Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two little rescue dogs, and a stray cat. She has discovered that her love of telling a good story can also be written. Dawn has published over 300 stories in many online magazines and anthologies, including Spillwords, Mercurial Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Zimbell House, Black Hare Press, Clarendon House, Blood Song Books, Fantasia Divinity, Cafelit, Reanimated Writers, The World of Myth, Vamp Cat, Runcible Spoon, Siren’s Call, Setu, Kandisha Press, Terror House Magazine, D & T Publishing, Iron Horse Publishing, Impspired Magazine, Falling Star Magazine’s 2019 Pushcart nominee.
Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst
I’d forgiven Miss Virginia many times. The Good Book says to forgive those who have done you wrong, seventy times seven. That’s four hundred and ninety times. I hadn’t counted how many times I’d forgiven my neighbor, but I don’t think the Lord expected me to count and stop forgiving at four hundred and ninety-one. I think that He, God, meant you never stop forgiving just like he always forgave us.
Miss Virginia was not soft, nor was she lovable. She was one of those old biddies that hated kids. Every time I’d walk past her house, she’d come out a hollerin’.
“Norma Jean, get off the road,” or “Norma Jean, get off my property.” There were no sidewalks down the highway, so you had to walk on the road, and when a car came, you got off the road and walked the ditch. That’s when Miss Virginia’s creaky screen door opened, and she would come out to holler.
I wanted to remind the woman that the County had rights from the center of the highway to well beyond her ditch, but I didn’t want to get my mouth washed out with soap when I got home. Somehow when you got into a disagreement with a neighbor, and you were a kid my age, it was your fault, even if it wasn’t.
I tried every approach I could with the woman. I’d walk across the road on the other side. Miss Virginia would come out and holler at me that I was supposed to walk against traffic. There was no winning with this woman. She had a big black dog, named Satchel, she’d send out to intimidate. He would come out barking and snorting.
“Hi Satchel, you big baby.” I would say in my best syrupy voice. He’d roll on his back and let me rub his belly. This show of affection toward me infuriated Miss Virginia to no end. She would get mad and call him back into the house. Unless I had to, I deduced that it didn’t seem worth the fight to walk past Miss Virginia’s house, I’d rather sneak the back way through the woods, and I would do that from time to time without her scrutinizing me.
Mama told me Miss Virginia was married once. Her husband Daniel died of electrocution, when he, his brother and some friends were hauling the church steeple across the street from the old church to the new one. When the tall spire struck an overhead electrical line, the rest of the men in the truck saw it about to happen and jumped from the bed just in time, but Daniel, was facing out with his back to the road. It fried him like green tomatoes in a frying pan.
After the funeral, Miss Virginia gave up church, and she gave up on God, mama told me.
“Why would God take my husband from me?” she said over and over. Especially when he was doing a Godly thing like helping to install the old church steeple on the new building across the highway? Mama said never to bring up Daniel Mayes in Miss Virginia’s presence because that would make her cry.
I never brought up anything in Miss Virginia’s presence because she once told me that “Little pitchers have big ears.” That made no sense to me. Was she talking about the famous baseball player Warren Spawn? His ears looked normal to me when I saw the baseball card Jimmy Ray had in the collector pack, the one he’d acquired buying bubble gum at Hansen’s grocery store.
Perhaps Miss Virginia was talking about my Maw Maw’s sleepy-eye pitcher she kept on her front steps, at least until a visiting friend mentioned how beautiful it was with its forget-me-nots spilling over the sides in the bluest of blues. There was a big chip in the spout, so Maw Maw planted flowers in it and put it on the stoop. After her friend mentioned the lovely pitcher, Maw Maw took it off the porch and hid it in back of the house where it wouldn’t get stolen. Imagine that? An old, chipped pitcher would be stolen? Even the blue headed Indian on that pitcher didn’t have ears so, I never did understand why Miss Virginia said that to me.
The more I think on it, I don’t think Miss Virginia ever said anything nice to me in all the time I’d known her. That would be my whole life. I avoided her, and was glad she didn’t come to church, because I suspected she would have made my life miserable there, too.
“Norma Jean?” my mother called out one day.
“Satchel is in our yard. Take a hunk of clothesline and bring him back to Miss Virginia’s place, will you? I don’t want him to get hit on the road. That’s odd he isn’t in his yard.” I called the dog over and he came close but wouldn’t allow me to tie the rope around his neck. After some thought I went back into the kitchen opening the refrigerator, coming out with it in my hand and held it up, with the rope behind my back. Satchel was anxious now to approach me especially when I had an old chicken wing from last night’s supper in my hand. While he was gobbling up the wing, I tied the clothesline around him.
Slipping on my shoes, I figured I might as well take the ditch. Maybe I could get Satchel close to Miss Virginia’s house and let him go, undetected.
Fat chance of that happening. Satchel pulled me along and I thought it would be fun to hook up a wagon to him. If I had such a dog, I think I would have liked to try.
“Norma Jean why are you on my property?” she stopped short, seeing Satchel on the clothesline in front of me.
“Miss Virginia, Mama asked me to return Satchel so he wouldn’t get hit on the road.” I untied the dog and he bounded across the lawn.
“You didn’t feed him nothing, did you?”
“No ma’am.” I lied feeling the heat rise to my face grateful she was too far to see it. That’s the bad thing about being a red head, your skin is pasty and when you get embarrassed you turn bright red. I worried about lying to an adult. I hoped God would forgive me. My fear of Miss Virginia right now was greater, than a God, I’d never seen in the flesh.
I turned and ran as fast as I could, home. I don’t know why I thought it, but I felt God would strike me dead for lying to Miss Virginia, and I deserved to die. I stood there knowing I’d fed Satchel a chicken wing and told her I didn’t. What if he ended up with a bone that didn’t pass through him? I would be caught in my lie.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice, to deceive,” as Maw Maw would say. She was good at quoting scripture and all manner of quotes that instilled guilt. We were raised on a good healthy dose of guilt. Like a spoonful of cod liver oil, it was bitter to swallow. Mama learned from the best. Maw maw knew how to make you feel bad for even thinking ill.
I got back home, mama asked me how Miss Virginia was doing, I told her fine. I didn’t tell her the lie of the chicken bone. The less she knew of my perfected art of lying, the better. I prayed that night that Satchel would pass that chicken wing and thought in three days I’d be in the clear. If he didn’t or couldn’t pass it, I was going to Hell. If everything I read about Hell was true, I was in trouble big time.
The days passed by slowly. After three days, I’d heard nothing about Satchel being sick or going to the vet. I figured I was in the clear and breathed a little easier.
At Christmas time the Sunday school was challenged with selling “Bundles of Joy.” This was a fund raiser to put a bell in the steeple of the church. When you purchased a bundle, there was a Christmas pie, some oranges, peanuts, hard candies, peach preserves, a few hand towels, a candle and a loaf of homemade bread. You were supposed to purchase the bundles and give it to a friend or neighbor and then purchase one for someone in need. Not only did you have a nice gift you also helped raise money for the purchase of the bell.
Everything was handmade except for the nuts, fruit and candy. Everything was donated by the parishioners. It cost the church nothing. My parents felt they could afford three Bundles of Joy. Maw Maw would get one, Miss Virginia would get another and the poor would get the third. Mama put one into the poor box, and we took the other two home from church.
Mama told me to deliver the Bundle of Joy, to Miss Virginia. I moaned. Perhaps the woman would be nice to me if I was bringing a gift?
I walked on the road after church that Sunday to Miss Virginia’s house. The hand towels were tied with a ribbon that held the bread and treats together.
Miss Virginia must have been napping for she didn’t catch me walking in her yard. She was surprised when she found me standing at her front door with the dishtowel wrapped bundle, tied with a large ribbon. Satchel had not alerted her to my presence.
“Norma Jean!” Miss Virginia looked as if she’d been caught off guard.
“Merry Christmas, Miss Virginia.” I handed the bundle to her.
“What is this?”
“It’s a Bundle of Joy. We made them in Sunday School, there is some fancy dishtowels, a candle, peach preserves, a loaf of bread, some oranges, peanuts and hard candies!”
“My that is so generous of you. Thank you and your family for me.” Miss Virginia was smiling and then something occurred to her.
“Wait. Is this the Bundle of Joy from the Methodist Church? The one used to raise money for the bell in the steeple?”
“The very same.” I stopped talking when I realized how foolish it had been to give Miss. Virginia a gift that would remind her of her dead husband, Daniel. She pushed the bundle back at me.
“Please take this and go. I can’t express how thoughtless this gift is. That steeple is the reason my husband died years ago. I will not be a part of the fund raising to put a bell in that tower. I just won’t.” She slammed the door in my face, I left the bundle on the porch and I ran into the woods. How could we have forgotten? Why had I been so insensitive to what Miss Virginia would feel?
“How did she like her gift?” Mama stopped mid-sentence when she saw my tears, Norma Jean, what’s wrong?”
“Mama how could we forget that the steeple was what killed Miss Virginia’s husband? Miss Virginia is very angry at me. Very angry.” The color drained out of my mother’s face.
“Oh dear, I didn’t even think about that. I am so sorry Norma Jean, I should have known better. I was just trying to be neighborly, and these bundles made such nice gifts.” My mother pulled me to her and hugged me until my tears subsided.
“You go into the kitchen, I’ve just made some fresh peanut butter cookies, your favorite and some lemonade.” I wiped my tears as I walked into the kitchen smelling of the freshly baked cookies lined up like little soldiers on the newspaper spread on the counter. They were still warm and starting to crisp. I didn’t take the lemonade, sour and sweet was a terrible idea, but a fresh glass of milk washed away my sadness.
My mother was on the phone with Miss Virginia, apologizing. I think they made peace because mama sighed when she hung up.
Christmas Eve services we held candles with plastic sleeves, sang Christmas hymns by candlelight, just like they did back in the old days. At the end of the service the pastor told us the amount we had raised for the bell. It had been the best fundraiser of the year. We extinguished our candles. When the lights came on, I heard murmuring at the back of the congregation. Miss Virginia was walking up the aisle with the Bundle of Joy in her arms.
“I am returning my Bundle of Joy. I can’t believe you would think that this is right and proper to raise money for the steeple that killed my husband, Daniel. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t hate all of you. Too cheap to pay a professional contractor to move your damn steeple. Daniel’s life was worth more than three hundred fifty dollars.” Miss Virginia raised the bundle above her head. I could hear Mrs. Cunningham shriek. She was the one who embroidered most of those fancy dishtowels, it had taken her all year.
Miss Virginia threw the bundle to the floor, breaking the glass jar of peach preserves. The preserves oozed through the towel making a stain. The bread, and everything in the bundle would be ruined with the glass shards and sticky peach preserves. No one said a word. They just stared.
The Reverend left the pulpit and put his arm around the sobbing Miss Virginia. He talked to her quietly and marched her out of the church. Miss Virginia did not return, nor did the Reverend. The Deacon dismissed everyone with the organist playing Silent Night. The people left singing.
Mama felt terrible she picked up the smashed bundle and cleaned up the jelly on the floor. We were the last ones leaving the church that evening.
On Christmas Day, mama made a turkey dinner with all the fixings. She made up a plate and asked me to take it to Miss Virginia. I didn’t want to go, but mama was so ashamed for her forgetfulness. She put a piece of pie in the basket.
I walked over to Miss Virginia’s preparing myself to face her scorn but was met by Satchel halfway there. Strange, he was out again. As I came near, I noticed he had a wet spot on his coat. I pet him and blood came away in my hand. He seemed alright but as we got closer, I realized Miss. Virginia’s window was broken. It lay on the ground. Had Satchel jumped out of the window?
I ran calling her name, but no one answered. Knocking on the door didn’t help. I held my breath as I turned the handle. The door creaked open, I could see Miss Virginia was on the kitchen floor.
I called mama, she said she’d be right over as soon as she called the ambulance.
Satchel was whining and carrying on, I put him out the door.
“Miss Virginia?” I knelt next to her. She moaned, as she tried to talk. I took her hand.
“There, there, Miss Virginia, help is on the way. You just be still. Don’t worry, help is on the way.”
Mama reached us first. She told me to tie Satchel out on the porch so he wouldn’t get in the way of the ambulance. By the time I got him to simmer down. The ambulance was there, and they were taking Miss Virginia away.
Mama put a piece of cardboard in the window for now. She told me to take Satchel with me. I gave her a bag of dogfood, she put it in the car, but wouldn’t let the dog ride in the car. Too much hair, and he would get the seat bloody, she said.
Satchel liked laying in front of the wood stove. Mama and Daddy said he could stay with us until Miss.Virginia was home from the hospital. Satchel was a big dog. When he climbed up in my bed, I let him stay. I think he was lonely for his person. It made me realize someone did love Miss Virginia, and that this big dog was lonely without her.
A few days later, Mama told me that Miss Virginia was home from the hospital, but that she wasn’t strong enough yet to care for Satchel.
I thought she might like a visit and to see that her dog was doing well. Satchel and I knocked on her door.
“Come in.” Satchel bounded in. Miss Virginia put her hand out and pet his head.
“Thank you, Norma Jean for taking such good care of my Satchel. I just can’t take care of him and me at the same time yet.” I told her I loved caring for Satchel. Then I asked her why he was named that. I’d never attempted casual conversation with her before.
“He is my burden.”
“Burden? He’s a dog.”
“A satchel is something you carry like a burden. Someone threw him out the car window on the highway. I watched them. I took him in and named him that. My small pension now had to pay for another mouth to feed.”
I put my hand on Satchel’s head. So sad that he wasn’t loved, but it sure was nice of Miss. Virginia to take him in, I had a new appreciation for her today.
“It was nice of you to take him in, Miss Virginia.”
“He is the one who has saved me. I didn’t know how lonely I was with no company.” I was surprised that Miss Virginia was sharing this with me. She seemed softer somehow. Maybe the anger had left her.
“Miss Virginia, I am sorry I forgot about the steeple.” There I’d done it, I’d brought up Daniel,
“You weren’t even born then, child.”
“I know but we all know the story, of what happened to him.”
“God killed my husband.” She said with such finality.
“No, Miss Virginia. God didn’t kill your husband. It was foolish men who wanted to save money that killed him. He was just as much as fault as the rest.” These were the words I’d heard Maw Maw tell my mother and I parroted them back at her. At first, Miss Virginia looked like she would holler at me again. But then she put her head down and started to cry. My heart was moved for her and I put my arm around her.
“Miss Virginia, God wants you to forgive Him.” Miss Virginia said nothing for a moment and told me she was tired that I should go home and take Satchel with me. I set up some water by her chair and made her a sandwich before I left. Satchel didn’t seem to upset when I called him with me. He only hesitated for a moment. This would be the beginning of my budding friendship with Miss Virginia.
Every day I brought Satchel over to visit. We had wonderful talks about Daniel, her wedding, her dream of being a mother. That was swept away when she grieved her husband. No wonder she was so angry, she lost her husband and two weeks later, the daughter she carried. Miss Virginia didn’t seem to get her spunk back. They told her it wasn’t a stroke, but some sort of a spell with her heart.
I prayed for her in church and after every visit. We had come to know one another very well. A few weeks out of the hospital, after the first hymn was sung, I heard murmurs in church again. Turning around, I saw Miss Virginia walking with a cane down the aisle.
I slid further into the pew, allowing her to sit down near me. She took my hand and patted it. My heart swelled at that moment. She accepted me, as much as I had accepted her.
People were shocked, At least those who had been there on Christmas Eve, to see Miss Virginia in church after she claimed God killed Daniel and rebuffed their gift. What they were seeing was nothing short of Divine Intervention. After the service people in the congregation greeted her with open arms, every one of them, It was quite emotional. Miss Virginia rode home with mama and me, while Daddy drove her car. She seemed all tuckered out.
“I’ll be by with Satchel later, Miss Virginia.” I called out from the back seat. Mama had helped her to the house.
“Norma Jean, I am taking a nap this afternoon, I will not need you today. Thank you. Tell Satchel I will see him soon.”
“Alright, Miss Virginia.”
It was the last time I saw Miss. Virginia. She died that day. Mama went to check on her the next morning when she didn’t answer her daily phone call. She looked like she was sleeping in her bed.
Miss Virginia’s funeral was well attended. The choir sang her favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. She was buried alongside of her husband Daniel in the churchyard cemetery. At last, she was with her love. I dropped some flowers from the funeral on the casket as I walked by. Thinking I would miss our visits. She went from a person I could barely stand, to being a wonderful friend.
The big surprise was when Miss Virginia left her house, to the church. They were to sell it and pay for a bell to be installed. No one could believe her generosity. I smiled inside thinking what I said to her in kindness, had sunk into her hardened heart.
Miss Virginia hungered and thirsted for righteousness. All along she was blaming the wrong person for her husband’s death.
A few days after her funeral a lawyer came to call at our home. Mama was worried when he made the appointment with her.
“Miss Virginia wanted Norma Jean to keep Satchel,” the lawyer said as he opened his briefcase. Mama agreed Satchel was better off with us, he was used to being here for the past few months, and he fit right into our family. The lawyer also said she had given some money for Satchel’s care, sliding a check for one thousand dollars across the table. We had never seen so much money at once.
“You are to use this for Satchel’s care,” mama told the man we would take good care of him. I hugged Satchel he was my dog now. Then the attorney handed an envelope to me. I opened it, A delicate gold cross on a thin chain fell into my hand. I pulled out the letter.
“Dear Norma Jean,
I would like you to have this cross. It is very old. My mother gave it to me when I was about your age, and I’ve worn it every day of my life. I feel ashamed now especially since I didn’t act very Christian-like toward my neighbor. Thank you for seeing me beyond my cranky exterior. I have enjoyed these last few months of my life. I have been a bitter woman since Daniel died. You made me see what I should have seen long ago. I regret the time I’ve lost with my bitterness, but grateful to you for making me turn from my foolish ways.
See, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Please take care of Satchel for me. Unlike his former owner, he is a good and faithful servant.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” My heart is full. I wore my anger with indignant righteousness. I was wrong. When you wear this cross, remember me who gave it to you and the Good Lord whom I know now fills your heart.”
I gave the letter to mama, who put her hand to her heart when she read it.
“Norma Jean, come here.” I walked over to Mama, she took the cross out of my hand and put it around my neck. I picked it up from my chest cupping it in my hand, I said a silent prayer on behalf of Miss Virginia and her gift, a delicate reminder that love, conquers all
“Get going Satchel. Mush!” I couldn’t help but laugh. The big dog lunged forward with little effort. Daddy made a harness, hitching Satchel to my wagon with a length of rope. It took me many tries but with patience, a lot of encouragement and some of mama’s home-fried chicken (without the bones, of course,) Satchel pulled that wagon with me in it.