(This post may not mean much to you if you haven't read my novel, "Troubled Fields". Well, it may not mean much to you if you have! But, here is a brief glimpse into Ray Bennett's day a couple of weeks before Christmas this year. This takes place some twenty-eight years after "Troubled Fields". When I started this I had no idea of where it was going. I hope you enjoy catching up just a little bit.)
The Harvester's Christmas, a Troubled Fields vignette, by Dennis Manor
We all have those places. Memories so firmly attached to a piece of real estate that, no matter how much has changed, we see it as it was before we see it as it is. Every day, every few years, or rarely, what was is what we see though it may be long gone . . . a thing of the past. Over the course of his day, sometimes several times a day, Ray Bennett drives past the lot that once housed his dream, the tractor shed from which Bennett Harvesters was to rise and provide for so much more than a living. It was to be a way of life. He always sees the old shed there, a long "L" shaped building, the oldest part held together by wooden pegs. The "new" part was a good forty years old when the fire took it all down. Beyond the old shed he saw the big house that once stood on the hill, imposing itself on everyone and everything within sight.
The vision always lasted for only a moment to be replaced by reality. The lot, now empty of any structure, opened to the pasture in back. Cows grazed nonchalantly where men once worked to bring a dormant business to life. A place where, some forty years before that, men bet on a horse race that changed ownership of the small lot and set events in motion that would leave four men dead, families split and destroyed, and new hope born of old, violent grudges. All that took place over a good fifty years, but life was now good, for the most part.
Two chimneys, one crumbling, were all that remained of the great house where Carl Sullivan ruled his empire with an iron fist. It was the house where Miss Emily had tried her best to make a home for Laura and Lori. Her own tormented life often getting in the way.
Laura and Lori. . . . sisters who were as different as their names were alike. Back in the summer of '72, Ray had envisioned a life with Laura. After all, they were having a baby together. They seemed to be in love . . . thought they were. But, that was before the fight with Carl, and fifteen years of prison, and Laura's marriage to Clint. It was before Lori.
Lori. Ray was amazed at the peace she brought to his life. In spite of the turmoil she had known at the hands of her father, Lori was a refuge for Ray. These past twenty-seven years had not brought the life he had dreamed of and planned for laying on his cot in Parchman Penitentiary. Unexpected things, unplanned events happened, some good some bad. Lori, was the best of these. Looking back now, he would take this unexpected life with Lori over his well planned life in a heart beat. . . . a heart beat. That's Lori.
Ray parked his truck in the drive to the lot and climbed over the gate. Bob ran after him, scooting under the barbed wired fence, bobwire, as it was called. The fence, of course, wasn't named for the dog. The dog wasn't named for the fence. Bob Riley's death had left such a whole in Ray's life that he was compelled to fill it with something. Dogs did a poor job of it, but here he was with his second dog named Bob. Ray could clearly hear Mr Bob say something like, "I knew I was goin' to the dogs when I came to work for you" without cracking so much as a grin. Of all the people he missed, Mr Bob ranked among the top few.
Bob followed Ray to the far corner of the lot and immediately caught on to Ray's intention. They had been working together like this for a good thirteen years. Not as spry as he had once been, Bob could still work cattle. The enthusiasm was still there if not the speed and agility. Of course, Ray had to admit that at sixty-one years old he was not what he once was either. A touch of regret came over him . . . again.
Twenty-eight years. To Ray, that was the entire expanse of his life. Fifteen years in prison, turning nineteen in Parchman Penitentiary, left his childhood and teen years filed away in his mind with things that never happened. And yet events that occurred in his eighteenth summer shaped his life to this day. He returned home on parole at the age of thirty-three. Those first few months, though, tried him in ways his time in prison never could. Less than two months after his parole, less than two months of working his grandfather's old business and beginning the life he had dreamed of since childhood, it all quite literally went up in smoke. And once again Ray's life changed dramatically.
Still, it was a good life. He loved Lori's children as his own. He considered the three of them to be his own, though he had only been able to adopt two. One of the so-called fathers refused to cooperate. It made no sense because he also refused to see his child. Ray was her daddy, though. Neither of them would have it any other way. He and Lori had long regretted that they were never able to adopt Matt and Billie Rose. Matt was all for it, but he wouldn't go if Billie Rose didn't. The story behind that was yet another trial endured by Ray as well as those around him. He hated the fact that his problems always seemed to affect those he loved most. He was not a dangerous man, but danger did cross his path on occasion.
Emmy had long ago settled in to calling him "Pop". She was comfortable with it so he was. They had grown very close, the strain and awkwardness of their relationship having melted slowly over the years following the fire. She bore scars from the fire on her left arm and to a lesser degree near her jawline. She didn't worry so much about covering that one with her hair these days. Like most of them, she kept the emotional scars to herself. But, she was happy now.
Between Emmy, and Susannah, Davey, and Priscilla Marie, Ray and Lori had eleven grandchildren. Billie Rose had a daughter who was as much a grandchild to Ray and Lori as Billie was a daughter.
In parenting as well as grandparenting, there was no competition between Ray and Clint, the man Emmy thought was her father for the first fifteen years of her life. Clint never fully recovered from his involvement in the fire. He was a broken man, but that's what Carl Sullivan did for most of his life . . . he broke people. The lives wrecked and ruined in his attempt to break Ray often weighed on Ray. Maybe he should have just bent to Carl's will, signed over the lot and left Winstead County. Would things have been so bad for everyone else involved?
One thing Ray knew, he couldn't have made it through any of his trials alone. Sure he had Lori and his family. He had Mr Bob, Thomas, and Matt. He had Emmy. He had his "new" friend of twenty seven years, Glen Melton, an old competitor in the harvesting business. He had acquired the title of Harvester when he took on his grandfather's business. But, it took something much bigger than all of these people he loved so to carry him along and give him reason for another shove at life. The older he grew, the more he understood that all of his hopes were wrapped up in one great Hope. And this Hope is a sure thing, steady, confident, and ever present.
And so it was that Ray honored that Hope in a special way each year. He had never seen fit to rebuild on this lot. He just couldn't bring himself to do it. To most who passed by it was only a patch of dirt and grass. To Ray it had been the land of his hope. Once a year it became a simple reminder of what had gone before. . . . as recently as twenty-eight years before, and as long as a couple thousand years before.
Having cleared the lot of cattle, Ray took the lumber from his truck and went to work. It didn't take long; he had been doing this for well over two decades. It was cold all around him, but he quickly warmed as he moved about intentionally. When he finished, "Come on!" brought Bob trotting back from his visit with the cows. Backing out of the lot with Bob in the seat beside him, Ray took another look at his handiwork. Where the north end of the tractor shed had stood, where the oldest part was and where it had all begun now stood a ramshackle stable with a manger visible in the center of it. On the south end, where the "newer" part of the shed had stood, where work on this great dream had been completed, stood a cross.
The stable and the manger as well as the cross were constructed of wood that Ray long ago salvaged from the ruins of the tractor shed. Though it was charred in places and weathered from many decades of service, Ray figured that old wood now served a greater purpose than it ever did back when it protected farm equipment and implements from the elements. Spotlights he rigged on the power pole would separately illuminate the stable and the cross once the darkness of night set in.
Ray was often asked about the display. It was kind of like farming. Sometimes he planted the seed. Sometimes he cultivated. And sometimes he got to be in on the harvest. 'Like a Harvester', he thought to himself. People liked the structure and the light. They didn't understand why it was all empty. "It would really be neat if you had some shepherds and some wise men", folk's would say. And this gave Ray his opportunity to tell the story.
He would first tell of the land, what was once there and the hope and dreams it held for generations even before his own. Then he would say that he wanted it now to speak of a different hope. He told of the baby, the Savior, that had slept in the manger, but who was there no more. He had grown up and walked this earth as a man and had set in motion a plan for eternity. He told of the cross, where the Savior's work on earth was finished; His finished work to be brought into and carried and lived in the hearts of mankind. He told of how Jesus lives beyond the cross. "That covers the light on the stable and the light on the cross," they would invariably say, "but, what about that light that shines on the empty spot further down from the cross? I understand that Jesus is not in the manger and He's not on the cross, but shouldn't he be there beyond the cross like you said?"
Ray would grin. "Well, the manger and the cross are symbols of places where Jesus has been. The other spot is a little different. You're right. It's where Jesus should be. It's a symbol of the ultimate reason for the stable and the cross. The question is, are you standing in that light?"
Ray reached over and scratched Bob behind the ear as he drove away. They would be back with nightfall, as would his family and other volunteers from the church. They all respected his wish to do the construction work alone. Over the years, the display had become an attraction of sorts. Mary, aging now but not frail, served coffee and hot chocolate from Ray's ancient camper while Christmas carols played on a cd player. People would come from miles around, from farther away than Jackson even! The story of what had happened here was something of a legend and that contributed to the draw. They would stop and walk from the manger to the cross. Someone would be with them telling the story. Children ran to bask in the third light, some understanding, some not quite, but that was alright. Adults would at first stop short of the brightly illuminated circle on the cold brown earth. Some who came year after year, this being a tradition for them now, would walk reverently, thoughtfully into the light. They would stand there for a moment looking skyward. There were those who would raise their hands joyfully.
Occasionally, one of the volunteers would ring the bell that had been moved into place for just this purpose. The crowd would instinctively hush. Mary would silence the cd. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, brother and sisters," the volunteer would shout. They would say the name of the person standing beside them, who was often in tears or grinning ear to ear, and continue ". . . is now walking in the light of the Lord!"
Ray knew angels in Heaven were rejoicing over this new soul saved through faith in Jesus by the grace of God, but he thought it would be a bit cheesy to strike up "The Hallelujah Chorus" on the cd player about now. Besides, though some in attendance were bewildered by the celebration, claps and cheers and hugs among the jubilant believers in attendance marked the occasion quite well. And more opportunities to explain what this was all about naturally arose as new believers took their first steps, literally and figuratively, in the light.
This went on for two weeks before Christmas. Always, before and after, Ray's brief memories of all that had once brought hope and sorrow to this small piece of ground, lives that had been changed by greed and hate and vengeance, were replaced by nothing less than visitations of hope and joy and lives changed by the power and love of Jesus that now took place on this land.
When Ray was thirty-three years old he thought nothing would satisfy him more than working his own business from his own place, this place. That was his idea of thinking big. Now at sixty-one, he was amazed at his own small mindedness. He had been told, even in prison, that God could do greater things through him than he could ever imagine. And now from a place where hope, and dreams, and even lives, had been lost, God was bringing new hope, new dreams, and new life. It wasn't Ray's place anymore. And it was not his own interest that he pursued. He realized that he had so little to do with what went on here. And from that came far greater peace and satisfaction than Ray could ever have hoped to find anywhere in his own dreams. Oh, he still loved the work he did. It was the new purpose in it all that had replaced his dream with the one God gave him.
Making it a point to greet every person that walked onto the property, Ray offered each one a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" and often found himself speaking words of encouragement that could only have been for the man or woman, or couple, or child that he was facing. And as he turned to greet yet another, he would glance toward the stars and whisper a quiet "Thank you, Lord".
PS You might like this song: