West Virginia Cemetery Preservation Association, Inc.

Each Sunday and each Wednesday of every week, his grandparents took him and his older sister to the small white church atop the hill across town to learn about God. The church was compact and boxlike, its thin white steeple reaching high into the sky, piercing through the ever-drifting clouds as does the blade through the heart of the wayward vagabond.

To learn about God and God’s stories was to learn to be noble and good and safe, and he always wanted to be noble and good and safe, so he always went to the church without protest, without doubt, excited and eager to be good as his grandparents. Even when he did not feel like going to the church to learn about God — climbing into his grandfather’s old 1990 F-150 with the red and white stripes, he and his sister crammed into the backseat, writhing about anxiously, restless as summer-night fireflies inside a Mason jar, for the bumpy ride up the craggy, winding hill — he knew he must go, for he wanted to be safe, wanted his sister to be safe, his parents to be safe.

But his parents never went to the church, not even for Christmas or for Passover or for Easter or for anything, really. Even when his older cousin got married to a girl — for they were both so young — from their small town and chose the church as the location for the occasion, only his mother attended the wedding. His father must not like the church, he realized while sitting in the backseat on the way to the church one autumnal Sunday morning as the blazing-orange sun arose above the horizon visible beyond the hill’s sloping silhouette. He wondered why his father felt so about the little old church, his mind wandering curiously, searchingly, endlessly.

When he and his sister and his grandmother and his grandfather arrived atop the hill that morning, he told them to go ahead inside, he would go to the outhouse — for the old church had no bathroom inside — and meet them inside before the morning hymns began. Don’t forget, Father Taylor wishes for us to study scripture before the singing this morning, his grandmother reminded him as he turned his back to the church and its steeple and its eager clergyfolk who now seemed to him more like lost brothers and sisters. Sauntering solemnly toward the crumbling outhouse, he realized for the first time its uncanny resemblance to a wooden casket standing upright against the background of the vast, alluring forest.

Moving fluently past the weird casket, inspired by his realization not to enter it after all, he began to feel the gravity of the forest tempting him ever closer. His pace steadily increased into a casual jog before graduating to a determined sprint, the natural incense grabbing him and pulling him closer, closer. He broke through the forest line still sprinting, feeling his body moving faster than ever before. The vigorous green bushes and trees and plants he so yearned to identify seemed so full of youth yet so aged and mature, blurring and bouncing in all directions with each connection of his feet to the forest floor jarring his head and his vision and the rest of him.

Surrounded by such expansive, familiarly zealous energies, the boy felt at home for the first time in all his short life. Pausing finally to rest atop a fallen branch leaned against a towering sycamore tree, he gazed into the distance, allowing himself to feel lost in the sounds of the Earth, the serenading whippoorwills and mesmerizing vibrations emanating from a nearby stream he had not noticed before through his tunnel-visioned sprinting. In the vast forest he had come to know as the “woods,” the boy found himself rediscovering the invigorating essence of unbounded youth.

Sitting there on the crude Appalachian wood, his feet dangling just above the forest floor, the boy remembered a story his mother had told him countless times throughout his ongoing childhood. The story was about a tree he had learned to call The Giving Tree. The Giving Tree was friends with a young boy, one the boy had always imagined to be much like himself. Truthfully, sometimes he even imagined the boy was himself. They were one in the same. Taking, taking, taking. Gracefully, blissfully, ignorantly. What was there to take anymore? the boy asked himself, unable to formulate a response. That was truly the problem with taking, the boy decided: At some point, you run out of things to take, and then you must give. Give, give, give, the boy now thought to himself. Take as the young boy; give as the Tree. Empty the vessel because it is yours to empty, and then allow yourself to become the vessel as it has become you. Take and give until there is nothing left to take from or to give to, then find something else — perhaps somewhere else, someone else — to take from and to give to some more. What else was there to this life except to give and to take, to empty and to refill once more? the boy wondered to no definite end.

from W.V. Contributing news editor for MU’s The Parthenon, formerly @ Herald-Dispatch. “The truth is weirder than any fiction I’ve seen,” -Hunter S. Thompson

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