Moondance; Celebrating Creative Women
The Pilgrimage

Karen Griffin Jolley
Autumn Mountain Sunset by Elizabeth Lyle

"Autumn Mountain Sunset"
By Elizabeth Lyle

Leaves dried by the fall chill crackled under Shannon's feet as she ran toward the creek. She stopped at the bank, looked up at the cloudless sky, and breathed in the autumn air. She glanced to see if her friend was far behind.

Rodney shuffled to the bank and settled down on a large rock, gasping to catch his breath. "Shannon, I knew you were excited about getting here, but man, I couldn't keep up! I thought I was going to lose you there for a minute!"

Shannon looked at Rodney with a proud smirk on her face as if she had won an Olympic race. "Well, now that you're finally here what do you think? Is this place as beautiful as you imagined?"

Pine and oak trees and rocks of all sizes and colors formed a border between the bank and the water. The water moved rapidly, forming small white cascade around the rocks jutting out of the middle of the creek. The sunlight shone at just the right angle, projecting a diamond-like glisten on the water. The autumn breeze blew, causing subtle movement of the trees.

Rodney looked up after finally regaining his breath. "This place is incredible. So this is where your dad grew up?"

"Yep. That grassy area at the top of the hill is where my grandmother's house stood. It got so old and rickety that my uncles had to tear it down. Daddy and his brothers used to play at this creek when they were young. My grandmother told me that no one on earth loved this creek as much as my dad."

"So this is kind of nostalgic for you, like going back to your roots?"

Shannon picked up a small pebble and attempted to make it skip across the water. She frowned as she watched it fall with a solid drop. "I guess so."

Rodney walked around the rocks that bordered the bank, measuring each with his hands. "So, Shannon, you want to take some of these back for your flower garden? I sure hope you pick some of the smaller ones to carry up that hill. And please don't tell me you want that huge one over there!" Rodney cocked his head and pointed in the direction of the rock where he was just sitting.

Shannon laughed. She picked up a small oval shaped rock and wiped away the leaves and a small bug from the surface. "Don't worry. I only want a few of these small and medium-sized rocks. I want something in my garden from a place that meant so much to my father."

"Well, I'll help you, if you let me rest and enjoy the scenery." Rodney huffed, exaggerating breathlessness and exhaustion from the trek down the hill.

"I'm in no hurry to head back. I haven't been here in a while and I sort of miss this place. So feel perfectly free to get tranquil!"

Shannon stood up and walked along the bank. Looking across the water, she noticed how the pine trees and brush were so thick that she couldn't see but a few feet into the woods. Was that where he had hidden from his six older brothers? Had he stood in this very spot, wondering how he was going to get across the creek to his place of refuge? Or did he climb to the top of one of trees on this side of the bank, peering down, holding his breath until they left?

After a few moments of quiet reflection, Shannon broke the silence. "Did you know that my father was in the Korean Conflict?" Shannon had a solemn, distant look on her face.

Rodney leaned forward. "No, you never told me that. I guess a lot of guys in his generation were in some war or another. Did he bring any 'war stories' home?"

"He never talked about it much until two years ago. I guess he thought it might help me to share a part of his life that I had always wondered about." Shannon stared across the creek at the thicket of trees.

"You mean no one in your family ever talked about it?"

"No," Shannon replied, wrinkling her forehead, her shoulders shrugging. "It was like this huge dark cavern that no one dared enter. I was only four years old when he returned to the states. He was placed in the VA for a while, but I honestly don't know how long he was there. I was so young. It seemed like months to me, but Mom swears that it was only a few weeks."

"Must have been through something pretty rough if he wouldn't talk about it. Do you know if it was serious battle injuries, wound? Did he share any details with you?"

"Well, honestly, I still don't have much of a clue, just little tiny bits of information. I do know that he was in combat for a while, then he was shot in the leg and had to go to a med unit. He was healing well, apparently, then suddenly he started hearing voices, seeing images, waking up crying in the middle of the night, sometimes even screaming violently. Then the United State of America decided he was no longer useful to their armed forces, so they sent him home, gave him a ticket straight to the psych ward at the VA hospital!"

Rodney shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. "Damn. Did they let you and your mother visit him?"

"Mom visited often, but I was only allowed to go once. I remember one morning I had picked out the prettiest pink dress in my closet. I took it into the kitchen where my mom and uncle were having coffee and announced that I would be wearing this dress when I visited Daddy. It was obvious, I intended to go with them to the hospital! I can still remember the sound of Mom's gasp. She looked at my uncle, who just kept sipping his coffee and looking away. I looked up at Mom, put my hand on my hip while holding the dress by the hanger with my other hand. I finally asked her if she wanted to help me get dressed so that I could look my best for Daddy. Mom started crying. She said that Daddy was very sick and couldn't have a lot of visitors, that maybe I could go on another day, but not this trip. Rodney, I was absolutely devastated!"

Rodney reached and caressed Shannon's hand. He looked at the ground while he scooted some leaves with the end of his sneaker, as if wondering how much more he should ask. Finally, after the silence seemed to become tense, he asked about the only other thing Shannon had shared with him about her father.

"You told me that your dad started drinking when you were a little girl. Do you think what happened in Korea led to his alcoholism?"

Shannon squeezed Rodney's hand. "I don't know. I've heard bits and pieces of the things that happened to him before he was drafted. He was the youngest of seven boys. My grandfather died when Daddy was four, so one of the older boys looked after him while my grandmother and the others worked in the fields. Most of his brothers were domineering, critical but my uncle who looked after him was said to beat him unmercifully for the least little thing that he might do wrong."

Shannon picked up a smooth flat rock as she stood up. She flung it across the creek, watching it whip across the top of the water, her jaw clenched.

Shannon continued. "Uncle Jake was the oldest and tried to be a father to the family. Daddy always said he was good to him, didn't abuse him, and always encouraged him. But he went to work as a carpenter at a young age to help support the family, so he couldn't protect Daddy from the abuse from the other boys. A few weeks after Daddy died, Uncle Jake told me that he was placed in a psychiatric hospital when he was fifteen. He said Daddy was depressed and every one in the family just thought he was lazy. The doctors convinced my grandmother that shock treatments would 'cure' him...'get him up and going in time to work in them fields'. Uncle Jake tried to come to his rescue, but no one would listen. He stayed in that hospital for about three months, and when he got out, he started drinking. Rodney, I wish I had known all this before, maybe I would have understood him better. Maybe I would have understood myself better."

"Shannon, you've been given a precious few pieces to the puzzle of your dad's life, and it sounds like you might not have the whole picture yet. You may never know the whole story. And I've known you for two years now. We've been so close, the best of friends. I've watched you grow and change, and learn to take care of yourself. You only did that by understanding yourself."

Shannon nodded. "You're right. Ever since I graduated from college, I've been trying to build my career and cope with my depression. And I've been trying to come to terms with the guilt over the turbulent relationship with Daddy when I was a teenager. Rodney, picture this...Daddy was drinking, I was depressed and experimenting with alcohol myself in hopes that it would give me some magic answer to my inner torment. Daddy and I were at each other's throats every day, and there was Mama right in the middle, trying her best to mediate peace between the two people she loved most. Nothing he told me to do made any damn sense. I knew what was best for me, and the alcohol made me feel better or so I thought. I figured, 'What the hell, he does it!' And on and on we went..."

"But you two made amends before he died, right?"

Shannon smiled. "We did. When he was in the hospital after his last heart attack, he told me how proud he was, that I had graduated from college and was staying clean and sober. He even told me he admired me for all my accomplishments. I apologized for all the conflict and turmoil I caused him and Mom. We looked at each other eye to eye. He actually cried. We hugged in a way we never had before. We made peace. There had been times when I hated him so much, but at that moment, I finally felt only love."

Tears slowly streamed down Shannon's face, but she swallowed hard as if trying to hold them back. Rodney stood up and walked close to Shannon. He looked around the creek, the trees, and the rippling water. "You know, I can almost see your father wading across the water, playing in the summer time, crunching the icy water in the winter, climbing trees, catching the biggest fish then showing it off to those brothers!"

Shannon laughed as she wiped a tear from her cheek. She walked quietly to the edge of the creek. She knelt down, scooped a handful of water, and flung it at her friend.

"Hey, no fair! You caught me off-guard! Unfair advantage! You just see if I haul any of these boulders up that hill for you now!" Rodney crossed his arms and donned a half-smirk, half-smile on his face.

Shannon flashed an evil grin his way. "Oh you know you'll do it -- you can't escape my clutches that easily! Anyway, I have the keys to your truck. I know you love this place, but I don't think you want to be stranded!"

"All right, all got me there. I'm totally defenseless. Where do you want me to start?"

"Here." Shannon held open her arms for a hug. Rodney felt her heart pounding against his chest as he embraced her. He squeezed her tightly and gently scratched her back.

"Now if I can just convince you to marry me!"

Shannon laughed. "Let's just get busy, okay! But I do believe we will need that wheelbarrow."

Rodney chuckled. "Right you are, my love! I do not think I want to attempt to carry these massive stones up that hill one by one."

"Just go to the truck - and don't come back empty handed! I'll start gathering."

Rodney bowed. "At your service, milady!" Shannon rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Shannon watched Rodney trudging back up the hill through the trees until he disappeared from sight. She looked around at the water, endlessly flowing, cleansing the rocks on its bed. She heard a noise in one of the trees and caught a glimpse of a blue bird flying into the sky. She leaned down where the water meets the bank and picked up a perfectly flat skipping rock that she had been eyeing for a while. She positioned it between her index finger and thumb, just as her father had taught her when she was a little girl. With one quick snap of her wrist, it skidded perfectly across the creek. "Yes!" she declared in delight!

She knelt at the edge of the water. Looking across the creek to the thicket of trees, she could vaguely see the image of a man. Startled, she glanced quickly to see if Rodney was in view yet. But as she looked across the creek, a peaceful feeling came to her. This man somehow looked familiar. She could sense he was smiling. Her heart pounded gently. All was well.

Karen Jolley received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Kennesaw State University in Marietta, Georgia and her Master in Family Studies from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. She is currently Community Education Director for HODAC's Victim Resource Center in Warner Robins, Georgia. Through various avenues, Karen educates the public about vital issues related to crime victimization. She has over ten years experience in the mental health field, which includes work in the public school system and community mental health. Karen is the mother of a ten year old daughter, Anna, who shares her love for creative writing. Karen's email address is:

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