Eminent Domain: 5, John and Elizabeth

The first four chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.

5 John & Elizabeth

Elizabeth woke for some reason and twisted about in bed to see the clock. It was a quarter till four, and her husband John’s side of the bed was cold. She thought for a minute about scrunching back under the warm quilt and pretending that she never woke up, but a mixture of curiosity, worry, guilt, and love made her sit up and put her warm feet on the cold wooden floor. She sighed.

Making her way into the kitchen, she smelled the coffee and noticed the half-empty pot. She called gently down into the basement, so as not to wake any children, just to see if he was down in his workshop. Then she remembered the children were all in town spending the night at her parents. There was no answer from the workshop, but she didn’t expect one; several ewes were pregnant and due soon, and he was most likely in the barn.

She peered through the kitchen window, but there just wasn’t a good view of the barn from the house. That had always frustrated her — who would build a barn that you couldn’t see from the house? Or more likely, why wouldn’t you put windows in the house, so you could see the barn?

Her warmest wool socks were stuffed into her barn boots by the door. She pulled them both on and shrugged into her barn coat; the lantern by the door was gone. Perhaps she should fill a thermos with more coffee.

Trudging out to the barn through the new snow wasn’t easy, but at least the snow had stopped and now stars glittered in the February night sky. She stopped for just a minute to gaze upwards and listen to the snowy silence of a winter night in the country. A great horned owl hooted from the silhouetted trees at the edge of the woods and added mystery to the stillness.

She stepped in John’s larger footprints and quietly let herself in the man door around the side of the barn. Through the dim overhead light she could see her husband in one of the far stalls. He had his back to her and was kneeling in front of Bathsheba, one of their best ewes, who was on her side in front of him. As Elizabeth got closer, she could see a lamb cuddled up next to the big, wooly mama. A large bubble of fluid lay on the ground behind her, and John’s arm was up to his elbow inside Bathsheba’s birth canal.

“I’m here,” she said softly, not to startle him. “Is there anything you need?”

“I just don’t know if I can turn this second one,” he said, his voice muffled because his face was leaning against the matted wool of a sheep’s rump. “The first one there came easy, I guess, but it’s been almost an hour and a half for this one.”

“I can try,” she volunteered. “My arm is smaller.” There was nothing she liked less than lambing season. Give her children, chickens, plants, fruit trees, even bees, and she was fearless, but the possibility of death that hung in the air during lambing always gave her pause. They’d lost relatively few lambs — it was true. And John always knew which ewes to breed for easy births. Those who had a hard time were sold for meat or sheepskins, depending on their age.

“I can feel its legs locked,’’ he said. “And I just don’t want to hurt Bathsheba. Give me another minute.” John knew his wife’s hesitancy on helping with lambs; she’d done it in the past and was gentle and unflappable. But afterwards, when the lamb was stillborn, he had found her crying — hiding among the bales of straw in the room downstairs. He tried not to ask for her help unless it was absolutely necessary.

Icelandic Sheep Photo by biologyfishman via Wikimedia Commons.

Icelandic Sheep
Photo by biologyfishman via Wikimedia Commons.

Bathsheba had borne twin lambs with no problems for the last three springs. Even as a first time mama, she’d been fine. She was one of their Icelandic ewes, known for their wool. They didn’t have too many, most of their sheep were Katahdins, raised for meat and didn’t have to be sheared. But Elizabeth had wanted just a few for yarn, and John had chosen the best breed for wool and easy lambing. He, too, had come to love Bathsheba, with her proud horns and soft grey wool.

Elizabeth watched her tall Mennonite husband intently; it was in times like these that she was so grateful for him. He was strong and dependable. He always knew what he was about and where his strength came from. He never doubted, and she was often in awe of his unwavering faith. She thought of the two men who had lost their lives in the accident earlier this evening, and of the truck driver’s wife, who most certainly now knew that she was a widow — her life changed in an instant. Silently she prayed for peace for the new widow that she didn’t even know, and then she thanked God for her blessings — John, the children, the farm, her parents both still living and close by — and she ended the prayer thanking God for the blessings of new life, for Bathsheba, the new little lamb by her side, and the one being born to be delivered safely tonight in the sheep stall.

John twisted a bit and suddenly sighed. “Ah, there she goes,” he said quietly; and with a gentle tug, he pulled out his arm and with it plopped the tiny lamb, yellowish and gooey. Bathsheba turned to lick and clean the newborn, and the one by her side bleated its displeasure. He looked back at her. “All looks well,” he said.

They stood together looking down at the new family. John gently pushed the newborn over to suck the colostrum.

“I guess I should wash off,” he said, but he made no move to go anywhere.

“I’ve got more coffee,” Elizabeth said as she brought out the thermos. “And I’ll get a warm rag.” She walked over to the large trough sink right inside the door. With a closet next to the sink, she thought this might have been the smartest suggestion she’d ever had — running hot and cold water in the barn — and a deep sink to fill buckets. The barn was far enough away from the house and she’d spent her first winter as a pregnant farmer’s wife hauling buckets of water to the chickens who were wintered that year in the barn. John eagerly agreed that it was a necessity when she had mentioned it — he already had visions of sheep farming and keeping real livestock in the barn. That running water and sink trough committed them to being real farmers. That and the fence… She smiled as she wrung out two soft old towels with warm water — one for Bathsheba and her lambs and one for her husband.

When she returned, John had turned over two buckets for sitting. She gave him the warm wet rags and poured coffee. “I’ll share,” he smiled as she handed him the thermos cup. “Have a seat, my dear. It’s the best seat in the house.”

“It is,” she agreed. “So what do we have here?”

“Two happy little girls already sucking at Mama,” he smiled, rubbing his arm briskly with the wet towel. “And it really wasn’t that difficult. I probably didn’t even need to help, but I do love that Bathsheba girl. Listen to her talking to them.”

As they were nursing, Bathsheba was still licking them clean and making  mama sheep noises to her babies. “Two girls! What a fine start to lambing season! How about the others?” Elizabeth asked. Now that danger seemed to be over, she relaxed — a successful farm birth is a joyous occasion.

“Well, there’s nine more, you know?” Often she was distracted with children and chickens and food, and he was never sure how much attention she paid to the sheep. They were in his care. “But they are all still eating fine — no one’s off their food yet, so I think we’ll have at least a day or two of good night’s sleeping.”

“Too bad the children missed this,” she mused. “Eli would have been the first one out here — and more help than I was,” she admitted.

“Didn’t need help, did we Bathsheba?” John rubbed her wool and checked her back end to make sure all was well. He sat back down and took the cup of coffee from her. “Since we’re here in the barn in the middle of the night, drinking coffee, and celebrating two young ewe lambs,” he paused. “What do you think of trying to buy the orchard this spring?” He pointed across the road as if she didn’t know where the orchard was.

Yes, the orchard… Across the road, adjacent to Mary’s. They’d talked and talked about it, but never could decide if it was the right time. If we don’t offer him something soon, the trees will be so broken down, none of them will be worth trying to save, she thought.

“Yes,” John nodded. “It’s the truth.”

Elizabeth bit her lip, wondering if she had really spoken that thought aloud. And so she added, “But we don’t even know IF he will sell, OR what he wants for it… We’ve just been talking about it forever, it seems.”

John looked warily at her and grinned. “Have I worn you down at last?” he asked.

“I look over at those apples just rotting on the trees, and it cuts my heart — you know that. But…” She started to speak, bit her lip again, and stopped.

“Yes, we both know the monetary objections,” he said. “But the farm is doing well. We’ve got, God willing, ten to twenty new lambs coming and all the seeds for this year are bought and paid for. That’s a first. In February! Perhaps, it’s time to ask, at least. Then we can know and act on it. Or not,” he added.

Elizabeth nodded. She had prayed and prayed over this and never had seen or heard a clear answer. But tonight’s events, the reality of life ending suddenly no matter what you did or who you were — well, trusting God and stepping out in faith to live your life as best you can — Was that an answer? Perhaps.

She took her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ll never know until we ask, will we?”

He pulled her up from her elegant bucket seat. “Sheep grazing among the apple trees?”

“Only in the spring and summer,” she warned. “You have to keep them away from my apples in the fall.”

He kissed her.

Eminent Domain: 3, Matt

This is Chapter Three of the novel, Eminent Domain. The introduction and the first two chapters can be found under the heading at the top of the page, Fiction Projects.

Matthew Price peered out the window of his kitchen through the swirling snow. It wasn’t letting up, and it had been snowing and blowing and howling for almost an hour and a half. He took the lid from the soup pot that was simmering on the back burner of the stove, and the window fogged up from the warmth. As he wiped the window with the kitchen towel in his hand, he could see a glimmer from the building across the road.

“Someone must have left the light on in the church. Darn — Keener, won’t you go out and check the light for me?” Since Ruthie had died two years ago, he had gotten into the habit of talking to his old yellow lab, Keener.

Although Keener sometimes talked to Matt, he was too comfortable on his blanket to make much of a reply tonight. He opened his dark eyes when he heard his name, but even when Matt put on his coat, the dog didn’t  move.

“Too cold for both of us, old boy,” Matt stooped and petted the farm dog’s head. “I won’t make you come with me. This time.”

He wrapped a knitted scarf around his neck and pulled on his warmest barn gloves. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, you come and get me,” Matt told him, and pulled open the door. A burst of winter came howling into the warm kitchen, and he shut the door quickly before too much precious heat was lost. Keener put his head back down on his paws and was asleep before Matt was halfway down the walk.

It was slow going in the blizzard, and Matt pulled his scarf up over his nose and mouth. Living across the road from the church was convenient most of the time; he’d served on the deacon board for the past six years, and he was used to checking on things — going over early to make coffee for meetings, checking on stray lights, turning the furnace up or down, on or off. Especially the past two years, serving made him feel useful. Not that he was bored or had nothing to do. Ruthie had been the township tax collector, and when she had gotten too ill to keep the records, Matt had taken over. After she died, he kept at it and ran for the position on his own last fall. It kept a little money coming in, plus his social security. He still helped Ethan up at the barn with the cows, and last year they had added on a small hog barn — just big enough for three or four pigs.

Stamping his feet at the door to the fellowship hall, he tried the door and found it unlocked. Surprised, he pulled it open and called out, “Anyone here?”

A familiar voice answered him from the hallway, and it was followed by the appearance of the tall, lanky pastor, Burton Stewart.

“Burton, what are you doing still here on a night like this? I didn’t see your car — with no meetings tonight, you should be long gone home,” Matt scolded him. “I saw the lights on and came over to turn them off.”

“Matt, what would we do without you?” Burton smiled his slow self-effacing grin. “I thought I’d study up and write my sermon today, since I wasn’t likely to have any interruptions. But then it got later, and I saw the snow getting worse, so I thought I’d just wait for it to finish its work before I fought my way home. I called Denise, so she wouldn’t worry.”

“Well, come on over and have some soup,” Matt said. “I’ve got a pot simmering and some homemade bread that Lucy brought over yesterday.”

“I think I’ll take you up on that,” Burton said. “That’s the best invitation I’ve had all day. Just let me get my jacket. And come on back to the office, I have a book I’ve been wanting to give you to read. I’ve been thinking the Deacon board should read it together, and I want your opinion first.”

Matt followed Burton into his office and waited while the pastor moved stacks of books, magazines, and papers searching for the book. “It’s just a small book — Lord, Teach Us to Pray by Andrew Murray,” he said. “I sure would like to get our congregation invigorated about prayer, and the Deacons are a good place to start. Ah, here it is,” he said, and he handed the book to Matt.

“I sure could use a good instruction book,” Matt said. “I’ve been wearing my knees out praying for Reenie. And there has been no answer that I can tell. She seems just as hard-hearted as ever.”

Burton nodded. “It’s hardest when people we love don’t believe. But we never know what seeds have been planted, or how long it will take for them to sprout. Look at Ethan. His faith is steadily growing — its good to see your grandkids on Sunday. Praise God for that and keep praying for Reenie.”

Matt sighed. “I am grateful about Ethan’s new faith. If it took Ruthie dying for it to happen, then so be it. ”

“Ah, Matt, many of us have death bed scenarios that play over and over in our heads for years. Yours is one of the best.”

The men paused in their conversation, lost in the quietude of memory. “I left that evening when Ethan came in,” Burton mused. “I could see he’d been crying, and I wanted to give you some privacy. I waited downstairs for awhile, hoping to see him and maybe talk when he came out…”

“Ethan came in and just knelt down next to her bed and sobbed.” Matt looked at Burton. “You were there … she had a light in her eyes that evening that hadn’t been there for a long time.”

“She looked and acted better than I’d seen her in weeks,” Burton agreed. “I didn’t really think that was her night to leave us.”

“She touched his hair, his cheek, lifted his chin and made him look at her. ‘Don’t cry, my Ethan,’ she said. ‘I know where I am going, and I’m excited to leave this worthless body. It will be the journey of my life.’ Then she touched her finger to her lips and then his lips — it was their Mom and son kiss — and she closed her eyes with that peaceful smile on her face. She never woke up. I tell you, Burton, I felt God’s presence in that room that night.”

“And so did Ethan,” said Burton. He hugged the older man. “We never know who or when or why God calls. People don’t like mysteries, you know, especially involving our own lives.”

“Well, I’d like it better if she were still here with me,” Matt smiled. “But God’s timing is His own, and that’s one of the hardest things for us impatient creatures to understand.”

Red flashing lights outside the window interrupted the men’s conversation. “That’s not just a snow plow,” Burton said, as they put on their coats and walked to the door.

“Goodness, there’s at least three vehicles,” said Matt. “Must have been an accident. In this weather, it would be hard to keep a car on the road.”

The two men bent into the wind and made their way over to the police car that had turned off Rte. 492 onto Churchill Road and stopped. A firetruck and an ambulance were stopped on the main road blocking any cars from going further west. The state policeman was just getting out of his car. “Evening, gentlemen,” he said. “We’ve got a serious accident down the road, and a woman is still trapped in her car. We’ve got to set up a road block here to divert traffic down Churchill Road.”

“Through the Game Lands on a night like this!” Matt spoke his thoughts out loud.

“Can’t be helped. No one can get through yet — the accident is still on the road.”

“I’m the pastor here, Burton Stewart.” Burton stuck out his hand. “Can I help in any way?”

A large dark pickup truck pulled up next to the trooper’s car, and a man in an orange snowmobile suit jumped out. “Just let me get my lantern, and I’m ready wherever you need me,” he said. Another pickup turned in, and Matt motioned for him to pull into his own driveway.

“Let me get these boys situated, and I’m heading down,” the state trooper said. “Pastor, you can come along, though it won’t be pretty.”

“Sure, I’ll ride down with you. I’m not forgetting that bowl of soup, Matt. I’ll need it when I get back.” Burton walked toward the state trooper’s car.

“I’ll have it warm and waiting,” Matt shouted. He turned and trudged back up to his house, saying a silent prayer for a woman still trapped in her car.

On Organizing One’s World

Slipshod or Precise?

Messy or Neat?

Planned or Random?

Just what DOES your dining room table look like? Yes, I know, the only excuse for a messy dining room table is tax time… and ahem, yes, it’s soon upon us.

messy tableYes this is what the dining room table usually looks like. I thought about cleaning it off just for this photo shoot. But that would be putting a better face on me and my organizational skills than I deserve, and it might put undue pressure on you, the reader, to look around at your own house and wonder why you don’t measure up.

We usually eat at this table so (except at tax time) it can’t be too filled with junk. But I do admit that some evenings I have shoved stuff to the side just to make room for two plates. Sighs loudly. 

So I confess to being a disorderly, organized person. An ex-librarian for goodness sakes, and now a secretary! Files must be in alphabetical order, but the desk is often messy. I go in fits and starts. Stuff collects until I can’t stand it and then I go on a binge of organizing and throwing away, shredding, filing… Last year as we took tax stuff to our new accountant, I was rather nervous that in one of those binges, I had shredded important documents that she would need.

Indexing! said the librarian. Organization! 

And so, in an effort to start 2017 in good form and Organize My World (starting with paperwork) I’ve cleaned and re-organized the kitchen cabinet, my clothes closet, my nightstand, and I am seriously working on my own attitude toward busy-ness. I’m reading Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald (which has been on my unread bookshelf for four years now…) and it is speaking to me loud and clear.

MacDonald’s book is definitely about one’s private world, which is the heart of our moral compass, our self-esteem, our values, our conversations with God, our souls. Yet I can’t help but think if our outer worlds are messy, it must, in part, reflect our inner world.

“For me the appropriate metaphor for the inner spiritual center is a garden, a place of potential peace and tranquility. This garden is a place where the  Spirit of God comes to make self-disclosure, to share wisdom, to give affirmation or rebuke, to provide encouragement, and to give direction and guidance. When this garden is in proper order, it is a quiet place, and there is an absence of busyness, of defiling noise, of confusion.

The inner garden is a delicate place, and if not properly maintained it will be quickly overrun by intrusive undergrowth. God does not often walk in disordered gardens…”

garden statue
And in the next chapter, he continues the garden metaphor…

“Few of us can appreciate the terrible conspiracy of noise there is about us, noise that denies us the silence and solitude we need for this cultivation of the inner garden. It would not be hard to believe that the archenemy of God has conspired to surround us at every conceivable point in our lives with the interfering noises of civilization that, when left unmuffled, usually drown out the voice of God. Those who walk with God will tell you plainly, God does not ordinarily shout to make Himself heard.”

(My copy of this book was published in 1985 — way before the electronic revolution changed the type and amount of noise in our lives).

I long for simplicity — an end to clutter — both in my outer and inner worlds. I long to get rid of paper, unnecessary choices that complicate life, and I long to be the type of person who puts everything away in the correct place when I’m finished with it… Or, at least remember where I put it so I don’t have to spend twenty minutes searching for it.

“God does not ordinarily shout to make Himself heard…” That bears repeating, doesn’t it? And the still small voice is hard to hear when distraction, busy-ness, and clutter fill your heart, your mind, and your life.

Clean your house — and while you are cleaning, pray.

Weed your garden — and while you are weeding, listen to the birdsong.

Read your bible — and while you are reading, think on who He is and how to best honor Him in your life.

And for goodness sakes, clean off that dining room table — and while you are organizing, sing.