Four Trails: A Quartet of Country Tales by Anthony H. Roberts - HTML preview

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The Beautiful Shore

Jonah Kendall watched the clouds drift across the blue sky with a sense of tranquility. He turned from the window and stared at his computer screen. There was nothing left for him here so he logged off and quietly left the office. His wife, Sarah, wouldn't be home until later that evening, which gave him plenty of time. The afternoon was his and he would take full advantage of it. There would be consequences, of course, but Sarah would understand. Of all people, she would understand.

He arrived home around 2:00. Ellie was surprised to see him home so early and wagged her tail in a fit of happiness. He walked to the kitchen, dug out a treat for her from a jar on the counter, and tossed it onto her doggy bed. The wagging stopped as she loped over to settle down for a leisurely chew.

He would start with a long, hot, relaxing shower then a shave and go the extra mile to make his hair look presentable. Left to his own devices he'd run a comb through his wet hair and let nature take its course. Under Sarah's tutelage, he learned how to properly moisturize and the benefits of a quality styling cream. At the end of his ablution he looked in the mirror and was satisfied that he had done his best.

Jonah knew he was clinically depressed, but he also knew that for better or worse, he was a good actor.

Maybe it was the country boy buried deep inside of him. That ingrained ability to sojourn through adversity while putting your best face forward. If you had asked any of his co-workers about his frame of mind, none of them would have spotted how acutely estranged he was from them all. Yes, they might say that he was a little quieter, or a little more distant, but in reality he was all but gone; a brilliant mimic of the man he used to be just going through the motions for the benefit of others.

Tucked away in the Kendall's garage was a box labeled 'Storage Stuff'. Digging out the dusty box reminded Jonah of his grandfather's funeral back in Oklahoma. Standing in the blazing heat at the rickety old Cherokee cemetery; half listening to the young preacher drone on an on about a man he hardly knew. Over the next several days he and his grandmother had sorted through all the old man's keepsakes; decades of National Geographic magazines, tangles of homemade fishing lures, a box of broken tools, faded suit jackets and crates of bible study books. His grandfather, John Kendall, had been a preacher, and for a brief while in his youth, Jonah had believed every word the old man said.

As a boy, Jonah had spent many long hours on the hard pews of the Reverend Kendall's church. He remembered all the old hymns, how the old men sang bass while the women answered in high, off-key harmony. His grandfather's sermons were too long for young Jonah, and when he got bored and fidgety his grandmother, Aida Lee, would magically produce little games from her purse to keep him occupied; little hand-held puzzles where you shifted letters around to form words or tried to balance tiny BBs into little round holes.

He remembered how his grandfather looked down at him from the pulpit and his kindly smile. Years later Jonah would reject his grandfather's religion as so much myth, bigotry, and superstition. Over the long years his grandmother would occasionally ask him if he had found a new church. Each time he would shake his head and answer, "No."

The old man never questioned his decision to leave the faith. They would talk about fishing, sports, politics, the weather, but never about religion. Two weeks after his grandfather's death, Jonah received a small package in the mail addressed from Mrs. Aida Lee Kendall. Carefully wrapped inside the package was his grandfather's Bible, a book he kept in remembrance and had stored in his garage until today.

Jonah placed the 'Storage Stuff' box in the front seat of his car and then went back into the house for a couple of beers. He placed the bottles in a small cooler reserved for his occasional fishing trips. He dumped some ice on top of them then refilled the trays for Sarah. She hated finding the empty trays that he far too often returned to the freezer. No need to add to her troubles. Ellie briefly looked up from her bed in the corner of the kitchen, but seeing no more snacks, she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.

Jonah left the house, climbed into his truck and headed out. He left his fishing poles and tackle box behind. Nothing would be pulled from the muddy waters of the lake today.

Jonah put all the windows down and kept the radio off during the drive into the country. He enjoyed the force of the wind buffeting around him and monopolizing his senses with its deafening noise. The countryside passed by in a blur as Jonah made his way out to what had once been his favorite spot on earth.

He parked his truck in an empty lot, grabbed the box and cooler, and headed down to the water. It was in the middle of the day, in the middle of a working week, and the lake was all but deserted. Jonah heard muffled voices float across the water and assumed they were faint reverberations from the handful of bass boats he saw scattered in the distance. Apparently not everyone was at work today. He found an old pecan tree close to the shoreline, put down his box and cooler, and took out one of the cold beers. Alcohol was not allowed at the lake, but the lake patrol was nowhere to be seen. He drank the beer slowly and savored each swallow as he stared out over the water.

Inside the box were items Jonah had carefully tucked away over the years. On top was a well-worn, blue and white striped picnic blanket, which he spread out beneath the old pecan tree. Back in the days when his son Benny was a toddler, the three of them came here for little family picnics. He and Sarah would lie on the blanket and entertain themselves while Benny stumbled around exploring everything in his new world. As Jonah looked over the lake now he could imagine Benny climbing trees, fishing or skipping rocks across the water.

The lake reminded Jonah of times when he was a young boy and went pecan hunting with his grandfather. Papa John would climb to the top of a heavily fruited tree and shake it until Jonah was sure it would break and his grandfather would come tumbling down. Jonah was so frightened by the violent shaking and the pelting hail-storm of pecan nuts that he once cried out to his grandfather, "Papa, PLEASE, come down! I'm scared, Papa. I don't like all that shaking! Please, Papa!"

His grandfather had laughed and shouted back down to him, "Don't worry, boy. This tree's a strong one and there's not a man can break it."

His grandfather never fell and the pecans they gathered made their way into Grandma Aida's delicious pies. Jonah and Papa John would sit on the back porch and shell countless pecans for those wonderful pies. A little portable radio softly played country music as they cracked and hulled the sweet nuts. Inside the house Jonah could hear his grandmother as she moved about her kitchen, the occasional clank of a pan on the stove or clink of plates laid to rest on a kitchen cupboard.

Jonah finished his beer and pulled the box next to him. Safely wrapped in a star-patterned baby blanket were four framed photographs. The first picture was of Sarah and Benjamin on the boy's first day home from the hospital. Mother and son were lying in bed and Sarah was kissing the baby's forehead, both of their eyes blissfully closed in loving communion. Benny was so tiny and delicate then, so much like his mother. The second picture showed Benny in his crib surrounded by all his friends; that's what Sarah called the little stuffed animals she had placed in the boy's crib to keep him company during the night.

The third picture was Benny in his first Halloween costume dressed up as a little red devil complete with tail and plastic pitchfork, which was adorable to everyone except Jonah's grandparents. The last picture was Benny at two years old standing next to his great-grandfather, the Reverend John Kendall.

Benny and Papa John both had their hands in their pockets, and stared straight into the camera with the same serious look on their faces. The resemblance was striking and a little comical. The picture was taken about six months before the old man's death and was the only picture Jonah had of the two of them together.

Jonah looked at each one of the photographs and took them to heart. He wiped his eyes and reached for the last beer. The coldness of the amber liquid eased the tightness in his throat. He looked out over the lake and watched the dance of the sparkling water. The afternoon sun reflected off a thousand small whitecaps kicked up by small gusts of wind that shifted their way, back and forth, across the water.

Jonah closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh country air. He heard the wind come across the water and mingle with the trees. He felt its coolness all around him, wrapping him in a delicate blanket, softly calling to him in words that were just beyond his grasp. He opened his eyes and removed the last item from the box. Inside an old and yellowed cigar box was his grandfather's Bible.

From across the lake Jonah heard the muffled voices of fishermen. His eyes drifted to the shoreline and he watched the water lap against the bank in an endless rhythm of wap... wap... wap... wap. A swell of emotion rose up inside him in time to the waves, and then it surged into an overwhelming tsunami and swept him away. This was the moment he held in check for so long, when the mountain of water would finally rise, crest, and break, and tumble him down into the darkness of his sorrows.

It was here they found him, in this peaceful place where the muddy waters caressed the grassy banks.

Jonah wasn't there when they pulled the body from the lake, but he imagined it in a thousand details.

His dark vision haunted him more deeply than the reality of that dreadful day. More than the phone call, or the drive to the lake, or the brief moment when he was asked to identify the child who so perfectly resembled his son.

In his mind's eye, Jonah bore witness as the rescue diver rose from the water cradling a young boy. He saw the boy's naked, limp body nestled in the man's strong arms, his skinny arms dangled down at his sides. No movement save the sway of those tiny arms, back and forth, as the diver strode out from the water in solemn steps.

The boys eyes were closed. His skin drained of all color. His lips blue and pursed as if he might yet wake and speak. A coarse blue blanket was laid along the grassy bank. Jonah watched in horror as the diver gently placed the small boy onto the blanket. He knelt down and arranged the boy's arms along his sides, placed his legs together and the gently wiped a lock of hair from the boy's forehead. And the wave rolled on.

Jonah surrendered to the water's icy grip. The numbness spread through his feet and hands, into his arms and legs, and finally, it reached his heart. He drifted there, lifeless and numb, in the still cold darkness of his eternal grief.

The sound of wailing voices drifted softly down to him, permeating the still waters of the abyss. Their mournful song broke the water's hold and he began to inch toward the surface; the deadening cold ebbed away as he ascended from the depths toward the warmth of the sun and sky.

He awoke to find himself on the hard pews of his grandfather's church. Grandma Aida Lee sat to his left with her purse strategically placed on her lap. He was sure that if he opened her purse he'd find the word puzzles and the BB games patiently waiting for him. He could smell her sweet perfume as she whispered in his ear, "I'm so glad to see you, Jonah. I missed you, honey."

His eyes lifted up to the pulpit where his grandfather stood, tall and proud, his weathered hands firmly gripping the sides of the rostrum.

Searching the faces of his flock, he found Jonah and was pleased. The unquestioning love shown brightly in the old man's eyes, yet Jonah could not return it. He felt nothing but tired and weary. He looked away from his grandfather and stared at the floor in shame as the icy tears fell from his face.

A hand reached out and touched his own. He felt its warmth as it tightened around his fingers, cutting through the chill that permeated his body. He raised his swollen eyes to see a young, beautiful boy sitting next to him on the pew. The boy smiled, tearing away all that was left of Jonah's heart.

Tears became a torrent and the raging waters swept him away from the boy. Panic overtook him as he tried to fight his way back to the shore. The seas became dark and the waves rolled with malicious intent. Across the dark waters, he heard his grandfather's voice calling out, calling and calling.

"Is there anyone here in need of comfort?

Is there anyone here in need of peace?

Is there a heart heavy and in need of solace?"

He swam desperately toward the sound, fighting the raging waters until all hope and resolve was exhausted. In his final moment of despair - he surrendered - and the waters surged forth and lifted him toward the sky, then broke and retreated, leaving his body forsaken along the muddy banks.

He lay spent on the shore, lost and broken. His grandmother knelt beside him. She reached out and gently wiped a lock of wet hair from his forehead. In the distance he could hear the Reverend Kendall imploring the faithful to turn to Page 38 of their hymnals.

A child's voice rippled across the water dispersing the darkened clouds. A tiny finger traced the worn paths on Jonah's face.

"No more tears, Daddy. No more tears."

The sky shattered and the land fell away until there was nothing left but the cries of sweet deliverance washing over them all.

"We shall sing on that beautiful shore

The melodious songs of the blessed,

And our spirits shall sorrow no more.

Not a sigh for the blessing of rest,

In the sweet bye and bye,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore."

* * * * *

The Blazin' Trail