by W. Kirk Avery
The names have been changed but not what happened. Many years ago now, a simpler time and life space perhaps, what was real then was just never before written down. With each passing season, fewer and fewer folks who actually lived in the village back then are still around even to tell about it.
Yet for those who are, there are reminders for those old enough to remember, but for any story legend to survive there must first be someone somewhere caring enough to listen. With a late October’s first snow, heavy and wet from the west, at least for just that one fleeting fragment of memory, they remember what it had been like to be part of it, how it was.
The shifting, wind-driven snow squalls quickly whirling into sleeting ice storm; the weathered, red-board schoolhouse in the clearing at the top of Finnegan’s Hill, overlooking the village; the narrow roadway leading up through what seemed a tunnel of birches glazing over.
There were two story memories then, really, recorded here for the very first time: the third graders, what they came up with and worked out for themselves. And there was Paul’s idea, a child dream weaver 1000 years old at eight. And it was all for Sarah, a simple story letter in which each child would add something, their hurting and suddenly so terribly alone little classmate and new friend.
The village obviously connected to the children’s story yet somehow separate, too. It was not just the tragic accident, David’s death and how personally this had touched everyone, but the actual village itself, this closed-off yet so very caring community of people. How they had responded was how they had lived; what mattered most, being there for each other.
When Fred Turner’s barn burned to the ground the previous summer, like wild- flower magic early the next morning’s dawning every family had gathered in Fred’s dooryard to help him raise the new building. It was both a celebration and a feast: the girls and women fussing over huge pots and platters of steaming food and giant coffee urns and loaves upon loaves of homemade bread; the men and boys with their hammers and ladders and lumber and pegged nails. For work breaks there were more than twenty pies.
It took the whole day and more than halfway into the night but when they had finished, right away someone began with a fiddle. There was suddenly a mighty camp- fire, everyone all scrunched together close, and the higher than high Milky Way and soon enough, stories and grandfathers with pipes.
It was who they were, how they chose to be. Begin with the village, then: dairy farms surrounding, a central green, a brook bubbling the far side and emptying into the upper branch of the White River. The church steeple you can still see from wherever you stand, Josh and Grace’s Country Store and Restaurant in what was once the old Grange Hall close by. The main highway (now the North-South Interstate but not yet constructed back then) is more than 20 miles distant, across and beyond the spruce and evergreen-forested mountain ranges to the west.
Truth be told, most everyone at the time preferred it that way, the isolation, the distance, as had their kin before them and further generations back, their kin before them. It was what they knew, how they felt, shut off as they were as much by local customs and traditions as closed in by the endless, months long, snowbound, unrelenting winters.
It was no small matter then when Josh and Grace without a word to anyone shut down their Country Store (the briefest of notes taped to the outside door stating simply that they would be gone for a bit, back when they were back, and to help yourself to coffee). They left before dawn on a Thursday. When they returned six nights later, the twins, David and Sarah, were with them.
Five-thirty the next morning, there they were again as though nothing unusual had happened. First coffee steaming hot enough to broil solid ice; brown eggs the way eggs were always meant to be, Grace’s secret homemade fluffy biscuits; everything the same once more as it had always been but of course it wasn’t.
There were the twins.
Just how everyone knew so quickly was never quite clear; they just did. By mid- morning the word had flashed around, “Boy and girl. Adopted, straight true, I seen ’em myself.〃 Evening after chores folks started drifting by, family pairs mostly, their children, to take a look, in their own private ways to say welcome, to say hello.
Josh and Grace were past fifty, very highly respected elders of the village. If you were short for whatever reasons, you could still get anything you needed, pay up when you were able. David and Sarah were eight.
No questions were asked nor explanations expected; none were needed. No time at all, they were simply Josh and Grace’s kids. Way most people figured it, wherever they were from, main thing now was they were home.
Come the last week of August and the start of school, third grade it turned out to be. Autumn flashed brilliantly but ended too soon. Winter blew in harsh and fierce, still a week or so left in October. From out the ever darkening gloom of sky, first a scattering of flakes, then the full force of wind; the heavy, blinding swirls of snow shifting into sudden sleeting. The narrow schoolhouse roadway leading up through the tunnel of birches glazed over, invisible patches of black ice beginning to spread, forming but not yet showing.
Grace had taken the pickup truck to get the twins. There was an early dismissal because of the deepening storm, the threat of the icing. Later, waiting for them to come out, she would remember spotting them emerging with the other children. She felt the tug at her heart that she had felt then, what she still felt now. She saw them so clearly, Sarah’s bright scarlet stocking cap, David’s multi-colored one.
The two them, they were inseparable; everyone noted it. Wherever one was, hold your breath and count three and right away there would be the other.
It was as though time became a precursor, a sudden tableau she knew was happening even as it did: the weathered, red-boarded schoolhouse as backdrop; the sudden slow motion suspended silence; the apple-cheeked, hopping here, hopping there excitement of the children… and in the very center, what she would never forget, David and Sarah, her hand in his.
It all seemed so very loving, so very safe. ..and then they were scrambling in beside her, Sarah in the middle where she preferred to be, David as always on the passenger side.
This is how it happened, probably no more than sixty seconds of spent time. Grace, heart-warmed, started back down that same narrow, glazed over schoolhouse roadway she had descended thousands of times.
There was a rifle crack sounding of a branch snapping.
For just a mini-second of her lifetime, she forgot the storm, forgot where she was and how slippery it might be, turning instead to smile at them so very gently…
Spun skidding crazily across one of those invisible black ice patches…
Could not regain control…
Crashed right side doorway dead on into the birches, dead on under the tunnel of trees.
David had not suffered, was instantly and abruptly killed, still holding his multi-colored cap.
The immediate concern was for Sarah. She was the shyer one, David her very special friend, so much more than just brother. He was her protector, her guardian angel, devoted to her as she was to him, safe as long as she could reach out and touch his arm whenever she was afraid.
As well meaning as everyone felt, no one knew quite what to do. It was like the barn burning recovery but different. There were no nails to pound, timbers to be raised, food pots and platters to be steamed. Sarah had escaped the accident virtually unscathed, as had Grace, as David had not.
Physically, they were fine; heart wounded was something else.
It was one of the children in Sarah’s class, Paul, finally, who lighted the way, at least for the other children. The plan at first had been for each child to write her a separate note, the notes to be presented and read to Sarah m story circle when she returned. Paul wasn’t really sure that Sarah would want to come back but even if she did, to walk in that first day the immediate center of attention seemed too much.
“Why not write just one letter, each of us together, each one whatever you want to say? That way, somewhere else not in front of everybody, someone could read it to her. Just one person, not the whole class.”
“You, then, Paul. You could be make-believe David.”
Paul was very quiet; he often was. “No,” he said, “I can’t. Nobody can. I can read what we wrote for her, maybe even be her special friend. But I can’t be David, only me.”
He made contact with Josh and Grace as soon as the letter had been finished. Townspeople had taken turns minding the Store but Josh at least was back now. Grace was still focused on Sarah who soon after the accident had stopped speaking.
There was a seldom-used storage room in back that she and David had made their own, shelves inside lined with hundreds of old medicine bottles. She was back there when Paul had come by to speak with Josh and Grace. She had taken the bottles from the shelves, formed them into many groupings. Each similar model was a family and each bottle was never alone and always safe. That first night, he sat there close by the door and watched for a bit.
He came by the next afternoon as soon as school was over and again the next day after that. Each time he sat there very quietly, each time just a few inches more away from the door, each time very gently leaving when it seemed right for him to do so.
On the fourth afternoon, she handed him a lovely blue bottle, still did not speak but motioned toward where its family lived.
Saturday, the fifth day, she was waiting for him, he could tell, not wanting to start until he was there. He rejoined his bottle family and that seemed to please her, that he had done so on his own.
Sunday, the sixth day, she spoke his name, asked him if he would help her move her entire bottle village inside where it was “warmer.” When they were done, she showed him her special secret friend, Turtle, where he was sleeping during the long winter.
After school on Monday seemed the perfect time. The bottle families were settled in. They visited Turtle again and while there, he told her about the letter her classmates had written for her, how they missed her and hoped she was well.
Tuesday was the eighth day. She opened the door herself when he knocked. They sat before the stone hearth, the crackling fire. Her bottles were sleeping, she said, and she wanted to watch the flames. It was then that she asked him if he would read the letter to her… but first, if it would be all right, could Josh and Grace listen, too?
She sat between them as Paul read. When he had finished, they continued to sit there before the fire for a very long time.
It was much later evening now and outside it was snowing and very still.
How David and Sarah Came to Life
DAVID AND SARAH emerges from an actual experience I both shared and witnessed almost 30 years ago now. My faculty assignment at the time was as coordinator of a state-wide, federally funded, educational consortium; its purpose to make more relevant the student teaching, field training experience and community/college accountabilities toward that end. The goals were simple enough. A rather unique partnership was envisioned: specifically, the university, a particular school district, and grades 1-6 of that same school. Local community was to be involved co-equally in all aspects of program design, delivery and supervision, resource allocation and review.
The first draft of DAVID AND SARAH was in direct response to an invitation to submit an example of the use of a healing story in an elementary school setting for a projected methods text. Two more rewritings followed, neither one of which really worked, for what was missing in the drafts was what, essentially, was missing in the consortium project itself. Everyone was involved but the students; all the so-called remedies superimposed, well meaning though they were meant to be, from without.
Who listened, who knew? Myself included; it was a time of so-called “open education” models and we were all so filled with what we credited ourselves for discovering, seldom if ever did we trust the children enough to ask them. They were after all children; what possibly could they know?
Which brings me to the fourth and final DAVID AND SARAH draft and to me, Kirk, some 30 years later. What is different for me now are some very personal understandings: most of all, the power of story to heal, not so much just in the simple “telling,” but in the sharing of what needs to be released. What I have finally come to understand is that the most significant story I might ever tell, healing or otherwise, is the story I really hear/ listen to someone else tell me.
How DAVID AND SARAH ultimately might be “applied,” then, I leave to the wisdom of each particular teller. Remember only that it is gently meant. One use, literally, might be in an elementary education methods / internship class or field setting as a discussion tool. How much truly do we literally trust those children whose lives we presume to affect? More importantly, how much do we truly trust ourselves to listen beyond our own personal needs to be noticed, credited?
My wish for DAVID AND SARAH is quite simple, really: that various tellers might take the time to consider it personally. As a healing story, which I believe it to be; my hope for it is no more complicated than that. A community comes together; a child enlightens the way. Read slowly, then; it is meant more for the heart than the head. A supportive reader critiqued Paul: “no kid could possibly be that wise at eight.” My only response at the time was: “How do you know?” If in fact everything seems uncertain, might not then anything still be possible?
I am committed to storytelling as a healing art, yet for me that commitment is not absolute even as it is extremely personal. As in my story, which pretty much rewrote itself finally once I managed to get myself out of the way, what we continue to feel and learn and most wish to share and understand about healing begins with what we continue to rediscover about ourselves. The magic unfolding of therapeutic storytelling begins with listening to another fellow traveler, not simply because you have your own human needs for someone to listen back; rather, because it is still something you can do, be there for someone else; listen from that healing place, your heart.
How or why at eight years old Paul, instinctively, responded as he did, I’ll leave for others to analyze. What mattered at the time was what he felt for his wounded friend, not just himself.
My hope for DAVID AND SARAH is no more complex than that, a happening to be shared and passed on for free.
Mid March 2002 as I round off these few final words. The Consortium has gone the way of all such well-intentioned efforts, not renewed once the soft money dried up and political climates changed. Children today from that same village and surrounding dairy farm school district attend a consolidated, more modernized elementary and middle school, the former structure long since torn down for salvage and wood scrap.
Sarah would be about 38 now. Word is she teaches somewhere, a third grade classroom of her own.
Orginally published in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, 2002.
W. Kirk Avery likes to describe himself as one of the last dinosaurs, a gentle warrior, still open to the magic of life unfolding. A Korean War trauma survivor (USMC, 1952), he started telling and writing much later in life than most. Honored for his teaching, hospice volunteering and domestic violence/ sexual assault survivor support provided, he is committed to storytelling as a healing art. His is a quieter voice, human reminder that even darker memories might yet be transformed into life, renewal, hope.