Sandpipers and the Seashore

A biting wind blustered across the pebbled and loosely packed path—causing Bartley to shiver under his wool coat. Folding the collar up, he braced as a particularly strong gust threatened to take his feet out from under him. After a brief recovery of balance, he resumed walking briskly against the cold, neither looking west toward the riotous green-gray sea, nor east toward the lush green hills that towered above him—but straight ahead as many do who have a goal in sight.

The sun had been up for some hours, but the grey haze that blanketed the heavens dispersed its piercing rays and created an ambiance that seemed to be from nowhere, and yet everywhere, casting a muted light evenly across the landscape. Bartley found the overcast sky oddly cathartic—in the sort of way that a joyful person finds the sunny day invigorating, or a raging storm feels like home to an angry man. He had been away from home for some time, living out of the pack on his back, doing business wherever the company had sent him. Now, at last, he was coming home.

He used to work in a small store, an establishment run by his father-in-law, located in the same town where he had spent his youth. Years of repeating the same tasks had begun to wear on him, however, and wondering if he had misspent the best years of his life—he dreamed of what might have been. Soon thereafter a bank opened an office down the street and advertised a position for a man of ‘business sense’ to travel up and down the western seaboard (all for good pay of course), reclaiming properties in which the residents had defaulted on their loans. Now, a job described as such does not sound very heartwarming or appealing to most, but Bartley was determined to live out his ‘missed years of adventure’ as he described them, and telling his wife and children goodbye, began trekking down the rocky coast.

The job was great at first, lots of days on the road followed by nights at a local pub or inn. Working with his fellow evictors, Bartley would spend a day or two in a region, making the rounds for the bank on various households; however, evicting people is not a pleasant business, and soon he found the faces of the poor families he saw day after day staring back at him from his glass of ale in the evenings. At the start he had begun each morning spryly, wondering what new place, conversation, or town lay around the next bend, but now he dreaded the rising of the sun—for each new day brought fresh grief to his conscience. While he had once only briefly replied to the letters of his wife and children, giving them barely a thought, he now looked forward to the evening hour to see if a labeled envelope awaited him upon the completion of his daily rigor.

Bartley tucked his hands more deeply into his coat pockets—clenching cold fingers into fists. Watery eyes scanned the rocks in front of him and upon seeing a small dirt detour down to the beach, he turned aside to eat his lunch. Sandpipers darted on nimble legs through the vestiges of waves as Bartley walked along the shoreline. The birds’ feet left trails in the coarse sand, like snapshots of the progress of each little life, until a wave would come rolling across the beach and mask over the tracks as if nothing had disturbed that shore before. “If only life were that simple,” murmured Bartley to himself, thinking about his own footsteps during the preceding months—footprints he would much like to have expunged. Footprints right back to the door of his house with his wife and children waving him away as he disappeared into the dark night. Sometimes forgetfulness is a blessing, but there on the beach, as the sandpipers darted to and fro amidst the foamy water, he knew that he had to remember where he came from to know where he was going.

Poboys and Pugilism

We start at the end. The beginning is a dull place to start. Everyone says to start in the middle (in media res), but everyone can be wrong.

Mark got up and punched his friend in the face.

The End.

Okay, we can back up now. Maybe then, Mark’s behavior will seem more sensible. Maybe.

Mark tore a big bite out of his poboy. It was a roast beef poboy, sloppy with gravy but undeniably delicious, and it guaranteed Mark’s frequent presence at Poboy Corner.

Between slurps of soda, handfuls of sauce-dipped fries, and wads of poboy, Mark looked up to see a basketball game on a TV above him. Iona and UNC, playing a game. Mark watched with lazy interest–his interest was not in the teams but in the sport. Looking at the screen and watching the players proved distraction enough for a moment.

A voice interrupted Mark’s sports-y reverie. “Mark? Is that you, man? I didn’t know you ate here!”

Mark didn’t like to be bothered when he was eating. This was not because he didn’t like other people’s company. In fact, the opposite was true–Mark rarely felt lonelier than when he sat down to lunch.

But also, Mark had a dark secret.

Have you heard of people who, feeling the ache in their stomachs when they are hungry, become angry in their ravening for food? Laymen call this being “hangry.”

Well, Mark had the opposite of this condition. When he was satisfied, content from eating a ridiculously good meal, then he would become angry.

Because Mark knew his nature, he chose to eat alone. That is also why it was so unfortunate that Mark’s friend hailed him that day.

My Pledge

Rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, RATS, I thought, using the expression I picked up sometime in elementary school, ‘cause Michael-what’s-his-face used it and I thought it was funny. It’s a slightly absurd exclamation to use, especially in dire circumstances such as these, but I contend that it’s much better than other things I could say. At the moment, I was directing my ire at the creek crossing in front of me, which, sooner or later, I and my horse, Lilah, were going to have to navigate.

Oh, in the grand scheme of things it was nothing so horrible. It certainly wasn’t a very large creek bed, and it was nearly dry, too. A short short slope down, a small flat area at the bottom, and an even shorter slope back up. But then, the path down was just a little bit steep, and the bottom was a tad muddy, and it really was a rather steep path back up. And so here I was, frozen in, well…I am unfortunately forced to label my emotion at the time to be “terror.”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one about to navigate what was fast becoming, to my mind, a gaping chasm. My dad was ahead of me, on his horse, Sawyer, and I watched as they walked down the slope into the gorge, and then did a little hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud and up the other side. Dad congratulated Sawyer, and then turned around to wait for me.

My turn, now. But, what if Lilah slipped and fell and took me with her? What if she, the horse, always attuned to the nerves of its rider, grew just as nervous as me and started to fight me? What if she decided to actually jump and I fell off? What if I just forgot how to ride altogether and slid off on the way down, or up? What if she became stuck in the mud and freaked out? What if we were slowly sucked into ooze, down, down into oblivion and despair, a la that horse from The NeverEnding Story?  What if…?

No, there could be none of that worrying nonsense, or we’d never get out of here. Hope may have been at its lowest, but that just meant it was time for an epic speech, which I promptly gave myself:

Okay, come on. If you want in any way to be able to even remotely survive Middle-earth, if you want to ride with the horse-lords of Rohan, if you want to be in any way worthy of the Mark, you are going to have to at least be able to get across this little trickle of a creek. Onwards and upwards. Literally.

And, so, we went. And, of course, Lilah and I did just fine. Down the slope, and then a hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud, and up the other side. And, it was even, dare I say it, a fun experience, what with the skipping and the jumping. And I told Lilah, in my “sugary” voice, very unbecoming a rider of Rohan, that she was “such a good girl!” And so we set off on our way.

You see, as should be quite obvious, I did not live in some adventure story. To tell (or face) the truth, I probably didn’t want to. I liked hot water and soft pillows and air conditioning far, far too much. I don’t even like camping for a night, let alone traipsing about the wild for weeks on end like a real ranger. So, in my line of work, I must take whatever small chance I get, like this one ever-so-slightly-maybe-theoretically-a-tad-dangerous creek crossing, to show a little of something resembling courage, to pledge my unused, still-in-its-box pocket knife to all my favorite fantasy books, and to have just a tiny bit of adventure.

Stories from a Small Town

The sun shone over the trees and sparkled on the river.  Emily squinted and shaded her face.

“Come on, Emily!” Hannah exclaimed, tugging on Emily’s elbow, “Mrs. Harris says the tour’s about to start.”

Down the sloping riverbank road, a green dragon clattered and smoked towards the school group as Emily’s class gathered around Mrs. Harris and prepared to board.  Well, it wasn’t really a dragon, but as the trolley lurched to a stop in front of Emily, she thought the diesel fumes and throaty engine were dragonish.

Emily mounted the tall trolley steps behind Ben and Hannah.  The steps weren’t built for short legs, but Emily managed to struggle up.  She followed Hannah past Mrs. Harris, who was perched on the front seat, and plopped down on a bench.  The trolley shifted into motion, and a costumed girl stood up at the front, swaying and clutching papers in one hand and a handlebar in the other.

“Hello, my name is Elisabeth—” the girl’s next words were drowned out as the trolley struggled uphill and leveled off on Front Street.

The girl smiled and spoke even louder, “Although our town is small, it is brimming with 300 years of history and people, places, and stories which make it special, and I’m going to tell you about one particularly extraordinary person.

“Do you see the building on the right?  At one time this was the art studio of Alicia Benoit.  Miss Benoit was born without arms, yet she was extremely talented.  Not only could she paint and draw, but she could also feed herself, type letters, play the piano, thread a needle, and embroider.  Because Miss Benoit did all this with her feet and toes, she wore pumps so she could quickly slip her shoes off and use her toes like we use our fingers.

“As a child, Miss Benoit attended—”

Hannah nudged Emily and whispered, “I know a family whose last name is Benoit. Maybe they’re related.”

“Ssshh!  I’m trying to listen.”

 “—As an art teacher and as a person, Miss Benoit impacted everyone around her.  Even those who didn’t know her personally remember her.  One city resident saw Miss Benoit at many concerts at the college and recalls observing Miss Benoit retrieve money from her shoe.

“Throughout her life, Miss Benoit’ family cared for her, and it seems likely that family and community support helped her overcome her handicaps and become the inspiration she is today.”

Smiling, the speaker finished her story and handed Mrs. Harris two papers to pass around.

When the papers reached Hannah and Emily, they saw the pages contained black-and-white photos of a smiling lady surrounded by artwork.

Emily spotted something in one of the photos as she turned around to pass them on.

“Look, Hannah!  The lady is only wearing one shoe like the girl said.  I wonder what she was doing when the photo was taken.”

Emily didn’t have time to take another look, for just then the trolley slowed to a stop, and Mrs. Harris said, “Time to go, everyone!”

Once all the children had disembarked, they followed Mrs. Harris and a costumed stranger along the sidewalk.  The sun had risen even further, and the cool morning was quickly turning muggy.

“Where do you think we’re going next?”  Hannah asked, peering up at the old buildings that loomed over them.

“I don’t know, but I hope it has air conditioning,” Emily replied, fanning her face, “It’s hot.”

“It’s not hot,” Hannah said.

“Well, it’s going to be, and I’m already sweating.”

“I must be a bit coldblooded,” Hannah mused, eyeing the ground and hopping over the cracks in the pavement.

“You can’t be coldblooded.  Only snakes and things like that are—” Emily began to explain, but broke off as her class passed through the creaking wooden doors of a castle!  No—it was just an old church.  Emily’s sudden excitement was extinguished.

If only the trolley really were a dragon and this church a castle, Emily wished.

The story about the armless lady had been interesting, but Emily doubted if her town could hold enough stories to justify a half-day historic tour for children.  Still, it was fun to be out of school with her friends.

Emily gazed into the gloomy church.  A high ceiling peaked over dark, squeaking floors which vibrated as a bell tolled in the church tower.

Mrs. Harris led the class to the front of the nave where a group of costumed children told stories about ghosts and dead people, but Emily wasn’t really paying attention because her glance caught onto a large object in a corner of the church.  It was dark brown, upright, and curved, with a giant space in its center crossed by dozens of parallel lines.  A girl in a long red dress sat on a bench behind it.

When the ghost stories had finished, Emily was glad to see that Mrs. Harris and the tour guide were leading her class to the interesting object.

The girl stood up and welcomed the class, and the children sat down.  Emily was absorbed in gazing at the object, which she now realized looked like a musical instrument.

“This is a harp,” the speaker said as she motioned to the instrument beside her, “The harp has many parts.  These are the column, the soundboard, the strings, and the pedals.”  As she named each part, the girl pointed it out.

“The harp is most often associated with the glissando.”  The harpist ran her thumb down the strings and then pulled back up with her forefinger.

Emily gasped at the lovely sound, as did Hannah and most of the other girls.

“I am now going to play a piece for you based on a medieval call to prayer for peasants working in the fields.  Listen for the six bell tolls that repeat throughout the song.”

Sitting down behind the harp, the girl thumped on the pedals for a moment and then pulled the instrument back to rest on her shoulder.  She began to play, and the notes sounded like fairy music to Emily.

When the song was over, the girl stood up again and said, “I hope you have enjoyed learning about the harp.  Are there any questions?”

“How many strings does the harp have?” Mrs. Harris asked.

“My harp has 44, but some harps have 47 strings.”

Ben’s hand shot up, and he asked, “Does your finger bleed when you play and have a cut on your finger?”

“I don’t actually know.  I’ve never had that happen before,” the girl replied with a smile.

Then it was time to go, and as Mrs. Harris rounded up her class, Emily slipped nearer the harpist, and looking up, asked timidly, “Could you teach me how to play?”

The girl looked surprised and a little amused, but said, “I don’t know.  You would have to ask your parents first.”

Before the class crowded out the door, Mrs. Harris turned around, and she and the class thanked the harpist.  Then Emily was blinking once more in hot sunshine, headed towards the next tour stop, and wondering what her parents would say about harp lessons.

Swinging the screen door shut with a bang and slipping off her shoes as she hopped into the hall, Emily rushed into the kitchen where her mother was chopping onions.

“How was your school trip today, Emily?” Mama inquired.

“It was lots of fun!  Have you heard of a harp before?  I saw one this morning, and there was this girl who talked about it and played it.  I want to learn how to play the harp.  May I?  Oh, and did you know an artist named Miss Benoit who didn’t have arms lived here?  She painted with her feet!”

Emily’s mother laughed and said as she wiped her hands off, “I never would’ve guessed our little town had a harp teacher.”

“Now,” Mama continued, sitting Emily down, “I want to hear all about your day from the very beginning.  We can have lemonade and sugar cookies while you talk.”

As Emily began describing the dragon trolley, Mama poured lemonade, piled sugar cookies on a plate, and sat down at the table.  They sipped, snacked, and chatted for a while, and supper may have been a little late that evening, and Emily might have described her day a second time to her two older brothers and her sister and a third time when Daddy came home, but no one was bored, and no one went hungry.

When Mama came to tuck Emily into bed that night, Emily whispered, “I’m glad I have arms, ‘cause otherwise I couldn’t hug you.”

“I’m glad, too,” Mama smiled as she turned out the light.

Falling asleep, Emily realized she was worn out with excitement and happiness—and plans!  Maybe tomorrow she would try painting with her feet, and maybe soon she could learn to play the harp.