This Week on GreatHites
We have stories by:
Philip (Norval Joe) Carroll
Check out this month’s Sponsor,
Arlene Radasky and her book The Fox
This Closing Song this week Is My Hope By Molly Lewis. Find out more about her here
BY Philip (Norval Joe) Carroll
Michael climbed the dirt road that would take him over a broad tree crowded hill and back to his home. He walked slowly, even shuffled his feet, dragged the toes of his sole worn boots through the red clay of the track. He walked alongside deep scars of wagon wheels, the wheels of cannons, that hadn’t been there when he set out on this same road, years before.
Michael thought about the scars cut deeply through his soul. As well, the scars weren’t there as he set out, his heart and mind filled with purity and righteous indignation for their crusade.
He reached the broad, flat apex of the hill and slowed even further, eventually to a stop. He bent to one knee and pulled a dandy lion from the ground, the flower already turned to down. He blew the fairies off and made a wish on each he could still see as they floated off.
The familiar scene spread about him, he had played here often as a child, as far as his mother would allow him to go on his own. Fallen log forts, tree castles, the frog-troll marsh just down in the draw, all he needed for adventure, he and his playmate.
His playmate, the companion of a child, the ache in the heart of a youth, and the desire of an adult, all in one consistent fixture in his life. She had always been his dearest friend, Katherine.
She had stood stoically on the porch of her home as he marched past; she, grimly with her hands at her sides, fists clenched, the only outward sign of her inner turmoil. He walked past unaware of her disapproval, his head high and proud, marching to certain victory. He turned quickly to look at her as he passed, and, seeing her shining eyes return his gaze, he blew her a kiss.
Her home was not far from where he knelt, around the bend, just steps away. He could rise and run, now, and be there in a moment to encircle her with his arms, to bury his face in her long chestnut hair, and never let her go again. Would she have him back, though, after where he had been, after what he had done? Was she even there to pronounce her acceptance or rejection, her pleasure or disgust, her absolution or condemnation? As long as he remained where he was, just moments away, she could be there, she could be his, she could still love him. Once he rounded the bend all the potentials could only be was what truly was.
He bowed his head and prayed. He shed bitter tears as he cried out to his God to assuage his pain. He cried for his lost companions, good men who fought bravely for what they believed. He cried for his people and their lost way of life. He cried mostly for himself, for his lost innocence, the loss of ideals and virtue and hope.
He got to his feet and continued to the home of his betrothed, of his Katherine.
He could see the house in the distance as he rounded a wide bend, though, in the early evening haze it was difficult to see details clearly. As he came closer the outline of someone sitting in a chair. on the front porch became defined. At first she didn’t move, appearing small, dwarfed by the size of the plantation style house with broad open windows and tall two story columns. As he came within a stones throw of the home, she must have heard his footsteps as he dragged his feet through through the dust of the road.
She stood suddenly, arms at her sides, like so many years before, but with her hands open wide, expectantly, hopefully, ready to grasp.
He stopped on the track, and waited for the woman to speak. She didn’t. Instead, her face at once a portrait of hopeful anticipation, the realization of long painful endurance, changed. Sadness like the tide of the Mississippi washed across her face. Dread, a thousand bushels of it, piled on her shoulders and bowed her back.
A weak, sad, smile returned. She ran to him.
His own advance toward her was slowed by the inertia of his confusion. The kaleidoscope of her emotions in that instant before she moved had stunned him. As he finally stepped toward this woman of the present, she reached him, wrapped her body around him. He closed his eyes and felt the girl of his past; warm, breathing, alive.
She shook in his arms and sobbed, great heaving gasps and moans as if releasing five years of anguish, frustration and worry.
Time stopped for Michael. Only the heavy, hot, air of the summer night, the sound of Katherine’s diminishing sobs, and the call of the night birds as they began their hunt for food, made him aware that he was anywhere other than in his dream. When they finally separated from their embrace, Katherine walked him to the porch, and they sat on the long wicker seat. Inside the house was dark and silent.
“Your family, your father,” Michael began to ask, but stopped. It was obvious nobody else was around, and he didn’t know how to ask the reason.
“You stopped writing,” Katherine said, the question apparent in the pleading tone of her voice. The accusation Michael expected was not.
“I couldn’t,” he began, but immediately lost his momentum. He couldn’t speak now, what he couldn’t write then. He looked at her and opened and closed mouth several times, but the words were not there. He looked away, bent forward, and rested his elbows on his knees. He looked at the floor, “I couldn’t.”
He looked at the floorboards of the porch. Here and there one warped and pulled up and away from the rest. The white paint dirty and peeling, in need of repairs, years past due.
“I’ll always remember this porch. What were we, eight years old?” Michael reminisced. “We were loading a small wagon, said we were going to the gold fields of California. Your Father said, ‘you don’t need to go to California, we have all the gold we need right here. It’s white and soft, but it’s still worth gold to us’. He stood right here and waved his hand to show all the fields.”
“Your Father,” Michael said again, and stopped just as before.
Katherine said, “my father thought his good life would never end. ‘This is the best time to be alive,’ he would often say, ‘nowhere to go but up.’ They did end, though. Ended hard,” her voice broke off. She picked up the torn lace edging of her dress. She dropped it and looked up at the sky, blinking back tears, and a delicate sniff.
“He was already sick, when the northerners came,” she continued, eventually. “They told all the,” she paused, “all the servants they were free to leave. They didn’t have to stay, and there was great opportunity, elsewhere. Free land, free food, free gold. They all left. Some came back last year when they found out it was all lies. No land, no food, hardly even jobs for most. They grow some vegetables. We all grow a little cotton, but it’s just the few of us.”
She looked at her rough hands, red, and chafed from the labor of working alone. Her hands were unblemished and smooth when he left, never seen a days labor more demanding than needlework. Now, like Michael’s soul, they were scarred, hardened and rough.
He thought of the last letter he wrote. What he had tried to say, bearing his soul, looking for absolution, but never sent.
They looked at one another and as one said, “I killed a man.”
Again, as one, they both looked away. He spoke before his resolve to confessed weakened, “I didn’t have to kill him. And I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t know. At least that is what I’ve told myself for the last three years.”
Michael stood, walked to the edge of the porch and looked up at the starry night, arms folded tightly across his chest. “Sure, I had been in battles and fired countless times at the enemy. I don’t doubt I hit and killed my share of blue coats, but distance and the heat of battle dulls a man to the idea he is ending the life of another.”
He turned back and looked down on Katherine, his face a pale replica of the moon peeking over his shoulder. “We came upon this boy, no older than the rest of us, hiding in a barn after his troop had rushed in retreat. The guys I was with said we had to kill him. He was the enemy and he would kill us if it was the other way around.
“Katie, I could have been looking in a mirror, the young man looking back at me. Brown curly hair, green eyes, maybe that’s why the other guys wouldn’t shoot him, cause he looked too much like me. He begged me Kate. He begged me to not kill him. He even said his girl Kathy was waiting for him to come home and they were going to be married. I had my finger on the trigger, and all the men were yelling, ‘Kill ‘im, kill the damn yank.’ They grabbed me and shook me and the gun fired.”
He dropped his hands and hung his head as if the weight of the entire night sky pressed down on him. “Every night when I lay down to sleep, I hear his voice, begging me, and see his face, the shock registering in his eyes as the bullet tore his life from him. He’ll never see his Kathy again, and here I am standing with mine. What’s the difference? Why is he dead, and I’m alive?”
Katherine stood and walked to him, her face was drawn and ashen in the sliver light of the moon. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. “Why does anything happen?” she asked. “My daddy died and I had just dug the grave with my own hands when a man from the north came to the house. It was sunset, just like tonight when you walked up the trail and stood there. At first, I didn’t know it was you. I… I thought you were his ghost.”
It was Katherine’s turn to walk to the edge of the porch as she gathered her thoughts. She turned back to Michael and stepped right up to him, She said, with fire in her voice, “he said our property was forfeit for supporting the confederacy, and he was here to take it and anything else he wanted.
“He leered at me and licked his cracked, chapped lips. There was the ice cold heat of lust in his eyes and he stood tall and wide over me like a giant gorilla. He repeated he could take what he wanted and he wanted me. I was so scared, Michael, and not even my father to protect my honor. I didn’t know what to do. I said to him, ‘oh, my. Here I am all a mess, and so unladylike. You wait here and I’ll just freshen up a bit.’
“I went to the kitchen to wash my hands and face, to think of what I could do to escape. He was big and strong and would be on me in a minute if I tried to run away. Then I saw the butcher knife on the table.
“He burst in the kitchen and lunged toward me. ‘Enough of this fooling around’, he said as he grabbed at my bodice. It took no effort at all to bring that sharp knife from its hiding place in the folds of my skirt, and run it through his belly and up under his ribs. He got a silly surprised look on his face and gasped, ‘oh, oh, oh’, like an old woman. He collapsed all of a sudden and pulled the knife from my hand.”
She stopped talking, went back to the wicker bench and sat. She looked up at Michael, and said, “it took me most the night to drag that creature out to the grave I dug for Daddy. I pushed him in and covered him with dirt before I buried Daddy on top of him.”
Michael knelt at Katherine’s knee. He took her hand in both of his. He kissed it and turned his head to press it to his cheek. “Katie” he said, “I was such an innocent when I marched off five years ago, my head in the clouds, still wet behind the ears. So much has happened to both of us since then. Those simple innocent days are gone and they aren’t coming back, but if you’re still willing to have me, we can make what were able with the lives we have left.”
Katherine stood and walked to a small table close to the door. She lit an oil lamp. Its brilliant light chased the gloomy moon shadows from the porch. She looked at Michael lovingly, “You always were an optimist.”
She sat back down next to Michael and took his hand, and said, with a small smile, “I think we might still be able to have a few good years together.”
Michael agreed and kissed her as only a returning soldier could.
By Jeffrey Hite
Mike, I think that was what he told me his name was, was still rambling on about things. I didn’t mind, I was enjoying the sunshine and the brisk cool air on my face. It was nice to have some human companionship for once.
“You know, the leaves are amazing this year. It is hard to believe that this is their natural color, it is just that chlorophyll that covers it up. But without the chlorophyll they couldn’t grow. It is a wonderful symbiosis. The green helps them grow and then goes away as they get ready to hibernate for the winter, and then they show their true colors. We never knew these things when I was a kid. It was just the way things happened.” Mike continued.
This was the kind of companionship I needed. It didn’t require anything from me, all I had to do was sit here and listen, or even just sort of listen to him as he went on about this or that. It was a great friendship we had. Mike was a nice guy, as far as I knew. The truth was I knew very little about him, he almost never talked about himself, he always talked about the weather, or science or history or really anything but himself, and that suited me just fine. i didn’t really need to know about him. I liked hearing his voice, knowing that he was talking to me. It was not the voice of the computer for once, and it was not a demand that I do something.
“I love coming out here and just watching the leaves fall on the pond. The wind always blows them just right so that a few of them float out there toward the middle. It is almost like they were designed to do that . They float through the air and land gently on the surface, barely causing a ripple. The fish always come to figure out what they are, but for the most part leave them alone. They figure out quickly that they are not food and go back to what they were doing. It reminds me of that movie that Disney made, they drew cartoons to go with the music, and The Dance of The Sugarplum Fairy, the leaves came floating down landing on the gently moving stream. It was beautiful like this.”
I remembered watching that movie as a child, and thinking how much more sophisticated the graphics could have been had they had more modern technology and been able to animate it with computers. I did remember there was a newer version, but it was never very popular. Most second movies aren’t especially when they try too hard to make them better than the first one. I decided that it was better the first time around, it didn’t need to be changed.
“You know there is something about living in this day and age that has always amazed me. People don’t know each other. We don’t know our neighbors, and we are just as likely to know someone half way across the world as we are to know the guy standing in line in front of us at the grocery store. When I was younger, you could not go any where without bumping into someone you knew. And I don’t mean you had seen them before, knew that they lived next door, or where the person who bagged your groceries for you. No I mean people that knew you parents, they knew all of your brothers and sisters and would ask about how your date with the other guys sister went last night. This is a very different time we live in I tell you.”
He was right of course, I didn’t know him from Adam. I knew that he sat here on Saturday afternoons and talked to me when I came and sat next to him. I knew that he was older than me, by a great many years, or at least what seemed like a great many years to me, but to be honest I didn’t know how old he was. I knew that his name was Mike, or at least that is what I thought his name was. Now that I thought about it I can’t remember him ever telling me what his name was. Mike was not his name. It was the moniker that I had made up for him when I got back to the computer the first time I had met him. I was talking, or what past for talking with James@45west and I said that he had used me like I microphone. Some one to talk to and nothing else.
“It really was not like that in my day. But then we didn’t have the Internet. We could not just go over to our computer and talk to someone from the other side of the world. I had never spoken to someone from Australia in my entire life until a few weeks ago. And I would have never met Lisa who saved my life a few years ago when my wife died. She was there every night waiting to talk to me when I needed some one to tell me not to take her left over sleeping pills and just follow her. I probably never would have lived more than a few weeks after my wife died if I had not met her.”
He paused and I realized that he was crying. he had never told me anything about his life. And in the last two minutes he had told me his wife had died and that he had thought about committing suicide.
“I didn’t know.” It was the most inadequate thing I could have said, and yet, the only thing that I could say because there was nothing else I really didn’t know.
“I know, no one but Lisa a knew.”
He took a deep breath and regained his composure. I was looking at him no, more than looking at him I was watching him and for the first time really seeing him. He was not that old, maybe his mid fifties, his hair was grey, but his face was still young and for the most part wrinkle free. He didn’t look like he had worked in an office his whole life, but neither had he had a life of toil out in the sun. This was a man who and worked for what he had, but had never had more than he needed.
“I just don’t know. I mean I don’t even know her. I know her screen name, and she told me her name was Lisa, but how do I know that. How do I know any of it. I mean I don’t know any one any more. It is all webpages and blogs and Flashpage. I don’t know anyone. I don’t know you.” he said facing me, his eyes going wide. He breathed hard for a moment then seemed to calm down. I was about to tell him my name when he started in again, “I don’t even know who I am any more. And I just told you one of my darkest secrets. I mean all I know about you is that you are the guy that sits on the bench next to me on Saturdays. I don’t know you from Adam, you could be the son we gave up before we were married, or some person who will blog about the crazy guy in the park today. You could be anyone.” A tear ran down his face.
“Jim, my name is Jim.”
“Hello Jim, my name is Walter.” His voice was quiet but he sounded rather sad now.
“I would like to be your friend. Not in the flashpage sort of way, but your real friend.”
“Thank you Jim, I just, I just don’t know. I don’t know what my life has become.” He didn’t speak for a long time, and finally I knew that I needed to get back to work.
“Walter, hey listen. I need to get back to work, but I was thinking. Would you like to meet for dinner this evening? My treat. I come here every week, it is pretty much the only time I get out in the open, out of the office or the car or the subway or my apartment, and you made me realize how much of life I was missing. I would really like to get to know someone face to face again.”
“Yeah that would be nice.”
“Great. I will meet you here, say 6:30 or so alright? There is a great place on 5th street we can walk to it from here.”
“Ok, 6:30. Thank you Jim.”
I walked back the to office, and spent the rest of the day wondering about who we have become, not getting to know people any more, and that the same time how much broader we have become because we do have access to everyone in the world through the nets. I don’t think that even one system request was acknowledged. When 6:30 came around I was already half way to the park. I felt like a kid on a first date. I wondered how I would explain my time away to my wife but It didn’t really matter, I would find away afterward to tell her.
“Walter,” I said walking up behind him. He was still sitting in nearly the same spot on the park bench, but he didn’t respond to my call. “Walter,” I said again this time putting my hand on his shoulder. His body slumped over onto the bench, his eyes staring out over the pond. The Paramedics told me that it appeared that his heart had given out. And as odd as it may sound, I was glad that it had not been his wife’s sleeping pills.
The trip home was long. I walked most of the way instead of taking the subway, but it felt good to have the wind blowing past me. I don’t think I saw anyone. There were lots of people on the street, I just didn’t see any of them. They were all flashpage personalities to me, and I didn’t know any of them.
My wife and I spent all of that night and the next day talking, we shut off all of the outside connections until Monday morning, and got to know each other again. When I woke up Monday morning and turned it all back on, I realized that I had not missed that much, and for the first time in a long time I knew what my wife was thinking without having to check her flashpage. Thank you Walter, wherever you are.