Welcome to The Front Porch

Okay, dinner's over. The little ones are already at play in the yard. Lizzy, the devoted 'tween, is engaged in a lively game of giggle tag with the two toddlers. Braydon, while re-fitting the muffler to his dirt bike over at the side yard, is also busy pretending not to care. Grandpa has settled into his favorite lounge chair and lit his pipe. The twins are still at the dishes, noisily whispering about the recently discovered lump on Aunt Mary's left shoulder. Cool air brushes in off the nearby lake and shooes away the heat as well as the mosquitoes. The sun is heading for bed, and the long day rounds the bend towards home. There's just enough time left for a little light conversation and some good old-fashioned fellowship. So grab a seat here on the steps, or there by the old oak, and join in the discussion. Say your piece, or just while away the time listening to the chirping of the creatures hidden all about. Either way, we're here to entertain, enlighten, and encourage each other. And by the way, thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Scarred Heart

The climax to the weekend's “Why We Write” seminar was the writer's book signing and reading here in the campus theater. As the orchestra lights were dimmed an intellectual murmur in the theater slowly settled with the dust. The stage drapes were drawn, and the writer sat easily in the lone desk chair at center stage. A small lamp table with a water glass, a pair of reading glasses, and a book, stood by his side. The spot light in the writer's eyes prevented any reciprocation with the audience, so he simply gave welcoming glances in the general direction of shuffling feet and fidgeting seats. Soon enough all background sounds faded into ambiance and the writer picked up his book and glasses. 

"Good evening, and thank you all for staying around for tonight's reading,” he started. “It's always a pleasure to share a few minutes with other wordsmiths. What I'd like to do is read a little from Ghosts in the Courthouse. There are a couple of selections here in the last chapter, without giving anything away, that I thought...." And then halting, he took a sip of water, caught his breath, and placed the book back on the table. “You know,” the speaker continued, “I write about ghosts in my novels, but what are ghosts really but scars on the heart that we project onto our mental landscapes?” The writer then rolled up the sleeve on his right arm and displayed a ghastly scar circling his lumberjack forearm. "Take this scar, for instance. Now, it's an actual scar, but the events behind it haunt me to this day.” Again pausing, as he rolled his sleeve back over the tortured flesh, the writer then pronounced: “With your indulgence, friends, I'd rather share a personal story with you tonight instead. I think it might just stimulate some fruitful discussions.”

Like bright-eyed grand kids seated at their Papi's feet for story time, the audience seemed in unison to lean slightly forward in their seats, indicating their collective approval. So the writer spoke.

"Many of you may not know this about me, but before taking up the pen I was an active outdoors man. I prized big game trophies and hunted great animals on three different continents. From bison to lion to salt-water crocs, I bagged dozens of beasts. Then one year I set my sights on the American Gray Wolf.

"In those days, ranchers actually invited trackers such as myself onto their lands to help thin out the predators. So I made my way to the forests of southern Idaho and set up my camp. I tracked a formidable pack for a few days and then, having divined their territory, decided to begin my hunt the next morning. Hiking deep into their hunting grounds I picked up their trail just before sunrise. I could hear their dawning howls and the adrenaline rush began its familiar thrill ride through my taut veins. And then I heard a cry. I followed the desperate yelp and soon discovered one of the pack snagged in an abandoned spring trap. My hunter's heart skipped a beat. Here was a trophy kill, mine for the taking. But an unexpected compassion suddenly erupted out of my gut. I, the predator's predator, could not bring myself to shoot the wretched creature.

"Now you should know, it's a very risky proposition to assist wild animals, especially when they are cornered. But having decided on this unfamiliar tactic, I propped my rifle up against a tree and grabbed a fallen, forked branch. Tentatively, I followed my own poorly reasoned lead toward the now defensive animal. Holding his violent snaps at bay with the forked shield, I tried to wrestle his hind leg free. In an instant, however, the tables turned. The wolf's leg was indeed freed, but my own heroic arm was now snared in the iron-toothed grip. I heard my own scream as my lungs released the very last of my warmed breath in a sudden, explosive outburst.

"Blood spilled, of course, and mixed with the animal's small pools still soaking into the forest floor. The wolf himself darted without hesitation, and I was left there slumped against a tree - the last living human on earth. How did I get here? I questioned. What karmic calculations had conspired to bring me to my end, here at the foot of this plain forest tree? My free arm was no match by itself to unhinge the powerful clamps. I was trapped."

This traumatizing memory caused the writer to pause for another sip of water. Though no furrows disrupted the smoothness of his skin, a pain nonetheless emanated from the writer's face. Someone toward the back of the room cleared her throat. The otherwise palpable silence in the room cried out for the speaker to continue. Staring vacuously into the dark hall, it was if his eyes had turned about face and he was now looking at his own soul rather than his audience. He ruminated for a long tense moment, and then his lips moved and his tinged voice returned.

“As it turned out, my rifle had fallen from its lean-to and now, ironically, aimed itself directly at me. The black hole at the barrel's end caught my attention with its cold and judgmental stare. The forked bough, so helpful just moments before had flipped carelessly away during the violent twist of fates that had rendered me so shockingly helpless. It lay two feet out of my reach, and obstinately abstained from further assistance. I felt betrayed by it. The absurdity of my unintended isolation mocked me as well.

“But I was not alone. The hunted dogs had returned with the rising sun, presumably to return the fatal favor I had promised them. Now it was eight or nine to one, though I could not be sure of the exact number as they were circling, moving in and out of sight, teasing and testing. Compounding throbs of pain in my arm overpowered the rising fear in my chest, and I watched my unfolding demise with the same dispassionate coolness I kept when the odds were reversed and I had my finger on the trigger, my eye in the scope. Then the bleeding one reappeared and stared at me as a growling rumor spread among the other pack members. Three gray shadows approached from the left rear, but slunk stealthily away when I threw out obscenities at them. Two others pounced at me from the front, bared their blistering canines, and threatened vigorously. But nothing came of it.

“In the meanwhile, the bleeding one had taken the forked branch and bull-dosed it with his nose toward me, through the snow. Was he trying to assist me? Was my prior target voluntarily coming to my rescue? Why? Had his primitive heart likewise skipped a beat for me now? When it came within reach I instinctively snatched the branch, unhinged the trap, and quickly got to my feet. Now the odds were improving, though the circumstances still called for a rare caution. The smell of blood had been unleashed into the forest and restraint is antithetical to a predator's nature. Caution be damned! was my own natural response to the unnatural events spiraling out of control around me. I barrel rolled to the abandoned rifle, shouldered it on my weak side, took up a position using the tree trunk as brace, aimed and fired. The bleeding one was down. The other pack members scattered at the booming retort. I had bagged my trophy! But elation eluded me. My shattered vision of myself had sheltered itself in shame: not the shame of killing, but the shame of killing too naturally. I had killed as a beast kills, and ghosts were set loose as a result.”

No one moved as the writer picked up his book and glasses and stood to exit the stage. No applause echoed through the chamber. When a cell phone began to vibrate in someone's pocket, all in attendance heard it, but none bothered to notice it. Then in parting, the writer said: “Always after such void shattering violence there is a spent serenity that fills the space. Connections between man and animal, predator and prey, life and death are seared into the bloody soil and souls of the actors. Hearts, as arms, are scarred. But stories are forged, my friends, and words, like eulogies, are placed where life once was. Eulogizing scars: That is why I write. The death of a wild stranger in the middle of nowhere brought forth out of a once vicious predator a humbled wordsmith. With one arm dangling dangerously limp, and a provocative urgency forcing my attention, I threw my fallen comrade over my shoulder and moved away from the savage scene toward civilization. When I arrived there, I laid down my weapons and took up my pen.”

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