Carolina Blue

Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina

The sky claims the upper third of the view in the blue that bears its name. The bottom of the scene, the blue-gray roadway, stretches out ahead like the world’s longest pair of jeans, top-stitched in a Pass/No Pass yellow thread. It’s singing the sonorous song of tar strips against this Yankee’s tires. The middle ground belongs to the pines that curtain off everything to the right and left as if the hills had something to hide. This is the Carolina I observe that lies between a family stretched 700 miles apart. The road offers somnolent monotony and even comfort to a brain that whispers and wonders about what it thinks might lie ahead and what lies might’ve been left behind. The Honda reels in another semi and peels around it to clear the screen of clutter beyond the bugs who lost their own race from here to there. And just as you think closing your eyes wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all, a deer wanders from its place behind the curtain, stage right. It’s gray-beige coat gleams like a the head of a haloed saint in the golden hour now chiming on the gong of sun preparing to make its exit on a day you remember only in stops for coffee, gas, tolls and men’s rooms dressed in tiles foreign as Delaware is to Virginia. But then that eagle, big as a retriever, swoops across its Carolina blue highway and settles upon some scurrying critter who will scurry no more, and you realize there is more life going on around you than in all the lives you’ve lived and loved and lied and lusted and outlasted in your head since you started your sojourn. That’s when you realize here’s your exit and your journey is only just beginning.

I thought I’d combine a couple of prompts for Day #27 of my Poem a Day Challenge. The prompt was for a story poem, which used to be my stock in trade. Also, May 1st begins Story a Day May, which I enjoy playing in. Julie Duffy the doyen of Story a Day, suggested we crank out a warmup story of 100-1,000 words. So here is my free-written double-header piece to warm down from April and warm up for may. Not sure if it’s either a story OR a poem, but it’s written and that’s the important part.

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Grandpa’s Favorite

It’s not that I was the tallest.
Not by a long shot.
Nor the best looking or cutest.
Well, maybe at age 2. Smartest?
Who knew back then?
But I always got the impression
I was my grandfather’s favorite.
Now, I don’t admit this with any
overweening pride. My pride lies
scattered and broken somewhere
in the basement or in my closet.
Years ago, I dropped it and
lots of people stepped on it.

But I can tell you the old man
would lift me into his dump truck
and let me fire up the engine.
He’d give only me nickels
to scratch his bald head while
he dropped off for a nap.
He called me Angelo and
I’ve never quite figured out why,
since I bear the same name he did.
But then, he christened all my cousins
with individual nicknames, too.
Hmmm…

Now I have two granddaughters
and I could never say one’s
my favorite, since they’re
so wonderfully different.
Their three-plus-year age gap looks
so vast when the oldest is barely four.
But here’s what I hope happens
when I’m finally hanging out
with that old man again in
the Valhalla of Hesches:
I want each of my granddaughters
to believe she was my favorite…
because she would be right.

On Day #16 of the PAD Challenge, the prompt was for a “favorite” poem. Which is hard because I don’t have a favorite much of anything. So I just sat at the keyboard and started typing. I often forget the free write is my friend. So here’s the “favorite poem,” which has what someday might be three of my favorite lines concluding it.

You Are Here

Every Place is a Face,
by Ed Fairburn

There were six of us,
a number now decreased to four,
of which I’m still the oldest.
And while some may think
holding that position
has hereditary privileges, it also
has its responsibilities and duties.
Or at least it did for me.
If you take the role seriously,
you’re the one who will mind
the second or third littlest —
change them, feed them, keep
the roar down to a rumble —
since Mom will be elbow deep
into the youngest’s care.
At seventeen, I ran away
to a college out west (well,
Rochester), giddy with the thought
that finally I’d be alone to fend
for myself and invent the guy
I might really be, or wanted to be.
All I was sure of was he looked
just like me. And that was the problem.
No matter how hard you try,
eventually you’ll look at that guy
in the mirror and see a nose like Dad’s
and your sisters’s, eyes brown as Mom’s
and your brother’s. A map of the place
only your family lives. And you
might as well admit it, that face,
no matter who resides behind it,
always leads you back to your family.
And that’s where you’ll always belong.

For Day #8 of April, 2018’s PAD Challenge, we were to write a family poem. That one cuts deep for me in so many places and so many ways. And I mean cuts. You can see the roads and rivers and other signs of man and God as they trod from my expanding forehead to my sagging chin. Or at least I see where we’ve been. ‘Nuff said.

Angel of Mercy

“Winter’s Chill” Brett Reeder Lost River Range, Mackay, Idaho,

The dog barking outside the barn drowned out even the howl of the blue norther. But Angel Favor was not one to be moved by a dog. Not when that wind blew a purple cloud wall from the north over what was a warm November day, smothering it in a deadly freezing hell in but a handful of hours.

But a pair of shotgun barrels poked in his wind-chapped face gave him plenty of reason to move, even if they were being held by this wisp of a girl.

“Whoa, there, Missy. Hope you know what you’re doing with that scatter gun,” Angel said as he held up his hands in exaggerated surrender. The gun looked to be a 12-gauge and the girl’s slender finger was wrapped around both triggers.

“I do. Now what are you doing in our barn? And put the fire out. Now!” the girl said. Angel gauged her to be about 12 too.

“I’m just trying to get out of this dam…I mean this darn blue norther, Missy. Finally get warm. Don’t mean no harm. Didn’t wish to bother the house and me and old Monkey Face over there was about to die if we didn’t some shelter. And quick-like.” Angel pointed to the corner where his shivering roan shared hay with a pair of mules in one of the stalls.

“Hope you don’t mind, I borrowed one of your blankets for my horse. She never could handle the cold. I can’t, either,” Angel said with a grin as he kicked out the small fire he’d built in a hole he dug in the hard-packed dirt floor.

“You haven’t answered my question, Mister,” the girl said as she raised the heavy barrels at Angel’s head again.

“Name’s Favor, Angel Favor, Missy. Or, as my grandma who named me would say, ‘Ahn-hel Fah-vore.’ But folks just call me Angel. I was a couple days out of Panhandle City on my way to the Diamond F looking for work, when this norther blew in like nothing I ever seen. And, well, here we are. So, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“I do mind. You say you came northeast from Panhandle?”

“Yes’m, more or less.”

“You run into anybody on the trail during that time?”

“No, Missy. Not a one.”

“You’re sure,” the girl said, as she eased her grip on the gun and idly let the the 12-gauge barrels droop toward the floor. The expression on her face fell as well.

Angel grabbed the muzzles and pulled the gun from her hands. The girl jumped back and tripped on the oversized boots she wore beneath her blanket robe.

“Honest, little Missy, I don’t mean anyone no harm. I wouldn’t even have stopped here if it weren’t for the cold. And for gosh sakes, now it’s snowing, too. Would it be too much to ask if I could come into your house just to get warm? Here, take the scatter gun back as a sign of good faith,” Angel said.

He offered the girl his hand and helped her to her feet, handing back the shotgun.

“All right, Mister. You can come inside. We’re good Christians in this house and Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. So that’s what we do”

“Amen to that, little sister,” Angel said, raising his hand to Heaven.

“Glad to hear that you believe those teachings, Mister. But there’s another one I ain’t said yet.”

“What’s that, Missy’?”

“How are you at caring for the sick?”

Once Angel saw to his horse’s comfort, he followed the girl through the freezing wind and cutting snow toward her house, pulling some firewood from the stack by the door. Before he entered, he took a look back at the barn. Or toward the barn, the blizzard having erased it from view, just as it had the footprints he and the girl had made only seconds before.

“This ain’t good,” Angel muttered to himself as he entered the cabin and pushed the door closed.

“All right, Mr. Angel Favor, you can throw one of those logs on the fire and shake out of your coat. There’s coffee in the pot and some stew left in the Dutch oven. Oh, and I’m Martine White. Folks call me Marti,” the girl said.

“I thank you kindly, Miss Marti. I ain’t been this cold since a Norther blow in like this in ’88. And that was a killer. I mean there was cattle foundered and froze in the snow from…”

“Stop! No more,” Marti said. “Now what was it you said about tending to the sick?”

“Well that depends on the kinda sick,” Angel said as he ladled the boiled down dregs of the stew onto a chipped white plate with blue flowers around its rim. “I ain’t know miracle worker or nothing, but I’ve tended some old boys back from snakebite, fevers, even got one boy from Kansas through the bloody flux.”

That’s when Angel heard the weak cough from behind a curtain at the far end of the cabin.

“What do you know about the grippe?” Marti asked. She pulled back the curtain and revealed a woman, Angel guessed to be in her mid-thirties, lying in a brass-framed double bed.

“My mother’s been sick with this fever and cough for days now and is only getting weaker. My Pa didn’t know what more he could do and set out yesterday morning to fetch a doctor from Panhandle City to see if he could help, you know,” Marti’s voice cracked, “save her.”

“You say your mama’s been like this for a few days now?” Angel asked.

“Yep. Fever, aches all over, then this cough. Mister, when you said you didn’t see my father on the road to Panhandle, an’ then this blizzard started, all I could think was I was going to be an orphan in a few days. And that’s only if this storm lifts.” Marti took the wet dish towel off her mother’s forehead and dipped it into a washers on the table next to her bed. She rung out the towel and placed back on her mother’s head.

“She’s burning up, Mister. Can you help at all?”

“Damn, Missy, the grippe, that there Russian influenza, is nothing I want to get too close to. I seen it run through Indian camps, cow camps, whole towns and leave…well, let’s say it wasn’t a good thing.”

“Then there’s nothing we can do. I don’t even know if my father’s made it to Panhandle or is holed up someplace in this storm, or his horse foundered or busted it’s leg, or…”

“Worryin’ like that’s not going to help your Ma or your pa. And most ‘specially you, Miss Marti.” Angel said.

He quickly put on his coat, pulled down his hat and moved toward the door.

“Your gonna leave us? What kind of Christian man would do such a thing?” Marti shouted as he grabbed the doorknob.

Angel turned and said, “I never claimed to be the greatest Christian ever wore shoes, but you stay here.” With that he opened the door to the howling wind and cold and strode out in the direction of the barn. he returned in a couple of minutes, his hat and shoulders covered in snow.

“Missy, would take my hat and shake the snow off it into your Mama’s basin there? We gotta help get her fever down first. Now, please tell me your Mama is a good baker. I need me some cinnamon,” Angel said as he shed his coat and placed it over a chair.

Marti looked up with a start from dropping the snow off the brim of Angel’s Stetson into the basin.

“Baking? Baking? My Mama’s dying here and you want to make a damn cake?”

“No, Missy, I ain’t much of a baker. But I seen this tin of medicines they sell in Dallas what claim to help with the influenza. Says on the tin they’re made of cinnamon and quinine.

“My mother’s spices are in that cabinet by the stove, but where in God’s name are you going to get…”

Angel pulled a small bottle from his pocket and plunked it on the table top.

“I ain’t never traveled without it since they give it to me in Cuba for the malaria. It’s good for fevers and whatever’s in your blood that might be making you sick. The cinnamon, or so my big sister taught me, can help with pains and helps with colds and the grippe. Now I don’t know how much of what is in them pills they had in the apothecary, but I’d say your mother’s not got much to lose if we make us a weak tea of these things and have her take as much as you can give her. Then there’s only one other thing I know that’ll help her now,” Angel said.

“What’s that?” Marti asked.

“Pray, Miss Marti. Pray like you never did before.”

“Here, Mama, try to take some of this tea. Might help you feel better,” Marti said as she spooned some of Angel’s concoction to her mother’s lips. Marti heard the door creak open behind her and felt the wind whoosh snow into the kitchen.

“Mister!” she called, as Angel closed the door behind him.

“Gosh darn that man. Now he leaves me to fend for myself. Don’t worry, Mama, I’m sure Pa’s on his way back with the doctor. We just had a bit of a storm that’s slowing him down,” she said. But Marti was beginning to feel none of them were going to survive this storem, one way or another.

Then the door burst open again and Angel rushed into the cabin looking like a Stetson-wearing snowman.

“You miss me, Miss Marti?” Angel said with something between a grin and a grimace. “I think I got something else that might help your mother until your daddy gets back with the sawbones.” Angel pulled yet another bottle from the pocket of his gum rubber rain slicker.

“What do you have now, Mister Favor?”

“You can call me Angel, Missy, seeing as how we’re going to be neighbors for awhile. This here is some horse liniment I picked up in Panhandle to help ease old Monkey Face’s aches and pains. Mine, too, truth to tell.”

“You’re not putting that stuff on my mother,” Marti blurted. “Like to burn the skin right off her.”

“No, Missy, I want her to breathe it.”

“What?”

“Yep. I’m gonna put a dab of this here liniment in a pot of boiling water and let you mama breathe in the steam. This stuff’s got camphor and menthol in it and I just know I seen something in that same apothecary that folks with colds were supposed to smear on their chests. Supposed to break up their catarrh. Pretty sure it was something like this stuff. Sure as heck smelled something like it,” Angel said as he put a pot on the stove and set it to boiling.

“I’m just going to use a teeny tiny bit, all right? Just to get the vapors up. Might help. Couldn’t hurt more than what your poor mama’s going through right now. If I’m right, it might help her get up some of that stuff and ease her breathing,” he said.

After that, Angel wrapped some snow in an oilcloth tablecloth and his own coat and placed them on either side of the Mrs. White.

“Why don’t you get some sleep, Miss Marti?” Angel said to the girl. “I’ll keep the fire going and an eye on your mama.”

“But, Mama and, and my pa…”

“I’ll be listening for him, too. Was he well mounted when he left? Did he have a blanket and a decent coat?”

“My father has a good horse. Marcus Aurelius, he calls him. He’s a foreman at the Diamond F, so he needs a good horse for that and to keep our own stock under watch. And, yeah, he had a blanket on Marcus and Mama wouldn’t let him leave without his new coat,” Marti said.

“That’s good news, Missy. Now why don’t you get some sleep and I’ll keep an eye on your mama. Get me another pot of coffee going, if you don’t mind.”

“All right,” Marti sighed. “I’ve been up for a whole day and a half now and I don’t think I could stay awake another minute. Thank you, Mister Favor.”

“You can call me Angel, Missy. We been partners in helping your mama and I think partners can call each other by their first names,” Angel said with a grin.

“Thank you again, Mist…I mean Angel,“ Marti murmured as she rolled into the blankets of her bed behind another curtain dividing that end of the cabin. Angel could hear her rhythmic, soft breathing within a minute.

“Well, I guess I’d better make me some coffee,” Angel said. After the water had come to a boil, he let the ground beans sit in the pot for about a minute and then poured himself a cup from the rack that contained other pieces of the blue decorated china upon which he had eaten his stew. When was that? Four, five, six hours ago? He’d lost track of time. That sure is some mighty fine dishes to own when you’re living out here, he thought.

Angel looked over at Mrs. White. He had been fearful of touching Marti’s mother because, after all, she was a married woman. A gentleman does not touch a woman of such refinement in her nighty without benefit of clergy, he thought. Or, in some of the places he’d been, five dollars.

He also wasn’t so sure he wanted to get close enough to Mrs. White should she give him the illness that might take her life that very night. But with Marti sleeping soundly, the poor little mite, Angel knew he’d have to minister to the woman himself. He placed another pot of water on the stove and fetched the basin in which he had placed the liniment and water before.

“Damn, this does have a certain something to it,” he said to himself as his eyes watered and nose ran. He made another cup of his quinine and cinnamon concoction and moved to Mrs. White’s bedside.

He lifted the spoon to her slips and she weakly said, “Martine?”

“She sleeping over in her corner, Missus,” Angel said.

“Doctor?” she wheezed.

“No, ma’am. Just someone who stopped to help.” She took a sip of the tea and gave a weak cough. “That’s it, Missus. Let’s get some of that stuff up.”

“Matthew?” she whispered.

“No, ma’am. Angel, Angel Fav…oh, your husband. No, ma’am. He ain’t back yet. But don’t you worry. Little Martine has been taking extra good care of you. You’ve got yourself a strong little girl over there. She a downright hero.”

Mrs. White gave Angel a weak smile and began to cough again.

“Ma’am? I want to help you along a little with that cough. First have another sip of this tea and then I want you to sit up a little and breathe in some steam from a basin I’m preparin’. Think you can do that for me, ma’am?”

She nodded.

“Good. I’ll be back in two swishes with my other concoction.”

She grasped his hand and, in a weak voice, said, “Thank you, Mister…?”

“Angel, ma’am. Angel Favor. Now you just rest here for only a minute.”

Angel returned with the liniment-infused basin of water and a towel he had soaked. He placed the basin next to the woman and held the towel her head to keep the vapors where she could breathe them.

Mrs. White’s breath rattled in her chest and Angel thought this might be the end.

“Marti, Marti, come over here to your mama,” he yelled. He was fearful her mother was dying and didn’t want either of the White womenfolk to not say goodbye if this was it.

Angel pulled the towel away as Marti ran to her mother’s bedside.

“Mama? Mama? Are you all right?” Marti said.

Mrs, White gave a great sigh, followed a wet cough of loosened phlegm.

“Cover her mouth and let her spit that stuff out, Marti,” Angel said, just as Mrs. White coughed up another bit of the stuff congesting her lungs. She then took a deep inhalation and coughed again.

“Oh, Mama.” Marti cried. “Is this good, Mr. Angel?”

Angel’s mind was spinning. Had he killed this poor woman with his ministrations?

“I ain’t sure, Marti. Not at all. But better out of her than in, I’d imagine,” Angel said unconvincingly.

The dog suddenly barked, the cabin door flew open and a large man with a torn bit of blanket wrapped around his face stood in the doorway. He was covered in snow. Behind him, Angel could see the snow was not falling so heavy as before, but the wind still howled.

“Who’re you?” the man growled, a Colt pistol suddenly appearing in his hand.

“Pa!” Marti shouted and ran to the snow-covered figure, who raised his Peacemaker.

Angel stood back from Mrs. White and said, “Easy there, mister. I’m just a traveler caught in this norther who your daughter asked to help with her ailin’ mama.”

“It’s all right, Pa. Mister Favor has been helping me. I didn’t know what to do when you didn’t get back after the storm hit,” Marti said.

From the bed they hear a voice say, “Matthew, close that door before we freeze to death.”

“Sarah? Sarah!” Matthew White cried, holstered his revolver and rushed past Angel to his wife. “I was so afraid I’d return and you’d be…you’d be…gone. And…what the hell is all this? You smell like a gimpy horse and a tin of muffins. And the bed is getting wet from…is this snow?”

“That’d be some of the things I did to help your Missus,” Angel said.

Matthew White felt his wife’s forehead and noted her fever had broken. Her breathing was stronger and her grip on her husband was stronger than when he left two days before.

“I tried to get to Panhandle, but the norther overtook me and Marcus and I had to take shelter in the abandoned barn at the old Blandings’ place. Never could make it to the doctor,” he said, shaking his head.

“That’s how I found Mr. Favor, Pa. In our barn,” Marti said.

“I saw the roan in with my mules. You had to take my horse’s brand new blanket for that old mare?” White said.

“Under the circumstances, I didn’t get too choosy. I took the one on top,” Angel said.

“Well, whatever you did, it doesn’t matter because you helped my wife and daughter when I couldn’t. I don’t know how, but Sarah seems to have broken through from what I was afraid was the influenza we’ve been hearing so much about. I don’t know how we can thank you,” Matthew White said.

“Well, once all this storm ends up, I imagine you’ll might need some hands over at the Diamond F. I’m even better at taking care of stock than I am people,” Angel said.

“And he’s really good at taking care of people, Pa,” Marti said as she looked up into her father’s eyes.

“He’s a godsend, Matthew,” Sarah whispered from her bed.

“You got a job, Mister… I’m sorry, what’d you say your name was?”

Ahn-hel Fah-vore. But most folks call me Angel.”

This story came out of nowhere and tried going back there three times. But, over the past three days I battled my way though it. I wanted to do a story about one of the great Blue Northers that struck the Texas panhandle in the latter part of the 19th Century, or the one in 1911. My friends from Texas and the southern Plains know what I’m talking about. I didn’t realize when I “built” Angel, how resourceful he was. He surprised all of us. Hope you could suspend your disbelief for a spell and enjoyed the story.

Memory of Snow, Rain and Fog

At his post by the window, he sees them at dawn,
the seasonal habitués who usually sojourn here
in March or so. Three sisters, the triad manifestations
of water have come calling early and he must greet them.

Before him lies one in the form of snow,
once solid and grounded, as was he back when.
On its face it holds the story of lives and deaths,
writ in foot prints and a splotch of red.
Crows have punctuated, in deep black holes,
the final chapters of some prey left by a coyote,
while squirrels dot chains of ellipses,
linking forgotten conversations from tree to tree.

The grand smudge above cries tears like April’s,
falling from the heavens’ gray cheeks,
which float always beyond the reach of empathetic oaks,
who sag in solicitous sadness under the weight
of the skies’ drops of yet unknown future tales.
The rains wash away some of snow’s chronicle
of one year’s death and another’s birth,
like history rewritten by some usurping un-worthy.

And, between heaven and earth, glides water’s
nebulous self, a chilling fog, translucent and clean.
It smears the known, rendering the familiar
not quite so accurate, like the passage of time
does an old man’s memory. It will leave his cheeks
shining and damp, as if his crying has ended,
though he knows it’s only abated. It crawls up
and nests in the trees, as would his younger self.

That he plainly sees, as he slops back to the house,
where it’s warm and dry and his family will tsk-tsk
him about walking in weather like this.
But he stares out the window, wondering how long
until what’s left of his sojourn will dissolve,
blown away in blizzards of white, lost in
foggy gray memories, and punctuated by a grand black
!”

Too long away from inspiration and creativity. As has often been the case, if not sleep, then weather provides impetus to get back into this hard-backed saddle. Photo © 2018, Joseph Hesch. You know, me.

Holiday Blues

The shadows of the trees
defy gravity as they glide
up the hill on snow and moonlight.
The full moon hangs there like
a silver plate in their branches,
bigger and brighter than
any ornament on the Christmas tree.
Its beams a soft blue glow
over the icy landscape,
the shadows inky scratches
that will record upon this new page
the first month of another year.
And I sit here, as unilluminated
as a man can be when the gloom’s
consumed him even as he’s
absorbed the gloom.
Downstairs, I hear the children,
voices bright as lustrous trumpets.
Upon their timeless reveille,
a spark floats up to this room,
by this window, into this heart,
where before all was darkness,
save for the blue on the snow
and the shadows reaching out
for me once more. But not tonight.
Tonight, their light’s found me
and they’ve saved me once more.

Photo © 2014 Joseph Hesch

The Christmas Concert

The three-year-olds stand
on little steps at the end
of the lunchroom, all sparkling
in their holiday best.
They fidget and chitter
like thoroughbreds in the gate,
waiting for the flag to drop.
As their teacher’s hand
rises and falls in time,
they shout piles of sing-song
sounds that ring of
“We Wish You a Mary Kiss-muss.”
On they gallop to the finish line
of “and a happ-pee noo year!”
Some arrive ahead of teacher’s pace,
some lag a step, yet they all shine
like Christmas stars, not noticing how
they reflect the audience’s beaming.