Friday, March 29, 2013

A Drawer Full of Crosses

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“I’ll be finished in an hour.”

That was my cousin, Susan. I’d spent every morning all during that week doing my devotions in her little cubbyhole of a home office. This particular morning she invited me to do my “meditating” at Galilee while she completed a couple of small jobs.

Outside of divine intervention, there should be no conceivable reason for Susan to end up at a spiritual retreat centre. She hates being dependent on anyone, even God. Nevertheless, even though she hasn’t admitted to needing to search for Him, God has sent out His posse after her.

Through the local, small town grapevine, Susan discovered that Galilee was looking for a painter. At the time, my cousin needed a job. She paints pastoral scenes, still life and portraits, so was more than qualified to paint walls, doors and woodwork.

The painting job turned into an administrative position. Personally, I think she runs the place: she lives and breathes Galilee.

She delights in telling me about the adventures involved in taking minutes when Galilee’s Board of Directors meets.

“I don’t speak Catholic,” she quips, explaining her difficulty in understanding the discussions buzzing around her.

She doesn’t “speak Catholic.” I am not sure she has ever gone to any church except to the chapel at Galilee when giving the required tour to guests — and to me, her “meditating” cousin. Considering the rather irreverent language in Susan’s vocabulary, I’ve often wondered how she’s managed to keep her job at the retreat centre. I suppose if God can shut the lions’ mouths, He is perfectly capable of shutting the ears of those who do “speak Catholic” so they don’t get offended by her speech patterns.

Before Susan sent me off to “meditate” — Susan doesn’t speak “Baptist” either, preferring a more generic “cover-all-the-possible-expressions-of-spirituality” kind of language — she showed me around the grounds and through the buildings.

Surrounded by stately trees, lush gardens and carefully tended grass, Galilee sits on a hill overlooking the Ottawa River. Since its conversion from a training facility for priests to a retreat centre, the doors have been opened to anyone looking for breathing space in their lives: Baptists, Buddhists, people wanting to get lost and others trying to find themselves. Galilee even welcomes neighbourhood dogs as long as “poop-and-scoop” is observed.

Susan carefully explained to me the effort that went in to painting the spiral staircase in the main hallway and the trouble the leather paneling snaking along the wall, caused her. Yes, you read correctly — leather paneling.

Everywhere there are reminders of religion. I wouldn’t have expected anything else in a place run by the Oblates. However, Susan thinks that non-Catholic people might be uncomfortable surrounded by religious objects. After all, some people try to find peace without connecting intimately with God.

So, she has a little campaign going. Susan’s trying to get rid of the crosses. She doesn’t want to burn them or bury them: nothing so crass. She respects everyone’s right to do religion his own way with his own “stuff.” Every one of the simple bedrooms, each one looking out through huge windows over the grounds toward the river, boasts a crucifix as its single ornament. My cousin believes that statues and crosses in the hallways and public rooms are fine. This is, after all, a Catholic Retreat Centre. However, she also believes that making guests comfortable at Galilee; providing non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics without distractions while they are “retreating,” should include giving everyone a generic bedroom, sans crucifix. She’s trying to convince the people in charge to put all the crosses in the dresser drawers: a sort of “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” theory.

I thought about how I would feel at Galilee if I were to seek to retreat there. Would I, a very serious, life-long Baptist, be offended or distracted by a crucifix in my room? It’s unlikely, though I was certainly impressed by the number of them around. However, the presence of the crosses has more significance for Susan than it does for me.

I wonder how many times in the course of a week she walks through those rooms. Susan holds Christ at arm’s length. She doesn’t know Him personally. Ten, fifteen, twenty times a day she sees a representation of Him, hanging on a cross to provide her with an eternal retreat. Perhaps one day, if she sees those crosses often enough, Susan will actually see beyond the object to the objective.

Lord, don’t let her put those crosses in a drawer.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Stab In The Dark

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“Yup, deader than my uncle’s great aunt.”

A skinny bare foot shot out to poke the body sprawled on the sun-baked earth.

“You ain’t got an uncle, Arnon.”

“That’s the point. Anyway, this guy won’t be botherin’ none of us no more.”

The other man looked around furtively. The noonday heat had driven every living thing in search of cooler places. The two men were alone—if you didn’t count the dead man.

“Yah, well, there are lots to replace him. Slave drivers work and slaves work, but only one of us gets paid.”

The man without an uncle bent over to finger the cloth of the dead man’s tunic.

“How much you think that’s worth, Ghassan?”

“Forget it. You can’t sell it, wear it, or give it away unless you’re thinkin’ of bein’ buried in it after his buddies stretch you to pieces between two of them wheels."

Ghassan waved his arm in the general direction of the two stone rollers the slaves used to move the blocks designated for the building of Pharaoh’s storehouses. Arnon recoiled, both from the cadaver’s clothes, and from the horrific thought of such a painful end. He quickly changed the subject. The stones might have ears.

“You seen who done it?”

“Sure. I was the one he was beatin’ on, wasn’t I.”

“So, if you tell, maybe we won’t all get blamed for this guy’s sudden end.”


“Whatcha waitin’ for then?”

“Dunno. I got a feelin’ about him, you know, the one who stuck his nose in my business. Said he was one of us—didn’t see any dirt under his fingernails though. Told me he was fed up with us bein’ treated like so much garbage. I don’t feel right about turnin’ him in. ‘Sides, I don’t want him mad at me. He seemed a mite quick tempered.”

“Well then, we’d better get ourselves outta here before someone finds this buzzard bait, or we’ll do time for the crime.”

With that, the two slaves scurried off. When they were out of sight, a shadow, hidden behind a pile of brick, converted itself into flesh and blood and moved quickly to where the body lay. Grabbing the dead man under the arms, his killer dragged him away.

If anyone missed the slave master, it wasn’t the slaves. As predicted, someone just as cruel soon took his place. Life went on, one painful day dying, then resurrecting, into another.

Some time later Arnon and Ghassan were assigned to collecting the bits of straw that fell from the carts as they trundled back and forth from the pits where the bricks were made. The two men took advantage of the lighter work to get as far away from their compatriots as reason would allow.

“Hey, that sister of yours is sure gettin’ to be quite a looker. She got herself a boyfriend?”

Ghassan straightened from his task, his eyes narrowing in anger.

“You’ll be smart to keep your eyes to yourself. That ain’t any way to speak about a respectable girl.”

“I’m only sayin’ …”

Whether it was the heat, the sun, the boring job, or the comment itself, the difference in perspective soon brought the two men nose-to-nose and fist-to-fist.

“Stop it, you two. You’re brothers in captivity. You should be helping each other, not fighting like two dogs over a bone.”

Surprised by the presence of a third party, Arnon and Ghassan stopped in their tracks. They turned. Ghassan gasped. The killer had returned.

Recovering from the shock, and with the heat of his spat with Arnon still burning in his brain, the words spewed thoughtlessly from Ghassan’s mouth.

“What? Who made you God? What right do you have to lord it over us and tell us what to do. You gonna kill me too, like you killed that Egyptian?”

To his surprise, the stranger’s mouth went slack, his face paled. Without another word, he turned and fled.

Their argument forgotten, Arnon turned to Ghassan.

“Well, don’t that beat all. You suppose he really wanted to kill us?”

Ghassan shook his head.

“I got a feeling lots of men will die on account of him, but I don’t think the Egyptian was supposed to be one of them. It’s like he suddenly realized he’d started a war before reading the battle plan. He’s runnin’ scared.”

“What plan?”

“Ask the one who’s chasing him.”

“What ‘one’?”

“Arnon, you know, sometimes you’re thicker than a brick. My granddad told me about the prophecy …”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Buster's Bones: The Greenborough Chronicles

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It all began when Janie Rodger’s dog, from Number 51 Greenborough Circle, dug up the bones in Sy Torino’s backyard. Five 60-ish, suburban ranchboxes hid in this quiet enclave. A city bylaw insisted that dogs be penned up, but since Buster couldn’t read, he slipped his chain that morning without the least sense of guilt for what he was doing or for the trouble he was about to cause. He visited his neighbours, the Sanders, at Number 53, crossed the circle and sniffed, snuffled and scented his way to numbers 59 — Sorensons had a cute poodle — and 57, where the Jacksons lived, ending his inspection tour in the middle, at 55 Greenborough Circle. Ignorance was both excuse and bliss for man and beast, at least up until this moment.

Buster knew that there was no dog at Number 55. He was no bloodhound, but he had a good nose nonetheless. No cat at 55 either, which was a pity. He longed to stretch his legs farther than his chain usually allowed him. Buster sauntered up the gravel driveway, swung right toward the front door, pausing to water the begonias in the flower bed. The welcome mat was out, hedgehog brown and bristly. Buster gave himself a well-earned massage from snout to backside and continued on his way, still heading to the right around the side of the house.

Mr. Torino had been busy. The scent of freshly cut grass tickled the dog’s nose. He paused for a roll and a brief sun bath then headed for the cool of the lilac bush at the back of the yard. Too much sun could kill, so he’d heard. Buster raised his snout, then lowered it. There was something here. In the air? Lilacs? No, spring had passed, and even though Sy had the best and most spectacular lilacs on the circle, there was nothing left but leaves at this time of the year. But there was something, a subtle hint of the forbidden, the prohibited. The dog rested his head once more and realized that the smell was slightly stronger on the ground. Leaving his nose glued to the dirt, he got up, circled to the left and determined that there was something buried under the lilac bush.

When Janie Rodgers got home from work, she found Buster unchained, lounging in the chaise on her back patio contentedly chewing on a bone. That was astonishing enough, but surprise turned to horror when Janie realized that there was a piece of cloth stuck to one bulbous end. She called the police.

It didn’t take long for the authorities to discover the hole under the lilac tree and the remains of Buster’s delicious find. The quiet community of Greenborough Circle was gone, overwhelmed by the comings and goings of police cars, ambulances, the forensic examiner’s SUV, reporters connected to camera crews from local newspapers and television stations and finally, the black van from the city morgue. Yellow crime scene tape stained the pristine orderliness of Sy’s manicured backyard. The reporters were herded to the end of the driveway, the neighbours watched from a more discrete distance and speculated.

“I wondered who it was …?”

“… and how it got in Sy’s back yard …”

“… under the lilac bush. Maybe that’s why Sy has such great lilacs in the spring!”

“That’s rude and not funny!”

“We’ve all been here for years. How is it that no one ever knew there was a body buried there?”

“The police have been inside with Sy for a long time. I wonder what they are asking him. I mean, it shouldn’t take this long, should it?”

“ … they must be grilling him.”

“Grilling him? Why? What would that old man know about the body buried in his back yard?

“Surely they can’t suspect Sy!”

“Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. Sy’s been our friend and neighbour for years. He was the first one here on the Circle. He played with our kids when they were small. I borrowed his lawnmower more times than I care to remember.”

“ … well, that’s it, isn’t it?”

“What’s it?”

“Sy was the first one here. He was a widower when we all moved to Greenborough Circle. And in all these years, he has never talked much about his wife.”

“You can’t seriously think that he offed his wife and buried her under the lilac bush!”

“ … I’m only saying …”

“They never found Jackson’s little girl …”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You remember, Sarah Jackson. She disappeared from the front yard over there at 57. No one ever found her.”


“Well, you were the one that said that Sy used to play with all our kids. Maybe he played …”

“From a wife killer to a kidnapper, child molester and murderer? You’re crazy! Sy was our friend and neighbour for years. You even go to the same church with him”



“You said ‘was’ so you think it’s possible too.”

“No, of course not. But …”

The discussion went on for hours around the Circle called Greenborough. In fact, it went on for days, weeks and months. The reporters went back to juicier stories, the police cars stopped pulling into Torino’s driveway, and the yellow tape was rolled up and trashed. Under the lilac bush, the earth settled once again, covering the hole that had been Cindy Masterson’s second-to-final resting place. She turned out to be a police cold case now resolved, buried in Torino’s backyard long before it was a backyard. It was only by chance that Sy hadn’t dug her up when he planted the lilac bush in memory of his wife the year after the house at 55 Greenborough Circle was built. Her boyfriend never imagined that Buster would uncover his crime so many years later.

The Jacksons, Sanders, Rodgers and Sorensons still live on Greenborough Circle. But two years after Buster’s adventure Sy Torino moved away. The body under the lilac bush accused him of nothing. But the awkward silences and curious, speculative stares from former friends and neighbours, the new coolness that descended into coldness frozen by the “buts”, “what if’s” “I wonders” and the “maybes” that hung over the enclave, continued to accuse him of everything long after Cindy Masterson’s death was solved.

None of Sy’s neighbours ever asked him about why the police spent so much time at his house that day. So they never knew that the detective was a old friend from high school who had decided to do a little reminiscing about old times while he was in the neighbourhood. No one asked what had happened to Sy’s wife. He could have told them where he went every Thursday afternoon. The gardener at the cemetery set his watch by Sy. And Sarah Jackson? Five years after Buster dug up Sy’s backyard the body of a little girl was discovered in the woods fifty miles from Greenborough Circle, her resting place revealed by a serial rapist in exchange for a deal that would save him from death row. By then it was too late for a reprieve for Sy Torino. He too was gone.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1 NIV)

Author's Note: I had always thought to develop this into a series, but somehow it has never happened. Maybe someday....

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fatherland, Socialism, or Death

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“Do you understand me? Not one tanker. Not one barrel. Not one drop. Nothing.”

Even for a big man further weighted and broadened by a Kevlar vest, he could move pretty quickly. His minister of mines and energy hardly had a chance to draw his breath and open his mouth, before his president was away from his desk and literally in his subordinate’s face.

“Do you understand me?”

“Ye-e-e-s, my commander. Perfectly, I understand perfectly. But …”

“But? There are no ‘buts.’ You will not, under any circumstances, sell one drop of our oil to those fascists. You will tell that to the president of the National Assembly. I want a motion on the floor, voted on, approved, and printed in our official newspaper before the end of the week.”

“Sir, you understand that …”

“What I understand is this: my people will not be trampled on by these imperialist scum. We will see who bends the knee when those mama’s boys have to spend the winter shivering in their cold homes; when gas prices rise to five dollars a gallon, or better yet, when they can’t find any gas to buy.”

“But …”

The minister could smell the coffee on the man’s breath as his commander-in-chief pushed his face closer to that of his own. The blood began to drain from his head, leaving the official feeling slightly faint. That deepening scowl before him radiated ill will. Others had disappeared for lesser offenses than trying to reason with the president.

“Go, and do it now.”

He went.

The international court has just ordered a freeze of all of the national oil company’s assets. Money could go in, but nothing could come out. In retaliation for what he saw as a conspiracy on the part of foreign interests to bring down his government, the president was determined to play the one card he had that his enemies didn’t—the richest oil reserves in the world.

There was one not-so-minor problem. The country ran on the money from that oil.

Much as he feared the consequences, the hapless functionary returned to the president’s office to try again. Surely, for the good of those he so easily named his compatriots, he would be magnanimous.

“Mr. President, I have carried out your orders. The National Assembly will discuss your proposal and you should have your approval by tomorrow night. But, I’m asking you to reconsider.”

The president, sitting behind his gilded mahogany desk and flanked by paintings of his preferred revolutionaries, looked up. The physical force from the look in his eyes pushed his minister of energy one step back.


The man was never more dangerous than he was when he spoke quietly. But it was too late to retreat.

“If we just agree to negotiate with the multinationals and pay them for what we expropriated, I’m sure the court will reconsider and release our assets. Without the money from the oil, we have no purchasing power abroad. We can’t support our programs.”

He didn’t dare remind his leader that his “revolution” and its policies had already brought the country to its knees. There were already shortages of food and medicines. The protests in the streets were more numerous and violent every day. Many of those who had faithfully supported this regime since its inception were tired of waiting for the delivery of what had been promised them. How had the flood of money, so generously granted to them from on high, become a trickle by the time it got down to them? The richest country on the continent, violated by its own, was slowly dying for lack of just about everything.

“What is the theme of this revolution?”

“Wh-a-a— Excuse me, Sir?”

“What is the theme of this revolution? Have you forgotten?”

“No, Mr. President, of course not.”

“Well, then?”

“Fatherland, Socialism, or Death.”

“I will not submit to a court I do not recognize, to foreign companies, or to the governments that control them. I will not allow them to bring me down. I would die a martyr to my cause before I would bow.”

The words slipped out of their own free will.

“But, Sir. It’s not about you.”

A second of silence became an eternity of time.

“What did you say?”

The minister straightened. It would be the third choice. Perhaps not his, probably not that of the man whose gaze now held him crucified. But out there, beyond the walls, wire, and weapons…?

Yes, it would be death.

Author's Note: I wrote this in 2008. Today, the man depicted in this fictional piece is being buried today after more than 20 years in power. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Conditioning

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Friday, August 1

At exactly fifteen minutes after midnight, Cynthia, startled from a sound sleep, rolled over, struggled to untangle her arms from the duvet cover, and made a grab for the phone. On her first attempt, she missed, sending the book she had been reading just before turning off the light, tumbling to the floor.


Nothing, not even a breath, or a whisper answered her.

“Hello? Who is it?”

Cynthia boasted about her ability to sleep through anything. During the years of the cold war, the accidental triggering of an air raid siren had sent the entire town into panic mode. She blissfully slept through it all. Storms, parties, and street races, never affected her beauty rest. It was odd that the ringing phone should do what nothing else could.

Calls at midnight usually signaled a family crisis, a drunk whose fingers did the walking in all the wrong directions, or a legitimate wrong number. The latter was usually followed by an apology or sometimes with the hasty “clink” of a receiver into its cradle and the sound of the dial tone.

There was nothing but silence this time.

Cynthia hung up and went back to sleep muttering about the rudeness of some people.

Saturday, August 2

At precisely fifteen minutes after midnight, the phone rang.

This time, Cynthia’s reflexes responded with more accuracy. Her hand grabbed the receiver on the second ring.



“Look, who is this?”

Empty air answered her.

The receiver returned to its cradle just a little more violently than it had the previous night.

Cynthia was scheduled to have Saturday morning brunch with some friends. Over orange juice and scrambled eggs, she recounted the experience of the last few nights.

“I don’t know what to do. Should I report it to the phone company? It doesn’t seem serious enough to call the police. There isn’t even any heavy breathing.”

Her friends commiserated with her. Maybe she should consider taking her phone off the hook at night, or getting an unlisted number.

Sunday, August 3

The clock in the living room struck 12:15 a.m. just as the phone beside Cynthia’s bed began to ring. For a second it seemed part of the dream haunting her at that moment. She had been walking along a road. Fog lay heavy and wet around her, preventing her from seeing much beyond the end of her nose. Branches hung from the trees—dripping telephone receivers, which she kept banging into. The sound of the phone pulled Cynthia off the path. The sheets were damp, her pajamas bathed in sweat.

“What do you want?” This time, politeness fled with sleep.

Again, there was nothing but silence.

Cynthia flung the phone down. She considered unplugging it, but resisted. Her father wasn’t well, and the family could call if something were to happen to him.

Later that morning, the now bleary-eyed woman, shared her experience with the other members of her Sunday School class.

“If whoever is on the other end of the line would just say something, then at least I would have some idea of how to respond. But this silence, and the clockwork timing is so frustrating.”

Cynthia felt better after the others prayed with her asking that the Lord would intervene in the situation. She went to sleep that night hanging on to those prayers, plus a few of her own.

Monday, August 4

The sound jerked her out of a peaceful slumber. This time, precisely fifteen minutes after midnight, Cynthia didn’t even bother to ask who was calling. She pulled the phone from its cradle, listened to the silence for thirty seconds, and then put the receiver back.

The routine chores of the day were carried out on automatic pilot as Cynthia chewed on the dilemma of the midnight caller. There was so much to do as a first-time homeowner. The hours in the day never seemed enough.

Tuesday, August 5

Cynthia woke up at precisely fifteen minutes after midnight—to absolute silence. There was an odd smell in the room and a light haze. Her mind, now conditioned to respond at this hour, kicked into high gear. She recognized smoke and the odor of something burning.

On her list of things to do in the new house had been a revision of the smoke alarms.

Later, as the firefighters checked the house for any further signs of overheated wiring, she thanked God for His midnight caller who had saved her life and her home.