September 29, 2009

Coffee Break 8:17am [justin]

The morning shutters with gray as we step out of our car. There is a faint odor of singed metal. My engine isn't overworking, it just doesn't have enough oil in it. Nothing has blown up yet, so even though I consider checking it, I convince myself that I don't mind.

We nod our heads at Tyr sitting behind the front desk as we trudge in through the glass doorway; it's his day of war so credence must be paid. Pure bread white collars disappear into their dens first, then blue collars pretending they're white, then the collarless whom we all secretly fantasize of being, but would never utter because of the social norm. Tyr, of course, doesn't have a collar because he doesn't wear a shirt, something which gives the older, conservative ladies something to talk about at lunch. They cloak it as subtle disgust all the while simmering their hormones and internally biting their bottom lips; he reminds them of their youth and how they were once themselves desirable.

I haven't done anything yet, but I need a break.

Skipping the coffee, I head to the restroom, closing the door and flipping the light switch. The tungsten light bulbs flicker for a few moments before giving off their greenish hue. Most things in this place are like that. The static things are well kept for the most part - floors, walls, parking lot, desktops, trash cans - but anything with any type of life or energy running through - coffee machine, lights, shredder, employees - are about to short circuit.

The off-white porcelain I sit on is cold, but I don't mind. Feet on the floor, elbows on the knees, I shrug my shoulders stretching my neck. The lower part of my palms support my forehead as my shutters slowly open and close, staring at the tile imprinted with strands of wheat. For the moment this is the land I rule over, albeit in isolation, unmovable on my throne.

I think of how we've been trying to do the same things our old ways even though life has changed and isn't going back. We use to worship a certain way before we were married and thought that way should stay the same afterwards, but that only drained us and enabled us to heap self formed coals of shame on our heads. We survived that, though never finding the new way (or maybe never letting go of the old, I can't tell), but now we have children even though we are still boys. Sacrificing one degree removed to context may be nobly possible, but two degrees is a chasm uncrossable; the next step after mere survival is but death, though maybe that's the point.

The thoughts relax everything except my brow and I continue my excretion. The odor is acidic and repulsive, but I don't mind. It's comforting in fact, if for no other reason, because it's mine. The toilet tissue is laced with bee's and a flowered pattern. As I start to clean up I hear footsteps on the hardwood floor outside the door and my eyes go directly to the knob. I can't remember if I locked it. Frozen and vulnerable, the doorknob starts to turn and in between the green of the bathroom lights and the yellow of the hall way steps in a giant fly. He is wearing brown loafers and a tie, twitching with all his eyes looking at me in disgust, as if I am some type of lower life form. I can't breathe, I can't even smell my dung. The fly's hair magnified to human size looks sharp and the dark needles threaten to puncture me.

Now twitching in disbelief I wake myself up hot and sweaty in my own bed, letting out a yelped though not waking my wife next to me nor my daughter a room over. Being exposed frightened me... even moreso than the monster that was disturbed by me. Swallowing for what feels like the first time in an hour, the saliva is like liquor over my broken throat and I realize the reality that has come upon me. While Tyr was missing one hand, I was missing both my arms. In my stupor I couldn't remember if I even ever had arms at all. I lie there floundering on my back, weeping because I am complete in Christ and incomplete in myself, not wanting another's arms to compensate for my handicap, much less need someone else to clean up my refuse which I am, by all means, unable to do at this juncture.

...continue reading...

September 25, 2009

Held Down by a Ghost [jenna]

Experience has taught me that I had better not take a nap if I can possibly avoid it; at times, though, tiredness triumphs over fear. If I must sleep in the daytime, I can spare myself a lot of trouble by waking at thirty minutes or so, but sometimes my body won't give up its rest; when that happens, I know what it will mean. Somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes, sleep changes, and REM sleep begins. For me, REM sleep is best saved for the night and the dark.

The sun comes through the living room window, shining over the couch. Having slept a full sleep cycle, I wake--that is, my brain wakes. With waking comes the immediate sense of a serious problem: my body has remained asleep, locked in position. My mind races, but the muscles are bound in place, unable to move. I cannot bend a finger or open my eyes; I cannot even draw a deep breath.

Taking several shallow, sharp, quick breaths, I try to push my knees down, away from my torso. The seconds tick by as I concentrate, till at last the spell breaks, my body wakes, and I breathe deeply. I sit up to prevent myself falling asleep again and take more deep breaths to dilute the adrenaline rush.

Sleep paralysis. According to Wikipedia1, the Turks call it karabasan, "the dark presser or assailer", a creature that presses on you and takes your breath. Mexicans call it se me subió el muerto, translated "the dead person got on me". The Japanese say kanashibari, "bound or fastened in metal", and the term has crossed over into English usage. Those of African descent, who are especially prone to it, call it a number of things including "The Devil on your back" or "The witch is riding you." The Irish, amusingly, who refer to it as "on the pig's back", think of it as the result of having told a lie the day before or of consuming bad whiskey (I can debunk that easily.) "Held down by a ghost" and "held down by a shadow" are Vietnamese expressions.

In the English tradition we find the term "Old Hag syndrome", after the idea of an demonic figure sitting on one's chest; Mercutio describes it in Romeo and Juliet. The Old Hag may be related to the word nightmare, as "mare" comes through Germanic and Old English roots with the concept of a malevolent spirit.

For those of us who experience it--which, again according to Wikipedia, is perhaps most people at least once or twice in a lifetime--the above expressions can be summed up in the word terrifying. An awake mind in an asleep body is a perfect setup for panic. I have found two ways to fight the experience: sometimes I can talk myself into going back to sleep, after which I might wake normally, but most of the time I force myself awake. The latter course of action entails exhaustion and shaking, but feels more bearable than submitting mind to body in return to unconsciousness.

Sleep paralysis occurs when REM atonia persists after the brain awakes. The atonia is a chemical shutdown that paralyzes the sleeper, preventing him from acting out his dreams in bed. The waking paralytic state can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, and may be accompanied by intense feelings of dread and even frightening visions, as suggested by many of the cultural denominations; the Hmong call it "crushing demon" and commonly report the apparition of a small figure sitting on their chests. A sleep evaluation is recommended to anyone who suffers sleep paralysis over an extended period of time, to check for narcolepsy, of which it may be a symptom.

Some scientists think the visions some people experience in moments of sleep paralysis may explain alien abduction reports. I am grateful to have not experienced anything quite so dramatic. Though I've heard footsteps around me (rather creepy), only once have I actually seen anything in the paralytic state--my mother, putting flowers on my coffee table and talking to me, which was not at all frightening. I wanted to sit up and talk to her, and couldn't, of course; when I did manage to wake myself fully she was not there. Mine, therefore, is not the most compelling story; it is more kanashibari and less karabasan. Google searches turn up many a weirder tale.

Having outlasted the episodes once, I don't feel the need to put a fork under my pillow (as do the Maltese) or drink only the best Irish whiskey to escape the binding, though I might if I thought it would work. For those of us non-narcoleptics, the best fixes are to get enough sleep at night, avoid stress, and to not sleep supine (face up). Wearing an eyeshade during naps may help, too, as light decreases melatonin and low melatonin levels are suspected as a partial cause.

In the meantime, if you've got the Devil on your back, you're not alone.

1 Wikipedia: article on sleep paralysis, (accessed Sept. 22, 2009)

...continue reading...

September 22, 2009

The Seed of Growth [tony]

so tiny, so small
something so helpless needs to be protected
cared for and watched after
i myself am not yet grown, so how can i help something so tiny to grow?
why must something so simple exist and be placed in my hand?
is it too much to ask, “why me?”
why must i help such a thing grow?
ashamed i am of this small helpless thing, for it cannot care for itself
but i cannot take care of myself
so why don't you take it?
you can protect it care for it and watch after it far better than i can
so why must i take care of such a small but strong seedling
that you have placed in my possession? it is far too great for me to have
why must i?
it is so much bigger than myself, but still so small

why must i treat this gift you have given me
as if it is such a terrible burden?
you tell me it needs me,
but i feel that i need it so much more than it does me
so this seedling i have will need me to plant it in your soil
so then you may give it nourishment to grow
and it will give me its fruit
and when it dies, its seeds will fall
and bury into the soil and grow again for another to taste its fruit

...continue reading...

To Fly Free [vanessa]

[Movement One: Morning Conversations]

The bond is so strong,
Will I ever be free?
Locked in an invisible fortress;
Captive in the top of the tower.
The emotional enmeshment is so hard to see.
The physical so distant and nearly nonexistent.
Like a tether ball swinging round and round -
Never cut loose to play.
I feel eternally bound.

My child, it's not who you are.
It's not who I made you to be.
I know the pain is so great,
The loss so deep.
I feel it all with you as you wake and as you sleep.
I am not the Captor who keeps you entrapped.
I've given you wings to fly free.

Your request feels like a mountain I'll never be able to climb.
You're asking for all of me.
I don't even know how or where to begin.
The fortress is lonely, but at least it's familiar.
A picture or two on the walls might make it look pretty...

My daughter, you weren't meant to live in a cage.
I made you to soar.
Your wings have been crippled from years of abuse.
But don't be afraid simply due to their lack of use.
The window is open,
Fly out and be free.

I want to, I do.
But what if I fail?
I don't think I can bear the weight of it all.
My wings are so weak,
What if I can't last?
This tower is all I know.

It doesn't matter if your wings are too weak or if you fall.
I'm the One who'll rescue you from it all.
There's never a time you'll be on your own.
All that I've made I've given to You.
Your home is with me.
Abandon your fears, rest, and let your heart fly free.

[Movement Two: Waiting on the Ledge]

I heard Your voice beckoning to me,
Calling me to leave the fortress I've always known.
I stand on the ledge, peering out on the vast horizon-
Why do I wait when You've given me wings to fly free?
What is it that keeps me attached to this place?

The walls you've built are strong and dense,
There are few that could ever get in.
These walls are the protection you've built
To keep yourself safe from the pain you once knew;
The pain you never want to feel again.

What is this pain?
From where does it come?
I don't want to be entrapped anymore...but, I do.

All the pain you feel,
All the doubts you carry,
All the lies you believe...
They are your captors, they are the chains you feel.
Name them and be set free.

Name them, You say?
But then that makes them too real, too much a part of me.
I want to be free more than I want to be safe,
So I'm choosing to trust what you say.
Not Enough...
These words, and so many more, come billowing through the deep recesses of my heart

The truth, my daughter, will set you free.
The truth that these lies, these wounds, these places of pain
Are no longer your master, their power is gone.
Please open your heart and your mind to hear the sweet words I long to whisper to you.
Step over the ledge and fall into me...

[Movement Three: Free Falling]

I fall.
I expect to land and be crushed into a million little pieces.
Yet, You are You always are.
You catch me.
Not a single bone is broken.
There I lay, in the palm of your hand...resting securely.

The anxiety that once laid claim upon my heart is diminished.
There is nothing left to fear.
You are near and...
It is enough.
My soul now knows that all is well.

Once again I am free.
To Return,
To Hope,
To Dream -
Without dread.
I invite the future with a smile...

...continue reading...

September 18, 2009

God Might Still Love Us [teddi]

“Then Jesus said, `Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”-Luke 23:34

Didn’t wake up for church,
Kicked the dog,
Made the wrong choice,
Said nothing at all,
Gave up on faith,
Gave into anger,
Didn’t try hard enough,
Didn’t try at all,
Laughed when it wasn’t right,
Cried when it wasn’t worth it,
Forgot to say a prayer,
Didn’t count the blessings,
Spent too much cash,
Too prideful to apologize,
Yelled at the kids,
Lied to the spouse,
Gossiped about the co-worker,
Couldn’t give it up,
Made a judgement too fast,
Lived a double life,
Thought of the other person last,
Wasted the time,
Ignored the call,
Gave nothing at all,
Thought it was over,
Thought it was through,
Decided to argue,
Said, `Fuck you`,
Said `Why even try?`
Gave in and died,
Completely denied,
Let morals go to the wayside,
Didn’t take the time to cry,
Said, `It probably doesn’t matter`,
Shrugged and swore,
Thief, criminal, whore,
Liar, addict, murderer,
Ungrateful, unreliable,
Undeserving, unable,
Unfaithful, Unwilling,
Weak and small,
Even more and all,
There’s still redemption’s dance,
A second,

...continue reading...

September 15, 2009

Part I: The Bitter Solution [barry]

“It sounds like something has to die so that something else can live,” she said. And there I unwittingly found myself yet again – in the midst of this powerful, ridiculous, yet unavoidable cliché – standing on the precipice, peering over the abyss of this excruciating paradox that I have been avoiding for three years. Faced with a decision of death that to an outsider exhibits none of the conflict that crashes, and claws, and eats at my soul, I know that I have to act.

“Something has to die so that something else can live.” I know this. I've heard it repeatedly. This death concept has been a constant (despite my best efforts at avoidance), unwelcome, and unfriendly companion for these three years. I have never before feared death, or killing, for that matter. I have seen killing, faced death, have even been trained to bring about both, and have never been cowered by the prospects. But this death – this killing that I am called to commit – is different; for I so do not want to commit suicide. There is a time for killing, as there is a time for everything under the sun, but as every child knows, suicide is simply wrong. But here it is, this paradox: I am told that I must kill, but if I kill what I am told needs to be killed, I know that I will certainly also die.

It seems quite logical to walk away from suicide. The choice to live is an easy choice to make. What dictates the difficulty of this otherwise simple decision is that I know my God, in his typical, predictable paradoxical way that simply enrages me, requires this self-killing. Compounding infuriating paradox upon infuriating paradox, however, this God does not really even want me to actually die – at least not in the material sense. No, He would have me go on living corporeally, though otherwise completely dead. Call this spiritual suicide a sentimental “metaphor” if you want, but being confronted with the reality of this call to die without really dying is far more terrifying for me than any requirement to actually be broken, bleeding, and breathing my last gasp.

Although I intellectually “get” it (I grasp the story of Jesus and Paul's letters), I am not “okay” with it. Indeed, I hate it. If you want me to sacrifice my life – to physically die – for my family, for my country, for a friend, for a stranger in a foreign land, or even for an abused ethereal concept such as “freedom” or “liberty,” fine. Sign me up. I am easily inspired and readily brought to tears by stories and memories of Silver Stars and Medals of Honor, and would probably embrace those opportunities if presented. But to require me to die without really dying just reeks of cruelty. Finality without finality is one unknown that I just do not care to face. My mind and gut dread a paralysis of going on living without being able to actually live.

But that’s the deal, as I comprehend it. If I kill this thing that I am told I must kill, everything that I am, everything that I see myself as, will also die – but in the course of doing so, I have to be conscious of the whole process, of the pain and agony both before, during, and forever after the killing. I have to do the killing, feel the death, and still live with the aftermath and mourning when it’s done.

So here I am in this cliché, standing at the precipice. I am told that I must throw myself off, but am riveted by the fear of this suicidal death (that is not even as good as death). If I make this decision, if I take action and bring about this death, I will be no more. I am terrified of what lies beyond the execution – because "something" clearly lies beyond. Inevitably, I will continue. I know that I am held back only by my inability to believe that what I am hearing is actually true – that there will be life after this death. I fear that this "something" beyond is really nothing; that this promise of life may really be a myth, or worse, a lie. I fear that my continuance will simply be as a dead man. Surely I can buy just a few more days? A brief reprieve? Clemency from this non-death death? I desperately do not want to die.

No. I hear the bell of this painful cliché tolling, and know for what (and for whom) it is intended. Something has to die so that something else can live. I have to go with it.

...continue reading...

A Boy, a Shirt, and the Dark [joshua]

He woke in the tent. The smell of roasting pig filled the space, coming in waves. He rubbed his eyes. They were full of sleep and dust. He rolled onto his stomach as a rush of cold air ballooned his covers and something hard and flat stung his behind.

"Get up," she told him, "The noonday sun has come an' left."

He stumbled out into the light. She threw his shirt at him. The camp was busy.

"Go for water," she said. He heard the pail hit the ground at his feet as he squinted in the brightness.

The boy grumbled. It was a nearly half a mile to the hole. He pulled his shirt over his head and stepped into his boots, looking around the camp. The men had moved on to the second house. They were building it next to the first. The cousins had moved in and were busy playing out front. The boy wished for a house. The Roaster was hard at work.

"Smells goooooood," the boy said to the Roaster, "Hey, you see what John's doin' to that jack over there?"

The Roaster frowned as the boy pointed. The Roaster turned to look and the boy dug his whole hand into the pig. He cried out in pain and took off running. His hand was bright red and pieces of pig were flying everywhere. The Roaster let out an angry growl and sat down on his stump. The boy struggled to get the shreds of meat into his mouth as he laughed. He ran over the hill and out of sight.

* * *

The crest was just up ahead. He struggled to keep from spilling what water he had left. There was smoke rising from the camp. Lots of smoke. Why would they be roasting so much meat? He thought for a minute about what could be burning and then he stopped and dropped the pail. He ran up the backside and stood on the hillcrest. The whole camp was burning. There were people lying on the ground. The Roaster was bleeding. She had come apart. The cousins were not moving. There were bottles all around, what looked like hundreds of bottles. There were large men roaming.

Panic. The Unspeakable Truth. The boy fell out of sight behind the crest. He could feel tears building in his eyes. He crawled back up and slowly peered over the hilltop at the men. They had not seen him. He scanned the valley. Down on his left at about a half mile was a stand of brush. On the other side of the brush stood a dozen men on horseback. The men on horseback were slumped over and not moving. They wore shirts and boots like his family. They looked familiar but he could not tell from where he sat. Maybe they had not heard the attack on the camp. The sun was setting. The boy waited.

When it was darker the boy began moving around the bottom of the hill toward the men on horseback. They were still. As he got closer he could see that they too had bottles strewn everywhere. He hid behind a bush and watched the men. They were asleep. The place smelled of alcohol. He did not recognize them. He circled round the Sleeping Drunks on Horseback and crawled toward the camp.

As he got closer he could see the large men sitting together and eating the roast. They wore animal skins and had long beards. He could not understand their talking. He slowly crawled up to the back of his tent and lay there for a long time. When he was sure he had not been seen he slowly lifted the hem of the tent and peered inside. The top was smoldering and the smoke was thick. As his eyes adjusted to the light he could see the outline of Mother in the corner. Not wanting to move, he reached out as far as he could to touch her leg. He stretched and stretched. She shifted. Her eyes opened a small bit and she recognized him. He started to cry. She could not lift her head.

"Boy!" she snapped, "Run."

He stared at her, nearly sobbing.

"Run!" she whispered.

He stood up in a jolt. The men heard him. He did not know where to go. He ran right through the middle of the camp, past the men, and out into the valley.

* * *

He tasted dirt. His ears were stinging from the blaring siren. He heard a loud crash back on the other side of the train. It was followed by another. An animal squealed and he heard the faintest yell before it was cut short and drowned out by the rushing locomotive. His pursuers has not been able to stop their mounts and had hit the train. Good. But not all would be so unlucky.

He looked down the track. The last car was far but coming quickly. He forced his legs beneath him and winced in pain. He knew his Freedom Within Reach was only freedom for a moment. He began to run.

His speed was gone. His body was failing. The panic was the same but fatigue was taking over. He longed for the safety of his bed and the smell of roasting pig. He longed for Mother and Father, the ranch. He longed for bulls. All were gone now. Now it was just him, his shirt, and the dark. Go. Go. The sound behind him changed. What was present was now fading. The train had passed. He looked over his shoulder and was surprised at the distance he had covered. The men were coming, less now but quickly, some had turned back. He didn't want to die.

The woods were dark and large and seemed so close, yet the steps kept coming and he felt naked in the open valley. They were much faster than he now, even with no horses. He could hear them spiting and swearing. And then, for the first time in so long, he could hear nothing. No footsteps, no yelling. He stopped and slowly turned around, peering into the dark.

He stood there, confused, silent. Everything seemed wrong. He was about to turn and run to the nearby treeline when a light shone upon him like a beam from heaven. He was blind. He heard a snicker. Then a loud pop and a blazing pain in his leg. He fell to the ground in shock. They had guns.

...continue reading...

September 11, 2009

Falling [nean]

days turn shimmering
gold to putrid brown
air, crisped
fruit, crisped
leaves underfoot
As over~ripe
romance falls
dead from old
episodes aired
as premiere
Something less
nonchalant or
On cooler wind
stirring darkening sky
Where soot~
stained comfort
warms wooden hearts
to their freedom
are driven to learn
these hours just
falling for you

...continue reading...

September 9, 2009

Era of Simplicity [liz]

If only we could be whole, undivided, true
Fight the conflict brewing in our separate hopes
You are a river and your silence a lie
Broken, sown, glued, and patched
We wait for the lines to fade

I've lived years that felt like four
And four that felt like one
I reached for your lone heart
And felt it beat for one short hour

Goodbye era of simplicity
Goodbye afternoons looking out your window
Goodbye my messenger of peace

...continue reading...

Thatcher Lee [amanda]

Thatcher Lee struggles onto the fallen tree branch, scraping her five-year-old rear across the stiff, earthy bark overlaid with moss, until she comes against the large oak, pinioned against the broken trunk. A perfect seat. Her white-stockinged legs hang over the curvature of the fallen wood, her small, closely aligned shoulders just brush against the back of the oak tree. Tall and stiff like a royal throne overlooking the slight overhang of ferns and gray mushrooms leading down to the pebble-bottomed creek. Wiping the corners of her mouth with her tongue, she can still taste peanut butter and strawberry jelly from her afterschool snack.

She pushes the blonde wisps of hair out of her eyes, thumping the white legs capped with shiny black shoes against wood. She is wearing a pleated gray skirt, a white button-down blouse and a thumbprint-sized stain of red jelly on the front. Looking up she sees the silhouette of clouds rolling smoothly by above the treetops, the sun burns only slightly. The dark periwinkle clouds speak in undertones of rain.

Thatcher can just perceive the gray roof of her home above the spindly tree line. It appears closer than the walk she took from it. After the school bus dropped her off at home, she walked across the backyard, beyond the swing set, the litter of baseball bats and soccer balls, and ducked her head through the foliage that feathers out into the grass and scraped her way through bushes and trees until she reached the dirt path running parallel to the house.

The wood is quiet, wind breezes through the trees and they creak, Canadian geese fly overhead in a honking V, spring is bursting from winter and the ground is beginning to firm up. Thatcher Lee is quite content to sit here, watching the water ripple, tumble down the rocky ledges, the smell of dirt and the musty scent of ferns refreshes the pre-school cafeteria stagnancy in her nostrils. She hears a sound, the brittle leaves crunching under foot. It’s coming from over there, to the left and she pushes the thick-lensed, blue-rimmed glasses up on her nose. A flare of color comes toward her, hospital-white sneakers, pale green jogging pants and jacket with white stripes down the sides, a yellow visor encircling tufts of dark, gray hair.

“Hello, little lady!” The voice is bold, energetic. The woman walks off the path and looks at Thatcher with a kind, slightly wrinkled face. “What are you doing out here,” she asks.

“Waiting,” Thatcher replies.

“Oh? For what? Shouldn’t you be at home right now?”


The jogger takes one, sweeping glance around at the quiet woods, the trees standing thick and tall. “It is a nice place here, but I’m not quite sure it’s where a little girl should be, all alone.”

Thatcher Lee shrugs and picks at the bark. “What’s your name,” she asks the jogger.

“I’m Mrs. Johnston, but you can call me Linda. I live right down the road from here. Where’s your home?”

Thatcher’s finger pricks the air, “right there,” she says.

“Oh – does somebody know where you are right now?”

She nods her head evenly, “mhm.”

Mrs. Johnston’s eyebrows press together, she looks at her watch, at the gathering clouds above, at the gray roof rising just above the tree line. It’s not very far away. “Well,” she says, drawing up her chest, “it’s with some discomfort that I have to leave now – I don’t like leaving a little girl all alone in a woods. Will you promise me that you’ll go home soon? Before the clouds come much closer?”

Thatcher cranes her neck to see sky right above her head, but the tree limbs block the view. She leans against the oak and looks at Mrs. Johnston, “Okay.”

“That’s a good girl,” she says. Casting Thatcher Lee a nervous glance, she steps onto the path again, “Don’t forget,” she says, “you promised me,” and power-walks around the fine curve, out of sight.

Half an hour passes, the air grows cooler and the wind scatters the dead leaves, swirling them in little whirlwinds. The creek bubbles and ripples. The water is bottle green, pale brown near the bank. Thatcher Lee studies the clear line of foliage that borders the dirt path – no footsteps coming, no rustling of bushes, nothing, yet. With a sigh, she slides off the trunk and stands to her feet, rubs her sore bottom and crouches by the tongue of water lying still across the stony ground. One side of the brown pebble in her hand feels cold and moist, the dirt rubs across her palm. With an arching swing, she lobs the stone into the water, just the way her brother taught her to, hears the plop and sees the ripples shiver from the center of the impact. She picks up another pebble, throws it, hears the same plop and ripples, then fists a handful of stones and watches the shower fly through the air.

Suddenly, she hears a strange sound, the scraping of feet coming down the path, the leaves shuffling and crunching in an uneven pace. Trembling, she stops. Pebbles clasped in her small hand, and she turns to look down the path as far as she can without uprooting her feet. It feels like when she is tucked in bed, the dim lighting in the room creates weird shadows on the walls and it sounds as if someone from downstairs is walking up the creaking staircase. Standing by the trickling brook, Thatcher Lee shifts ever so slightly, careful not to make a sound.

A man wobbles down the path, his red flannelled arm swings a crumbled paper bag into the air and down again. She hears lips smacking. His hair is untrimmed and greasy, red blotches stand out beneath the grime of dirt caking his skin. With fierce gesture, he throws his head back, his lips purse around the glassy O in the brown bag. A sucking, guzzling sound echoes through the quiet forest.

She does not move; her eyes are round like half-dollars. Should she run? She thinks she ought to, but does not know how to control the crisp of leaves and the cracking of dry sticks beneath her soles. Perhaps, she thinks, he will not see her if she stands very, very still.

But one, red eye bulges in her direction. He lowers the bag from his wet, red lips and allows his tongue to lag behind the rivers of brown liquid trickling from the corners of his mouth. Thatcher Lee stiffens, as motionless and solid as the tree trunks around her. He points a finger at her, “Hey,” he says, leathery mouthed and slurring, “What’ve you got in your hand?”

Thatcher Lee wants to drop the stones in her fist, but cannot seem to open up her fingers and pry the jagged little edges from her palm.

He staggers closer, contents shaking from the bag. “Huh?” he asks, bending down to look her straight in the face, “don’t you listen to your elders little girl?”

The smell of whiskey on his breath floods into her face.

“What’s the matter?” he says, “cat got your tongue? Here –” he cringes a lopsided smile, “this’ll loosen you up.” He pushes the bag against her white blouse, and she finds it odd that it is hard and heavy. “Drink up, drink up,” he says, “no time like the present, that’s what I always say.” A burst of laughter rumbles from his throat, she can see straight into his mouth, the fiery-red tissue glistening and bloated. “Come on!” he barks, “have a drink with me! You like the bite of a snake.”

Bottle still pressed against her chest, Thatcher Lee looks at him and shakes her blonde head, fearfully.

“God, you’ve got big eyes,” he says, leering into her face. “It’s those damn glasses, innit? Your momma make you wear those? I bet she’s a right, sound bitch.”

She does not move but tears are forming in her eyes.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, eyebrows pulled together in foggy concentration, “you wanna get out of here? Wanna go home to your bitchy momma?”

The only words Thatcher Lee really hears are ‘go home’ and ‘momma’, and nods her head tentatively, eagerly.

“Shoulda known,” he says. “Alright – get out of here.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she darts from the creek bank with the stones giving way and crunching under foot, but his large, grubby hand shoots out to grasp her wrist just as she passes by. The stones in her fist shake to the ground.

“Just one minute,” he says, pulling her back towards him, “you gotta pay up.” With one, swift motion he tugs her back to stand in front of him. “Now, I know how to treat a woman, even a small one. One swig,” he puts the bag against her blouse, “and you can go home. Deal?”

Eyes wide, Thatcher Lee shakes her head.

“Ah, come on! One drink’s not gunna kill you! That’s what my pop said, and he was right.” He pushes the bottle into her, “Drink.”

Thatcher looks down at the black circle in the bag, it smells strong and bitter, or at least, not sweet or salty. The bag crinkles beneath her fingers; it too is greasy and dirty. She frowns and says, “No,” in her small voice.

“No what?”

She looks into his bulging, bloodshot eyes and begins to tremble. “No thank you.”

His eyes narrow murkily, the grip on her wrist constricts, “where I’m from little girls do as they’re told. You know what happens when little girls don’t obey? Their poppa belts ‘em!” He barked the last words, splattering whiskey-saliva onto her face. “I’m gunna count to three –” he says as her lower lip quivers, “and you’d have better taken one solid swig of that whiskey or I’ll throttle you!”

Swaying, he stands to his feet, looming over her and Thatcher Lee begins to sob, paper bag and bottle in hand, the tears quickly escalating into red-faced screams.


Thatcher stands, her head swiveling from side to side, wailing into the dusky air.

“Two –”

She looks down at the bag, unable muster the fortitude to bring the fearsome black O to her lips. The tears pour down her face, now wet from crying and trails of mucus from her nose trickle to the ridge of her upper lip.

“Oh, damn it all –” he says, swiping the bag from her, “quit that griping, Uncle Johnny’ll help you.” Clutching her small face in his hand, he tips it up and pries her soft mouth open. Just then, patters of rain begin to fall. The creek echoes the plunk, plunk, plunk of the scattering rain coming a little harder every moment. The dim sound of a voice calling from over the ridge of trees just reaches her ears.

“Hear that? Better pay up,” he says, “or your momma’s gunna lock you out all night.”

He tips the harshly brown liquid from inside the bag and it falls sloppily over her nose and mouth and chin. Shakily, he plugs her mouth with the bottle and waits until her nostrils gush brown. Then he lets go. “There you are!” he laughs as Thatcher Lee falls back on her bottom, coughing, choking on the liquid flames in her throat, nose burning. She begins to cry again despite the scouring in her throat.

Tipping the bottle back into his mouth, he wipes his lips with his grimy fist and stumbles back up the embankment, “A bottle a day keeps the doctor away!”

The rain falls faster and harder. Thatcher can just see the drunk through the splatter of droplets on her glasses. He raises the bag, swoops it around his waist and bows, doubled over, “A pleasure drinking with you, madam. Same time next week?” He cringes a wink, “you can count on your Uncle Johnny.”

He stumbles away down the path, through the darkness of evening and rainfall. Thatcher Lee’s head is swimming, her insides sear and the rain soaks her white blouse and stockings into the appearance of tissue paper. For a few minutes, she sits in the gathering mud, miserable and crying. Thunder booms overhead. Dim rays of light are just breaking through the tree line. She scrapes to her feet and, lightheaded, staggers toward the underbrush leading to the backyard. She waves her hands, flailing away the bramble of bushes clawing at her clothes. Upon breaking through the foliage, rectangular blocks of light from the house glow through the downpour. A figure, one a foot or so taller than she runs towards her.

“Thatcher! Mom! Dad! I found her!” A skinny, tawny-haired boy wraps his fingers around hers, flashlight in the other hand. He keeps on calling into the rain, “I found her! Mom, dad – she’s here!”

Hazy silhouettes move towards the boy and girl, running, panting, one from the woods, the other from around the front of the house. The taller one coming from the woods runs toward Thatcher Lee and bends down, knee soaking up the rain-drenched ground.

“You scared us to death – are you alright? Are you hurt?” his voice is deep, panicked.

Hearing the question, Thatcher Lee bursts into renewed sobs. He scoops her up into his arms and makes for the house just as the other figure meets them, fingers running through Thatcher’s hair, anxious questions reeling, “What happened? Where’d you find her? Is she hurt? Oh, my God.”

The door flies open and a burst of water trails in behind the father still dressed in his dress shirt and tie, the mother bundled in a jacket above her dental hygienist scrubs, and the boy in his red, cotton shorts and fraying gray t-shirt. He, the father, settles Thatcher onto the kitchen counter and combs away the strands of blonde hair slicked across her face.

Swaying, Thatcher Lee looks drearily around, the overhead light in the kitchen is blurry, swimming. She just perceives the questions thundering against her ears, “What happened? Did someone hurt you? Thatcher? Why were you all alone in the woods? Why didn’t you come back? My God – what’s that smell on her?” A clenching feeling gnaws at her chest cavity and she does not fight the sensation of vomit rumbling up her throat. It splatters over her blouse, her skirt, the shiny black shoes already caked with mud and the faux-brick linoleum tiles that ricochet the spew onto pant-legs and shoes.

Her father takes command, “Kris, take her up stairs and get these clothes off her – I’m going to make a phone call.”

His wife wraps the whimpering girl in her arms and shuttles up the stairs, murmuring, “my God, my God” beneath her breath.

“Hop to your room,” he looks down at the boy, “just for right now. Hurry up.”

Thatcher’s brother walks up the thickly carpeted staircase, listening to his father talking in a calm, authoritative voice over the receiver and then as he climbs further up, he hears the hassled-tone of his mother, “my darling, my little girl – what would I do – oh, God, what would I do? It’s going to be alright, sweetie – daddy’ll fix everything, we’ll clean you right up…”

Reaching the end of the stairs, he peers into his little sister’s room and sees his mother buzzing here and there with a towel in her left hand, fresh underwear and a t-shirt in the other, and there in the midst stands Thatcher Lee. She looks greenish in the face, her shoulders slump and she wobbles on her feet, eyes droopy.

“My God –” the mother says, “what were you doing out there? What possessed you? Mark my word – that is the last time you will ever go near that forest.”

He tries not to allow that throb in his chest reach his throat. It feels like a worm squirming in his insides. Next time, he would remember. Next time, he would not forget that he promised to play Daniel Boone that afternoon.

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September 4, 2009

I Shall Be [judd]

Empty me like the septic tank that I am.
You would have me be an organic garden with small but tasty and healthy produce.
Bigger is not better.
You would have me be a fresh mown field of hay drying in the late June, late afternoon heat.
So fragrant, so promising.
You would have me be a baby’s mind, a nearly empty vessel waiting to be filled.
You would have me be your pitcher, quenching thirst as you pour me into dry throats.
Clean me like the litter-strewn highway shoulder that I am.
You are not superhuman. You are not supernatural.
You are the essence of human. You are the essence of nature.
You are not vengeful. You are not malicious.
You are the essence of forgiveness. You are the essence of kindness.
You are not wealth-on-a-stick-for-all-believers. You are not free-from-suffering-if-you-are-saved.
You are the essence of sacrifice. You are the essence of strength.
Erase me like the obscene graffiti on a subway car that I am.
Cast me not aside. Throw me not away.
Keep me near. Ever nearer.
Draw me inward. Ever inward.
And, finally, I shall be.

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September 1, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine [jessi]

I’ve been told I have an overdeveloped sense of black-and-white fairness, and the character of Esau strikes me as particularly pitiable. Never have more heart-rending words been written about a man than “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” God doesn’t even say “Moses I have loved but Pharaoh I have hated,” or “John the Baptist I loved but Herod I hated”—he doesn’t say it about any of the usual suspects.

I think it especially sucks because God seems to have it out for Esau from the beginning, and frankly it’s not a Cain and Able sort of situation where one brother is all awesome and so God clearly likes him best. Jacob is a jerk. He seems to lack all the qualities God esteems—he’s stubborn, he takes advantage of weaknesses, and he’s a sneak-thief. He’s blatantly unrepentant for the wrongs he commits and the people he hurts. He lies to his family—to a blind man on his death bed! That act alone should land him in the category of Bible villains instead of heroes. And there isn’t a Prodigal Son-type-turn around for Jacob either—he pretty much does jerky, horrible things for the rest of his life. Later in the story, when Jacob’s prospective father-in-law pulls the old bait and switch on our intrepid hero, passing off the wrong daughter in marriage, I can’t help but feel like Jacob deserves it a little bit. He’s finally run into someone who matches his capacity for shrewdness.

All of this, and God still chooses Jacob. I don’t like it. It offends my sense of justice. Wise and knowing people will tell me that I’ve got things backward—that I should be grateful that God chooses undeserving people, because we are all undeserving, but the truth is that sometimes I feel more like Esau than Jacob. Unlike Jacob, I am not into stealing from my siblings or wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. However, like Esau, I may be willing to bend my moral scruples a little should someone waft a hot, tasty In-N-Out burger under my nose while I am really, really hungry.

Anyway, it’s hard not to be pissed off on Esau’s behalf. It’s like God is saying, “Sorry, Esau, you’re not any worse than your loser brother, but I’m picking him to be the father of my chosen people. His descendents are going to wipe yours out, and he’s basically going to be wealthier, better looking, and a bigger hit with the ladies. Not only that, but rather than just awarding him all of this goodness from my stash of magically delicious rainbow-unicorn-blessings, I’m going to make sure he gets it by stealing from you.”

It’s not like God was just walking down the street and he picked up this extra blessing like a crumpled five dollar bill that you find in the supermarket parking lot, belonging to no one, and he looks around and arbitrarily picks Jacob. This blessing was Esau’s—with signed, notarized and triplicate copies of it. Here is the blessing that Isaac gave:

May God give you of heaven’s dew and of earth’s richness—an abundance of grain and new wine. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed.

Jacob steals from his brother, and yet God says, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”

One of the most moving pieces of scripture is the moment that Esau realizes what he’s lost to his brother: “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me—me too, my father…Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?’” This big, bearded giant is probably impossibly angry with his younger brother. The father trembling, weak and emotional responds, “I have made him lord over you, and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you?” Esau begs a third time, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!”

And then Esau weeps.

And it isn’t fair.

It isn’t fair that God chooses to redeem Jacob when he doesn’t deserve it while Esau, doing no less than his brother, is rejected. I am aware that because God makes the story, God gets to decide what is fair, but it’s important to me that Esau ends up with just a little something. Even a smallish sort of blessing would be taken gratefully, because I’m very afraid that instead of being God’s chosen favorite liar, I’m God’s rejected Esau. That I’ll never feel God’s favor, that my name never changes, and my blessing is taken away.

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