Jan Karon saved the best for last - the final novel in the Mitford Years series.
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Light from Heaven
By Jan Karon
Viking AdultISBN: 0-670-03453-3
Chapter OneA Winter Eden
The first flake landed on a blackberry bush in the creek bottom of Meadowgate Farm. In the frozen hour before dawn, others found their mark on the mossy roof of the smokehouse; in a grove of laurel by the northwest pasture; on the handle of a hoe left propped against the garden fence.
Close by the pond in the sheep paddock, a buck, a doe, and two fawns stood motionless as an owl pushed off from the upper branches of a pine tree and sailed, silent and intent, to the ridge of the barn roof.
The owl hooted once, then twice.
As if summoned by its velveteen cry, the platinum moon broke suddenly from the clouds above the pond, transforming the water's surface into a gleaming lake of molten pearl. Then, clouds sailed again over the face of the moon, and in the bitter darkness, snowflakes fell thick and fast, swirling as in a shaken globe.
It was twelve minutes after six o'clock when a gray light rose above the brow of Hogback Mountain, exposing an imprint of tractor tires that linked Meadowgate's hay barn to the cow pasture and sheep paddock. The imprints of work boots and dog paws were also traceable along the driveway to the barn, and back to the door of the farmhouse, where smoke puffed from the chimney and lamplight shone behind the kitchen windows.
From a tulip poplar at the northeast corner to the steel stake at the southwest, all hundred and thirty acres of Meadowgate Farm lay under a powdery blanket of March snow.
Cynthia Kavanagh stood in the warmth of the farmhouse kitchen in a chenille robe, and gazed out on the hushed landscape.
"It makes everything innocent again," she said. "A winter Eden."
At the pine table, Father Timothy Kavanagh leafed through his quote journal until he found the record he'd jotted down. "Unbelievable! We've had snow one, two, three, four ... this is the fifth time since Christmas Eve."
"Snow, snow, and more snow!"
"Not to mention dogs, dogs, and more dogs! It looks like somebody backed up to the door and dumped a truckload of canines in here."
Following his customary daylight romp, Barnabas, a Bouvier-wolfhound mix and his boon companion of ten years, was drowned in slumber on the hearth rug; Buckwheat, an English foxhound grown long in the tooth, had draped herself over the arm of the sofa; the Welsh corgi, aptly named Bodacious, snored in a wing chair she had long ago claimed as her own; and Luther, a recent, mixed-breed addition to the Meadowgate pack, had slung himself onto his bed in the corner, belly up. There was a collective odor of steam rising from sodden dog hair. "Ugh!" said his wife, who was accustomed to steam rising off only one wet dog.
Father Tim looked up from the journal in which he was transcribing notes collected hither and yon. "So what are you doing today, Kavanagh?"
Cynthia mashed the plunger of the French coffee press. "I'm doing the sketch of Violet looking out the kitchen window to the barn, and I'm calling Puny to find out about the twins-they're days late, you know."
"Good idea. Expected around March fourth or fifth, and here it is the fourteenth. They'll be ready for kindergarten."
"And you must run to Mitford with the shopping list for Dooley's homecoming dinner tomorrow."
"Consider it done."
His heart beat faster at the thought of having their boy home for spring break, but the further thought of having nothing more to accomplish than a run to The Local was definitely discouraging. Heaven knows, there was hardly anything to do on the farm but rest, read, and walk four dogs; he'd scarcely struck a lick at a snake since arriving in mid-January. Willie Mullis, a full-timer who'd replaced the part-time Bo Davis, lived on the place and did all the odd jobs, feeding up and looking after livestock; Joyce Havner did the laundry and cleaning, as she'd done at Meadowgate for years; Blake Eddistoe ran the vet clinic, only a few yards from the farmhouse door, with consummate efficiency; there was even someone to bush hog and cut hay when the season rolled around.
In truth, it seemed his main occupation since coming to farm-sit for the Owens was waiting to hear from his bishop, Stuart Cullen, who had e-mailed him before Christmas.
* Heads up:
* I will almost certainly have something for you early next year. As you might expect, it isn't anything fancy, and God knows, it will be a challenge. Yet I admit I'm patently envious.
* Can't say more at this time, but will be in touch after the holy days, and we shall see what's what (I do recall, by the way, that you're spending next year at the Owens' farm, and this would not be a conflict).
He had scratched his head throughout the month of January, trying to reckon what the challenge might be. In February, he'd called Stuart, attempting to gouge it out of him, but Stuart had asked for another couple of weeks to get the plan together before he spilled the beans.
Now, here they were in the middle of March, and not a word.
"You're sighing, Timothy."
"Wondering when Stuart will get off the pot."
"He's retiring in June and consecrating the cathedral-altogether, a great deal to say grace over. You'll hear soon, dearest."
She handed him a mug of black coffee, which he took with gratitude.
So here he sat, retired from nearly four decades of active ministry as a priest, toasting himself by an open fire with his good-humored and companionable wife of seven years, and situated in what he believed to be the most breathtakingly beautiful countryside in America.
Why bother, after all, about some "challenge" that may or may not be coming. Hadn't he had challenges enough to last him a lifetime?
His wife, on the other hand, was ever drumming up a challenge. During their year at the farm, conveniently located twenty minutes from Mitford, she'd decided to accomplish three lifetime goals: learn needlepoint, make perfect oven fries, and read War and Peace.
"So how's it coming with War and Peace?"
"I despise telling you this, but I haven't opened it once. I'm reading a charming old book called Mrs. Miniver."
"And the fries?"
"Since Dooley comes tomorrow, I'll be conducting my next experiment-to see whether soaking the potatoes in ice water will make them crispier. And I'm definitely using peanut oil this time."
"I'll peel and cut," he said. He hadn't seen any activity around the needlepoint plan, so he declined to mention it.
"Pathetic," she said, reading his mind. "I'm all thumbs. Learning from a book is not the way to do it. I've decided to let Olivia tutor me, if she has a free day now and then. Besides, having lunch with someone who also wears eye shadow might be fun."
"I'm definitely a dud in the eye shadow department."
She thumped into the wing chair opposite him and took a sip from her coffee mug. "And what about you, dearest? Have you accomplished all your lifetime goals?"
Oddly, the question stung him. "I suppose I haven't thought about it." Maybe he hadn't wanted to think about having any further goals.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the wing chair. "I believe if I were charged with having a goal, it would be to live without fretting-to live more fully in the moment, not always huffing about as I've done in recent years ... to live humbly-and appreciatively-with whatever God furnishes."
He reflected for a moment and raised his head and looked at her. "Yes. That would be my goal."
"But aren't you doing that?"
"No. I feel obligated to get out there, to open myself to some new and worthwhile service. I've been a bump on a log these last weeks."
"It's OK to be a bump on a log once in a while. 'Be still,' He tells us, 'and know that I am God.' We must learn to wait on Him, Timothy. All those years of preaching and celebrating, and doing the interim at Whitecap-what a lovely legacy God allowed you to have there; and ministering to Louella and Miss Sadie and Helene Pringle and Morris Love and George Gaynor and Edith Mallory and the Leepers ..." She took a deep breath. "On and on, an entire community, for heaven's sake, not to mention volunteering at the Children's Hospital and rounding up Dooley's little sister and brothers ..."
"One brother still missing," he said, "and what have I done about it?"
"There may be nothing you can do about it. There's absolutely nothing to go on, no leads of any kind. Maybe God alone can do something about it. Perhaps Kenny is God's job."
The fire crackled on the hearth; the dogs snored.
His wife had just preached him a sermon, and it was one he needed to hear. He had a mate who knew precisely what was what, especially when he didn't.
"'Let us then be up and doing,'" he quoted from Wordsworth, "'with a heart for any fate!' Where's the grocery list?"
"In my head at present, but let's get it out." She opened the small drawer in the lamp table and removed her notebook and pen.
"Steak!" She scribbled. "Same old cut?"
"Same old, same old. New York strip." This would be no Lenten fast, but a Lenten feast for a starving college boy who was seldom home.
"Russet potatoes," she said, continuing the litany.
"Always best for fries." His blood would soon get up for this cookathon, even if he couldn't eat much on the menu. While some theologians construed St. Paul's thorn to be any one of a variety of alarming dysfunctions, he'd been convinced for years that it was the same blasted affliction he'd ended up with-diabetes.
"Pie crusts," she said, scribbling on. "Oh, rats. For the life of me, I can't remember all the ingredients for his chocolate pie, and of course, I didn't bring my recipe box."
"I never liked the recipe we use," he said, suddenly confessional.
"You're not supposed to even touch chocolate pie, Timothy, so what difference does it make? Dooley loves it; it isn't half bad, really."
"It needs something."
"Something more ... you know."
His wife loved whipped cream; with the slenderest of excuses, she would slather it on anything.
"Not whipped cream. Something more like ..." He threw up his hands; his culinary imagination had lately flown south.
"Meringue!" he said, slapping his leg. "That's it!"
She bolted from her chair and trotted to the kitchen counter. "Marge's recipe box ... I was thumbing through it the other day and I vaguely remember ... Let's see ... Onions in Cream Sauce, Penne Pasta with Lump Crabmeat, that sounds good...."
"Buttermilk Pie ... Vinegar Pie ... Fresh Coconut ..."
"Mark that one!"
"Egg Custard ... Fresh Peach ... Deep-Dish Apple ..."
"Enough," he said. "I'm only human."
"Here it is. Chocolate Pie with Meringue."
"Finish that list, Kavanagh, and I'm out of here."
Ha! He'd denied himself as sternly as one of the Desert Fathers these last weeks; he would have the tiniest sliver of that pie, or else ...
"I know what you're thinking," she said.
He pulled on his jacket and foraged in the pockets for his knit cap, and kissed her warm mouth.
"You always know what I'm thinking," he said.
His hand was on the doorknob when the phone rang.
"Do try to find a haircut while you're in town," she said, picking up the receiver.
"You've got that John-the-Baptist look again. Hello! Meadowgate Farm."
He watched her pause, listening, then grin from ear to ear.
"Thanks for calling, Joe Joe. That's wonderful! Congratulations! Give Puny our love. I'll be over on Thursday. Timothy's headed into Mitford now, I'm sure he'll stop by."
"So?" he asked, excited as a kid.
"Boys! Weighing in at fifteen pounds total! Thomas and ..." She paused, and looked all-knowing.
"Thomas and Timothy!"
"Yes! One named for Puny's grandfather and one named for you. Now there are two little boys in this world who're named for you, and I hope you realize that people don't go around naming little boys for a bump on a log."
Boys! And because Puny's father was long deceased, he would be their granpaw, just as he was granpaw to Puny and Joe Joe's twin girls.
His entire chest felt suffused with a warm and radiating light.
He turned onto the state road, which had already been scraped for the school buses, and headed south past the Baptist church and its snow-covered brush arbor. He glanced at the wayside pulpit, which was changed weekly.
if loving god were a crime, would you be in jail?
Getting around was a piece of cake. The heavens had given them only a couple of inches, and in a farm truck built like a tank, he felt safe and thoroughly above it all.
Patently envious. Patently envious. What could a bigwig bishop, albeit his oldest friend, envy in a country parson? There it was again, the tape running in a loop and promising to work his mind into a lather.
"I roll this whole mystery over to You, Lord," he said aloud, "and thank You for this day!"
In truth, the whole day belonged to him. He would stop by the hospital to see Puny and her new brood; he would run over to Hope House and visit Louella; he would make a noon stop at Lew Boyd's Exxon where the Turkey Club was lately convening; he would have a chin-wag with Avis at The Local....
As for getting a haircut, he had no intention of trusting his balding head to Fancy Skinner ever again, period; Joe Ivy had retired from cutting hair and wanted nothing more to do with such a trade; trooping to the barber shop in Wesley would take too much time. So, no, indeed, absolutely not, there would be no haircut on this trip into civilization. The sun broke through leaden clouds and flooded the countryside with a welcome light.
"Yee hah!" he shouted against the considerable din of the truck engine. Why had he felt so bereft and grumpy only a half hour before, when he was now beginning to feel like a new man?
He switched on the radio to the blast of a country music station; it was golden oldies time.
"I bought th' shoes that just walked out on me...." someone sang. He sang along, hardly caring that he didn't know the words.
"Country come to town!" he whooped as he drove into Mitford.
Roaring past the Exxon station, he blew the horn twice, just to let the general public know he'd arrived.
He bent and kissed her forehead.
"Well done," he said, a lump in his throat. Two sets of twins! May God have mercy.... "They're whoppers," she said, smiling up at him.
His so-called house help of ten years, and the one whom he loved like a daughter, lay worn but beaming in the hospital bed.
He took her hand, feeling the rough palm that had come from years of scrubbing, polishing, cooking, washing, ironing, and generally making his life and Cynthia's far simpler, not to mention indisputably brighter. "Thank you for naming one of your fine boys after this old parson."
"We won't call 'im by th' fancy name. It'll jis' be Timmy."
"Timmy. I always liked it when Mother called me Timmy."
"Timmy an' Tommy," she said, proudly.
"Timmy and Tommy and Sissy and Sassy."
"You'll be the boys' granpaw, too," she said, in case he hadn't considered this.
"It'll be an honor to be their granpaw."
Since he'd officiated at her wedding several years ago, she had taken to calling him by his priestly title in a way that subtly claimed him as her true father. He never failed to note this. Blast, if he wasn't about to bawl like baby. "Yes, my dear?"
"I sure do love you and Cynthy."
There they came, rolling down his cheeks like a veritable gulley washer....
"And we sure do love you back," he croaked.
"So, how's the food at Hope House these days?"
He sat on the footstool by Louella's rocking chair, feeling roughly eight or ten years old, as he always had in the presence of Miss Sadie and Louella.
"Oh, honey, some time it's good, some time it ain't fit for slop." He noted that Louella said ain't now that Miss Sadie, who forbade its use, had passed on. "You take th' soup-th' menu has th' same ol' soup on it every day, day after day, long as I been here." She looked thoroughly disgusted.
"What soup is that?"
"Soup du jour! If they cain't come up with more'n one soup in this high-dollar outfit, I ain't messin' with it."
"Aha," he said.
"My granmaw, Big Mama, said soup was for sick people, anyway, an' I ain't sick an' ain't plannin' to be."
"That's the spirit."
Louella rocked on. The warm room, the lowering clouds beyond the window, and the faint drone of the shopping network made him drowsy; his eyelids drooped....
Louella suddenly stopped rocking. "I been meanin' to ask-what you doin' 'bout Miss Sadie's money?"
He snapped to attention. "What money is that?"
"Don't you remember? I tol' you 'bout th' money she hid in that ol' car."
"Old car," he said, clueless.
"In that ol' Plymouth automobile she had." Louella appeared positively vexed with him.
"Louella, I don't have any idea what you mean."
"Your mem'ry must be goin', honey."
"Why don't you tell me everything, from the beginning."
"Seem like I called you up an' tol' you, but maybe I dreamed it. Do you ever dream somethin' so real you think it happened?"
"A while before she passed, Miss Sadie got mad 'bout th' market fallin' off. You know she made good money in that market."
"Yes, ma'am, she did." Hadn't she left Dooley Barlowe a cool million plus at her passing? This extraordinary fact, however, was not yet known to Dooley.
Excerpted from Light from Heaven by Jan Karon Excerpted by permission.
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