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Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Tracker

(One day, thinking about the desperation frontier families might have felt when a child was kidnapped and realizing the relief they would embrace by making contact with an expert who could find the missing one. . . I wrote this introductory vignette.
 What would it have been like to be  . . . The Tracker?)


They come.
They come with drawn faces, wild eyes and tear streaks. And hope.There is always a desperate, elusive hope in their voices when they talk to me.

I’m their last hope, I guess. The last hope they have of seeing again dear faces and holding small forms, the last hope of reunited families and full tables. They put every last ounce of anticipation on me, my skills and knowledge, my strength to face wilderness and not give up when following the slightest of evidence.  They trust me; they have to. No one else has a chance of finding what they’ve lost. They don’t need the militia or all the force of the closest frontier fort. Only I can follow the trail the invaders have used.

I’m the tracker.

I learned the gift of words from my father, an interesting mix of a man, criminal and poet. Released into the wilderness for taking part in a series of heinous crimes, he was almost dead when discovered by my mother’s tribe, the Cherokee.  Being the curious and mostly humanitarian people they are, they nursed him back to health and didn’t inquire too much about his past. When the chief’s daughter claimed him as a husband, all suspicions were put to rest, at least until he ran off in the dead of night and never returned. The natives do not abide betrayal and if he were ever to return, it would be to his own funeral. Nevertheless, the chief looked past the bad blood I had inherited and saw only the straight form and mocha skin of his daughter when he saw me. It is to him that I owe all the skill I have as well as whatever idea I may have of manhood and my responsibility to use it well.

I do have the eyes of my father, though, in addition to his penchant for words. My eyes are hard, roving, and cold. I wish they weren’t mine, but a son does bear his father’s image, and this is mine to bear. Some of those who come to me are put off by my gaze, afraid I will be ruthless and violent. There is little I can do to convince them beside point to the many that I have recovered.

You might wonder if it is hard for me to do these type of rescues since I am half-Indian. I don’t know. I understand that many tribes substitute kidnapees for relatives killed by whites. My tribe, the Cherokee, never did this, and I consider it wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you, be it a horse or a gun or a wife or child.

My mother taught me this. Maybe her deep sense of integrity was the source of her worst grief when it became known that her white husband had deserted her; that, along with her womanly disbelief at being tossed aside so easily.

She did tell me about him, though, even kept his journals for me to read, so that I would understand the tree from which my branch sprouted. Those little books were filled with verses that he had composed – some in prison, some in the woods, some in a smoky Cherokee lodge. They were beautiful; hauntingly so. They gave me insight into the white world that continues to help me to this day.

There is little that surprises me. I’ve seen much and heard more. Massacres, attacks, babies dashed against cabins, pregnant women scalped, prisoners burnt at the stake.  There are terrible things that men do to one another.  And sometimes I think I will give it up. Maybe I will find a quiet spot in the woods I love and build a cabin with a ledge to feed the squirrels and have the solitary life that I must be meant for. But every time I decide to do it, another knock at my door brings a desolate family pleading for my help.

I always go. I don’t think I’ve ever said no. And the look on their faces when I say quietly, “I’ll look for her” is one that always surprises me. No, it shames me. They want to fall at my feet, do obeisance, promise me their lifelong gratitude.  And while I know it is awful to miss someone in your life, I don’t really know how it is for them, to have someone snatched. My father left on his own. No one made him go.  But he is gone, all the same. And he left no tracks. Maybe that’s why I’m so good at this. I can see the faintest imprint of moccasin, the slightest disturbance of underbrush; I can sense when the trail is hot or cold. Maybe I’m searching for him, and getting better all the time. There sure have been a lot of people who should thank him. They don’t know that it’s really him who keeps me going out there in the chilled woods.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fairy-tale Truths


 #1: Regardless of your social status, the King invites you to the palace.

#2 The whole earthly kingdom is sleeping under a curse.

#3 The mirror of the Word does not lie; Jesus is the Fairest of them all.





#4 Like glossy, poisonous apples, all Satan’s offers are deadly.

#5 Because of our self-centeredness, we have become beasts; only the beauty of divine love can transform us.

#6 The Prince fought the dragon and won.

 #7: Only divine Love can awaken us from the spell that sin had over us




#8: The King is looking for a bride for His Son; the call has gone out to the whole kingdom and He has chosen you.



#9: Hateful stepmothers, evil queens and malevolent fairies - all of them are distortions of power, all of them are story reflections of the Wicked One whose capabilities are aimed at the destruction of all that is good and beautiful.




#10 There really is a “happily ever after;” it’s eternity with the Prince in the house of the King.




Friday, September 1, 2017

Sacking the Muse



Too many great books have never been penned because their writers were held hostage by waning inspiration. It’s time for a deliberate approach to creativity. It’s time to sack the muse.

Artists of every genre feel the pain of low ebb; it’s a debilitating condition. And some of the blame can be pinned on those noble Greeks and their belief in the muses - a sisterhood of goddesses who inspired artistic creativity in humankind. To be fair, the ancients did put flesh on the philosophy with the splendor of their columns, temples, sculptures and heroic literature. And even their word muse has been adapted into modern language in the form of music, mosaic, amuse and museum. It’s easy to see that in each of these derivations is the seed of their theory.

Still, were every artist totally dependent on the whim of an ethereal force, many magnificent works would be missing from cultures of every generation. And though giftedness cannot actually be learned, it is undeniable that any artist can learn to nourish her creativity in practical ways. What the Greeks attributed to mystical energy may be initiated by planning and resolve.

Writing is similar to other art forms in that it is soulful expression. As such, it requires a certain framework - focus, setting, and mood - in order that beauty may be brought forth.

The writing brain craves an intensity of focus so that the gathering thoughts may be marshaled and examined, shined and arranged. Word-crafting happens best in the vastness of silence – both in actual physics and in the field of the mind. Yet being especially visual, the writer-artist often needs something both restful and stimulating on which to rest the eyes. Perhaps that is why many writers are drawn to nature’s vignettes because in the waving plain or billowing sea or soaring peaks, the vision is filled and yet strangely still seeking. But a high-rise studio can yet offer an invitation to the writer who discovers how best to nourish her inner muse. It might be a framed landscape or abstract on the desk, it could be a particular type of sonata in the background or a certain sort of latte in hand that casts an inspirational glow over the laptop or steno pad.  Whatever sparks the mind’s eye becomes the incubator of creative thought.

But most vital for any writer is that combination of attitude and discipline that form the necessary perimeters of creativity. Being willing to slip into the writing mode and start tapping away at the keyboard is half of the battle. For when all is said and done, giving life to words is a process which demands hard work. And when the birthing pains are past and the muse has seemingly evaporated into the murk, the writer who has learned well her lesson can focus her gaze and once again feel the stirrings of creativity within her soul.


Fare thee well, fickle muse; visit when thou can. For me, the words await, and I must write.   

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unexpected Gifts, Part 4

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 4 - the end
       Valorie Bender Quesenberry 

He strained his eyes to see anything other than whipping snow. Turning around 180 degrees on the spot, he began to walk, his arms out in front of him. Surely, they’d miss him soon and come out and bang a pot or shoot a gun or something.

But in just a few minutes, his hand hit a wall, a wooden wall, a barn wall. Putting both hands on the boards, he slid them along as he walked until he came to the door. His hands were so cold that it took him a few minutes to make the latch work, but finally he got it open and stepped in.

The damp warmth of barn air greeted him. He stood for a moment, glad to have a haven, his eyes getting used to the darkness. Then, over in the corner, he saw the light of a lantern.

Quietly, he approached the stall toward the back. The door was open and he could see Janie down on her knees beside a little kid goat. She was holding its head in her lap and singing to it, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t see him.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head. The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”

Her hand was rubbing the goat’s floppy ears as she sang.

He cleared his throat, and she looked up. “Hi.”

“Hello, is this where you sleep at night?”

Janie laughed. “Oh no, I just come out here to sing to Joyful before I go to bed.”

“Is that her name, Joyful?”

The little girl nodded. ‘Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes. I must say I’ve never heard of a nicer name for a goat.”

“That’s because it’s a Christmas name.”  She patted the goat’s head. “I love Christmas.”

He squatted down beside her and stroked the goat’s head. “Why?”

“’Cause it’s the time of year when God showed us His love and sent baby Jesus. Do you know about that?”

“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”

“Oh, but it’s more than a story, Mr. Lewis. You see, God wanted to help us, and the best way He could do it was to send His very own Son to come down here and show us what He meant. And He was born on Christmas, just like Joe David.”

“Who is Joe David?”

“My little brother. You didn’t see him yet. He was sleeping upstairs. He had oleo and now he can’t walk.”

Frank hid a smile. “You say he had polio?

She nodded emphatically. “That’s right. It’s a bad disease that twisted his legs all up.”

Frank wondered at her matter-of-factness. “Does he have a wheelchair?”

“Uh-huh, but he can’t play in the snow with it. And he really wants to build a snowman. But the doctor said he needs an operation to make his legs work better.”

“Is he going to have the operation?”

“He can’t until Mother works some more. She’s saving up for it.”

“I see.”

Janie kept stroking the goat’s head, her touch as gentle as a mother. “Do you have a family, Mr. Lewis?”

“Yes, but I don’t see them very much.”

“How come?” Her big eyes wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“I guess it’s because there have been some sad things that happened in our family and when we’re together, we think about it more.” Frank thought the words sounded lame even to a child.

Her brows wrinkled. “Oh. Well, we had sad things too. My Daddy went away and isn’t coming back ever.”

“I know.” Frank patted her head. “I’m sure you miss him.”

“Yes.” She sighed. “Sometimes it hurts really bad. Love does that, doesn’t it?”

“I think you might be right.” Frank’s eyes felt misty. Was he missing something here? Could Sammy’s death be about more than loss or an unknown grave on foreign soil? Was there a gift in his sacrifice?

Janie looked up at him and held a finger to her lips. “See? Joyful is asleep. Be quiet now.”

She laid the goat’s head down carefully and stood up. Together, they backed out of the stall and carefully closed the door.

“Shall we go back to the house now?”  It had been a long day. Frank was feeling the effects of the emotional exertion.

“Okay, but we have to be careful. There’s a rope that you can follow with your hand. Gramps is waiting for me in the kitchen. If I don’t get back soon, he’ll come get me.”

“Well, we’d better not make him worry.”

Frank took the child’s hand in one of his and opened the barn door with the other. Sure enough, tied to the front was a thick rope. He put one hand on it and kept Janie tightly on his side. Together, they walked step by step until they reached the farmhouse.

----------------------------

When Jacquelyn opened her eyes the next morning, her first thought was that she was cold. Then she noticed the storm had stopped outside the window. In the early dawn, the sky was a glowing mix of lavender and pale blue, the snow turned to fairy colors by the coming light.

Dressing quickly, she hurried down the stairs as quietly as possible. Pop Benson was pulling on his boots and Mother Benson was rattling pans on the cookstove, making their Christmas morning pancakes.

“Good morning, honey. Are the children still sleeping?”

“I think so, but probably not for long.”

Gramps stood up and winked at her. “Guess they’ll be surprised.”

“What do you mean, Pop? You know I didn’t have the money to buy them a lot of presents.”

“Maybe not, but your faith must have multiplied somehow.”

“Huh?”

He waggled his finger at her. “Come take a look.”

Tiptoeing lest she wake the children, Jacquelyn followed him into the front room where a fir tree stood by the picture window, its branches hung with colored paper rings and red and green lights.
She looked where he was pointing and gasped. Under the tree there were presents, quite a few of them. She walked over and looked at the tags. To Janie, said one. Another was marked for Joe David. And another, and another. She looked up at Pop Benson, her throat starting to ache.

“Officer Lewis?”

“Had to be.” Said Pop. “When I got up this morning, he was gone, and these things were here. ‘Course, it didn’t take too long to follow his tracks out to the road. Somebody else must have helped him move that car. Just a big bare spot in the curve where it had been.”

Pop reached into the branches of the tree and pulled out an envelope. “This is for you.”

Jacquelyn reached for it, her eyes wide. Opening the seal, she pulled out a single sheet of note paper and started reading.

The tears were falling before she finished, and she sat weakly down on the floor.

“What’s it say?” Pop wanted to know. “Martha, come here.” He called to Mother Benson in the kitchen.

Jacquelyn cleared her throat and read aloud.
“Mrs. Benson,
I am making an appointment for your little boy with a specialist in the city. The operation he needs will be paid for. It so happens that the Policeman’s Benefit Fund now has a special account set up in my brother’s name, and Joe David will be the first beneficiary. I am honored that Sammy was privileged to serve with a fine man like your husband; I hope I can show my gratitude by helping Joe’s son have the chance to walk. And I’m especially grateful to your family for reminding me that love sometimes bears unexpected gifts, even in loss. I wish you all many happy returns of the season.
Your faithful servant,
Sergeant Frank Lewis”

------------------------------

Janie looked out the window and saw the feather-flakes coming down again. But this time, they were gentle, settling down on the farmyard like soft kisses. Her plate was piled high with ham and sweet potatoes and green beans. And there were even pumpkin pies and fruitcake for dessert. Around the table sat Gramps and Granny and Mother and even Joe David, though it had been hard to pull him from the fire engine that was now sitting beside the Christmas tree.

She glanced at the sofa for another look at Merry Carol, her doll. She was the most elegant doll ever, her golden curls bunched on her shoulders and her pink, porcelain cheeks turned in a pretty smile. And Janie was certain no doll ever had a more Christmasy name.

Gramps had just laid down the serving fork and was preparing to return thanks when there was a knock at the door. Mother looked at Granny who raised her shoulders questioningly.  Mother got up quickly to answer it.

Janie heard a deep voice talking to Mother and then Officer Lewis stepped into the kitchen, hat in hand.

“Here I’ve interrupted again.” He said, though Janie thought he didn’t sound very sorry.

“We’re so glad you did, son.” Gramps stood up. “Have a plate with us. Give us a chance to tell you how grateful we are.”

Officer Lewis waved his hand. “I’m the one who’s grateful. Best flat tire I ever had! I actually came back because I had a delivery to make.”

“A delivery?” Granny asked as she brought another plate and silverware to the table.

“Yes, Ma’am. Do you all know a Billie Sue Beadle?”

Mother smiled delightedly. “Yes, I ride to work with her.”

“Well, I found this package addressed to you when I got back to the station this morning.” He handed Mother a large bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bit of twine. Sure enough, a hand printed card read “Jacquelyn Benson.”

When Mother ripped open the string, out fell a soft gray coat. Mother let out a little cry and hugged it to her. “Oh, that crazy, sweet girl. She shouldn’t have.”

Gramps piped up. “Aw, don’t worry none about that Billie Sue. She’s probably trying to bribe you into helping with her wedding finery.  I hear old Pete was workin’ up his nerve to pop the question.” He shook his head. “Poor fellow, bet he doesn’t know she’s already got the drop on him with her wedding plans!”

They all laughed a little, and Gramps went on. “Now that’s enough glad-crying, Jackie. I’m about to starve sitting here eyeballing this ham. Let’s eat before the taters get cold, shall we?”

Mother smiled then and hung the coat over the side of the sofa. “Okay.”

And so they all sat down to their Christmas dinner. Bite after bite, they ate and ate and Janie looked around at the faces and thought about the many good days to come.  Just then, she felt a tug on her braid and Officer Lewis leaned down to whisper in her ear, “How about we visit Joyful after lunch?”

Janie nodded happily. 

And in the hallway, Daddy’s picture smiled at them all while outside the feather flakes kept falling on the patrol car parked in front of the farmhouse.

the end 
 Merry Christmas





Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Unexpected Gifts, Part 3

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 3
-         Valorie Bender Quesenberry 


When Billie Sue pulled into the circle in front of the farmhouse, the snow was laying so deep that Jacquelyn was afraid she might miss the road altogether. It was hard to tell where the
gravel was and where the yard was supposed to be. Not that it mattered really in the winter, but she would hate for Billie Sue to get stuck.
“Guess they weren’t kidding about the storm.” Billie Sue stopped the car by the kitchen door.
“Maybe you’d better stay with us tonight, Billie Sue. It has gotten so much worse in just the last half hour. I’m worried about you getting home.”

“Posh. You know I’ve been driving in this white stuff since Pop put me on the tractor.” Billie Sue grinned. “Besides, I have to be home for Christmas. I’m thinkin’ it might be special.”

“You think Pete is going to ask you?”

“Well, who knows? He’s the sweetest mechanic in the whole world, but he’s never been accused of being in too big a hurry!” Billie Sue winked at her. “But I’m sure gonna make it easy for him if he’s having any inclinations toward that end!”

Jacquelyn giggled. “You’re awful! But I hope you’re right.”  She opened the door and the snow gusted around her. “Thank you for the ride, Billie Sue.  Have a Merry Christmas!”

“You too!” Billie Sue lurched the car forward into the darkness. And Jacquelyn could hardly see the tail lights disappear, the snow was falling in such a thick swirl.

She turned and quickly walked up to the back porch, stamping her feet on the steps as she reached the door. Inside the porch, she heard voices from the kitchen. Jacquelyn unwound her scarf and removed her boots before going inside.
-----------------------------------
“Mother, you’re home!”

Jumping up from the table, Janie ran to help her mom take off her coat and gloves and hang them on the rack beside the door. Then she took her hand and pulled Jacquelyn to where the others were seated. “We’ve got company!”

“So, I see.” 

The officer rose as she took her seat and nodded. “Ma’am.” His cap was hung up on the peg with his overcoat. Janie thought he looked friendlier without it.

Gramps piped up. “The officer here got his patrol car stuck down in McCutcheon’s curve. We were gonna pull it out, but by the time I got the tractor out and ready to go, she was already coming down so hard it was no use trying. Guess we’ll have to wait ‘til mornin’.”

“I’m very sorry to put you folks out like this.” The officer’s face looked like a little boy made to eat peas, Janie thought. And she almost giggled thinking about it.

“Nonsense,” said Granny. “What’s Christmas without an unexpected guest or two?”

“After all,” said Gramps. “That’s pretty much how the first Christmas went, wasn’t it?”

Officer Lewis shrugged. “I guess I’m not very religious, but it sure is nice of you all to take it so well.”

Religious? Janie hadn’t heard that word in the same breath with Christmas. Religion was what the tent preachers brought to the county, Gramps said. Why Christmas was about Jesus, everybody knew that.

Gramps was talking. “Fact is, we’re kind-of glad you had to stop in on us, son. You see, we’re used to having another chair round the table at Christmas dinner and that spot won’t look so empty with someone a-sittin’ in it.” He was looking far off as he said it.

“I saw the star in your window, sir.” Officer Lewis said softly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. It’s a comfort knowing he died serving this great country and that he was with his best friend too. ” Gramps had a watery, shiny kind-of smile on his face. “Joe was a pilot, the best they had.”

Janie saw a funny look on the Officer’s face. He looked around the table at their faces as if he was counting them. She saw his jaw moving like Daddy’s used to when he was upset about something. Then all of sudden, he said. “It can’t be.”
---------------------------
Frank Lewis was surprised by little; being an officer of the law made sure of that. But here he sat in a country farmhouse shocked right out of his socks, so to speak. This was the family of Sammy’s best friend, Joe? These people were the loved ones of the pilot whose plane had gone down in flames, taking his little brother to his death?

He swallowed. “I, uh, I didn’t know that Joe Benson was your son, sir.”

The old man didn’t bat an eye. “I know that, son. The grief is too bad for you to see much. You’re hurtin’, just like us.”

Frank glanced at the young widow. Her eyes were close to brimming over, but she remained composed, her hands clutched tightly in her lap.

He choked back his anger. “I don’t want to seem unkind. Your family has suffered too. Yet, I can’t help wondering if this war is worth the lives of so many young men. It seems such a waste for your son to die for others who don’t even know his name and may not even appreciate his sacrifice.”

The farmer nodded slowly in agreement. “It sure does, sometimes. But, at this time of year especially, we’re reminded that great gifts cost greatly. A son is the most valuable thing a father can offer.” Mr. Benson paused and swallowed.  “If I coulda saved him, I wouldn’t have chosen to let Joe die for others, but there’s another Father who did. Knowing about that Son gives us a reason to celebrate, even without Joe.”

The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of the icebox. But the pressure in Frank’s chest was so tight he could barely breathe.

 He stood up. “I, um . . . I need to get some air, if you don’t mind.”

The man nodded. “Yep, you go right ahead. Just stay close. It’s a mite harder on people than cars out in this weather.”

Pulling on his overcoat, Lewis opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, carefully closing the door so it didn’t bang behind him. He walked into the yard, silently cursing himself.

Of all the places to have to hole up in a storm, he would have to pick the farm owned by Joe Benson’s parents! Many was the night that he’d lain awake, angry with the pilot who hadn’t brought Sammy back. Sure it was irrational, he knew that. War brought casualties. Good men died. But he also knew pilots and their daring in the face of danger. And from what Sammy had told him, the missions they’d flown hadn’t been the milk-toast variety.

“Why?” He hurled the words into the night, shouting at the top of his lungs. But the wind snatched them away and carried them into nothingness.


There was no answer for him. And so Lewis turned to go back to the house. But though he knew he hadn’t gone more than a few yards from the house, all he could see around him was white.  Great. Now not only would they find his car piled into a snowbank, they’d also find him stiff as a board the next morning. Ironic, he thought, that he’d come out to grieve his brother and end up freezing himself.             

To be continued next week . . . . . 
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