Thresholds: “Behind Old Doors” and “Home” by Hannah Abrahamson

Due dates for papers, presentations, and exams are closing in. Someone (sidhe or brownies, I think) have strung blue fairy lights and even a chandelier over some of the streets in town. Between drinking hot chocolate and researching, I’ve been stealing golden moments outside in the dwindling daylight. Now that many of the leaves are gone, the woods are brighter.

Like Shera Moyer‘s contribution last week, Hannah Abrahamson‘s contribution to the Thresholds project, with its images of green hilltops and faded leaves, stirs up a mix of contentment and longing in me. Enjoy!

Behind Old Doors

by Hannah Abrahamson

A door! What slumbers behind that old door?
My feet skip a beat and so does my heart.
A door! The unknown leaves me wanting more:
A mystery I’ll awake with a start.

Will its joy fill my lungs like crisp fall air?
Will its scent linger like leaves limp and brown?
Will it sweeten my soul and stir up care
Like cider overflowing drips down?

The threshold sparkles like flurries in flight,
And beckons me to step frightfully near.
I push the door open with all my might,
And awaken whatever slumbers here.

The Builder knows the great mystery well;
What old doors will bring only He can tell.

Home

Home: a place I may never reach by road;
A cloud kingdom built by winds roaming free,
Where I may unpack my soul’s crushing load,
For I know the keepers and they know me.

Hello, blue house, you served us well a while.
I watched my children grow within your walls.
I see my children in the garden smile,
I see laughter in every leaf that falls.

Goodbye, blue house, now we travel onward.
Your memory stays with me as I go.
I look back with joy as I look forward,
I climb to windswept heights from valleys low.

O Lord, make this green hilltop house a home,
Although till Heaven calls this earth we roam.

Hannah Abrahamson

Hannah just moved back to her hometown with her husband, son, and daughter. Right now she’s living with her parents, but Hannah and her family look forward to moving into their new house soon, situated on a hilltop surrounded by miles of farmland, prairie grass, and country roads. Hannah spends most of her time homeschooling, but also pursues a long and eclectic list of hobbies including writing, kayaking, reading, crocheting, and playing the ukulele. You can find more of her work on her website, teacherbynature.com. (“Home” originally appeared here.)

Thresholds: “Vapor in Time” by Shera Moyer

I think this autumn will become a film reel of memories for me: gray-green hills surrounded by swirling mist and howling winds, red hawthorn berries and dewy cobwebs in hedges, gold weather vanes on top of church steeples, pastures of grazing brown-and-white cows, warm home lights twinkling against darkened landscapes at dusk. It turns out that going to grad school in Scotland is a great thing to do during a pandemic: a class schedule is more flexible than a work schedule, you get to enjoy fascinating lectures and fellowship with other students, and you can travel the wild even if you can’t tour palaces or go to ceilidhs. God is good.

This next contribution to the Thresholds project also ponders travel, home, and wonder: Shera Moyer‘s description of her life in Tanzania and Indiana makes me yearn to visit both…but also to explore and enjoy the ordinary, familiar wonders of my own place. Shera partnered with Hannah Abrahamson, who gave her the following artifacts (creative stimuli) to work from:

  • The moon rising over leafless trees
  • The smell of pumpkin and cinnamon
  • A soft and warm fall coat

Enjoy!

Vapor in Time

by Shera Moyer

Leaves in the sun

At the end of a sleepy siesta last month I found myself in that dreamy state where I was unsure if I was asleep or just thinking about dreaming as I woke up. For those few moments I relished the feeling of not knowing quite where I was, yet realizing it didn’t matter. I would find out soon enough. A while later, as I sat staring at the swirling steam rising from my tea, I was transported from an Indiana autumn afternoon to memories of October mornings back home in Tanzania.

Mesmerized by the same steam swirls in slanted sun rays, I sipped my morning tea to the background vocals of a rasping red-necked spurfowl. As he scratched around a nearby granite rock kopje, belting out his morning “kwa-lee’s”, a goshawk flew high overhead twittering while performing his routine territorial display. A hint of burnt grass smell hung in the chilly morning air, lingering from fires the night before – fires started to clear fields, but run wild with the wind, setting whole mountainsides aglow at night.

October skies are hazy. Dust, smoke, and ash particles suspend in the atmosphere, and in the evening, when fires are lit again, the skies blaze above as refracted sunlight ignites towering cumulus and bright streaks of feathery cirrus clouds.

With the rains still a month or two away, the weather grows continually warmer. It’s in the midst of this hot and dry that the miombo woodlands burst into leaf. While most vegetation is leafless after months of dry-season, Brachystegia trees release energy stored in their roots to adorn bare branches with new foliage. Initially, only a faint tinge of color starts to show on the brown hillsides, but in a matter of days the trees are covered with gold, red, and fresh green. A walk through miombo woodlands on a late October afternoon conjures up feelings I imagine stained glass artists hope to inspire in grand cathedrals. As I stand there on sandy, rust-coloured soil and can’t ever seem to stop gazing at translucent, tender new leaves absorbing sunlight.

More leaves in the sun

Perhaps trees just like showing off this time of year. Back on the north side of the equator red maple and golden beech leaves contrast with dark green conifers and earthy oaks blending into a rich seasonal colour palette. Walking through a stand of beech trees in yellow leaf gives the impression they’ve been storing up sunlight all year just to share on a cloudy autumn day. When I wander through an autumn wood I don’t know where to let my eyes rest for all the colors. Again, I often find myself just standing, breathing in the crisp air, eyes drawn to jaggedy-edged palmate maple leaves and smooth-lobed sassafras, then up to follow the crunching sound of a bounding deer waving its white tail-flag as it leaps and lands.

Here the colors herald an ending. By November most of the trees look like they’ve been inverted, doing head-stands and waving their scraggly roots skyward. The woods are quiet now, aside from the occasional squealing chipmunk as it darts away. Sweet, musty smells of decomposing vegetation fill the air, and the leaves underfoot make damp swishes. My legs are frozen numb through my jeans, I can’t actually feel my ears, and I can see my own breath. It must be time to add more warm layers.

Back inside, thawing out, I peer into another cup of hot black tea and blow the steam to make it dance. I wonder how I know when I’ve fully arrived somewhere? The process seems more gradual than the thunk of an official stamp in a passport on June 26th, 2019. Perhaps it’s finally having a driver’s license that matches my place of current residence? Indiana, “The crossroads of America”, the state tagline reads. Its regular train whistles, honking Canada geese overhead, and criss-crossed interstate highways easily lead me to nostalgia and thoughts of people far away.

But, my feet have also walked the ground here for over a year now. The paved sidewalks and roads have worn my soles smooth, and off-track meandering has often sent me home with damp socks. Lately, I’ve also begun exploring narrow country roads, the kind that run past old brick churches and mossy cemeteries, or through family farms and along rickety wooden fences covered in thick vines. I choose the turns that beckon or intrigue and eventually I drive back home with no map. Small adventures, sure, but it’s satisfying not to know exactly where I am, but still have my bearings well enough to find my way back to a specific address.

While there are still plenty of things I’d like to do out there in the world – learn new bird calls, climb boulders to watch the sunrise, swim from deserted rocky lake shores, identify new species of flowers, and discover hidden waterfalls in deep ravines – for now I’ll boil a kettle in the kitchen. Then I’ll pick a sprig of fresh mint, drop it into the hot water, and nestle into a large beige armchair with a fluffy blanket. Cradling my mint tea, I’ll breathe deeply of its sharp aroma as I stare out the window to the stubbled field beyond.

Shera Moyer

Canoe on a misty lake

Shera enjoys playing with words, good conversations, and spending time outside getting to know the surrounding world. One day she might start a blog for fun, but until then she has piles of notebooks full of happy scribbles, and for now that’s quite all right.

Thresholds: “Martinmas” by Miriam Novotny

This past week taught me some important lessons: lemon & ginger tea heals any ailment, including those you didn’t know you had; hiking through fog is breathtaking, almost better than hiking under clear skies; the British honor Remembrance Day, a memorial day for World War I and military conflicts since then, with scarlet poppies.

Last year in New England, November painted the woods gold, and we had the first snow around Thanksgiving. I will miss the magical quietness and transformation of snowfalls here, as well as an official celebration of Thanksgiving, but swirling mist, thundering sea, and golden fairy lights are treasures enough.

This week’s Thresholds piece, a short story by Miriam Novotny, reminded me of the joys of cold, snowy, cozy weather. Her story meditates on thresholds of time and space, now and not yet, yearning and fulfillment, and gave me a new respect for November 11 as the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Enjoy!

Martinmas

by Miriam Novotny

Lanterns in the snow

I put on my gloves and took a last look around the kitchen. The golden light glinted on the tea kettle, and the warm scent of spiced cider hung in the air. I was reluctant to leave, but I didn’t want to disappoint my siblings. They deserved to experience the tradition that had brought me so much joy, so I picked up my lantern and turned the knob. Together, we entered the frosty night.

The bitter chill in the air stung my cheeks and pinched the insides of my nostrils. It was almost too dark to see the leaves that littered the ground, but they crackled under my feet. Suddenly a gust of wind whisked them away, leaving the yard even bleaker than it had been before. My breath rose above me and melted into the stars.

My sister followed my gaze. “The stars look like windows into heaven, don’t they?” she asked. I didn’t answer. I could remember saying the same thing at her age, but the stars had felt nearer then. They were so far away now. I looked at the lantern in my hand, at the dancing light inside it. It was only a jam jar decorated with bits of colored paper, but I had been proud of it when I’d made it years ago. It was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the stars, perhaps, but it echoed their beauty.

Just then, I felt a tugging at my jacket. It was my brother. “What is it, Michael?” I said.

“Why do we take a lantern walk on Martinmas?” he asked me. His little nose was red with cold, and his brown eyes shone. He was the youngest, and this was his first lantern walk. I suddenly realized that he didn’t even know who St. Martin was.

“I’ll tell you,” I said, kneeling down beside him. The other children knew the story by heart, but they gathered around us with eager faces. “Long, long ago,” I began, “in the days of the Roman Empire, there was a young soldier named Martin.”

“A soldier?” asked Michael, becoming excited.

“Yes,” I said. “One day, as he was riding to the city, a great storm arose. The wind howled like a wild animal, and the snow came down in great sheets. He was glad that his military attire included a good, heavy cloak, let me tell you. Well, when he had nearly reached the city, he came upon a beggar sitting by the roadside. The old man had hardly anything on, and his frail body trembled violently. He implored everyone who passed to spare him a cloak or a bit of cloth to wrap himself in, but no one seemed to hear him. At last Martin could stand it no longer. He reigned in his horse and began to dismount.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ one of his officers demanded.

‘This man is going to freeze to death,’ Martin told him, shouting above the wind.

‘So will we, if we don’t get a move on. If we stop now, we won’t reach town before the closing of the gates.’

‘Go on without me then,’ said Martin, and that is what they did. They kicked their horses and rode away, leaving him standing by the roadside.

Martin looked at the beggar. He wished he had an extra cloak, but all he had with him were the clothes on his back. Well, there was only one thing to do. He drew his sword and cut his cloak. Kneeling down, he wrapped one half around the old man’s body. The beggar looked up at the soldier in surprise. ‘Oh, thank you, sir!’ he said, his eyes filling with tears.

‘Don’t mention it. I only wish I could give you more,’ said Martin, trying not to cry himself. All at once, he remembered the gates. Before the beggar could speak again, he mounted his horse and was gone.

By now it was quite dark, and the road was empty. Martin leaned over the horse’s neck, urging him to go faster. Soon the city walls loomed before him, dimly visible through the curtain of snow. Martin’s heart sank. The gates were closed. They would not be opened again till morning. Dismounting, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the ground, thankful for the half-cloak that remained to him. At last he drifted off to sleep.

And as he slept, Martin had a dream. He dreamed that he saw a group of people coming over the snow, bearing lanterns bright as stars. The lantern-bearers climbed up, up into the sky, till they came to a vast gateway. Unlike the gates of the city, it was open wide, and a blinding light poured forth.

Standing on the threshold was the beggar. He was still wearing the half-cloak, but he seemed different somehow. As the beggar’s eyes met Martin’s, such love and power shone within them that Martin could hardly bear it. Those eyes could only belong to Jesus. Then the Lord raised his arm, and in a loud voice he cried to the lantern-bearers, ‘See! Martin, who has not yet been baptized, has clothed me.’ And Martin remembered the words, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

“What happened next?” Michael asked breathlessly.

“Well,” I said, “Martin awoke the next morning and entered the city, but he didn’t forget his dream. He had been studying the Faith since he was ten years old, and now he was baptized as soon as possible. Eventually, he left the Roman army to better focus on serving Christ. He had many other adventures and even became the bishop of Tours. But above all, he longed to enter the shining gates that he had seen in his dream.”

“And did he?” Michael asked.

“Yes, he did. When Martin was an old man, weary from his work for God, Christ came and took him home.”

“I want to enter the shining gates, too,” said Michael.

“So do I,” said my sister.

“We will one day,” I told them.

I rose to my feet, and together we walked into the darkness, our hearts and lanterns like little stars.

Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny believes that storytelling is an honor, a part of being made in God’s Image. While she waits for the great Happily Ever After, she spends her time reading books, spinning stories, and drinking cinnamon tea. Read more of her work on her blog, The Glass Hill.

Thresholds: “Between Homes (Agnete)” by Karlee Lillywhite

While this week is centered on election furor and uncertainty, it’s been full of good things, too: research sessions into the meaning of fantasy that felt like deep-sea diving, class presentations on sacramentalism, Anthroposophy, and labyrinths, carrot cake and chamomile tea and walks in the wind-ruffled woods.

This week’s contribution to the Thresholds project is a work of beauty and mystery. In a pen and watercolor illustration, one of my classmates in the Theology and the Arts program, Karlee Lillywhite, explores the thresholds between sea/land, community/isolation, home/away…and more. I was Karlee’s partner for this project, so I gave her the following artifacts to start with:

  • Sea glass
  • Frost
  • Sound of bells

She responded with the exquisite work below. As a writer and not a visual artist or art expert, I can only gape in wonder at her fine, delicate composition, skillful use of color (especially gold!), and dreamy representation of sea and sky, land and the human face. Enjoy!

Between Homes (Agnete)

by Karlee Lillywhite
6″ x 6″ pen and watercolor work on illustration board

Between Homes (Agnete) watercolor

Karlee’s description:

This illustration is a scene from the story of Agnete and the Merman, which is a popular Scandinavian folk ballad about a human woman who falls in love with a merman and lives with him underwater. She has a family with the merman and lives happily with them for many years but one day, when she hears church bells ringing from up above, she becomes nostalgic for the land and wants to visit the surface. Once in the church building, she decides not to return to her underwater life. This painting depicts Agnete coming out of the water after her years below the surface. She is feeling the wind, breathing air, and hearing sounds clearly again for the first time as all the memories of her earth life and human identity come flooding back. An English version of the Danish ballad translated by George Borrow can be read here.

A closer look at certain aspects:

Karlee Lillywhite

Karlee Lillywhite

Karlee is a freelance illustrator who loves to tell visual stories that encourage experiences of longing and embodiment. Her work is inspired by women from literature and history and by the decorative motifs of medieval illuminated manuscripts and the art nouveau period. As a graduate student in the University of St Andrew’s Art and Theology program, she studies the devotional possibilities of illustration. You can follow her work and learn more about her process on her instagram and website.

“Thresholds”: All Saints Day, 2020

When I started planning my own contribution to the Thresholds project, I knew from experience to pick a publication date right away. I started looking at holidays and astronomical events. Halloween was the obvious choice, but somehow I didn’t want to do a Halloween story – I have too many memories of neon-orange pumpkins, sugary candy corn, black-clad witches and goblins, grotesque masks at CVS, neon green and bright purple to leave much mystique and grandeur in that holiday. I decided to do All Saints Day instead, a holiday I knew almost nothing about beyond the name.

My most recent short stories have been dystopian, science fiction, and fantasy, so I decided to experiment with another of my favorite genres, mystery. It’s very difficult to cram a full detective story into a short story format – even Agatha Christie’s are a little cramped – so I wasn’t completely successful, but it was fun to try.

My brief, unofficial, scattered research of All Saints Day showed me that this day is just as mysterious and otherworldy as Halloween, or even more so, since it deals with transcendent mysteries. Sources like this one taught me that this feast honors all saints of the Church, the living and dead. Other sources like this one suggest that this Christian holiday is meant to replace the Celtic, pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) on October 31, when Druids lit bonfires to celebrate the end of harvest, beginning of the darkness of winter, and night when the dead could come back to visit the living.

Bonfires and moonlight, restless sea and brooding sky…my imagination began to churn. I liked the idea of a night filled with holy fear; not the dark, hopeless terror of pagans trying to satisfy ruthless, capricious gods, but the sacred fear and reverent wonder of Jesus Christ and His Church.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter II [speaking from a demonic perspective]: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.

Day/night, living/dead, autumn/winter, invisible realities and visible illusions… The theme of this project is thresholds, a physical and metaphorical term for a boundary, liminal space, beginning and ending and in-between. The tale took shape. My partner, Karlee Lillywhite also gave me “artifacts” that sparked new ideas:

  • Gregorian chant
  • Woolen shawl
  • Decomposing apples

In the end, I spun this story between discussing the theology of music and re-enchantment in class, walking in golden woods and on windy clifftops, going on coffee dates and skimming scholarship on fantasy and faith. Enjoy!

Note: I recommend listening to INTROIT: Gaudeamus omnes in Domino as you read this.

All Saints Day, 2020 

…gaudent Angeli,  
et collaudant Filium Dei… 

It was the evening of November 1st. On the beaches, gales whipped the waves into a foaming fury. No one heard the silent keening or saw the dark mass huddled on the eastern shore. 

In a church in town, echoes and shadows danced among the columns. Drafts of chilly air made the candle flames shudder. A girl with wavy hair dyed black and a pale, freckled face exhaled softly. Kat’s breath fogged up her glasses through her face mask. She inhaled white rose perfume, musky cologne, and the smell of old stone walls and wooden pews. The small choir group separated from the congregation by plexiglass screens sang with voices of north wind and night. 

Exsultate justi in Domino… 

Someone touched her arm, making her jump. Her new housemate, Dan, stood in the aisle wearing his gray mask, eyes wide with urgency.  

“What?” she whispered, glaring at him. Other household groups, spaced six feet apart on either side, glanced at her. Dan turned to leave, beckoning her to follow. 

Sighing, Kat followed him outside into the chilly air. 

The streetlights were glaring after the warm golden glow of candlelight. “What’s going on?” Kat asked, pulling her mask off of one ear, then the other. Dan shivered in a thin argyle sweater, coatless, his neat blond hair ruffled by the wind. One shoe was untied. “I thought you had to study tonight.” 

“Do you know where Naira is?”

“Uh, I thought she was staying in tonight, too,” said Kat. “She said she was tired. Did you hear her go out?” 

“Yeah, I heard her take out the trash an hour ago,” Dan said. “But she didn’t come back in. Her curry burned on the stove. Her phone’s on the counter. I found this on the ground outside.” He held up a woolen shawl, crimson and gold.  

“You think something happened to her?” asked Kat. “Did you ask the neighbors?” 

“I asked everyone in the building,” said Dan. “It was awkward, but I just…it felt weird. No one saw her or heard anything. She can’t be visiting anyone — we’re still not allowed past the threshold of other houses.” 

“Ok,” said Kat, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “That does sound weird. Let’s go see if she came back while you came here.” 

They set off towards the house. A strong wind ruffled their hair. They passed closed cafes and the iron gates of one of the colleges.  

“I’m sorry I pulled you away from the service,” said Dan. “The singing was beautiful. It’s All Saints Day, isn’t it?”  

“Mm-hmm.” Kat kept her eyes on the ground. 

“Celebration of the whole Church, right? All the saints?” 

“Yep,” said Kat, nodding without looking at him. 

“That’s cool. Does your family follow the liturgical year?” 

“No.”  

Dan glanced at her, frowning, and then turned back to the uneven cobblestones. They waited for a car to go by, yellow headlights spilling on the pavement, and crossed the street to their housing block, stone with bright red doors. Dan unlocked the door, and they went in. Kat saw Naira’s wool coat hanging from a hook and her black boots on the mat.  

The kitchen light was on. Though the window was open, letting in a chill, the air smelled like burnt curry. “Naira?” Dan called. Naira’s iPhone lay on the counter. 

“She’s not in her room,” said Kat, coming down the stairs a few minutes later. Dan was scrubbing the blackened bottom of the curry pan in the sink.  

“This isn’t like her,” he said. “She doesn’t go out late or leave things on the stove.”  

Kat leaned against the mock-granite counter. “So she went outside to empty the trash,” she said, “and didn’t come back.” She and Dan looked at each other. 

“She’s a black belt in karate,” said Dan. “This is a very safe town.”  

“Let’s look outside again,” said Kat. 

“So she came out here,” said Dan, walking from their door to the trash cans, “and I found her scarf here.” He pointed to a patch of pavement.  

Kat walked up and down the street, studying the ground. “Asphalt and cement, so no footprints, obviously,” she said. 

“You’re Nancy Drew-ing it?” Dan asked, examining the sidewalk in the other direction. “I have five younger sisters,” he said when she looked at him. “I know all the girls’ books. It was self-defense.” 

“Yeah,” said Kat. “I used to read them.” She studied him. “That explains the Prince Charming.” 

“What?”  

“Uh, it explains why you’re so – why you – act so charming,” said Kat. “Asking questions…Naira and I couldn’t figure out if you were flirting or just that nice.”  

“Oh,” said Dan. “Uh, yeah, I’ve gotten that before. My female friends sometimes warn me about being creepy. Sorry.”   

Their phones chimed. Kat flipped open her iPhone; Dan opened his Android. 

“Drat, it’s another COVID update,” said Kat. “Dear students, I regret to inform you that the number of COVID cases in Fife has started rising again … high population of elderly…we are instituting another voluntary lockdown for students starting at 7 pm today.” 

“Please do not visit any pubs, coffee shops, or restaurants this week,” Dan continued.  “Please do not socialize with anyone outside your household, and avoid crowded areas where social distancing is compromised.”  

They looked at each other. “Naira’s so careful about the rules,” said Dan. “Her asthma…” 

“We need to find her,” said Kat. They were silent for a moment. “How do you track someone if they don’t have a phone?” she asked. “Satellite footage? Bloodhounds?” 

“Traffic cameras?” said Dan. “Wait. Bloodhounds. Dogs. She went out at 5:30 – that’s when Mrs. Morison takes Sausage out.” 

“Sausage?” 

“Her dachshund. Let’s ask if she saw something.”  

“Naira? The Indian girl with the pretty hair?” Mrs. Morison asked. She held her scarf protectively in front of her face with her right hand and her red door open with her left. “Yes, I saw her earlier when I took Sausage out.” Her Scottish “r”s and “oo”s were rich like dark chocolate. “She barely stopped to greet me, asked if I’d seen a child run by.” 

“A child?”  

“Aye, a wee lad running by. She said he was alone, going toward the cathedral. I said I hadn’t, so she took off in that direction.” 

All three of them looked left down the street, where the ruined cathedral stretched toward the sky. Through the black iron gates, yellow spotlights lit up parts of the structure: an archway, towers, a few walls, and gravestones on either side. 

They thanked Mrs. Morison. As the door shut behind them, they started walking down toward the cathedral. “She saw a child,” said Kat. “So she followed him to make sure he was okay.”  

They reached the sidewalk in front of the west entrance. The ruins were surrounded by a stone wall that reached chest-height and had an iron grill on top. The black iron gates were locked.  

“Naira!” Kat called. The heavy wind stole most of her volume. “Naira!” Dan called too, but when they paused to listen, they only heard the rush of the wind and the faraway pounding of the waves. 

“Scott and his flatmates are going to check Castle Sands,” said Dan, checking his phone, “Flat 6 is going down South Street, and the philosophy people upstairs are doing Market Street. I think we should look for her here. Maybe she fell and hurt herself? They have a couple of open vaults in there.” He put his hands on the iron grill at the top of the wall, hoisted one leg up, and jumped over.  

“I don’t…” Kat looked around.  

“I’m a volunteer warden, remember?” Dan called. “I have a key, but climbing over is more fun.” 

“Well, we have a good reason,” said Kat.  She climbed the wall and hopped over, too. 

The grass was slick with rain. They went down the stone steps to the western entrance, where the door’s archway and the vaulting remained intact. They crossed the threshold into the nave, of which only the wall on their right remained, lined with high-arched windows. They wandered towards the presbytery at the other end, checking various open vaults Dan knew about, around the stumps of the arcade piers, and then left into the north transept and around the graves and crosses on the lawn. They checked every corner, calling to Naira with no answer. 

“Some of these are unstable,” said Dan, looking around at the gravestones in one corner, dark gray granite with light green lichen. Kat pursed her lips and looked away. 

“You okay?” asked Dan.  

“I’m – it’s fine,” said Kat. “We had some deaths in my church this week.” 

“People close to you?” Dan asked. 

“Yes.” Kat looked towards the presbytery. “Wait – do you see a light over there?”  

On the other side of the site, the ocean-facing side, a light hovered among the gravestones: something small, flickering, and golden, unlike the glaring yellow spotlights.  

“Yeah,” said Dan, quietly. “That’s a lantern.” He gestured for her to walk in that direction. The grass muffled their footsteps. They dodged around several empty, open graves with stone coffins, through the foundations of the chapter house to St. Rule’s tower. When they reached the grassy area in front of the tower, Dan stopped so quickly she bumped into him.  

A man with snow-white hair and beard and a black coat stood at the door to St. Rule’s tower, holding the door open with his left hand, iron keys jangling in his right. Hooded figures were disappearing into the tower. “Thanks, Pearson!” the last said cheerfully.  

“Just an hour, mind!” said the man, closing the door after them. 

“Pearson!” said Dan in a voice of deep shock, walking towards him. “What are you doing? No one’s allowed in the tower! You can’t social distance in there.”  

“Hello, Dan,” said Pearson, showing no surprise as he pocketed his keys. “And who’s this with you?” he asked as Kat approached. She smelled the rich, autumn-wood smell of pipe smoke coming from him. 

“We’re housemates,” said Kat. “Are you a warden?”  

“Aye, of a sort,” said Pearson, nodding. In the eerie light, his face was pale: laugh-lines around the mouth, frown-lines on his forehead, light crow’s-feet around his eyes. “I coom out for holidays like this one. It’s tradition, Dan,” he said to Dan, gently. “They’re the SOMA, you know.” 

“The what?”  

“Society of Mystical Astronomers,” said Pearson. “They read poetry on cloudy nights. Usually in the castle, but that’s booked for a midnight masquerade tonight. Do you like poetry?” he asked Kat. 

“Sometimes,” said Kat, smiling a little. “I like the Irish poets. Seamus Heaney. Yeats.”  

“It’s a good night for it,” said Pearson. “The thresholds are thinner.” He looked up at the cloudy sky. “He reached a middle height, and at the stars, / Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. / Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, / The army of unalterable law.”  

“Pearson, we’re looking for our other housemate,” said Dan. “Naira. Have you seen her?”  

“Pretty girl with dark hair?” said Pearson. “She dashed through here a while ago. Said she saw a child running by. Headed towards the sea.”  

“We need to find her,” said Dan. “Thanks.” He touched Kat’s arm, and they walked quickly towards the other gate. 

“He’s not all there,” said Dan softly, when they were out of earshot. “He’s not supposed to have keys, even. I like him, but…” 

“He reminds me of my grandpa,” said Kat dreamily. “He died last month.” 

“Oh,” said Dan. “I’m so sorry.” They were quiet as he fished out his own keys and let them out the iron  gate in the stone wall on the other side. A sea breeze hit them immediately. 

“Do you know what they call the two parts of the Church?” Dan asked suddenly as they turned right on the coastal path, toward the beach.  

“No.”  

“We, the living ones, are called the Church Militant,” said Dan. “The dead are the Church Triumphant.”  

The sea lay before them, dark and rippling. The waves were roaring tonight, receding from high tide. The yellow, white, and green lights of the houses and caravan park twinkled all the way up the coast past East Sands.  

“Do you see something down there?” said Dan suddenly. “By the water?” 

In the faint gleam of streetlights and dim glow of the sky, they could make out a dark patch on the beach.  

“Let’s look,” said Kat. They ran down the rest of the sidewalk over the bridge that spanned the river inlet and down to the sand, slipping and sliding.  

“Naira?” she called. The faint echo of an answer came through the wind. They ran the rest of the way down the beach, huge at low tide. Something fishy and seaweedy hit Kat’s nostrils as the wind shifted towards them, blowing her hair back.  

They reached the dark mass. “Oh,” said Kat, stopping. “It’s a whale.” 

The creature was the size of a car stretched into something long and narrower. It lay on its left side, fins splayed. “Oh, no,” said Dan. “It’s beached.” 

“Hey,” said a tired voice from the sand. Naira sat there, one leg stretched in front of her. A little boy with curly brown hair sat beside her, staring at them. 

“Naira!” Kat knelt beside her. “We’ve been looking for you! What happened?”  

“I saw a kid run by,” said Naira. “This one – his name is James. I followed him down here to make sure he was ok, and I saw the whale – he was sneaking out with his friends and they found it. I fell and hurt my ankle – I can’t put weight on it at all – and I left my phone. I can hear it trying to breathe,” she said shakily. “It’s going to get crushed under its own weight if we can’t get it back in the water.” 

“I’m calling the police,” said Dan, pulling out his phone again. 

“People are coming,” said Kat, taking off her coat and putting it on Naira. Voices echoed from up the beach; groups of iPhone flashlights wobbled toward them. In a few minutes, they were surrounded: people from Duke’s Court, St. George’s, George’s Place, and a few students from South Castle Street. 

“Don’t touch the whale!” Naira called. “It might have bacteria!” 

“Oh, the irony,” said Kat, massaging Naira’s hands to warm them up. 

A half hour later, even more people lined the sidewalk and clustered on the beach. The police cordoned off a perimeter around the whale as marine biologists from the university gathered around in lab coats and rubber gloves. 

“I really hope this doesn’t cause an outbreak,” said Naira, shivering and looking over the crowded beach as a paramedic examined her ankle.  

Someone lit a bonfire against the stone wall that bordered the beach, its red-orange blaze a fiery echo of the lights on the coast. The surf pounded as a team of researchers, police, and other volunteers started pushing the whale back into the sea with grunts and shouts of encouragement, a team of spotters rushing in to replace anyone who got tired.  

People cheered: the whale was only a few feet from the pounding waves. People slipped, slid, groaned, pushed until it was inches deep, a foot deep, pushed up by a wave and pulled back as it receded. Kat’s tiredness wove a dreaminess over the scene, so that individual moments swam by: Naira being carried off to the hospital for an X-ray; James being found, scolded, and carried off by his mother; the whale-pushers wading back through the surf, talking and laughing in ragged, triumphant voices; a small group of people in front of them suddenly beginning to sing. It was the group from the church.  

Gaudeámus omnes in Dómino, 
Diem festum celebrantes
Sub honore Sanctorum omnium: 
De quorum solemnitate gaudent Angeli, 
Et collaudant Filium Dei. 
Exsultate justi in Domino: 
Rectos decet colaudatio. 

As the police herded them back to their houses with warnings of forced isolation and fines, with the few words she heard and recognized – Gaudeamus (rejoice), Domino (God), Exsultate (exult) — echoing in her mind, she pictured the whale swimming back to the deep. Cloud-mountains sailed across the silvery patch of night sky where the moon hung. 

Thresholds: Three Poems by Aaron Stephens

In this small haven on the North Sea, green leaves are turning yellow; waves rise and fall with a thundering murmur; hot drinks like chai lattes and caramel mochas warm you up after walks through the cold winds. October is slipping away in later dawns and earlier dusks. Next week is Independent Learning Week, when classes are suspended to let students study, work on papers, and (in ordinary times) travel.

Now that I’ve had a month to settle in, I want to keep exploring the roles of maker, cultivator, and collaborator in my artistic work. After having so much fun with the Summer of Faerie project last summer, I longed to do another creative collaboration this autumn. I reached out to some artist-friends from The Habit and St. Andrews and invited them to join me.

Here is the full description and prompt for the project:

Project Title: Thresholds

Prompt: In her Rabbit Room article “Weathering the Books,” Rebecca D. Martin talks about reading books seasonally, and names The Fellowship of the Ring (especially the chapters up to Bree) as perfect for autumn. In honor of that beautiful thought, I invited some other artists to do a collaborative project.

The theme is thresholds: physical or metaphorical, small or great, looming ahead, just underfoot, or behind you. I took this definition of “threshold” from the Cambridge Dictionary:

1) The floor or entrance to a building or room
2) The level or point at which you start to experience something, or at which something starts to happen
3) The point at which something starts

Threshold synonymsbrink, verge, dawn, door, doorstep, doorway, edge, entrance, gate, inception, origin, outset, point, still, start, vestibule, point of departure, starting point

Medium: Anything: creative nonfiction, academic essay, fiction, poetry, visual art, theatrical script, Spotify playlist, etc.

The collaborative part: Once some people expressed interest, I arranged partnerships. Each individual came up with three “artifacts” or stimuli for their partner: concrete, physical objects such as “the color red, an iron key, and the smell of earth,” or “the taste of cinnamon, sound of a cello, and fog.” These “artifacts” didn’t have to appear in the final result, but they gave everyone a place to start.

Several artists took the challenge, and now that we’ve exchanged “artifacts” and had some time to work, I’ll start publishing the results here. This first contribution is three poems by Aaron Stephens. Aaron’s partner was Kori Morgan, who gave him these artifacts:

  • A tree with a trunk that grew up at an angle
  • An orange ball cap dropped on a hiking path
  • A windmill statue in a vegetable garden

He responded by capturing the beauty of a woodland with profound clarity and brevity that gives many phrases the emotional resonance of whole poems in themselves.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Richard Loader

Autonomy

On our own
Lost in a
Maze of trees
On paths blazed by
Neighbors as blind 
As we

Trust

Change came
When I saw you
Step on a baseball cap
On the park trail.
An old orange hat
And I thought,
‘The hat was on the path
Now the path is on the hat.’

A new aroma
Finds my senses.
A patch of lavender
Hiding, waiting for me.
You found me.
So I prayed,
‘God, make me 
Walk more carefully.’

Breeze

White Birch trees
Straight and ordered
Sentinels of Law

Wild Beech trees
Angled trunks
Revelers of Gospel

Wind Blows
Through the leaves
Of the Beeches

We Begin
Down The Path
At last

Aaron Stephens

Aaron Stephens is growing more tenderhearted toward his wife and three children. Favorite color: blue. Have you had a dream that started before you were asleep? Have you had one so funny you laughed yourself awake? Aaron’s life has been like that. Just when he had settled into fearful religiosity, Jesus showed up like a belly-laugh for his soul. Find him at: aaron-erin.com.

Summer of Faerie: “Carla and the Prez” by Loren Warnemuende

June is flying by in a blur of hot green days and cool blue nights (I sort of stole that phrasing from Tolkien). Pink peonies are nodding in our garden and paddle boarders and kayakers have been cruising by on the river. I wish I could bottle up all this lush, vibrant loveliness and save it for some slushy late winter afternoon. 

This week’s Summer of Faerie contribution is a short story by Loren Warnemuende, who has an Jane Austen-ish or George Eliot-esque mastery of character-creation. Whether protagonists or villains, she crafts believable, flesh-and-blood people with memories and desires that feel so real.

Loren took on a significant challenge in this fairy tale retelling by tackling the tale of King Thrushbeard, a lesser-known and highly shocking tale that would not be publicly acceptable today. If you don’t know it already, I highly recommend reading the original tale before you read her retelling. Enjoy!

Carla and the Prez

by Loren Warnemuende

Photo by David Givens

When Dad said I’d better get a job or start working toward a degree, I thought he was joking. I mean, I didn’t need to rush. For years, Dad made plenty in consulting, and even though he was teaching at a university now we had enough for a good life. The thing is, when we moved from suburban Michigan to the piney woods of East Texas for Dad’s teaching job, all my motivation to do something was completely squelched. Maybe it was the crazy humidity that bushed my straight hair and zapped my energy.

Despite this, after Dad’s first semester he declared I’d have to do something productive. I told him I needed more time to adjust, but when he heard about a job fair in nearby Glimmer he dragged me to it.

Now, I knew there were educated people in this part of the world, but honestly! These job reps were the epitome of Southern redneck. I told Dad they were. One barbecue restaurant rep had a gut like a lard bucket. “Dad! He lives in fat!” I whispered. Then there was the hotel rep who called me “Dahling” and “Sweetie.” I told Dad that she’d never have gotten away with that condescending terminology if she’d been up north.

Every one of them was like that, but the clincher was the last—a guy around my age. When I stepped up to his booth, he tipped his cowboy hat and I blurted out, “Hey, it’s the President!”

Dad turned beet red and this fellow asked (in a perfect Southern drawl), “Sorry, Ma’am?”

“You look like G. W. Bush!” I laughed.

The guy stared at me, his face kind of white, and dad started dragging me off.

“Bye Prez!” I laughed as we left. He was cute.

“I can’t believe your behavior,” Dad hissed. “What’s gotten into you, Carla?”

“Dad,” I sighed, “You and Mom didn’t raise me so I could work for some local yokels.”

Dad ran his hand over his forehead, and groaned. At dinner the next evening, he put his fork down and looked at me.

“Since you won’t seriously look at work or school, we’ve decided you’ll take the first job we find you.”

“But Dad!”

“No buts. In fact, I’ve arranged a job interview for you.”

I cried, but Dad was set. The next day he drove me to Glimmer and pulled up at the local Whataburger.

“Are we getting lunch?” I asked.

“Oh no, this is it,” he smiled grimly.

And he sent me into a fast food place to interview! I almost walked out when the manager greeted me. I thought the job fair folks were stereotypical Southerners, but this guy! His name, he said, was Joe Bob and he had a set of real Bubba teeth. I endured his drawl and spoke very properly back to him. I mean, he was polite and I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to clarify the difference between us. Finally, he stood and stuck out his hand.

“Welcome to the team, Miz Carla,” he grinned around those awful teeth. “You’ll be workin’ with Mindie.”

I started the next day, and sure enough, working at Whataburger was boring. Glimmer’s a one-stoplight town, and we were never busy. Thankfully Mindie was fun, and entertained me with all kinds of stories about the area. Her ancestors had lived near Glimmer since Texas was a Republic, and before that hailed from Ireland. Her family had a signed land deed and red hair to back her claims. Even though she was biased, Mindie liked my stories about winters and the gorgeous clear lakes in Michigan.

Glimmer wasn’t pretty, but the pasture lands around it were. I looked forward to the daily rides in and out of town because I loved to watch the sleek cows and horses browsing in the early spring fields. Mindie lived near me so she drove me home each day. Every evening we took a little farm road to my house. The first time we spotted a white pickup parked along the road by a field and this cowboy leaned against the truck, his eyes on the setting sun and a camera in hand. He heard us and turned, touched his hat, then went back to his view.

I gasped. “That was Prez!”

“Who?” Mindie asked. “Wait, you mean Rob there?”

But it was him, the job fair guy. Mindie cracked up when I explained the nickname and agreed there was a resemblance.

“So does he live around here?”

Mindie looked at me like I was crazy.

“That field he was by?” she said. “That’s just one on his family’s ranch.”

Well that floored me. I started to wonder what kind of job he’d been offering. Every evening after that I’d see Prez there by that field eyeing the sunset, and I’d wonder.

Most people who came to Whataburger were pretty nice. I had to admit there was a lot of truth about Southern charm. Even when someone obviously thought I was a nitwit they were polite. Joe Bob, bad teeth and all, was a decent manager. He complimented my work and started giving me other jobs—he said I had good organizational and communication skills.

But then one horrible day came at the beginning of May. I was at the register when this guy strode in like he owned the place. He wore ritzy sunglasses and didn’t even take them off inside. His hair was slicked back and his expensive gray sports coat was slung over his shoulder. Leaning over the counter, he pushed his glasses down his nose and glared at me.

“Bacon and cheese burger,” he said, his accent straight out of the upper Midwest. “No onions, no cheese. Mayo, ketchup—no mustard. Fries. Large. And pop—make it a large, too.”

I gaped at him. It had been so long since I’d heard the Midwest accent it took me a second to understand him. I even had to mentally translate “pop” to “soda.” And he was so rude!

The guy stood and tapped his foot. “Well? I don’t have all day!”

I mumbled an apology and tried to put his order in. He’d so rattled me that I messed up; then he got mad and started calling me all kinds of names so I messed up again. Mindie organized the meal but when we handed him the tray he went ballistic and threw the whole thing over the counter at us. The soda soaked me top to toe. Then he turned on his heel and stalked out.

Mindie helped me mop up, but I was so upset it was hard to say how much of my soaked shirt was from soda and how much was tears. Joe Bob came in while we were still cleaning. When we told him what happened he looked worried.

“That was our new boss,” he said. “I think he was testing you, Miz Carla.”

“Well, I failed!” I sobbed. “Now what am I going to do?”

Joe Bob ruminated, then his eyes lit up.

“I got a job for you gals if y’all can spare an evening. My sister is catering barbecue for a big shindig tomorrow night. If y’all can help, the cash can tide ya over if y’need to find a new job.”

Mindie shrugged and I agreed reluctantly. Dad was going to be sad I’d lost my job. And, much as I hated to admit it, I’d come to like my Whataburger gig.

It turned out Dad and Mom had a year-end thing at Dr. Hart’s, the university president, so Mindie picked me up the next evening. We drove out through pastures wreathed with Queen Anne’s Lace and golden bitterweed. We passed the field where I always saw Prez and his pickup, but he wasn’t there. Eventually Mindie turned in at a set of wrought iron gates and worked our way up a winding drive through scrubby pines and live oaks. Suddenly we rounded a bend and the house opened up before us.

“What in the world?” I gasped. “This in East Texas?”

The house looked like someone had picked up a colonial mansion and set it down in the piney woods. Its brick face rose tall and classic, the front lined with cedars, and a multicolored gravel circle fanned out before it. Fields opened up behind gridded with pretty white fences.

“Oh, I know whose house this is!” Mindie laughed, driving us around the corner to the kitchen entry. “It’s President Hart’s house. He modeled it after Mt. Vernon.”

“What?” I strained around to see the cars pulling up on the front circle to let out visitors. “My parents’ll be here and all the profs who know me. How embarrassing!”

“Buck up,” Mindie said. “It’s an honest living.”

Joe Bob met us at the kitchen door looking scrubbed and uncomfortable in a bolo tie, buttoned shirt, and fancy jeans. He waved us into the lofty, flagstoned room and introduced us to his sister who looked a lot more polished than him.

“I gotta run and take care of other details, gals,” he said. “See y’all ‘round.”

Joe Bob’s sister put us to work and soon we were up to our ears in brisket and cole slaw. The wait staff scurried in and out to collect trays and I glanced out the tall windows at the back portico and manicured lawns filling with dressed-up folks. I couldn’t help but wish I was out there with Mom and Dad.

After a bit Mindie took a quick break. When she returned she caught Joe Bob’s sister who nodded to me.

“Carla, can you take out a fresh pitcher of sweet tea? I need Mindie here.”

My heart dropped, but I nodded and grabbed the pitcher, the glass slippery with condensation. I pushed out the kitchen door onto the portico and turned, only to see Prez—that is, Rob, the sunset watcher. He stood chatting casually by President Hart. Prez looked classy in his cowboy hat, his bolo tie glinting in the late sun. I stepped behind a pillar and swallowed. What was he here for?

“Carla, isn’t it?” One of the wait staff pulled up by me. He motioned to the president’s group. “Dr. Hart’s son was asking for tea.”

“Dr. Hart’s…that’s his son?” I stared around the pillar. The president’s son looked up as I moved.

“Well, yeh—his son runs this ranch,” the waiter said, rolling his eyes.

I squeezed mine tight.

“Excuse me, Ma’am. Could I get some tea, please?”

My eyes flew open to see Prez standing there, smiling pleasantly. His smile widened.

“Wait—you’re Dr. Moore’s daughter, aren’t you? Come on out and say hey.”

He took me by the elbow before I could speak and maneuvered me into the open. I stumbled a little and my pitcher sloshed this way and that. I tried to steady it, but it slipped in my hands. Prez glanced over, then paused as if to help, but that threw me completely off balance. The whole pitcher slid out of my hands and fell at my feet sending a wave of sweet tea up my legs.

“Oh!” I cried, and then I shrieked, “Ow!”

Little fiery pinpricks lit into my sandaled feet and up my ankles. I looked down and saw ants running all over their mound and swarming up my legs. “Ow!”

I started dancing and slapping like an idiot. Prez grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off and away from the mound. His shoulders were shaking with laughter, but he pulled out a handkerchief and bent down to wipe the beasts off of me.

“Welcome to East Texas, Miss Carla,” he said.

My face must have been as red as Glimmer’s traffic light. I could see folks gawking, and my parents hurrying toward me. My soaked legs and feet burned and ached from the fire ant bites and the aroma of sweet tea saturated the air around me.

But for all that distraction, there was something in the way Prez spoke that stopped me cold. I stared down into the kind eyes lifted up to me.

“Joe Bob?” I whispered.

He grinned then and stood, his hand in the pocket of his fancy jeans. When he pulled it out, he held a set of fake teeth—Joe Bob’s teeth.

“Aren’t you ‘Rob’?” I gasped, remembering what Mindie had called him.

He tipped his hat slightly. “To my family—yep. Joseph Robert Hart at your service.”

“But…but…why?”

I was so confused and mortified. My folks came up and I saw Dr. Hart nearby. They all were smiling.

Prez had the decency to look chagrined, but Dad said, “Honey, I put him up to it.”

“No, Sir,” Prez said. “I’ll take the fall. You see, Miss Carla, I was fuming when you called me Prez at the job fair. I was so sick of that nickname from school days—it didn’t help that my dad is a university president. Then your Dad contacted me and apologized, and said if you shaped up you were more than qualified for the job I had. I decided I’d test you a bit and your dad agreed, so Mindie let me play my game….”

“Mindie?” I asked blankly.

“She owns the Glimmer Whataburger,” Prez admitted. “And she’s my cousin.”

“She owns it? But what about the new boss?”

Prez coughed and pulled a pair of snazzy shades from his breast pocket. He put them on and said without a hint of a southern drawl, “You gonna to get me some pop since you spilled all that tea?”

“That was you, too?” I yelped.

“Well, you enjoyed Whataburger so much I didn’t know another way to get you out here,” Prez said, removing the sunglasses and falling back into his drawl.

I shook my head, my face still hot. I looked at Mom and Dad who kept grinning like fools, then at Dr. Hart who was trying to reign in a smile.

“Will you forgive me?” Prez—I mean Rob—said. “I shouldn’t get so touchy about who I am. I would have let up a while back, but Mindie was having fun getting to know you. You’ve shown in the past few months that there’s a lot more to you than some sassy-mouthed northerner. You’d do great in the office management job we have if you want it.”

He looked so sincere and apologetic. I sighed and looked down at the welts rising all over my feet.

“I forgive you. I’m sorry I was so rude,” I said. “If you can forgive me, I think I’d like to take that job you have…as long as I don’t have to deal with obnoxious northerners or fire ants.”

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..

Summer of Faerie: “Housing Problems” by AJ Vanderhorst

Spring has fallen upon us all at once this week: gray clouds have melted into clear skies, bright green leaves have filled up the woods, and the temperatures jumped from the 50s to the 80s. For me, this Memorial Day weekend is the real beginning of summer, when lawnmowers roar to life, lilacs fill the air with sweetness, and the heat of the sun fills your winter-harrowed soul.

After enjoying several creative collaboration projects with other writers for Thanksgiving and late winter, I wanted to do something fun for this summer. I toyed with a few ideas, but finally settled on a project called Summer of Faerie that was born from my love for fantasy and fairy tales. 

For this Summer of Faerie project, I gave some fellow writers from The Habit the following prompt, inviting them to contribute: 

  • Short, prose fairy tale retellings
  • Faerie/fairy tale-themed poetry
  • Creative nonfiction about fairy tales in general

I had three suggestions for these works: 

  • Consider focusing on something other than romance.
  • Consider mythologizing your own region through this work – how can your hometown or city be just as magical as a castle on a mountain or tower in the wilderness?
  • Consider how we can meditate on the Gospel through thinking about fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton argued that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” (I’m quoting his weird and wonderful essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in his book Orthodoxy.)

Several writer-friends responded to the challenge, and the contributions so far have dazzled me. One of the first contributors was AJ Vanderhorst, who just released an amazing novel, The Mostly Invisible Boy. Enjoy!

Housing Problems

by AJ Vanderhorst

Hands holding teeth

Two parents with too many hobbies. Two parents with four crazy, precocious boys. We overlooked the low sales price. We overlooked a lot. We were a little desperate, well, more than a little. We needed someplace big and HOA-free and durable—and fast.

The missing background didn’t bother me at first and I’m a journalist at the Kansas City Star. At least I used to be. Go on, laugh. These things have a way of creeping up on you.

The house’s previous owner, a genial, raisin-skinned gentleman who gave you the impression of holding nothing back, told us the sprawling four-story place was built in 1915. We believed him. Not that we cared, because the house was gorgeous. Dwell Magazine with vintage swagger. You felt taller just standing in the shade of its colonnades. 

By the time I got around to checking, the origin story proved impossible to verify. No records on micro-fiche. No permits at KC Planning & Development—not that they looked very hard. For a while I dug around in the basement, hoping to find old documents in a forgotten corner. Believe me, there were plenty of those. 

Forgotten corners, I mean.  

When we knocked down nonstructural walls, which happened a couple times as we got moved in, I’d scan each yellowed page of newsprint while the kids sifted dust for arrowheads and shark teeth. Nothing.

Sometimes the clue you need is staring you in the face. In this case, the clue was: nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

Plenty of dirt on everyone else though. One rabbit trail through KC history gave me an inside track on the next door neighbors. They’d been accused of witchcraft in 1740, which, reading between the lines, was code for “really big jerks we don’t want at the barbecue.” That family is still here and they’re still obnoxious and I can totally see it. 

In 1911 someone’s rooster got blasted with a shotgun and buried in concrete for crowing at 4:59 instead of 5 am. I can’t help feeling neighborhood news has become a lot less interesting.

In the more recent past, I learned how mob “Boss Tom” Pendergast got his claws in the KC Code Department—and made it so crooked that today it still can’t stop citing and snickering long enough to look you in the face. 

But I found nothing on our cavernous brick house. Only the growing feeling, as I walked its wide staircases and traced the shadows of its vaulted ceilings, that it wasn’t normal. Which was fine at first. Because downtown thought our family, with its size and irrepressibility, was pretty weird too.

I formed a theory that an exasperated realtor had pulled the 1915 date out of thin air and slapped it on his deed of sale. There were no records of the behemoth’s original use. No tales of mobs it’d outlasted with its quintuple-thick walls. No reason given for its many secret crawl spaces. The deep gouges in its irreplaceable timber floors. Or its poured concrete roof. 

At the time, my most intriguing find was a sentence from an 1875 account of Kansas City’s stockyards: “The beef barons shipped their assets on the hoof, and herds of cattle, sheep and pigs overran the West Bottoms daily. This was a stark contrast to the more exotic, costly creatures that were rumored to arrive on the riverfront under cover of darkness.”

The “news” story gave me a prickly feeling behind my eyes. The feeling was hard to pin down as it scurried along my bones. I labeled it curiosity and tried to forget it. Curiosity isn’t usually so nagging. It doesn’t usually cause you to turn on extra lights and stay up late at night. 

But the story appeared next to an ad for “MAGIC medicinal TONIC for the FORTIFICATION of boys, girls and calves.” So I felt justified in dismissing it, or trying to. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know this was my first mistake. Snobbery toward old news—news I stupidly wrote off because I could associate it with hoaxes.

Before everything happened, people often asked me for advice (free of course) about buying and fixing up old houses. Now, as the sun hangs in the middle of the sky and cocktail hour approaches, I know what I should’ve told them:

“Yeah, remodeling physical history is a nasty beast. But let’s step back. How old is the place? Is it too big? Just…Way. Too. Big? In a strange Hitchcockian way that gnaws at you slowly, offending your sense of proportion? Are there too many fireplaces? Do the quiet, twisting hallways send centipedes down your spine?”

That’s all the free advice I’d offer. But if they could afford to pay me for my time…and my scars…and my abrupt career change, I’d say:

Dragons. It just might be dragons. So point me in their direction and get out of the way. 

Business card for a Dragon Agency

AJ Vanderhorst

AJ Vanderhorst is a husband, dad and author who loves barbecue, as do all right-thinking people. His relationship with monsters is long and complicated. Visit him online at ajvanderhorst.com.

The Magic of Late Winter, Part VI: Guest Post by Hope Henchey

Pictures by Hope Henchey

Friends, the natural world is changing from gray to green, chilly to warm, frozen to refreshed, but it feels like the human world has gone mad. This pandemic has reshuffled the cards of our lives. I pray for those who are sick, grieving, afraid, jobless, homebound, or lonely.

In the midst of grief and fear, I remember an ancient truth: the God who sits above the circle of the earth and inhabits eternity is our refuge – in pandemics or prosperity, peace or war.

The LORD God is our stronghold. I hope to honor Him by seeking joy in dark places and pursuing beauty through these gray days. Therefore, I am going ahead with the next installment of my Magic of Late Winter series, a guest post by Hope Henchey about late winter in Florida.

Hope’s meditation on the beauty and transience of this season in Florida stirred me like a dream of summer in the midst of winter. I love how she captures this season’s precious, fierce, fragile joy. Enjoy!

March in Florida: The Last Days of the Shire

Text and pictures by Hope Henchey

I’m a season snob, I’ll admit it.

If you ask my opinion of living in Florida for 22 years, the answer you get will vary widely depending on what month it is. You should ask in a month like March.

Those who live in colder climates might look to March with hopefulness of sunny days and fresh air. As a Floridian, however, I’ve already been enjoying sunny days and fresh air for the past few months, so I cling to March tightly as I watch the last specks of sand drizzle through the hourglass, signaling the season when my Shire will transform into Mordor.

March is so, so lovely. It’s the tail-end of strawberry season, which means those delicious berries are cheap, plenteous, and ruby-red ripe. Since we live only five minutes from strawberry fields, we actually eat strawberries at every meal. To continue with Lord of the Rings imagery, I devour strawberries in the same way the steward of Gondor murderously eats tomatoes. The juice drips from my chin like blood, but I don’t even care. It’s glorious.

March is a month when mosquitoes (“our state bird”, as we say) are still mostly gone, and the air is cool enough to enjoy all the local rivers, trees, and beaches. My favorite beach is Siesta Key, where the sand truly looks and feels like powdered sugar. Nearby is the gorgeous John and Mable Ringling Museum and Estate (yes, the circus guy) where my daughters enjoy savoring aromas in Florida’s oldest rose garden. On the way home, we like to stop by a delightful orange grove that sells soft-serve frozen orange juice. March days are full of such adventures.

Though we still might get sunburned if we’re outside more than ten minutes, the big ol’ Star seems more like friend than foe in months like these.

There is, of course, an uneasiness that pulls at my sleeve in March. I know that the hot half of the year is hurtling toward us, with its bugs and crowds and threats of heatstroke. Especially since I’m entering my fifth pregnant summer in nine years, I know that I have months of difficult breathing ahead since my organs get all squished up, yet the fourth-most humid city in America doesn’t seem to care. Even walking to my car feels like I’m underwater in a 100-degree pool. I dread that feeling so much.

But that’s the thing with seasons, isn’t it? We don’t get to control them. Unless we have the flexibility to chase around good weather, we don’t get to pick what season we’re in. I wish strawberries were always cheap and ripe, but the plants must die and be replanted and grow from seeds again. I wish the air could always feel fresh and delightful, but heat and humidity must come.

If I could customize seasons of life by sheer will, I would cut out a lot of the things going on in my life right now, issues that are heavier than hot weather or lack of berries. But the world is broken, and God has given me limits. I can receive each season as the blessing it is, given by God for His glory and my good.

There’s beauty in every season. Even summer holds things I love such as mighty yet calming lightning storms, Vacation Bible School, and lower prices on grapes. But while it’s still March, I’ll enjoy every last moment of blowing bubbles in our yard and gator-watching at Lettuce Lake Park and meandering downtown Tampa’s Riverwalk.

I thank Him for this season and trust Him for the next.

Bio picture of Hope Henchey

Hope Henchey

Hope Henchey lives in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida with her husband and four kids (fifth on the way!) She writes on her blog and microblogs on Instagram about homeschooling, RV living, theology, childbirth, and more @called.beloved.kept and @lightingfireshomeschool. She has written for Christianity Today and Daughter of Delight.

The Magic of Late Winter, Part II: Guest Post by Loren Warnemuende

Pink blossoms
Photos by Loren Warnemuende

Last week, I posted the first in a series on the magic of late winter, or the special beauty of this season between midwinter mystery and spring awakening. This week, I have the privilege of posting an achingly beautiful piece by Loren Warnemuende, another writer-friend from The Habit writing community. Loren’s encouragement and wisdom have been a blessing to me in my writing, and her work has the warmth and richness of the first golden day of spring.

Snow and Flower

by Loren Warnemuende

I remember a day in late January, 2009, when the snow fell thick and heavy. It fell unhurriedly; it had plenty of time, and plenty to dump. Southeast Michigan in January tends more to gray days and ice, but on that day, the skies cried soft snow.

I drove, my mind churning, my tires cutting through ruts of previous vehicles. One of those vehicles carried my daughter Keren—an ambulance that sped far ahead, out of sight. I didn’t know if Keren still lived.

The snow paused. A shaft of light cut through the clouds and caressed a white field. It was as if God reached down to remind me, “I am here. I am holding all of you.” The cold and snow lingered, the heart monitor flatlined, but the sunlight touched the field.

Six months later we cleared lava rock and weeping mulberries from our yard, replacing those horrors with grass and a dogwood tree. Though Michigan dogwoods can’t compare to their southern relatives who shake out white and pink blooms each spring like antebellum debutantes at a ball, the Michigan dogwood defies winter. We trusted its pretense of fragility and delicacy when we planted our memorial for Keren. We watched our dogwood through the months. Around Keren’s seventh birthday, the leaves fell, mourning the end of summer. On the first cold January anniversary, the tree’s branches stuck out straight and brown, bare of the red berries they bore at Christmas. April arrived trumpeting resurrection. I watched the tree. Each day I checked it. Each day it stood unchanged. Then one day I noticed woody knobs tipping some branches. On others, brown points cut through the ends of boughs. A month passed from knob to bloom. There were days I bit my lip to resist shrieking with impatience. I wanted to see the flowers! Other days I inspected each knob and point, marveling at the process of glory superseding lifelessness. The sharp-tipped branches forced out pairs of leaves, raised upward like hands in praise. The knobs expanded until they broke, quartered, and unfurled crosswise, not into petals, but four leaf-like bracts. At first these bracts twisted brokenly about the center. Yet life flowed and the bracts spread, flushed, and dimpled. They imitated petals, each set of four surrounding a crown of tiny yellow flowers. The tree held her wine-red blossoms to the clear blue spring sky.

I don’t know how many years it will be till I see Keren again. Life has charged on, bringing new challenges and changes. Our family has lived in a different country, and we now hail from East Texas where great dogwoods bloom in March, and the magnolia in front of our dining room blossoms in January, dropping pink petals as softly and slowly as the snow fell that day eleven years ago. Sometimes I long for our reunion with Keren—I want to see her flower! Other times I feel like God is forcing sharp points through bare branches in my life. Yet then there are days I am enthralled by the blossoms God is slowly unfurling in those of us who wait. Often they seem warped and broken, but someday our blooms and leaves will be complete.

Photo of Loren Warnemuende

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles, including six-and-a-half marvelous, stretching years as mom to Keren, who was born with Trisomy 18. Loren is wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids (who stretch her differently than Keren did!). Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool coop, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope, healing, and stress-relief. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, for two years and now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog: Willing, Wanting, Waiting….