“Even our soul itself becomes more beautiful when beauty meets us, takes holds of us, and fires us with enthusiasm.”– Dietrich von Hildebrand
What Is Awaken?
Short Story Winner
The world was dying, Joe realized. The trees in deep autumn were beginning to tire of the yellow and crimson leaves they bore, so they trickled to the ground. The frost crunched under his Carhartt boots as he walked along in the woods of his property. He’d started wearing his flannel-lined jack- et, since a cold front was moving in. Mornings like these he’d wake up early, before the light of the day could crest into the cabin he constructed on the farm. His wife, Allie, would also get up early to sip a coffee with him in their rustic kitchen where they’d chat about things, sometimes just stare out on the property in peace. On his few off days, Joe would sleep in, allowing the morning rays of light to bleed in from the one window he’d installed in their bedroom on the second-floor loft, warming the sheets he shared with her. Regardless of when he woke up, he’d always roll over in the morning to kiss her on the same spot on her cheek. Every now and then, though, he’d also find himself lost at her beauty and would be content just resting there.
Most mornings he made his two sons—Justin and Leo—get up to help him on the farm. They’d wander from the room they shared, groggy and tired, their bare feet pattering on the wood of the steps. Joe knew it was an unorthodox lifestyle, so he tried to empathize with them. Justin, his ten-year-old, was certainly the most capable, especially because Leo was the youngest at six years old and was still learning how to perform the tasks asked of him. Joe, despite the fact he’d been affirmed in his patience and cool demeanor throughout his life, would sometimes find himself tersely sending Leo away to assist Allie in the garden, leaving him and Justin in an awkward silence for a moment. The youngest son was prone to bouts of anxiety—it supposedly ran in Allie’s side of the family. He knew it hurt Leo for him to send him away as such.
Joe’s breath misted in front of him as he rounded a bend in the woods that acted as the fringe for his property. He stared about the world as the sun began to crack over the hills in the distance, his ears frozen. He knew it wouldn’t be long until snow covered the expanse of his property, winter fully immersing the place.
“Daddy, look at how pretty the world is,” came Leo, who had tagged along with Joe that morning. His son was tucked into a miniature Carhartt jacket, boots on, like a little figurine. A smile creased Joe’s cold face.
“It is, son,” he said, picking him up, staring out over the expanse of the land. “You know, someday, this will be yours?”
“But where will you be?” asked Leo.
Joe uttered a laugh. “Well, I’ll be around.” He set Leo down. “C’mon. Let’s check on the cattle.”
As they approached the barn, Joe heard quiet bleating down by where the cattle grazed. He froze. He heard Leo ask what was wrong.
No, he thought.
It was a calf, he could tell. He set Leo down. “Son, c’mon,” he said.
Jogging down the hill that led down to the barn, Joe felt his heart pump blood through his cold body. From his position heading down towards the shallow hill, he could see the calf, lying down among some leaves, uttering its cry. Its mother lumbered nearby, eying her child but unsure what to do. Joe swung open the gate to the pasture, trudging through the mud. Somehow, over the years, the smell still reeked for him.
“Hey now, hey now,” he spoke as he approached the calf. A part of him suspected coyotes, as he could see a small bit of blood in the dried leaves. He knelt beside the creature, which whimpered softly. Then, he noticed one of its front legs was bent at an awkward angle.
“Daddy, is it okay? What happened?” came Leo’s voice, soft. Joe knew this would be his son’s first encounter with a seriously wounded animal.
“It must have tripped in one of the holes Justin and I were filling in yesterday,” Joe replied. The bone was broken in two, he could tell. Taking a knee, Joe stared at the calf, which looked at him, almost pleading. He sensed Leo standing just behind him, too afraid to look, but too afraid to not be by his father.
“What if it was coyotes?” Leo asked nervously. Joe knew this had been a source of his son’s anxiety of late.
“No, it’s not coyotes,” Joe replied. Then, he turned to look at his son. The look of fear and of pain on Leo’s face was enough. “You don’t have to look, son,” he told him. “Why don’t you go back up to the farm to tell Mom we have a wounded calf?”
“But…will you be able to save it?” Leo asked. His son had matured. He wasn’t just a boy anymore; and yet, he simply was.
Joe didn’t know what to say, looking back to the creature there in pain. He’d owned the farm for years, and knew what kind of injury this was. Looking at its mother, a part of him broke inside. He felt like saying something to her, like I’m sorry. But he didn’t know what it would mean to admit something like that.
“No, son, I don’t think I can,” he admitted. He placed a hand on the calf’s torso, feeling it breathing: the blood that pumped within it, from its heart, through its arteries, which filled it with life. He thought of his dad—who had died in his arms on the same farm—kneeling there.
He thought Leo was going to start crying; but instead his son just knelt beside his father, placing a hand on the creature too. Together, they remained there, consoling the calf. Offering some kind of relief in that cold place.
“Leo, what are you doing?”
It was Natalia, Leo’s recent girlfriend, who was clambering around the front porch of the cabin.
From his spot on the Oliver 1800—his father’s tractor—Leo perked up at the sound of his name, grinning when he saw Natalia. He’d been eying the tractor the entire time he and his friends from the basketball team had
been chilling around the bonfire, Natalia sitting on his lap, thinking about how he was going to impress her tonight. After all, it had been senior night. His parents were in town, he knew, at a bar. Probably weren’t going to be home for a while. Plus, his father’s Wild Turkey had warmed the back of his throat all the way down to his stomach.
“I’m gonna drive this tractor,” he shouted back to Natalia. “You ever rode on one of these?”
A smile rose to her face. “No, but I want to.”
“Come on,” he called. She started off the front porch, stepping around the lawn and the mud piles lousily. He heard her make a gagging noise at the smell. Leo imagined his father shaking his head at the pathetic scene.
Finally, she made it to the tractor, their friends cheering them on from the porch. Leo jumped down to help her on, although he felt his head spin a bit in the process. His body felt oddly lighter.
“Get on,” he told her. Slowly, clumsily, borderline pathetically, the two of them were able to haul themselves up onto the seat, Natalia in front, Leo behind her. He fumbled around for the key in the ignition. His dad had a bad habit of leaving it there and getting distracted with other tasks. Plus, he was sure he trusted his son not to screw around with it, even though it’d been just the past few weeks that he’d allowed his son to start driving the tractors. This thought gave him pause for just a moment in his state of revelry.
Natalia must have mistaken his moment of indecision for incompetence, which definitely, suddenly, angered him, as she said: “Here, I’ve got it.”
As she turned the key in the ignition, Leo let off the clutch, and the beast of a machine started rolling down the lawn towards the barn, down a shallow hill. The leaves were frosty since the fall season had just ended. Somewhere in the woods Leo knew there were a pack of coyotes he and his Dad had been shooting at since the season began. They were hungry ravagers, always on the prowl. Waiting for something to devour.
“Leo, I’m cold,” Natalia complained as the tractor gained some momentum.
In the moment of wanting to please Natalia, keep his feet down near the clutch and the brake, and his buzzed brain, he tried to shuffle his hoodie off his head, working at it furiously to remove it. As he finally slid the hoodie over his head, bumping into Natalia who uttered an ow, Leo felt the wind pick up as the tractor hit the apex of the hill heading down towards the barn. It wasn’t steep enough to initially concern Leo, but by the time he’d slung the hoodie off from around his shoulders, Leo realized they were far closer to the barn than he’d originally thought.
Then, his heart froze as he could make out—rapidly approaching—the new fence he and his dad had put in that very day. “Natalia, move over,” he yelled. She’d blocked the brake with her leg. She tried shuffling, but it was too late, Leo realized. He wondered if his friends, back at the bonfire, could tell what was happening. In the moment, Leo did what he thought was the right thing, tossing Natalia off the tractor into the dirt, slamming his foot down on the brake as the fence came into view, the cattle grazing just a bit of a ways away. He felt the tires spin underneath him awkwardly.
Oh no, he thought.
Joe was driving home from the town bar, Allie in shotgun like they were back in high school, belting out a Journey song, when they rolled past the barn and saw that the place was up in flames and that the tractor had been tipped over.
No, Joe thought.
Joe slammed on the brakes, throwing the car in park, sprinting out of the driver’s side of the old beat-up truck, jumping the barbed wire fence that separated the road from their property, feeling a bloody gash get torn into his thigh, a shooting pain running up his leg. No,no, he thought.
He heard Allie behind him, calling out to him, at first confused, then swearing in realization of what had happened.
As he neared the barn, Joe saw the cattle around the exterior of the barn bleating and dashing around in confusion. The tractor laid on its side, flames emitting from its engine, licking their way onto the white wood of the barn. It must have rolled down. He knew he had a bad habit of leaving the keys in the ignition. The fire was going to spread.
Looking up the lawn, he noticed a group of teenagers running back towards the house. And then, he heard someone crying beneath the tractor, and to his horror saw Leo trapped underneath the machine, struggling to free himself.
“Dad!” screamed Leo, pinned down underneath the machine. Galvanized, his heart racing, Joe raced towards the fallen tractor.
“Son!” he shouted back. He fell down in the mud and dirt, digging at it to free Leo, who looked mangled under the metal. Joe’s hand touched a piece of the tractor, and he felt his hand get scorched. He retracted violently.
“Dad, I’m burning!” screamed Leo in agony, his voice deeper now all these years later.
“Son, son, just hold on. Hold on,” he repeated. He didn’t know what he was saying or doing. The tractor was too dug into the dirt for Leo to claw his way out from underneath. He needed to lift it.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
“Hold on, son,” repeated Joe.
Still on a knee, the father ripped off his jacket, holding it firmly in his fists, positioning himself right next to his son, right below the tractor’s base. For some reason, in that moment, Joe felt his own father’s presence.
Then, uttering a cry of pain and anger and fear, Joe grabbed the scalding metal, digging his legs into the soil, using all of his strength and pain and anger and fear to lift the piece of machinery up. He felt the tractor budge, heard his son utter something like a cry of relief as he was partially freed, kept pushing, kept moving. The pain in his hands was excruciating as sweat poured down his face. The tractor was nearly on a fulcrum. He knew if he could just get it to a fulcrum, then he could free Leo. Underneath the metal, his son writhed, struggling to free himself.
“Dad,” he heard his son weep.
For a moment, the pain subsided in Joe’s hands, and he felt the load become lighter. He could see where holes had almost been burned through his hands. A gust of wind from the surroundings, like a sigh of relief, passed. A cold breeze of air, batting away the flames. Leo freed himself, crawling out from the wreckage. The load resting there in the air for that solitary moment, all of Joe’s strength holding it up.
Turning slightly, he saw his son—those blue eyes looking at him in fear and pain and shame. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” he said.
Joe just looked at him. He knew what was next. “I love you, son. I’ve always loved you.”
It was in that moment that the weight of the machinery returned to Joe’s arms in what seemed like full force; and the man, exerted, spent, seemed to crumble underneath the tractor as it fell back down towards the earth, burying him underneath it.
Leo had survived that night and his wounds in some way. His legs had been so mangled that the surgeons who had operated on him were sure he wasn’t going to be able to walk again. Yet, somehow, the young man had been able to start walking with the guidance of crutches only a few months after everything happened.
He often found himself, now much older, as a man himself with a family, returning to that plot of land to see his mother, sit with her in her loving silence, allow for her to remind him of how good of a man he’d turned out to be. How everything his father ever was, was his. How he was the fullness of his father in so many ways. Leo wasn’t sure he knew or believed in it, but it warmed his heart to hear it. Then, alone, leaving his own wife and kids to frolic on the property, he’d go and stand on that section of land that had used to be a cattle farm, take a knee by the cross that had been erected where his father had once saved his life, and break down in tears, confess the same sin again, ask for forgiveness again, pray. Someday he figured it could come. Someday, he knew, it would.
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