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Monday, June 27, 2011

In God's Wildness

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world - the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
(John Muir)

After it was all over, and I had lived to tell the tale, a friend at church who was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer took me aside and said, “You know they kill more people than bears and wolves combined, don’t you?”

I told him I didn’t know that.

“Crews in the bush,” he went on, listing the sorts of people who had already fallen victim to the half-ton beast, “park wardens, tree planters, loggers, surveyors, backcountry hikers. The animal is absolutely determined and will keep on coming at you until you are pounded into blood and dust. No amount of playing dead will work.” His eyes narrowed as he locked eyes with me. “I’d sooner take on a mother grizzly robbed of her cubs than the thing that charged you.”

The day had been a glorious one, blue skies and sunshine and summer trees thick with green. Our young family hopped in the jeep and drove through miles of forests and foothills country, the Rocky Mountains at our backs, spotting deer and coyote and sometimes, way up a hillside, a black bear or young grizzly. Finally we stopped at a picnic site and sat down at an outdoor table to eat lunch. The kids were only six or seven at the time and were soon laughing on the swings, bouncing on the teeter-totter and zipping down the slides.

I played with them a while then asked if anyone wanted to walk the dogs with me. My son and daughter liked to go on hikes but the playground in the woods was a novelty so they wanted to stay behind which meant, of course, my young wife was staying behind as well to keep an eye on them. She gave me a kiss and bent down to pet Yukon and Nahanni.

“Take care of each other,” she said to them. Then she stood up and smiled. “Enjoy yourself. I wish I could come with you. It’s a perfect day.”

I put the dogs on their six foot leashes. We soon found a narrow path that led away from the picnic area and began to follow it. Yukon and Nahanni were a Golden Labrador and coyote cross – coyotes had come down out of the hills and mated with a domestic dog in Vancouver, British Columbia. The result had been their mother, Sheba, who had looked far more coyote than Golden Lab. But she had mated with another Lab so her offspring were an incredible mix of coyote and Lab features – Yukon’s coat was white with the exact patchwork you found on a Golden Lab and Nahanni’s fur was tawny or fawn-colored. They had big Lab eyes and Lab loyalty and intelligence but their muzzles were coyote long, their ears were up and coyote sharp and their tails were coyote long and bushy with white tips. Often they moved so silently in the yard or when we invited them into the house that I didn’t even know they were standing behind me.

As much or more than any other breed they loved to be in the forests and the wilderness places. The scent of wild animals was intoxicating to them. Unless I had tracks to go by, or a particular scent or musk was especially strong, I never knew what they were getting excited about. I often wished there was some chip in their brain that connected wirelessly to a small laptop in my hand that would instantly read out: they are picking up wolf, mule deer, cougar, fox, lynx, raccoon, jackrabbit. But they sniffed, I took in the fresh beauty of the summerwoods and the scent of sun-cooked pine and spruce resin that I loved and we plunged ahead into a part of the world we had never been in before.

After about ten minutes among the trees we came out into the open and made our way through a large patch of grassland. Glimpses of the mountains in the distance, with that shimmering sea of blue over my head, made me literally thank God I was alive – his creation, as always, filled me with wonder, exhilaration and peace. The companionship of Yukon and Nahanni made the experience that much sweeter. Our trail took us farther and farther from the woods behind us and bent towards a new stretch of forest a hundred yards ahead. We carried on. Everything was perfect.

A sudden crashing of branches from the forest in front snapped me out of my reverie and brought the dogs’ heads up sharply. A huge brown creature hurtled out of the woods at us, its large ears flat, its eyes rolled back white and its teeth flaring in a fierce grin that meant no good. At first I thought it was a wild horse. But my brain quickly checked through the facts and kicked out the word moose. I had seen moose in the wild before but never before had one been racing at me on its long legs looking as if it wanted to bite my head off.
I did not react instantly. For the
longest time – three or four seconds – I watched the moose come barreling down the trail and could not believe it was happening. I half-expected a Fisheries and Wildlife officer to suddenly pop out of the bush, blow a whistle and wave his hands and bring the creature to a halt. One corner of my brain assured me that, just as there was in a zoo or wildlife park, a deep ditch or unseen fence was in place to keep the moose from charging much farther and I was safe. But another corner of my brain shoved everything else aside and said: Release the dogs so they can run for their lives.

I unsnapped the leashes and the dogs took off the way we had come at top speed. No Greyhound or timber wolf ran faster than they did that day. My brain hurled another command at me: Get into the woods. Go. Go. I dropped the leashes and left the trail, racing through the tall grass for a strip of forest on my left. Glancing behind, I saw that the moose had quickly decided it could not catch the dogs but that it had a very good chance of catching me. It roared across the grass in hot pursuit.

In high school I had run the 100 meters, 200 meters and 800 meters. Though I still jogged for exercise now and then the days of hard training and fleetness of foot were in the past. Yet God has invented adrenaline. And it surged through me like a blaze. I didn’t have a plan but somewhere inside me I knew I had to get off the open ground and past bushes and brambles into the thickness of the trees. It would have been nice if the coach had been there with his stopwatch. I made it across the field faster than I would or could have done at 17. I did not even think of gnashing teeth and smashing hooves. But some part of me did.

I was into the trees only seconds before the moose – they can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. I would no sooner get behind one tree trunk than it would crane its neck and chop with its teeth, trying to get a hold of me, and I would dart behind another. Then it would come at me again, its eyes wild, its breath practically steaming from its nostrils, its snorts loud and menacing, always trying to snag my head or arm in its mouth as it bent its neck around the tree. I would run behind another, my hands bracing against the trunk, staring right into the moose’s white and black eyes. This deadly game of tag went on for several minutes. Farther and farther I went into the forest and farther and farther it chased after me, lunging with its head and teeth, striking out with its front hooves and ripping off the bark and wood of the trees I constantly kept between the moose and myself.

Suddenly I saw it glance back over its shoulder. I could see the wheels turning in its head. It was worried about something – what? Then I thought: There must be a baby. There must be a calf. This is the mother and she is afraid the dogs are going to attack her baby while she is crashing through the woods after me.

The moose made its decision. It blasted hot breath into my face in a rage but broke off the assault. Then half-ran out of the trees and back to the open grassland and began to head towards the brush where it had first broke out onto the trail. I watched it go, not daring to move from behind my poplars which, while not the thickest trunks on the planet, had been thick enough to save my life. As I waited and tracked the moose’s movements a white shape came carefully through the trees towards me – Yukon! My male dog had not deserted me but, despite great danger to itself, had lingered nearby and was coming now to make sure I was all right. As for Nahanni, well, as I found out later, she ran all the way back to the picnic area and dropped there at the children’s feet, panting, leaving my wife to wonder, in some annoyance, how I could be so irresponsible and careless as to leave my dogs off leash and unattended in a wilderness area.

Eventually Yukon and I began to make our way out of the strip of trees I had plunged into. The cow moose stood a little ways down the trail, its head bent back and its eyes glaring death at us as we emerged from the woods. I felt it was ready to attack again at any moment and was in no hurry to get too far from the shelter of the forest. I moved slowly. The moose watched for any hint that we were altering direction towards her calf. I walked and stopped, walked and stopped, Yukon staying close. Each step away from her was a step won and she granted us our steady retreat. Finally we reached a point where she didn’t care about us anymore and walked into the trees where her calf was hidden. Yukon and I took to the main trail and were soon back in the forest we had emerged from into the open 15 or 20 minutes before.

Now I took a moment to thoroughly examine the damp mud on the path, something I had not done when the dogs and I had first begun our walk – after all, it had not been a hunting trip. There were my size 13 EE boot marks. There were the paw prints of my Lab-coyote dogs. There were the large sharp points of a mature moose’s tracks – and there were the small sharp points of a very tiny moose’s hoof prints, a moose that was the miniature of a mother that outweighed it by as much as 700 pounds. Later I would walk back and show my wife these tracks and also the spot where the cow moose had left the trail and thrashed through the tall grasses after me. With one wary eye on the bush ahead, I even pointed out the long lunging spread of the moose’s hoof marks when she had been running along the path bent on the destruction of myself and the dogs.
Before Yukon and I carried on to the picnic site I paused to look back at the stretch of grassland where it had been necessary for me to turn into an Olympian for 10 or 15 seconds. I thought for a moment about what my chances would have been had the moose surprised me in an area where there were no trees to hide behind. The answer was pretty obvious – slim to none. At best, I would have been maimed for life. At worst, the front hooves would have become pile drivers that reduced me to splintered bone and brain tissue. Days later I would read about the frequency and lethality of cow moose attacks in North America and around the world I would appreciate that I could never have outrun the assault let alone survive it. The small strip of trees to my left were all that stood between me and a pretty brutal death.

Which has often caused me not only to thank God but to reflect on several things: the way we are put together, the two sides of creation – and how God works to rescue his people.

As I mentioned, I had no thought-out plan of heading for the trees. I might just as easily have followed the dogs in their wild flight down the trail. Why didn’t I do that? What made me instinctively choose the small patch of woods to my left and risk the cross country run I had to undertake to reach them? The moose could have cut me off, especially if I’d tripped over a gopher hole or rock or hidden log. Yet something built into me had known a run down the trail would not have succeeded while a race into the trees might. It was instinctive to flee but flee where? No thought process or logic was involved. Something within had sized up the situation, with very little input from my gray matter, and sent my body hurtling over the field. A couple of verses come to mind from Psalm 139 (13 and 14) when I wonder about this: For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (NIV)

Then there’s God’s creation itself. One moment I’m basking in the sunshine and admiring mountains and woods and sky and the next running for my life from a creature that is part of that godly creation. Why? Because while creation can be incredibly beautiful, the flip side is it can be incredibly dangerous. We live in a fallen world. Eden is long gone and sin has marred the perfection that once existed. There is only the new heaven and new earth to look forward to where God has promised to erase the hazards and allow the wolf to lie down with the lamb and a child to play happily with a poisonous snake. Paul talked about this in Romans 8:20 and 21: Against its will all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. (NLT) Paul adds in verse 22, For we are conscious that all living things are weeping and sorrowing in pain together till now. (BBE)

Finally, there’s no doubt that it was not a day God had any plans on bringing me home so while he did not stop the moose attack from occurring – after all, he built it into the cow moose that she should protect her young – he provided a way of escape so that I could survive it. The charge came at a place where there were trees – it could have occurred at a place where there were none. “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.”(Psalm 91:14, NIV)
So although it was a frightening experience I have never forgotten it was also an experience that brought me a deeper understanding of how I am made and how creation is made and how, despite the dangers and the brokenness, God still works in that creation and through that creation to bring about his perfect will. Regardless of all the risks involved, God’s world remains an excellent place to be and offers a stunning and rugged wilderness for men to discover and explore.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
(Psalm 90:1 & 2, NIV)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

poem by amy

Love through me love of God,

make me like Thy CLEAR AIR through which,

unhindered,

colors pass as though it were not there


amy carmichael (1867-1951) Irish missionary to India

Friday, June 10, 2011

wandering

Recently I was writing back and forth with a friend. They asked about the different kinds of writing I do and what all that was about and this is essentially what I told them:

[Right now it's 1862 in Virginia - I got another contract for yet another book, this one about Mennonites, Amish, pacificism, the American Civil War & why some Amish and Mennonites chose to bear arms to fight against slavery. You know how it works? I go to NYC or TO and I say, "Hey, I have an idea for a novel where an Amish boy dreams about flying, even has a natural gift for it, but his Amish community aren't sure such a gifting can be from God" - and NYC and TO say, "No, thanks." So I go to Ohio and Michigan and Oregon and Florida and publishers there say, "Yes, we love it." But then I go to those same publishers in Ohio and Michigan and Oregon and Florida and I say, "Listen, I have another idea for a novel - two sisters, one Catholic, one Communist - they love each other but they hate each other - Stalin is in the mix and Hitler and Berlin and Moscow and Kyiv - There's romance, there's war, there's God" - "No, thanks," they tell me. So I go to NYC and TO with the same idea and to this idea they say, "Yes!" So now I've figured out I want to tell all kinds of stories and I just have to wander from publisher to publisher to find who will publish which stories and that's all I care about. Every thing's a genre in its own way. So I write in all the genres in order to say what I'd like to say.]

It occurs to me the same thing happens with all of us when we share our stories, testimonies, messages or meditations with the people in the different worlds we move about in. If we talk to teens, we gear our words to a teenage way of looking at the world so they'll understand what we're saying better. If we talk to seniors, we make sure our words are understood within their frame of reference. The same goes if you are talking to a college crowd, a church group, people at work, or ladies in your neighborhood. We say what we want to say or feel we need to say but we put it in words we think each group will best understand. It's no different with my writing. I'm just going from place to place and telling my stories in ways different groups will best understand them. And one publisher will publish one approach, another will publish an alternative approach.

God talks to us this way too. Sometimes a breeze, sometimes a thunderclap. Sometimes challenging us to think deeply, other times challenging us scarcely to think things through at all. Sometimes Psalm 23, sometimes Psalm 88. Sometimes the gospel of John hits home, sometimes Mark finds us where we live. Sometimes he meets us in church, sometimes in the desert, sometimes in a shopping mall. God comes at us in a thousand different ways with his words of comfort, encouragement and discipline. We have to learn to realize when it's him because, really, he doesn't talk to us exactly the same way each and every time.

Nor are we restricted to only praying to God in a certain way, or worshiping in a certain way, or reading a certain translation of the Bible or reading it in a certain way at a certain time of day. We do not have to come to God only when we're upbeat (churches on Sunday mornings have to take this seriously and stop acting as if everyone is on a spiritual high). Nor do we only have to have real talks with him when we're most sad, discouraged, depressed or frightened. We can come to him with childlike words or deeply penetrating thoughts or in hilarity or in struggle. Some people still think it's irreverent to come to God when you feel frustrated or angry or upset. Not so. As God comes to us in many ways and we approach others in many ways so we have freedom to speak with God in many ways. We see this in the Bible again and again from different people and different writers - they come in all kinds of moods, all the moods under the rainbow. The Psalms alone are a whole display of the entire gamut human emotions can run and all are felt and expressed in his presence.

Tolkien said not all who wander are lost. As far as going from place to place, person to person, and God moment to God moment to speak the truth that is in your heart, this is very true. We are always looking for the right words, the right prayers, the right ways and often feeling that we are failing. Yet to do this honest wandering is enough. Become a holy wanderer and meet God in a million ways and a million places. Become a holy wanderer and tell your stories in a million places too. Be open to where God wishes to take you. Do not presume to restrict the Holy Spirit. With the words of God in your soul let him show you new paths in Christ, new vistas, new faces. You will be amazed at how your life changes and what you can hear clearly and speak clearly.

Live the diversity that is plain to see not only in God's Creation but in God's Book and, by so doing, live again.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

the migration of souls

In the process of planning and researching the trilogy that began with the novel ZO (2008) I wrote many different pieces over the years as I fought to find the right voice, angle, perspective - call it what you will. Below I have included other works that I used as sketches to help me find ZO (The Alignment of the Planets; The White Birds).

This one was published in CRUX a couple of years ago under the same title it bears here. Like the material in the other "literary drawings" of "the painting" that would become ZO, this story is a prototype of what would eventually emerge. Some of the material was lent to ZO, some was not. So this retains its own voice and body.

It, like the other prototype material below, is its own story, though it initially contains much in common with Alignment.




The Migration of Souls


Savella would not look through the small grey window of the train. The night before she had scarcely slept, finding comfort only in moving her body from one position to another, in turning her pillow over and over so that she could rest her cheek against coolness. She had climbed out of the bed and crossed to the eastern corner of the room where the icons and crucifix hung and knelt there. She lit a small candle, placing her narrow shoulders between the splinter of flame and her sleeping family. Pavlo watched her. She seemed to flicker and dissolve, to lose shape and substance. She disappeared into the light of the candle.
In the morning the villagers had come to stand near the home. The lane was dark. Pavlo emerged from the house carrying a black case filled with the tools with which he made shoes and boots. He removed the fur hat from his head.
“Glory to Jesus Christ.”
The villagers returned his greeting. Pavlo placed his hat back on his head. Walked to a horse-drawn cart. Set his case in it. His wife’s brother Vasyl sat on the driver’s seat. He remained motionless as Pavlo filled the cart with bags and bundles.
The cherry trees moved like smoke along each side of the cart track. For a while Pavlo drew in the strong nip of burning wood from the village. After that it was the smell of the forest. Bark. Green needles. In a few hours, the sun hot, the odour of resin
overwhelmed everything else, the pine and spruce trees baking like a sweet bread in an oven. The cart lurched and swayed and Pavlo sometimes used a hand to raise himself momentarily off the seat. Savella kept her head down. Cheeks glinting in small pins of light that fastened onto her skin. Her brother held the reins in one black hand and stared straight ahead. There were three crows and they flew in front of the cart for several miles before they exploded into a squawking and vanished.

“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.

Swaying with the train, one shoulder against the side of the car, Pavlo held Mykhailo as the boy slept. The window was a square of black.
“Won’t you sleep?” Savella asked him. “I can make a bed for Mykhailo on his seat just as I’ve done for Lesia and Iakiv.”
“Yes, I see. But I think I will hold him for awhile yet.”
We are all returning to earlier days, he thought. The man behind me with the cigarette. Who knows how old he is right now? Where his eyes and feet are? Who is holding him? I am in the village. I am ten or eleven. I am on the road that leads out of the village. I have left my bed and gone to walk in the warm night. The air smells like blood and like flowers. I see myself walking in the dark and just ahead of my body I see a few willows, a few poplars, a bend in the road, a creek. No one else is on the road. Over my head the stars are fat and yellow. An insect bites. The night is purple. Draped in the branches of the trees. Hanging. In huge soft folds. I am in a meadow. I am above the meadow.
Pavlo sensed that Savella was asleep and he turned his head to look at her. He touched the hands and the arms. They were like poplar saplings growing up out of the black.
The fingers are not small. The arms are pale and smooth but they are not soft. I have felt them grip me like white roots.
The Austrian border officials came on board with a lantern, asked to see passports and money, demanded Pavlo show them his family’s steamship tickets. Savella sat quietly. One hand on Lesia who continued to sleep. Savella’s face shifted from white to black as the lantern swung in one of the men’s grip.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-one.”
“You do not look a day over sixteen. What year were you born?”
“It is there on my passport, sir.”
“Where are you from?”
“Galicia.”
“Why are you leaving? Is life not good enough for you here?”
“There is a country called Canada.”
“Are you sure there is such a place?”
“Yes. My husband showed me on a map.”
“God knows what sort of ships they will cram you into. People die on such ships.”
“We will try, sir. Our Lord Jesus Christ will watch over us.”
“You are too young. We ought to make you turn back. Whose children are these?”
“They are mine. My children.”
The next night Savella slept without interruption, a blanket pulled to her shoulders. Pavlo now and then saw pricks of light in the black glass. At dawn, long green fields unravelled from a smudged sky and sprawled alongside the train’s iron wheels. Mykhailo pressed his face into the glass, enjoying the sensation of cold and the shiver of the pane.
They changed trains several times. White steam burst up over their ankles and legs. They stepped through banks of it. A soldier appeared in front of them once, his rifle slung tightly onto his back. He gave them a fierce glance. Pavlo had emerged too suddenly from a tumbling of steam, his face white and sharply cut, his feet unseen. The moment the soldier felt Pavlo’s own fear he relaxed, though a cool sabre still lay along his spine. Fresh steam sprang over Pavlo and the soldier like a blast of snow, dissolving just as it hid their bodies and faces. Pavlo had the sense of peering at a person he should have known but could not recognize, someone standing in a winter mist on the far bank of the village river.
“Pavlo.”
“He is a German soldier. Not an Austrian. We are away from all that. Pick Lesia up or we will not find our train.”
The night was impenetrable. The train clicked and shuddered. As if it made its way through dense forest. Cars slapped by long branches. Wheels tangled in stiff, thrusting roots. Savella thought of how far away her village was and she had to close her hands into fists as a numbing cold slipped from head to neck to her fingers and legs. They were among strangers. A bitter scent of pipe tobacco made her throat tighten. She was trapped in the car. On the ship she would be trapped. Surrounded by cold water. Shoreless water. In Canada her isolation would be complete. Impossible to reach her village. Impossible to speak Ukrainian. Her children growing up among a people who had no use for their language or their customs or their God.
She did not remember falling asleep. The roots of trees seized ahold of her body, pulled her into the earth to feed upon her breath. She panicked and fought and forced herself awake, her head and shoulders stabbing forward. She jerked a hand to touch the chill of the window. There is Pavlo. There are Lesia and Iakiv and Mykhailo. She felt an explosion of anger towards Pavlo, wanted to spit, bent her head and placed thumb and finger across her eyes.
“Mother of God. Take us back. Change my husband’s mind. Why are you forcing us to cross over?”
She touched the silver crucifix at her throat. You understand, she said. You understand. You understand.
She remembered the smell of wet earth steaming in the heat. The sting of dill. A fistful of long grass. Crushed to release the tall skies and the deep penetration of the rain. Poppies. Red with a red that thundered like a forest fire. Wild mustard a yellow that cut open the eye. Slits across her bare legs. Grass slits across her calves and thighs and knees. Air in her face, air gleaming with light, sagging with it, the sun slouching against her head and neck. Her hair hot as stones, her fingers reaching up to touch, smelling of
oil and salt as they came down, and sweet. Trees whirling with leaves, rolling one after another downhill, dropping like green stones into the sky. The river beneath her toes, cool as the black earth a spade overturns, moving swiftly between the banks, a fast rain running down a hard-packed road, the long clatter of small pebbles.

“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.

Savella lay in the hold of the ship and listened. Sometimes the water against the hull was the brown river of the village. Other times it was the scraping of human nails. She would cross herself and turn her head so that she could hear Pavlo’s deep solid breathing.
They were hardly ever allowed on deck. It seemed to Savella that all of them had become another form of life, creatures God had not intended—groping, grunting, stumbling, in a world that constantly rocked and pitched, sometimes gently, sometimes
violently. There was the perpetual smell of sheepskin soiled with human sweat, a reek of wet and salt and wool. Urine and feces. Sweet. Rotten. Cattle that had bawled with fright and jarred against one another in this same hold, their flesh, their breath, hot and honeyed with chewed hay and saliva. Savella imagined the long fields of dark green clover, the purple and pink and white blossoms, the cows stepping slowly, their mouths working, calves yanking at teats, emptying themselves in loud, watery streams of brown. She could not hold the image. For behind the warm smell of the cattle was the pierce of antiseptic with which they had washed down the hold in Hamburg. The ship had been a cattle transport. Now it moved people who also knew fear and panic and a sense of being trapped.
The darkness rolled. Someone cursed God. There was a burst of retching. The stink of stomach acid. A heap of rotting tomatoes. Smashed. Open. Savella’s own stomach reacted. Tried to heave up its food in response. She put a clove of garlic to her nose.
Another roll. Sounds of choking and the splatter of liquid. Savella leaned over Pavlo to see if the children had been awakened. But the three of them continued to sleep. Legs and arms twisted in the woolen blankets.
The distance she had travelled from her home, her sense of being detached, of being nowhere at all, of living in a world of long water, nights of deep darkness and unusual rhythms, all this rose up to obliterate or stupefy certain habits and instincts, so that another element submerged in her soul was freed and thrust upward into her mind and will like a tall, needle-like column of iron. Hard, painful, but satisfying. The sharper and harder this column became the more Savella drew her strength and purpose from it. The women chattered around her, dark and white, moving their fingers and hands, but she sat amongst them quietly, eyes on Pavlo smoking his pipe, occasionally illuminated by fire, and she nurtured the iron needle that drove up through her being. Her hands were motionless in her lap, but not limp.
Pavlo felt the strength in her. The hard dark ore that had been pushed painfully to the surface. His head and stomach became a slowly turning coldness. He left the men and spent several days near the ladder that went up from the hold to the locked entry of the lower deck. He could see slits of light, the outline of the door.

“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.

The rain streamed over their bodies when the ship docked and the hatch was finally opened. Every sight was extraordinary and precise, well-lit and sharp-edged even in the storm. The shout of gulls, the thud of hammer blows on shore, the hum of a fog horn, Savella seized all of it, laughing to herself and holding Lesia’s white hand, jiggling it, wind glancing off her cheek, her blouse drenched and moulded to her shoulders and chest. Salt and water and cool air sliced like keen knives into her nostrils.
They boarded another train and rain fell away behind them and colour dissolved the towers of cloud. Green hills peeled back to stone and plain, trembling in the heat as if a great engine that fueled the earth forced its exhaust up through a thousand small ducts in the grass. It was as long as Savella’s hair, undulating as if it were being combed from one horizon to another. It was as slender as strands of water streaking over the rocks of a
creekbed. Twisting and churning and cracking open with sunlight.
“There is no end to it,” she said to Pavlo.
After many days the train blew out its air and steam and stopped. Savella placed her feet awkwardly on the iron rungs and stepped down to the boards. Persons spilled out around her, tugging at suitcases and bundles of clothing and cookware. Lesia fussed in her arms as sun stung the child’s face. Savella stared at the stationhouse, at the windows and shingles, at the men in dark uniforms with silver buttons and watch chains that spat heat. She slowly made her way clear of the black clumps of people and the station so she could see the rest of the city. There were trees, houses painted white and made with wood, the sun yellow over the rooftops and chimneys and over the grass and the bushes.
Away from the train’s shadow, light flamed like a match on her back so that it felt as if her skin were blistering. Lesia wailed.
“There is water here. A river. I can smell it,” Savella said. “The trees are full of leaf and growing. There are no hills at my back or in front of me. The sky is unending.”
She found a bench and sat on it, shading Lesia by the curve of her body. She gazed up at the blue light. Lesia became silent and slept. A pain nicked and scratched everything within Savella. The village was too far away. Pavlo was battling with the luggage, keeping the boys by his legs, his face wet, talking to himself or to Iakiv and Mykhailo, jerking at the cases.
She strode in front of Pavlo. The heat made the buildings in the city quiver, as if there were no foundation to them, as if they were mirages that might at any moment disappear, leaving Savella and her family abandoned to a perpetual horizon that neither began nor came to any completion. She started to think about cold water. A chilled cup pressed to her cheek.
They spent the night in a large house where they were given food and water and part of the floor to sleep on. Many others from the train were also there. The children collapsed in tangled positions against Savella’s legs. Next to them a heavy man with a beard like a shovel raised his right arm higher and higher as he argued with his wife. Another man bent his back like a sapling and prayed out loud, an icon positioned on top of a small heap of suitcases. Babies were crying on the floors above them. Several windows were open so that a slender draft stirred about the rooms, which were bogged down with the day’s heat and odours of sausage and sour milk and sweat. Two or three flies persisted in jostling one another off Savella’s chin and eventually she grew too tired to flap her hand at them.
Soon the sun took on a rich hue, like a syrup, and the rooms glowed, the hair of the people in them shimmered as if it had all been oiled, skin glinted like metal. Savella suddenly experienced a surge of peacefulness in all parts of her body. She knew this colour. It meant that soon the sun would set. How many times had she gazed at this colour on the wheat, on the thatched roofs, on the women hunched on benches next to the white walls, on the men leading the glossy horses up from a drink at the river? Dust would hang like a second sky. She watched the blaze in the room. It was as if she saw angels. She closed her eyes as they brimmed with the burning whorl of light. Then she opened them again.

Now she was fifty-four.

She often said to Pavlo, “I am the young woman who came to Canada. I have not changed. Neither have you.”

After they had been working in the garden, he smelled like black soil and growing plants and roots and water. This overpowered the scent of sweat and soap and leather from his shoemaking shop. He had smelled like earth and crops and thunderstorms and sunlight when they were young and lived in Ukraine. Even after he became a cobbler. When the farm in Canada had not worked out, when he had brought them to the city because they needed money and he could make shoes and boots, the lines of dirt under his fingernails had become streaks of black polish and his skin tasted like waxes and animal hides and tobacco and dust. Then they had dug and planted their own garden. When he bent over his cabbages and ripped weeds from among his radishes and lettuces and cucumbers, the strength of their growth was on his hands and neck as he lay down next to her in the warm summer dark.
It was on Saturdays or Sundays and sometimes in the evenings when they fussed over the garden together. Pavlo would encourage their young son Joseph to pull up carrots with Nicholas, their daughter Lesia’s boy. Pavlo picked the cucumbers himself, getting them before they grew too large, and pickled them in huge jars swirling with stalks of dill. Savella would point out something, what worms had done, or slugs, or cabbage moths, and he would nod, perhaps laying down a barrier of salt against the slugs or spraying soap and water over the cabbage leaves to discourage the moths. Often she would picture the two of them as if she were someone else watching them from the house. She kneeling by the peas or beans in her maroon skirt and white headscarf. Her hands black. He with his suspenders crossed over his slim back, standing in the middle of the spinach and beet leaves, his trousers dark columns rising out of the green, staring down, thinking, wondering, a watering can in his fist, dripping, the spout rusted. It came to her in the winter too, when she looked from the kitchen into a white yard. If he had brought potatoes up out of the cellar and cleaned them, even though it was January, his arms and chest could remind her of the garden and the drenching yellow heat.
In the mornings she was alone in the backyard. It faced south and the sun was on her hands and neck by ten o’clock. She prayed as she moved about the yard. In the spring she worked on the apple tree, pruning branches with a small saw and a ladder. She loved the hot smell of the apple tree shavings and would rub them between her palms, press her palms to her nose and face. At the end of May she took a shovel and a fork and turned the packed earth of the garden. She thumped the large clumps of soil with the back of the shovel to break them up. The surface of the garden would be dry but underneath it was still damp and mud would creep up the sides of her boots to her skirt. Dark slashes jumped across her cheeks. They dried to grey.
The seeding she did with Pavlo. She sprinkled the lettuce seeds out of a salt shaker. Pavlo purchased the tomato plants from a nursery and, bent over, scooping with a trowel, he placed them in the ground. As summer flooded the yard, she chopped at weeds with the hoe, stepping back and forth on the narrow boards between the rows. She enjoyed the shock that leaped up her arms with each blow, the yielding of the soil, the stinging green scent of the cut weed, the cool dirt on her fingers as she dug out the roots, the tiny stones that slipped under her nails and bit. Her muscles welcomed the work, she exulted in this stretching and binding and swelling. Two hours in the garden and she could look up at the blue sky silky with heat and feel she was in another country.
For Pavlo the garden was a piece of the farm that had not worked for him and finally had not worked for Savella’s brother either. Vasyl rarely entered the large garden plot. Sometimes he came out and talked to them while they worked, hands in his pockets. He brought up politics. How many shoes they had made at the shop that week. He never mentioned the heads of lettuce Pavlo held in his hand. Or the blood red tomatoes. Or the slim pods Savella shelled in a chair under the branches of the apple tree.
Pavlo himself never mentioned the farm. He had left it behind. The dream had lost its colour when there was nothing to eat. He had found a job and a house in the city. He had never wanted to return to the flatness and the wind. Work in the city was better than land that broke the bones in your arms and legs. He washed his hands in the spray from the watering can. The liquid mud dripped into the grass. The garden was better than the farm had been. It could be controlled. Its distances were limited. It grew most of their vegetables but it did not destroy them while it did so. He could grip it in his hand like a boot that was being stitched.
His back hurt when he leaned over the plants and this annoyed him. He could see in the mirror that his shirt and pants did not fit as well. He did not notice anything if he just looked at his arms and legs. But mirrors and photographs showed him that his shoulders and muscles seemed to be shrinking. “I am crawling back into my bones,” he muttered. Even his head seemed smaller. The wrinkles cut deeper into the flesh around his eyes.
“At least something is left.”
“What are you talking about?”
Savella was sitting up in bed as he came into the room and closed the door. He shrugged and pulled his suspenders over his shoulders. He lay next to her. She touched his arm. He twisted.
“Your hands are like torches. In the winter it is like sleeping in a snowdrift. In the summer you are a pot of steam. It is impossible to sleep. The room is already like an oven.”
“How is the shop?”
“Not as many shoes. A few more boots.”
“All the sun will make the tomatoes rich.”
“Glory to Jesus Christ. Are you still having those nightmares?”
“Sometimes I am in heaven when I close my eyes. All the clouds are white and all the faces are kind. I see the village and they are lighting candles for us at Mass. Other times it is a hell. I wish my whole world, awake or dreaming, was peace, forever, just peace.”
“God has not made the earth that way.”
“I wish he would change his mind and make new plans for everything.”
“Some days we believe. Some days we do not.”
“I always believe, Pavlo. But life goes on and on and the pattern is difficult to make out. I get tired of looking and looking and trying to see how all the threads match.”
She dreamed again that she stood in the middle of the prairie. It had become a desert. The grass was gone and all the crops. Some stubble poked like fork prongs up through the dirty yellow sand. A wind was beginning over the flatness. Now and then it surged and yanked a fence post out of the ground and hurled it several hundred feet. It snapped three strands of barbed wire. They began to lash at the ground. A small house was in the distance. Shingles burst from the roof like a flock of crows. The open windows kept staring at her with darkness. Boards were pried loose and tossed into the air. Through the dust the sun suddenly struck her like an axe across the face. Her hand came away from her face without any blood on it. But her cheeks were burning. Flames sprang up her legs and her skirt exploded. Her hair crackled and when she opened her mouth black and greasy smoke poured out from between her teeth.
Pavlo touched her shoulder and she turned over.
“Fire,” she mumbled.
“You are safe enough,” he said to her in the dark. “Dream about God now. White clouds. Angels. Long stretches of blue water.”
“I am on fire.”
He got her a glass of water and she drank it, still asleep.
“The colour green,” he said. “You like that. Plants. Prayer. Candles.”
She breathed in and out slowly. She was riding a white horse between rows of tall corn. Crows flew ahead of her but they sang like larks. Sun coated her bare arms like paint.
Pavlo got up and sat on the porch. There were no lights on in the house. The street was completely dark. His sleeves were rolled up and his shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He was smoking cigarettes down close to his fingers. The elm leaves would move as if something were leaping from branch to branch. He could hear the sound of tires rolling over the pavement on Main Street. A leaf clattered as it fell down through branches and twigs. He remembered swaying from side to side in the dark as a cart rattled between cherry trees. The stars had been fastened to the trees just as they were tonight. Warm and sticky and motionless. Father had cleaned a fish once under stars as heavy as crushed rock. The blood had no colour.
It would have been better to have stayed in Ukraine. No, the German soldiers came and burnt it to the ground. Boots and guns. They put bullets in the air we breathe. It was good that we came here even if it has not been perfect. And whose life is perfect? God’s maybe. No one else’s. I should have kept the farm they gave me here. How could I? Nothing was working out. I am happier soling shoes. The children are healthy. Communists do not roam the streets and back lanes with rifles. No better than the Nazis. Stalin and Hitler came down the same birth canal. The children are well. Savella and I can die in our sleep. Plenty of Christmases left. And Easters. Plenty of prayers left in me. Enough for a second lifetime. But. What if I had gone further south instead of coming here? What if I had decided to take Savella all the way to the ocean before I built a house? I think I could have grown more roses.
Everything is long and black and comfortable. I shouldn’t have to get up. I ought to be able to stay here. There’s no people. No shouting. No talking. No shoes scraping over the gravel. No cars. No light. I’m warm. I’m not thinking. I’m watching the blackness move over the city. I’m smelling the grass and the bark on the elms. The cool dampness growing over the lawns and bushes. Why should I have to get up?
More leaves crashed down through the branches and onto the road. They were as loud as stones. An insect snarled near Pavlo’s arm and disappeared. For an instant he was conscious of a rose and then there was a breath of dust. He fell asleep. The leaves continued to drop, landing on the ground with a crack, as if something small was being broken in two.

“Where is God in all this?” he asked her.

She smiled and the wrinkles on her face smiled with her lips. “You know better than I do. You are just throwing out words. You turn it over and over in your head all the time. A priest. That would have suited you. He is in all of it, Pavlo. From beginning to end. There is nothing that he is left out of.”
“Even the mistakes. Even the bad ideas. Even the sins.”
“He is an incarnation, Pavlo. He is in all of it. And he will make it whole, one piece, everything.”
“If you say so. Glory to Jesus Christ.”
She lay her head back on her pillow. The room grew darker and darker with the summer night and the birds made no more sounds.
“Even the fear,” she said. “Even the dreams that lose their wings and fall to the ground. Over an entire lifetime nothing is lost. Not even the grave.”
She heard his breathing. A car’s headlights swept quickly over the room, over his head, her face, their arms and legs and bed sheets, the crucifix at her throat, the dresser, the framed photographs on the walls, the rosary that dripped from a chair, the shirt draped beside it, the ashtray, the carpet, a pair of shoes. All vanished in the dark. She turned on her shoulder and closed her eyes. The morning would bring everything back.

the alignment of the planets

As with the collection of short pieces just below, The White Birds, this longer story was also a prototype for the novel ZO (2008).

Some of the material was retained for ZO, some was not. So this story is its own entity and makes its own mark. It shared some of itself, but kept its own unique identity, taking a different track than ZO took.

I hope you enjoy it.




The Alignment of the Planets


She would not look through the small grey window of the

train. The night before she had scarcely slept, finding comfort

only in moving her body from one position to another, in turning

her pillow over and over so that she could rest her cheek against

coolness. She had climbed out of the bed and crossed to the

eastern corner of the room where the icons hung and knelt there.

She lit a small candle. Placing her narrow shoulders between the

splinter of flame and her sleeping family. Pavlo watched her. She

seemed to flicker and dissolve, to lose shape and substance. She

disappeared into the light of the candle.

In the morning the villagers had come to stand near the home.

The lane was dark. Pavlo emerged from the house carrying a black

case filled with the tools with which he made shoes and boots. He

removed the fur hat from his head.

“Glory to Jesus Christ.”

The villagers returned his greeting. Pavlo placed his hat

back on his head. Walked to a horse-drawn cart. Set his case in

it. His wife’s brother Vasyl sat on the driver’s seat. He remained

motionless as Pavlo filled the cart with bags and bundles.

The cherry trees moved like smoke along each side of the cart

track. For awhile Pavlo drew in the strong nip of burning wood

from the village. After that it was the smell of the forest. Bark.

Green needles. In a few hours, the sun hot, the odour of resin

overwhelmed everything else, the pine and spruce trees baking like

a sweet bread in an oven. The cart lurched and swayed and Pavlo

sometimes used a hand to raise himself momentarily off the seat.

Savella kept her head down. Cheeks glinting in small pins of light

that fastened onto her skin. Her brother held the reins in one

black hand and stared straight ahead. There were three crows and

they flew in front of the cart for several miles before they

exploded into a squawking and vanished.

Swaying with the train, one shoulder against the side of the

car, Pavlo held Michael as the boy slept. The window was a square

of black.

“Won’t you sleep? I can make a bed for Michael on his seat

just as I’ve done for Lesia and Iakiv.”

“Yes, I see. But I think I will hold Michael for awhile yet.

We are all returning to earlier days. The man behind me with

the cigarette. Who knows how old he is right now? Where his eyes

and feet are? Who is holding him? I am in the village. I am ten or

eleven. I am on the road that leads out of the village. I have

left my bed and gone to walk in the warm night. The air smells

like blood and like flowers. I see myself walking in the dark and

just ahead of my body I see a few willows, a few poplars, a bend

in the road, a creek. No one else is on the road. Over my head.

The stars are fat and yellow. An insect bites. The night is

purple. Draped in the branches of the trees. Hanging. In huge soft

folds. I am in a meadow. I am above the meadow.



Pavlo sensed that Savella was asleep and he turned his head

to look at her. Gradually the hands and the arms came to him, like

poplar saplings growing up out of the black.



The fingers are not small. The arms are pale and smooth but

they are not soft. I have felt them grip my back like white roots.


The Austrian border officials came on board with a lantern,

asked to see passports and money, demanded Pavlo show them his

family’s steamship tickets. Savella sat quietly. One hand on Lesia

who continued to sleep. Savella’s face shift from white to black

as the lantern swung in one of the men’s grip.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

“You do not look a day over sixteen. What year were you

born?”

“It is there on my passport, sir.”

“Where are you from?”

“Galicia.”

“Why are you leaving? Is life not good enough for you here?”

“There is a country called Canada.”

“Are you sure there is such a place?”

“Yes. My husband showed me on a map.”

“God knows what sort of ships they will cram you into. People

die on such ships.”

“We will try, sir.”

“You are too young. We ought to make you turn back. Whose

children are these?”

“They are mine. My children.”

The next night Savella slept without interruption, a blanket

pulled to her shoulders. Pavlo now and then saw pricks of light in

the black glass. At dawn, long green fields unravelled from a

smudged sky and sprawled alongside the train’s iron wheels.

Mykhailo pressed his face into the glass, liking the sensation of

cold and the shiver of the pane.

They changed trains several times. White steam burst up over

their ankles and legs. They stepped through banks of it. A soldier

appeared in front of them once, his rifle slung tightly onto his

back. He gave them a fierce glance. Pavlo had emerged too suddenly

from a tumbling of steam, his face white and sharply cut, his feet

unseen. The moment the soldier felt Pavlo’s own fear he relaxed,

though a cool sabre still lay along his spine. Fresh steam sprang

over Pavlo and the soldier like a blast of snow, dissolving just

as it hid their bodies and faces. Pavlo had the sense of peering

at a person he should have known but could not recognize, someone

standing in a winter mist on the far bank of the village river.

“Pavlo.”

“He is a German soldier. Not an Austrian. We are away from

all that. Pick Lesia up or we will not find our train.”

The night was impenetrable. The train clicked and shuddered.

As if it made its way through dense forest. Cars slapped by long

branches. Wheels tangled in stiff, thrusting roots. Savella

thought of how far away her village was and she had to close her

hands into fists as a numbing cold slipped from head to neck to

her fingers and her legs. They were among strangers. A bitter

scent of pipe tobacco made her throat tighten. She was trapped in

the car. On the ship she would be trapped. Surrounded by cold

water. Shoreless water. In Canada her isolation would be complete.

Impossible to reach her village. Impossible to speak Ukrainian.

Her children growing up among a people who had no use for their

language or their customs or their God. The roots of the trees

seizing ahold of your body, pulling you into the earth to feed

upon your breath.

Her head and shoulders stabbing forward.

She jerked a hand to touch the chill of the window. There is

Pavlo. There are Lesia and Iakiv and Michael. She felt an

explosion of anger towards Pavlo, wanted to spit, bent her head

and placed thumb and finger across her eyes.

“Mother of God. Take us back. Change my husband’s mind. Why

are you forcing us to cross over?”



The smell of wet earth steaming in the heat. The sting of

dill. A fistful of long grass. Crushed to release the tall skies

and the deep penetration of the rain. Poppies. Red with a red that

thundered like a forest fire. Wild mustard a yellow that cut open

the eye. Slits across her bare legs. Grass slits across her calves

and thighs and knees. Air in her face, air gleaming with light,

sagging with it, the sun slouching against her head and neck . Her

hair hot as stones, her fingers reaching up to touch, smelling of

oil and salt as they came down, and sweet. Trees whirling with

leaves, rolling one after another downhill, dropping like green

stones into the sky. The river beneath her toes, cool as the black

earth a spade overturns, moving swiftly between the banks, a fast

rain running down a hard-packed road, the long clatter of small

pebbles.



Savella lay in the hold of the ship and listened. Sometimes

the water against the hull was the brown river of the village.

Other times it was the scraping of human nails. She would cross

herself and turn her head so that she could hear Pavlo’s deep,

solid breathing.

They were hardly ever allowed on deck. It seemed to Savella

that all of them had become another form of life, creatures God

had not intended, groping, grunting, stumbling, in a world that

constantly rocked and pitched, sometimes gently, sometimes

violently. There was the perpetual smell of sheepskin soiled with

human sweat, a reek of wet and salt and wool. Urine and feces.

Sweet. Rotten. Cattle that had bawled with fright and jarred

against one another in this same hold, their flesh, their breath,

hot and honeyed with chewed hay and saliva. Savella imagined the

long fields of dark green clover, the purple and pink and white

blossoms, the cows stepping slowly, their mouths working, calves

yanking at teats, emptying themselves in loud, watery streams of

brown. She could not hold the image. For behind the warm smell of

the cattle was the pierce of antiseptic with which they had washed

down the hold in Hamburg.

The darkness rolled. Someone cursed God. There was a burst of

retching. The stink of stomach acid. A heap of rotting tomatoes.

Smashed. Open. Savella’s own stomach reacted. Tried to heave up

its food in response. She put a clove of garlic to her nose.

Another roll. Sounds of choking and the splatter of liquid.

Savella leaned over Pavlo to see if the children had been

awakened. But the three of them continued to sleep. Legs and arms.

Twisted. In the woollen blankets.

The distance she had travelled from her home, her sense of

being detached, of being nowhere at all, of living in a world of

long water, nights of deep darkness and unusual rhythms, all this

rose up to obliterate or stupefy certain habits and instincts, so

that another element submerged in her soul was freed and thrust

upward into her mind and will lke a tall, needle-like column of

iron. Hard, painful, but satisfying. The sharper and harder this

column became the more Savella drew her strength and purpose from

it. The women chattered around her, dark and white, moving their

fingers and hands, but she sat amongst them quietly, eyes on Pavlo

smoking his pipe, occasionally illuminated by fire, and she

nurtured the iron needle that drove up through her being. Her

hands were motionless in her lap, but not limp.

Pavlo felt the strength in her. The hard dark ore that had

been pushed painfully to the surface. His head and stomach became

a slowly turning coldness. He left the men and spent several days

near the ladder that went up from the hold to the locked entry to

the lower deck. He could see slits of light, the outline of the

door.

The rain streamed over their bodies when the ship docked and

the hatch was finally opened. Every sight was extraordinary and

precise, well-lit and sharp-edged even in the storm. The shout of

gulls, the thud of hammer blows on shore, the hum of a fog horn,

Savella seized all of it, laughing to herself and holding Lesia’s

white hand, jiggling it, wind glancing off her cheek, her blouse

drenched and moulded tightly to her shoulders and chest. Salt and

water and cool air sliced like keen knives into her nostrils.

They boarded another train and rain fell away behind them and

colour dissolved the towers of cloud. Green hills peeled back to

stone and plain, trembling in the heat as if a great engine that

fueled the earth forced its exhaust up through a thousand small

ducts in the grass. It was as long as Savella’s hair, undulating

as if it were being combed from one horizon to another. It was as

slender as strands of water streaking over the rocks of a

creekbed. Twisting and churning and cracking open with sunlight.

“There is no end to it,” she said to Pavlo.

After many days the train blew out its air and steam and

stopped. Savella placed her feet awkwardly on the iron rungs and

stepped down to the boards. Persons spilled out around her,

tugging at suitcases and bundles of clothing and cookware. Lesia

fussed in her arms as sun stung the child’s face. Savella stared

at the stationhouse, at the windows and shingles, at the men in

dark uniforms with silver buttons and watch chains that spat heat.

She slowly made her way clear of the black clumps of people and

the station so she could see the rest of the city. There were

trees. houses painted white and made with wood, the sun yellow

over the rooftops and chimneys and over the grass and the bushes.

Away from the train’s shadow light flamed like a match on her back

so that it felt as if her skin were blistering. Lesia wailed.



There is water here. A river. I can smell it. The trees are

full of leaf and growing. There are no hills at my back or in

front of me. The sky is unending.



She found a bench and sat on it, shading Lesia by the curve

of her body. She gazed up at the blue light. Lesia became silent

and slept. A pain nicked and scratched everything within Savella.

The village was too far away. Pavlo was battling with the luggage,

keeping the boys by his legs, his face wet, talking to himself or

to Iakiv and Michael, jerking at the cases.

She strode in front of Pavlo. The heat made the buildings in

the city quiver, as if there were no foundation to them, as if

they were mirages which might at any moment disappear, leaving

Savella and her family abandoned to a perpetual horizon which

neither began nor came to any completion. She started to think

about cold water. A chill cup pressed to her cheek.

They spent the night in a large house where they were given

food and water and part of the floor to sleep on. Many others from

the train were also there. The children collapsed in tangled

positions against Savella’s legs. Next to them a heavy man with a

beard like a shovel raised his right arm higher and higher as he

argued with his wife. Another man bent his back like a sapling and

prayed out loud, an icon positioned on top of a small heap of

suitcases. Babies were crying on the floors above them. Several

windows were open so that a slender draft stirred about the rooms

which were bogged down with the day’s heat and odours of sausage

and sour milk and sweat. Two or three flies persisted in jostling

one another off Savella’s chin and eventually she grew too tired

to flap her hand at them.

Soon the sun took on a rich hue, like a syrup, and the rooms

glowed, the hair of the people in them shimmered as if it had all

been oiled, skin glinted like metal. Savella suddenly experienced

a surge of peacefulness in all parts of her body. She knew this

colour. It meant that soon the sun would set. How many times had

she gazed at this colour on the wheat, on the thatched roofs, on

the women hunched on benches next to the white walls, on the men

leading the glossy horses up from a drink at the river? Dust would

hang like a second sky. She watched the blaze in the room. She

closed her eyes as they brimmed with the burning whorl of light.

Then she opened them again.

She was fifty-four. But she often said to Pavlo, “I am the

young woman who came to Canada.” She still enjoyed his body. The

muscles were there, tight along his bones. She liked it best after

they had been working in the garden. Then he smelled like black

soil and growing plants and roots and water. This overpowered the

scent of sweat and soap and leather. He had smelled like earth and

crops and thunderstorms and sunlight when they were young and

lived in Ukraine. Even after he became a cobbler. When the farm in

Canada had not worked out, when he had brought them to the city

because they needed money and he could make shoes and boots, the

lines of dirt under his fingernails had become streaks of black

polish and his skin tasted like waxes and animal hides and tobacco

and dust. Then they had dug and planted the garden. When he bent

over his cabbages and ripped weeds from among his radishes and

lettuces and cucumbers, the strength of their growth was on his

hands and neck as he lay down next to her in the warm summer dark.

It was on Saturdays or Sundays and sometimes in the evenings

when they fussed over the garden together. Pavlo would encourage

their young son Joseph to pull up carrots with his cousin

Nicholas, Lesia’s boy. He picked the cucumbers himself,

getting them before they grew too large, and pickled them in huge

jars swirling with stalks of dill. She would point out something,

what worms had done, or slugs, or cabbage moths, and he would nod,

perhaps laying down a barrier of salt against the slugs, or

spraying soap and water over the cabbage leaves to discourage the

moths. Often she would picture the two of them as if she were

someone else watching them from the house. She kneeling by the

peas or beans in her maroon skirt and white headscarf. Her hands

black. He with his suspenders crossed over his slim back, standing

in the middle of the spinach and beet leaves, his trousers dark

columns rising out of the green, staring down, thinking,

wondering, a watering can in his fist, dripping, the spout rusted.

It came to her in the winter too, when she looked from the kitchen

into a white yard. If he had brought potatoes up out of the cellar

and cleaned them, even though it was January, his arms and chest

could remind her of the garden and the drenching yellow heat and

she would slip a hand over the bones in his shoulder and place her

mouth against the skin on his throat.

In the mornings she was alone in the backyard. It faced south

and the sun was on her hands and neck by ten o’clock. She worked

on the apple tree in the spring, pruning branches with a small saw

and a ladder. She loved the hot smell of the apple tree shavings

and would rub them between her palms, press her palms to her nose

and face. At the end of May she took a shovel and a fork and

turned the packed earth of the garden. She thumped the large

clumps of soil with the back of the shovel to break them up. The

surface of the garden would be dry but underneath it was still

damp and mud would creep up the sides of her boots to her skirt.

Dark slashes jumped across her cheeks. They dried to grey.

The seeding she did with Pavlo. She sprinkled the lettuce

seeds out of a salt shaker. Pavlo purchased the tomato plants from

a nursery and bent over, scooping with a trowel, he placed them in

the ground. As summer flooded the yard, she chopped at weeds with

the hoe, stepping back and forth on the narrow boards between the

rows. She enjoyed the shock that leaped up her arms with each

blow, the yielding of the soil, the stinging green scent of the

cut weed, the cool dirt on her fingers as she dug out the roots,

the tiny stones that slipped under her nails and bit. Her muscles

welcomed the work, she exulted in this stetching and binding and

swelling. Two hours in the garden and she could look up at the

blue sky silky with heat and feel she was in another country.

For Pavlo the garden was a piece of the farm that had not

worked for him and finally had not worked for Savella’s brother

either. Vasyl rarely entered the large garden plot. Sometimes he

came out and talked to them while they worked, hands in his

pockets. He brought up politics. How many shoes they had made at

the shop that week. He never mentioned the heads of lettuce Pavlo

held in his hand. Or the blood red tomatoes. Or the slim pods

Savella shelled. In a chair under the branches of the apple tree.

Pavlo himself never mentioned the farm. He had left it

behind. The dream had lost its colours when there was nothing to

eat. He had found a job and a house in the city. He had never

wanted to return to the flatness and the wind. Work in the city

was better than land that broke the bones in your arms and legs.

He washed his hands in the spray from the watering can. The liquid

mud dripped into the grass. The garden was better than the farm

had been. It could be controlled. Its distances were limited. It

grew most of their vegetables but it did not destroy them while it

did so. He could grip it in his hand like a boot that was being

stitched.

His back hurt when he leaned over the plants and this annoyed

him. He could see in the mirror that his shirt and pants did not

fit as well. He did not notice anything if he just looked at his

arms and legs. But mirrors and photographs showed him that his

shoulders and muscles seemed to be shrinking. “I am crawling back

into my bones,” he muttered. Even his head seemed smaller. The

wrinkles cut deeper into the flesh around his eyes.

“At least something is left.”

“What are you talking about?”

Savella was sitting up in bed as he came into the room and

closed the door. He shrugged and pulled his suspenders over his

shoulders. He lay next to her. She touched his arm. He twisted.

“Your hands are like torches. In the winter it is like

sleeping in a snowdrift. In the summer you are a pot of steam. It

is impossible to sleep. The room is already like an oven.”

“Nicholas walks past our icons as if they are going to bite

him.”

“Lesia and her family are under our roof. You can feed them.

You can pray for them.”

“They still talk about going to Russia to help Stalin.”

“No. It is just an idea. Each year they grow out of it a

little. They will live more and more here. Instead of out there.”

“How is the shop?”

“Not as many shoes. A few more boots.”

“All the sun will make the tomatoes rich.”



She stood in the middle of the prairie. It had become a

desert. The grass was gone and all the crops. Some stubble poked

like fork prongs up through the dirty yellow sand. A wind was

beginning over the flatness. Now and then it surged and yanked a

fence post out of the ground and hurled it several hundred feet.

It snapped three strands of barbed wire. They began to lash at the

ground. A small house was at a distance. Shingles burst from the

roof like a flock of crows. The open windows kept staring at her

with darkness. Boards were pried loose and tossed into the air.

Through the dust the sun suddenly struck her like an axe across

the face. Her hand came away from her face without any blood on

it. But her cheeks were burning. Flames sprang up her legs and her

skirt exploded. Her hair crackled and when she opened her mouth

black and greasy smoke poured out from between her teeth.



Michael sat on the porch. There were no lights on in the

house. The street was completely dark. His sleeves were rolled up

and his shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He was

smoking cigarettes down close to his fingers. The elm leaves would

move as if something were leaping from branch to branch. He could

hear the sound of tires rolling over the pavement on Main Street.

A leaf clattered as it fell down through branches and twigs. He

remembered swaying from side to side in the dark as a cart rattled

between cherry trees. The stars had been fastened to the trees

just as they were tonight. Warm and sticky and motionless. Father

had cleaned a fish once under stars as heavy as crushed rock. The

blood had no colour.



Everything is long and black and comfortable. I shouldn’t

have to get up. I ought to be able to stay here. There’s no

people. No shouting. No talking. No shoes scraping over the

gravel. No cars. No light. I’m warm. I’m not thinking. I’m

watching the blackness move over the city. I’m smelling the grass

and the bark on the elms. The cool dampness growing over the lawns

and bushes. Why should I have to get up?



More leaves crashed down through the branches and onto the

road. They were as loud as stones. An insect snarled near

Michael’s arm and disappeared. For an instant he was conscious of

a rose and then there was a breath of dust. He fell asleep. The

leaves continued to drop, landing on the ground with a crack, as

if something small was being broken in two.

christianity malfunction

How many times have people welcomed you to church by saying, "Welcome to the House of the Lord." Yet that's not a New Testament teaching. It's an Old Testament point of view, when God's presence filled the holy of holies of the Temple in Jerusalem. But that all ended with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the destruction of the brick and mortar Temple by the Romans. The apostles tell us believers are the Temple of God now, living stones built up together into a living Temple where God dwells. So why do we persist in saying the building is the Temple when the Biblical teaching is that the people are the Temple?

Have you noticed how some people are saying we should go back to keeping the Sabbath (and not just Seventh Day Adventists)? Some have gone so far as to insist the passage where Jesus says, "Many will say to me Lord, Lord, and I'll say to them, I never knew you, depart from me you workers of iniquity," is referring to people who don't keep the Sabbath. In other words, faith in Jesus and his Cross and Resurrection isn't enough, no, you have to keep the Sabbath too, and then you can be saved. There is no New Testament support for such a position. Jesus himself broke the Sabbath by eating and healing on Saturdays. He asserted that he was Lord of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath wasn't Lord of him. He also insisted that the Sabbath was made for humans, to bless them, and that humans weren't made to serve the Sabbath as if it were some kind of deity. Yet some Christians persist that we were meant to serve the Sabbath and God won't bless us until we do.

The Old Testament is what you follow if you embrace Judaism. Jesus may have used the Greek version of the Old Testament as his Bible but everything changed with his coming and with his Crucifixion and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As the apostles wrote gospels and letters a new Bible was formed, a New Testament. It is through Jesus, the Messiah, and the New Testament that we look back at the Old Testament and view its prophecies and teachings. Jesus interprets its proper meaning for us - "You have heard it said (in the Old Testament) such and such a thing, but I say to you that it's different now and that the fulfillment of the Law is found in grace, mercy, love and justice, not more rules, and not a Law that acts as if the Messiah hasn't come."

For indeed this present-day "back to the Old Testament" movement is just another version of the people Jesus clashed with and the apostles, people who said you couldn't find God if you weren't circumcised, didn't keep the Sabbath, didn't eat kosher according to the dietary laws found in Leviticus, didn't keep the commandments and the Law, didn't follow the holy feast days. But this is not Christianity - it's Judaism. If you want to convert and be a Jew, go ahead, but don't call it Christianity because it's the farthest thing from Christianity. Jesus and his teachings are authoritative for the Christian, not an Old Testament quoted and utilized as if Jesus the Messiah has never come and transformed and fulfilled everything. The Law may have come with Moses but grace and truth came with the Messiah and it's that grace and truth that a Christian lives by, not the teachings of Moses.

We learn from the Old Testament. We understand its true meaning by way of Jesus and the New Testament. But we do not take it on its own as if Jesus never came. We don't run around talking about "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" as if Jesus didn't change the whole meaning of that verse. We bear in mind that if the Law and the Old Testament could save then there was no reason for Jesus to come and die on the Cross. There would have been no reason for 1st century Jews to repent and worship Jesus, they could have just stuck to Moses. Jesus came because the Old Testament was not enough and could not save and it's still not enough and still can't save. Redemption in its pages only lies in embracing the prophecies of the Messiah and worshiping Jesus as Redeemer and Lord and God. Not in following the Old Testament Law that saved no one and still doesn't.

In the spirit of Jesus, and through his eyes, we can learn what we're meant to learn from the Old Testament, and there's much that can be learned if we approach the Hebrew Scriptures properly. But it is not the book Christians live by and establish as their sole authority. The New Testament is authoritative for Christians and it is Jesus and his words Christians live by. There is a big difference between Old and New and returning to live under the Law is spitting, in my opinion, on the Cross of Jesus Christ and thereby rejecting the heart and soul of the Christian faith.

two ministers

this story is posted in dedication to Len Hjalmarson, now pastoring in Ontario, who - 20 years ago - said he liked the story because it was about grace - may the God of all grace be with you in this newest part of your journey



TWO MINISTERS


Once upon a time there were two men who went to seminary together.

One of them won high praise from his professors and peers. He was a straight A student. He had his theology down pat. His oratorical powers were smooth and flawless. His skills in administration were unequaled when he was sent out on pastoral field work. All agreed he would become a model minister. And indeed, any church he pastored grew by leaps and bounds. There was no subject he could not preach on masterfully, there was no question he did not have all the answers for. People flocked to hear his powerful preaching, to experience his energetic and charismatic leadership. Soon he became so popular he was constantly away from his own church, preaching and teaching throughout the country. The people were sorry to have him away so much, but they shrugged their shoulders and accepted that he was God’s man for the hour.

The only thing they regretted was they could never get close to him. He was too busy and his flawlessness made him too impersonal. if you did manage to arrange for a counseling session with him, he could scarcely empathize with you in your personal struggle or sorrow because everything was perfect in his mind and in his life. The cool way in which he counseled you, giving solution after solution to every problem, reminded some of a well-functioning machine. But, his people reasoned, he was a great man, and that was part of being a great man. So they swallowed their hurts and basked in his oratorical power, his theological acumen, his dynamic leadership, and his widespread reputation as a man of God’s Word. In church, under the spell of his voice, all became well inside anyway. It was only at home, away from his voice, that the hurts smarted again.

The other of the two men also went to seminary the same time as the first man did. But they had little in common. This other man was not a straight A student. He fidgeted too much when he was speaking in public and sometimes stuttered. He had a hard time organizing things. He often left questions unanswered on theological examinations, claiming he could discover no one solution to the dilemma of trying to discern what God thought about things God had never spoken about. The seminary did not think he would do well in the ministry and shunted him off to a small pastorate in the backwoods. The congregation did not grow in size. His preaching was quiet and he did not have a lot of solid theological answers when it came to group Bible studies. People complained they had to go home and think about what the answers might be. The man was not charismatic, did not attract a lot of attention at church socials or inter-church events or denominational conventions.

But his people shrugged and smiled. Their pastor was not perfect, but they loved him because he loved them. No matter who came to him, or when, he had time for them, and a listening ear for them, and empathy for them. He did not have a lot of answers for those who came to him in pain and dismay, but he had faith and compassion and he gave them hope. They all reflected on how little they thought of him during the week, or after a counseling session, but rather how much they thought of God. It was as if God leaked out of all the seams in their minister’s professional ability and theological erudition. How easy it was to get close to him, yet close to God at the same time.

During the course of the two men’s lives, the two men did not see much of each other. The first man had no time for the disorganized, inefficient, stuttering little pastor the second man became. He ridiculed him before others and often considered that the man was not a strong Christian because his theology was so unstructured. He could not understand why his congregation did not send him packing. As the first man became more and more famous, the stuttering pastor became less and less of an entity to him, except that the first man often caricatured the second man’s personality in his sermons, to illustrate the type of godless and unscriptural minister the age had produced, to the Church’s shame.

Finally, the two ministers died and came into the presence of God. The first man was smiling and confident and stood without fear before his Maker. The second man was quiet and sober and knelt with his head down before his God. But when God turned to the first man, God’s voice and words shattered the man’s flawless composure and drove the smile from his face.

God said to him, “Get out of my sight. All your precise theology and precise prayers have made a horrible racket before me. Not a bit of it was done with love or compassion. Your whole life was a blasphemy. Leave my presence at once.”

The first man collapsed in fear at these words and lay weeping. God turned to the second man. “But I say to you, well done. Stay with me. Your love for God and people has been my joy and crown.”

But the second man looked up at God and said, “I cannot stay and remain with you unless I bring this hurting brother with me.”

God replied, “If you shall accept him, I also will accept him.”

The second man turned and looked at the first man and said in a strong voice: “I do accept him.” And God looked at the first man and smiled, saying, “Join us and remain in the love and presence of your God.”

The first man stared up at the second man in both thankfulness and shame. To his surprise, the man seemed to change before his eyes. In that moment, he saw that the second man was the Christ.

a flawed man

A Flawed Man

by Murray Andrew Pura


Now there was a man named Vincent. Vincent was not a perfect man. Far from it. Nor did he try to pretend that he was. His imperfections displayed themselves in many ways. He was too busy for church. Now and then he had been seen puffing on a cigar or drinking a beer. He was rough and loud and usually unshaven and always dressed in his sloppiest clothes. But what was most evident and distressing to those who were perfect was Vincent’s language. Every sentence he spoke crackled with curse words. He could not butter his bread or pour himself a coffee without swearing. And since he was the town’s only veterinarian most people had to put up with his coarse language several times a year. When they brought their calf in. Or their dog. Or cat. Or he came out to their farm or ranch to look after a sick horse or cow. Many of the good church folk shook their heads and grit their teeth and muttered under their breaths, “It’s what comes out of a man that defiles him.”

“Why do you put up with it?” demanded the good church folk from other towns. “Go to another veterinarian.”

“He is the only one in town,” was the reply.

“So go to another town.”

“Well, his mouth is bad. But he is good with our horses.”

“With his language,” the good church folk from other towns growled, “he will be busy shoeing horses in hell one day.”

So the years hurried by. Vincent rushed around in his clinic petting dogs and cats and hamsters and giving them needles and he plodded out to the farms and ranches in snow, sleet and drenching rain and took care of the horses and cows and sheep. The perfect people stood and watched and listened and shook their heads and were glad to see him gone.

“One day,” they promised each other, “he will be gone for good and we will get ourselves a better vet.”

“Amen,” the good church folk chimed in.

And that day came. Vincent died. His funeral was not held at a church but at a funeral home. Still, a lot of people and a lot of children attended. Perfect and imperfect, churched and unchurched. Even stray dogs and cats hung around the parking lot and hired hands claimed the livestock were restless that afternoon. It was not a long funeral. One of the local ranchers gave a brief eulogy.

“He was far from perfect,” the rancher said, “but he was there for our horses and dogs. Maybe that’ll count for something. God have mercy on his soul.”

“And his language,” murmured a preacher in the back row.

Meanwhile, Vincent’s spirit stood before the gates of heaven. Tall angels with unsmiling faces stood on either side of him. His rough and unkempt head was hung in shame. Suddenly the gates swung open and a young boy with curly black hair stood in front of him.

“What are you doing here, Vincent?” asked the boy.

“I don’t know,” replied Vincent, head still down. “I did not live a perfect life.”

“No. You did not.” The boy stepped closer. “Lift your head, Vincent. Look at me. Do you know who I am?”

Vincent peered at the young face. “No.”

The boy smiled. “But I know who you are. The man who loved horses. The man who loved dogs. The man who loved sheep.”

For the first time Vincent noticed the boy held a lamb in his arms. It had a mop of thick black curls and the boy was petting it. Vincent smiled back hesitantly. “You love sheep too.”

“That’s true. When I was born there were sheep nearby. As a matter of fact, there were animals all around me. They were the witnesses of my birth and my chief guardians as I drew my first breaths.”

Vincent scrunched up his face. “Who are you?”

“Don’t you know the Christmas story, Vincent?”

Vincent’s jaw dropped. The boy laughed. “Come inside and I’ll tell you about it.”

But Vincent hung back. “I‘m not worthy to come with you into heaven. God knows I’m a flawed man.”

The boy gazed at him with clear eyes. “Yes. But when I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water to drink. I was unknown to you, but you took me into your home. I was naked, but you made sure I was warm. I was sick and you took care of me. I was trapped and caged, but that did not stop you from coming to me.”

Vincent shook his head. “You’re mistaken. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“When you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, Vincent, you did it to me.”

Suddenly there were animals running out from between the gates and swirling around Vincent and the boy. Horses, colts, cows and calves, black dogs and white dogs and red dogs, yellow cats and orange cats, brown donkeys and grey donkeys. There was whinnying and yelping and purring and braying and Vincent knelt among the animals and took them in his arms. The boy laughed when they eventually knocked Vincent down and the dogs pounced on his face and licked furiously with their tongues.

“Come inside, Vincent the Righteous,” the boy said, “there are things to see that have been waiting for you since the creation of the earth.”

But Vincent stood up and the happiness slipped from his face. “It won’t work. You know I’m a flawed man. I won’t fit in.”

“Actually, Vincent, you’ll fit in very well,” the boy promised. “The only persons here with me are the ones who are flawed. They are the ones I can help. The others who think they are perfect I can’t do anything for.”

“I’m not righteous, you know that,” Vincent argued.

The boy came over and took hold of Vincent’s hand. His grip was strong. “Haven’t you ever read it in the book?” he asked. “The man who cares for his animals is a righteous man.”

And so Vincent the flawed man, the imperfect man, the righteous man, walked through the gates holding the hand of the Christ child accompanied by all the four-footed throngs of heaven.



for Nahanni
for Charlie

meadowlark

Meadowlark


A man came to America with his family long ago on Christmas Eve. There were six of them, the man with his great brown beard, his wife, two daughters and two sons. They walked off the train and hired a young man and his wagon to take them to their homestead. Whatever they owned they carried with them in large cloth bags.
It was not a long wagon ride, about forty-five minutes. It was a fine spring day, cool, but with plenty of sunshine and blue sky. The prairie spread for miles all around them. Finally the driver pulled his two black horses to a stop. He pointed to a farmhouse a half-mile away across the fields.

“That is Mister Pishsky’s place. It is his job to help you newcomers to find your land and get off to a decent start. I must go on. I have other errands to run and tomorrow is Christmas Day.”

“Can’t you take us up to his door?” asked the mother. “There is a good wagon track there.”

“I have other errands to run. I am late.”

The father grunted and jumped down off the wagon. He helped his wife and children down. Then he gave the driver three coins. “Thank you,” he said. The driver nodded and shook the reins. He wheeled the wagon in a circle and headed back to town.
The family began to walk up the wagon track towards the farmhouse. The bags were heavy. Every now and then they stopped to rest.

“I am thirsty, Papa,” said one of the young boys.

“At the farmhouse there will be a good well.”

“But how much longer will it take us? The farmhouse is so very far away.”

“No, no. It is not so far. Come. Let us go a little bit further and then we will rest again. It is a wonderful day for walking. I thank God.”

They all picked up their bundles and started forward along the wagon track once again. Suddenly the sunlight vanished as if the sun had set. Great black clouds filled the sky and a wind slashed across the fields. It began to hail and then it began to snow. The family crouched down in the wagon track and pulled their bags over their heads.
Soon the wind was blowing so fast and furiously the air was completely white. The father stretched out his hand and could not see his fingers. The temperature dropped and dropped. The children began to shiver.

“Come,” said the father standing up. “We will be warmer if we walk.”

The family tried to walk but they slipped and staggered and grew confused.

“This is the way we should go.”

“No. This way.”

“You are both wrong. The farmhouse is in this direction.”

Finally the father and mother made everyone sit down.

“You father will go ahead to the farmhouse and bring back help,” said the mother. “And I will stay with you children.”

“Papa, will you be all right?” cried one of the daughters.

The father’s beard was covered in frost. “Of course. The house is only a little ways. I will be back in no time. I will take big steps.”

“Wait!”

The mother held out a long spool of string. “Hold onto one end of this. I will let the spool unwind as you walk. Then you will be able to find us again in the storm.”

So the father wrapped several lengths of string around one of his hands and began to walk forward. He could just see the ruts of the wagon track and he followed them, his head down. The wind shoved and pushed and tried to knock him down. His face and his fingers began to freeze. He would not stop. The string played out behind him as if he were a fish on a line. The thought made him laugh out loud but snow filled his mouth and he did not laugh again.

He lost all sense of time as he trudged forward. The blizzard howled in his ears. There was nothing but white. He could not see the track anymore but he could feel the outline of one of the ruts and he kept his right foot in it and kept on. The string kept unwinding.

He grew colder and colder. It became increasingly difficult to walk since the wind had shifted around in front of him and kept pushing him back. His breath came in rasps. Only the thought of his wife and children freezing to death kept him going. He fell once and got up. Fell again and got up. Fell a third time and sat there a while, stupefied. Then he hurled himself to his feet with a roar and lurched forward once more.

He counted to one thousand once, twice, three, four times. Still he did not reach the farmhouse. His steps grew shorter and shorter and he walked more and more slowly. Perhaps I have walked past the farmhouse, he thought. Perhaps I have missed it in the storm. I should turn back.

No, do not turn back, a voice inside him said.

I must. I have walked past the farmhouse.

Do not turn back.

I must.

He was still arguing with himself when suddenly the string became rigid. He tugged but there was no more of it. If he dropped the end of the string and went forward he might never find his family again even if he did find the farmhouse. He stood still for several minutes while the wind chilled him to the bone.

I cannot go any further, he thought. I cannot let go of the string. I can either stay here and die or go back and die with my family. My God, there is nothing more I can do.

He turned around, fell, got up, and began wrapping the string around his hand as he walked back the way he had come. He would take them all in his arms, he would hug them and kiss them and say a prayer, and then the wind would cover them with a blanket of snow and they would fall asleep. It would not take long. He kept his head down and put one foot in front of another. They were like blocks of ice.

Suddenly a bird sang. A beautiful high sweet song that it repeated again and again. He stopped. He was certain he had imagined it. But it came once more.

It was a lark. He did not know what kind of lark for this country was new to him. But it was a lark. Small they are, he thought. Just thin bones and even thinner feathers. How is it that it has survived the storm this long? How can it sing when the storm is so brutal and blinding? As he thought all this the lark sang once again, as if sunlight had been collected in its throat and released as a sound.

A surge went through the man. My God, he prayed, if the bird can defy the storm, so can I. If the bird can choose to live despite all of this, so can I. He turned around and lurched back to the end of the string. Then he bent down, one length of string wrapped around his right hand, and began to untie the laces of his tall boots. He fought with the numbness in his fingers and the ice on the knots. But one after another he pulled the laces free.

Each was about two feet long. He tied one to the end of the string and tied the second lace to the first. Then he stood up and looked through the frost on his eyelashes into the white of the storm. He took one step. Another step. A third and fourth. He reached the end of the laces. My God, I am not done yet, he said between his blue lips. He stretched out his left hand as far as he could into the driving snow. And he touched a wall.

Wood it was. He scratched with his fingers. Wood nailed and painted. He tied the end of the lace firmly to a belt loop on his pants. Then he leaned forward and hammered on the wall with both his fists.

“What is it? Who is it? What are you doing out in this storm?” A small man rushed around the corner of his house with an iron poker in his hand. He stopped dead when he saw the bearded man leaning against the wall of the house covered in snow and ice.

“My family is caught in the storm,” the bearded man rasped. “Help me get back to them.”

The small man got his wagon out of the barn and harnessed one of his horses to the front of it. The bearded man rolled up the string as they drove into the storm and they found the family huddled up under their bags, wearing all the clothing they had, white-skinned and half-dead. They got them into the wagon and followed their own tracks back to the house before the blizzard filled them in. The family staggered inside and sat in front of a roaring fire where the small man’s wife and children gave them dry clothes to wear and topped them up with hot tea and brought them back to life. The Christmas tree gliitered with warm lights and at the top, instead of a star or an angel, there was a paper bird one of the children had made in school.

For years afterwards people would come up to the bearded man’s homestead in dry and dusty weather. They might ask for directions or a drink of water. They would look at the sign over the front door.

“Most people put up paintings of eagles and hawks when it comes to birds,” they would say. “Or paintings of deer or bear or a wolf if they want a strong animal.”

“Why a meadowlark?” they would ask. “Why that?”