by Stephen Stratton Moore

Fairfield County, Ohio 2012

A capricious dance of clouds and low-slanting sunlight brought the field of wild grass to life, turning it from the dull hues of winter into a brilliant, glowing blanket of bronze. The vision spoke sacred words within him, words that were as familiar as they were unknown, words that could not be articulated but only expressed by the smile on his face. The glowing field faded again just as smoothly back to its winter drab. It was as if God himself were blowing upon some sacred, cosmic ember.

The watcher, the walker, and the breather of breaths noted and appreciated the moment. He, in fact, treasured it as a sacred gift, a celestial exhalation. It warmed him some, cutting the bite of cold wind on his skin momentarily to a more agreeable, sun-warmed breeze that carried the scent of sodden earth with its own eternal promise of green things yet to come. It was a mental bridge to spring or perhaps a bridge to some previous spring of long ago.

Maynard Glen Assisted Living 2012

Audrey Carmichael was settling into her shift, rearranging her workspace from the previous occupant’s sense of order to her own. It was her ritual, one that she secretly enjoyed. With a freshly brewed mug of coffee, her ID number logged in, and a final breath of satisfaction, she was ready to begin what should have been a quiet evening.

It was in that moment that she became aware of a commotion from the Alzheimer’s wing. The new nursing assistant called from the far end of the hall. “Mr. Rutherford is gone!” With no hesitation, Audrey initiated the procedure for such an event, as she was trained to do. “Doctor Bricker, we have a code 920 from wing two, R17. I’ll notify security.”

Fairfield County, Ohio 2012

The old man walked across the field, his hands welcoming the caress from the tassels of wild grain that brushed across his naked palms. The sensation reminded him of downy feathers that must clothe the thousands of birds that chattered and chirped their private conversations along the tree line.  Their language was foreign yet pleasing, despite the fact they were most likely speaking ill of him in their warbling tones. It was of no matter. “Let them talk, the little bastards! I know things you don’t…many, many things. My brain is bigger than four of you put together, and for that reason alone, I deserve your respect, you little chirping shits!”

He halted his trek across the field to listen to their splendid cacophony, and in that moment, the entire tree line exploded into a black mass of flight. The dark cloud of birds undulated its way across the field, folding in and out of itself as one living entity. Then, as smooth as the sunlight, they blended into the trees on the far side of the field. It was as if they were no longer there. It was the complete silence that he noticed first, and he pondered how things might be if he himself simply disappeared. He watched in silent wonder, lost in time until he realized that he was not breathing. He drew in a long, cold, rattling breath and thought, it’s a pretty good trick to disappear like that…The birds do have their own secrets. They had secrets that he would never know. So maybe, just maybe, they were even.

It was the here-and-now that was at the crest of his awareness, the cutting edge of a newly- sharpened blade that had only recently been quite blunted and dull. There were other things too that began flowing through his mind, bits and pieces, fragments of scenes, that floated just underneath the physical surface of the magnificent, natural vista that he now beheld. There were visual and emotional elements that briefly revealed themselves before diving back down deep, just out of reach, beyond the thin and fragile boundary that was his reality. He found memories of holding a precious hand that did not hold his back and echoed voices of his sons telling him, “This is the best thing, Dad. You can’t take care of yourself properly any longer. We’re really worried about you.”
His response had been succinct and to the point. “Bullshit!” Eventually, he gave in to the boys’ insistence, but he hated that place with a passion. “It smelled bad and was full of crazy people!” He was glad to be rid of it.

He walked on into the muted light of the evening and found that despite the growing chill, he was enjoying himself. All his senses were heightened:  his vision sharper, his smell keener, his awareness greater than it had been of late.

He felt a connection to his surroundings, a fresh synchronicity; he was a part of it all―the changing qualities of light, the wild creatures going about their daily business as if he weren’t even there, the adolescent whitetail deer only offering him a momentary acknowledgment before resuming its evening meal of roughage. Somehow, they all knew that he was no threat to them, and the knowledge of that greatly pleased him.

He knew where he was going. T he family farm was just over that way apiece, maybe five fields over and then through the back acre of woods behind the house. The map was in his mind. I’ll be there by daybreak, he told himself and meant it, too. He was on a mission. He knew that Margaret would be worried about him, being out all night, but he would explain it to her in the morning over a steaming mug of coffee at the kitchen table, and just like always, she’d understand. She always understood, my Margaret.

With some effort, he hoisted himself over a fence rail and made his way through the briar and leaf clutter to the edge of a deep, tree-filled ravine. From there, he slid and bounced his way from trunk to trunk until he reached the bottom where a stream meandered and gurgled in the same general direction that he was headed. He knelt on his naked knees, cupped his hands, and scooped the cold water to his lips. His walk had been thirsty work, so he repeated the gesture until he was full.

He had been hearing the sounds of urgent voices coming from far behind him for a while now. There were lights, too, but they didn’t frighten him, really. Waiting for the shift change had made all the difference in providing him a good head start. Just the same, I’ll follow the creek for a spell, he thought, with visions of Cool Hand Luke and Papillion playing in his mind’s eye.

With his thirst quenched, his followers far behind him, and the ravine cutting a cold wind on his back, he felt a new vigor flowing. Momentarily surveying his darkening surroundings, he stepped into the frigid water, noting the sensation of the tiny grains of sand and small pebbles underneath his foot. He curled his toes, digging them deeply into the bottom of the streambed before planting his other foot with similar results, as the flowing coldness stung him higher on his calf. After several more steps, all the sensations of his feet disappeared from his awareness.

As he went along, his mind began to wander to places it had not been in a very long time. Old experiences ebbed in and out of his consciousness, things he’d not thought about in years. They had been locked away in an old trunk or at the bottom of a chest of drawers―memories, old and timeless. He took note of the moon, low in the sky starting its own night’s journey as he splashed along with the complete assuredness that Margaret’s smiling face was just a few more miles away.

Mind at large- Fairfield County, Ohio 1986

“Shhhhhhhhhh, baby.” Breathing heavily, he awoke with a start but kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. It took a few moments for him to realize where he was. His wife was cradling his head and gently stroking his hair. His first awareness was of her warm breath on his ear, whispering to him in a soothing voice. “Shhhhhhhhhhh, baby. It’s all over now. You are here at home with me.”

It was the recent hard times that brought back the nightmares. He hadn’t had a damn war dream for almost thirty years, but now, they were happening two or three times a month. “Shit,” he said, sliding his hands down his sweating face. “There won’t be any more sleep tonight.” He leaned over and kissed Margaret, got dressed, pulled on his, filthy work coat, and went out to the barn to replace the distributor in his pickup. It was the way that he managed things these days.

They still had their allotted 40 acres; the family house was paid for, but like so many others across the entire country, the bank had taken the rest of his farm with all the equipment and cattle. It was damn hard to stomach at first, but with time, he felt fortunate for what they had because so many of their farm neighbors faired a whole lot worse. Lester Piles killed himself after the bank took his family’s farm. Four generations they had been at it, and old Lester ended it all with a single shot the same day the single stroke of an auction mallet took away everything he loved. The land becomes a part of a man who works it from dawn till dusk…and well into the night at harvest time. He understood what Lester did and why he did it, but he did not approve. Not when there was so much more to live for.  In the end, it came down to pride, stubborn pride. There’s so much loss because of pride, but he had no judgment for Lester. He made his choice as a man has a right to do. He just wished that Lester had taken a little more time to think things over, before… well.

At least he and Margie were able to keep the house where they had raised their family. The boys moved on in the midst of all the turmoil, but they still came back and visited from time to time. Good boys. After college, they went their own ways, and who’s to blame them? The whole town pretty much went the way that Lester did. It just took a while longer, but the result was all the same. He and Margie managed well enough. Margie was waitressing at Missy’s Home Cookin’ over by the interstate, and he sold insurance in town. They kept a nice-sized garden behind the house, and Margaret canned in the fall. They made do with what they had; what got them through the bad times and the good was love, simply love. When it’s all taken away, you either have that or you don’t.

Mind at large- North Korea, 1950

The Marine rifleman’s only awareness in that moment was of the darkness and his frozen feet. The unmistakable thump of launching mortars announced the first warning that something was wrong. He instinctively raised his head only to be momentarily blinded by a brilliant white flash from a multitude of flares in the sky.  As soon as they ignited, he heard the surreal sound of bugles and whistles coming from down the hill, and it took a few seconds for him to register what was really going on. It was Lieutenant Milton yelling, “They’re coming!” and the rest of his squad opening up that slapped him out of his stupor. The young rifleman had his M1 tucked up under his coat to keep it warm, and he immediately regretted doing so as he struggled desperately to free it.

Jimbo, his best buddy from basic training, was right next to him. He manned the Browning Automatic Rifle in the squad and was slamming his fist repeatedly on the breach. “The B.A.R. is froze!” he yelled and sat up to give a good pull on the bolt. As the rifleman finally freed his M1 rifle from his coat, Jimbo’s helmet flew off his head in a pink mist, and he slumped backwards unmoving in the snow, his inoperable B.A.R. machine gun still lying perpendicular across his lap. The rifleman, momentarily stunned by the sight, turned toward the din of the gunfire and bugles and emptied his 8-shot clip. He yanked his glove off and jammed down another clip and repeated the process. After placing a third clip, he took a deep breath as he took aim at the moving forms swarming up from the swale below them. Someone on the line yelled, “My God, they’re thousands of them!” They just kept coming up the hill screaming as they ran, and the Marines just kept mowing them down. After five minutes, the rifleman heard a bugle, and just as quickly as they had come, the enemy, melted into the darkness and falling snow and retreated down the hill.

Lieutenant Milton shouted for them to replace with fresh clips and to fix bayonets, “Bring up the corpsman! They will be back, fellas, sure as shit.”

It was dark again; the flares had burned out, but the snow on the ground and in the air provided an eerie illumination all its own. Obeying his lieutenant’s orders, the young rifleman prepared his weapon for a second assault and flinched a little when he heard the thump of a mortar tube again. He expected the flares and another onrush of the enemy, but instead he heard the Shhhhhhhhhh…BOOM! of an actual mortar round. It landed behind them and to the right. Shhhhhhhhhh…BOOM! A second was twenty yards closer. They were walking the mortar rounds in his direction. Shhhhhhhhhh…BOOM! A third round exploded with screams of men just down the line from him! The next will surely land squarely on top of me! Thought the rifleman, hugging the cold ground as tightly as he could. He heard the thump of the next mortar being launched from out in the darkness. This one’s got my name on it! He clamped his eyes shut and waited for an eternity for the mortar round to explode and rip him to pieces!  “I love you, Margie!” Shhhhhhhhhh BOOOM!

Mind at large- The Campus of Ohio University 1946

The sloping sidewalk was frosty, and leaf covered. The young woman hurried to get to class, her thoughts solely on the embarrassment of arriving late when her right shoe heel jammed into a crack in the pavement and her left foot came down squarely upon a single acorn sending her sprawling in unbearable pain amidst a spread of wet, golden oak leaves.

Her shinbone was sticking out the front of her right leg just above her ankle. It was a gruesome injury, so gruesome, in fact, that the students around her could hardly believe what they were seeing. They were themselves in shock. The grisliness of the injury just froze them all in place. She screamed at them, “Please, help me!” but no one moved. They just stood there gawking at her with various degrees of disgust and awe carved on their faces.

Finally, some kind person grabbed her hand and helped her up on one elbow but blocked her from seeing the true extent of her injury. He soothed her and covered her with his jacket. An ambulance finally arrived, but because of the grotesque angle of her leg, they could not fit her into it without damaging it further. The university hospital was only a few blocks away, so the decision was made to carry her there on the gurney. Each step and bump and jostle was an all-encompassing jolt of excruciating pain which she endured until she finally passed out from the sheer agony of it.

As he walked alongside the gurney, holding her hand in that moment, he noticed just how beautiful she was. Her grip on his hand had not loosened when she had passed out either. If anything, she was squeezing his hand harder and harder. “It hurt, too; man, did it hurt.” It felt like his hand was caught in a slowly tightening vise. She still was holding tightly to something…and so was he.

When she opened her eyes, her first awareness was the throb of her leg and her second was of a rather handsome, but strange boy looking at her with what seemed to be amusement curling the corners of his mouth.  “Who are you and why are you smiling at me like that?” she demanded in an angry tone. Maybe it was the memory of all the unhelpful strangers that added to her ire, but the weird kid just kept smiling at her.

After an awkward, very uncomfortable silence, he uttered, “I came by for my jacket.”

Click. She remembered it all now―the jacket, the soothing voice, his hand holding hers―and her face flushed with embarrassment. “I’m so sorry!” she blurted. “You’re the person who helped me, aren’t you?” She collected herself to the degree that she was able and extended her hand in introduction. “Hello, my name is Margaret, and you are?”

He smiled broadly; holding up a freshly-casted hand, he replied, “I’m the guy whose hand you broke.”

From that moment on, they were a couple. They didn’t at first realize it, or ever really try to acknowledge their relationship as anything beyond a deeply connected friendship held together by mended bones. But in no time, they went from being best friends right into marriage, just as smooth as a sunrise.

Mind at large- Fairfield County Ohio, 1940

The boy slowly stalked along the tree line, his rifle ready and tears welling in his eyes. His outward awareness was of his surroundings, the open field to his left, and the chatter and chirp of the grackles and starlings above him. His inward awareness was only of his brothers’ sharp words playing on a loop in his head, both of them sneering at him. He had refused to join them and their dad on the long-planned hunting trip. “I don’t like killing,” the boy had told them.

“Hey, Bobby, yah think he’s too scared to come with us?”

“Nope,” replied Bobby, “that ain’t it at all. He’s just a P-U-S-S-Y! Every family has one… and he’s all ours.” Those were their last words to him before they climbed into the truck, bounced down the driveway and pulled out onto the main road. His brothers’ words that morning were hurtful enough, but he was used to that.

What really hurt him, on the inside, was that his dad was within earshot of it all and didn’t say a thing! “NOT A DAMN THING! I’ll show them ALL that I ain’t scared!”

There was an animal trail that ran through the field not 30 yards out from the tree line. He knew of it because he had a spot where he liked to sit and watch things on lazy afternoons. When his chores were done, he’d head on out to it and think about stuff. He’d sit and watch billowy white clouds sail across the sky like clipper ships aflight. He’d feel the cool breeze on his face and smell the green smells of summer and the cool leafy scents of autumn. He knew that eventually his old friends would come, and he would wait patiently for them, knowing absolutely, he would finally see them again. The sight of them, their beauty and strength, always filled him with awe.

He came upon his old special place where the crook of a tree made a little bench that fit his body perfectly. He looked around him and all was quiet.  He would sit and wait and watch. He’d watch for them to come, like he always had, and they always did.

He heard it before he saw it. He tensed a little; a bead of sweat dripped from his forehead to mix with the tears in his eyes, momentarily blinding him, but when he wiped it away, he could plainly see it, a single adolescent buck. It was roughly the same age in deer years as he was, and it was just standing there. Unaware. He observed every detail:  the flexing muscle just beneath its shiny beige and white fur, the small nubs on the top of its head, and its large reflective brown eyes. It was close enough for him to see the sky within them. The boy slowly raised his rifle to his shoulder and leveled the barrel, switched off the safety, squinted down the sights, and took a deep breath.  He opened both eyes…and they stared at each other. An eternity of sorts passed between them in that single moment, a moment that ended with an echoing report of a rifle shot sending the entire tree line into a black mass of flight. The dark cloud of birds undulated its way across the field, folding in and out of itself as if it were one living entity. Then, as smooth as the sunlight, they blended into the trees on the far side of the field. It was as if they were no longer there.

Fairfield County, Ohio 2012

The watcher, the walker, and the breather of breaths stumbled out from the trees of the back woods bathed in the golden light of daybreak. His old body was naked and broken from his long night’s journey, but it mattered not. The timeworn house was just there across the pasture, strongly silhouetted against a brilliant eastern sky.  At first, it was just a dark form rising from the rolling horizon, but as he drew closer and closer, the details revealed themselves:  the movement of an empty rocking chair on the porch, the warm glow of an open front door, and the familiar form standing at the top of the steps with open arms, out-stretched. His heart leapt in his chest, and his pace quickened to a run, each footfall melting the morning frost, pressing the grass deeply into the soft brown earth. He entered the gated yard, climbed the steps, and they embraced each other in their familiar way. “Welcome home, my love,” whispered Margaret. “There’s coffee on.” She took his hand, squeezed it gently, and led him into the warm and glowing light of their doorway.

Maynard Glen Assisted Living 2012

“Doctor…Doctor Bricker…Paul.  It’s been almost ten minutes. He’s gone. I think it’s time.” The doctor acknowledged his colleague’s opinion with a nod of resignation.
Doctor Paul Bricker exhaled a breath of frustration and said,
“Time of death: 5:24.”

About the Author:

After losing three family members at an impressionable age, Stephen Stratton Moore tributes this experience as greatly influencing him as a writer in the way that he looks at things. It gave him a richer appreciation of our connectedness and stoked an inner passion to revel in the bittersweet nuances of those bonds.  This is his first published story! Stephen is a writer, musician and graphic designer.