My Last Day

Standard

My Last Day

by

Phoenix Hocking

This is the last day of my life.

Before I rise, I rub my hands over the soft sheets that cover my body, feel the warmth and weight of the blanket that protects me from this early December morning, and smile a bit at my wife’s gentle snore.

I rise carefully, so as not wake her. I pad into the bathroom and let the shower water get warm before I step in. What a blessing warm water is on a chilly morning! My wife buys some frilly scent for herself, but Old Spice for me, as it’s the scent I’ve worn since I was old enough to choose.

I dry off, rubbing the soft terrycloth on my old skin. It feels good, it feels … familiar. Comforting. And so it should.

I dress carefully, for I want to look my best today. Today of all days. I choose my clothes carefully. Everything must match or coordinate. No mismatched socks or scuffed shoes. No, today my ensemble must be flawless.

Downstairs, I take a flavored K-pod and put it in the Keurig. I don’t look at the flavor; I want to be surprised. It’s important to be surprised sometimes, even in small things. I place my favorite cup under the spout as the brown liquid pours out, and take a sniff.

Hazelnut. My favorite.

I take the cup out onto the back porch and sit for a while, enjoying the cool morning. I listen for the bobwhite’s whistle in the trees, and fancy I see a rabbit peering from under the bushes. The little bugger has been eating my radishes, but I don’t mind. All God’s creatures need to eat. And why should I care? If this is to be my last day, shouldn’t the little beast eat his fill?

I feel rather than hear my wife creep up behind me. She places her hands on my shoulders and gently kisses the top of my head.

You’re up early,” she says.

I place my hands on top of hers and turn my head for a real kiss. “It’s a beautiful morning,” I say.

“You’ve dressed already,” she says. “Are you going out?”

I am,” I answer. I groan just a little when I rise from the chair. “And you?” I ask. “What is your day like?”

Oh, the usual,” she says. “Lunch with Margaret, I think, then a swing by the library. I see you’ve finished your book. Do you want anything?”

No,” I say as I reach for my coat. “I have some in my stack yet to read.”

I kiss her gently before I leave the house. I place my hands on either side of her face, look into her eyes, and whisper, “I love you.”

She smiles and says the same.

I set out at what is, for me, a pretty good clip. I enjoy feeling my heart rate go up a little, my breath come a little faster, enjoy the feeling of life as it warms up my body and clears my mind.

The trees are especially lovely today. It is early December, and even though it is crisp out, we don’t get the changing colors of the leaves here, and that’s a shame. I’ve been in New England in the Fall and can appreciate the riot of color when the seasons change. But here in this coastal California town, we just get chilly mornings, and the leaves just turn brown and die.

But that’s all right. For a last day, it suits me fine. The trees are still beautiful, the sky overcast with a marine layer that will burn off by noon. I catch a whiff of someone’s wood burning in their fireplace. The salt tang of the sea fills me with joy.

I stop for a moment to catch my breath before I go into the restaurant. My friends are there: Bud and Tony, Rick and James, and old Harold, who never says much, but is as much a part of the group as the most vocal among us.

Marie comes by with coffee. She knows me well, as our little group has been coming here for years.

The usual?” she asks, though she knows the answer. We are, after all, creatures of habit.

No,” I answer, and her eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “I think I want eggs this morning. Fried eggs and bacon and hash browns. Maybe even biscuits and gravy.”

My goodness!” Bud exclaims. “Your doctor is going to have a conniption fit if you keep eating like that!”

I just smile, because today is the last day of my life.

Of course, they don’t know that. Why should I distress them with such knowledge? They’ll find out soon enough.

We have a leisurely breakfast and talk politics and baseball and cars like we do every morning. Once more, it feels comforting and familiar. It is my life. My ordinary life.

After breakfast, and a walk down to the harbor where I watch the fishing boats for a while, I go back home, and lay down for a bit of a nap. My wife has gone out to meet her friends and go to the library. I’ll have some time alone, and in that time, I just want to savor the quiet of the house. I listen to its beating heart: the tick of the grandfather’s clock in the hall, the rumble of the refrigerator when the motor switches on, the heater when it kicks in. My house is more alive than I am, I think.

I drift off and dream of oceans and mountains, of the children when they were small, and of my wife whom I love with all my heart.

I awaken to the sound of my wife puttering about in the kitchen. It is late afternoon, and the shadows have lengthened across the dresser. I rise and go to her, eager to see her face, her sweet, old face, and revel in listening to her tell of her day with her friends. She shows me the new books she got at the library. Something by Jodi Picoult, and the latest novel by Alexander McCall Smith. She has her favorites and I have … had … mine.

I tell her of my breakfast choice and she shakes a spoon dripping with some sauce or other in my face. “Now, you know better than that. The doctor will have your hide if your cholesterol goes up anymore.”

I’m sorry,” I say, and I am. I do not want to distress her. “I’ll be good from now on,” I promise. “Really.”

I cannot bear to make her unhappy on this day of all days. I want her to remember me with love, not that we argued when we were last together. We don’t argue, as a rule. Oh, we’ve had our disagreements in our earlier years, of course. What couple hasn’t? But we’ve long since run out of things to argue about. It makes for a much more peaceful existence. I live to make her happy, and she lives to make me happy, and so … we ARE happy. I guess maybe that’s the secret formula.

After she puts the roast in the oven, we go for a walk together. We walk hand-in-hand like we did when we were courting. Such an old-fashioned word – courting. But that’s what we did, back in the dark ages. We courted. And today, it almost seems as if we are courting again. We hold hands, and when we think no one is looking, we sneak a kiss under the oak tree down the block.

I sit in the rocking chair in my living room, with a quilt my wife made over my knees, and read for a while in the afternoon. I look around occasionally and simply appreciate the quiet and gentleness of my home. I know how lucky I am. I am blessed indeed. I’ll miss it.

The roast is exceptional, and I tell her so. The mashed potatoes are creamy and the green beans still just a little crisp. She’s made a pie for dessert.

Apple. My favorite.

We wash the dishes together. No automatic dishwasher for us, thank you. She washes, and I dry and put away. That’s the way we’ve done it for years. I see no reason why tonight should be any different.

In the evening, this last evening of my life, we turn on the telly. We don’t watch the news anymore. It’s too distressing. But we watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, murder mysteries on PBS, The Zoo on Animal Planet, and learn something new whenever we watch the Discovery channel.

I find myself nodding off in the chair when my wife pokes me gently. “You might as well go to bed,” she says.

All right,” I agree. “Are you coming?”

I’ll be along in a minute. I’ll just make sure everything is settled down here.”

I go upstairs, take off my clothes and fold them neatly on the chair. She’ll put them in the hamper later. I go into the bathroom. I brush my teeth and wash my face.

I take my evening pills.

I’m already in bed when she comes in. I watch her undress, and I appreciate seeing her body, her old, wrinkled, stretch-marked body as she shucks her clothes. She lays them on top of mine on the chair.

So,” she says, “how was your last day?”

It was beautiful,” I reply. “It was everything a last day should be.”

How long has it been, now,” she asks, “since the doctor told you that you only had six months to live?

I think back to that day in the doctor’s office when he told me I had a ticking time bomb in my chest. “Oh gosh,” I answer. “It must be six or seven years ago.”

So the doctor was wrong,” she says as she slips her flannel nightgown over her head and slides into bed beside me.

I guess he was,” I reply. “But one day, he will have been right, and on that day, I want my last day to have been perfect.”

We turn towards each other and smile.

And tomorrow?” she asks.

If I’m fortunate enough to wake up, I expect to have another splendid last day,” I answer, as I reach up and turn out the light.

She turns over and spoons up against me and as I hold her old familiar and comforting body, warm with flannel and smelling slightly of toothpaste and cold cream, I appreciate once again what a very lucky man I am.

I wrap my arms around her and whisper, “I love you,” and she says the same.

Advertisements

“The Lord was not in the wind”

Standard

1 Kings 19:11,12

The Lord was not in the wind”

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now, there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

It has been my experience that the Lord rarely shouts. He whispers, He prods, He nudges, but rarely does He shout.

Let me tell you a story. I am told it is true.

There was a man, a rather ordinary Christian man who lived a fairly ordinary life. He held a job and lived in a nice enough apartment, in a nice enough neighborhood, with his wife and two children. One evening he came home from work and was sitting down after dinner in front of the television.

He was not particularly accustomed to hearing the voice of God. He knew it happened, of course, because they talked about it in church sometimes, but it had never happened to him.

He had just taken off his shoes and settled in when he got an unexplained urge to get up, go to the store, and buy milk. He resisted the urge, because he knew they had milk in the fridge. Why should he go buy more?

But the urge would not go away. “Get up. Buy milk.”

He got up and looked in the fridge. Sure enough, there was plenty of milk, so he sat back down in front of the television.

“Get up. Buy milk.”

So he got up, put on his shoes, and told his wife he was going out to buy milk.

“Why?” she asked. “We have milk.”

“I don’t know,” he answered. Then he got in his car, went to the store, and bought milk, and bread, and peanut butter.

He put the bag on the front seat, then sat in his car, feeling rather foolish as he spoke aloud, “Well, God, I bought milk. Now what?”

He started his car and just drove. He found himself in a rather rough part of town. It was the part of town that nice, respectable people avoided, full of drug addicts, and homeless people, gangs, and crime.

He pulled off to the side of the road in front of a shabby brick tenement.

“Here.”

He could almost feel the pull towards the front door, rusty and practically falling off the hinges.

“Here? Lord, you must be kidding.”

“Here.”

So the man took the bag with the milk and the bread and the peanut butter, and walked to the door. He opened it, and his nostrils were assailed with the stench of unwashed bodies, and urine, and vomit. He stood silent for a moment, feeling more than a little foolish. He almost turned around to leave, but he felt rooted and could not move.

“Okay, God,” he said, giving in. “Just tell me where to go.”

He climbed the stairs to the third floor.

“Here.”

He stood in front of an apartment door. He heaved a great sigh, squared his shoulders, and knocked.

A woman answered the door. She was Latina, with long black hair and eyes red from weeping. “Si?”

He held out the bag. “Here,” he said. “This is for you.”

Puzzled, she took the bag, looked inside, then burst into tears.

A young boy about ten-years-old came to the door and looked in the bag. Then he too began to cry.

“Gracias, seňor,” the boy said through his tears. “The baby has had no milk for two days, and it has been longer than that for my brother and me. My father was killed a week ago, and we have no money. We just finished praying that somehow we could get milk for the baby.”

Quakers call this “being in the power of the Lord,” and such things happen more often than we hear about.

My old priest would often tell the story of how he took Communion to a parishioner who resided in a nursing home. He brought just enough Host for her and for himself. He knew there were only two Hosts in the pyx, because he packed it himself.

Just as he was about to administer the sacrament, two nurses came in and asked if they could share in the Communion as they hadn’t been able to go to church that day. Fully prepared to break the Host to provide for them, he was shocked to discover that in the pyx were not two Hosts, but four.

Can I explain this? No, I cannot. Did the priest make a mistake? Or did God provide the extra Hosts?

I’ve talked to many a person who told me they never heard the voice of God. But, I wonder how often we are in the power of the Lord without realizing it. How often do we heed the still, small voice inside us that tells us to do this, or to go here, or to say that, perhaps not understanding that the voice of God is calling us to action.

God is a gentleman. He does not shout, nor does He demand. He whispers, He cajoles, He nudges.

And He smiles when we heed His desires, and do His will. For how else would anything ever get done?

In Jan de Hartog’s book, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” about the beginning of the Quaker movement in 1652, Margaret Fell has just came face-to-face with the horrors of children being imprisoned in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle. She has run to George Fox for comfort, and for answers.

“She wanted to assail him again, but he said, in the power of the Lord, ‘Stop crying for proof of God’s love! Prove it thyself!’ Then he added in a gentler tone, ‘How else dost thou think He can manifest His love? Through nature? Through the trees, the clouds, the beasts in the field, the stars? No, only through beings capable of doing so: ourselves. In the case of those children in the cage, about to be hanged, it is thou He touched. All He has to reach those children is thee!’

So, I invite you as much as I invite myself, when we hear that still, small voice of God, when we feel His nudges, or hear His whisper in our ears, to listen, and to act. For we are God’s instruments, His hands, His feet, and His love.

The Prayer of Jabez

Standard

1 Chronicles 4:9,10

The Prayer of Jabez

(Deep breath…) Today I’m going to tackle the prayer of Jabez. You may have heard of it. The “wealth and prosperity” folks spew it all the time:

“Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’ Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you keep me from hurt and harm!’ And God granted what he asked.”

Now, the “wealth and prosperity” folks seem to think that this prayer is proof that God is somehow mandated to give us what we want, materially. My personal take on the “wealth and prosperity gospel” is that it’s a lie from the pit of hell. First, God doesn’t HAVE to give us anything. He is not some cosmic vending machine and if only we say the right prayers and do the right thing, we’ll get what we ask. “In the name of Jesus!” we cry, and expect God to jump. Sorry, Charlie…it don’t work that way.

Okay, so if Jabez’ prayer doesn’t mean that, then what DOES it mean?

First off, Jabez is not asking for health and wealth and material things. God’s blessings come in a variety of forms, not all of them material. (In fact, probably very few of them are material.) God’s blessings are the strength to deal with tough times, 30 seconds to enjoy a sunset, the smell of a new baby, a hug from a loved one. God’s blessing is perhaps not in sparing your loved one’s life, but in giving you the strength to go on after their death. God’s blessing is perhaps not in the healthy child you always wanted, but the capacity to love the “flawed” child you were given. God’s blessing is perhaps not the job you loved and were laid off from, but in learning the joy of living with less.

What about the “enlarge my borders” part? We tend to think of borders as fences. What about enlarging our hearts? What if borders here means more than physical boundaries, but instead means learning to love more, help more, give more?

The “keep me from hurt and harm” is simple enough. We all want that. I read a version in which this is translated as “keep me from causing pain.” Puts a little different spin on it, yes? In any case, none of us seeks out pain and anguish.

“And God granted what he asked.” God always answers prayer. My daughter puts it this way: “Sometimes He says yes, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says not yet.”

I submit we need to look beyond the physical and material, and if we’re going to ask God for something, we need to keep in mind the things He has already given us, and be grateful for those things first.

The Apocrypha and Why I Read It

Standard

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!”

What Rafael Wrote

Standard

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)

Standard

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

Standard

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