Shooting From The Hip

shootingfromthehip2

It was a rambling two week-long drive zig-zagging across the Chilean and Argentinian borders, down, down and over the Strait of Magellan, into Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire”), down to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.  I swear that from there you can smell Antarctica.  We saw penguins, flamingoes, guanacos (like alpacas), flocks of rheas, icebergs, black and white-striped dolphins, and took a boat ride out to see southern right whale mamas with their calves.  We camped in Torres del Paine, one of the most gorgeous national parks in the world.  We took a boat out to a glacier and were awed by all that deep blue.  We did a lot on that trip, and guess what?  We didn’t plan it.

Now, we had sat down with a map and someone who had navigated the southern end of S. America.  He highlighted nice places to visit.  That was it.  No hotel reservations, no itinerary, just, go!

shootingfromthehip1It was the best trip of our lives.  We could stop and linger where we were intrigued, we could push right through the endless Argentine pampa which was a whole lot of brown with a bit of wildlife.  We lived pure spontaneity.  What an adventure.

Some of you read my short story I published last week, “Magda’s Gift”.  Someone asked me how I know what to write next; how does one go about crafting a story?  I smiled.  “Well, I watch what the characters say and do, and then I write what I saw.”  Incredulity.  It’s true.  I have no idea what the end of the story will be when I begin to write.  I have no idea what the point will be (or if there will be one), how the characters will develop, or how it will all fit together.  I write like I live, shooting from the hip.

Contrast this with my beloved parents-in-law.  They have a gift for planning and derive great pleasure from having time nicely chunked-out and labeled.  They love the predictability and they relax into their schedule like it’s an old pair of slippers.  Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve been stuffed into a whale-bone corset.  Can’t.  Breathe.

For the sake of family unity and peace, Dustin and I let them direct the family vacations, which they do a great job at.  A few years back we all went to Colonial Williamsburg.  The days were marked out and we happily donned our corsets (figuratively, you know) and toured Williamsburg and went to a fun theme park and such and such.  Even the meal schedule was marked-out and all went swimmingly according to plan.  There was one day left temporarily flexible according to which site we wished to revisit.  Dustin and I decided that enjoying the pool at the condo sounded perfect, just relax in the sun and let the kids unwind.  The family did not understand; why would we “waste” a day not “doing something”?  We didn’t want to come home from our vacation needing a vacation.  Within the structure of those days, we needed a bit of meandering rest and unhurried relaxing.

To be clear, I’m not holding up “shooting from the hip” as a virtue; our culture needs the type-A planners, indeed, very much!  But I do submit that we also need to recognize that not everyone fits into that category.  Both are gifts; you may not be able to count on me to plan a classroom party, but you can sure bet that I’ll be the one able to bring you some freshly-made chicken soup if you fall ill, and will be free to keep your children should your sitter not show.  My schedule isn’t full on paper, but my life is full of responsive work (living the day, responding to seen/felt needs, letting the Spirit guide my to-do list).  shootingfromthehipSome authors write out a detailed story line.  They know where their characters are headed ahead of time.  Some people plan out their lives. Some just don’t, happily.  Whatever group you fall in, or anywhere in between, may each of us encourage one another to either plan or respond in a way that honors Christ as Lord of our lives, as the most important focus of how our days on this spinning Earth are spent.

Magda’s Gift, Part 13

shortstory13I quit my job.  I’d been earning over six figures for over ten years without a lick of joy, so I decided to try something else.  It’s funny how quick you get used to not wearing pantyhose and high heels.  I think my tendons have forgiven me.

Carl may have had something to do with it, that week we spent tracking down all of Magda’s guestbook entries.  Magda’s simple words to them had profound effect, as did the news of her death.  Often the voice on the other end would just go silent and then the storm of grief would erupt.  Magda had that effect on people.  In the midst of country-wide and even international calls, I made a dreaded one to my office.  They seemed at least glad that I hadn’t died and covered for me while I worked at Magda’s last request.  But two months later I was packing up my office while my colleagues just shook their heads in amazement.  I was truly giving up a lot; a successful career, built up by a whole lot of grit, manipulation, and raw ambition.  They were all still climbing the ladder that I was jumping off of.  There was, I’m sure, a whole lot more speculation about who would move into my corner office suite than there was about what on earth could entice me away from it.

As part of my midlife crisis, I adopted a dog from the Humane Society.  A black lab with way more energy than I’d planned for.  City living wasn’t a good fit for him, nor for me anymore.  I sold my apartment and parted with my expensive furnishings as easy as shedding a coat on a warm day.  I moved into Magda’s cabin, my cabin.  Buster, as I named him, found Heaven-on-Earth the day we moved in.  He made it his solemn duty to round up every fetchable stick in our twenty-nine acres so as to stockpile against leaner times.

There were two men in my life; Jesus and Carl, and unlike for Magda, God smiled on me having both.  If anyone would have told me a year ago that I’d be barefoot, pregnant, and in an earthy cabin in the mountains, married to a cowboy, and letting my degree grow mold, I would have told them to stop smoking crack and wasting my time.  How life turns.

God kept up His whispering and the divine hospitality He orchestrated began within weeks of moving in.  Though I’m nowhere near as wise and sanctified as Magda was, I have my story to offer; a story of a riches to rags, success to joy, lost to found story.  It’s enough.  It’s more than enough.

Today I find myself at Magda’s grave.  Wildflowers have covered it, all but the cross that Carl made so lovingly in her honor.  I kiss my hand and lay it upon the graying wood, “Magda, thank you. Thank you for giving me my life back.  You didn’t just save my life, you pointed me the way out of a living death.  I’m having a daughter, Magda.  Can you guess what I’m naming her?”

I let the tears roll on down; I was getting a whole lot better at letting emotions run their needed course.  The tears hit my protruding belly and I laughed.  “I love you, Magda.  Thank you.”  I turned, Carl just down the slope from me, waiting to usher my clumsy self down.  He smiled wide.  Glory.

 

The End.

Thank you for reading, dear ones.

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 12

shortstory12Carl had chosen a beautiful place, on the side of the mountain above her cabin.  A sun-kissed spot.  There was nowhere you could look without beholding beauty.  Even the “parking lot” was beautiful, a whole pasture full of horses that the mountain folks had ridden in on.

Six men, in Wranglers and Carrharts, and flannel shirts, bore Magda up the slope, such a gentle weight without a casket.  Her shroud was wreathed in flowers of all sorts, sunflowers mostly.  All this homespun, tender, simple care for her struck me deeply.  “God let me be buried with half as much love,” I thought.

Full as much, dear Naomi.

I blinked.  Either I was going insane or I was having a honest-to-goodness interaction with God.  My heart warmed at the thought.  They laid the bier beside the grave and a soft breeze stirred the long grass.

There was no plan of service per se, no officiating person in a gray suit, directing the organized grieving.  Noses were blown loudly into handkerchiefs.  Someone called out, “Be Thou My Vision”, and there was a collective intake of air and then the most beautiful hymn I’d ever heard was taken up by the hundred or so, gathered round Magda.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

 
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

 
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tow’r:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.

 
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

 
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whate’er befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Carl prayed, “God, thank you for Magda’s life.  She knew how to truly love, as Your Word says, ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’  May our loss this day be for eternal gain, her example be a teacher to us to number our days aright, and live sold-out to You.  In Jesus’s Name, Amen.”

“Amen”, echoed the crowd.

The men looped strong ropes under the bier and gently lowered it into the grave.  Children came forward with wilted handfuls of dandelions, poor worried daisies, and various weeds and tossed them lovingly over Magda.  She would have been delighted.  She would have laughed.  Maybe she is laughing now.  For the first time in my life I felt assured that life did go on somehow.  This wasn’t the end of Magda.

Carl and some other men picked up shovels, rolling up their sleeves.  I was struck by it; how a homemade funeral gave men somewhere to go with their grief, something for their hands to do, some way to be useful. So much better, I thought, than the men standing around in stiff suits while professionals took care of things.  I headed down to the cabin with the rest, where a huge meal awaited.

It was near two in the morning when the last of the guests departed.  The ladies had taken over the house, serving the meal, filling glasses, passing out tissues, and cleaning it all up afterwards.  Only mason jars full of flowers across the work table indicated that something special had happened.

For the first time in my life, I dropped to my knees, right there in the middle of the room, to pray.

“God, if you exist…”

I do.

My eyes snapped open.  I couldn’t help smiling.  The jury was till out whether this was impending madness or conversation with divinity, but it sure was exciting and new.

“I’m sorry that I never knew You.  I want to open my heart to You, even if I don’t really know what that means.  Um, can You accept me?”

How could I write out what I heard back?  It was not so much words as it was a chorus of response, like if a voice could speak through a symphony’s combined glory.  It was overwhelming in the most wonderful of ways.  My eyes poured forth joyfully.  I raised my hands and laughed from the depths of my soul.  How light I felt!  How clean!

“I love You!” I exclaimed, “I loved You in Magda didn’t I?  It was You that reached out to me, wasn’t it?  Oh God!  Oh God!”  I collapsed forward, fully stretched out across the floor and cried, just let all that joyful sorrow find release.  I didn’t know Carl was witnessing all this from the window.  I don’t even know that I would have cared.

Exhausted in every way, I finally stood, making my way over to the couch, I collapsed, blinked twice, and fell fast asleep.

to be continued…

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 11

shortstory8Carl had gone home and his absence doubled the absence.

Magda, or…part of Magda would be home soon.  I ascended her ladder and opened her trunk.  The linen there, folded so neatly, so expectantly.  Pulling it out, I saw a design embroidered in white, barely visible against the natural linen.  With the morning light strong and slanting, I held up the long piece to see it more clearly.  It was breathtaking.

Roses, sunflowers, cherry blossoms, fruits of all sorts, squirrels, deer, swirls and loops, and mingling through it, that same verse:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24”.

What workmanship.  I looped it over my arm and descended the ladder.  I was going to take it to the clothesline to let the wrinkles relax out when I heard the helicopter blades’ thump, thump, thump.

Thank God for Carl.  He was out there, signing forms alongside an elderly woman in a faded sundress.  This must be the great aunt.  My eyes fixated on the long black bag the copilot was unloading.  Magda.  Magda was home.

…..

There were six of us ladies, well, seven if you count Magda, right there on a long wide plank on the table.  There were tears as we looked down on her.  I couldn’t help but remember her naked beauty down at the stream, when life coursed through her and infused her with strength and zest.  I had hated her a bit that day.  I felt rawest love now.  How?  Just in a matter of days?  I shook my head.

Magda’s great aunt, by the name of Virginia, cleared her throat.  “Let us pray.”

All heads dropped, causing a fresh deluge of tears to hit the floorboards from overfull eyes.

“God, our Father.  Help us honor our sister through the work of our hands today.  Amen.”

With that, she pulled from some mental rolodex a task for each of us to tend to, corralling the helpless weight of our grief into useful work.  “Mel, make the bread that she liked, oh, four loaves.  Susan, flowers, please, Magda has plenty and if you need more, go on up to my place.  Esther, the sausages in the smokehouse, get ’em in here and start the cookstove.  Jeane, round up the wine hereabouts; I know there’s a good chokecherry in her root cellar and Carl’s got blackberry”, she smiled slightly, “We’ll need it.”

Turning to me, “Naomi, you and I will prepare Magda.  Please go bring two buckets of water up from the stream.  I’ll gather the rest…soap, washcloths, cotton, the dress, comb, yes…now go ahead, I’m just talkin’ to myself now, dear.”

I returned with numb and shaking hands.  Virginia, who preferred “Ginny”, had everything ready.  “We’ll wash her down first, soap and water.  She’s going to be stiff, so if you need to get under an arm or something, sort of massage and flex the limb first.  Where she is…” deep breath, “…where she is torn just do to the edges and don’t wet all that open area or we’ll have a mess.”

I’d never touched a dead body before.  I felt bile rising in my throat and pinched my eyes shut.  A vivid picture from just a few days ago came flooding back, Magda, drenched, happy, and dabbing at my bloody wounds.  One area at a time, I said to myself.  One at a time.

I started at her foot, which had escaped all the violence.  She had rough, trail-walking-barefoot tough feet.  After I first dared to touch her, my fear seemed to drain out my feet.  This, this was Magda’s body for 32 years, there was life just in it yesterday.  This is just another way to love and honor that life.  Death had a less hollow feel somehow.

We worked our way over her body, a linen towel covering the sensitive areas for modesty’s sake.  We got to her face.  There wasn’t a way to clean between the gashes.  Someone brought us wine.  We chugged it back and considered her hair.

It was truly her glory; waist-length, naturally curly, every hue from platinum blonde to dark ombre represented throughout.  And it was now matted with blood and dirt.  “I can handle this”, I heard myself saying, and before I could contradict myself I left for more water.  During high school I had taken a summer class at a beauty school…I’m not sure why my parents agreed to such a thing, but they let me do it, even though it wasn’t going to propel me toward the heights they had forever in their eyes for me.

Anyway, I knew how to work with curly hair.  I could do one beautiful thing for Magda.  I smiled through my tears.

As I washed and combed and scrunched Magda’s hair into a shiny halo around her, Ginny wrapped the open wounds with cotton, even stuffing some into Magda’s mouth for shape and her nostrils to prevent seepage.  Sue split the linen dress down the back, and we arranged it over and around her.  Her arms lay at her sides peacefully.  Sue placed a crown of braided flowers on her head and we all stepped back and let out our breath.  She was both broken and beautiful.  We took the shroud between all our hands and draped it evenly over her, tucking her in.  People were arriving.

to be continued…

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 10

shortstory2This was certainly a first.  I stared down at the lobster-like creatures in the bucket with a confusion exacerbated by my fitful night of sleep.  Carl had knocked on the door early, his eyes as bloodshot and his hair as wild as mine.  He was handing me eggs, and of course, these things that were busy getting nervous about their fate.

“I just thought I’d bring you breakfast; didn’t know what Magda had on hand.”  He looked down at his boots and exuded discomfort.  He sighed.

“Thanks, Carl, it’s really thoughtful.  Um…what are these?”

He followed my gaze to the bucket.  “Oh, crawfish, haven’t you ever had them?”

I laughed.  “No.”

We stood there awkwardly a minute, the sun creeping over the far ridge.  He was a good-looking man.  Brown eyes, dark brown hair, five o’clock shadow.  He and Magda would have been quite a pair.  “I’ll make the eggs if you handle the, the things in that bucket.”

He had a way of almost smiling.  It was enough.

As we settled over our plates of scrambled eggs and bright red crawfish, he bowed his head and prayed quietly.  What a contrast to Magda’s full-throttle prayers.  He showed me how to get to the tail meat.  I was surprised I even had an appetite.

“I have good news.  Magda’s great aunt came to my place last night.  She lives a mile up the valley and they’d heard the news.  They called the coroner’s office and Magda’s body will be flown up here this afternoon.  She wants the funeral here in the house and I was glad to tell her that we could count on your help with getting her ready.”

My stomach clenched, the juicy crawdad very nearly got ejected from my mouth.  I closed my eyes and swallowed.  Could I do it?  Could I look on her torn-up body again?  Lord, help me.

I nodded.  “Where will we bury her?”

“I know a good place”, he said simply.  “We’ll have to measure out the exact location and submit that to the land deed office.  But it’s simple other than that.  I’ll make a marker today.”  He paused.  Scraped together the last of his eggs, but didn’t eat them.  “Have you read her letter yet?”

“I got as far as ‘Dear Naomi'”, I said miserably.  “Let’s read it together.”

I picked up the letter from where it had lain on the coffee table last night, laying there in the moonbeam.

I cleared my voice, unfolded the letter, and read.

“Dear Naomi,

I don’t know how it will happen, but I know it will.  I’m going to die today, my dear friend.  But, really, I’ve been dying for years, or ready to die for years.  When my grandma died God visited me.  Don’t roll your eyes, Naomi.  🙂

He told me clearly that He was making me a missionary and that someday I’d give my life for another.  Since that vision 12 years ago, He has brought me person after person to minister to, with each one of them I tried to be ready, ready to lay down my life for them, wondering if they were the one.  I died to any number of dreams that tempted me to choose an easier and lighter road.  But I found in the daily dying a wild appreciation for life.  For everyday joys and the whispers of God.  As the years went by and my guestbook was filling near to completion, I wondered if I had heard right.  God’s promises seem to take long, but today they seem all in a hurry.

I cry, I do.  But hear me, I trust Him.  I give myself willingly, so don’t feel badly.  Feel love.  God’s love for you, dear Naomi.  He must love you wildly…”

My throat closed.  I handed the letter to Carl, whose eyes were freely pouring tears down his stubble.

…He must love you wildly.  My love for you is great, but His love for you is overwhelming.  It is that which will help me today.

As to some housekeeping matters; the sausages we made today are for my funeral party.  There is some linen yardage in my trunk upstairs; please use that as my burial shroud.  I’ve given you the guestbook so that you can attempt to contact my guests.  I simply want them to know that I love them and prayed for them everyday.  This home and land are now yours.  I know you’re a city girl, but this place is your place too.  My will is written out and available at my lawyer’s office, Max Mckay, Billings, MT.  It says simply that all my property goes to whomever is with me when I die.  

Please tell Carl that I….”

Carl’s shoulders shook and he exhaled loud.

“…that I love him, have since I first met him.  He lives across the trail.  I’m sure he’ll help you to know what to do.  

Lastly, Naomi, a lot of people search for God.  But really, God was first seeking us.  For our hearts to turn to Him with even the weakest of loves to meet His most awesome love.  I pray that you’ll open your heart to Him.  Don’t be angry with Him for taking me, you see,

‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’  -John 12:24

Love,

Magda”

We sat in silence.

Magda’s Gift, Part 9

The guestbook seemed the easier thing to read first, so as we hunched over our bowls of venison stew, I opened to the first page.

It seemed like any normal guestbook; names, city of origin, dates of the visit, and a column for comments.  But the comments; those were definitely unique.  I read aloud:

Glenna Weis, Syracuse, NY, 5/9/02, How can I thank you, Magda?  

The Klein Family, Lancaster, PA, 6/2/02, We owe you.  I mean that.  Thank you.

Marta Williams, London, England, 6/13/02, I’ll never forget these days together.  Never in my life have I felt so loved.  My ankle is healing nicely, Magda, you’re a genius!  

I flipped through the next few pages, and then all the way to the end of the book, where only one slot was left to fill.  “Where did all these people come from?  How did they find Magda?  There has to be over 500 entries in here!”

“Well,” he answered lazily, “How did you find Magda?  Or did she find you?”

“I had fallen and I needed help, and then, there she was.”

“So it was with many.  Magda prayed all the time, sometimes I saw it happen, where she’d be praying and then go absolutely silent, like she was listening to someone whisper.  Then she’d go bounding off into the woods and come back with a hiker with a snake bite or just someone who was sad.  It was crazy.  This place was hardly ever vacant.”

“Where was Sue?”

Carl chewed the venison, which was far from tender; Magda hadn’t had time to teach me everything.

“She died when Magda was twenty.  Just went in her sleep.  Magda came to my house just wild that morning she found her.  The whole valley came out for the funeral.  The valley ladies got her ready, laying her body out right here on this table.”

He knocked his knuckle against the wood for good measure.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked all this death intersecting casually with life.  I’d only been to one funeral, a distant cousin.  A professional team had handled it all; drained the body, dressed it, perfumed it, and applied make-up to it, before stuffing it into an unnecessarily plush coffin.  We filed past this thing that was sort of like a sleeping mannequin and called that closure.  Was that better?  Was a corpse right on the kitchen table, bathed and prepared by loved ones better?  I didn’t know.

“Carl, what would Magda have wanted for her burial?”

Without hesitation he said, “She’d want to be laid-out like her grandma, cared for here and buried here.”

I thought of the helicopter lifting her away from her native bower to a cold mortuary.  Imagined her body being filed away in a refrigerated drawer.  I shuddered.

“Can we get her body back?” I asked, astonishing myself.

He raised his eyebrows.  Swallowed a lump of venison.  He almost smiled.  “Yeah, I reckon we could.”

to be continued…

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 8

shortstory10I stood in Magda’s kitchen as dark crept over the mountains and extinguished the light.  I lit a few candles and stared out the window.  I set the front door back on it’s hinges and then stared out the door.  I brought in her handkerchiefs from the line and folded them into a little pile.  I touched her open Bible and I looked at the deer meat pooling blood on the work table.  We were to cook that for a late lunch.  Before I hiked on out of here and back to my life.

Oh, Magda.

I stoked up the coals in the hearth and added kindling as a stiff wind picked up outside.  I chopped the meat into cubes.  How was it that touching meat didn’t bother me anymore, in the space of a few short days?  And how had I been filled with love for a woman I didn’t even know last week?  When did I not care if I got back to work on time?  When, ever, did my career cease to be the most important thing?

I slid the grate over the coals and added the cast iron pot.  A glob of lard next and then the an onion, chopped, from a dried braid over the mantle.  Then the venison, browning nicely.  The smells were like a warm, familiar quilt pulled close.

Someone was knocking on the door.

I quick added hot water water to the meat and slipped a lid on to let it stew and warily approached the door.  It was Carl, who, in my mind I began calling “Tortured Carl” on account of the perpetual knot of tension between his brows, his bloodshot grieving eyes, and the hard lines of his clenched jaw.

“Who are you?”, he demanded, “What are you doing here?”

“I…I’m Naomi.  Magda was….Magda was helping me after I fell on the trail.”  What else could I say?  He was obviously irritated at finding me here, being neither family or long-time friend of Magda’s…it occurred to me that maybe he was.

“Were you and Magda…close?”

He turned away and I could see his jaw clenching and unclenching.  The breeze blew the anguished words to me, “Not near as close as I wanted us to be.”

Something came over me; Magda must have rubbed off on me.  “Come”, I ordered, turning on my heel and leaving him flummoxed in the doorway.

I don’t generally extend hospitality to jerks, but maybe that’s just what Magda did for me.  Oh yes, she did.

I went to stir the stew and heard him close the door and settle into the couch  Looking over I saw his head in his hands.  His shoulders were shaking and there was a great big wad of grief trying to work it’s way up and out.  I came near him, his grief like a magnet to my own.  What had come over me?  I reached out to touch his face.  He jerked back.  I turned back to the kitchen and crunched a handful of herbs into the teapot; that same bundle from four days ago when Magda had begun healing me.  I steeped it as he watched me.  He was the very picture of misery.

I poured him a cup and sweetened it with thick honey.  I pressed the warm mug into his hands along with one of Magda’s handkerchiefs.  He watched me with his Tortured Carl eyes.  I moved slow in Magda’s kitchen; it felt right to tread her space as she did.

Magda.  Her broken, torn body was burned into my vision, the thought bringing a copper taste to my mouth, the memory of the scent of blood.  I gripped the work table and willed my rioting stomach to calm.  I replayed her last words to me, I was shaken by how she kept saying “I knew, I knew”.  Knew what?  Oh!  The letter!

I spun towards the living room, eyes seeking out my backpack.  Carl was alarmed.  I had gone from slow-as-molasses-in-January to racing across the house.  Opening my pack, I found a leather guestbook and an envelope with my name in her flowing script, “For Naomi”.

Carl watched this all.  Seeing the guestbook, he asked, “Why do you have the guestbook in your bag?”  I felt the accusation behind it, but somehow I’d lost my prickliness.

“Magda put these in my pack.  While she lay…there…after the bear…(breathe, girl)…she told me that she wanted me to ‘tell them that she loved them’ and she said ‘guestbook’.  This letter is from her too.”

I picked up the letter, smoothing the paper between my fingers nervously.

“Did Magda know she was going to die?”  The question leapt right out of me and it struck Carl right in the heart.  He sucked in his breath, closed his eyes.

“Yes.”

I hadn’t forgotten how she’d said, “It’s okay, I knew, I knew.”  We sat in silence.  Carl finished his mug of tea but held it in his hands.  His hands needed something to grip.

“I loved her.  I loved her more than anyone or anything.  We were the same age, her grandma Sue introduced us.  She was so skinny back then, just sick-looking.  She didn’t trust anyone, sort of like a dog who’s been kicked.  But Sue really fixed her up, drew her out, she was a new person within a year of her coming up her.  We’d go fishing together for hours, spend whole days shooting cans off the fence.”

He leaned forward, pinching that worry knot between his brows with his thumb and forefinger.  “I asked her to marry me when we were twenty…I asked her half a dozen times over the years.”  He laughed bitterly.  “She always told me the same thing, Carl, I love you, but I’m not to marry.  It’s not what God has for me.”

“I remember raging at her after one of her refusals, ‘Well what if you’re what God has for me?  What could He possibly be calling you to that you couldn’t do with me at your side?’  She just smiled sad and said, ‘Carl, God’s calling me to die for someone’.

to be continued….

Magda’s Gift, Part 7

The bear was large, but I think anytime you see a bear without any bars separating you from it, you will think it is gigantic.  Magda’s voice came low and urgent, “Walk slow, go back to the cabin, don’t run.  Do it now”.

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t stop looking at those black eyes and that panting mouth.  The bear made a huffing sound and stood up on his hind legs.  Magda grabbed my arm, hissing, “NOW!  Go!”

Survival instincts sprang to action and I walked jerkily toward the cabin, to safety, to safety.  I heard brush move behind me and turned.  The bear was running toward me. NONONONONONO-screamed my mind-I don’t want to die!  I squeezed my eyes shut, screaming in horror, curling my body protectively against the coming assault.

One second.  Two.  I could hear the bear; why wasn’t he attacking?  Over the tops of Magda’s flowers I could see her, waving her arms like mad and hollering her head off, “Come on, bear!  Over here, bear!”  He gave one last look over at me, crouched in a pool of my own urine, and charged her.  I heard her cry out and stood up.  I saw the bear’s back above the flowers but I didn’t see Magda.  Good God, no.

I ran into the cabin, banging the door right of the hinges in my haste.  I snatched up her rifle and ran to where I could see him well.  I had never shot a gun in my life and my adrenaline charged arms wouldn’t stop jouncing.  I fired at that big black back.  The bear winced and turned around.  I tried to shoot again, only to find a maddening “click”.  He looked at me.  His face dripped gore.  I screamed at him, I aimed again and frustratedly clicked the emptied gun at his face.  He tried to lick at the wound on his back, which evidently was starting to hurt, and inexplicably, he ran off, up the mountain and out of sight.  I ran to where Magda went down.

Seeing her, I vomited.  shortstory9

“Naomi”, came her voice.  I couldn’t believe she yet lived.  I hurried to her side and knelt down, “Oh, Magda, oh, Magda, I’m so sorry!”

“Naomi, it’s okay, it’s okay, I knew it, it’s okay.”  Blood filled her mouth then, and I helped her turn her head to let it out.

“What can I do, Magda, what should I do?”  I thought of tearing my dress into strips to staunch the bleeding, but the bleeding was everywhere.

“Let me die here outside, Naomi, I love it outside.”

“No”, I choked, “No, I’ll go for help, I’ll run to the trailhead and find someone who can help you.”  I sprung to my feet, but her voice stopped me, “Naomi, no.  I will soon die, dear one.  Keep me company until Jesus comes”.

Her breathing had slowed and the ground beneath her darkened with her blood.  “I knew, Naomi, I knew…but time is short, I…”, blood again filled her mouth.  She spit it out and, I kid you not, she smiled and said “Gross.”

“I wrote you a letter…it’s in your backpack….guestbook too, it…tell them I love them…I love you,” struggling to fill her lungs, her eyes suddenly focused above her, “Ohhhhh!”, she exclaimed in delight, lifting her head up off the ground, looking for a second like she was intent on standing up.  “He’s here, He’s here, OHHH, Naomi!”  And her blue eyes flickered and the light in them faded, unfocused.  Her body jerked and exhaled.  Magda died.  I found myself screaming, I don’t know how long.  I do know that at some point a man’s hands lifted me up from on top of her wrecked body and carried me sobbing into the cabin.  I didn’t care who he was or why he was there.  Magda was dead.  Magda died to save me.  Oh, Magda.

I fainted, I must have.  When next I awoke I heard helicopter blades beating the air and a paramedic was sitting at my side taking my pulse.  “MAGDA!”  I shouted, sitting up and thoroughly startling the young man.  I shrugged off his hand and bolted for the door, just in time to see a stretcher being rolled to where Magda died.  Where Magda died in my place.

He held me gently but firmly on the arm, “Ma’am, ma’am, I’m going to need you to stay here.  I’m going to give you some medicine to help you calm down, okay?”  He kept talking, talking, but didn’t he get it?  Magda died, there is no point in being calm.  My body was shaking, but my mind was clearing.  I turned to the medic, “Please, just let go, I’m fine.  I’m FINE.”  I wasn’t fine, but Magda wasn’t there to make me ashamed of my lying.  Magda.  Oh, God.

The next few hours passed somehow without swallowing me.  In a monotone I mechanically recounted what happened to the game warden, the medic, the police.  Magda’s body was flown off to parts unknown, only a dark stain left where she had laid down life.  All the while a young mountain-man type paced back and forth in the yard, staring now and then at the place where she’d died and then back at me with a scowling face.

I finally asked the warden who the man was.  “That’s Carl, he’s the one that heard the screams.  Lives just on the other side of the trail.  He brought you into the cabin, don’t you remember?”

“No”, I said, looking down at my bloody dress.  Why have I been covered in so much blood, now her blood?  “I think I’d better change.”

“Do you need a lift out of here?  The chopper will be back soon.”

“No…no, I need to tend to things here, I’ll hike out tomorrow”.  He accepted that.  Walking into Magda’s home, I ascended her ladder and found two clean dresses tucked in her trunk.  There was a yard or two of linen yardage folded neatly beside them; grandma had budgeted just right.

I brought the dress out to the warden and asked him to give it to the mortician; it’s what she always wore, I said.  I took the other and headed to the stream, a chunk of beautiful soap in my hand.

to be continued…

 

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 6

shortstory7Morning poured through the seams of the shutters.  Magda was up, had been for who knows how long.  She had opened the kitchen shutters and sat at the scarred work table, hunched over and writing furiously.  It was quite a picture; the light from the window fell in one hard beam right at the top of her bent head, on to her shoulders, throwing a stark black shadow on the wall behind her.

I studied her intense face.  It was sparkling with tears.  My breath caught.  I had never felt a sense of, what do you call it, awe?  A sense of being in a holy place or a holy moment, but I guess this is what it feels like.  A tattered Bible lay splayed open beside her, among balled up  handkerchiefs.  I guess I wasn’t the only one having a boo-hoo recently.

I closed my eyes.  I didn’t want to intrude, bladder screaming though it was.  I must have fallen back to sleep, because the next time my eyes opened all the shutters were opened and Magda was gone.  I stepped to the open door and breathed in the pine scent.  I saw her then, out hanging up all those handkerchiefs on the line, the washboard and soap  tucked under her arm.  Like she was trying to clean up her brokenness, wash it out and hang it up to dry.  I scampered off to the outhouse and then down to the stream to splash some water on my face.  You could see why she loved it here, why she thrived amid all this beauty.

Coming into the cabin, I was not prepared to see the deer on her work table.  Skinned and raw and real.  I have no idea how that slight woman managed to heft him in without my help.

“Good morning!”, she smiled, smiled as bright as someone who was just crying their heart out a few hours ago could.  “I know you need to go today, but I wondered if you could help me stuff some sausage before you leave.  It’s a two-person job.”

I was surprised to find myself glad to delay my departure.  “Sure.”

She busied herself hacking hunks of the deer off with a menacing-looking steel cleaver.  Ah, no wonder the table was so marred.  She directed me to chop the pieces into smaller chunks to be fed into the meat grinder.  Yeah, oh sure, I do this all the time…not.  The closest I get to touching raw meat is splitting open a package of ground beef with scissors and carefully tipping it into a skillet without having to come into contact with it.  That is step one, step two is pouring canned spaghetti sauce over it.  “Homemade spaghetti”…yeah right.

I set about cutting up real, honest-to-goodness flesh meat.  “Magda, how long have you lived here?”

She barely paused in her butchering to consult the rafters for the answer, “Hmm, I guess it’s been fifteen years now.  This was my grandmother’s place, and I came here after I left prostitution at the age of seventeen.”

My knife slipped out of my hands and flew down at my feet.  I jumped back as it clattered to rest on the floor.  Magda smiled.

“I needed to be away from people; I had a lot of healing to do.  My grandmother knew how to bring me to the Healer, Jesus.  Don’t get all skittish now.”

I must have made a face.  I can’t help it; whenever someone talks about “Jesus” changing them, I feel repulsed.  I can’t explain it.

I cleaned off the knife in the dish pail and apologized with my eyes.  She smiled.

“I fought my demons right here in this cabin while my grandmother set about healing my venereal diseases herb by herb.  My mother had long since rejected my grandmother; she had fled this cabin at fifteen years old, lived wild, got pregnant with me, and kept on with her ways.  When I was thirteen she sold my virginity to a man I strive not to hate every day.”

I realized I hadn’t cut any meat for a while.  I was frozen in place.

Tears poured out of her over-full eyes.  “I hated men, I hated women, I hated myself.  For four years I lived a dying life; I was a shell, a walking corpse.  My grandmother came to see my mother, just showed up at our filthy little apartment looking like a wild mountain woman, which she certainly was.  My mother raged at her, told her to leave, but she saw me, over my mother’s shoulder, past my mother’s angry wall of words.  She saw me and Hell itself couldn’t have stopped her from coming to me.  She strode across the apartment’s littered floor, crouched down before me where I was lounging dejectedly on a worn-out couch.  She knew what I was, wearing a tiny tube top and nothing-to-the-imagination shorty shorts.

‘You are precious’, she said.  I’ll always remember how she said those words.  ‘You are loved and cherished and I didn’t know you even existed but God did, and oh dear one, He loves you.’

My mom kept screaming in the background but Grandma wasn’t swayed by all her noise.  Turning to her she said firmly, “Kathleen, I’m taking my granddaughter home.  I would bring you over my shoulder if I thought it would help, but it won’t.  I love you and I’ll be waiting for your visit.  Please do come.’  She reached out to touch my mother’s angry face, but was rewarded with a slap across her own.  Shaking with sobs she took me by the hand and walked me right out that door, barefoot, and into a glaring-bright day, my mother seething in rage but somehow rendered powerless.  That was the last time I saw her.  She died in a fire a week later, cigarette rolled onto the carpet.”

She paused with her cleaver in the air, swallowed down a knot in her throat, and closed her eyes.  “We didn’t stop from the time we left the apartment except for one quick trip to a fabric store where she bought a huge, heavy bolt of linen.  Then right on to a bus to the trailhead.  I think she was scared that my mom would track us down and she was probably right…when I walked out there went half her income.  I was still barefoot, so Grandma put her own shoes on me and we hiked all the way here.  I’d never been in the mountains before, I’d hardly even been outside of our apartment and the public school down the block.  I felt the first happiness I can remember.

She lugged that bolt of linen all the way up the mountain, singing in a breathless, happy way.  I remember blood stains on the rocks as she clambered over them.  Her feet took a beating that day while my own were protected by her shoes.

I was worn out when we finally reached this place.  She told me to strip down and go lay in the creek.  That was the beginning, the beginning of joy in me.  I’d never felt such a delightful thing.  Glory.”

I looked down at the deer carcass and was shocked to find it nearly all pieced-out.  She disappeared up the ladder and came down with bags of coarse salt, which she poured into a crock.  Several hunks of meat went directly into that, some set aside for cooking, and the rest we chopped up together.

“She made me dresses, these ones we’re wearing now.  She made everything we needed out of that bolt of linen.  Linen lasts and lasts.  She taught me, educated me right here in the cabin.  She was a wonderful teacher…”

We cut meat, she talked and talked, we fed the meat into a hand-crank grinder until we had buckets and buckets of it.  She showed me how to rehydrate hog intestines and how to load them on to the stuffer attachment on the grinder.  We mixed great handfuls of spices into the meat, along with generous globs of pure white lard that she kept in a “refrigerator” down in the stream (a five-gallon bucket, half submerged in the water and chained in place).  Magda cranked the meat through while I “caught” and twisted the sausages into links.  She took me to a pile of hardwood chips she had dried and showed me how to soak them for smoking.  We lit a fire in her small adobe smokehouse and she taught me how to recognize when the coals are ready.  We hung the sausages inside and put the wet chips atop and closed the little wooden door with pioneer-ish satisfaction.

In all my corporate and academic and economic achievements I had never learned something so very intrinsically necessary to survival as this.  I turned with a smile to Magda, a woman I found I now loved with a heart made lighter and better.  But Magda wasn’t smiling, her face had gone white and tense.  I followed her eyes.  A bear had come.

to be continued…

 

Magda’s Gift, Part 5

She was bent over stirring a lentil soup as I came in and the heat from the hearth was irresistible.  I searched for words to make up for my outburst down at the stream, but I was somewhat transfixed by the steam rolling up from my wet dress as it dried.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen something dry before my very eyes before.  My mother certainly wasn’t one who would hang laundry out on a line; we are efficient modern women, and we leave that to the machines and the maid.  I noticed the lady’s dress was steaming too.  Here we stood steaming together and I couldn’t help but laugh.

She looked at me curiously, and though surely she’d seen this a thousand times over, she laughed too.

“I’m glad you’re here”, she said simply and ladled out the soup into bowls.  My apology stuck in my throat; her kindness kept pulling the rug out from under me and I could never seem to take control of any of our interactions.

“Come, eat.  Would you pray?”

“I believe in science”, I blurted out awkwardly.  Pray?  I’m not going down your wacky road into weirdo-ville, lady.

“Me too.  Would you pray?”, she asked again, brightly.  Somehow I just didn’t have it in me to disappoint her.  Maybe it could take place of the apology I couldn’t seem to frame.

“Um,” bowing my head (because at least I wouldn’t have to look at her giddy eyes), “So…God….um, thanks for food.  Amen.”

You’re welcome.

My head shot up, my eyes wide.  “Did you hear that?”, I demanded.  The lady just raised her eyebrows and smiled that irritating smile.

I wanted to throttle her, just take her by the shoulders and demand to know just what she thought she was up to, drawing me into her madness.  Why did she bring out the worst in me?  What was it about her that made me feel like such a violent, peevish, small woman with bared claws?

I ate my soup.  It was irritatingly delicious.

Darkness was falling and she was loading her gun and latching all the wooden shutters over the windows.  “We’ll have guests tonight.  I left them the organs a half mile from here, but they’ll want more than that.  If you need to go to the bathroom, there’s a chamber pot under the couch…”

She paused in her speech and waved me to the window, her whole face alight.  “A moonrise”.  I came to her side and my jaw dropped.

shortstory6We stood there in silence, watching the moon slowly crest the mountain ridge and pouring it’s light over us.

“What is your name?”, I whispered.

“Magda.  What is yours?”

“Naomi”.

“A beautiful name.  It means “pleasant” in Hebrew.”

I didn’t know that.  The irony of me having a name that meant pleasant. I should have a name that means ruthless, ambitious, selfish, prickly, jealous.  Pleasant.  May it be so.  I know, I know, I prayed, to who I don’t know, maybe to the Great Mother Donut of Venus, but oh well, I was at least acknowledging that I needed some help, right?

“I need to go in the morning.  I’ll have thousands of messages on my phone that need to be answered.  I had taken four days off of work and tomorrow will be the last day.”

She nodded, her face all illumined by the moon.  “Your body is strong enough, dear Naomi, I will trust the rest of you to God.”

She turned and climbed up the ladder to her bed and I pulled the wooden shutter shut and hooked it securely.  The last thing I needed was for a bear to lick me awake.  I stretched out on the couch and pulled the quilt up to my chin.  Tomorrow I would hike back to the real world where I was a Titan, where I was powerful and feared and envied. I would load my pack into my parked Land Rover and tear out of this wilderness and become me again.

I tried to smile about it, but tears came instead.  Hot, messy tears.  I didn’t even know why, maybe my soul did.  I pulled the quilt up over my head to muffle the sobs that wracked me then.  From up in the loft I heard soft singing.  Magda was singing what sounded like a lullaby.  I quieted and lowered the quilt from my face.  A lullaby.  For me.  Her soft voice seemed to lift my sorrow from me for a while, to make my heart lighter and my eyelids heavier.  It was good to be here.  I’m leaving in the morning, but for now, it is good.  It is good.