring under his breath.  Startled with the sudden sound, a cleaning lady, who was pouring a cup of coffee, responded lightheartedly to his clumsy entrance.

“Hey Doug, did Mr. Grinch bring you to work today?”

He closed the door with a bit of frustrated force.  With a large exhale he replied, “Oh, Maggie, that old bell ringer out there has two volume levels, loud and very loud.”

Maggie again responded with a joyful chuckle, “Last year, you complained about that old man just about every day.  Let me ask you, now did it ever get you what you prefer?”

Doug grunted as he took off his jacket.

“Come on,” Maggie said, “I’ve already got you a cup of cheer this morning.  I just made the first pot.  Donuts are in the box.”

Maggie was a poor single mom who worked at the mall, sweeping up debris shoppers left behind, emptying trash cans and mopping floors.  For such a hard working woman, with just above a minimum hourly wage, she never let her state in life rule over her disposition.  It was noticed, and certainly Doug had a front row view of her jovial way of getting through daily life.  Maggie was the type who had Christmas spirit during the storms of the spring, in the heat of July, and while the leaves of every hue let go of their branches in autumn.

Doug had a tendency to hide stored-up layers of envy, wishing he could rise above his strata of fog to shine like Maggie. Through the year he would walk the mall for exercise and visit with Maggie on her breaks where the two would debate about the recession, religion, and geopolitical news.  Yet, the one thing he wouldn’t discuss with his friend was his loneliness, due to his cascading losses in life.  Although they were like a wave he had to surf, he remained embarrassed by his state.  Sadly, he felt the pain was for him to own, not to share.  Maybe it was his pride, or just the way he was raised by somewhat stoic folk, but he kept his troubles to himself.

After taking another sip of the fresh java, Maggie shared more than he expected.  “Ya know, Doug, you’ll have to bring that little mutt of yours up here before Christmas comes and goes.  My little guy, Aiden, has a DVD of “101 Dalmatians” and just cackles at the antics, along with all those cute faces.  He’s in first grade now and has yet to even pet a dog.  Can you believe it?  Honestly, one of these days I’ll have enough saved up for a dog from the pound.”

Doug found himself listening closely to her, dreading all the while the next twelve hours at the job.  With a click, the time clock struck 9:30am.  Downing the last swig of coffee, he pulled the words out of his mouth, “I guess I can’t stop the clock, Maggie.  I’ll see you later.”

“I hear that.  Have a good day!” said Maggie.  She slowly shook her head as she watched him walk away with shoulders slumped, heading to a section of metal lockers.

Chin to his chest, Doug opened the locker door.  He let out a big sigh at the sight of what was hanging on a hook.  The fluorescent lights above him landed on a bright red Santa suit, complete with black boots, a white wooly strap-on beard, and a hat only the best Claus could wear.  With a weak groan, he collected the heavy fur wardrobe and turned to the men’s room to change.

Doug was a man of integrity at heart.  Playing the role of the jolly old elf to the throng of kids and parents was done well; after all, this is what he was hired to do.  Through the weeks he sat in that chair posing for pictures and videos with children from all slices of life.  Overbearing mothers, some with their diamonds and silk purses, bothered him the most as they pushed and prodded their little brats with the will of a perfection-driven, Hollywood director.

He was amazed at the variety of Claus worshippers.  No matter the race, religion or status – whether rich or poor, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists – the farce continued with plastic smiles and a “HO-HO-HO”.  For weeks on end he fought with the beard-pulling kids and petrified youngsters, forced into this scene by their pseudo stage-moms.  Then came the dreaded college students, who insisted on posing with him for the fun of it.  Oh, and then there was the occasional Calvin Klein-clad seven year old, who must have come from a long line of mobsters, threatening him with Christmas Eve cookie and eggnog withholdings.  Frankly, the shock wore off after hearing a set of twin girls demanding that they get whatever the little girl before them inquired about.  It was that caliber of child that pierced his heart the most, as he thought of the sweetness of his little Emily and her selfless personality.

What kind of young woman could she have been, if life had been granted?  He fought the gravity of the emotional vortex which took him to that awful place of deep inexplicable loss.

With each day he felt a growing anger toward children.  So much so, he counted down the remaining shopping days when he could hang up the suit and candy canes for the very last time.

*****

It was the night of December 23rd, when Doug shuffled his way up the driveway after another marathon day in Santa’s court.  In the darkness he spied an envelope taped to his front door.  It was a notice for interruption of electrical service from non-payment.  He looked down, shook his head, letting the document slip out of his hands.  No amount of cinnamon sticks, sugar cookies, nor magical reindeer dust could keep the feelings of resentment and dejection away.

He found himself shouting into the chilled air, “God, what are you trying to do to me?  Don’t you think I’ve been through enough?”  Exhausted, coupled with anger and sorrow, Doug sat on the front steps, pulled his knees up to his chest and released his tears.

After dragging himself inside, he reached for the liquor cabinet in the kitchen for a shot of synthetic comfort.  Being pragmatic, he immediately began to plan just how he could survive another two months without electricity, until the bank took the house.

Later, that same night, he stoked up the fire in the fireplace, warmed up a can of soup on the hearth and sorted through his mail.  Sparks just looked at him with an expression of, what seemed to be, canine telepathy, ‘Whatever it is, it’s okay.’  Doug, appreciated the cute facial expression.  While scratching the dog lovingly behind the ears, he replied with a whisper, “You’re right, boy.  You’re right.”

As he and Sparks snuggled, with the oak logs ablaze, warming his cold feet, thoughts of his childhood rolled through his memory like an old movie.

Doug’s dad always left the nativity set for him to assemble under the tree.  He recalled taking a great deal of satisfaction placing all the characters where he pleased.  In particular, there was one figurine of a lamb, just tall enough to peer over into the manger, as if curious to why there was a baby where his dinner should be.  Doug broke out with unanticipated laughter just revisiting the thought.  Soon, he would be like the baby Jesus: in a crowded town, without a home, hanging out with an animal.  That was the last thought ushering him into a broken night’s sleep.

Christmas Eve morning was uneventful: same walk to the bus stop, same bus route with the same street scenery.  For the last time he would stroll by the old Salvation Army soldier ringing that hideous bell.  With Doug’s head turned the opposite direction, the familiar daily gruff voice addressed him once again.

“Hello young man!  It’s a good morning, ain’t it?”

In a huffy tone Doug nodded, “Yeah, I guess. I’m sure you’re serving where you can do the most good.”

Without a trace of offence, the old man laughed, “That’s right, son.  Loving others before loving ourselves.  God willin’, next Christmas I’ll be waitin’ for ya, right here.”

With a brisk step, he moved away with the gate of a New York jaywalker.

For the third day in a row Doug entered the break room to find his friend Maggie wasn’t in her usual place.  The coffee pot was empty and the counters hadn’t yet been wiped down.  He felt a sagging inside, knowing this was his last morning to pretend to be someone he’s not.  But, without Maggie’s bright morning face, along with her joy-filled attitude, the boost to make Santa what he could be, would be lacking.

After he suited up, he visited the mall manager’s office to ask about her.  She had left a message that her son had the flu and, actually, asked for Doug to call her when he got a break later in the morning.  He found himself feeling sorry for the little guy as the hours dragged on.  At his noon break, only after a final “HO-HO-HO”, he went back to the office to ring Maggie up.  Her voice shook as she told him of her overwhelming fear of Swine Flu.  She had seen the symptoms before, during a recent outbreak.  Struck by the unsettled sound in her voice, Doug’s heart sank.  Surprisingly so, he experienced a deep emotion for a little boy he had never met.

Maggie’s voice cracked a bit, “Doug, he wanted to come see you…I mean, Santa…before you shut down.  As you can see, that’s not gonna happen.  He simply won’t see Christmas this year at all.  I’m wondering if you would think about doing me a favor.  Why not come here, to the apartment as Mr. Claus, after you get off tonight?  If you can’t, I’ll understand.  No pressure.”

Doug paused only for a moment.  Without thinking it through, his response came so naturally, “Sure, sure I will.  We close down early tonight so Kris Kringle can get back to the North Pole for dinner with the Mrs.”

With a great deal of relief, she gave him her address in hopes for a holiday shocker that would be one of Aiden’s greatest childhood memories.

Around 5:30 that afternoon, Doug got off the bus near the apartment complex.  Right away he realized where he was.  Way back when, he and his co-workers would laugh and mock the “trash” that lived in this ghetto.  If there were second class citizens in town, they lived here, according to his way of thinking.  He looked up into the cloudy sky with a quick and silent thought, “God, why me?”  The neighborhood was known for gang violence year-round.  He began cautiously walking toward the rundown complex.  Looking over his shoulder a few times, he asked himself why he wasn’t carrying a weapon for protection.  He shook off the mental images, as he mustered up some holiday cheer for a sick little boy.  Maggie soon heard a “HO-HO-HO” at the door.

Maggie’s chin quivered as she fumbled a bit disengaging the locks.  She opened the door to find Doug standing there, decked out in his Santa suit, exhausted from the gauntlet of last minute shoppers.  On the verge of collapse herself, Maggie responded, “Oh, Doug, thank you for coming.  You have no idea what this will do for his spirit.  Come in, take a load off.”

He sat nervously on the couch, with his knee bouncing up and down.  After pouring him a mug of hot cocoa, she prepared Doug for the visit to come.  She softly spoke of their financial frailty, admitting Aiden was unaware of the struggles they faced.  Doug was touched by her candor.  He understood and opened up to her the facts of his similar circumstances.  Clearly they shared a harboring of unearned, unnecessary guilt and shame.  He knew their kindred spirit hit a benchmark as the conversation led them both.  With hard truths shared, Maggie squeezed his hand as they both looked down at the floor recognizing their somber moment.

Almost as an afterthought, Maggie reached for a sealed plastic bag, pulling out a surgical mask.  She stepped up closer to him, ready to place it over his strap-on white beard.  Doug quickly grabbed her by the wrists, took it in his hands, and placed it back in the bag.

“But, Doug, he has a 103 temp right now.” she explained with deep concern.

With a half smile he replied, “He doesn’t need to remember a St. Nick who took precautions to be with him in a time of need.  I’ll take my chances.”

She nodded in agreement while holding back the sob rising from her belly once again.  With a deliberate hush in tone, she said, “Okay, Follow me.”

Aiden was in bed, half asleep from the meds prescribed.  He was pale.  His eyelids were swollen and his little face was gaunt.  Being roused by the opening of the bedroom door, he heard his mom’s forced cheerful voice, “Honey, look who dropped by to see you.”

When Doug walked through the door, Aiden gasped, “SANTA!!”

With the best delivery he could put out, Doug moved into Santa-mode, “HO-HO-HO!  Merry Christmas, young man!”  The little guy threw his head back with an exuberant belly laugh of his own, followed by an aggressive, lingering chest cough.

Maggie knew what needed to happen.

“I’ll leave you two alone.  Honey, Santa can’t stay long. Okay?”  She then exited, closed the door softly behind her, bracing herself against the hallway wall.

Right away, Doug’s heart was lifted as he saw a very ill little boy whose bloodshot eyes lit-up with wonderment.  Doug had witnessed hundreds of red-cheeked faces, with a look of awe only a child could express, but this face was vastly different.  The smile Aiden displayed at his unexpected visitor could have ignited Doug’s house with every Christmas light string possible.

Surrendering to being authentically moved, in his best Santa-voice he belted, “Well, son, what do you want under your tree in the morning?  It’ll be here in a flash and I don’t have much time.”

In response, Aiden struggled to sit up in bed, “Santa, can I tell you a secret?”

Doug tried hard not to laugh but managed to say, “The fact is, Santa is well-known for keeping secrets.  Let me have it.”

The boy motioned him to bend down closer so he could speak softly, “Um, we don’t have a Christmas tree this year.  Mom said we couldn’t afford a tree.  So, I know there won’t be anything waiting for me, ’cause without a Christmas tree, you can’t put any gifts under it, right? Everybody knows that.”

As Doug felt a lump growing in his throat, he turned his head away, and looked out the bedroom window for a moment for distraction.  He dared not allow the boy to see Santa breakdown.  Aiden continued sharing his thoughts.

“Santa, there’s just one thing I want, if you can do it.”

Doug quickly responded, holding tightly to his Kringle character, if only by the fingernails, “Of course I can do it!  I’m the king of the elves!  No limitations here!  What will it be?”

Aiden whispered slowly, “Give mom a new face in the morning.”

For the boy’s sake, Doug wanted to look like Father Christmas understood the request.  Concerned he was not going to pull it off, he spoke quickly, “Well, what kind of face should she have tomorrow?”

With a sore throat, the boy swallowed hard, “Uh, Santa, ever since I got sick she no longer smiles.  She wears a strange frown, one I’ve never seen before.”

Doug paused and stroked his fake beard.  A sense of bona fide fatherhood rolled through his veins, a sensation he hadn’t possessed since the loss of his little Emily.  He cocked his head slightly to one side.  It seemed to be an automatic gesture, as he brushed a strand of hair from the boy’s forehead with his white-gloved hand, and with the other, presented a candy cane.

Leaning closer to the lad, he said tenderly, “Boy, just love your mother every minute of every day, and you’ll see that smile.  Now, close your eyes and get to that ‘long winter’s nap’ you hear about.  Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

The boy was weak but had enough strength to squeeze Doug’s finger.  As he broke out with a grin he replied, “Merry Christmas to you, too.  And be careful on the roof.”

With that, Doug left the apartment, as if in a rush, without saying more than Merry Christmas to Maggie on the way out.

Standing in the open doorway, watching him quick-step toward the bus stop, she yelled, “But Doug, what happened in there?”  As he climbed onto the nearly vacant bus, he felt crushed with the perplexing crossroads of what to do for the two of them.  All the way home one phrase from an old man bubbled up in his mind.

‘It’s a good morning when one can serve where you’re doing the most good.’ 

 Once again, he considered his poverty, his rapidly depleted savings, and his last payroll check from the mall.  It was a stark certainty for him, unemployment launched once again on Christmas Day.  The means were slim to none, and for him, humbling.  Taking off his white gloves, he rung his hands, bowed his head, and for the first time in a long time, prayed for wisdom, strength, and clarity

*****.

Christmas morning came early for Maggie.  She had attempted sleeping in a chair in Aiden’s room, which didn’t deliver.  After taking his temperature, she shuffled her way to the kitchen to make her best Christmas breakfast to celebrate the most special, the most meaningful holiday of the year.  It wasn’t long until a weak little boy awoke to the smell of buttermilk flap-jacks and French toast, crowned with cinnamon.  The boy noticed the candy cane still clinched in his hand.  He thought to himself, ‘This can be Mom’s Christmas present.’

Slowly lifting himself out of bed, he stumbled down the hallway to hang the peppermint cane on his mom’s bedroom doorknob.  Walking passed the sliding glass door to the patio, he could see the sunlight peeking through the slats of the vertical blinds, wishing he had snow and health to play in it.  Rounding the corner, he could see his mom working diligently in the kitchen with her hair a mess, along with swollen, sleepy eyes.  Maggie’s tired face brightened as she saw him standing there in his footed pajamas, with some long-awaited color in his cheeks, looking as if he had a little more energy than the day before.

“Merry Christmas, honey!” she said without hesitation.  Hugging his frame, she could feel his weight loss, “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”

He made his way to the table where a rare sight was waiting.  By a stack of pancakes, dripping in warm maple syrup, was a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice blended with milk.  He knew then that this was no ordinary morning.  Maggie had saved up enough to splurge on a holiday breakfast that was beyond their norm of a simple cup of oatmeal.  Aiden felt an appetite for the first time in three days, and it was good timing for them both.  After a quick prayer, which included, a “Happy birthday, Jesus”, he began to dig in.

After a bite or two, Aiden got up the courage to ask a hard question. “Mom, after breakfast can I go outside to play?  Lots of my friends will be playing with their new toys.  I feel good enough.  Really I do.”

Barely drawing a breath, Maggie almost cut him off, “Absolutely not, young man.  You won’t be playing for a few days yet.  You are not out of the woods by far.  Besides silly, the sun isn’t up yet.”   With a puzzled look on his face he charged back, “No, Mom.  I saw the sun coming through the sliding glass door.”

Puzzled, Maggie looked at her watch, put down her fork before heading to the patio door.  As she walked away, he sprinkled more cinnamon on his delectable stack.

From the other room he heard her inquisitive tone, “What in the world?  Aiden, come to the patio, quick!!!”

The boy leapt up, with strength he didn’t think he had, and hurried to the sliding glass door to find his mom pulling back the blinds.  As she did, it revealed a brightly lit patio with a string of white lights up and down the posts, lacing around the patio door frame.  His eyes followed the string of lights along every inch in disbelief, until he spotted a magically lit, gloriously decorated large Christmas tree standing in the corner of the patio.  He couldn’t catch his breath out of pure shock.  All the branches donned silver bells and blue balls that ricocheted gleaming lights, carefully arranged up and down the depth of the branches.  At the very top perched a golden star with tinsel streaming down from its tail like a frozen waterfall.

The two found themselves speechless.  Both mom and son realized their mouths were opened in awe as they spied a large Virginia smoked ham under the tree, with all the trimmings for a traditional family feast.  Next to it, a tin of old fashioned frosted sugar cookies was propped up against the large tree trunk.  But, the biggest surprise of all was something they could not have imagined.  Next to the tree, an animal crate sat with a metal plate over its door.  Etched on the plate was the name, “Sparks”.  Gazing through the mesh door was a curious look from a short-haired dog with big brown eyes.

Aiden dropped to his knees, “MOM!!  It’s  a…it’s a…uh..uh…a…”

Maggie forced herself to speak through her astonishment, “…A DOG!!!”

As the boy opened the crate, the Jack Russell Terrier-mix jumped into his arms, licking his face like flaps from a flag, as Aiden giggled uncontrollably.  The boy looked up at his mom to see a face of laughter, a face shining with joyous, youthful wonder, exuberance, and hope.

“He did come, he did!!” yelled Aiden.

Maggie responded quietly, deeply moved, “Yes, well yes.  I guess he did, indeed.”

She noticed a Christmas stocking hanging down from one of the branches.  She carefully retrieved it while asking her son to reach in for whatever it contained.  With eyebrows raised in anticipation, an enormous grin he pulled out several gift cards from food stores, clothing retailers, and a local toy outlet.  Both began laughing in a sense of bliss that had not been heard in the apartment for quite a long time.

Suddenly, the boy noticed a mysterious color along the trunk, previously covered up by the stocking.

Fixated, he asked, “Huh…What’s that?”

Maggie took a closer look.  In the glow of the festive lights, four weathered pink ribbons were nailed to the trunk, almost evenly spaced apart.

“Whaddya think that’s for, mom?” he asked.

Maggie slowly tilted her head as she stared at the hanging pink ribbons running up the tree’s trunk.

Speaking with a sense of bewilderment, “I’m not sure, honey, but I do know this, it makes this Christmas tree even more unique and magical than ever.”

*****

The Christmas dawn found Doug sitting in his lawn chair, with a mug of coffee warming his hands, looking at his treeless back yard.  There, braced against a freshly cut stump, stood a well-worn axe.

He still didn’t know what his future held.  The anxiety remained.  But, what he didn’t expect was a volley of truths flashing in his heart from outside of himself.  For the first time, he accepted the fact that his pain and depression had morphed him into a modern-day Scrooge, with a twisted complex concerning children.  It was the giving of himself that revealed this tumor growing in his heart.

He sat there in the still crisp air, with a thankful heart for the old bell-ringer’s message each morning.  Doug had found a God-given moment to do the most good where he was.

He smiled at the thought of his childhood nativity set.  He remembered placing the ceramic baby Jesus in the manger next to the one curious lamb, taking in the divine event.  For Doug, he rested in the fact of sacrifice being a choice, rendering joy to the most disturbed souls in his own backyard.  The ancient truth, that giving one’s “self” away, is what the baby in the manger would later say is the best of blessings.

With a silent nod, he smiled thinking that millions of cups of spiked egg nog, millions of angry shoppers, and millions of wrecked lives could never diminish his newly discovered mission.

                                        Sacrifice is giving up something you love

                                                for something you love more.

                                                              – Cindy Beall