The Cross of Blue Flame

You’d be walking home after Sunday evening church. A few minutes past the golden hour, to the mauve hour, when the sun shafts are gone, but the sky is still lighter than the tree trunks. Woods on the right, the creek down the hill on the left side, and far across the creek and beyond the fields, the occasional light from a house. The trees are close on this right side, shadowing the road from a stirring roof overhead.

You have long memorized the bumps of the road; you’ve walked it since you were a child. For anyone else it would be too shadowed at this hour for steady steps.

Far off through the trees there’s a light, moving from trunk to trunk, gently, neither hiding nor hurrying, but coming your way. It’s a cool light, toward blue. The blue shimmers like a northern light, with an internal dance that shifts the shape of the flame second by second.

When the flame reaches the road a stone throw ahead of you, it stops. It is clearly there for you. After you also stop and collect your puzzled thoughts toward the blue flickering point, the flame stops dancing, contracts into its own center, then stretches four arms back out into the unmistakeable sign of a Baptist cross, like the one atop all the country churches. There it stands for a long minute, in a brighter, steadier blue glow. It stands, you stand, breathing. Then it contracts again back into its own center, and is gone. The dark returns.

You wait for something else but there is nothing else. Then, when the frogs timidly start again in the creek and the owl resumes her rollcall, you notice how quiet the woods had already become.

It’s always on a road like this and a night like this. It’s always after evening church service. Never across open ground, never near graves. This is not the cemetery wisp. This is no prophecy; no knowledge is offered and there is nothing asked of you.

You’ll only see the blue cross once in your life. You’ll hesitate to tell anyone, because you’re not sure what it meant. But then, always, and within a few days, a death of someone you know. You’ll wonder if the blue cross was to warn you – that’s natural – but it doesn’t feel like a warning.

Later, as you casually ask around, you’ll realize there is no-one you know who has seen the blue cross, but many of them have known someone who said they heard of it.

As best I can tell, it means something like this:

“Death is known to me. I start your mornings and I count your evenings. When the old ones leave the church building to walk their dirt roads toward home, I count their steps. And as the road and the woods and the steeple-bells age, to tell them all their time runs old, I watch. Death is not my friend, but is an acquaintance, and I count his steps too.”

The Girl Who Summons Owls

When I was a young man I read a love story in which the boy exclaims “…a girl who loves owls!”.  They’d go out on the lake in the canoe and she’d be all wistful at the sound of owls and his soul would leave his body at the thought that he’d finally found Her, after assuming there was no-one else like that.    He knew he had found THE one.   I was years away from finding you, and had thought alot about how to know the One Girl, but the owl test seemed better than anything I had heard so far.   I held it for awhile.  I, too, was weird, liking not just owls but many odd things, and assuming I’d never meet someone just as weird.  But maybe.  But then, such romantic dreams seem to die too often under the weight of real life.

I don’t know what test of yours I was lucky enough to pass, but years later we met and married, you and I, and I had somehow forgotten to apply the owl test.   I forgot it completely.  When I did remember that book, I just thought of it as somebody else’s romance, not for me.

We had a son and got engrossed in raising him.  A decade on and I discovered the municipal naturalists and their nature walks.   I took Isaac on the February owl walk, at night.   Zero degrees, dark, a small huddle of nerdy citizens clumped around the naturalist in the woods, and a recording of the Barred Owl to draw the birds in to the invisible trees above our heads.   We got one!   An answering call came drifting over the suburban noises from a mile away, then closer, then silent as a midnight cloud, he settled on a branch and glared down at us,  clearly miffed that the call was not actually a girl owl but just a tape and a speaker.   With red cellophane covering the flashlight beam, we could just see his bulk and his eyes up in the beech branches.   I wondered how often could you fake a Barred Owl’s friend before they got wise and disappeared forever from naturalists’ itineraries.

When I took you back, later, another night, to share the spot and the story with you, and you wanted to try, I was afraid we’d get caught by the authorities daring to call the owls without a license.   But, we’re wild like that, so I thought, what the heck, it won’t work anyway.

“Who cooks for you?  Who? Who?”  You learned the Barred Owl’s call quickly and hooted it out into the woods and the night.  (We’re going to jail, I thought, for nothing.)  Listen.  Dogs bark a mile away.  Faint hum of traffic somewhere.   Then,  far away but unmistakably, the echo back: “Who cooks for you?”  I catch my breath.  It can’t be.  You hoot again.  He answers again, closer.

Then the shadow in the moon overhead and movement through the branches but without sound, the Owl settles directly over our heads.  We don’t move, we don’t talk.  Before I can quite muster my marvel, though, another shadow crosses the moon and another dark silhouette settles a few feet away from the first.

I had never imagined that we’d get both Mr. and Mrs. Owl together!  You did, in one try, what the practiced professionals hadn’t done.

We stood like stones and watched them watch us from their imperial perch, maybe peeved to find neither mice nor wizards but a suburban middle-aged couple.  Maybe  embarrassed to be tricked by a suburban house wife who hoots like their own kin.

For me, it was the night I knew I had the Girl Who Summons Owls –  two at once.  Better than the girl in the book.

Rockhouse Holler

You should know by now that hollers (hollows) are the little valleys, here in Appalachia,.where creeks run.  When the roads first came into these hills they followed the creeks up and up, from the large creek in the deep valley up to the feeder creeks coming down from the hilltops.

We crossed some sort of boundary in the years from my parents to me, because I never said “holler”, except as a part of a place name.   Or maybe it was snobbery;  only twenty miles away from this spot, in the town of 3,000 where I grew up as the city cousin, “holler” was a hillbilly word, mocked by teenagers and other cruel people. But those who live on this road still say “holler”.   Everybody “in the holler” either lives up the creek or down the creek, up the holler or down the holler.

Now that we’ve driven up the creek to the top of the first ridge, the next holler winds down there below.  Look down through the car window at the tops of trees.  And a half-mile off the road, back under those farther trees, is the Rockhouse,  a smooth cave, scooped back into the hillside rock.   I do want to take you to see the cave, but the walk there and the walk back are just as important,  beside and beyond the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried.  It’s all coming into view out your side of the road.  We are starting down now.

The gravestones dot that little hill,  popping up out of those tree-tops.   We have to drive slow here, because if we meet another car on the one-lane, somebody has to pull off the gravel into the ditch to let pass.

I don’t really know the people who live on this road now, though the last names on the mailboxes are familiar. Their houses are still spaced far enough apart that each one is around a bend from his neighbor, and usually separated by cow-pastures.    We’ll turn in – nobody can quite see you from their nosy window – and slip down this even smaller road, just a grass path with tire tracks, that ends at the graves.

The neighbors really do care who drives along the road. They peer out their windows at the sound of gravel under tires.  You’d care too, if you lived somewhere where all cars had better have a reason to be there.

Though the cemetery road is just car-ruts through the field, the drive gear will move us fast enough with no gas pedal.   I always imagine the car has remembered where we’re going, like it is an insensate machine in the city but out here it gradually awakens – or maybe it’s just that at this spot there is literally no-where else we can possibly drive.  At any rate, I can let go of the wheel and take my foot off the gas.

Dip down for a hundred yards then back up, through golden rod and high alfalfa.  Then out into the mowed grass.   We can park anywhere.   The grass is mowed a couple times in the warm months, out far enough around the hill’s foot to make enough parking space for all the out-of-town cousins at once.   Cousins of anyone buried here.

My mom and dad and my sister are sleeping on this hill, but let’s skip that for now, I want you to see the woods.  We’ll walk around the bottom of the hill and down into the trees toward the creek.   Further down and further back.

Down here into the forest rooms, the green ceiling of maples blocks even the mean August sun, but occasional lights dapple our feet and freckle the may-apple leaves (which always made me think of fairy parachutes).   Leaves underfoot are spongy, decades deep.  Moss climbs the grey rocks and the grey beech trunks.  Each time I return, the green of the moss is always a surprise. There are colors in the woods that exist only on the retina but the memory can’t store them. Jack-in-the-pulpit nods in the slight wind, sleepy from his own sermon.

The holler is actually the ancient flood-bed of the creek, 50 yards across.   But the creekwater normally is just as wide as my dad’s stride, and it runs an inch thin on slimy rock.   Broken cliffs, veined with roots as thick as an old man’s thigh,  rise on both sides of the little holler.  From the road we drove in on, you can never see that there’s a rock canyon back in here, and as we look back where we came from here, on foot, we can’t see the road or any houses.

We used to follow the path beside the stream on summer nights.   And sometimes step the flat stones. Down from the graveyard, into the woods, back into the holler, back again beneath the rock face where the creek had long since cut under the upper forest at a bend.  This sensation of down and back and more down and back, deeper into the womb of the countryside, is what I’d feel when I was small and my mother would take us back to her home on weekends.

One cut in the rock in particular is deep enough to call a Rockhouse.   It will shelter a couple dozen cattle in a storm.   The rock overhead is higher than a small maple  and is rippled like water, and blackened by the smoke of a thousand fires like the ones we were sure the Indians built, and the ones we built, for roasting marshmallows.   I’d lean back on the log where I’d sit, away from the fire on my face,  and strain my neck to watch the sparks shoot up into the black night.  They’d streak red and yellow as they tracked the rock face out and up to where the crickets sing in the root balls of trees above our faces.

It may have been there one night I first felt that, simply by not knowing, I was a carrier of injustice.   I’ll say I was 10.  It was a feeling that I’d be able to name only years later….something like embarrassed at being in a place without knowing those who had been there before.   If I came to their place, didn’t their feelings and memories also remain there?  And who would carry those on if it wasn’t me?

We were always told the Indians had lived there a century before, but it wasn’t the romance of war whoops and war paint that drew me to picture them in the back of the cave beyond the light.  I’d think of a 10 year old Indian boy, and of his mother, and of the day he died, and of how his mother felt, and how could I pull her sorrow out of the sandstone where it had soaked in and…do what with it?

Sentimental.   All my life I’ve been secretly worried about all the laughs and deaths hidden under the bushes and in the weeds at the side of the roads.  Even in the deep hollers far off the road, in the woods beyond the graveyards.   Sentimental is as good a word as any, I won’t argue with you, but then again I don’t seem to use it for this feeling when I look inside at the feeling.   It doesn’t seem quite accurate.

I would look across the fire and see my mother, young and pretty,  laughing with her brothers.   We were the city cousins, come back here to the country many weekends in the summer and this cave was as deep in this country as she could burrow.   30 years before that night, before she ever thought of me, she would have been right there as a young girl, sitting at a fire.

So there, there is one connection:  she watched the sparks go to heaven when she was 10, and she led me there when I was 10 and I leaned my face back into the dark at the same spot, at the same age.   Before her?  After me?

More than one broken chain.  Many.


Have you walked in the woods at night with no flashlight?  I mean the deep woods, not a thicket beside the road where you can still hear the rumble and swoosh of traffic or trains.  The woods, where you can stand without motion, close your eyes in order to point every neuron toward your ears, but still get no sound that is not a forest sound.

You have to be this deep in the woods to be free of the compass.  Our ears are powerful:  the slightest sound of civilization always comes from one direction more than others and so it orders the circle around you into one safe direction and then the others.  But in the quiet of Appalachian woods there is no order.  There is no safe direction unless you learned it from your folks.

Near to midnight we would put out the fire (usually by peeing on it; this was more practicality than mischief) and walk out of the holler without lights.  Out of the Rockhouse onto the old footpath, which could only be felt but not seen.  Overhead, no stars or moon, only thick summer canopy.   No sound, no light.  Even the breeze couldn’t find its way into the holler.   Along the path and across the trickling stream which made silvery sounds dropping off the little sandstone steps.  A chipmunk skitters, unseen.   Frogs burp, unseen.

Now, on the right, the rise of the cemetery knoll, though it was still too dark to see the jagged teeth of the headstones against the sky, like you saw in the daylight when you walked in.

The old ones were perfectly comfortable walking in the woods at night past the cemetery which they all believed exhaled will’o’wisp and apparitions.  No light, no sound, and the haunted graves.  As comfortable as sitting at the kitchen table playing cards.

I’ve written about their ghost-ology.   Yes, they told stories of late night appearances of dead ladies in flowing white dress, standing beside the road needing a ride, let’s say, or walking down a stairwell formal-like (ghosts never hurry).  They told stories of the sounds of weeping babies among the graves, or flaming crosses a head high above the far field which does not illuminate, by its blue light, anything around.  Like all cultures do, they told these stories: around the card table, or while walking at night.

But an anthropologist who grew up in the city could easily project his disdain for other elements of the culture and falsify the entire matter for a Ph.D.   Supernatural activity in this culture is not explaining the unknown, is not scaffolding a religious worldview — the ghosts who drift across these fields in fact do not fit into the religious worldview, but contradict it.

It is affection.   People do not see the landscape inhabited by the spirits of their elders unless they love it, love the old ones, love the places, love the night as much as the day, love the earth which gives potatoes and takes back mother and father.

It is not fear or need for order which writes those stories, but affection, and that’s why the old ones were never even slightly chilled those midnights as we found our way back to the cars, where they’d turn a moment, hand on the car door, and glance back at the graves for movement, not wishing to be elsewhere.

Scenes From My Father

Scenes From My Father

Fathers, seek out your children every day and give them a gift. Here are some gifts from my father.

My first memory of dad. I’m not yet 4 years old. Dad lost his mother and younger brother in a terrible accident, which he witnessed. Strong hands are under my arms from behind and they hold me up to look down through glass at my grandmother and my uncle in their caskets. His voice is in my ear, explaining to me that they had an accident, and what the bruise on their foreheads meant. Something bad had happened, but my dad was stronger than the bad. It was a calm, matter-of-fact voice, and it felt like, in the middle of a house full of whispering adults, he was thinking of me, and had the confidence in me that I would be able to understand and process it. He treated me like a big person. No moral, no lecture, but years later I realized what he gave me that day: Bad things happen, and you can face them straight on.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m 6 or 7 now. I’ve apparently thrown a rock through the window of the dentist office down the street, and dad tells me we’re going to have to go make it right. He knows the dentist and has talked to him and we have a meeting scheduled (he knows everybody.) We walk together down the street. I apologize and offer to pay for the window glass out of my allowance, on an installment schedule. The dentist thinks for a minute, and decides the offer is acceptable. He shakes my hand and says he is impressed that I did the right thing. A long time later, I understood that day’s gift: you sometimes do bad things, but you make them right.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, I’m 10 or 11. It’s my birthday. Dad comes home with a present for me – a pair of boxing gloves. I hadn’t asked for them. I still don’t know where he got the idea, but he had boxed in high school and I’d heard him talk about it. He put the gloves on with me and taught me how to stand, move my feet, and jab with the lead hand. I can still see his lead glove, I can still feel my head snap back from his jab. The neighborhood kids boxed in the backyard that summer. What were the gifts of that day? Where to look, where not to look. That it’s not going to kill you to get hit. Never start a fight, but if he won’t have it any other way, hit first, hard, straight, and watch his feet.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m in my late teens. Dad seeks me out and says “come with me, I want to show you something.” We load into his car and drive quite ways to an old rundown hotel. I follow him up dark, smelly stairs, to a dark room, and he goes in and fishes out someone we knew who had gotten into a dark, dark place. We loaded the prodigal into the car and off to a safe, warm place. It was clear to me that wasn’t the first time Dad had rescued him. As we drove home, not many words, just “Son, I wanted you to see that.” Just like that. Just like when I was four, he had the confidence to show me something ugly and how one does the right thing, and trust me to grasp it. What was the gift that day? Men go into the dark to save the weak, even if the weak one is at fault.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, to about a month ago. Dad is in the nursing home, and I’m visiting. Some of the aides had not kept to a schedule of medication or something, and he had cornered one of them and was giving her a hard time. He never liked it when anyone made a commitment but didn’t keep it. This aide was gracious and apologetic but he just wouldn’t let it go. He made her and everyone else in the room uncomfortable. She was able to work her way out with promises to do better. I was bothered, and thinking about what to say to him, but before I could, and after she was gone for a few minutes, he turned to me and said “Was i too hard on her?” If you knew Dad, you know that wasn’t easy for him. But I could see in his eyes he was sincere. So I said “Yes, you were rude, and you hurt her feelings, and you should make that right.” I expected a fight. But he thought for a minute, then said “You’re right, I was wrong. I’ll make it up to her when she comes back.” And he did. And that, in all fairness, was probably hard for him. The gift that day? Sometimes we fight when we don’t need to.

Sometimes I’ve fought when I didn’t need to.

There is so much more to tell if I had more time. He gave me a love for the names of plants, flowers and trees and somehow that became a playing in the sounds of words and a love of poetry. He taught me how to sharpen a knife, make a whistle from a twig. i saw him suffer through sickness for years, unable to eat most foods, to work to support his family. He noticed and greeted everybody, especially the waitress, the clerk at the counter, the janitor, the old men sitting on the courthouse steps. He picked up hitchhikers and brought sketchy characters home to live in the spare room. He taught us, I hope, there are no little people.

Fathers give gifts.

Fast forward…to about a week ago. We moved him into the hospice house and got him settled in bed. He had a minute here and there when his thoughts were clear but mostly, not. As evening wore on and we just sat with him, just being together, he began to talk, stronger than we had seen in days. We realized he was preaching. Not quite clear-headed; he wasn’t with us, he was somewhere else, leading a service, complete with special music and some sort of dedication of the church building. We thought it was a momentary confusion, but he leaned forward, looking off and up, gesturing, and building to a conclusion, like we had heard in his sermons all our lives. He hadn’t had that strength for a long time, and he went on and on and on — Dad could go on. We didn’t know what to do with him. But he wasn’t upset and didn’t seem to be hurting himself, he was just…elsewhere. Then, the invitation. In a loud, clear, impassioned voice – “come to Jesus!” “Come to Jesus!” His voice was bright, clear, urgent, and he was looking out over the congregation back to the distant pews where the preachers’ kids and other sinners hide. It’s a custom for teachers, at the end of their careers, to give The Final Lecture. We were hearing Dad’s Final Sermon.

After that, he settled back, and his strength failed quickly. He would lapse into silence, and sleep the next few days, until he woke this last Monday into the arms of his Savior. The last earthly sentences he would ever speak were an invitation to come to Jesus. Because, in his heart of hearts, dad was: an evangelist. If you knew Dad longer than 5 minutes, you knew that.

Who are we, really? When reason fails, when youth and strength are gone, what is left? Isn’t that when the undisguised heart shows its passions? What does your heart really, really want?

What Dad really, really wanted, wants tonight, is for each and every heart to hear the voice of a loving father. Come to Jesus. Come to Jesus.

Thank you Dad, for all these gifts.

Note: Written to honor my father, and read at his funeral.


The hawk on the wire faces away from the road, but looks back at me over his shoulder.  That posture is, by now, an icon of the large raptors:  the curved neck, the eye and beak somehow more forceful because twisted back toward us.   “I will regard you, but not seriously enough to turn my body.   I point my glorious beak in your general direction.  I may turn toward you but I may not.  I can see more of you than you can of me, and I am studying your nostrils for any quiver of fear.  I am Hawk.”


The water must have come up high in the drainage ditch – nearly flooding over the blacktop – then froze at the surface, then went back down, fast.  As the stream dropped away, the icey surface layer stayed, suspended in mid-air by the weed-stalks.  From my car, at slow country speed, I notice the glass sheet hovering mystically above the empty ditch.  As if some waterskin had been molted, in place, by the creek, before it slithered into the river.


Four or five deer in the headlights, walking away from the road into the pasture.   They all crane necks to glance back toward the light.   Hooves lift lightly over corn stubble.  A hint of blowing snow in the headlight.

I remember some scene from a Christmas card:  deer and other creatures from the wild wander into the frame where the Nativity has for a moment caught their attention,  taught them to talk, and lightened their hearts from all fears.   They’re in Narnia and the King is finally walking the land.

Memory shifts.  I’m a teenager, running through backyards after dark on vacation, in mischief but only slight mischief.   That year, that last year when my daily bread simply appeared, by magic, as it always had.

Back to now.  The deer look together at me, look away, together, then move together out of frame away into the treeline.   I wish for them that life is not sudden death on the highway, or the bullet tearing arteries in mid-chew, but rather heart failure in sleep.   Lord, let their hearts just stop in your time, in a dream of clover, an hour before the herd stirs at dawn, and take them one by one to decorate your creche.



The fox sat in the middle of the clearing as if he had nothing to do. I’m used to thinking of zoo animals as bored, but not wild animals, and this fox on the mile-wide Outer Banks should be feeling pressure to hunt for supper, since there can’t be many rabbits on this spit of land. But he sat still, gazing over the tops of the scrub, bored.
He must have heard our tour-jeep before we saw him, yet as we slowed down to look for horses he glanced over at us as if we were the zoo animals. The jeep stopped, to our cries of “fox! fox!”. Tourists yells didn’t startle him. Foxes are notoriously furtive, but this one could have been hired for the Disney Outer Banks theme park.

A fox’s stare is unlike other animals’ stare. You meet his eyes, and there seems to be a mind looking back. Your life-long certainty that you are the intellect in the mutual gaze with an animal – that certainty trembles. You study each other.
We’re not programmed to feel normal while studied by a carnivore, even a small one. But maybe you get settled from that. But then you get again unsettled, realizing you are being triangulated by a prankster who lives nowhere in particular, and therefore everywhere. You feel mapped.

And Isaac Rustled Like the Wind

Barbara and I walked in the park after dark, hand in hand. The gravel paths shimmered from the moon, and the moon’s twin floated in the flat creek. The voices of other walkers were muffled by the warm air.

The trees stood stories high in a slight wind. Long after we might have eased our hands apart to walk quicker we slowed still more and held hands tighter. I thought of Loran Helm saying: “in the Kingdom, when you feel like things are too slow, slow down.” The night felt easy in our hands and it was easy to talk.

Some summer nights say “Don’t think about the trees or the moon. Talk about small things known only to the two of you. Talk about secrets.”

Later, as we lay together at midnight, I whispered those words in her ear, and she pulled my hand down to feel the baby just then rustle like the night wind behind her belly button.

At dusk I don’t know how to live these days. What do summer nights leave behind that is permanent? All my life I’ve seen aging people hope their children will be their legacy, and I’ve pitied them, for children are so often disappointing.  The pressure of concern about a  legacy can stomp the mustard seeds from which all treasures bloom.  Slow down, slow down, feel the baby shift so slightly toward the great wide world.

There can be children and poetry on the same summer night, spoken in the same tongue.