A few years ago I spent some time learning about the three parts of mankind. (Body. Soul. Spirit.) It seemed important to understand. To mature in my understanding of being created in the image of God. (Father. Son. Spirit.) To pray more effectively, for myself and for others, to come into the fullness of all God intended. As has become my custom, I wrote about it. This is a spin-off story from one of my favorite characters in Just Let Them Love you.
Her name is Mama Grace.
A Short Story: Body, Soul, Spirit
Traveling the backroads from the outskirts of town had become a habit. The main road offered too many peering eyes and inquisitive glances from townsfolk. My reputation of being a recluse had made its way around the small town within a month or so of my arrival. Turning down well-meaning invites to potlucks and barbecues had a way of inspiring distrust in one’s neighbors.
A thirty-year-old woman living alone in a battered old farmhouse didn’t help my image either. I don't like being antisocial. I would have been thought reasonably outgoing before. But now, I’m just scared.
I pulled my restored ‘59 Chevy pickup truck into the alley behind Mike’s General Market. I shifted into park and turned off the engine. I sat still, the only movement in my view a few scampering squirrels in a neighboring tree. I collected my grocery totes, exited the truck, and walked in through the back entrance of the store. There was no bell to announce my arrival. By now, Mike was familiar with my stealthy ways.
I made my way over to the side aisle, picked up a red plastic basket, and quick-stepped it through the store. I loaded my basket with laundry soap, olive oil, Campbell's tomato soup, Zesta crackers, tuna packed in oil, and a jar of olives to suck on when the writing bug hit in the middle of the night. Next, mushrooms, a couple pounds of ground beef, and a large pot roast. That should hold me for a good while, I thought. My garden was producing nicely. Chickens were in production overdrive, and my pantry was well stocked with most essentials.
Maisy and Ollie walked hand in hand past the window. I stared at them in longing as the handles of the loaded grocery basket cut into the crook of my arm. Two teens in love. Ollie was good at fixing everything and would bring Maisy along when he made house calls to my farm. They were safe, sweet. And so in love. They reminded me of who I once was and ached to be again.
Frances, the only other patron in the store, hobbled to the counter with her sparsely filled basket. She paid for her groceries with the few dollars left from her Social Security check, gave Mike some unsolicited counsel, and shuffled out the door.
I stood transfixed in the center aisle and stared out the front window. It offered the best view of those passing by. I had become the best of eavesdroppers, picking up scraps of life and stories of the people in my new town as I made my weekly trip for groceries. Some would most likely make it between the pages of my books in the future.
When I was sure the coast was clear, I headed to the register and unpacked my groceries. I rubbed at the dent in my arm left by the wire handles as Mike began to add up my purchases.
“Ever thought of getting some small grocery carts in here, Mike?”
And that was that. The extent of any face-to-face contact with mankind for probably another week. I placed my groceries in the bed of my turquoise truck, climbed in, started the engine, and checked my rearview mirror. I put on my sunglasses and shoved the gearshift into drive. I glanced in the mirror one more time. One can never be too careful. No black sedan was tailing me today, so I felt safe to move on.
The three-mile ascent to my farm helped calm my nerves. The hills of Virginia unfolded before me like rolls of chartreuse-painted ribbons flecked with wild flowers. I was beginning to let my mind wander again. It had been so long. The good memories were beginning to surface. I allowed myself to visit the sacred place of remembrance. It didn't seem so dangerous anymore. Rather, it was soothing and even brought a bit of cheer.
‘Dezzie, you are going to make a beautiful farm girl one of these days,” Jackson had teased.
“Just because I like old farm trucks doesn't make me a farmer.” I playfully kissed my new husband on the cheek. It seemed backward to buy a restored truck and a run-down farm just before preparing to leave the country for an extended period of time. But we had been waiting for what seemed like forever to set down roots. Make a home.
I met my sweet husband in high school. He was a foster kid from neither side of the tracks, and I was a biracial kid from the high-end side of town. A very unlikely match. And, according to my parents, an unwanted and most certainly unblessed match.
Both my parents were highly educated lawyers for the State Department. You would think my white dad and black mom would have figured out how to rise above the upturned eyebrows and whispers. After all, times had changed, for goodness’ sake. At least they lived in skin that settled on one color or the other. I, on the other hand, lived between two. A light-skinned girl with black-girl features and a head of hair that could go either way. My tendency to build walls of protection and distrust came naturally. As early as kindergarten, I had begun laying the foundation for those walls as kids asked questions and poked at my freckles.
Jackson, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. Everyone knew the foster kids. Their mismatched clothes and ever-changing schools gave them away. He grew up being teased about lice and being mocked for not knowing what street he lived on. His address sometimes changed weekly. But instead of building walls, he built stairs. Each insult became a step to climb out of his circumstances. He was smart. He worked hard, graduated with high honors, and honed an affable personality to match. I was completely smitten with him and he for me. It was easy for me to see beyond the disparaging labels.
After graduation, we managed to keep in touch even though we went separate ways. He enlisted in the armed forces the day after he earned his high school diploma and quickly rose through the ranks. His sense of justice led him to become a highly decorated army ranger in a short period of time. I majored in journalism, graduated summa cum laude, grew out of my awkwardness, and quickly landed a job with a large nonprofit based in Washington DC.
I allowed myself to travel back to “the day,” the beautiful day that would change the course of my life forever. The phone rang. It was Jackson. He was home on leave. He had a choice to make and wanted to talk with me before he decided which way to turn.
“Me?” I said. “Whatever for?”
“Because you are going to be my wife, and I need to hear what you have to say about it,” he said without a hint of jest.
We met for coffee in a little diner down the street from my office. We had been writing, sharing our hearts through emails and letters, so we had maintained somewhat of a relationship. But I was unprepared for the man who walked through the door. It had been two years since I had last seen him.
He had grown. He turned heads. He was beautiful, as if chiseled from ebony. His medal-laden uniform glittered like a Christmas tree as he held open the door for an elderly couple exiting the diner.
Our eyes caught, and we smiled. My heart skipped a beat. He took off his beret and held it over his heart. I stood. He swayed.
“You’ve changed,” he said. “You are more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. And I imagined a lot!” he laughed.
I blushed. “You have changed, too,” I whispered.
A bump in the road lifted me off my seat and jarred me back to the present. I put the truck into second gear and pulled in my driveway. My two German shepherds, Sarge and Major, stood posted on either side of the mailbox awaiting my return. I pulled over, and they hopped into the bed of the truck while I gathered the mail. I ground the gears into first, let off the clutch, and lurched forward. I glanced at my watch. 10:00 a.m. I needed to get moving. I had a 5:00 p.m. chapter deadline, and I still had to fit in an eight-mile run. I pulled the truck into the barn, retrieved my groceries, and whistled for the dogs.
“Good boys,” I said, giving them both a scratch as I closed the barn doors. The dogs ran on ahead. Trained trackers, they sniffed the ground for any trace of intruders. They seemed relaxed as they ran up onto the porch and waited for me to unlock the door.
I stood outside my house, put my ear against the door, and listened. My sidearm holster dug into my hip, offering me a sense of security as I unlocked and opened the door. Neither dog alerted, so I entered and walked into the kitchen. Sarge remained on the porch and assumed his post. I unpacked my groceries and filled a bowl of water to take out to him. Major was on Dezzie duty and stayed just three feet behind me.
I ran two steps at a time up to my bedroom to change into my running gear. I strapped on my holster and mace canister. I fastened my running watch as I bounded back down the stairs. I stopped to check myself in the hallway mirror. My curly hair rode in a high ponytail, my cheeks looked a bit sunken, and my skin was a bit off color. I needed to put on more weight. I still had no appetite, even after a year. Eating was so hard. I went to the refrigerator, pulled out four sticks of string cheese, and filled my canteen with cool well water. Snapping it on my belt, I whistled to Major and gave Sarge the command to stay and guard before I headed out the back door.
Eight-mile run on Wednesdays. It was written in the planner on my desk. I always followed the plan. It was the one thing I could control. I stretched out, turned my face up to the sun, and ate two sticks of cheese. I stood in the sun’s warmth and allowed its caress to go beyond the surface. It felt so good.
Over the past year, I had purposely forged seven different paths through the hills behind my farm. Each was a different distance. They randomly intersected and would hopefully confuse anyone other than me. I glanced behind me before setting out. Major kept his usual three paces behind, tongue already out in anticipation of the run.
I could feel each muscle tense and flex. I felt strong and lithe. My heart rate barely climbed as I ascended the first hill. Adopting Jackson’s special forces training regime was paying off. I was a machine. A well-oiled machine. I just needed to add a little more protein and some healthy fats to boost my calories. I needed to stay strong and alert.
Spring has always been my favorite season. Even more so since I moved from the city to the country. Early blooms peeked through fresh green blades. Dew-soaked soil emitted a musty odor as the sun rose in the sky.
I pushed hard up the first big hill until I reached the crest, then I slowed my pace. I had three miles of flat ground to work out my next chapter. I was up against a deadline. The Foundation had been more than patient with me. I imagined it was because they felt somewhat responsible for all that had transpired. But in truth, no one was to blame except for Jackson and me. We had gotten too lax, too careless, and much too confident.
Spring’s thaw had pushed rocks and boulders up through the soil. I quickly stopped to clear the path, rocking my shoe back and forth over a large speckled stone that glinted with flecks of gold. It loosened, and I rolled it off the trail. I cleared several more before moving on.
Mama Grace had been patient with me upon my return from the mission field. She had given me a brief respite for grieving, bundling me in her arms for long heaving cries. But one month back, she said her internal clock struck twelve, a signal that it was time for me to take a step out of my pit and back into the light.
“How?” I cried. Didn’t she understand that around every corner it seemed a demon was waiting to tear me limb from limb?
“Child,” she said, her motherly fingers twirling around my curls, “You must speak to your soul. Tell it to heal.”
I stopped to tie my shoe and decided to heed her counsel. For the millionth time, I recited King David’s Psalm. This time, I allowed myself to really believe it.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.
A chipmunk scurried over a rock and down a hole. Entry and exit holes were scattered every ten feet or so. I envisioned quick escape routes leading to underground hiding places just in case a keen-eyed hawk decided to swoop down for dinner. The image brought me back. I tried to shake away the memory and continued my run.
Sudden tears fell hard and fast. Just a few minutes ago, the memories were sweet. I was struck by how quickly they turned. Speak to my soul, you say, Mama Grace? What good will that do? I could still feel the ropes around my wrists. Smell the urine-soaked floor in my tunnel of terror. I could still smell the guard’s rancid breath and feel its hot burn on my neck.
But lately, Grace’s encouragement seemed to bear more weight. Or was it power? Her recent phone call had left me with what I might even call a glimmer of hope.
I had only known Grace for four years. Most of that time, I was overseas, and she was in D.C. Our weekly Skypes were always something Jackson and I looked forward to. He would say, ‘it’s time to go to church’ as he fired up our laptop and waited for Grace’s broad smile to fill the screen. She never preached or lectured. Somehow, she always knew how to fill us with just the right kind of fuel to get us through the week. The mission field we were on was bereft of fellowship and camaraderie. Ours was a secret mission.
Grace was our lifeline, mentor, priest, and counselor. She kept us in line, on point, and on our toes with her probing ways. Jackson took to Grace immediately. It was not hard to understand why. People called her Mama. Mama Grace. For a kid that never had one, that was enough of a reason right there. But it was more than the maternal love she brought that endeared him to her.
Jackson had been schooled by the finest of the United States military. He understood authority, command, and power that warranted respect. ‘Grace is a General,’ he would say after our weekly check-ins. Grace was as slender as a reed. She was very beautiful and nothing in her bodily appearance would merit the description of a general. The virtue was in her manner. Her way of doing things. Her knowing. Her stalwart spirit worn like a mighty cloak or mantle.
Her husband of thirty-five years had passed from cancer but not before imploring her to take up her causes and finish her race well. A bidding she obeyed and took very seriously. Her poetic speech was peppered with phrases from the Psalms, the book of Isaiah, and all sorts of tidbits from Paul’s epistles. Yet it never seemed contrived, or forced, or even influenced by forethought. She ended our weekly sessions by praying in her most holy faith. She would pause, listen, and proceed with a nudge. She would end with a knowing, a wisp of wisdom, and an inspired direction for our week.
We were almost done with our posting. My job as a ghost writer and blogger for the Foundation was to bring truth and awareness to the nasty business of child trafficking. Jackson’s “job” as an environmental researcher was coming under suspicion. There were increasing tensions with Islamic forces in the region. This, coupled with a growing distrust by the local law enforcement he was supposed to be partnering with, led to Jackson’s decision it was time to pull out. Grace agreed, and so did the Foundation’s president. We were given orders to come home. But to a decorated soldier, who had gathered intel that could capture the biggest trafficker in the region, that was an order that needed to be temporarily ignored.
Five miles in, three to go. I unsnapped my canteen, took a drink, and squirted some in Major’s mouth. My high vantage point gave me a drone’s view of my little farm. We’d had so many plans. A big garden that would even include some okra, Jackson’s favorite. We’d plant some fruit trees and possibly keep some bees. We planned for at least two kids, maybe even three. A son and two girls if Jackson had his way. ‘A son to hit balls with, and a girl to hold on each knee,’ he would say with a smile and a wink. He would transition to the sheriff’s department, and I would find time to write my book amid breastfeeding, diaper changing, and canning tomatoes and green beans.
We would take family vacations in our pop-up camper, pulling over wherever cool streams ran thick with trout and where slippery rocks turned into slides under waterfalls. We would homeschool our kids to keep them close and safe where no one could call them names except for ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ and ‘my big boy.’ We would have two big German shepherds, several barn cats, chickens, and possibly a miniature donkey or milk goat. I would rescue cast-off furniture and paint it fresh and new while Jackson would train for a triathlon as the kids and I cheered him on.
Our nightly trips through imaginary lands kept our souls from falling over a steep edge. Increasing darkness seemed to be surrounding us. Hostile tensions, deeper revelations of the traffickers’ habits, and the feeling that something big was about to blow kept us up at night. Jackson’s sense of justice kept him in place for one last mission. But for me to remain with him was another story.
“You need to go, Dezzie. It’s not safe. I see the way they look at you. I don’t want you leaving the apartment. Your flight is booked, and you are leaving tomorrow. I will not take no for an answer.”
We snuggled close on our last night together. If all went as planned, Jackson would join me back in the States in one week’s time. My bags were packed, and my ride to the airport had been secured. Jackson had hired a security team to take us to the airport. If his suspicions were true, time was of the essence for the trafficking ring to be taken down.
How ridiculous that sounds. Trafficking ring. The very thought of human slavery operating worldwide under everyone’s nose. But it is a fact. It happens everywhere. Poverty is currency in many lands. How ridiculous that sounds. But the truth is that selling one’s children or kidnapping others could fetch some cash, mere pocket change in many regions. This particular ring specialized in the sex and labor trade. A lesser evil, it was said, than those sent out to find viable body organs. Really?
When we initially arrived at our post, we were settled in a small city one hour’s drive from a larger metropolitan area where entering the red-light district was as normal as going to the neighborhood mall. We contacted key people as soon as we’d settled into our accommodations. It didn't take long really. It seemed like everyone around us knew someone or had a relative who went to the big city to “work.”
Sudo, a lovely young woman who worked at the internet café, was one of these. Defying all odds, my tidy and polite young friend was almost finished with her online degree in communications. She was bright, articulate, and carried the fire of God in her belly. Besides Mama Grace, she was the most spiritually powerful woman I had ever met. Her English skills were stellar, making us quick friends and confidantes. She came from one of the few Christian families in the region. We attended her house church once or twice in secret, as it was necessary not to blow our cover.
Sudo was unique. She’d been surrounded by evil her whole life, yet it didn't seem to affect her. I clung to her strength as she poured into my Spirit. “You must build up Spirit Man, Dezzie,” she would tell me daily in her best English. “Strong body is good. But must have strong soul and spirit, too.” I gathered that she and Mama Grace must be reading the same books. All this talk of body, soul, and spirit.
By the second week in our posting, our inadequacy and need became very evident. Jackson and I might be strong in body, but it was more than clear our souls and spirits needed some work. Just walking down the street made my teeth chatter. There was evil present. We could feel it like a forty-five-pound plate laid on our chest. Our new marriage was put to the test as the pressure forced fractured emotions and memories from childhood to bubble to the surface. It was apparent that shoving these negative things down was only causing more pressure cracks, causing old infected wounds to ooze out of their hiding places.
Sudo sensed the tension. During our weekly chats, so did Mama Grace. She gave us homework that she faithfully checked every week. Journal our feelings. Forgive this person. Forgive that person. Speak to our souls like King David did in the book of Psalms.
“My darlings, command your mind, will, and emotions to submit to your spirits! That is who you really are. You are full of the Holy Spirit! Dance, sing, and shout with all your might!”
We tried to comply and faithfully fulfill all of our assignments. We had no choice. Our future in our current post depended on it. Jackson’s call to justice was strong. He did not want to bail on the mission that drove him to comply. But even more than that, he wanted to be free. Free from the drag on his soul. Free to soar in his spirit. I, too, wanted these things. But my fracture was not as severe, and I underestimated how deep his went.
Daily, the truth of his childhood emerged as he felt more secure in my love for him. The root of his need to see justice, to capture the bad guys and to hold them accountable, became painfully clear. My beautiful Jackson was one of these. One that needed rescuing. He had been one used by evil men for pleasure, sold off for a joint or line of cocaine.
Speak to the soul, you say? How does one speak to that?
A sudden weariness hit. I looked at my watch. The GPS tracker showed I had two miles to go, mostly downhill. But for some reason, I could not take another step. I took a swig of water and gave in to the need to rest. I took off my running belt and holster, dropped them on a grassy patch, and plopped down. I laid back, put my arms behind my head, and looked up at the sky. Major sat next to me at attention, scanning the surrounding terrain, ears alert, tongue panting.
Winds high above swirled patches of white into foamy tufts of fluff that looked like the buttercream icing on my wedding cake. The memory of that day made me smile. We were going to elope. There was no one to invite from Jackson’s side and, well, my parents were less than thrilled with my choice. Bringing the decorated soldier home helped somewhat, but not enough to erase the stigma of the foster boy I fell in love with from high school.
But with suggestions from my co-workers and some encouragement from Mama Grace, a date was set. Invitations were sent out to select family and friends to meet us at noon on the 15th of May by the gazebo on the banks of our local lake. Mama Grace ordered the cake and flowers. I arrived in a simple white dress, and Jackson in his uniform. I cried as Jackson put the ring on my finger, and he also wiped away a tear. It was the best day of my life.
A drop of drool splashed off of Major’s tongue. “At ease, boy,” I said. With a watchful eye, he lowered his body down on the ground next to me. I lay my hand on his back, feeling the warmth through his thick fur. “Wish I had known you sooner, pal. I could have used your protection a year ago.”
The sun appeared to be settling in the noon position. My run and training were completely blown for the day. My muscles cooled, my will to press through the last two miles passed. I gave in, closed my eyes drifted off, and remembered.
Sudo and I fought tears as we shared one last lunch before I departed. The humidity was oppressive. I could feel the sweat rolling down my back as my curls snapped tight around my face. We were making plans. Mama Grace was already securing Sudo’s work visa on her end of things. Sudo was soon to graduate, and, if all went according to plan, would be taking over my position as blogger and ghost writer for the Foundation.
She would be traveling to the States, and then, well, who knew where else she would go? It was an exciting time, but Sudo was ill at ease. She had caught wind of some gossip that hinted it was time for Jackson and me to leave. She was imploring me to convince him as well.
“I’ve tried, Sudo. But he insists he has one last thing to do. He promises he will be on the next plane out. He will not change his mind. You know how he can get.”
We finished lunch and walked arm in arm to my apartment. She wanted a word with Jackson; but upon our arrival, he had already left for a meeting. He’d left a note saying he would not be back until it was time to take me to the airport. She clucked her tongue and shook her head. I sensed her frustration, but what could I do? Jackson was on a mission to finish what he came to do. She prayed, we hugged, and we both wept as I said goodbye to my tiny mighty friend.
I finished packing and was dragging my luggage to the door when I heard a car beep outside. I assumed my security detail had arrived and was ready to take me to the airport. I looked at my watch. Where are you, Jackson? I wondered just as he crashed through the door.
“Jackson! Are you alright? Where have you been?” I could see him steady his breathing, trying not to worry me, but I was onto him. “That's it! You are coming with me right now! I have packed your bags and have your passport. Mama Grace is right, and so is Sudo. We are in danger. We must leave!”
“I know, Dezzie. I’m so sorry. I should have listened to you, to them. We have to leave. Now!”
He opened the door and pushed me toward the car. “Hurry, Dezzie!” Jackson yelled as he tossed our luggage in the trunk of the car. He ran to the other side of the car and joined me in the back seat. “Go!” he screamed at the driver while loading his firearm.
“Jackson! You are scaring me! What’s happened? Jackson!” Jackson glanced out the back window, out all sides, and then relaxed a bit. “Don’t slow down… just in case,” he said to the driver. “But I think we are in the clear.”
“Jackson! Answer me!”
“Oh, Dezzie.” Jackson sighed, rubbing his temples as he sank back in his seat. “I just couldn't leave without one last bit of evidence. The kids, Dezzie...so many kids at risk.” He looked at me with his big brown eyes. I melted. His pain still so fresh. His drive to justice so evident. “I’ve stepped beyond the Foundation’s guidelines. I had to. But I got them. I set a trap, and they stepped right in it! As we speak, all the evidence I needed is on its way to the proper authorities. At least we got some of the bad guys, Dezzie.”
The driver sped out of town and down the jungle road that led to the next big city. We were in the middle of nowhere. The airport seemed light years away. We sat in silence as I vacillated between anger and relief. Anger at Jackson’s stubbornness and relief that it was almost over.
Jackson glanced out the back window. The look of fear was undeniable. I looked back. A shiny black sedan was closing in on us fast. There could only be one explanation for that car on our jungle road, and it was not a good one. “Get down, Dezzie!” Jackson screamed as he pulled out his gun.
I could see our driver glance in his rearview mirror as he quickly hit the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road.
“What are you doing!” Jackson yelled as the driver tore the keys out of the ignition and tumbled out of the car.
“Jackson!” I screamed. It was the last thing I said to my beautiful husband. Within five seconds, he was gone. Bullets flew through the back window, killing him instantly. The month that followed is still a blur.
Tears dripped down my face and rolled into my ears. I sat up, shook my head, and wiped my face with the hem of my shirt as Major nudged me with his nose.
“I’m gonna be okay, boy,” I said, surprising myself with fresh revelation that seemed to come from Someone other than me. Green pastures spread out before me as far as my eyes could see. The presence of my enemies seemed strangely far away. For the first time since Jackson passed and I spent a month trapped in the traffickers’ den, I felt somewhat safe. How strange.
I stood, stretched, and slowly made my way down the hill to my farm. With each step, I felt lighter, freer, and more relaxed. I forged on and willed myself to speak the words of David once again.
“He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul.”
The words of a living Jesus filled my mouth and I spoke them out as well.
Add some of Jesus words here.
Tension rose like steam off my shoulders, and I could feel joy take its place. My belly gurgled, and my lips formed a smile. My mind felt less muddied by sorrow. A thought to wallow in self-pity rose to the surface. To comply felt like betrayal, both to me and to my destiny.
Sensing a change as well, Major relaxed and ran on ahead down the path into the farmyard. Chickens scattered, and Daisy, the lone farm duck, squawked and spread out its wings before flying up on a fence post. I laughed, again surprising myself. I picked up the pace and ran the rest of the way.
I rounded the back of the house to the driveway to relieve Sarge of his front porch duties. I saw Mama Grace’s big white Cadillac parked in front of the house.
“Mama Grace!” I cried as I sprinted the rest of the way to the front porch.
Mama Grace and Sudo were relaxing on the porch rocking chairs, a picnic basket at their feet. Sudo was rubbing Sarge’s long upright ears between her fingers, lulling him to sleep. Mama opened a thermos, and poured lemonade into three plastic cups.
“Hello, my darling girl. Just in time for lunch.”