The Apocrypha and Why I Read It

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The Apocrypha and Why I Read It

by

Phoenix Hocking

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the books of the Apocrypha, I’ll start with a smattering of information.

The Apocrypha are books that are included in Catholic Bibles, but are not included in Protestant Bibles. For non-Catholics, the books are considered useful for “examples of life and instruction of manners, but not for doctrine.”

Swiss reformers declared in 1530, “We do not despise Judith, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the last two books of Esdras, the three books of Maccabees, and the Additions to Daniel; but we do not allow them divine authority with the others.”

The Catholic church included the books at the Council of Trent in 1546. Protestant leaders had their doubts. Even Martin Luther did not see them as canonical, but then, he had doubts about four books in the New Testament as well: Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. After his death, those books were kept in Protestant Bibles, but the Apocryphal books were not.

There are 17 books in the Apocrypha. Some are found in ancient Greek Bibles (called the Septuagint), the Latin Vulgate Bibles, the Douay English Version, some Russian Bibles, and some verses are included in the King James Version.

You may be familiar with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The tradition of lighting the candles for eight days comes from the books of the Maccabees, which are found in the Apocrypha. In this miracle, God has allowed the oil to light the holy lamps to burn for eight days when it should only have lasted one day.

In addition many passages with which you are already familiar are either echoed in the Apocrypha or seem to have been written by the same hand.

“I will sing to my God a new song:

O Lord, you are great and glorious,

wonderful in strength, invincible.

Let all your creatures serve you,

for you spoke, and they were made.

You sent forth your spirit, and it formed them;

there is none that can resist your voice.”

Judith 16:13,14

And see how these verses from the Old Testament, The Apocrypha, and the New Testament flow seamlessly into each other:

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostril the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

“But now, O Lord,

You are our Father;

We are the clay, and You our potter;

And all we are the work of Your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

“A potter kneads the soft earth

and laboriously molds each vessel for our service,

fashioning out of the same clay

both vessels that serve clean uses

and those for contrary uses,

making all alike;

but which shall be the use of each of them

the worker in clay decides.” (The Wisdom of Solomon 15:7)

“Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and for another dishonor?” (Romans 9:21)

Many of our Christian hymns draw upon passages in the Apocrypha to bring belief to life. For example, the hymn you may know as “Now thank we all our God,” and was written by Pastor Martin Rinkart about 1636, and is dependent upon Luther’s translation of Sirach 50:22-24.

Now thank we all our God

With heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done,

In whom his world rejoices…”

Some of our most common expressions and proverbs have come from the Apocrypha. “A good name endures forever,” and “You can’t touch pitch without being defiled” are derived from Sirach 41:13 and 13:1. And “To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Sirach 1:14)

So, why bother? If these books are not “authorized,” nor considered canonical, why do I read them? I read them because I find them to be rich in poetry, in valuable life lessons, and in history. They broaden my understanding of the Bible and the times in which they were written. Where sometimes I find the Bible itself to be a hard read, I find the Apocrypha an easier path to my understanding.

Many of the tales in the Apocrypha are simply entertaining, but with moral messages attached. Some might well have been included in Ecclesiastes, or with the Psalms. I am particularly fond of the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach). The stories of Esther and Judith in the Bible are continued in the Apocrypha with additional information. The Prayer of Azariah is an addition to the Book of Daniel, and Christians will recognize the cadence in “Bless the Lord…sing praises to Him and highly exalt Him forever.”

And the refrain of “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever,” is continued at the end of Sirach.

“Give thanks to the God of praises,

for his mercy endures forever.

Give thanks to the guardian of Israel

for his mercy endures forever.

Give thanks to him who formed all things,

for his mercy endures forever…”

Speaking of Daniel, the story of Susanna appears as Chapter 13 of the Greek version of Daniel. It tells the tale of a comely young woman who is beset upon by wicked elders who threaten her with disgrace should she not do their bidding. Daniel, of course, is the hero who saves her and unmasks the elder’s evil intent.

Later, in Chapter 14, called Bel and the Dragon, Daniel exposes the fraud of the priests of Bel, and find Daniel in the lion’s den, but this time for six days. The author here was ridiculing the Babylonian myth of creation, and revealing the God of Daniel as “the living God who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all living creatures.” (Daniel 14:5)

Psalm 151 was “discovered” as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1956, and is included here, as it was in the Greek Septuagint manuscripts.

The political wrangling over which books to include and which not, it seems to me, have deprived us of a rich and absorbing adjunct to the Bible we already know and love.

To quote from the Prayer of Azariah:

Bless the Lord, all people on earth;

Sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever!”

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What Rafael Wrote

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What Rafael Wrote

by

Phoenix Hocking

You knew him, didn’t you?” the reporter asked.

I swirled the highball around, making the ice tinkle merrily against the glass. I took a sip. “Yes,” I answered. “I knew him.”

“How did you meet?”

“He was a member of my writer’s group,” I said. “I belonged to a group that met on Thursday nights. It was a critique group, so we each brought something to share and the other members of the group gave their opinions on what you wrote. Corrected grammar and punctuation, tense and point of view, that sort of thing.”

The reporter leaned forward. “And what did he write?”

I gave a shrug. “Well, in the beginning it was pretty mundane stuff, but as he got to know us, his work got …,” I paused. “well, it got sort of …odd.”

“Odd how?”

“His writing took a sinister turn,” I said. “Creepy. Yes, that’s the word. Creepy.”

It was terribly uncomfortable talking like this, especially to the press. I mean, I understood, of course. Everyone wanted to know what Rafael was like, but the truth was, we only saw the person he wanted us to see. We never really knew what he was capable of, though I suppose he tried to warn us, in his own way.

I put my drink on the table for George to collect when he next came around. “I don’t think I want to talk about him any more,” I said, standing up. I walked away. I heard the reporter calling after me, but I didn’t stop. Just talking about Rafael gave me a queasy feeling in my stomach, and I just wanted to get home.

The night was chilly when I left the Gentleman’s Club, so I wrapped my cloak a little more snugly around my shoulders as I prepared to walk home. As much as I wanted to put Rafael out of my mind, I couldn’t shake my image of the man, lying on the gurney, the needle in his arm, staring straight into my eyes.

I shook my head and tried to banish him from my thoughts, but to no avail. He simply would not go away.

He seemed a personable young man at the time, and our small group welcomed him into our circle. His later writing was taut, exceptional, atmospheric. He drew you into his stories until you felt as though you were part of them. His early work, however, was not.

In the beginning, his writing was, as I told the reporter, fairly mundane. He wrote a simple short story that was good, but lacked a certain something, as if he was trying too hard. His sentences were long and convoluted, with big words that he thought would make him sound more intellectual than he really was.

One evening, during the critique period, someone (I think it might have been Arthur, though I could be mistaken about that) told him, “Your writing sounds too much like you’re trying to be a writer. Ease up on the big words and just tell the tale.”

“Well,” Rafael answered, “I do have this one story I’d like to tell, but I’m afraid nobody will like it. It’s a little dark.”

We encouraged him to bring it to the next meeting, two weeks hence, and let us decide.

A little dark turned out to be an understatement. His story was spine-chillingly gruesome without being graphic, dark and sinister. We were mesmerized, and I, for one, was a little revolted.

It was the story of a woman who killed those who tormented her, then chopped up their bodies in the butcher shop where she worked, and fed the result to her customers.

It turned my stomach, it did. In fact, it makes me a little sick to think of it, even now.

No one in our group had any inkling that what he wrote might be in the slightest bit true.

I mean, really. Why on earth would a murderer write about his exploits like that? It made no sense, so of course we didn’t believe it. We wrote fiction in our little group, so we made suggestions that we thought would make his writing even better. We corrected his grammar, because English was not his first language. We corrected his spelling, his point of view, and other elements of his style.

And, because his story made us uncomfortable, we made jokes. We gave suggestions on how to serve human meat chili. With corn bread, or crackers? We laughed about serving it with shredded cheese and “a nice Chianti.” Some of our discussions were quite lively, and we laughed a lot.

None of us had any idea that our suggestions were being taken to heart, so to speak.

Rafael had been with us for about six months when he began to miss meetings. He was busy, he said. He was thinking about moving to Los Angeles, he said. He lost his job and was having trouble finding another, he said.

And then, he disappeared. With no word to any of us, he simply stopped coming. To tell you the truth, I was just as happy that he was gone. His story had become so dark, and the murders more and more gruesome, that I had begun to dread attending the meetings.

About six weeks or so later, I had a business meeting in Los Angeles. It was lunch time, so a few of my colleagues and I decided to eat at a local sandwich shop that came highly recommended.

There were four or five of us, as I recall, and we were busy talking “shop” when the server came to take our orders. Imagine my surprise when I saw that our server was none other than Rafael!

He seemed pleased to see me, but when I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, he lifted his eyebrows and said pointedly, “Perhaps you might be happier with the seafood salad.”

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembering his stories. Surely he wasn’t actually murdering people and serving them up in sandwiches. Surely not!

Was he?

I had the seafood salad, but two of my colleagues had the pulled pork sandwich, which they proclaimed the best they had ever eaten.

That night, in the hotel room, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. The thought that Rafael’s story might have a hint of truth bothered me so much that I got up. I turned on the light in order to read the book I had brought, but I couldn’t concentrate. It was far too late for room service, but there was an in-room coffee pot, so I made myself a cup of coffee.

As I sat there, trying to decide what to do, if anything, there was a knock on the door.

Puzzled, I peered through the security hole and was surprised to see Rafael standing there.

I opened the door, God alone knows why.

“How are you?” he said, all smiles. “I was so surprised to see you today. Are you still writing?” He made himself comfortable in one of the easy chairs. “I miss the group.”

We had chatted amiably for a while, when suddenly I asked, “Why didn’t you want me to order the pulled pork?”

He looked startled, then smiled at me with wide-eyed innocence. “The pork? I just thought the seafood was a better choice, of course.”

“Nothing more?”

His countenance seemed practiced puzzlement. “More?” Then he laughed. “Oh, that! Well, one can’t be too careful, I suppose. Right?”

I paced the room for a while after he left then picked up the phone and dialed the police. When they arrived, I told them what I knew about Rafael. I shared what I remembered of what Rafael wrote. They thanked me, and left.

Rafael was arrested the next day. He protested his innocence, of course. He fought in court, long and hard, but to no avail. He was sentenced to death for the murders of seven people who had disappeared over the years. Seven people. Seven!

It was quite chilly by the time I arrived home from the Gentleman’s Club. I had almost managed to banish Rafael from my mind and my conscience. It was just a brisk Autumn night, that was all.

I stopped at the liquor store on the way home. The street was quiet. There was practically no traffic, and I paused outside the store. The leaves fell silently to the sidewalk. I picked one up and held it, then crushed it as I closed my fist around it.

I got a sudden picture of Rafael, lying on the gurney, a needle in his arm, looking straight into my eyes. In his final moment, he mouthed, “I know.”

Then he was dead.

The newsman came by and filled the kiosk with the late evening edition of the paper. The headlines screamed of yet another young boy who had gone missing. I shook my head sadly.

I went into the store and made my purchase, then went home to my little apartment above my butcher shop. I took off my cloak and hung it in the closet. Took a box of oyster crackers from the cupboard and placed it by the Chianti from the liquor store on the kitchen counter.

I went down the back stairs into my shop and opened the door to the walk-in refrigerator.

Inside, the body of a young boy lay waiting.

As I took up my knife, I paused, then raised it in a sort of salute.

“For you, Rafael,” I said solemnly. “For you.”

Then, I got to work.

The End

The Author (or The Bible, Simplified)

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The Author

(or The Bible, Simplified)

by

Phoenix Hocking

Once upon a time, in a place not so very far away, there lived an Author. Now, this Author loved to create things, so He created a vast universe and filled it with stars and moons, asteroids and planets.

This is the Story of just one of those planets. We call it Earth.

In the beginning, there was no beginning, just as there will be no end, at the end. Earth was nothing more than an idea in the Mind of the Author. But what an idea! It took shape slowly, mostly water to start, but later He added land and trees and flowers. But it still needed something, so the Author added living creatures, birds and elephants and aardvarks and sharks.

But still, something was missing. So the Author created a creature much like Himself, and called it Man.

Every good story must have a protagonist, so the Author created two creatures, male and female. We call them Adam and Eve. But every good story must also have an antagonist, so the Author created the serpent.

Every author knows that once a story is started, it sometimes takes on a life of its own, and that is what happened on Earth. Man was deceived by the serpent into thinking they were God, and a long stretch of battles between the various protagonists and the antagonist began.

But, did you notice that I used the plural in naming the protagonists and the singular in naming the antagonist? That is because the protagonists change throughout the millennium, but though the antagonist changes names, he remains the same. We call him satan.

Drama. Every good story has drama. This particular drama takes place in what we now call the Middle East. Other stories were written in other parts of Earth, but we shall concern ourselves with just this one.

To continue, after a while, the Author decided that Man was really messing up His creation. He wasn’t taking care of it at all. The Author had written Earth to be a beautiful place, and Man began to treat it like a trash heap, and each other like garbage. It was time to sweep it all away, and start over.

But the Author rather liked His creation Man. So, He looked around and spotted Noah and Noah’s family. He liked what He saw. He spoke with Noah and directed him to build an ark so that he and his family and the creatures of the Earth would be spared.

Noah complied, though his neighbors thought he was crazy. A flood covered the whole earth, and Noah cried to see his friends and neighbors washed away.

After the flood, Noah and his family repopulated the Earth. The Author was sorry He had destroyed everything, and vowed to never to it again. He even created a rainbow to remind Man of His promise. Sometimes later, though, He was sorry He had ever made that promise, because it seemed as though Man hadn’t learned a darn thing. They continued to treat Earth like a trash heap, and each other like garbage.

Protagonists came and went. The Author was particularly fond of David, and of Ruth, Samson, and Isaac. The Author filled His Book with stories of hate and anger, heroism and courage, betrayal and death, but also with kindness and with love. Often Man would stumble and fall, and fail. The Author was always willing to give Man a second chance to get it right, and a third, and a fourth, and more, if need be. He wasn’t willing that any should perish.

The Author tried in many ways to get Man’s attention. He sent Prophets to spread warning, begging Man to turn once again to the One who created them. Sometimes, it worked, but often, not.

Now, the Author had a Son. One day the Author and the Son were sitting around, shooting the breeze, when the Author said, “Son, I’ve got a job for You.”

“Sure,” the Son answered. “What is it?”

“I need you to go down to Earth and straighten things out.”

The Son thought for a moment, then said, “They won’t listen to me. I’ll scare them. They’re even afraid of angels, and I’m just like You.”

“So, You’ll go down as one of them,” the Author replied. “Maybe then they’ll listen to You.”

“But, You’ll be with me, right? I mean, these people can be brutal.”

“Yes, I’ll be with You, every step of the way. Except….”

“What?”

“It’s a bigger task than just being a messenger. I’ve sent messengers before and that doesn’t seem to work. I want You to die down there, and in the process, I want You to take all their sin away.”

“All of it?”

“Yes, all of it.”

“Kind of drastic, isn’t it? I mean, what if they won’t listen? What if they won’t believe?”

“You leave that to Me,” the Author said. “But here, look at this.” And He showed His Son all that He had written about His Son’s time here on Earth.

“Okay,” the Son said. “I’ll do whatever You say.”

So the Son came to Earth as a baby, born to a virgin named Mary. He grew up and began to teach about His Father, the Author of all Mankind. It didn’t end well for the Son. He made a lot of people mad, and He was crucified and died a horrible death.

Now, in many stories, this would be the end. But not in this Story. In this Story, the death of the Son was just the beginning. You see, after the Son’s earthly demise, He took a trip. He went to where the souls of the people who had never heard of Him or His Father before they died were kept, and He told them all about the Author.

Then, He came back to Earth, alive again, just so the folks here would know that He was the real deal. Many believed and were saved. And that story of redemption, forgiveness, and love has been repeated every single day since then.

The Author had already written the ending of the Book, but as every author knows, you can’t just write a beginning and an ending with no middle. So the Author wrote a middle.

New protagonists came and went: Mary and Martha, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley, George Fox and Margaret Fell, John Newton, Billy Graham, C. S. Lewis, and many, many others. The Author created many characters that lived their lives in small towns and villages that nobody ever heard of, but were just as important as the big names.

We haven’t reached the end of the Book yet. We’re still somewhere in the middle. But the Author keeps writing, keeps creating, keeps telling the Story. And somehow, knowing I’m a part of the Author’s Story makes my little story worthwhile.

Through the Open Gate

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Through The Open Gate

by

Phoenix Hocking

She was cold.

She was wet.

She was hungry, tired, and sore.

How she came to be here, wherever here was, was a mystery.

In fact, much of her circumstances seemed to be a mystery, including her own name.

She sat with her back against a tree, knowing full well that it was exactly the wrong place to wait out a thunder storm. If lightning struck the tree, she’d be fried like a piece of bacon on a Sunday morning.

Images, like photographs, came to her then: a kitchen, painted bright yellow. A chrome table. A curtain wriggled in the breeze that came in through an open window. A plate of bacon and eggs. A woman in a dress and apron.

And then the images were gone, flown away like so many of her memories.

The loud crack of nearby lightning made her jump, her hair standing up with the electricity of it. She covered her head and screamed, though the sound was swallowed up in rolling thunder, tossed about like clothes in a dryer.

Another image: standing in front of a bank of dryers. Where? Oh, of course, a laundromat. Where she would wash the baby’s diapers and clothes.

Baby? Did she have a baby then?

She wasn’t sure where the rain stopped and her tears began, but she became aware that she was crying. She just didn’t quite know why.

Where was everyone? Where was she? What was she doing here?

She closed her eyes and just listened to the rain as it pelted the ground beside her, felt the drops hit her face, became aware of the decreasing intensity of the storm.

And just like that, it was over. The sky attempted to clear, scrubbed clean by the tempest. A patch of blue played hide-and-seek with the clouds. A snippet of rainbow appeared for a brief while, then receded.

She got up and shook herself. Her clothes were wet and clung to her body, showing off curves that might have been voluptuous once. Now her breasts hung to just above her navel, and her thighs rubbed against each other when she walked. Her hair, once a subdued auburn was now a yellowish gray.

Another image flashed into her mind: A man this time. Handsome. Wearing a uniform. Military maybe. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell. There was something in his face that made her put her hand to throat and catch her breath.

And then he was gone, the image fading along with the others.

Where was she? She stood uncertainly, wondering where to go. For she knew she couldn’t stay where she was. Besides, she was hungry.

How long had it been since she had eaten? She couldn’t remember. An hour, a day? Longer?

Her stomach growled loudly, and she smiled a bit. A woman’s voice. “Your stomach must think your throat’s been cut,” the voice said. “Here, have an apple to tide you over ’til dinner.”

The voice faded, along with the context.

Peering through the trees, she saw something. A house? A cave? She started towards it, whatever it was, hoping to reach it before the rain began again. For the sky was once again darkening, and low rumbles could be heard in the distance, headed in her direction like horses gone wild.

She tripped over roots and downed branches. She brushed her thinning hair back away from her face, blinked the wetness from her eyes. She became disoriented and searched frantically for whatever it was she had seen before, but there was nothing.

Nothing and no one.

Lightning struck again, and again, and again. She curled herself into a ball, put her hands over her head, and scrunched her eyes closed until all she could see was the pattern the lightning made on her eyelids.

“God!” she cried. “God, make it stop! Please make it stop!”

But the only sound she heard was the storm as it raged on around her, an insignificant bit of life on the bosom of the earth.

She made herself go away. When she was young, she could make herself disappear when Uncle Charlie came to visit. It was an old escape mechanism. One she didn’t know she still possessed.

She withdrew into her imaginary refuge: a room. Floor to ceiling book-shelves. Mahogany paneling. A warm carpet on the floor. Oil paintings on the walls. A large round table in the middle of the room, with yellow roses in a vase. On the far wall a picture window, framing the sea. A wing back chair. A footstool. A blazing fire in the fireplace. A cup of tea.

She saw herself in the room, sitting in the chair, her feet on the footstool. She was warm and dry. She was reading Anne of Green Gables. A cat… no, a dog lay beside the chair, snoring softly. She nibbled some cookies she found on the side table. Drank some tea. Looked out the picture window at whales and dolphins playing in the ocean.

She slept, or thought she did.

When she awoke, the storm was over. The sky was completely clear, though beginning to darken into dusk. With dusk came more cold. Bitter, bitter cold. She wrapped her arms around herself, though it did little good.

She shivered and her stomach growled. But she felt better, as though the storm had washed away some of her own mental cobwebs.

She still didn’t know where she was, but she remembered her name: Martha. Martha Collins.

The voice again. “Very good Martha. Now what is your address? You must know your address in case you ever get lost.”

Her name was Martha Collins. She lived at …

She couldn’t remember where she lived, so she began to cry again. How was she going to get home if she couldn’t remember her address?

Another image. A house, set back a little ways from the street. A white house with green shutters. A white picket fence, with an open gate. Yellow roses around the base of the porch. A child playing in the rain in the front yard.

“Martha! Come in the house this second before you catch your death of cold!”

The image faded again, to be replaced by another. A building, but not a home. Like a hospital, but not a hospital. Gates. Someone had left a gate open. She remembered walking out of the gate, onto the street. She followed the sidewalk. “Don’t step on a crack; you’ll break your mother’s back!”

Then she saw roses in a yard. Pretty roses. Yellow ones.

She started to walk up to the roses to smell them, when someone yelled at her. “Get out of my yard, you old biddy! Get out!”

And she had run. Well, maybe not run exactly, but she moved as fast as she was able. But she got turned around and couldn’t find her way back. And then she forgot where back was, or why she wanted to go there.

She got off the sidewalk at some point, and strolled off into the trees. The trees were pretty and she wandered around among them until the storm came.

And now, here she was, with no more notion of where she had come from or where she was going than “the man in the moon,” as her mother used to say.

She came to a clearing. She stopped and listened. She was surrounded by stones, flat ones, and upright ones. Stones with writing on them. The rain had made the stones shiny. In the distance was a sound that might have been traffic, but she wasn’t sure. In any case, that sound was all around, so she didn’t know in which direction to go.

She started to walk, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do. At least it wasn’t raining any more. But now, it was starting to get dark, and she was still cold, and wet, and hungry.

She wandered around the place with the stones, feeling as though she had been here before. She just couldn’t remember when, or why. But the place had a familiar feel to it, a feeling both comforting and sad at the same time.

She saw a bench and sat on it. Her feet hurt, so she took off her shoes. She smoothed her hair with her cold, cold hands.

She was so tired. So very, very tired.

She lay down on the bench and went to sleep.

She dreamed of the white house with the green shutters and yellow roses. The gate was closed that led into the yard. On the porch was the handsome young man, shining bright in his uniform.

He held his arms out to her and in an instant she knew exactly who she was, and who he was. She knew exactly where she was going, and where she wanted to be.

“Thomas!” she cried, opening the gate and running to his waiting arms. He embraced her and kissed her, and suddenly she felt warm, and dry, and safe.

Martha Collins sat in the dining hall of Life Everlasting Community Home, tucking into a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn.

“So, how was it this time?” her friend Walter asked.

“Not a good experience this time around,” she answered, reaching up to rub the red paddle marks on either side of her head. “I was cold and wet and hungry.” She took a bite of mashed potato. “Pretty uncomfortable, really.”

“But, did you get to die this time?”

Martha’s eyes grew moist. “Yes,” she said. “This time I died.”

Marvin leaned forward. “How long were ye dead fer?”

She smiled. “Seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds.”

“Then what?”

Martha laughed. “Then I sat up and said Where’s my dinner?

The other residents surrounding her all laughed as well.

“And was Thomas there?” Harriet asked, twisting her napkin around with her arthritic hands.

“Oh yes, Thomas is always there every time I die.” Martha put down her fork, a wistful look coming into her eyes. “Maybe one day,” she said, “I’ll get to stay dead.”

The End

In The Land of Odin

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In The Land Of Odin

by

Phoenix Hocking

I never wanted to live forever. Truly. “Living Forever,” was not on my bucket list.

Ha. Ha.

Let me explain.

My name is Walter Stone. I am eighty-five years old. I’ve been eighty-five years old for fifty years.

I live in a time when medical advancements are coming at so fast a pace, no one can keep up. There are cures for almost everything now. Almost.

I was actually kind of looking forward to dying. I wanted to see my beloved wife again, who had passed away when we were both in our seventies. I wanted to know what was on the “other side” of this earthly life. I wanted to be free of the aches and pains of old age.

When my memory started to go, I got scared. Alzheimer’s disease is a horrible thing. It robs you of your memory, of your children and grandchildren, of any joy in life, until you are nothing but a shell of your former self, sitting in some nursing home in a wheelchair because you’ve forgotten how to walk.

The very thought filled me with dread.

So when a clinical study began, asking for volunteers to test a new medication that was supposed to cure Alzheimer’s, I took the plunge.

And it worked! Lord in Heaven! It actually worked! After only three injections, my mind was as sharp and my memory as clear as when I was in my twenties or thirties. Better maybe.

No, better, definitely.

As time wore on the memories of those in the trial got better and better until we could remember every single moment of our lives, from the trauma of birth, to the pain of our first tooth, to the first day of kindergarten, to our first kiss, our first broken heart, our first paycheck, the first fight with our parents. Every single thing that had happened to us was available to us.

It was a miracle.

It was such a miracle that there was a rush to put this drug on the market. Such a rush, that long-term studies were deemed useless. It worked, so why withhold it to those who so desperately needed it?

They should have done the long term studies, for as it turns out, the drug had some unexpected side effects.

For example, it did nothing for other conditions a person might have. Diabetes, COPD, arthritis, macular degeneration, muscular sclerosis, post-polio syndrome – well, you get the picture. A person still had all the aches, pains, and conditions that he or she had before taking the drug. But, by golly, our memories were sharp!

It was only about five years into the study that researchers discovered yet another side effect to this wonder drug. The participants in the study didn’t seem to get any older. If your body was eighty-five, it stayed eighty-five. If your body was ninety, or a full hundred, your body simply stayed there.

Forever.

Or so it seems. It’s been fifty years since my eighty-fifth birthday, and I’m still eighty-five. I still have crippling rheumatoid arthritis. I’m still diabetic. I’m still in pain every day of my life. My bones ache when it rains, and my bum knee still gives out when I climb the stairs. My macular degeneration is such that I can’t read any better now than I could when the study began.

Even now that most conditions have largely been wiped out among the general population, they’re still alive and well among those of us who took the Alzheimer’s drug.

I don’t live at home any more. When the side effect of living came to the attention of the researchers, they rounded us up and put us in various nursing homes across the country.

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but quite a few.

I live in Shady Acres, just outside of Chicago. It’s a nice enough facility I suppose. My son and daughter used to come and visit, but they’ve both passed away now. It creeps out the grandkids to come see me, so they don’t bother to visit. It gets lonely talking to the same old people every day, especially after fifty years and we’ve all heard everybody’s stories a million times.

Rumors swirl around like we were in high school though.

One rumor is that some people in their thirties and forties have taken the drug, trying to stay young forever. Hmmmpf. What foolishness that is! Trust me, living forever ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Another rumor is that they’re trying to find a way to kill us without harming us. I mean, nothing violent, for that would be cruel. I’ve heard they managed to kill one old gentleman in San Francisco, but he only stayed dead for fifteen minutes. When he came back to life, he was the same age as when he had died, and still had all his attendant miseries. Only now, he was blind too.

There is talk that using the guillotine and immediate cremation might work, but so far they haven’t got a volunteer to try that. After all, what if your ashes came back together and you became alive again in your grave? I shudder to even contemplate that.

Luckily, they can’t force us. There are laws about things like that.

Of course, the use of the drug has been suspended indefinitely. I’ve heard the scientists are still working on a cure for Alzheimer’s that doesn’t have all the side effects, but so far, no luck.

Maybe that’s for the best, in the long run. At least at some point a person with Alzheimer’s will pass away and their misery will be over. For those of us who took the wonder drug, our misery lasts forever.

In Norse mythology there is a tale about a bird in the land of Odin. In Odin there is a mountain, one thousand miles square. Every million years this bird comes along and sharpens its beak on the mountain. When the mountain is finally worn away, that, to eternity, is only one single day.

From the looks of it, I may still be around when that happens.

Mercy? Or Murder?

Standard

Mercy, or Murder?

by

Phoenix Hocking

Oh, aye, she were a drinker, that one.” The old man leaned back in his chair with a chuckle. He placed his hands on his corpulent belly and drummed a little tattoo, his eyes crinkling up a little in remembrance.

He was in his early seventies, short and round. His hair, what there was left of it, was a mix of blond and gray. His eyes were red-rimmed with crying, and puffy with too little sleep. His nose bore the evidence of a lifetime of drinking alcohol, with spider veins that created a pattern that looked rather like the state of Texas, if you squinted your eyes.

The interview room was small and cold. Detective Samuel “Shady” Parker sat in a chair across from Charlie Fields, the accused. Shady was comfortable in his suit jacket and tie, though Mr. Fields seemed a little chilly, even though he was wearing a flannel shirt beneath his denim overalls.

The room was painted Dusky Gray, a fact Parker knew because his wife, Lottie, had helped pick out the color. It was a neutral shade, impersonal and unadorned, the walls broken only by one door, and the large two-way window.

Parker knew his trainee, Jimmy, was on the other side of the two-way, watching, learning, taking notes. He was a nice lad, Jimmy was. Maybe a little too nice for this line of work, Shady thought.

He returned his attention to Mr. Fields, who had fallen silent.

“And had she been drinking last night, Mr. Fields?” Shady Parker asked.

“Oh, aye. Couldn’t get the pills down her no other way.”

Mr. Fields seemed to turn his attention inward, silent again. He reached up to scratch his ear, then returned to drumming on his stomach.

Parker leaned forward across the table that separated them. “So, tell me about your wife, Mr. Fields.”

Charlie’s eyes lit up and mellowed. “Oh, me and Beulah knowed each other since grade school,” he answered. “She weren’t never perty, but then, neither was I. Mebee that’s what drew us to each other. We was both homely as a mud fence, and knowed it. Still, I usta tell her she was perty, even though we both knowed it was a lie. But she liked to hear it, so I liked to say it.”

“How long have you been married, Mr Fields?”

“Don’t call me that. I ain’t never been Mister Fields to nobody. Folks just call me Charlie.”

“Okay, Charlie,” Parker agreed. “How long have you been married?”

“Well, me and Beulah got married when she were but thirteen. That’s the way things were did back then. I were sixteen meself. I’m seventy-two now, so…” he stopped to count on his fingers. “Let me see, twenty-six, thirty-six, forty-six, fifty-six, sixty-six, that’s fifty years and add…” he counted again, “…so we was married fifty-six years. Ain’t that right? I ain’t never been too good at numbers.”

Shady smiled. “Yes, that sounds about right. That’s a long time to be married.”

“Well, back then, when we said Until death do us part, we meant it. Not like the younguns today, who may say it, but they don’t mean it. As soon as some little bump in the road comes along, they git divorced. Me and Beulah, we dint believe in divorce, even when times were hard.”

“And had the times gotten hard, Charlie?”

The old man didn’t answer for a minute, then said, “I ‘member the first time I saw her. She were sittin’ by herself in the corner of the classroom during recess. She din’t like to go out durin’ recess ’cause the other girls usta make fun of her. Her one leg was a little shorter than the other, so she warn’t no good at runnin’. And she were poor. Even more poorer than me, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

A large tear escaped from Charlie’s eye. It ran down his cheek and Shady watched in fascination as it reached the edge of Charlie’s face and dropped off onto his flannel shirt. Charlie reached into his pocket and drew out a red handkerchief. He blew his nose into it, then wiped his eyes with the edge.

“She had the bluest eyes,” Charlie said. “They was her best feature. Her eyes were like the blue you see in the sky, right after it rains. She loved the sky, loved watchin’ the clouds, and seein’ perty pitchers there, and seein’ the birds fly across it, all free. She did love the sky.”

“It sounds like you loved her very much,” the detective said softly.

“I did that,” the old man replied sadly. “I did that.”

“So, if you loved her so much, why did you kill her?”

Charlie sat up straight in his chair, eyes blazing. “Because she dint want to live no more, that’s why!”

“And why is that, Charlie? Why didn’t Beulah want to live?”

Mr. Fields leaned forward, as if being closer to the detective would make his words more truthful. “’cause she was sufferin! Ever day, she suffered. Ever day. Ever day.” More tears gathered in the old man’s eyes and fell, unchecked, some splashing onto the table.

“What did she have, Charlie?”

“I don’t know zactly. Somethin’ to do with her liver. At first she just lost weight and she were tired all the time. Her skin turned yellow and then her belly just swole up. And she hurt. She hurt ever minute of ever day. She got all confused, and sometimes she dint even seem to know who I was.”

“That must have been hard,” Shady said.

“You ever love anybody?” Charlie asked. “Somebody you’d give up yer life fer? Somebody you’d rather take their pain than let them suffer through it?”

Shady shivered as he thought of his wife and step-daughter. “Yes, Charlie,” he answered. “I have and I do.”

Charlie leaned back in his chair. “Then you’ll understand why I had to do it. She were sufferin’ and I couldn’t let her suffer no more.”

“What did you do, Charlie?”

“Well, the doctors couldn’t do nuthin’ fer her. They give her drugs that jest made her tired and loopy all the time, but she were still hurtin’. And finally, I couldn’t stand to see her like that no more.”

The old man paused, and Detective Parker waited a few moments before asking again, “What did you do?”

Charlie’s eyes were full of misery as he looked full into Shady’s face. “She dint want to live no more. She told me so. She’d cry and hang on to me and beg me to make it stop.” He covered his eyes with his work-callused hands. “So I did.”

“How did you do it?”

“I started keeping back some of her pills, just savin’ ’em, you know?”

“Which pills?”

“All of ’em!” Charlie said in a rush, eager now to get this over with. “Her pain pills and her heart pills and ever other pill the doctor gave her. I jest kept some by until I thought mebee I had enough.”

“And then?”

“Then last night, I went in and she were crying somethin’ awful. Clutching at her stomach, her face all scrunched up in pain. She begged me to make it stop, so brought out all the pills I’d saved and give ’em to her.”

“All at once?”

“No. I’d give her a few with the beer, and she’d take as many as she could, then fall asleep for a while. When she woke up, I’d give her more, with more beer. I don’t ‘member how many times. But after a while, she dint wake up no more.”

The interview room was quiet. Shady wrote something in his notepad.

“Thank you, Charlie,” he said. “The officer will take you to your cell now.”

Charlie smiled a little. “She looked right peaceful. Afterwards, you know? Right peaceful. I’ll be glad when I can go be with her.”

A uniformed officer came to escort Charlie Fields to his cell. Shady left the interview room and met with Jimmy in the observation room.

“So,” Detective Parker said, “What did you think?”

Jimmy looked shaken. “That was so sad,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose it was,” Shady said. “It’s still murder.”

Parker picked up the phone and arranged for a suicide watch to be put on Charlie Fields.

“I guess so,” Jimmy answered. “But maybe it was mercy too, you think?”

Shady shrugged. “Maybe. That’s not up to me. Or to you,” he said pointedly. “That’s up to the courts.”

“What will happen to him?”

“Hard to say. He’s old, and not in very good health himself. If he does go to jail, he probably won’t last long.”

“Do you think he’d actually kill himself?”

Shady shrugged again. “No clue,” he answered. “You can never tell about these things.”

Later that evening, Shady was home with his wife, Lottie, and his step-daughter, Keno. It was an ordinary night. Dinner, dishes, a little television. Keno put a card table up in the den.

“Hey, Dad,” she said. “How about a puzzle?”

“Sure,” Shady said.

The phone rang. Lottie picked it up, then held the receiver out. “It’s Jimmy,” she said.

Shady took the phone. “Yes?”

“He’s dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“The old man, Charlie Fields.”

“What? I thought I put him on suicide watch.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jimmy explained. “He didn’t kill himself. He just … died.”

“What do you mean, he just died?

“I had brought him his dinner and we were talking a little bit, and then he just put his hand on his chest and keeled over.”

“Christ.” Shady closed his eyes. “Did he say anything?”

“That’s the weird part,” Jimmy said. “He kind of looked toward the corner of the cell and said, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and then he fell over.”

Shady Parker shivered. “Well, call the coroner and make your report. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think … I mean, do you think maybe he just didn’t want to be separated from his wife?”

“Jimmy, just make your report and leave the philosophical stuff to the experts, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Shady hung up the phone. When he turned around, Keno was standing in front of the puzzle closet. “What kind of puzzle do you want, Dad?” she asked.

“Something with sky,” he answered. “Lots and lots of sky.”

Home for Christmas

Standard

Home for Christmas

by

Phoenix Hocking

It is Christmas in Camden, Maine. Well, almost. Christmas is still a few days away, so the streets will be heavy with locals doing holiday shopping, and tourists come for the skiing.

The roads will have been salted, so they’ll be clear. The snow hasn’t been bad yet this year, Mom says.

“Just enough to look like a postcard,” says Dad.

I can picture it in my mind. Snow just deep enough to be pretty, but not yet treacherous. The hills will be white, and the ocean a deep, rich blue. The boats will have long since been in drydock, but the harbor will still be beautiful. The statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay will look slightly forlorn, standing all alone in the park.

Whitehall Inn will be decorated to the nines, as usual. Festive wreaths will adorn each door, and the parlor will have a gigantic Christmas tree. The puzzle table will still draw visitors, and many a happy hour will be spent near the fire, chatting with new friends, and drinking a cup of tea.

The Owl and Turtle Bookstore will be doing a brisk business. Some shoppers will come in to browse and buy and leave. Others will come and stay for a cup of hot chocolate and settle in to read by the fire. Neighbors will pop in to say hello, then dash out again, intent on finding the perfect gift for whatever family member has shown up at the last minute.

At home, the kitchen will be warm and toasty, filled with the scents of Mom’s baking. Gingerbread and Snickerdoodles, Appleanna bread and Mom’s famous Country Corn Chowder, the recipe snitched from the Golden Ox in Brewster, Massachusetts.

The grandkids will hover around the kitchen, begging for a taste. “Get away with ya!” Mom will say, but she’ll be smiling when she says it. And if a small hand reaches up to snatch a cookie, she’ll pretend not to see.

“Can we go outside? Can we go sledding? Can we? Can we?” The grandkids will pipe up. The hill outside the house is perfect for sledding, and the day is long with waiting.

“Okay,” Mom will say, “but bundle up warm, you hear? Bundle up warm. I don’t need you getting sick over the holiday.”

And the kids will scurry off to bundle into sweatshirts and jackets, warm socks and boots and mittens.

“Go to the bathroom before you put all that stuff on,” Dad will admonish from his throne in the living room. He’ll be in the recliner, of course, his stockinged feet close to the fire, watching It’s A Wonderful Life on television.

Or maybe not. He might be reading. He’s a big reader, my dad is.

Every year at Hallowe’en he reads The War of the Worlds to us aloud, and we shiver and shriek every time. On Thanksgiving he’ll read the praise selections from the Psalms. On Christmas, he’ll read the nativity story from the Bible.

Somehow, even after all these years, the story never gets old. He’ll have us close our eyes and imagine the young couple, Mary and Joseph, travel weary, just looking for a place to rest. He’ll describe the clear night sky, pinpointed with a million stars, and we’ll swear we can hear the angels singing. He’ll bring the Wise Men that we’ve placed in different parts of the house just a little bit closer to the manger in the nativity set Mom has placed under the tree. The manger will be empty, waiting until Christmas Day to receive the Christ child.

Oh, and presents! With all the grandchildren, the tree will just about be hidden with all the presents! Brightly wrapped toys and games, socks and pajamas. Dad will get new slippers, a new wallet, and a new bathrobe. Mom will get perfume, and something that she unwraps, blushes, and quickly puts away. After all these years, Mom never does say what that present is.

So, it is Christmas in Camden, Maine. And this year, I’ll not be home.

Moved away, didn’t I? Moved away to be out on my own, to make my way in the world, to be independent.

It didn’t quite work out how I planned it. I was on my way to California, where it doesn’t snow, and I wouldn’t have to scrape the ice off my windshield every morning. Golden California, where jobs are hanging off the trees, ripe for the plucking. Movie stars hang out at ritzy places, and I dreamed that maybe I’d get discovered like Lana Turner did, at the soda fountain at Schwab’s drugstore.

I thought I’d make a mark on the world, do something grand, be somebody important maybe.

But that’s not what happened.

My car broke down in New Mexico, and somehow I just stayed. I met a guy. Ron is a nice man, a sweet guy. We’re getting married in the Spring, before the baby comes. I hope my family can be here.

But it’s a long way from Camden, Maine. A long way. And the only thing my parents are rich in is love. Still, I know they’ll be thinking of me.

“Miss? Miss?” A voice shakes me out of my reverie. “Can I get a refill please?”

A customer holds out his cup, and I turn around to get the coffee pot.

“Sorry,” I say, pouring. “I was a million miles away.”

“Yeah, this time of year will do that to ya.”

I catch the boss’s eye. “Say, Charlie, it’s not too busy. Can I take a quick break?”

“Sure.”

I go through the kitchen and out the back door. It’s times like this when I almost wished I smoked, but since I don’t I just wrap my sweater around me and look out onto the Sandia Mountains, its snowy nose kissing the sky. It’s a beautiful place, here. But I’m not sure it will ever feel like home.

The boss sticks his nose out the door. “Caroline, we’re getting busy. Can you come back in?”

I wipe away the tears that have escaped from my eyes and go back inside. I look around, but I don’t see anybody that wasn’t there before.

“Where?”

“Big party in the dining room. Can you take it?”

I shrug. Sure, it will keep me busy, and not thinking about home.

I stop at the doorway. Ron is standing there, talking with my dad. A woman turns around, and my eyes widen.

I shake my head because I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

“What the heck?”

It only takes me a minute to cross the room and become enfolded in the arms of my family. Mom and Dad, my sisters, my brother, nieces and nephews. They’re all there. My family. All of them!

“What are you doing here?” I stammer through my tears.

Dad tilts his head toward my husband-to-be, who is standing there grinning, eyes shining. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he says.

I look towards the door and see Charlie leaning against the opening, wiping his eyes with his apron. “Merry Christmas, Caroline,” he says huskily, then turns aside as the rest of the crew begin bringing in a Christmas feast.

Christmas in Camden, Maine has become Christmas in New Mexico. And I am reminded once more that Christmas is not about a place, or presents, or about memories of Christmases past, but about family, and about love.

This Christmas, I am home.

The End