“The Shepherd”

David made his way out onto the land that his family has owned for generations. His great-grandfather bought the fertile land back in 1890 and it has been the family farm ever since. Back then, the land was moist, soft, and dark. His great-grandfather decided to plant cotton on one side of the thirty acres and corn on the other. Those would always be valuable crops and he wanted the land to be profitable for his children and his children’s children.

That was no longer the case for David and his family. Right after David’s father passed away in 2009, the land started to dry up during the long drought that swept the region. In the past year, David’s farm has gotten just over two inches of rain. Of the thirty acres, only a quarter have crops because with the harvests getting smaller each year, David could only afford a small irrigation system to cover that area. The chances of getting a large enough harvest to keep that around were starting to look slim.

David walked out to the barn, his golden skin already starting to glisten with his first droplets of sweat of the day. He pulled up his Levis and straddled his John Deere. He wore Levis, a stretched out white t-shirt that said “Bass Pro Shops” on the front that damply clung to his body, his favorite Chicago Cubs hat that he got when he went with his father up to the city for a game, and his black suspenders. His father used to wear overalls whenever he worked, but David wasn’t a fan. They kept his stomach hot all day and made him feel trapped. David liked suspenders better, especially now that he was noticing his belly starting to protrude over his waist. Suspenders allowed for a little belly growth.

As David started up the tractor, he thought back to the first time his father taught him how to drive it when he was thirteen, just before they planted crops in the spring. He was terrified of being the sole person in control of a machine that rumbled and growled with razor-sharp blades attached to either side. He had heard horror stories of negligent farmhands getting their arms ripped off in accidents leaving nothing but a stump. But after some lessons from his dad, he ran that thing like a pro, even at the age of 61.

David started towards the cornfields, preparing for the long day of harvesting. His kids were all adults now and all moved off the farm. His oldest, Jackson, was a lawyer in St. Louis and the middle child, James, ran a few small gyms there as well. His youngest Jessica married a marketing director she had met while in college at NYU and stayed there after graduation. She was the last to leave the farm and has yet to come back. David’s sons wanted to find their own way but Jessica hated the farm. She wanted to live in a city, as far away from open fields and crops as she could go. David had been up to see her twice when the family met there for Christmas. David didn’t like the city, but he could see why others would be drawn to it.

David was the only one left to work the land, so every day was a long one. His kids didn’t want to live on the land anymore and had started their own families in new cities. David knew that whenever he would pass away, his kids would most likely sell the land and split the profit, if there was one, and take some of the items in the house. The family land, the family farm, would most likely die with him.

David was pulling up to the rows of corn and about to start plowing the soil nearby to aerate it. He had been working his fingers to the bone trying to make the next harvest one where he could at least break even. With maintaining the farm and trying to keep up with Eileen’s hospital bills, David’s savings had bled dry and he was going under. Selling the farm, in the state it was in, wouldn’t be enough to cover what he owed.

Eileen was diagnosed with stage three brain cancer three months ago. Her chemotherapy and radiation were only covered in part by their insurance, but the remaining bills were left to David and he was running out of funds to cover the treatments. Eileen had always been a voluptuous woman, he remembered as he thought back to when they first started dating in high school. Seeing her now, so small and frail, hurt him to see what chemo had done to her, but she was still beautiful to him. They’ve had their ups and downs in their thirty-eight years of marriage, but this was by far the worst. There are few pains worse than watching the person you love suffer and wither while you looked on helplessly. It could only be made worse if it were your child. But you’d still feel that same helplessness and that’s all David has been able to feel lately.

David has been working on the farm, futilely trying to keep the farm afloat. The only thing that has been standing between him and giving up is his faith. His faith in God and his faith that Eileen will get better. David goes to church every Sunday and prays for the good Lord to help him with his farm and allow his wife to recover. He believes in the power of God’s grace and miracles, but his prayers have so far gone unanswered. The soil was nearly barren, Eileen’s health continued to deteriorate, his kids had no desire to come help him, and his faith was waning. The pastor at his church offered to set up a collection, but the donations hadn’t done much to cover the cancer treatments or the bills on the land. David was running out of options.

As the day began to wind down and the sun started to make its slow descent, David put the tractor back in the barn and locked up. Done for yet another day, he was going to go back to the house and decompress. Tomorrow was Saturday and he was going to go see Eileen in the hospital. He would be there now if he didn’t have to work to afford the hospital bills. Because of having to work all the time, David’s greatest fear continued to grow. He was terrified not only that Eileen might not get better, but that she would die alone because he couldn’t be there at her side.

David was walking back to the house from the barn, watching each step he took as he listened to the soft gravel crunch underneath his boots. He raised his head to see a black sedan down the road, coming over the hill. It wasn’t unusual to see people drive passed his farm. It was usually another farmer heading into town to grab some supplies or groceries but those were typically pickup trucks. David didn’t pay the car much mind until it turned off the road and was making its way up the driveway towards his house.

The car parked in the gravel driveway and a young man in a sharp charcoal suit stepped out. He took off his black designer sunglasses, his eyes studying the house and the land beyond it until they focused in on David walking up to him.

“Can I help you?” David asked, politely but with a little confusion in his voice.

“Yes. Mr. Herrig?” The man said, extending his hand.

“That’s me,” David replied, shaking his hand.

“I am interested in your farm.”

“It’s not for sale,” David said.

“I thought so, but I was wondering if we could speak and you hear my offer. I think you’d find it to be a very good one. But in the end, if you don’t like it, I’ll be on my way,” the man said. Has was smiling at David, showing white teeth and dimples under his well-trimmed beard.

“I guess we can talk. Mind if we speak outside? I’d like to watch the sunset,” said David, motioning to the man to take a seat on the bench that overlooked the landscape.

“Sure, that’d be great,” the young man said, unbuttoning his suitcoat and moving towards the bench.

“I didn’t catch your name,” David said as the two sat down.

“Frederick Arthur Lawrence,” said the man, “but my friends just call me Lawrence.” David nodded. “So Mr. Herrig, I have been keeping an eye on your farm. I’ve noticed that you’ve come on some hard times.”

“Yes,” David said, “things have gotten a little tough since my wife got diagnosed, and the drought isn’t helping.”

“Ah yes, your wife. I heard. Must be hard,” the man said.

“You heard? How’d yo-”

“I asked around town. When I’m interested in an opportunity I do my homework and get to know the project and the people who own it,” the man said, looking out over the crops and the sun that was touching the top of the tree line, the orange glow stretching out across the sky. “I am interested in giving you an offer on your farm. What I offer will bring you and your farm success, and I’m sure it will help your wife’s situation as well.”

David wasn’t sure what the man was talking about, nor did he know the man’s intentions. “How could it help my wife?”

“I understand you’re a man of faith, Mr. Herrig. Is that right?” the young man asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you ask God for help with your farm and your family situation?”

“Every day. Just what are you driving at?” David asked.

“Well, what has that faith brought you?” Lawrence asked.

“What do you mean?” David responded.

“Take a look around, Mr. Herrig,” the man said, waving his arm to point at the few crops left on the land. “Your farm is failing, your kids don’t seem to care, your wife’s health is getting worse by the minute and you’re struggling with her bills-”

“I don’t need some stranger to sit here and tell me what’s going on in my life, and how do you know about my kids?” David asked, standing up, looking down at the man in the charcoal suit.

“I’m sorry if I offended you, Mr. Herrig. Please, sit. I am only trying to help you see the benefits of my offer,” the young man said.

David slowly sat back down on the bench, eyeing the man carefully. “Yes, the offer, can we get to that please.”

“Yes,” said Lawrence, “that faith we were talking about. What I was driving at was that you have had this faith in God to help you through your tough times, but it hasn’t brought you, your wife, or your farm, for that matter, much success. Why, if it hasn’t helped you, do you keep this faith?”

David thought for a second, reflecting on his family farm. “Because I believe that my faith in God is important. He cares for me and my family. I put my faith in Him because the alternative doesn’t lead to a happy life on Earth, nor does it in the life after this one.”

Lawrence turned his body toward David, laying his arm over the backrest and folding his hands in front of his chest. “If He cares for you and your family, then why is the farm that your family built stricken with drought and infertile soil after having been so profitable in the past?”

“Everything has its time. There are good times and bad.”

“Yes, but wouldn’t this be the worst possible time for that? You’re barely able to afford to keep the farm running along with your wife’s hospital bills, it must be taxing.”

“Don’t tell me what I can and cannot afford, Mr. Lawrence,” David said sternly. “How would you know anything about my finances?”

“Like I said before, Mr. Herrig, I did my homework. I also have seen many people deal with their loved ones’ illnesses, and it affects people in different ways. But working constantly instead of being there for the one you love in what could be their final moments is the greatest regret I have seen people in your situation have. You work day and night to maintain a failing farm and pay for bills you can’t afford for treatments that may not even work to save your wife.”

David looked down at his hands, running his thumbs over his calloused hands and knuckles, swollen from a long day’s work. “My wife will be fine,” he said, more so to convince himself rather than Lawrence.

“With brain cancer, the chances are lo-”

“I know what the damn chances are. I have doctors in my ear every other day, telling me about chances and what they recommend. Telling me I need to start having talks with Eileen regarding ‘end of life.’ I know what the damn chances are,” David said firmly, looking away to mask his tear-filled eyes.

Lawrence waited a moment. “What if I could make those chances tilt in Eileen’s favor? Actually, guarantee remission?”

David turned to Lawrence, puzzled and uncertain, “what are you talking about?”

“Mr. Herrig, my offer for your farm is rather simple. I want to bring your farm and your family prosperity, and that includes ensuring your wife’s healthy recovery,” said Lawrence, folding his right leg over his left.

“How would you do that? It hasn’t rained in months and I can’t afford a new irrigation system or to rework the land with new soil. That would cost way too much and would be a huge risk. And how could you possibly ensure that?”

“I am confident that I can make your farm profitable again, Mr. Herrig, and I would be taking all the risk. Also, I’d ensure that you get to spend most of your time with your wife while she recovers, rather than spend all your time maintaining the farm. You could work a little or a lot, but I’m confident that the farm will profit regardless.” said Lawrence.

David leaned over, elbows on his knees, his massive calloused hands folded in front of him. “How could you ensure that Eileen would go into remission?”

“I am capable of making the impossible, possible, Mr. Herrig. I have access to medical professionals that have a one hundred percent success rate, even with brain cancer,” said Lawrence, adjusting his expensive jacket.

“That’s incredible. But wait, what do you get out of this? There only seems to be benefits for me, not for you.”

“What I ask for in return is simple, but it may seem a bit odd.”

“Well, what is it? Anything that will help my farm and my wife I’m willing to listen to.”

Lawrence leaned forward and met eye to eye with David. “Your faith in God.”

David was taken aback. His thin lips slightly open and his left brow raised, “I didn’t hear you correctly.”

“Yes, you did. Your faith in God, Mr. Herrig,” said Lawrence. “Like I said, it may seem a bit odd.”

“How does my faith in God bring any benefit to you?” asked David, still trying to comprehend the request.

“It’s a complicated thing to explain, but I could ask you the same question,” said Lawrence, now crossing his left leg over his right.

David thought about it once more. His faith, while strong, had been fruitless. His family didn’t care, his wife was dying as were his crops, and his endless pleas to his Heavenly Father were falling upon deaf ears. It was like a little kid sending letters to Santa Claus, but never getting a gift, or even notice saying that someone had received his letter. “Try to explain it to me please,” he said.

Lawrence, expecting the request, interlocked his fingers on his lap. His straightened, displaying confidence in his pitch and his ability to make it come true. “By simply denouncing your faith in God and placing your faith in me, I can ensure the profitability of your land, your wife’s recovery, and allow you to spend more time with your family. Although your children have all moved away, I’m quite certain I can encourage them to visit their mother and father more frequently,” said Lawrence. He then grew serious, “but in order to make any of that happen, you must denounce your faith in God. That means no more prayers to Him. No more Bible stories.”

David paused, hesitant to ask his question, worried he’d sound childish. “What about Heaven? What will happen when I die? Or my wife? Or my kids? I don’t want them to be denied access to Heaven on my account.”

“Do you know what Hell is, Mr. Herrig?” Lawrence asked.

“Yes. It’s where intense flames lick at your skin for eternity, where you pay for your sins,” David responded.

“Ah, the lovely picture churches and holy men across the world have painted for children and adults for thousands of years to instill fear and compliance,” Lawrence said with a chuckle. “No, Mr. Herrig, Hell is not that. How could it be fair, to punish someone for eternity, for something they did during a short period of time? One that you could equate to a grain of sand among the thousands of beaches and dunes in the world, mind you. It would be like imprisoning your child for life because they pinched their sibling when they were four. Plus, how could preachers know about Heaven? They haven’t been there, and if they had, they wouldn’t be around to talk about it.”

David felt uneasy about how much sense Lawrence made. It did seem unfair that God, the omnipotent being that is said to have created us to be who we are, in His image, would punish us for the things He gave us the ability to do. The Church had always preached about the fiery pits of Hell and the endless agony that never subsided. David always wondered if that was a scare tactic and deemed that it was, but that didn’t change the image in his head. Some things just ran a little too deep.

“Hell, Mr. Herrig, is simply the afterlife spent in the absence of God. You carry on in the afterlife the way anyone would, but God isn’t there to tell you what to do or how to act. You do what you wish, within certain parameters, and carry on,” said Lawrence.

“But, I was taught that the Bible sai-”

“The Bible was written to make you think and believe a certain way. There are two sides to every story and the Bible only provides one. God placed the angel Lucifer in charge of Hell after he fell from grace, right? Well, how come we never hear Lucifer’s side of the story? Besides, Lucifer was an angel. How could he be inherently evil?” interrupted Lawrence with a shrug.

David was silent. He pondered all he had been taught, all he thought he knew. He studied the dry flakey dirt under his boots. He glanced at Lawrence’s shined and glossy dress shoes which, oddly, hadn’t collected a smidge of dirt to dull the shine.

“I just don’t know,” David said finally, shaking his head, still eyeing the ground in front of him.

“I understand, Mr. Herrig. It’s a lot to take in. You aren’t the first one I’ve told this to and you won’t be the last. Given the pros and the cons, I believe this to be an easy decision, given your circumstances. However,” Lawrence sighed, “this isn’t for me to decide.”

David looked up at the young, clean-cut man next to him. “How could you know all this? You said the preachers couldn’t possibly know, so how could you?” he said, agitated at the thought of being fooled.

Lawrence looked down at him with his sharp green eyes and raised his eyebrow, one corner of his mouth rising to form a smirk, almost deviant.

David began to understand but didn’t want to accept it. It couldn’t be possible. No way. David looked away from Lawrence and back at his decaying crops. He brushed it off, but the feeling would continue to gnaw at him.

Lawrence rose from the bench and put his sunglasses back on. “Take your time on your decision Mr. Herrig. My offer will always stand. It’s never too late for me. However, your wife and your crops cannot say the same.” He extended his hand once again. David stood up and shook, attempting to see beyond the shade that covered the man’s eyes. Lawrence then turned and walked back to his car, started it up, drove off down the road he had come in on.

David watched Lawrence’s car as it faded away in the distance. He glanced back at his land. The sun setting over his once large and healthy crop, now dwindling and decaying. He walked up his creaky porch and into his empty house. Without Eileen there, it just didn’t feel the same.

After dinner and a quick phone call with Eileen, he hadn’t mentioned the visitor that came today, he lay down in his bed. He felt the years of labor in his knees and his back subside as the pressure of gravity dissipated. Staring up at the slowly twirling fan that hung high from the ceiling, his mind was contemplating Lawrence’s offer over and over. Lawrence had said the offer had no expiration date. Despite that, there was another deadline. The only reason he was really considering the offer to begin with was for Eileen, to keep his loving wife alive and healthy and cancer-free. If Lawrence could deliver, it would mean that his wife’s suffering would stop, as would David’s, and they could spend the rest of their lives together happily.

God hadn’t given them much more than the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife. That was all fine until you see the woman you love, the woman you’d give anything for, the woman you’d sacrifice your own happiness, your own life for, withering away in the present, while you constantly wonder if the last time you spoke to her would be just that.

Lawrence was empathetic to David’s situation. He seemed to understand the pain and the heartache. David hadn’t heard anything from God to know how He felt about it. David wondered, if he passed on Lawrence’s offer, would he’d be able to live with himself if Eileen passed soon after? Could he live, knowing he had an opportunity to get her healthy and happy again, and didn’t take it? It would slice his heart open and the wound would never clot. His heart would be forever broken beyond repair. He stared at the twirling fan that hung high from the ceiling.

 

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