Feliz Navidad

This year I am Joseph. No, I am not really Joseph, I am Mauricio Arenas. My wife really is Mary. Well, she’s Maria but that is close enough. Our daughter, Esperanza, gets to play the role of Jesus. Although, that doesn’t really make sense. Here I am, walking down the street like a pied piper with close to a hundred children trailing me holding candles and singing Christmas songs. We are supposed to be acting out Joseph with Mary coming into Bethlehem and looking for an inn so that Maria can give birth to baby Jesus. But here my precious Maria is, holding our three-month-old baby. We aren’t quite the ideal couple to be leading this procession.

But I know why we were chosen. I can understand how Joseph must have felt with no place to go. You see, back in June, my house was destroyed. Right outside our front window, clashes between the protestors and the police grew violent. I don’t know exactly how it happened. We could hear the fighting, the shouts, and the gunshots but I had shepherded my pregnant wife to the back of the house. We heard glass shattering and more gunshots that were very close, and then the center of that storm seemed to move further on down the street. That was when I smelled the smoke. We tried to save what we could, but that fire spread quickly in that old house and less than two hours later, I was still on our small patch of lawn wondering what I was supposed to do now while my poor wife cried in the neighbor’s arms. Three other houses were damaged, but mine was the only one to become nothing but ash.

It took us less than a week to hitchhike to Reynosa, Mexico. It then took us another month to find a way for me and my pregnant wife to cross the Rio Grande. But I have found a community that was willing to help us and take us in. I still have a long way to go before I will be a legal citizen, but my baby girl, Hope, was born here. She already is. Now, this is our first Christmas in America. We can all celebrate with joy because we have hope for a better future.

I have arrived at our destination and it is now time for me to sing:

In the name of heaven
I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife
can go no farther.

Tears come to my eyes as I hear the host sing out his response:

This is not an inn
Get on with you,
I can not open the door,
you might be a rogue.

I respond with my part:

Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in heaven
will reward you.

Back and forth we sing our parts until finally, the host opens up his doors. I sing my final line:

May the Lord reward you
for your charity,
and may the sky be filled
with happiness.

He responds with his final stanza but already the impatient kids who were trailing me start flooding into the house. The adults and older children wait as we all sing the final chorus to this Posada tradition. Soon there will be pinatas to hit, food to eat, and lots of fun and fellowship with my new community and friends. This will be a Merry Christmas celebration.

No, things are not all OK. We do not have a place of our own but instead rent a room in someone else’s already crowded house. Our immigration was not exactly legal so we are always looking over our shoulder. I don’t have steady work but do whatever day-to-day odd jobs I can find and it is barely enough to put food on the table. Esperanza has not yet learned the fine art of sleeping through the night and the lack of sleep adds tension to our already stressful life.

But we have hope. We have a community of others from here, from Mexico and many other countries who have embraced us. We have a church that has quickly become family. We have confidence that next year will be better than this. And until then, for tonight, we have a Christmas party to join. Without a doubt, this will definitely be a Feliz Navidad.

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The Christmas Song

Last summer while I was walking through Istanbul with a couple friends, I couldn’t help myself. Even though it was easily ninety degrees outside I started the Christmas Song. You know the one, “Although it has been said many times, many ways, ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to you’.” There was absolutely no way to avoid it. My Christmas senses had been triggered and they needed a release. Why is that? Because I had just walked by a vendor selling chestnuts that were being roasted on an open fire. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who had started thinking of this song. We all had to turn around and buy some. I don’t even like chestnuts. They’re OK, but the taste isn’t really my thing. I’d just as soon roast them and then feed them to the squirrels, pigeons, or whatever other random vermin (or kids) happening to be running around nearby. I am sure they would be much more appreciative of a warm snack. For me, it isn’t about the taste. It is all about the smell.

There’s actually a lot of science demonstrating that the strongest and most poignant memories are the ones triggered by smell. The Proust phenomenon states that memories triggered by smell will always be more accurate, more detailed, and accompanied by stronger emotional attachments than memories triggered by other senses. Many studies, including one I was reading by the National Institute of Health, have demonstrated the truth of this claim. They have even begun to measure just how much stronger smell related memories can be. The reason for this is because of where in the brain smells are processed and interpreted. It is right next to the areas of the brain dealing with memories and emotions. In fact, the smell actually passes through both these areas (the amygdala and hippocampus) when traveling from the nose to the brain. So in other words, there is an emotional and memory trigger begun even before you realize what it is you are smelling. You might be yawning but I think this stuff is cool.

The thing that I really love about this truth when it comes to Christmas is that there are some very unique smells I associate with the holiday season. Of course, the first and earliest scent in the season of smells is that of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. I guess technically it is more of a fall, Halloween, Thanksgiving smell. Still, it is one that tells me that the time is drawing near. In fact, I’m actually drinking one now as I sit at a Starbucks here in Antep typing away and listening to Michael Bublé. Like many memories, this one is bittersweet. It brings me back to another Starbucks on the Vestal Parkway with David Payne. Normally, his wife, son, and occasionally one or two other people would be with us but for some reason, this time it was just the two of us. He is sharing some memories that date back before I was even born and from there we move off into other deep, conversation. I’ve always respected him but in this short time together that respect grew exponentially. This will be the first Christmas his family will celebrate without him. He has finally lost a long, hard-fought battle with cancer.

Sticking with Starbucks, it is actually their version of apple cider that brings me closer to Christmastime. The very first time I had this drink I fell in love. Even though it has no caffeine, this drink has always been my favorite. Honestly, I don’t even know what it is officially called because in thought and conversation I have always referred to it as “caramel apple goodness”. Easily a decade or more back I decided I was going to try and replicate this drink on my own. This began a tradition of me experimenting and playing around with various mixtures and combinations. I would then take these creations with me both to my mom’s house and to the Hampton’s (uncle, aunt, cousins) for all our holiday celebrations. Every time I smell cinnamon and apple it brings me back to my old kitchen. Like a mad scientist, I have a large pot being held close to a boil while I add bits of lemon, caramel, cinnamon, ginger, cranberry, and nutmeg to the hot beak and skiff cider. I actually do have exact proportions written down in my closet, but I haven’t yet tried to make the stuff since moving to Turkey.

Roasting ham, pine needles, straight cinnamon, candy cane coffee, old spice, gingerbread, even stale popcorn… these are all more smells that can immediately trigger other Christmas memories. I am actually finding it hard at this point to continue to write as my headphones play on, now with Josh Groban. Just the thought of these smells is causing one memory after another wash over me. We have popcorn meant for stringing, but I am in my red footy pajamas trying to stuff it into my sister’s ear. I’m sitting at the kitchen table on Ronnie Lane with a candy cane sticking out of my coffee cup reading while at least half the family is watching It’s A Wonderful Life. (What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.) A couple days after Christmas, it is maybe three or four in the morning at our house on Stafford Ave. I’m about to go down and play a few hours of Load Runner on the Commodore 64 before anyone can tell me no. First I want to make myself some toast but the cinnamon I used didn’t have sugar mixed in. I eat it anyways. We are at my uncle’s house picking out a tree to cut. It looks perfect out in the field but when we get to the house we realize the tree is a couple of feet too tall.

There are so many beautiful memories that are born in Christmases past. What are some of yours? What new memories will be born this holiday season? I know there will be many. When you get to one of those moments where “peace on earth, goodwill to men” becomes more than just a phrase, stop. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe in deep. Smell that? What is it? You have just sealed in that memory and emotion in the best possible way.

Grandma Got Run Over

It was a dark and snowy night. I know, I know, that sounds like the winter twist of an often overused horror cliche.  So what? It really was after dark and the snow coming down was blinding. It had not been so bad when Mildred left her daughter’s house about twenty minutes before. The storm seemed to come up out of nowhere. By now she should have made it home, taken her medication, and have been well on her way to bed.

It was that medication which pushed her home in the first place. She could make it a day without her Prilosec (not comfortably), but there was no way she could skip a dose of Zestril. Her heart would not last through a loud, crazy, family Christmas without it.

So here she was, nose to the windshield, going about 20 miles an hour down the road as nervous as one could be. I know, it seems she is always going too slow and driving too cautious but just this once, I don’t blame her. Even still, it didn’t help. As if out of nowhere an eight-point buck came flying through the snow into the road. Mildred slammed on her brakes but it was too late. Her left headlight was shattered as it impacted with the deer. The car spun on the slick road, went off the edge, and slammed into a tree. Her seatbelt should have protected her, but nothing could have saved her from the branch that went through the shattered front windshield.

–     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –

“Is she coming back tonight?”

“No. She said she will sleep back at her place and then head back first thing in the morning.”

I looked out the kitchen window into the darkness outside. You could barely see the light from the garage Just a few yards away. It was only a blurry, speckled glow illuminating the heavy snow thickly blowing in an almost horizontal direction. A gust of wind rattled the entire pane.

“Well, I hope she is alright.”

Uncle Mel called over from the living room. “She has her cell phone and only has to push one for it to ring your grandpa. I’d hate to call and check in on her now in case she still is on the road. And I don’t want to face her nagging if I wait too long and wake her up later. If there’s trouble, she will call.”

“Sure hope so,” Aunt Betty said as she wiped down the candlesticks and set them back on the table. I felt a bit guilty at my irreverent comparison at how the light blue with silver trim on the candles was not quite as blue as grandma’s hair. I don’t know what she had last used to wash her wig but I didn’t have the heart to inform her of the discolorment.

The three boys, my son and his two cousins, came yelling through the kitchen and into the living room. The crash of one of those boys into the coffee table was followed by a yell of anger from Uncle Ty and laughter from Uncle Mel and grandpa. No question there who was winning. My guess, he was also the only one of the three still sober.

“I know exactly what we all had.”

Uncle Ty argued with the other two. He wanted to reset the cards back as they were but the other two were saying they just had to start over. He was outnumbered and I don’t think that was an argument he was going to win.

“Boys, upstairs.”

My sister Carol tried herding the three up and out of everyone’s way but she would have had better luck herding cats into a dog kennel. I was probably the only one to hear the front door ring. I went to it, but when I saw the red and blue flashing through the snow, I stepped outside and shut the door behind me. There were two cops standing on my porch, a taller slightly overweight man in brown hair and a lady probably an inch or two shorter than me. Both had deadly serious looks on their faces.

“What did Mike do this time?” I asked this question as I rubbed my hands trying to warm them from the biting cold wind.

The male cop turned to his partner hoping she would speak up.

“Is this the Smith residence?”

I half smiled as I answered. “One of them. I am Amy Smith.”

“Ma’am, are you related to Mildred Smith?”

A slow horror started to creep up through the cold as I answered, “Yes. She’s my grandma.”

“I am terribly sorry, ma’am. I have terrible news.”

Silence slowly descended on the house when I stepped out of the blizzard back inside a short time later. One of the men in the living room muted the game and asked what everyone was wondering.

“What is it? What happened?”

I can only imagine the look on my face as it was reflected back on me by a dozen pairs of eyes. I shook myself to work free enough thought to be able to answer.

“It’s grandma. She got run over by a reindeer.”

Nobody laughed.

Silent Night

My eyes had just shut down when a tiny voice crying out pried them back open. To my left, Joseph moaned and started to raise his head.

“Shhhh. I’ve got this. You go back to sleep.”

I kissed my husband on his shoulder as I dragged myself back up to my feet. He was already back out like a light. I made my way over to the repurposed feeding trough that was serving as my baby’s crib. I wanted to reach out and pick him up, but for a second I just stood there in wonder. This tiny miracle was jerking his fragile little arms in rhythm to a plaintive wail so soft nobody but a mother would wake to it. Nobody but me.

I still can’t believe I am a mother. It has been less than two days since. I still will find myself reaching to a belly no longer swollen. I pick him up and hum to my boy as he begins to nurse. Together we stroll out the door and into the night air. This evening seems such a contrast to the whirlwind of a night when my baby first came into the world. That night was so crazy. Now…

The stars seem especially bright tonight. These stars here in Bethlehem are the same stars I have seen a thousand times in my home of Nazareth. Mostly. Except for that one big bright one directly overhead. Where did that star come from? Will I ever get back to Nazareth? Doesn’t scripture say that this is where my boy is to be? Well, tomorrow He can be the Messiah. Tonight, he is just my precious baby.

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

They still aren’t back. Should I be worried? For about ten minutes last night, I felt honored to be trusted enough to be left alone with the care of all our sheep. Then it started to dawn on me, they get to all go see the baby those angels were talking about. They are all out having the time of their life and I am out here all by myself. Bored. Bored and… scared. I am out here all by myself with all of these sheep. What if one gets lost? How would I be able to go find it without leaving the others behind? Worse, what if a wolf or a wild dog shows up all mean and hungry? Or a lion? Or a bear? I’ve never seen either one of those, but didn’t King David kill one of each right here on these very hills? I mean, I have been practicing with a sling of my own but I am no King David.

But that baby is. That baby everybody else but me got to go see is supposed to be the Messiah. He is the Son of David. I’m just the son of Melki. Nobody really cares about me. After all, they all just ran off and left me here to get eaten by lions and bears and wolves.

Maybe when they come back I will get a chance to go down into town and see him myself. I would have to bring a gift. What gift could I give that is fit for a king? Maybe I could play him a song. I am a lot better with my drum than I am with my sling.

Silent Night, Holy Night
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia
Christ, the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Finally, we get a night to rest. Melchior has been pushing us hard the past couple days. He kept saying that he had a dream we needed to hurry away because Herod would be close behind us. I think the man worries too much. I had a dream too but in my dream, I was only warned not to go tell Herod where we had found the baby. I could tell Gaspar was just as skeptical as I was, but he was fine with rushing back. After all, he still has that pretty young wife he is eager to return to.

All the same, it is nice to be able to finally set up camp and enjoy a night of peace and quiet. I wonder what they are doing now? The child King was as cute as any year old boy would be. At that age, they are all cute. There is a wonder and a joy in their eyes as everything they discover in this world is fresh and new. But that is every child at his age. This boy didn’t seem any different or special. Of course, there was the star and the rumors about the crazy shepherds. Without those rumors, I would have doubted we had found the right house. Everything seemed so… domestic. It all seemed so normal. Is this really the child who is destined to turn our world upside down?

Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at they birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth

The night air is cold tonight, but I am still glad to have taken the long route home. I love the view from up here. You can see all the lights of Oberndorf. We just had a troupe of actors in tonight. They were supposed to have played at the church but since our organ is broken, they performed at the mayor’s house instead. The Christmas story is a familiar one but still rings music in my heart every time I hear it played or preached.

I wonder if the shepherds were on a peaceful little hill like this one when they heard the angel’s message? What would it have been like to have heard that message and then be able to go see the Christ child newly born? I have been working on a little poem. I think tonight, right here on this hill I will sit down and finish it. If I can sort it out tonight then first thing tomorrow I will give it to Herr Gruber and see if he can’t put it to music. We will need to have something for our Christmas since that organ still is not fixed. Let’s see…

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Die der Welt Heil gebracht
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt seh´n
Jesum in Menschengestalt
Jesum in Menschengestalt

Silent night? No. Not really. The guns are silent, but the troops… they’re having a party. I can’t believe this is happening. It is so surreal. Here I am, an obergefreighter sitting here in no man’s land sharing a smoke with a British corporal. Together we are watching my boys play his in football right on the ground that we were fighting and killing each other for just hours earlier.

This war had found itself a rhythm. They would barrage us and we would all take shelter in our trenches. Then they would up and run at us. We would shoot them down until they ran back into their own trenches. Then it would be our turn to have a go at the barrage and suicidal run. Back and forth both sides would take turns feeding ourselves into the meat grinder.

But not tonight. Not this Christmas. It all started when one of our divisions started making improvised candles and placing them atop their trench. The British stopped firing at that trench and it didn’t take us long to all have candles. Once their guns all went silent, so did ours. Then someone on our side started playing guitar. A few of their boys recognized the tune and joined in singing. Their words seem strange, my English is no good, but we all know the song. It is a German one, after all. Before we knew what was happening, men from both sides were climbing out of their trenches and shaking hands in the middle. So here I am. Sharing a smoke with a chap named Billy. There is something about Christmas that can bring peace even to this ugliest of war zones.

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt
Jesus die Völker der Welt

It doesn’t feel like Christmas. This is my first year ever of not being with family for the holidays. I love the view from my porch, but it just doesn’t seem right to see so many houses and buildings with no Christmas lights. And there is no snow on the ground. It is barely even cold out here. Back home about this time of the evening, we would all be piled into the car on our way home from the Christmas Eve service. What is normally a ten-minute drive will take them about thirty tonight as they meander through every culdesac and side street they can find to “ooh, aah, pretty” all the Christmas lights.

Not me anymore. A civil war fought by my neighbors to the south has sent refugees streaming over borders in their hundreds of thousands. God has called me to come and be here and do whatever I can to help. What can I possibly do that will make a difference to such insurmountable needs? I am not trained for this. I wasn’t ready for this. What can I possibly have to offer except… Him?

Silent Night, Holy Night
Mindful of mankind’s plight
The Lord in heaven on high decreed
From earthly woes, we would be freed
Jesus, God’s promise for peace
Jesus, God’s promise for peace

Let It Snow

It first happened this year on Election Day. It was the first Tuesday in November. I hate election day.

I know, I know. Most of you are thinking, “so do I.” But my reasons have nothing to do with politics. I am not here to talk about our broken electoral system or the poor choice of candidates we always seem to nominate for the top offices of our land. Well… I guess I just did talk about it. But no more. My reasons for hating election day stretch all the way back to the first time I was old enough to vote. I didn’t. Not that year.

I still can remember it like it was yesterday even though it is now more than twenty years past. I was sitting in an airport lobby waiting for the first possible flight home when I got the news. It was too late. Less than an hour earlier, after a horrifying night struggling against a traumatic brain injury sustained while playing basketball, my father had died. Those are words no eighteen-year-old kid should ever hear.

So while everyone else in America was stepping into those ballot boxes casting votes for candidates who they know will make very little difference in the long run, I was flying over our country, dazed and broken, trying to make sense of what my world had just become.

That was more than half a lifetime ago now, so it isn’t something that breaks me apart every time I think about it. Oh, there is the loss, but I am hardly the only person who has suffered tragedy. Even in my own family, I have seven other siblings, most much younger than me who did not get to enjoy as many years and memories with such a great man as my dad was. Honestly, at this point, there are years where I almost make it the whole way through the day without the thought of the anniversary coming to mind.

Even still, I never fail to be in a down mood on Election Day.  Today was no exception. It wasn’t necessarily a horrible day. My students hadn’t really didn’t behave any worse than normal. If anything, the fact that it was so cold and cloudy seemed to put a damper on everyone and I didn’t have to deal with the normal level of eager energy that comes with working with multiple classes of first and second graders. No, the classroom was pretty much normal. But I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I just wasn’t in the mood to do anything more than the minimum required to function.

I got home and sat on the couch watching… something. Oh yeah, it was an episode of the Orville. The one where that kid security officer puts herself into some simulation to prove that she is worthy of the position on the ship that she has even though she is so young and insecure. I really do like the show. It reminds me of the old Star Trek shows. But today I just wasn’t feeling it. I was restless and moody. It rained for a bit, but then it looked like it had all cleared up so I figured why not head outside and clear my head.

It was cold. It was bitter cold. Before I had made it two blocks from my house, I was wondering if this was such a good idea after all. My cheeks were turning red and I pulled my hoodie up and over to keep my ears from feeling the biting wind. It wasn’t a hard wind, but my right cheek and my nose could feel every icy gust that intermittently assaulted me. There were far more brown leaves wet and mushy in the grass and along the edges of the road than there were hangers-on in the nearly bare trees overhead. A month or two back, this would be a beautiful walk of orange and yellow, violet, red and green. Now, it is grey and brown. Cold and grey and brown.

Right about the time I reached the park and was about to circle around and head towards home, the streetlights started popping on. You would think these things would be on a timer, but they all seemed to rebel against conformity. The first one to pop on was about half a block up. Then the one I had just passed came on. It created a sudden shadow before me that, half a second later disappeared as one more light decided to join the club.

That is when it happened. I was looking up at this most recent light to turn on when I saw it. As big as my thumbnail, a snowflake played in that light as it meandered its way toward the ground. I stopped in my tracks to watch it, and then I saw the second one. Then a third. Then a fourth. Soon there were hundreds of these things gently floating down from heaven. Even the breeze had stopped to gape in awe of their beauty.

I wasn’t the only one to notice winter’s arrival. There were a couple kids who had braved the cold to play at that park. One little boy, about five years old, bundled up in blue, was standing on the platform right at the top of the slide. He threw his arms out wide and sang loud and out of key, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Then he dove head first down that slide laughing with glee all the way.

My gloomy mood could not survive this beauty and childlike glee. The rest of my walk home took me twice as long to walk. I walked that way with a smile on my face taking in the beauty of everything I saw. First that song, then another, and another, and another we are all familiar with as the soundtrack of Christmas began playing through my head. It had started. The Christmas season had arrived on what has always been one of the gloomiest days of my year.

That snowfall did not last long. Nothing turned white that evening. But it was enough. God had taken a bad and broken day and turned it into a thing of beauty. That is what Christmas is all about. For the next twenty-five days, we are going to explore the soundtrack of Christmas. Some of these songs are great. Some of them are awful. But that’s OK. That is what life is like and Christmas is all about how God stepped out of heaven and joined us in this walk of life. So, for the next few weeks, I encourage you to talk that walk with me. We will use both iconic and obscure songs to explore together the true meaning of Christmas. I will see you again tomorrow, but today… let it snow.

My Brother’s Keeper – Second Interlude (text)

Blackness.

Everywhere… everything… blackness. That was the first thing Kayeen noticed but the second followed close on its heels. He was alone. It wasn’t just that there were no people around. There was nothing. As dark as it was, somebody could have been a foot away and he wouldn’t have been able to see them. No. This darkness was more than being unaware of what was around. It was more than that. He wasn’t laying on a bed like he should have been. Kayeen reached out but there was nothing to feel. He stretched his legs out beneath him but there was no ground. There was nothing.

“Hello?”

Kayeen called out but he could not even hear his own voice. It wasn’t just that it sounded hollow. It was more than the fact that there was no echo or anything like that. His mouth had opened and he had voiced the words, but no sound had come. He tried again. Again, nothing.

Kayeen looked up and down. He turned. He placed his hand so close to his face he felt it touching his nose but still he could not see it. Kayeen began to panic.

“Is anybody there?!”

Even if somebody was, they could not have heard him. Kayeen could hear the words in his head. He even had put his hands to his throat and mouth and felt the words being formed. He had screamed the question out as loud as he could, but there was no sound. There was nothing. Nothing but the blackness.

Kayeen could feel his heart racing. He had never been so scared in his life. His eyes darted this way and that but there was nothing to see. His hands and legs stretched and kicked and reached, but there was nothing to feel. Nothing to touch.

“What is this?” Kayeen called into the silence. “Where am I?”

“Not where… when.”

Kayeen heard the response in his head even though no sound reached his ears. He turned around but still, there was nothing there. He could not pinpoint where he had heard the voice. It had simply appeared in his head.

“I haven’t brought you anywhere else. You are still exactly where you were in the cabin on the Blue Spray. But now you are there before.”

“Before what?” Kayeen asked.

“Everything. Before the beginning. Before time itself.”

The voice he heard was not his own. It could not be said that these were his own thoughts and words or even a voice like he would hear in his mind when he imagined or remembered the words of another. It was… different. It wasn’t just different in quality, timbre, or tone. It was different in kind. There was no way he could ever really explain it to another or even understand it himself. The words, the thoughts… they just were.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” Kayeen thought his response. He didn’t even bother trying to form the words. There was no point.

“The beginning.”

Something turned Kayeen around. But that doesn’t explain it right. He wasn’t being turned so much as re-positioned. There were no hands. There was no sense of touch at all. Something, somehow, had moved him a bit to the right and tilted him upward.

Then there was nothing again. Kayeen had not even realized that he had felt some… presence… until it was gone again, but that voice, that presence, had brought calm with it. It had brought peace, and now that it was gone the panic was beginning to rise up again. The darkness, the nothingness, threatened to overwhelm him…

“Let there be light.”

The voice seemed much louder than it had before. This time it didn’t seem to be speaking to him in his mind. No, he had actually heard it shouting a command into the darkness. That voice carried so much authority that Kayeen looked down at his hands and truly believed that they would be glowing. It was almost a disappointment to find out that everything was still just as dark as it had been a moment before. Then he saw it. Directly ahead was there a tiny pinprick of light.

“There it is.” He heard the voice say.

“What is it?”

“Everything that is. It is all of time. It is all of space. Every star, moon, and planet. The air you breath, the sounds you hear, every animal and bird and creature of the sea, the wind and waves, the sunrises and sunsets seen by millions of lovers, all of the laughter and tears of ten thousand generations, the wars, the nations, the love, the pain and so much more. All of reality as you understand it has just been born and is growing even now.”

Indeed it was growing. Even during that short speech, the tiny dot seemed to have grown brighter. For a time there was silence as Kayeen tried to grasp what the voice that had spoken how on earth could that tiny dot of light contain… everything? Another thought followed close on its heels, just how far away was that little dot?

“It is already larger than you can begin to imagine and further away than you think but it is also heading our way at a speed you couldn’t possibly fathom.”

Kayeen thought about that for a moment. “I can imagine pretty fast.”

The voice laughed. It was not derision so much as amusement.

“What? I can.”

There was almost a smile in the words Kayeen heard next. “Your imagination is limited by your experience. You have spent your entire childhood being raised in a tiny unknown forest on the far corner of the fifth and smallest of eleven planets rotating around your below-average sized sun. You have only begun to strike out from that forest and explore a small portion of one corner of one of the continents on your planet.

“You have lived for less than two decades and have spoken to just over a hundred people total in that short life. You have read an insignificantly small fraction of all that has been written, which is but a tiny portion of all the literature yet to come. You speak only one of the hundreds of languages on your planet and although you have an above average potential for creative magic you are still but a drop in the ocean of the vastness of time and space.”

Kayeen chewed on that thought for a while. How many people had lived in the generations who had come before him? How many would live on in the years past his death? How many people were living now, eating and drinking, waking and sleeping, living and dying all over the world even now who were, and always would be, completely unaware of his existence? How much power did he, could he ever truly have? True power was to be able to speak out four words and have the universe resonate in response.

Even as he had listened and thought, that white dot continued to grow. It was now nearly as big as his thumbnail and he could almost imagine that he could visibly watch it expand larger. No, it was not his imagination. He really could see it expand and as it did so, the pace of that growth gradually increased. When that white dot was the size of his fist the Creator spoke again.

“It is wisdom to recognize your place in the world. It brings humility. Know also that among the tens of billions of people who will walk the earth. You are unique. You are special. I love you, Kayeen, my child, and you are mine.”

Until those last three words, Kayeen could literally feel the warmth and love enveloping him. But those last words reminded him of another dream on another night. Someone else, as different as night and day from the Creator had said the same thing to him. When Kayeen remembered that other, the awe and humility he felt when thinking of the Creator was gone. All that remained was jealousy. Here was a God who could speak the universe into being with four words. That was true power. Kayeen envied it.

“I belong to nobody.”

Kayeen sensed a sadness. A presence he had not even realized was there suddenly was gone. Even as that light grew larger and larger right up to the moment it enveloped him, he was all alone.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

She woke up shivering. Her body was as cold as ice. There was a blanket around her, but it was grossly inadequate to the task of giving her any warmth. Nadezha tried to force her body into stillness as she curled up as tightly as she could. It was no good. Every single exhale brought with it another shiver. The soreness throughout her body told her that she had been shaking for a while before rising to consciousness.

The blanket over her would not cover both her head and her feet when she stretched out. The tingling in her toes told her that they were the priority and she pulled the blanket down over her feet. That left her face was exposed to the icy air. Immediately, Nadezha’s nose and ears began screaming in protest. Nadezha opened her eyes. Nothing. She blinked. Still, there was nothing to see. Reluctantly she pulled one of her hands out from under her armpit and placed it in front of her face. There wasn’t even a shading of deeper blackness. She could see nothing.

“Good morning.”

The voice startled her and she scurried back under the blanket. When she curled as tightly as she could, the blanket did cover her entire body. Nadezha imagined what she must look like, a little mouse shivering under the blanket. She remained there as her fear was replaced by the silence and the cold. She could hear nothing beyond her breath and the shaking of her body against the blanket and the cold stone floor below her. Eventually, she did work up enough nerve to peak out from under the blanket.

‘I was wondering when you would wake up. You have been sleeping for days.”

At the first sound of that voice, Nadezha dropped her head back under the blanket. It wasn’t a frightening voice, rather, it sounded friendly and slightly amused.

“You do know that blanket does not hide you.”

The voice seemed to expect an answer and eventually, reluctantly Nadezha quietly answered, “Yes.”

“So why do you continue to hide?”

Nadezha thought about that for a moment. Slowly she poked her head back out of the blanket. The cold still beat at her face as she looked around. It was just as though her eyes were still shut tight. There was absolutely nothing to see.

“I can’t see you. I don’t know where you are.”

“Yes, the darkness is a problem, but what is the greater problem?”

Nadezha did not need to think before answering this time, “The cold.”

“Yes, the dark and the cold. I have given you an ability that can overcome both of these problems.”

Nadezha knew immediately what the voice was talking about.

“No.”

Her answer echoed into the darkness and for a time there was no response. “Why no?” She thought to herself. She had been taught that it was evil. She had been taught that it was an abomination. What had she done to become an abomination? She didn’t feel any different. She didn’t think she was any different. Then again, she was a murderer.

“You are not a murderer.”

The voice spoke into the darkness so quickly after her last thought that Nadezha wondered if she had voiced it out loud. The voice spoke again.

“If he had not died, where would you be?”

“I would be dead.”

“Just you?”

“No. Avril would have died as well.”

“That young man, Avril, willingly placed his life on the line to save yours, did he not?”

“He did.”

“In turn, you sacrificed something you value far more than life to save him, did you not?”

“I did.”

It was almost as if this mysterious voice was reading her mind when it prompted her to continue, “But…”

“But I killed a man.”

“Let me show you something.”

Before her, Nadezha saw the forest where the confrontation with the Drepti had taken place. With the view of a bird in a branch above, she watched as Avril and the Drepti squared off. Nadezha’s breath caught when she realized it was Davit. Twice Davit came at Avril and was thrown aside. The third time, he kicked Avril square in the chest and landed just feet from Nadezha. She watched with breath held as her image on the ground lit Davit’s face on fire. Then she was seeing what went beyond her memory. The Drepti continued moving forward through the pain, blindly trying to get at her even as the flames spread. She saw Avril jump to his feet and in one fluid motion draw his sword and take off Davit’s head.

“You did not kill him. In a way, Avril did not kill him either. Davit killed himself when he put on the cloak of the Drepti. More than that, he died when he chose to continue beyond any possible hope of success. Nadezha, my sweet child, you do not need to condemn yourself where I do not condemn you.”

At these words, Nadezha broke down and wept. She curled back into a ball under the blanket, brought her hands to her face, and sobbed. All the fear, all the condemnation, all the anxiety, and all the guilt came pouring out of her through the tears spilling from her eyes. For a time everything else was silence as the voice, the Creator, let her work through her sorrow. After what seemed like hours, the tears gradually stilled. As they did so, Nadezha noticed the cold coming back. Until then, she had not even noticed how much warmer the room had been as she wept.

“You can provide heat.”

“I can. Every day I provide that and so much more, but in this room so can you.”

“How can I light a fire when there’s nothing to burn?”

“There is something. I have created a fireplace ready to be set alight.”

Nadezha looked about almost expecting to somewhere see this fireplace. All she saw was the same darkness.

“I can’t see it.”

“No. With your eyes, you cannot. Close them. Look beyond your normal senses.”

Nadezha closed her eyes. She was about to speak again when she vaguely saw, no sensed, no… There was no way for her to describe the image growing in clarity and certainty. She just knew where the fireplace was.

“Good. Now set it ablaze.”

Nadezha reached towards the wood. There was a blinding explosion of light and heat and sound as the wood, the fireplace, and half the wall on that side of the room caught fire. From behind her, she heard a good-natured laugh. She did nothing but somehow the fire everywhere except where it should have been disappeared.

“Right aim, but we definitely need to work on that control. Here try this…”

Nadezha turned to see a man about the age of her father but with older eyes and a younger, more innocent smile looking at her. This man seemed to have a radiance of his own and Nadezha wondered how the room could have been so dark if he had been there the whole time. In this man’s right hand, held between thumb and forefinger, was a small twig.

“Try lighting this.”

“But I’ll burn you.”

That smile came back. “I am not too worried about that.”

Nadezha tried to create the smallest flame she possibly could. A tiny wisp of smoke appeared on the end of the twig.

“A little more.”

The twig, the hand, and half the Creator’s forearm burst into flame. He simply smiled and the flame somehow seemed to be swallowed up into the palm of his hand. Then he pinched his fingers back together and a new, different twig, was there.

“Try again.”

She did try again, and again, and again. Over and over she was creating either too much or too little flame. Occasionally she would do it just right but then the next time, it was off again. When she finally was able to create on the twigs a candle sized flame three times in a row the Creator suddenly disappeared. On the ground near where he had been was a large row of different sized sticks and twigs and even some twine.

His voice spoke into the room. “Now that you have learned control, practice turning these to ash without creating a flame. When you feel you are ready, wake up. Your friends have need of you. Nadezha, even though you do not always see me, I am always near.”

Nadezha set to work.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 12 (text)

The others were all sitting and waiting when Kayeen came limping into the officer’s cabin. The table looked empty with only Sagami, Tiev, and Damyan seated. The last time Kayeen was in this room, there were eight others with him. The last time…

“First thing’s first,” Kayeen said. “What have you done with that boy?”

Sagami answered, “He is in the hold, along with Varlam, the guy who shot Foglaid.”

“What is the normal punishment for mutiny?”

Tiev answered this time, “There’s a plank, sir. We chain their hands together, put weights on their feet, then make them walk off the side of the ship.”

“Sound’s perfect. I am sure the whole crew is supposed to watch the spectacle?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Make sure Yashin gets a front row view. Did any of the swordsmen who attacked survive?”

“No, sir,” Tiev said.

“Too bad. Two traitors are not enough. Draw lots among those who have refused to join. One officer and two crewmen will get the privilege of joining the show. Have them go first, then Varlam, then the boy. After that, throw Yashin off the side. No plank. No weights. Just shove him off. I want his death to be a slow one.”

The other three men simply nodded. After a brief moment of silence, Kayeen turned to Damyan.

“How is Foglaid?”

“I don’t know,” the Ranger answered. “I have done everything I can with my small ability to heal. Now he sleeps. He was so close to death, I don’t know if he will ever wake up. If he does, I do not know if all, or even part of his mind will wake with him. A better healer might know more. I have done what I can.”

“What are his chances of a full recovery?”

In answer, Damyan simply shrugged.

“He took an arrow for me. Thank you for trying, but if you have done what you can, then it is time to pass his care to someone else. Talk with Tiev to chose the best man for the task, teach him what he needs to do, then leave it be. It is in the Creator’s hands now.”

The other three men all caught the tone of bitterness in this last sentence, but none dared comment. Kayeen let out a long sigh and then continued, “Where are we headed?”

Between them, Tiev and Sagami told him about Buse. They pulled out a map and showed how it was cut off from adjacent lands by mountains. Individuals could cross through the many passes, but not armies. At least, not easily. They mentioned the town’s small size and mediocre port as additional reasons why only two of the smaller houses even bothered to keep a trading post there. Mostly, Buse was a simple fishing village. It wasn’t by any stretch the best port to winter in but it was unquestionably the safest.

From there, they told him the condition of the Mist and what had been done with the crew. Some of this had been told him by Damyan earlier, but hearing the report in full by the two experienced officers gave him a much better picture. Kayeen worked out a schedule with them where he could meet with the Mist’s crew a few at a time in small groups to see who could be reliably recruited.

Just when they thought they were done, Kayeen threw out a surprise question: “Do you know who I am?”

The other two men looked back at him with blank stares, but Damyan slowly, hesitantly nodded his head. When Kayeen looked at him, the Ranger quietly said, “I think I do.”

“Care to share your guess?”

“Your parents are Andrei and Yevenna?” Damyan said it as half a statement and half a question. Sagami at first started to smirk, but when he realized that the guess was right he muttered, “Flaming moah.” Tiev slightly elbowed him. Sagami put a hand to his mouth but continued to mumble one imprecation after another.

Kayeen’s next question at first seemed unrelated, “I’ve heard bits and pieces but it is hard to sift rumor from fact. Tell me true, does the Society still exist?”

When Damyan nodded yes, Sagami broke into another quiet string of curses. Next to him, Tiev was torn between his own shock at these two revelations and his desire to hear his friend’s surprising compendium of curse words. He never knew how creative Sagami could be.

Damyan ignored the two and went on, “The world thought we had all been wiped out during the Troubles. That was closer to the truth than we would like to admit, but in the decades since, we have slowly been rebuilding. There is a subterranean city underneath the old, abandoned Tsion. Right now there are probably about two hundred members living there along with about a thousand students. There are perhaps another two hundred Rangers who crisscross the world running messages and errands and also looking for young ones we can bring back to train. Then there is probably another thousand members scattered throughout the world living seemingly normal lives with no one realizing they have the Talent.”

It was clear that Sagami had done the math as “… bloody two and a half thousand burning sheep’s…” could be heard slightly clearer than the flow cursing before and after it. Tiev elbowed him again, but he still did not stop.

Kayeen asked, “So part of your job is to hunt down kids with the Talent so you can brainwash them into your Society before their neighbors might find out they’re witches and kill them, right?”

Damyan nodded. it was clear by looking that he agreed with the essence, but not the wording of Kayeen’s question.

“Was that what you were planning to do with me?”

Again, more hesitantly, he nodded.

“So slavery or death, that were to have been my choices?”

“I wouldn’t consider joining the Society anything close to slavery.”

Kayeen slammed his fists down on the table before Damyan had even finished. “My parents are still slaves to the Society. How long has it been since they were exiled, forty years? Fifty? They both still have the Talent. Neither one has used it even once in all that time. Who would know? The Society has outcast them and then forgotten all about them. Still, they follow your stupid laws. Not me! I am a slave to no man! Never!”

Again, kayeen slammed both hands down on the table. At the same time, he stood so quickly the bench toppled behind him. The other three just watched in silence as he limped out, banging his staff with each step. He slammed the door on his exit and since it bounced slightly back open, he slammed it again.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

Avril sat in silence with Gavril as the two warmed themselves by the fire they had started inside the old abandoned building just outside of town. Nadezha lay under their blankets by the wall. She could be asleep. She could be dead. Apart from the faint but steady heartbeat, there seemed to be no difference. Neither men seemed to be in the mood for conversation.

 

“What happened to her?” Gavril asked?

“I don’t know. He was attacking her when I took him from behind.

Gavril removed the makeshift bandage Avril had made on Nadezha’s wounded arm. After checking it closely he began to rewrap the bandage. “We will have to clean this better, but there is no sign of poison. Not from this wound. Did he manage any other cuts?”

“I don’t know. He never was close to her until the end. I don’t think so.”

Gavril closely examined the girl from head to toe while Avril watched and waited in anxious silence. As he was waiting, he began to realize how much his chest hurt from the White Cloak’s kick. Nothing was broken but there was going to be a sizable bruise and it did hurt a bit when he breathed in too hard.

“Nothing,” Gavril said. “She has some scrapes on her right hand, but I don’t think they came from the fight. There is only that one cut which isn’t really all that deep. She fainted, which is good because that means we can safely move her. We need to get away from here and into town as quickly as we can.”

The two of them took turns carrying her the short distance remaining. Nadezha was both short and petite but both men were pushing the point of exhaustion. The building Gavril led them to could not have arrived soon enough.

 

Over and over Avril replayed the events from three days ago. His mind went over the fight. He pushed himself to try and remember what had happened. Most importantly, he tried to reason what the assassin could have done to Nadezha while his head seemed to be exploding in flame. Avril could not even begin to guess what had happened, but nobody simply faints and then remains unconscious for days on end.

After that first day, Gavril would leave before the sun rose and not return until dinnertime. He would return bearing food for the two of them and enough to spare Avril could save some for breakfast. While Gavril was out, Avril would melt some snow collected from behind the house and give the water to Nadezha. If he tried to give her anything more than a slow steady drip, she would only start to choke. For the past two days, he had spent hours just sitting there, giving her water. He would sit there helping her drink while closely watching the almost imperceptible rising and falling of her breath.

Besides their diminutive height, Nadezha bore little resemblance to Yvenna, Avril’s mother and the only other woman he knew. Where his mother had jet black hair, Nadezha’s was the brown of rich earth. Nadezha was much lighter skinned than Yvenna and even lighter than Avril himself but still darker than both Gavril and Andrei. Yvenna had creases at her brow and on the corners of her eyes developed from years of care and the hard living of the north. Nadezha’s features seemed more delicate. Although she remained completely expressionless and unresponsive, Avril felt as though she was hiding a deep pain behind those closed eyes.

Gavril’s return in the evenings did little to liven their temporary shelter. Both men were used to solitude and comfortable with silence. Avril shared what had happened in the fight and Gavril explained why it had seemed so difficult for Avril to push the assassin. Gavril was actually surprised the boy had done as much as he had and shared some other ways Avril could counter the White Cloak’s speed, agility, and magic resistant cloak in the future. He couldn’t emphasize enough that their wisest tactic was to try and avoid them altogether. Beyond that, there was little conversation.

They sat around that small fire in silence. There was a slight whistling of the wind pushing through the patchy roof. Outside snow came down burying all tracks and covering the world in layers of white as it had been doing almost nonstop since their arrival. Occasionally a stronger gust would push against the old building stirring up a wooden rattle. Once or twice there would be a deep crunching sound as segments of the white buildup abandoned the slanted roof to crash into the piles on the ground below.

Gavril stood and stretched before laying himself against the ground a bit further from the fire. There were no blankets for the two men as Nadezha was buried under both. Gavril leaned up on one elbow facing Avril who was still seated near the fire. “I will be back earlier tomorrow. Around noon. Have everything ready to go the moment I arrive. It’s time we push on.”

“Has there been news of my brother?”

Gavril gave a slight negative nod of his head before turning to lay back and closing his eyes. Almost immediately he was asleep. Avril sat for a few moments more by the fire before using his magic to fan the flame’s heat towards the rocks set there for that purpose. Those rocks would radiate that heat most of the night and combined with the snow’s insulation all would be fine until morning.

“Let her wake. Creator, if ever you’ve heard my plea, let her wake.” Avril repeated that request over and over almost as a mantra for what seemed like hours until sleep finally took him.

 

There was no sunlight when he finally returned to the land of the living. Gavril had left long since but he had built up the flame before going and the large room was still on the cool side of comfortable. Avril lay on his back for a while. The snow and wind outside had stopped but even without the distraction, and with his magic enhanced senses, he could barely hear Nadezha’s breathing. She was still in her deep sleep.

Slowly he got up and began his morning routine. He grabbed a piece of hard cheese and let it play around in his mouth as he added wood to the fire then grabbed some snow from just outside the back door. The stuff was about two feet high right at the door but more than twice that further out. There was no snow falling but the sky above was still dark and overcast. For a while, Avril simply stood there by that open door looking out at the picturesque view of the white blanketing the trees and branches in the sparse woods as far as he could see. It was so different from the misty gray of his shrouded forest and the barren openness of the frozen desert around it.

Back inside he was just finishing up repacking their few belongings when he heard the clopping of horses hooves against frozen ground stopping where the little-used trail came closest to the house. There was the crunching of multiple sets of footsteps as men continued forward and Avril was standing and watching the door when two strangers burst through it.

“Good. You’re ready.” The taller one said after a brief look around the open building. “Gavril bids you come. Quickly.”

While he was talking, the other man had walked over to Nadezha, scooped her up, and headed back out into the cold. The man who had spoken cast a nervous glance at Avril’s scabbard before the smile returned to his face and he waved Avril forward. They all plowed their way through the snow and toward a large carriage being pulled by four horses. The first man disappeared inside with Nadezha then reappeared a moment later with a large, thick pair of gloves.

“Before hopping in, would you be so kind as to put these on?” The man behind him yet uncomfortably close asked Avril. Confused, he complied and as soon as they covered his hands, the silent one grabbed his wrists in a vice-like grip and backed into the carriage leading Avril along. Once he was inside, Avril saw that Gavril was already inside. His hands were also in gloves but also bound together on his lap but he did not seem worried in the least. As the horses began to move forward again, the talker apologized for the inconvenience while his companion began wrapping another length of rope around Avril’s wrists.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

The clearing they had been moving toward for protection against the White Knife had become a camp. It seemed to have taken forever for Paeder to build a travois on which to lay his oversized and seriously injured cousin. Neither he nor his injured, exhausted new companion, Rowyh had any talent in healing. By the time they had managed to stop the blood flow from Wilhelm’s neck, the giant had lost so much blood that he looked white.

Rowyh’s cut on his back was not nearly as deep or as debilitating as it looked. Even still, the poor kid was so exhausted he fell asleep face to the ground almost the instant they had stopped moving. He remained in that position dead to the world for the remainder of the day and through the night. Paeder had covered him against the cold of the evening and checked his pulse and breathing a few times but the real concern was his cousin.

Wilhelm drifted in and out of consciousness. The wound to his neck was hot as open flame and it was clear that even breathing was painful for him. Even after Paeder was able to force him to drink, the pale complexion did not change. The only color the large man showed was a spreading deep red around the injury which showed that the infection was defeating his body’s defenses.

The camp became a deathwatch. The next day Rowyh woke and the two took turns watching and caring for Wilhelm. They did what they could but both knew that their efforts were futile. Late in that day, after multiple failed attempts, Rowyh was finally able to successfully use his farsight. That only put an end to the faint hope of outside aid. There was no one who might be able to help that could get to them in time. Wilhelm’s fate was sealed.

Paeder fought against this fate. He did everything he could. Over and over again he forced more water down his cousin’s throat. He held him as still as he could whenever Wilhelm would begin randomly thrashing out in his fevered sleep. The older man drifted into and out of consciousness but even when awake, he didn’t seem very aware of his surroundings. There was no recognition in his eyes when he would look towards the two others. It was almost a relief when, early on the fourth day, his eyes closed for the last time.

 

Rowyh left to gather some more firewood and to give Paeder some space to grieve. He did his best to resist the urge to scratch against the persistent itch along the edges of his wound on his back. The itch told him that he was healing well, but that brought more guilt than comfort. A stranger, a men he never knew and had barely had the chance to even meet had died in his place. This big blond knight had sacrificed himself to save a Mitsremi boy who had brought nothing but trouble in his wake.

He wandered aimlessly through the forest near their camp for hours returning without picking up a single stick for the fire. When he finally made his way back to their site, Paeder hadn’t moved. He was still planted in the same spot, at Wilhelm’s side, he had been when Rowyh left. The only sign of movement was the steady flow of tears from bloodshot eyes and the occasional shuddering born from silent tears.

Paeder turned to face Rowyh when he noticed him returning. With the heel of his right hand, he wiped his cheek as another tear rolled down. “Can you help?” He looked towards their gear. Rowyh saw the small spade among the other equipment and understood. Over the next couple hours, the two hollowed out a small grave for their fallen companion. Paeder dug with the spade while Rowyh used a sturdy stick as a lever to work the many larger rocks out of the chosen spot. It was well after dusk before the body was laid to rest and the ground replaced to form the familiar graveside mound. Following tradition, Wilhelm’s longsword was buried nearly to the hilt as a grave marker.

Rowyh again backed off giving him space as Paeder stood vigil at the grave. Sleep caught the Seer and carried him away. Through the night and past dawn, Paeder remained standing there, staring at that buried sword. Consciousness returned and Rowyh stretched himself awake to see Paeder still standing vigil. Once the sun was a good two inches above the horizon he finally began to stir from his spot. He looked towards Rowyh and asked with a deep and scratchy voice, “What now?”

Rowyh had been expecting the question and had already seen the answer. “North. There’s a blacksmith we must still meet along the way, but our fate lies far to the north.”