Having imbibed a fair amount of pro-small-town prejudice in the form of Hallmark Christmas movies (which I actually find relaxing in spite of this), I thought I’d retaliate with a link to my short story About Those Small Town Values, first posted in 2010.
The day after the election, 99,643 supporters of That Other Guy who didn’t have time to make it to the polls breathed a sigh of relief and said to themselves, “It’s OK since my one vote wouldn’t have mattered anyhow!”
After a lifetime following cryptic clues, digging in difficult locations, and making the most careful of measurements, the archaeologist stood in an empty space, clearly untouched for eons, showing no evidence of use, and read the inscription: Here lie all the treasures plundered from distant lands in our glorious past.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)
As Arnold hiked joyfully away along the trail, the child he had just pulled from the water and revived reached out a hand to touch the intriguing water moccasin.
(Ref: 1 Peter 5:2)
The meeting was over. The contracts were signed. His business was sold. In fact, he had just sold it for considerably less than he had expected to.
What had gone wrong?
The younger man across the table from him wondered for a moment why the seller hadn’t gotten up and left. He, the newcomer, now owned the place, after all.
“What went wrong?” The voice was tired, old, faded.
“I suppose you expected to sell more quickly and at a higher price.” Matter of fact. Calm. In control.
“Yes. It should have worked. All my life it has worked.”
“What? What worked?”
“My negotiations. I’ve bought and sold any number of companies. I have years of experience on you.”
“The resume doesn’t impress me. The data, the facts on the ground, the bottom line. Those impress me.”
“The bottom line was somewhat better than what you based your offer on.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“Of course I believe it! I know this company. I know what it’s worth.” The vigor was back.
“And dozens of men and women, business leaders, have believed you when you made such claims.”
“Because I’m successful. I’m important. Just my name has value!”
“I suppose you have to believe that. But I don’t.”
Several varieties of anger made their way across the older man’s face. He wanted to call the younger man inexperienced, to promise him failure. To negatively compare the younger man’s status with his own. But he was sitting in this room that now belonged to the younger man. “You have no respect for your elders.”
“At what point have I shown disrespect?” The question was curious. Not surprised, angry, ashamed. Just mildly curious.
“By calling all my claims lies.”
“The claims were false.”
“But thousands, maybe even millions believe my perspective, my judgement.”
“That doesn’t make you right. It may make you popular, but it doesn’t make you right.”
“You see! Disrespect!”
“So pointing out facts is disrespect.” The younger man was wavering on the point of cutting the conversation off, but he was still curious.
“I’m a great businessman! A young pup like you has no business challenging me!”
“You know, you’ve made a career of that kind of statement. You challenge people to tell you you’re wrong. You bluster. And it worked. It worked right up until there was nobody left who hadn’t been burned by your ideas, and the one man with the money to buy you out wasn’t buying your ‘perspective.'”
The older man jumped up. “You insolent young pup! Nobody! Nothing!” And he stormed out of the room. He looked behind him. How many people had followed him out of a room when he stormed out? But nobody followed him this time.
There comes a time, thought the younger man, when the balloon deflates. Too bad so many people lose their shirts in the meantime.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)
“I’ve heard there was a time when this village was a nice, quiet, and safe place to live.” The man’s voice was distant, as though he was trying to remember something.
The group of villagers in the small pub all looked his way. Though he had spoken quite softly, everyone heard. It was that quiet in the room.
The silence returned for a few moments. Then it was interrupted by a cackling laugh.
Everyone looked at the old woman in the corner. Everybody knew her so well that actually nobody knew her at all. She was just there, as she had been as long as anyone could remember. They were pretty sure she was a widow, though nobody could remember a time when she had a husband. Now she seemed to be chuckling. In appearance, she could have illustrated the word “crone” in the dictionary.
“You’ve heard there was a time,” said the old woman. “Indeed, there was a time.” She paused for a moment, and spat on the ground. “Most of you were alive then. You just don’t remember.”
The folks in the room looked back at her. Nobody asked her anything and she didn’t volunteer anything more. Finally, the first man broke the silence. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“If you tried,” she said, “you could remember that time yourself. But you don’t want to. All of you, and many of your parents, were responsible for bringing it to an end.”
“Tell us about it,” said the man.
“Well,” said the old woman after a few moments, “I doubt it will do you any good, but I’ll tell you. It sure didn’t do you any good the first time.”
“You see, back even longer ago, there was a horrible time in this village. Our baron was a cruel man who would order people killed for any reason or no reason at all. He taxed all our crops at a rate of better than 50%. He charged incredible tariffs on goods brought into town. Nobody other than a few of his cronies lived in even moderate comfort.”
“So what’s different?” muttered someone. Nobody was sure who.
“Well, nothing’s different now. But for a short period of time, things were completely different. Amazingly different.
“A traveling soldier/adventurer came into town one day. The baron decided that he wanted all that the soldier owned for his own. Unfortunately for the baron, however, the soldier was not that easy of a target and he refused to be robbed. In fact, he refused to pay the taxes the baron demanded. He sat right here in this pub, and he told the baron’s tax collector to go get stuffed.
“When the baron’s guards attacked him, he disarmed them. He left them bruised but otherwise undamaged. The baron decided that his best option was to simply ignore the soldier until he chose to move on. It certainly wouldn’t do to have his guards cleverly disarmed. Better if they were killed! As it was people were laughing.” The old woman laughed again, this time until she started choking. Then she got control of herself again.
“The problem with ignoring the soldier,” she continued, “was that people started to wonder if there wasn’t a way that they could live as free of the baron’s interference as the soldier did. So they asked him.
“The soldier told them that it was quite simple. ‘Unity,’ he said. ‘Unity is what you need.’ So the people asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the baron wasn’t really personally all that powerful of a man. His guards weren’t that good. Yes, they were armed, unlike the other villagers, but they really weren’t better.
“‘The baron isn’t better either, just because he was born a baron. So there’s not reason he actually has to get his way,’ the soldier said. This made sense to everyone. There was lots of argument, but the soldier explained to them that unity was the one requirement. If the villagers would act in unity to keep their freedom, nothing else would matter. If they allowed themselves to be divided, they’d lose again.
“It all made so much sense when the soldier said it, so the villagers decided to go along. He explained that as long as the villagers required that the baron get their agreement to everything, and they were reasonable about it, they could live in freedom and they could prosper.
“So the villagers began to require that they agree to anyone who was to be punished. Wrongdoers were brought into the village square and the entire town had to agree to their punishment. Taxes were divided evenly according to people’s ability to pay and were agreed on by everyone. Tariffs were set as everyone desired, so generally goods that were needed were allowed in at reasonable rates. There was a certain amount of protecting local craftsmen, but the protections were applied evenly.
“All this lasted for a few years. Every time anyone complained or tried to lead us off track, we’d shut them down. Unity was the one key, the only thing that would keep us free. If we gave that up, we’d quickly lose everything else as well.
“Then came the day when one farmer was more prosperous than others. His farm was producing better and he was making more money. So a couple of his neighbors made an agreement with the baron. They charged him with an infraction. They came before the whole town. They explained that he had been caught robbing his neighbors red-handed, and there was no need for proof as was normally required.
“That established a new principle. The baron could now punish an wrongdoer who was caught in the act. Everybody thought it was a minor concession and quite reasonable. Like you folks, they had forgotten the past. They thought they could give up a little bit and keep what they wanted. Besides, the prosperous farmer had awakened envy in everyone.
“Thus unity died. It seemed a minor thing. Nobody admitted to themselves that they didn’t really know if the farmer was guilty of all the acts he was accused of. They didn’t want to know. It didn’t seem important.
“When another villager was taken by the baron’s men without a trial before the village, everyone hesitated. Was this a proper exception to the rule or not? Was it not possible that the charges were made up? The second person accused was more popular than the first, but still stood enough apart from the rest that people hesitated. And while they hesitated, the baron took action. Once the baron had acted, it required organization to take action, and it was hard to get people organized.
“Before long there was no more unity in the village.”
“But after all,” said the man, “it was just one person. Surely the death of one person couldn’t end the prosperity of the entire village.”
“Ah, but it did,” said the old woman. “I remember it clearly. Once the unity was broken, there was no going back. But the temptation was so strong, that people fell for it.” She paused, while everyone fell silent again.
“I remember it so clearly, the day the village betrayed my husband.”
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org. This story is a work of fiction. Copyright © 2017, Henry E. Neufeld.)
Sam (short for Samson, not Samuel), picked up the stein of beer he had just paid for, gave it an initial taste to savor the taste, and then followed with a gulp. He enjoyed his beer in the evening after a hard day of work.
He took a quick look around the bar, searching for faces he knew. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he loved to sit with friends and just be there.
Today, however, he saw a man he didn’t know sitting alone at one of the high tables, an empty stein in front of him. The only conclusion one could come to—and as usual, Sam came to it quickly—was that the man was wearing high quality clothes, but had been wearing the same ones for at least a couple of days. He was alone at the table, and he looked alone, absolutely alone.
Sam walked over to the table. “Hi. I’m Sam. Can I buy you a refill?” he asked.
The man looked back blankly, like he didn’t understand the question. Sam just stood there. He figured the man would figure it out in his own time.
After what seemed like a couple of minutes, the man nodded and kind of pushed the stein over. It didn’t look very polite, but Sam didn’t care. Without knowing why, he sensed that was about all the man could do.
He went to the bar, got the man’s drink refilled, paid, and went back to the table. As he sat down, he remembered what his pastor had said in church the past Sunday. He’d talked about being a witness, introducing people to Jesus. “Witness” didn’t make much sense to Sam. He understood introducing people to Jesus, but he could never figure out how you did it. If Jesus was one of his normal friends, he’d take him to one of his friends and say, “Hey Bob, meet Jesus.” Then he’d just sit there quietly and people would talk. He just couldn’t quite get to those intellectual things people kept saying about Jesus.
Sam wasn’t stupid. In fact, the pastor reminded him regularly that he wasn’t. He’d talk about different skills, different ways minds worked, and how he, the pastor, couldn’t build a house the way Sam could. “I’d be a real fool on a building site,” he’d say. Then he’d bring up some complex topic that Sam couldn’t understand (and didn’t want to), and Sam would smile and move on. Trouble was, he thought, the pastor was never on a building site where Sam could talk studs, joists, fasteners and such-like, while Sam was in church every Sunday where he heard about long words that never meant anything to him.
Jesus was his friend. In fact, Jesus was his best friend. Jesus didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to Jesus. They just sat together. Sam liked it that way.
He sat down and shoved the beer across the table. Then he thought, I should ask a blessing or something. He couldn’t imagine why. Bless the beer (and pretzels) in a bar? He’d never heard of such a thing. Besides, he didn’t know how one said a blessing. If it was one of his friends …
“Hey Jesus,” he said, looking slightly upward, “thanks for the beer!” He paused a moment as he grabbed a pretzel. “And for the pretzels too,” he added. For some reason, Sam handed the pretzel to the man across the table. Neither of them offered another word.
“May I join you?” said someone.
Both men looked to the side. Between them was a man, probably a construction worker, they thought. His hands were calloused. His clothes were the sort you wore on a building site, and they showed signs of wear and the dirt and dust of a work site.
“Sure,” said Sam. The other man just nodded at the newcomer.
“Get you a beer?” asked Sam.
“Sure, thanks,” he responded. His voice was the voice of the construction site as well.
With the beer delivered, they all three sat in silence for several minutes, nursing their beers slowly.
Finally, the newcomer looked at the man across from Sam and spoke. “It’s OK to run away from evil,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing to do.”
The man jerked, startled. Then he just stared.
“When you ran, you should have taken your family.”
His stare got more intense, as though he was in a state of shock.
“You need to go get them.”
“I can’t.” The man spoke for the first time. “I used my last money on my first beer. I only have this one because Sam here bought it for me. I have nothing left.” His tone indicated that by “nothing” he was talking about more than money.
“If you try, I think you’ll find you have the resources,” said the stranger. Then he got up.
As he left he turned to Sam and said, “Hey, Sam. Thanks for the beer.”
For no reason he could imagine, Sam reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He put it on the table in front of his new friend. Almost as if by magic several other bills joined it as people from around the room stepped up to contribute.
None of them knew why they did it either. They just knew that Sam was solid. If he thought the man needed the money, the man needed the money.
Matthew 18:20, Matthew 10:42
One dark and stormy night (metaphorically speaking) Alfred’s soul grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and slammed him against the wall (in a spiritual sense).
“I’m your soul. We need to talk,” said Soul.
“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a soul. I am a soul. I stand on Genesis 2:7 on this point,” said Alfred, unconcerned with the feeling that he was being accosted by a concept.
“It’s metaphorical language. I can use it however I want. It all depends on perspective,” said Soul.
“I could be your spiritual side,” said Spiritual Side.
“Or perhaps your alter ego,” said Alter Ego.
“But we still need to have a talk,” said Soul.
“I really don’t think a metaphor should be using metaphors,” insisted Alfred. “It’s unseemly.”
“So now I’m supposed to have good taste?” said Soul. “Only metaphorically, of course,” he added in diminishing tones. Alfred was reminded of a musical scale, played diminuendo.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to talk at all,” said Alfred, trying for forte, but instead sounding like an angry child. He couldn’t have said whether the sound was real, metaphorical, spiritual, or imaginary. But it was petulant.
“And yet here I am speaking to you, or so your soul imagines in any case.”
“So what do you want?” asked Alfred.
“I want you to take care of me.” Soul’s intonation was like the ringing of a large bell this time.
“But you don’t exist!”
“Yet you talk to me.”
“Yeah, I do. Crazy, no?”
“Only metaphorically speaking,” said Soul, in a voice that evoked laughter like tiny silver bells. “Or it might be in the form of a simile,” he added.
“So what do I do to take care of you?”
“Think about it,” said Soul. “How did you get to the point where you’re up against the wall talking nonsense to your soul? Or to yourself, if one accepts your view.”
“It certainly isn’t from lack of study,” said Alfred.
“No, you are diligent at that.”
“Nor that I don’t spend time in serious thought.”
“No, you do think a great deal.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“He’s talking to something he doesn’t believe exists, and he doesn’t see the problem,” said Soul to no one in particular (or even metaphorical).
“I don’t get it. You’re talking to me, and I shoudn’t talk to you?”
“Sheesh,” said Soul. “Try opening that door over there.”
Alfred looked at the door. It seemed that he had seen it before, yet he sensed it was also something new.
He turned the knob, slid it open. Suddenly he remembered/anticipated. Behind him he heard Soul laughing.
The door led outside.
“Clear,” she said, as Jake pulled into the heavily traveled intersection, unaided by any traffic signals. The little VW Bug’s right side passenger window was situated such that his wife, Clara, blocked the view. So they came up with this verbal strategy to make up for the loss. Anyway, Jake, at 85, lost his ability to turn his neck 90 degrees, so this seemed like a workable option.
Clara wasn’t any better off. Though only a couple of years younger than Jake, she quit driving altogether. Her eyesight was good, but she became too anxious behind the wheel. The idea of driving on the freeway was out of the question, and soon to follow was contesting in any traffic whatsoever. Jake’s short-term memory was unreliable, and he joked that he’d get Clara where she needed to, but she’d have to tell him why they are there. Life became a series of doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and a little mall-walking here and there. “Old age is not for sissies,” was their mantra.
There’s was a life of hard work, sacrifice, and, now, pain. They put their two children through college and grad school, and now had successful careers. However, their jobs meant having to live far from their parents, and visiting the grandchildren was very occasional. Grandma and grandpa felt unnecessary to their lives. In fact, unnecessary to anyone’s life.
But it was the last trip to the doctor that brought them face to face with mortality. Jake was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to his liver. Stage four; inoperable and final. He was given six months to live. This was received by Clara as her death warrant as well. How could she possibly live without Jake?
There they were, once again, at the well-traveled intersection. “How’s it looking, honey,” asked Jake? Clara took a long look down the road. Approaching quickly was semi loaded with scrap iron. It would be on them in seconds. “Clear,” she said.
For some non-fiction thoughts on end of life, see:
and my own story from yestderday Preserving Life.
You’re really in there, I believe. You wanted to die, but I saved you. As I read your brain activity, you’re still aware. You just can’t show us.
How do I know that? I’m the neurologist who saved your life. You botched the attempt to kill yourself, and I kept you alive. There was brain damage, yes. No, you can’t respond. But you’re alive in there. I know it. No doubt at all.
Yes, your wife told me “no heroic measures.” But that meant nothing beside the moral imperative. I had to preserve your life. Dead, there’s nothing anybody, nothing even God, can do. And you didn’t really want that, not with the way you botched your attempt to take your own life!
What could you have been thinking? You were about to take yourself out of God’s hands, away from God’s grace! No possibility of repentance then. Just the eternal fires of hell, where you could regret your decision forever.
But I saved you. And since I know you’re in there, you’ll have time to regret your decision now, to repent. You’ll thank me. As close to the flames as you were, I bet you’re thanking me now.
No, won’t happen. Your wife won’t force me to remove life support. I got her charged with helping you kill yourself.
True, it won’t hold up, but the court cases will drag out for years. I have a foundation that will fund your care, and another that will pay the legal bills. Politicians are signing on. All for your sake! All to preserve your life!
So if you haven’t already, you’ll have plenty of time to repent. And to thank us.
For preserving your life, of course!
I have to do this. I had to save your life, because life is sacred. I have your soul, the only thing more important than your life.
I’m certain it’s the right thing to do.
For some non-fiction thoughts on end of life, see: