Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quilted by Christmas by Jodie Bailey

Quilted by Christmas
Abingdon Press (October 21, 2014)
by
Jodie Bailey

Chapter 1


“4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .” The small crowd’s voice rose in pitch and trembled with the chill as the lights flickered into life on the eighteen-foot tree in the small park in Hollings, North Carolina. Along Main Street, lampposts and white lights popped to life and bathed downtown in a warm glow.

Taryn McKenna shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat to keep from blowing on her fingers again. It only made them colder in the end. What global warming? It felt like every year was colder than the one before. The wind coming off the mountain tonight had a particular bite to it, like it had heard the same news as Taryn and wanted to make sure she felt it inside and out.

“Have you seen him yet?” Her younger cousin Rachel leaned close and did her best to whisper, though over the small crowd it seemed more like a shout.

Even Ethan, Rachel’s recently-adopted thirteen-month-old son thought his mom’s voice was too loud. He pressed four chubby fingers against her mouth with a wet, “Shhh . . .”

For a minute, Taryn forgot she was supposed to be vigilant. She arched an eyebrow so high she could almost feel it touch the knit cap she wore over her shoulder-length dark hair. “It’s pretty bad when the baby tells you to keep it down.”

Rachel flicked honey-blonde hair over her shoulder and planted a smacky kiss on the little boy’s cheek, eliciting a high-pitched squeal. “Come on, Mr. Manners. Let’s go down to the fire station and see if we can find Daddy.” She headed off to walk the three blocks out of downtown. “And we’ll get Aunt Taryn out of the crowd before she can have an uncomfortable moment.”

Taryn shoved her hands deeper in her pockets and planted her feet. After Rachel’s comment, she should stay right here and let Rachel make the trek back to find her EMT fiancĂ© all by herself. She looked over her shoulder toward her own house, two streets over from the park defining the center of Hollings. If she started walking now, she could have hot chocolate in hand and It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV in under ten minutes.

Not as if she’d be hiding the way Rachel implied. She’d just be warm and comfortable and out of the crowd jostling her as they headed for the community center where the county’s Christmas craft festival was cranking up.

The craft festival. She winced. “Rach?”

Several feet ahead of Taryn, her cousin miraculously heard her and turned around. “You coming?”

“I promised Jemma I’d come over and help with her craft booth.” Jemma. The name was warm on her tongue. Born of the time her tiny toddler mouth couldn’t quite get the grandma to work like it was supposed to. Her Jemma. The constant love in her life. As much as she wanted to go home and tuck in under a quilt, Taryn had promised and she wouldn’t let her grandmother down. “She’s got some quilts she’s selling in the community center.”

Rachel’s gaze bounced between the small brick building at the edge of the park and the fire station, invisible down the street and around the corner, where her fiancĂ© probably waited for her to show up with his chicken and pastry dinner from the little church on, yes, Church Street. “I’ll come with you and visit your grandmother for a second. I need to thank her for the cute little fireman quilt she made for Ethan’s bed. I can’t wait until he sees it on Christmas morning.” She hefted her son higher on her hip without missing a step. “Mark is hoping the house will be ready by then so we can take Ethan over after he wakes up and have our first Christmas morning as a family in our own house, even if it’s empty of everything but a tree.”

“That’s the single sappiest thing I’ve ever heard. And maybe the sweetest.”

Ethan giggled like he knew exactly what Taryn had said.

Taryn knew better than to offer to take the boy for some snuggles of her own. This was all still new and joyful to Rachel. Give it a month. She’d be begging for a babysitter, and Taryn would be more than willing to oblige. The way her arms ached to snuggle the wiggling, giggling bundle told her so. She shoved the longing aside and slid sideways between two people. “Excuse me.”

“Where did all of these people come from, anyway?” Rachel fell a half step behind her as the crowd thickened to funnel through the double doors into the community building.

“It’s Christmas in the mountains and it’s tree lighting night. Half of them are tourists.”

“Sure enough,” said an older gentleman with a Boston accent. “Cold down here is a lot better than cold up north.”

“Cold is cold.” Taryn smiled into his kind face.

“But here, with all the evergreens and the rolling hills . . .” He breathed in deeply. “Feels like you ought to be able to catch Christmas in a bottle up here. Sell it maybe. It’s like Christmas magic.”

Okay, right. Because there was such a thing as Christmas magic. Where all your dreams came true. Taryn fought the urge to screw up her lips. Never going to happen. She scanned the crowd again, wanting to spot a familiar face and yet dreading it at the same time. It was miserable being torn in two by your own emotions.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Rachel was right on top of her, one hand holding Ethan’s head to her shoulder protectively. “It will happen for you, too. Who knows, maybe with what you heard tonight . . .” She wiggled her eyebrows.

Taryn knew her expression hardened, just from the way her jaw ached. “No. Don’t start.”

“You can’t hide forever. Especially helping Jemma. If he’s looking for you, this is the first place he’ll go.”

“If he was looking for me, he would have found me before tonight. Frankly, I told Jemma I’d help her before I knew he was in town, and had I known, I’d be home right now avoiding a scene.” Maybe she should make an appearance, tell her grandmother she wasn’t feeling well, and leave fast. It wouldn’t be a lie. Her stomach was tying into deeper knots by the second. If she wasn’t careful, the country-style steak Jemma had cooked for dinner might just make an encore appearance. “He won’t look for me. He’s home to see his family. And I’m not his family.”

“You could’ve been, if you hadn’t been so stubborn.” Rachel may have meant to mumble under her breath, but it came just as a lull in the crowd’s conversation dropped, making it a loud and clear indictment.

Taryn stopped right in the flow of traffic just inside the door and turned to look Rachel hard in the eye. It was a mantra she’d stopped telling herself a long time ago, but hearing it now from her cousin, out loud for the first time, the words fired anger and released pent-up emotions Taryn thought she’d tamed long ago. “What did you just say?” The words bit through the air, hanging with icicles.

“Taryn . . .” Rachel’s eyes widened like the eyes of a deer Taryn had once hit heading down the mountain into Boone. She looked just as frozen, too. “I never should have spoken out loud.”

“So it’s okay to think it?” Was it how everyone saw Taryn? As the poor girl who let the love of her life get away? Waving a dismissive hand, Taryn turned and stalked off as best she could, leaving Rachel frozen in the crowd. Good. She deserved it. All those years she’d had Taryn’s back, now the truth came out. The whole mess was Taryn’s fault, and even her cousin thought so.

By the time Taryn arrived at Jemma’s tables, she was angry and over-stimulated. The crowd was too loud, the lights too bright, and the air too stuffy. More than anything, she wanted to pack a bag, hike up to Craven Gap, and pitch a tent for a week. She huffed into a spare metal folding chair and crossed her arms over her chest, garnering a warning glance from her grandmother, who was chatting with their preacher. Taryn sat up straighter and dropped her hands to her lap. She might be thirty, but Jemma still knew how to put her in her place.

Taryn let herself scan the room, filled with familiar townspeople and stranger tourists alike, but no jolt of adrenaline hit her at the sight of any of the faces. It disappointed and relieved her. Over the past dozen years, she’d managed to bury every emotion about the year deep down, so deep she hadn’t realized how badly she wanted to see Justin Callahan.

Despite the longing, a conversation with him couldn’t end well. Still, her eyes wouldn’t stop searching, even though something told her she’d know if Justin walked in, whether she spotted him or not. From the time she was a child, her heart had always known when he was nearby.

Rachel stood on the far side of the room at Marnie Lewis’s booth, which overflowed with all manner of jams and jellies. If she could, Taryn would slip over there and lay her head on Marnie’s shoulder, unburdening herself of the tense anticipation knotted in her stomach. Where Jemma was all practicality, her best friend Marnie was the soft shoulder for Taryn’s many tears. There had only been once when she’d had to refuse Marnie’s comfort, because the secret of those tears would have been too much for the older woman to bear.

But there was no time for pouring it all out now. Taryn shoved out of the rusting metal chair and busied herself straightening the quilts hanging from curtain rods hooked to a painted black peg board. Her fingers ran down the stitches of a red and white Celtic Twist, one of Jemma’s latest creations. This one was done on the trusty Singer machine in the upstairs sewing room at the white house in the center of the apple orchard. Tourists loved Jemma’s work, so she packed up the quilts she stitched by day and brought them to large craft fairs around Asheville and smaller ones in tiny valley towns like their own. The more tiny Hollings made its mark on the map as a North Carolina mountain tourist spot, the more out-of-towners discovered they had to have Jemma’s work. Her Celtic designs practically walked out the door right by themselves.

Taryn ran her hands over a complicated Celtic Knot to smooth the wrinkles as a shadow fell over the fabric. “This one’s a beauty, isn’t it?” She angled her chin up, ready to put on her selling face to the latest tourist.

Instead, she met all too familiar hot chocolate brown eyes. His brown hair was shorter than she’d ever seen it, though the top seemed to be outpacing the sides in growth. His shoulders were broader under a heavy black Carhartt coat, his face more defined. Every muscle in her body froze even as her stomach jumped at the heat of seeing him. She’d known this day would come, knew he was in town now, but still, she wasn’t ready.

Clearly, neither was he. He looked at her for a long moment, opened his mouth to speak, then was jostled by a tourist who stopped to peruse the lap quilts on the small plastic table. “This was a bad idea.” Justin shook his head and, with a glance of what looked like regret, turned and blended into the crowd, leaving Taryn to watch him walk away. Again.

###

“What exactly was that all about?”

When Jemma offered Taryn a ride home as the craft show wound down for the evening, Taryn figured she was safe. After all, Jemma hadn’t said one word about Justin’s awkward appearance and rapid disappearance. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed the entire exchange. In the bustle of answering questions and selling quilts, all she’d asked was if Taryn would come over tomorrow and spend part of her Saturday decorating the Christmas tree and working on Rachel’s wedding quilt with her.

But now, as she pulled Taryn’s kitchen door shut behind her, Jemma revealed just how much patience she had. About three hours’ worth.

Taryn pulled two chunky diner-style coffee mugs down from the white wood cabinets and thunked them onto the ancient butcher block countertop. “What’s all what about?” It was a long shot, but maybe the question had nothing to do with Justin at all. Maybe this was more about how she’d stalked into the booth and plopped into her chair like a three-year-old in full pout. Taryn rolled her eyes heavenward. Please, God? I’m not ready to have the Justin conversation yet.

“The little two-second exchange between you and a man who looked an awful lot like Justin Callahan all grown up.”

Nope. It was exactly what Taryn had feared it was about. She yanked open another cabinet and dug out a plastic container of Russian tea. Every year, when the first breath of winter blew along the valley, Taryn mixed instant tea with dried lemonade, orange drink, and spices just like her mother always had. It kept her close, made Taryn feel like she could close her eyes and have her mother reappear whenever she needed her. Boy, did she ever need her tonight. “Want some tea?”

“It was him, wasn’t it, Taryn?” The voice wasn’t demanding, just gentle, maybe even a little bit concerned.

Demanding would have been better.

Taryn turned and leaned against the counter to find Jemma still by the back door, arms crossed over her red and green turtleneck sweater. “I asked you to come in for something warm to drink, not to answer questions, well, I don’t have answers to.” She threw her hands out to the sides. “But yes, it was Justin. And why he came over to speak to me, I have no idea.”

Jemma nodded, one gray curl falling out of place over her temple. “Looked to me like he wanted to talk to you and thought better of it once he looked you in the eye. Can’t say I blame him. You looked scared to death.”

Yeah. Because she didn’t want him reading her mind and ferreting out all of her secrets. She might have done the right thing for him nearly twelve years ago, but it didn’t mean he ever needed to know about it. “I was surprised.”

“You always knew he’d come home someday. I’d have never thought it would take him this long. The Army’s kept him pretty busy, I’m guessing.”

“He’s been stationed overseas a lot. Too far to come home often. When he has been home, he’s kept to Dalton on his side of the mountain. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been to Hollings since we were in high school.” The minute the words left her mouth, Taryn wished she could pull a Superman and make the world spin backwards just long enough to stop herself from saying them in the first place.

Jemma’s eyebrow arched so high it was a wonder it didn’t pop right off of her forehead. “You kept track?”

“I’d run into his mom occasionally. Rarely. Every once in a while.” Awkward encounters for Taryn, because Ellen Callahan was always so friendly, so open, as though Taryn and her son hadn’t flamed out in a screaming match in their front yard the night before he left for basic training. While she told Jemma almost everything, she’d kept those brief conversations a secret. The less they talked about Justin, the better, because talking about him kept her from pretending anything ever happened.

“I’ll have some Russian tea.” Jemma finally answered the long-asked question, then pulled a spoon from the drawer by the sink and passed it to Taryn. “You’re going to have to talk to him sooner or later.”

Taryn dug the spoon into the fall leaf-colored powder and dumped it into a mug. “I never plan to talk to him. At least not the way you’re implying. And aren’t you the one who told me for years not talking to him was the better option?”

A car hummed by on the road in front of the house, loud in the sudden silence of the kitchen. Jemma didn’t move, then she shook her head. “Opinions change. Maybe . . . Maybe I was wrong.”

“No, you were exactly right. Besides, he’s home for Christmas this year, and then he’ll be back off to parts unknown in the world. If history is any indicator, he won’t be back in Hollings for another dozen years, and by then . . .” She shrugged a no big deal. By then, she’d probably still be Taryn McKenna, schoolteacher, living in the small green house on School Street, except maybe she’d have half a dozen cats for company. It was what she deserved, and it was likely what she’d get.

With a long-suffering sigh, Jemma pushed herself away from the counter and ran light fingers down the back of Taryn’s dark hair. “It’s your choice, but I’ll be praying.”

Something in her tone froze Taryn’s fingertip on the button for the microwave. “Why?”

Jemma let her touch drift from the crown of Taryn’s head to the tips of her shoulder-length hair, just like she had when Taryn was a child, then planted a kiss on her granddaughter’s temple. “Because I had a little chat with Marnie while you were taking down the booth tonight. You know how she knows everything about everybody.”

“And you’re nothing like her at all, are you Jemma?” Taryn smiled in spite of the dread. If anyone knew the business of everybody on the mountain, it was her grandmother.

“Don’t be cheeky, hon. Your mother and I taught you better.”

The spoon clinked against the ceramic of the coffee mug as Taryn stirred her grandmother’s tea, the spicy orange scent like a much-needed hug from her mother. The restlessness in her stomach settled. In a couple of weeks or so, Justin would be gone again and she wouldn’t have to worry about running into him, wouldn’t have to worry about the split in half feeling of wanting to see him, yet wanting to hold him at a distance. “What did Marnie say?”

Jemma pulled Taryn close to her side and pressed her forehead to Taryn’s temple. “Justin’s not home for Christmas. He’s out of the Army. He’s moved home to Dalton for good.”




Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding Mercy by Michael Landon Jr & Cindy Kelley

Finding Mercy
David C. Cook (October 1, 2014)
by
Michael Landon Jr. and Cindy Kelley



Chapter 1

Chapter One



May 1866



The sky was dark as pitch except for the streaks of lightning skittering across the heavens. Fat drops of rain pelted the top of Mercy’s head as she hid from the world inside a vertical tomb. The muscles in her legs, pressed against brick on either side, trembled, and she tried to shift positions even as she listened for noise unrelated to the storm. Faceless men had been chasing her; now it seemed they had found her. She felt the rain run down the back of her neck and shivered. Maybe this is my punishment for leaving the protection of Elijah and Isaac At the moment, wedged into a brick chimney on the second story of a boardinghouse, she regretted that action greatly.

The wind ripped down around her, causing her to look up. Something wasn’t right. She squinted hard at another layer in the darkness—grayer, moving, closer than it should be. She had only a few seconds to think of the possibilities before a surge of lightning backlit a man leering down at her. Thunder followed, and her scream dissolved into the vortex of night noises.

“Come out, come out wherever you are, Miss Mercy.” The singsong tone of his voice mocked her, and her heart hammered. The sheer speed of what happened next took her off guard. A hand shot out and strong fingers wrapped around her arm. She tried to pull free as he tugged and yanked, moving her inch by inch toward the opening. His face was so close at one point she could smell alcohol on his breath as his other hand grappled for purchase anyplace on her body. But still she had the crazy thought that in other circumstances she would think him a nice-looking young man. Not at all like the bounty hunters she’d conjured up in her imagination.

She resisted with all her weight as he tugged, but it wasn’t enough and she could feel the end of her journey coming at her with ferocious haste. Thunder cracked overhead—so close it felt as if it was sitting right on top of them—and the young man seemed startled by it. Mercy seized the opportunity. She pushed upward, giving slack to the man’s grip on her arm, and catching him off-guard. For a second, his hold loosened, and she yanked her arm back with all her might. Without the tension and her weight, he lost his balance, staggered for a moment, tried to grab the edge of the brick, but missed. The angle of the roof lent itself to his swift tumble down the shingles and off the edge. She could hear his scream over the sound of a brief lull in the storm. More telling than the scream from his fall was the way it abruptly ended. An alarmed voice from below yelled out. “Hell’s bells, he’s down!”

Mercy swallowed big gulps of the wet air just before she felt herself slip down the brick toward an even darker place. She struggled against the fall, knees bent, twisting and turning until she thwarted gravity by wedging herself sideways in the chimney. She tried to still her escalating panic and told herself she was safe for the moment. At least, she thought, if anyone else came out on the roof and looked into the chimney, they’d not be able to see her. Now, if they looked up the chimney from the fireplace in the parlor, that might prove to be a problem. She had no idea how far she’d fallen—only that the sky above seemed further away. She wondered about the man who’d fallen from the roof, and wondered how many were left. She’d heard two men whispering in the hall outside her rented room, seen another standing thirty feet below as she’d stood barefoot on slippery shingles and contemplated her escape. Did the man survive his fall from the roof? What kind of people hunt someone for money? How long will they wait to catch me?

* * *

A soft but steady shower of rain hit the young man lying on the wet grass behind the boardinghouse. A man called Gus kneeled beside him. Behind them, three other men stood in an uncomfortable semicircle. Luther and Newt, two ex–Union soldiers who had saved each other on the battlefield more than once, traded sad glances. The third man, Harland, had spent the last four months of the war confined to an army hospital for two bullet wounds. Vengeance for the Confederate who’d shot him had gone unmeted. It was Harland who finally broke the silence.

“He’s gone, Gus,” Harland said. “Let’s get him outta the rain.”

But Gus didn’t move. Harland traded looks with the other men, who shrugged. Luther looked up at the pitched roof and shook his head. “I swear that vixen is half witch. Disappeared is what she did.”

“We need a new plan,” Newt said.

Gus never took his eyes from the man on the grass. “You keep after her,” he said. “I’m taking my boy home to his mother.”

* * * * *

It was the sound of garbled voices that made Mercy open her eyes again. She stared at a triangle of light on her arm and then looked up. Daylight. Broad daylight overhead that left her wondering how on earth she’d passed the rest of the night in the chimney. Her head throbbed, her joints ached, and her back felt as if she’d never be able to straighten it again. She shivered in her damp dress and, ironically, wished she were sitting next to a warm fire. Had she really fallen asleep in such nightmarish conditions?

The sounds below her floated up the flue, which magnified people’s voices. She pictured the interior of the boardinghouse, specifically the parlor with the large fireplace and the worn velvet chairs placed in close proximity to the hearth.

“Really, Mr. Douglas, that is most unkind!”

Mercy recognized the voice of Mrs. Douglas. She and her husband of fifty years had a strange way of addressing each other so formally; Mercy wondered if the two even remembered each other’s first name.

“I am not being unkind, Mrs. Douglas.” The old man’s voice was querulous. “I am simply stating the truth. That young woman was too beautiful for her own good. Beauty like that gets a woman in all kinds of trouble.”

“I liked her,” his wife said. “She was sweet and didn’t gossip.”

“We knew her all of three days. Not nearly enough time to form a suitable opinion of her.”

“You just said she was beautiful,” Mrs. Douglas responded tartly.

“That is not an opinion,” Mr. Douglas said. “It is a fact.” His tone said he regarded the subject closed. “I don’t remember a spring as cool as the one we’re in now, do you?”

If Mrs. Douglas was miffed at being dismissed, the pleasant modulation of her voice gave no evidence of it. “I don’t believe I do,” she said. “Well, maybe the spring of ‘32. Remember how cold it was the day Joseph was born? Positively frosty in April.”

“Yes, you’re quite right. That was a cold spring. And right now, it feels rather frosty in here,” he answered.

From her perch in the chimney, Mercy tried to shift her weight. She tried not to think of her thirst. Then she tried not to think about her other basic needs that needed to be met.

Below her, she could hear Mr. Douglas moving very close to the fireplace. More sounds carried up the shaft. Someone seemed to be stacking kindling as if intending to start a fire.

Mercy looked up at a sky that seemed miles away while she wriggled and turned to get her feet wedged in a better position on the brick. She’d have to climb up. Her legs quivered, muscles protesting every move she tried to make, as gravity seemed to grab hold of her ankles and pull her back down. She heard Mr. Douglas ask Mrs. Douglas for a match. Her nerves frayed to a breaking point, Mercy had a quick mental picture of a fire below her. The thought was so frightening her urgent need for the outhouse vanished and was replaced by sheer panic.

“Don’t light the fire!” Mercy yelled.

Silence from below, then, “Did you hear that, Mrs. Douglas?”

“I think it came from the stairs, Mr. Douglas.”

Mercy yelled again. “It came from in here. Don’t light the—”

She slipped and the hearth of the fireplace came quickly at her. She clawed at the creosote-covered brick to slow her descent, but it didn’t help—she dropped like a rock into the wide opening of the hearth in the parlor. She landed on the stack of kindling feet first, but her legs buckled and she found herself on her backside staring at the astonished faces of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas.

“Good day,” Mercy said.

Mrs. Douglas, holding a teacup, opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Mr. Douglas stood rooted to the spot, a box of matches in hand, his jaw dropped in shocked surprise.

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Mercy said, struggling to get out of the hearth.

“What the blazes is this?” Mr. Douglas demanded. “Where did you come from?”

Mercy tried to dust the chimney soot from her dress but then noticed her arms were as black as her dress.

Mercy looked around nervously. “Who else is here?”

“No one,” Mr. Douglas said. He went to the fireplace, braced his hands on his knees and bent to look up the chimney.

“How in the world …?”

“Where is Mrs. Kline?”

Mrs. Douglas seemed to have found her voice. “Bess hasn’t been down yet. It was a late night here. Lots of commotion.”

“She knows it was a late night, Mrs. Douglas,” Mr. Douglas said. “I believe we can surmise the commotion was about her.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Mercy said.

Mrs. Douglas swallowed hard, then pointed a trembling hand at Mercy’s chest. “You … you appear to have a gun in your bosom.”

Mercy pressed a soot-covered hand against the pistol tucked into the bodice of her dress, more to reassure herself it was safe than to apologize for it. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t have pockets.”

Mr. Douglas glanced at her pistol, then caught himself and looked away. “It seems you’re in a tight spot,” he said. He looked at the chimney. “No pun intended, my dear. Let’s get Bess and maybe we can help you figure this out.”

“Thank you for your kind offer, but I’ll be fine,” Mercy said. “No need to wake Mrs. Kline. I’ll just get my things and leave you all in peace.”

Mercy hurried out of the parlor. She tread lightly on the steps, carefully avoiding the two she knew creaked, and made her way toward her room. The door stood open and she could see the splintered wood of the door jamb where the lock had been kicked in. She should probably pay Bess, the landlady, for damages, but she’d spent her last dollar securing the room.

Mercy entered and went straight to the bed, got down on her knees and did a sweep with her hand to feel for her saddlebags and shoes. Nothing. She tried again, pressing herself even closer to the floor so she could extend her arm further—but again, her hand came in contact with nothing at all. She lifted the bed skirt, pressed her cheek to the floor and looked under the bed. She had little in this world—just her pistol, the clothes on her back, a pair of shoes, and a saddlebag. She might have been able to leave without the shoes, but the saddlebag was another matter. She didn’t know if the men had taken it or if it was still in the house. She stood and thought of what to do next, and that’s when it dawned on her—the bed was made. Neat as a pin. Quilt pulled up, pillow fluffed. It certainly didn’t look like the rumpled bed she’d deserted in the middle of the night. It looked like someone had done some housekeeping in the wee hours. Mercy had never been in her landlady’s room, but she knew where it was. She padded barefoot down the hall.




Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer

Thief of Glory
WaterBrook Press (August 19, 2014)
by
Sigmund Brouwer





Chapter 1


A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host tree. It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with enough room for children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick, woody trunks and make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The roots, given time, look no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually, when the original support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow central core.

In a kampong—village—on the island of Java, in the then-called Dutch East Indies, stood such a banyan tree almost two hundred years old. On foggy evenings, even adults avoided passing by its ghostly silhouette, but on the morning of my tenth birthday, sunlight filtered through a sticky haze after a monsoon, giving everything a glow of tranquil beauty. There, a marble game beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the consequences became a journey that has taken me some three score and ten years to complete.

It was market day, and as a special privilege to me, Mother had left my younger brother and twin sisters in the care of our servants. In the early morning, before the tropical heat could slow our progress, she and I journeyed on back of the white horse she was so proud of, past the manicured grounds of our handsome home and along the tributary where my siblings and I often played. Farther down, the small river emptied into the busy port of Semarang. While it was not a school day, my father—the headmaster—and my older half brothers were supervising the maintenance of the building where all the blond-haired children experienced the exclusive Dutch education system.

As we passed, Indonesian peasants bowed and smiled at us. Ahead, shimmers of heat rose from the uneven cobblestones that formed the village square. Vibrant hues of Javanese batik fabrics, with their localized patterns of flowers and animals and folklore as familiar to me as my marbles, peeked from market stalls. I breathed in the smell of cinnamon and cardamom and curry powders mixed with the scents of fried foods and ripe mangoes and lychees.

I was a tiny king that morning, continuously shaking off my mother’s attempts to grasp my hand. She had already purchased spices from the old man at one of the Chinese stalls. He had risen beyond his status as a singkeh, an impoverished immigrant laborer from the southern provinces of China, this elevation signaled by his right thumbnail, which was at least two inches long and fit in a curving, encasing sheath with elaborate painted decorations. He kept it prominently displayed with his hands resting in his lap, a clear message that he held a privileged position and did not need to work with his hands. I’d long stopped being fascinated by this and was impatient to be moving, just as I’d long stopped being fascinated by his plump wife in a colorful long dress as she flicked the beads on her abacus to calculate prices with infallible accuracy.

I pulled away to help an older Dutch woman who was bartering with an Indonesian baker. She had not noticed that bank notes had fallen from her purse. I retrieved them for her but was in no mood for effusive thanks, partly because I thought it ridiculous to thank me for not stealing, but mainly because I knew what the other boys my age were doing at that moment. I needed to be on my way. With a quick “Dag, mevrouw”— Good day, madam—I bolted toward the banyan, giving no heed to my mother’s command to return.

For there, with potential loot placed in a wide chalked circle, were fresh victims. I might not have been allowed to keep the marbles I won from my younger siblings, but these Dutch boys were fair game. I slowed to an amble of pretended casualness as I neared, whistling and looking properly sharp in white shorts and a white linen shirt that had been hand pressed by Indonesian servants. I put on a show of indifference that I’d perfected and that served me well my whole life. Then I stopped when I saw her, all my apparent apathy instantly vanquished.

Laura.

As an old man, I can attest to the power of love at first sight. I can attest that the memory of a moment can endure—and haunt—for a lifetime. There are so many other moments slipping away from me, but this one remains.

Laura.

What is rarely, if ever, mentioned by poets is that hatred can have the same power, for that was the same moment that I first saw him. The impact of that memory has never waned either. This, too, remains as layers of my life slip away like peeling skin.

Georgie.

I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a
Washington, DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer—also my daughter and only child—who refused to secure my release until I promised to tell her the events of my journey there.

All these years later, across from her in that holding cell, I knew my daughter demanded this because she craved to make sense of a lifetime in the cold shade of my hollowness, for the span of decades since that marble game had withered me, the tendrils of my vanities and deceptions and self-deceptions long grown into strangling prop roots. Even so, as I agreed to my daughter’s terms, I maintained my emotional distance and made no mention that I intended to have this story delivered to her after my death.

Such, too, is the power of shame.