Monday, December 10, 2007

Home Again (1)

by Rocky Macy

Ephram Miller stood silently among the pines that bordered the lonely stretch of the old highway.  The slow November rains had long since soaked through the horse blanket that served as both his bedroll and hunting cloak, and his cotton shirt and buckskin breeches were sodden as well. Ephram was miserable in his wet clothing, so bone-bitingly wretched and cold that he could no longer feel the hunger that had been clenching his bowels since the last of the jerky and hardtack had disappeared from his poke two days before.  Somewhere, Ephram knew, one of the Lord’s creatures had eaten well that day.
But it was more than just hunger and cold that plagued the hunter. There was a fear seeping though his bones that he could not understand. Nothing changed in his world except the weather, yet Ephram had been stricken all afternoon with a foreboding that change was coming.  He could endure any burden that the Lord saw fit to place upon his haggard back, any save one – change.  
The Miller family had lived in the Shedd Valley for years, too many years to count, and since the night of the great carnage they had been the valley’s only inhabitants.  And, yes, the daily struggle for survival had always been challenging, but basically nothing of consequence ever changed in their lives.    There were no weddings, no funerals, no births – and no deaths. 
Ephram needed to return home, to nestle with his hardy wife, to feast upon her warmth and draw upon her strength.  She would allay this nagging fear of something different creeping into their quiet lives.
It had been almost a week since Ephram left the little cabin on the banks of the Chance, a cold, spring-fed creek that emerged from the ground on one end of the valley and submerged at the other.   The old-timers had said that the small creek graced the floor of their valley solely by “chance,” but Ephram knew that nothing created by the Lord happened by chance.   Yet the name persisted. 
On Monday morning, long before the sunlight spilled into Shedd Valley, Ephram had crept from Comfort’s warm bed and climbed the piney crags up to the ridge that bounded the valley. The ridge ran more than thirty miles, completely encompassing the Shedd and forever holding the Miller’s in its flinty grasp.
He had headed south that morning, walking slowly, eyes ever watchful for signs of game.  Ephram had traipsed the Shedd so many times that he knew every burrow, nest, and watering hole from rim to rim, across the width and breadth of the valley.  The terrain was as familiar to him as the eternal worry lines that were etched across the brow of his gentle wife.
Sometimes game was so plentiful that Ephram could shoot and snare an abundance in just a day or two.  This time he had not been so fortunate. After six days of slowly circling the Shedd, Ephram was nearing home with nothing to show for the hunt but his wet clothing and missing vittles.
The hunt would end tonight for good or ill.  Tomorrow was the Sabbath, a day on which Ephram must be at home to minister to his family and join with them in worshipping the Lord.  Comfort would have the children scrubbed up, and she would set a sparse but respectable table from the provisions that remained in the cave at the back of their cabin. Their stocks were low, that was a fact, but God would provide.  He always did.
The road before Ephram was a mystery. At one time there had been a world beyond the Shedd. People crossed into the valley along ancient trails that clung to menacing ravines, an unsparing ruggedness that shaped their lives and steeled their faith. They raised their families, lived their lives, and said their good-byes as grown children and neighbors moved beyond the valley’s ridge and out into the expanding young nation.   Tinkers and pilgrims passed through bringing news from the outside that flowed among the homesteads as freely as the rippling waters of the Chance.
But that was before the soldiers came.  In the brief interlude of one awful night the Shedd Valley had become a world unto itself, devoid of the stream of humanity that had once been its lifeblood, leaving the Miller family isolated within the valley’s impenetrable strangeness.
The only crack in the invisible wall that shielded the last family of the valley from the world beyond was the road, a hardened pathway that had been torn through the underbrush and wilderness many years after the night of the soldiers by men riding strange machines and blaspheming like true minions of Satan. The road touched the rim of the valley for only a few feet, a feeble portal to what lay beyond, an unyielding temptation to those of waning faith.
Ephram had stepped out onto the hard road only a few times, feats of daring that he would never mention to Comfort.  The road was certainly the work of Satan, built to hasten the journey of godless souls as they rushed willfully into the flames of damnation.  Yet Ephram was curious. There were days when Satan’s powers of temptation were so strong and convincing that even a good man like him could be lulled into imaging that maybe there was more to life than his family and their little cabin on the banks of the Chance. The wicked road that meandered up against their world like the serpent approaching the Garden had pulled Ephram to the rim of the valley more than once, but the love of his family always led him back home.
Ephram’s lack of courage regarding the hard road was not shared by all of God’s creatures. It was this knowledge that had brought the backwoodsman to this spot in the pines, the place he often sought out when the hunt was bad.  Satan’s road had occasionally provided meat for the table, and Comfort did not have to know the source of every morsel that went into her stew pot.
Even through the dismal wet grayness Ephram could tell that dusk was starting to creep in on his lonesome lookout. This night he would not have to burrow beneath some rocky overhang like a frightened animal.  He would stand his post until the day’s last light had faded beyond the misty hills and taken with it his hopes for a successful hunt, and then the weary hunter would wend his way homeward, burdened only with his old rifle and an empty poke.  Ephram could hunt again after the Sabbath.
It was a gentle movement in the brush on the far side of the road that pulled Ephram from thoughts of home.  There, carefully stepping from the shadows, was a young doe, beautiful and solid, a creature of the first life. Ephram slipped his rifle from beneath the soaked horse blanket, leveled it across a small pine bough, and took aim.  As the deer obligingly stepped forward onto the road and into Ephram’s sights, the hunter brought his finger to the trigger and silently said a prayer for help from above.
The whine of the sports car careening along the rim of the valley was all but lost to the cold winds as they carried their sorrowful hymn of the coming winter through the pines, but Ephram could hear and he knew that the Lord had answered his prayer. The deer also sensed the intrusion and turned to run. However, no sooner had she started to bolt away than a large limb tore itself from the forest ceiling and plummeted to the ground in front of the startled animal.  The doe instinctively turned again and leaped out onto the highway directly into the path of the shiny little car.
The crash was a wonderment to Ephram.  He watched as the doe, frozen in panic, was swept up and over the car in a frenzy of tearing metal, breaking glass, and terrified screaming. The regal animal landed on the valley side of the road, neck broken, and with her soft dead eyes staring up toward Ephram’s rifle barrel and through his everlasting soul. The car skidded across the road and rolled down into the gully.  In the quiet, Ephram waited, his eyes intent upon the carnage below. He knew hunting as well as he knew the Lord.  Patience is a virtue, good things come to those who wait, blessed are the meek…reassurances for the righteous.  God would provide.
There it was - a stirring, cautious at first, tentative, disbelieving.  Ever so slowly one who had been dead arose through the cold mists of redemption and stood before the hunter.  Ephram smiled.  “Praise God, “ he whispered.  “Praise God Almighty!”  And then he fired.
Comfort would set a fine table this Sabbath.

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