Acorns

img_4815-2

Acorns, breathless, released their grip on the old oak, dropped for a heart-stopping moment, and struck gravel.  They rattled several feet from impact, losing their tattered caps along the way, and settled on the creekside path.  Perhaps they congratulated themselves for their bravery.

Little Brooklyn gathered them studiously.

“The squirrels need their dinner.”

Mummy provided a vessel.

“They will love this dinner.  What do you think they will do with it?”

“They make acorn bread and acorn stew and acorn honey and peanut butter sandwiches and acorn cake with pink frosting and acorn ice cream.”

Mummy, whose alternate and mildly educational explanation involved burying the acorns in the ground for winter snacks, thought better of providing a statement of such exclusivity.

“Perhaps they do, Brook. Perhaps they do.”

They trundled down the path, Brooklyn pausing every few steps to add more acorns to her cup. She had a patience for the task that far surpassed the short attention spans of adults. Perhaps due to the notion that their tasks take on increasing importance, adults lose the ability to be patient over time. It is primarily an attribute of the young.

“Brook, we must get home for our own dinner.”

“I’m picking up acorns for the squirrels, Mummy.”

On cue, a squirrel appeared ahead of them.  He jerked his way along the path, pulled by an invisible string in his nose.  He was round in the cheek.  Brooklyn scooped several acorns into her fist and hurried forward.  The squirrel, sensing danger of the toddler variety, scurried across the path and corkscrewed up an old oak.  He chunnered merrily to himself, anxious as any squirrel and enjoying every minute of his anxiety.

Brooklyn spiraled around the tree dutifully.  Following a squirrel ’round a tree seems a primordial pleasure, similar to scratching an itch or hugging those who cry.  Perhaps an eternal hope springs up in our hearts: this time, I’ll catch the uncatchable.

This time, Brooklyn did not.  But she did get dizzy and collapsed to the forest floor, giggling even in her defeat.

Mummy caught up.

“Oh, honey, I don’t think we’ll catch him.”

Brooklyn nodded solemnly. “But we can leave the acorns for him.”

“That’s a wonderful idea.”

And they found a knot near the base of the tree, and Brooklyn unloaded, acorn by acorn, her precious, delectable trove. The squirrel peered down benevolently at this strange little creature and her abundant sacrifice.

Brooklyn stepped back and located the squirrel.

“There’s your dinner!” she hollered up to him.

The squirrel ducked back.

Brooklyn stood looking up for a moment or two before Mummy moved in.

“Time to move along, darling, we have to be home for dinner.”

Brooklyn nodded.”But what about the squirrel dinner?”

Mummy thought.

“Well, Brook, squirrels are suspicious of strangers.  Maybe if we left it there overnight, he would come down and take it off of the root.  We can come back tomorrow and see.”

Brooklyn pondered this, and it seemed good to her. She took her mother’s hand and turned toward home.

For several moments afterward, nothing but the early evening buzz of the woodland was heard.  A rustle, a scrabble, and Mr. Silas Squirrel poked his head around the corner of the oak tree, cautious but excited.  He carried a small burlap sack on his back.

“Hmn, well isn’t that, yes, a wonderful find, yes, wonderful find.”

He rolled the acorns in his paws carefully, checking for spots and mold before popping them, one by one, into his bag. He shouldered the lot and, moving with the agility of many seasons, scampered three-legged up the trunk.

“Hmn, now, Mrs. Squirrel, I’ve, hm, I’ve brought us something wonderful. ‘Tis indeed.”

Mrs. Squirrel bustled over to him and gave him a peck on the cheek, taking the sack in one motion.

“Why Silas T. Squirrel, where did you ever find so many…”

“Oh well, it was, er, nothing hm, now really…”

But Mrs. Squirrel was already excitedly preparing her kitchen for this arrival and didn’t hear the blame-shifting.  This was all for the best, in Silas T. Squirrel’s mind.  He propped his paws upon a chair near the window and leaned back as Mrs. Squirrel prepared her kitchen.

“So, hmn honey bumpkins, what shall we have tonight from such a find?”

“Oh, acorn bread, acorn stew, acorn honey and peanut butter sandwiches for the children, and acorn ice cream and cake with pink frosting for dessert.”

“Splendid.”

And he chunnered to himself.

“Yes, quite a find, quite a find. Indeed.”

 

 

“The next stop will be…”

4T5 Cadbury's train

These seats always creak and huff when we travelers sit in them. We’re as weary as they are, or so it would seem.

It’s 5:09, and in four minutes this train will leave the station, and I’m just glad I got a corner seat on the upper level. It’s nearest the air conditioning, and I have my 99-cent iced coffee with just cream, no sugar. I used to add easy ice to my order, but they never caught that one, or maybe they thought I couldn’t tell that it was still packed to the brim. Why try to save on the stale coffee you’re trying to get rid of? Give the people the caffeine they crave.

I’ve calculated that full ice constitutes the loss of at least five sips of coffee. That’s a margin I truly miss on the ride home.

I have options for mind occupation on the train ride home – a book, Bible reading, writing, surfing Twitter… but my mind is whirling with options of a different kind, and online job searches are calling my name.

Scroll, scroll, click, nope, refresh, scroll, scroll, scroll.

Perhaps I’m just another millennial looking for that elusive perfect job, and I think so highly of myself that I can’t take an entry-level position in something I may not like.

Scroll, scroll, hm. Maybe. That’s far away from family. Sigh.

Perhaps I’m just too focused on my passions and not focused enough on the practicality of just getting a job, darn it. Or my standards are so high that I won’t accept the perfectly normal job staring me in the face.

Scroll, definitely not, scroll, scroll, click, looks possible, save for later. Scroll, scroll…

I wonder what the stats are for people who hate their job.

Oh, thanks Google, about 70%. Why should I be so privileged as to think I could like mine someday?

The thing is, right now I’m in the 30%. I don’t actually hate my current job. I love it. Sure, it has it’s problems, but I love my colleagues, I enjoy the work, it’s diverse and often exciting. I believe in the value of what I’m doing. The only reason I’m looking is because I have a family and the pay isn’t cutting it for the cost of living in Chicago. I don’t even blame my employers for that. It’s just the way it is right now.

I’ve got a dream job in mind right now, like most people. Mine has switched around a lot (because these darn millennials can’t commit) but currently I’d like to write stories for a living, from wherever it’s cheap to live and my kids have a yard.  Quite the American dream.

“The next stop will be… Harlem Avenue.  Now approaching… Harlem Avenue.”

These beasts of many burdens sling their backpacks up and over, cinch the straps, tap their pockets to confirm they have wallets, stumble over feet.  Hisses, shuffles, the ding, c-click, ding, c-clang of the train starting up again.  We leave them on the platform, walking to their homes, to the bar, to some dingy pizza place. The sense of abandonment wanes over the years.  It’s been five now, for me. Many more for others.

Now I’m looking up organizations I would like to work with, to see if there are any jobs I could qualify for within their sparkling ranks.

Job descriptions are terrifying, and I know why, because I redid mine over the summer along with my entire manual. When you actually sit down and start categorizing what you do in your job, you realize just how much there is, even though most of it you didn’t have a clue how to do at all, initially. Add in supervisor expectations (what they think you do or what they wish you would do) and you’ve got a recipe for Super-Employee. Part of me wants a “BS filter” option on this app. The other part of me is scared spitless that they might actually mean what they say.

The train yards are whizzing away and the landscapes subtly become greener. The city is a breathless heaving machine, all complicated moving parts and rush and noise. The suburbs are fake trees and fake grass and fake smiles and fake lives, and the real versions of each are often indistinguishable, so who really knows which one I see? In between, though, I really don’t know what it’s like. It looks… well, it’s gone now, I guess I’ll never know.

“The next stop will be… Berwyn. Now approaching… Berwyn.”

What’s perhaps most frustrating is the insecurity, and the doubts that plague me about the next steps of life.

Am I good enough to get a different job?
Does God want me to move on or am I just being discontent?
What if I hate the new one I get even though it looks great?
What if we have to relocate and pull up the roots we’ve been putting down for five years?
I should be happy that we have it as good as we do right now.

There is nothing here to hold on to. The questions produce only more questions. The self-doubt, the other-doubt, the God-doubt – it’s an abyss, and I know it, and I still ask the questions.

“The next stop will be… Riverside. Now approaching… Riverside.”

Doubt. Insidious, pseudo-holy, parasitic. Brother to fear. Son to pride. I am Yours, but I am not. You love me, but You do not. First tool of the devil. “Did God really say…”

The appropriate response, of course, is “Duh. Bug off.” Heir of the fall, I respond by justifying, waffling, trying to do it myself, failing, falling, sinning in my heart against the God who cannot love me more than He does, who has my good in His heart, who holds the world and this itty-bitty baby in His hands.

My six-month-old is learning an age-old truth. After months of getting exactly what he asks for when he asks for it, the party is winding down. Welcome to life, kid. We are always there, always watching out for you, and we love you to pieces. But no, you may not get your way at this moment, no matter how much you rage at us.

The exception is when you are hurting. We can’t get there fast enough.

“The next stop will be… Brookfield. Now approaching… Brookfield.”

I’ve always liked how Metra Mom says my home-stop, lilting, cheery, like the sound of those two things mingled and expressed, smiling. Sounds like content. I pack up my own burden and sling it on my back, check my belonging, stumble over others. This is my stop.

We all stand, bovine, heads slightly bowed. Some people had good days and chew the cud at each other. Some people had bad days and chew the cud at each other. Most stand silently, bearing their various burdens and waiting to lower them with loved ones at home, or not at all. Travelers all, we shuttle from place to place, willing slaves to routine, for the sake of all of our different motivations – family, money, fame, passions.

When will I stop pursuing and let myself be caught by my true Home?

 

 

 

 

Fewer walls.

Trying out taking the side off of K’s crib.
 
Told the little punk with Extreme Dad Voice that Under No Circumstances was he to get out of bed and roam around the house.
 
I’m sitting on the couch doing Very Important Adulting Things (surfing Facebook).
 
Thumps. Giggles. A blonde goblin in a diaper tiptoes round the corner, looking back at his sister and grinning with the sheer joy of disobedience.
 
Suddenly he spots me sitting on the couch.
 
We stare at each other. I’m trying to be fierce with a straight face. His smile slithers away.
 
He backs up slowly into the room. He may possibly think that I just might not have seen him. Just to be sure, he begins intoning what sounds like an ancient kid-wizard protection spell at me (something like “bed bed bed bed”). He’s determined to lull Daddy Ogre into inaction…
 
He disappears, and there’s a thump and more giggles. He doesn’t come out again.
 
I haven’t got the heart to discipline him for his transgression. Although I’m pretty sure he will end up sound asleep, spread-eagled, on the floor tonight.

Stories

stories

The old man rocked and rocked and rocked
The same old chair, the same old place,
The same old frown upon his face.
“Nothing new,” he croaks and sighs
“Everything is made for flies,
I’ve seen it all so now I’ll die.”

His daughter’s daughter clambers up
And gestures mildly with her cup.
“Whaddaya mean, Grampop,” she peeps,
And settles curls on wrinkled cheek.

“All the stories have been told
From time to time, they all are old,
Aged, useless, and so am I.
I’ve seen it all so now I’ll die.”

“You’re silly Grampoppa,” she giggled away,
“I’ve just read a brand new story today
With princesses, dragons and trolls and moats,
And a city in clouds that bobs and floats.”

“Derivative!” snarled the Grumpop, sitting,
“And hardly worth the time, not fitting
For young impressionable minds
Find something better to do with your time.”

“Well Grampop, I don’t believe that’s true.
Every story I read is new.
What about this one – a really great read,
About a young lady and brilliant white steed,
And the horse has great wings, and the lady can fly
On her steed over mountains up into the sky.”

“Child, that’s barely a plot line at best.”

“But Grampop, just wait ’til I tell you the rest.
She saves this whole village she grew up in, poor,
And if that isn’t enough, I’ve got more.

There’s this story about a humongous old mole
Who gets loose and climbs snarling up out of his hole,
But it turns out he only wants jelly beans, stat,
So they feed him and send him back down, how ’bout that?

And then there’s this one with a dog made of rain,
And the one where a berry bush grows from a drain,
And the wishing bench guarded by gnomes and wee elves,
And the furniture people who hide in the shelves.”

“Good grief, my darling, these stories are silly.”

“Oh no they’re not, Grampop, it’s you that is, really.
Don’t tell me you don’t know the one about mops
You can fly on like brooms but you never can stop,
Or the one with the things that hide in the dark,
That turn into dust at the song of the lark.”

“I’ve not heard of that one, I guess. All the same,
What are you thinking to prove with this game?”

“Then there’s the gnat who grows big as the moon,
So he flies off the world into space, none too soon.
The man-eating letters,
The bees who make sweaters,
A macaroni boat on an ocean of cheese!
The mouse with a limp,
The tap-dancing shrimp,
And the circus of kids run by fleas!”

“Okay now, okay!  I get your point, child.
Just where did you read all these stories? They’re wild!
In all of my life, I’ve not heard of such stuff.”

“That’s because, Grampop, I made it all up.”
And she smiled and leapt down off his lap with her cup.

He sat a while rocking and rocking, and slow,
His mind afire with newfound things,
And thoughtfully, watched her blond curls go
On down the hill to make use of the swings.

“Well, sweetheart, what a gift to give:
You’ll never see it all; so live.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charley’s War

charleyswar

The night was a starless one in late summer, the type when you leave the windows open for a cool breeze and the crickets lull you to sleep.

Charley knew the danger.

“Mommy, you can’t close the curtains all the way. If you leave one open They can’t get in.”

“Charlotte, honey, the streetlights are too bright. You won’t sleep. You still have your nightlight.”

So the curtain was closed, the blue-green faded ballerina light was turned on. Charley was tucked into bed with a brush of a kiss and a pat on the head. She closed her eyes to a slit, her whole being set for action, as her mother closed the door.

Click.

Shuffle.

Creak.

Charley was out of bed in a heartbeat, padding like a cat across the muddy carpet. She knew the urgency.

“Philemon, up.”

A breeze wafted the curtain, throwing splatters of light from the streetlamp to the ceiling. The crickets droned. She had ten seconds at most.

“Up, Philly!”

Breathless, she tied her blanket tight around her neck, draping it skillfully to the floor. She felt on the third shelf of the bookcase for her tiara, frantic, grasping. Philemon lifted his fuzzy head with the blank stare of the recently awakened.

“Wassat.”

“Philly, They’re coming.”

Philemon blinked three times, slowly. Then alarm entered his black eyes. Charley had her tiara on.

The curtain suddenly stopped hovering and fell back, hanging like a dead thing from the gallows. The knife-edge of lamplight disappeared.

Charley whirled, reaching desperately behind the bookcase, shielding the nightlight with her pink cloak.

Fingers of darkness began soaking the edge of the window, like a towel catching water from an overflowing bath. Slowly, slowly, at first, then more quickly until the stain was almost a foot wide on every side. The air was still, offensive, and Charley covered her mouth with a corner of her cloak to filter it.

Philemon T. Bear leapt from the bed to her side, his small form growing to child-size as he landed. He turned to the window and produced a heart-shaped shield of red metal, emblazoned with his family’s coat of arms.

“How many?”

“As many as last night.”

The stain grew to two feet.

“Or… maybe more.”

Click. Shuffle. Creak.

To the untrained eye, the change was subtle. Charley knew the signs, knew to look for the places where emptiness replaced darkness, and saw the claws grasping the edge, the dribbling tentacles slip to the floor, the horns, the teeth, the eyeless heads.

“Hold, Philemon.”

Philemon held, readying his weapons. Her hand found what it had been looking for.

The Nightmares gathered at the corners of the window, cautious, smelling the air and reaching out. In her favor was that they couldn’t see her, being eyeless, and they always assumed, being witless, that she would be in her bed.

Philemon growled low. Their heads snapped toward him, and silently the bodies followed.

“Hold.”

The Nightmares heard her. They moved more quickly toward the corner.

“Now!”

Philemon stretched his bow as she threw back her cloak. The warm glow of the nightlight blasted the first two rows of Nightmares into ash. The back rows fell to the edges of the glow, clicking and gnashing their empty teeth at them, but couldn’t escape the first salvo from Philemon’s bow.

Philemon had recently sharpened his extensive collection of Crayolas, and now put them to good use. A tentacled mass was decimated in midair by Forest Green, and Electric Pink snuffed out the scuttling blight to his left.

Charley drew her wand, acquired at great price ($2.25 plus tax) from a street fair vendor two weeks earlier, and lit it by whacking the head off a snaky blot who’d slid past the line.  The red and blue flashing lights confused the demons, and the rubber spikes hardened to titanium in her hand. The flying ones attempted dives at her head but rebounded back from her crown.

She cut down great swaths of Nightmares, leaping and spinning, stabbing and swatting, Philemon by her side, firing Tangerine’s and Cherry Red’s into the heart of the horde.  Together they whirled around the room, by the bookcase, atop the table, bouncing from the bed. Her heart sung in her chest as each fell, and their numbers could not dismay her.

Until the nightlight flickered.

She glanced back at it, doubtful, and tread on her cloak.

Her blanket slid from her back. She fell, it seemed in slow motion, from the bed, landing on Philemon and crushing two crayons and her tiara beneath her. Her wand slipped in the process, and landed a foot from her wild hands. It flashed twice, and with no further impact to keep it alight, went dark.

The nightlight flickered again, and the Nightmares, sensing weakness, grew larger, closer, substantial.

“Milady!”

Philemon struggled out from under her and leapt to the fore, his shield blazing red as he took a blow meant for her.

“Quick, take my cloak.”

The sturdy knit shrunk in her hands to the size of a doll’s blanket, useless.

“Milady, you must believe!”

Charley slid to the wall, setting her back to it and turning her face from the darkness. Philemon leaped to her, smaller, smaller, his shield slipping. The Nightmares cackled in triumph, flaunting their growing reality, and closed in.

Charley cried out.

Click.

Shuffle.

Creak.

The door swung open. Life-giving lamplight scattered the closest monsters into nothing, and the others cringed. Charley looked.

Her mother, framed in glory, stepped brazen into the fray, broom in hand. She swept back the horde, catching a web-winged object full in the face and laying a spiky hulk flat into fragments. Charley recovered enough to retrieve her wand, and knocked the nearest many-legged creature into the bookcase. It exploded to absence with a satisfying splorch.

In seconds it was over. Her mother lifted Charley in her arms and held her, stroking her hair.

“I’m here.”

Charley clung to her for a good while. Being five (almost six), of course, she didn’t really need that long, but she wanted her mother to feel needed too… Eventually, her mother carried her to bed, fished the blanket from behind the bed, and tucked her in tight.

“I’m always here.”

She picked up the broken pieces of warfare from the floor and placed them on a shelf.  Then she dusted Philemon off, set his shield right, tied off his cloak, and slid him in next to Charley. Charley held him tight, her stalwart, and whispered.

“Th… the nightlight is going out.”

Her mother saw the flickering and exited, returning in moments with a new bulb. The light now shone steady.

“Charley, I’m here with you. Even when you can’t see me, I’m here.”

A snuggle. A kiss. A whispered love. And she was gone. But she left a spell of protection behind her in the room, one which the Nightmares couldn’t break. The darkness seeped away, and the night breeze wafted the streetlight’s glow onto the ceiling.

Charley slept.

 

 

 

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

 

Tiny Plaid and Questionable Tweed

questionabletweed

Mr. Smith was a dry cleaner, and nothing more or less.

For over forty years, Mr. Smith kept his business quietly, running the best cleaners in town, in the state – maybe the country.  Naysayers might do well to try out every cleaners in the country and then judge.

Mr. Smith had a secret formula for getting grease out.  He had the moves, as the young folks say, to iron any wrinkle, and the patience to see it smooth too.  Tears and tatters were a specialty – sewn so precisely that a trained eye couldn’t tell the difference between brand-new and hand-me-down, thrice.

A modest man, and quiet, Mr. Smith was trusted in the town, though few exchanged more words than necessary over each transaction.  It was dry cleaning, after all.  He would listen, study the cloth before him as each customer described their needs, and nod.

Mr. Smith nodded when Ebenezer Kraklin (the Honorable) creaked in with a sixty-some-year suit of questionable tweed.  He knew the fabric and the age from a mere glance, and the nod knew the need. Even widowers go a-courtin’ in the winter years.

Mr. Smith nodded when Agnes DeLoit brought in an evening gown with puff sleeves, luxurious lavender unfit for a lady of church dress only.  He had starched her collars and sleeves for years, Monday after Monday, but this dusty finery meant perhaps more than she intended his nod to know.  She was dismissive of it (“Cleaning out my closets” said she), despite the color in her cheeks, and Mr. Smith was a gentleman.

The rumpled mid-aged man in shirtsleeves (Barnabas Clark, accountant and husband of Ann, 18 at the neck) had grease stains on his slacks.  Mr. Smith thought of beautiful fried things behind grimy doors downtown, and nodded. Three hours was manageable, yes, but extra.  Barnabas understood, and so did Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith’s nod knew the holiday menu, when he peeled remnants of golden yams and caked gravy from tiny collared plaid, when he soaked bloody cranberry and subtle creamy stains from velvet-topped tartan.  He knew the tired smile of a survivor (Emily Bright, 6 month to 3 year), and his nod spoke support upon pickup.  She would be back, but the clothes were one or two sizes larger each year.  One year, she stopped coming altogether.  He missed working with little cloth.

Mr. Smith added an eyebrow twitch to his nod when Taylor Drust (of 16 tender years) darkened his doorstep for the first time, sheepishly handing him a goldenrod dress shirt and store-matched tie. Taylor eventually returned the sleek black vest Mr. Smith “accidentally” included with his order, with a touch more confidence.  Mr. Smith nodded and smiled, but only to himself.  He was young once, too.

Mr. Smith nodded when Ms. Deloit returned several months later with a modest white gown with creamy lace, of many years and little use.  He took great care in smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric and freshening the color, and Ms. Deloit smiled like a schoolgirl upon retrieval.  He nodded when Mr. Kraklin (the Honorable) returned with a rush order on a suitable used black tuxedo.  He offered matching cuff links.  Ebenezer couldn’t care less if they matched.

Brittany Carmine (sized 4 and aged 17), blushing like a new bride, dropped off a long frilly fancy thing towards the end of May that same year, and Mr. Smith nodded with the gravitas of a father, eying the neckline with apprehension.  Upon pickup, he gestured to a matching shawl he had conveniently arranged on the counter, shimmering like an evening.  “Lost and found.  It’s yours if you want it.” He nodded relief when she took it, and thought perhaps she felt the same.

She brought it back the following Tuesday, head down, salt-water standing in the corners of her eyes as she indicated a hastily tattered sleeve and a muddy hem.  Mr. Smith’s heart broke, but he nodded. Sometimes the tears were unavoidable. She never picked it up.

Jeremiah Yoder’s hands brought his dress blacks twice a church year.  Hands that deftly guided his plow or gentled a horse turned clumsy at the sight of a pen.  Mr. Smith nodded upon inspection of each order, accepting with his nod both the man and the painfully-scrawled squiggle.  Come Good Friday, these hands would rest on a slender waist as Sarai’s smaller hands tied his somber, smartly-starched tie. Sarai’s hands also took a good amount of patchwork from Mr. Smith’s payroll, but he didn’t mind.

Ms. Lucretia Crimenze’s butler peered at Mr. Smith over the bridge of his ever-upturned nose, when he delivered six brand new evening gowns on the 5th of the month.  Mr. Smith wondered if she would even notice should he shirk his duties, since he had never twice seen a gown, and they were all pristine without his aid. But he had never once shirked his duties, so he never once found out.

Mr. Smith nodded when the undertaker stopped by with a questionable tweed suit and a modest dress of lavender.  He took care to clean and press them as he would for the living, for he thought of them that way always, on each of their few anniversaries.  Truly, they lived, even late.

And one day in early December, Brittany Carmine (sized 6 and aged 19) brought by a tiny collared shirt with life-red stains of cranberry dripped across the collar.  She smiled, as survivors do.  And Mr. Smith nodded.