Fathom Mag
Article

A Sacred Thing in Ordinary Skin

We covered his body over that day with prayers and dirt, planting his shell in the land that raised him.

Published on:
February 11, 2019
Read time:
3 min.
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Shelling pistachios for my daughter—crack, crack—my hands cannot work fast enough. She covets the green seeds inside those deceptively benign shells, my efforts too slowly filling her bowl and stomach.

Head leaning against my hip, she waits expectantly for another bite—crack—and I break my fingernail, the necessary cost of nut retrieval.

The shells scatter across my kitchen counter, belly-up. Round and open, they gape at me like empty caskets.

Crack.

He shelled nuts in his recliner each Christmas, his weathered hands wielding the metal nutcracker that puzzled tiny fingers, and presented us the bounty: walnuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts, pecans. Sitting close enough to my grandpa’s recliner on Christmas morning meant frequent deliveries of fresh, savory snacks.

I ate their centers with little thought of the effort exerted for my gain, little idea of the labor that unearthed each tiny prize.

Between the distribution of nuts and the subsequent ripping of wrapping paper, my grandpa read us a story in his no-nonsense, farm-raised, slightly nasal voice: a story about the sky cracking open in the middle of a field, about the divine intersecting with the ordinary, about shepherds finding eternity tucked inside a tiny barn.

Crunch.

December snow quickly turned to unbearable heat. In the summertime, there were no nuts, but there was wheat. I plucked a stalk from the edges of the field, from the tiny patch of ground a combine could not reach. The head emptied easily as I pinched it into little seeds—crunch—feathering about in my palm. The cousins gathered as many stalks as we were allowed, chewing the seeds into gum inside our mouths.

Walking through the fields—crunch, crunch—his boots moved tirelessly. He worked in the sun, racing the clock and the weather, circling between combine and harvest truck from dawn to dusk.

Sometimes, seated beside my grandpa or dad, I rode the truck into town, where we weighed and deposited a load at the grain elevator. No matter the yield—whether celebration or disappointment—there was always a cycle: plant, harvest. Winter, summer. Crack, crunch, eat.

Eighty-four years of cycles finally interrupted by a tumor, round and aggressive, multiplying like green weeds through the field of his mind.

The day before his brain surgery I found myself in central Kansas, driving among the cold fields of winter wheat—the first summer harvest he would not see in over eight decades.

My grandpa stood near the window of the seventh floor in his hospital gown, unaware and unbothered by the way it fell open down his back. Together we looked across the flat horizon, the sun spraying colors of orange and pink across the sky: an ordinary, always-extraordinary Kansas sunset. Although cancer had riddled his mind with several years of anxiety and frustration, his quivering hand pointed out landmarks he still knew by heart: grain elevators and water towers of a half-dozen surrounding small towns. The land on which he built his life spread before us, its rhythms simple yet steady, like a beating heart.

Crush.

Three months later, on a bitterly cold April day, I stood beside his casket, its two halves pulled neatly apart like a shell. His body looked rested but distant, emptied of its ability to work the land, laugh at his own oft-repeated jokes, or pass me a walnut.

My own hands twisted around one of his handkerchiefs during the funeral, held inside the small church he attended all his life. Ten years earlier, according to his own handwritten notes, my grandpa had delivered a Sunday school lesson on prayer from Psalm 102. “The prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed,” he had scrawled near the top of the page.

Beside the word overwhelmed, he added: “cover up—to cover over completely—crush.”

We covered his body over that day with prayers and dirt, planting his shell in the land that raised him, just down the road from the farmhouse and red barn of his boyhood home. A stone bearing his name now stands as another small landmark on the Kansas earth, sign of a life lived simply but steadily amidst the cracking and crunching of time.

Little pieces of nuts and grain continue to spread out and multiply, many miles away. Aging hands and tiny hands daily fold together and pull apart, saying prayers, making bread, shelling pistachios—continuing a cycle that long preceded them.

Imagining my grandpa’s voice from his recliner, I read the words of the psalmist in Psalm 102: “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass . . . [but] the children of your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before you.”

I hand my daughter another green seed, and with it, I silently offer her participation in a larger story: a story about seeds covered in prayer, about sacred things wrapped in ordinary skin, about eternity hiding inside a barn—the simplest of shells multiplying into a weighty harvest.

Jenna Brack
Jenna Brack is a teacher and writer living in Kansas City. She has an M.A. in English and enjoys good coffee, serious conversation, and not-too-serious fiction.

Cover photo by paul wence.

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