Are You My Mother?

It was a day like any other.  I felt the uneven lip of the curb through my threadbare shorts and my feet were gritty in my mismatched flip flops.  My hands were perpetually open and raised to the passersby, I droned on a monotone of petition.  It takes too much effort to put emotion into words that run on, unbroken, unchanged.  “Money please.  I need to eat. I’m so hungry.   Money please.”  I was six years old.

It was a day like any other, but a woman unlike any other.  She stooped down and looked at me.  I was looking at the air, waiting for a cold coin to be pressed into my hand.  I didn’t see people anymore, not unless they got close.  She was close.  I dragged my eyes from the air and looked into eyes that startled me.  Had anyone ever looked at me full in the eyes before?  She was old, her kind eyes framed by wrinkles that cascaded one over another, kind of like the piped waves of frosting on the wedding cakes in the bakery window that I’d look at to torture myself.  She had gray hair and it was long and braided.

While the crowds pushed past we sat and looked at one another.  Without words she offered me her aged hand, opening it like a beggar and waiting.  I gave her mine and we stood.  She spoke simply, “I need a daughter and you need a mother.  Will it suit you?”  It was all too surreal to protest, so I just nodded.  We climbed the stairs to her apartment and I was surprised to find her rooms overflowing with people.  I knew some of them, other beggar kids, a local drug dealer, some teenagers I’d seen living fast.  They turned at our entrance.  They smiled.

I was given a blanket and a toothbrush and the woman went to a large closet and rummaged through bins until she found me clothing.  She seemed radiant as she brought an armload of clothes to me.  Why was she so happy?  Look how many people she was already caring for!  “Go and enjoy a long bath and then you can put on these and see what fits.  The girl’s bathroom is down the hall to the right.  I’ll make supper early; I’m sure you’re hungry!”  She turned then to go to the kitchen, but stopped suddenly, coming back to me quickly.  In a low whisper she asked, “Have you bathed before?”

“No.”

She didn’t seem surprised.  “I’ll show you what to do and then leave you to it.  When you’re done washing, I’ll comb your hair out and trim your nails.  Just call for me, my name is Mama.”

An hour later I felt five pounds lighter and my fingertips tingled where the long jagged nails used to be.  My hair felt soft and it smelled good.  My clothes were soft too.  Was this Heaven?  Mama was kind and loving and imperfect too.  Sometimes she lost her temper with her many responsibilities, sometimes she doubted that she’d be able to put food on the table for all of us sons and daughters.  Sometimes she’d see another beggar near our home and she’d turn away, overwhelmed.  I didn’t judge her; the rest of the people never even considered bringing ones like me home at all.  She was just one woman, after all, and she did her best.

She made sure we were educated, she clothed us, she tenderly drew our stories out of us, celebrated our victories, and got mad at our lies and meanness.  She prayed for us; oh man did she ever pray.  What our home lacked in beauty, it made up for in joy and rich memories.

A courier came to our door when I was sixteen years old.  I remember that was my age because Mama had just celebrated my ten year anniversary of being adopted into the family.  Celebrated with a big fluffy cake and everything.  He gave her a letter addressed to me, and we all sat down as I read it out loud:

“Dear Lenora Winter (Winter was Mama’s last name, I’d never known my own),

Your real mother lives just across town.  She is ready to receive you at any time of your choosing.  Her address is below.

Cordially,

Anders Simm, Secretary of Marie Knox”

My real mother?  She lived?  Why hadn’t she ever come looking for me back when I was living in cardboard boxes and begging for bread.  Real mother?  Ready to receive me, but won’t actually come and introduce herself?

Mama’s eyes narrowed.  “Lenora, you’ll have to do as you see fit with that bit of news.  Just know that your family here loves you and you’ll always have a home here with us.”

I stared at the paper.  Something moved within me; what would it be like to find my real mother?  To feel connected to a large extended family that went back through the ages?  To be no adopted orphan, but a real flesh and blood relation?  A day later I stood outside the gates to a splendid mansion and I rang the doorbell.

I was ushered into a grand hall and portraits, gigantic beautiful portraits decorated every wall.  I walked past the watchful eyes of my ancestors.  I wasn’t sure how I felt when I looked at them.  Some strange mixture of comfort and unease.  Large doors opened before me and there stood a magnificent lady.  Very regal and very ancient, she threw her arms wide and bid me come.

I awkwardly hugged her.  She really did seem to love and welcome me, but hurt kept crawling up my throat when my eyes would meet hers.  Why had she not looked for me?  Why was she glad to receive me, but not to seek me out when I needed her most?

She smiled at me and said, “Welcome home”.

I spent a few hours with her.  She read me the family history from big leather-bound books that lined an impressive library.  She explained who all the portraits depicted.  She introduced me to the warm and loving brothers and sisters I had.  They were beautiful and ordinary and joyful.  She showed me my room and asked me to change for dinner.  A lovely gown was all laid-out across my bed.  Such finery, such beauty.  She’d almost left the room, but paused and came back to my side, something weighing on her mind.

“I must tell you, my daughter,” she said seriously, “that if this day you sit at my table and share my bread and wine, you may never eat with your former family again.  This will be your only place of nourishment, your new and true family.  Though your former family meant well, they do not know how far wrong they are in their beliefs and table practices.  Do you agree to my terms?”

“What?” I exclaimed, “Never share their table again?  Why?  They are the ones who adopted me, who picked me up from the street corner and loved me, filthy and lost as I was….abandon them?  They may be wrong in some ways, but they are right in others.  I cannot do as you have asked.”

She sighed.  “But I am your true mother and this is your true home.  I hope you can see that someday.”  With that she turned and left.

I left the gown where it lay and walked back out the long hall, the eyes of my ancestors watching me from painted faces.  I went home to Mama and she embraced me.  I went to my bed and curled up into a ball.  I wept.  I had no idea whose claim on me was valid, but I knew whose hands had reached out to me.

……

A reflection in short story about my recent research into the Holy Orthodox Church, which has a strong claim about most accurately reflecting the practices and beliefs of the early church.  Growing up in the cradle of Protestantism, however, it is hard to swallow the things which the Orthodox Church asks of me.

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….