The Ghosts of November

•November 18, 2015 • 1 Comment

(Follow the author on Facebook Zach Byrd Adventure Hour)

 

It was the 9th day of November, 1:00 p.m. when I killed the motor to the Toyota. I was to meet a hunting buddy at 1:15 p.m. but I was running early. Acorn sized raindrops were assaulting the roof and already I could feel the heat escaping the cab of the truck. As I waited for my friend, the woods looked dreary through the condensation that was already building on my windshield. This will be a miserable sit, I thought.

I was contemplating wind patterns and topography—considering instinctive synapses beneath antler—anything to ward off the dread when my buddy turned in to the driveway. Despite my low levels of enthusiasm for the cold and windy conditions I was about to trek in to and suffer within, as my eyes looked through the somber glass, all I could think was, In weather like this, ghosts come out in the daytime.

I opened my truck door and an icy raindrop as big as a horse tear splashed off the back of my hand. I stepped in to the soggy grass of the landowner’s front yard and squinted through the mist at my buddy who looked as if he had just woken up.

“You ready to do this?” I asked.

“As ready as I’m going to be.” He admitted.

“You layered up good?” I asked. He had blue jeans and what looked to be two meager long sleeves on.

“I reckon. I was running late. I’ll be alright.” He assured.

“Alright then. Let’s get a move on.” I said.

Waterproof hunting gear has been on my wish list for three years but I’ve never gotten around to scratching it off. At one-quarter of a mile in to the two-mile hike, I was cursing my ADHD. Three years is more than enough time to put enough money back to purchase at least a cheap rain jacket or poncho. But I hadn’t. The rain gear, like so many other subtle intricacies in my life, had been placed on a shelf within my mind, forgotten and dusty. Such subtleties are never remembered when you’re me. And if they are remembered, it’s almost always when it’s too late. Like when you’re drenched to the bone, already feeling the early pangs of shiver and you haven’t even made it to the tree yet.

As we approached the bottleneck where I planned to station my buddy, I stopped and turned to him.

“When we get past this thick stuff, look for a cedar tree on the right.” I said to him.

“Alright.” He whispered between two hefty breaths.

As the cedar tree came in to view I took a few more steps to ensure he could see it from behind me. I turned around and his eyes were wide.

“Chris, I do believe we’re hunting a giant.” I said confidently. And I was confident. Of course, this confidence was not solely based upon one cedar tree that happened to have antler gashes reaching as high as my earlobe. No, it was based upon years of hunting this piece of property—getting to know the rises and falls—years of letting young bucks walk and witnessing a growing wisdom in the newly developed hesitations of their steps when they’d come back the following year, each time slightly further out of range than the last. If a man hunts a piece of land long enough, it’ll start speaking to him. And if he has a thirst to hear it, he can learn from what it has to say.

I’ve been taking my buddy Chris hunting with me since we shared weight-lifting class together in high school. Over the years I’ve watched him mature in to a solid deer hunter. I, having started at a younger age under a father who had hunted at an early age as well, felt it necessary to teach and share with others what had been taught and shared with me. Chris, I believe, is just hitting his stride. The call of the deer woods is just starting to reach deep down in to the sweet meat of his spirit. It’s actually a wonderful thing to witness—like watching an older deer browsing past your tree, smarter, quieter, much harder to kill. I knew if I took Chris to the property, he indeed had a good shot at a buck that I believed to be a giant. But that was just fine with me. In way, a victory for Chris would have been a victory for myself. Sometimes the bucks you’ve watched grow come back; sometimes you never see them again. Sometimes they give you a daybreak glance, as if somehow, in some strange way, they want you to know they’ve survived—as if they want you to know how smart they’ve gotten—how hard to kill they’ve become. I wanted to put Chris on a ground that would kick up dregs of persistence and dedication within his hunter’s heart. The cold wind, the icy rain, the cedar tree, the knowing we’d be immersed within it for five hours; all these things came together like a potent drop of adrenaline. I wanted to accomplish for the hunter within my friend, what the preorbital gland accomplishes for the herd. I wanted the hunter living inside him to make it in to old age.

I was gauging the wind with my exhales when night stole the dusk in an instant. Like a switch being slapped down by an angry, cloudy hand, the hunt was over. As I sat in the climber twenty-five-feet above the ground, although cold, miserable and dreading the long hike back to the truck in the dripping darkness, I leaned my head back against the pine bark and closed my eyes. The darkness amplified the sounds of those dreary woods. As I welcomed relief to my strained eyes, I began to doubt even my own efforts. This was the seventh day straight I had made it in to those familiar woods, each time feeling closer to the giant than the last. Sometimes upon the trek I would think that I’d caught a warm, musty hint of him in my nose and I’d freeze, afraid that the next step would grant me the view of a great crown bouncing away above a white flag that mocked surrender. Other times I’d pass a new rub or a freshened scrape and think: A ghost made these in the night.

As I climbed down the tree and began walking back towards Chris, I felt defeated. I felt silly for thinking that sitting in the cold rain for six hours could inspire anyone to commit their life to chasing ghosts through the meandering hardwoods. I felt like going home, running a hot bath and forgetting all about deer. When I finally made it to Chris, however, I noticed he didn’t seem nearly as deflated as I felt.

“Well, that was miserable.” I said to him. My jaws were tired from shivering.

“Eh, it wasn’t too bad. He’s in here. You can feel it.” The former student reminded. And upon reminding, my friend’s words did for me, what I had hoped to do for him. I felt as if I had never doubted it in my life. Suddenly, I wished that I could turn the hour hand backwards and relive those six hours of woodland suffrage. Adjusting the straps of my climber, which were cutting in to my shoulders, I said, “Yeah. He’s in here. He’s just smart. And old. Really old. It’s like hunting a ghost.”

The 9th of November was a Monday and as I lay in bed next to my wife that night I realized just how much I missed her and the kids. My instincts told me to take off early one more time. They beckoned for me to get back in the tree by two o’clock the next day and wait for the crucial mistake that was sure to be made by the wise old buck should I decide to stay home. But my human heart was hurting. It was aching to climb the stairs—instead of marching straight to the closet for the camouflage—and to grab my young’ins by their waists and to shake them about like a daddy grizzly and to tackle them and to tickle them and to tell them that Deddy was home for the evening. Any hunter worth his or her salt knows of this great paradox. The paradox that says half shamefully, “I love you, but I must go. But only for a little while. Please be smiling when I come home.” It is selfish, but earnest. It is true and false at the same time. It is from a world that only a hunter knows and only a hunter can understand. It is joy and it is pain. It is like most things in life and as I lay next to my sleeping wife I felt thankful to be a part of its mystery. November 10th I stayed home.

The night of November 10th I stayed up late with my wife watching the Republican Presidential debates. For us, a debate during election season might as well be a game in The World Series or an outstanding UFC fight card and always, we find ourselves cheering on the underdog. I’ve been a political junkie since my senior year of high school, when Ron Paul gave me hope for a future that I had already deemed hopeless. As a Libertarian, beer is usually required on these nights. It is like a spoonful of sugar to help swallow the ridiculous moderators, the memorized Republican talking points—which are usually regurgitated randomly and are irrelevant to the questions asked—and it seems to make little David appear stronger, a little more invincible, as he steps in to the fighting circle—where Goliath lingers in every adversary, every loaded question and upon every face of every person watching. On each debate night across the country, countless Libertarians watch on with trepidation as their own little David steps in to the circle and begins swinging his sling. We all know that each debate is but one battle in a continuous war, but still we sit, suspended on the edges of our seats, waiting, hoping, that the rock will find a soft spot of flesh between the heavy helmet of the giant.

After the debates were over I called my dad and asked him what time he figured it would start cracking daylight in the woods. He said he figured around fifteen ‘til seven. I think the beer had hindered my thinking, however, because I set my alarm clock for, and went to bed thinking that it’d be turning daylight in the woods at fifteen ‘til six.

The next morning as I pulled in to the landowner’s driveway, even with my mind slightly sluggish from the night’s drinking, I knew something was off. The road is usually streaming with work-bound cars and trucks but the road was empty and quiet. I called my dad, who gets up every morning around 4:00 a.m. to begin his commute to Atlanta.

“I think I misheard you last night.” I said to him.

“You’re already there?” He asked, shocked.

“Yeah. I thought you said fifteen ‘til six.” I said.

“No goofball. I said fifteen ‘til seven.” He said laughing. “You might as well take a nap.” It was 5:40 a.m. at this time.

“I think I’ll sit here and listen to the debate coverage until six fifteen and then I’ll ease on in.” I said.

“That’s what I’d do.” He said.

“Alright. I’ll text you if I see anything. I’ll call you if I kill something. I love you.” I said.

“Alright then. I love you.”

As I sat there in the cab of my truck with the radio replaying the most boring and cliché talking points of the night, I became tired of the circus and turned the truck off. I leaned my head back and listened to the silence. A slow roar began growing behind me. As it became louder, I noticed it was a vehicle. I pulled my phone from my pocket as a late eighties Chevrolet chugged by. It was five ‘til six. I’m getting in the tree, I thought.

The thick band of pines that surround the hardwoods is always tricky to navigate through. On this particular morning, the navigation was even more difficult. Instead of using a white light, I decided to use a red headlamp. From first hand experience, I knew the red light would be less likely to spook any deer that could possibly be bedding in the pines. As I made my way through the pines, I realized it was taking more time than I had imagined it would to get to my tree. When I finally broke through the band of pines and into the hardwoods, I noticed the formerly black sky was slightly bluing. My heart pulsed sickening drips of adrenaline in to my bloodstream. I hurried to my tree and, robot-like, unloaded my stand, unfastened my backpack, pulled my rope from my climber’s seat, tied my gun and backpack to one end of the rope, attached the upper portion of the stand and then the lower. It was amazing how quickly my hands achieved the monotonous duties in the dark knowing the sun was on its way to wake the forest up. The pine bark was slightly damp from the moisture in the air and I was able to scale the tree fairly quickly. By the time I made it to my hanger I was pouring sweat and cursing all six beers I’d consumed the previous night. I didn’t let it hinder my progress, however; I wiped the sweat away rapidly and began pulling the backpack up. Once I had the gun untied and the bag secure in my lap, instead of doing what I normally do, which is chug a bottle of water and put a dip in, I kept looking over my left shoulder. Something told me to keep my eyes on the hardwood funnel, which empties in to the treacherous pines. Ten minutes went by when I realized if I didn’t turn my stand to face the pinch-point, I would soon have a neck-ache. But still, my body refused to move. My legs were disinterested in the stand. My hands were disinterested in my water and tobacco. I could only stare at the pinch-point when suddenly I caught movement near the line of pines. I knew immediately that it was a deer but I could tell nothing about it. It was coming straight up the funnel on a line that ran in to thicker portions of the hardwoods. I tried to determine if it was a buck but the misty bottom made it nearly impossible. I suddenly realized that this deer wasn’t going to stick around. It wasn’t browsing or cruising with its nose to the ground. No, it became clear to me that this deer was on its way to bed and from the looks of it, it was in a hurry to get there. As the deer approached my first shooting lane, I tried to bleat with my mouth to stop it but my mouth, having never received the much-needed water, was paper dry and only air escaped. The deer continued trucking. As the deer approached my last shooting lane I forced a bleat from my dry throat. The sound was hideous. It sounded like concrete crumbling. The deer stopped. My scope was already on him. I could make out the nearest side of his rack but only enough to know that he was exceptionally tall. The mist shielded all details from me. Shoot him. I thought. That’s him. You’ve got the ghost. Shoot him before he disappears! My thoughts were frantic but my hands remained calm. Through the scope I watched an ear turn back to me. His head turned away. I knew he was about to bolt. As I lowered the crosshairs down his neck I noticed the fog had swallowed his entire body. It looked much like viewing a deer through a fogged scope in a rainstorm. You know which trail he is on. You know he is in a shooting lane. You know he is quart BOOM! My gun silenced my frantic mind. In the mist, I watched a ghost kick high and disappear.

How many times have we sat after the shot with the anxiety of the unconcluded? My hands had been quicker than my mind and as I raised them to wipe pools of sweat from my brow I wondered if I should praise them or curse them like feral yard dogs. They began to lose their former discipline and started to shake. At first it was only a slight hum in the fingertips along my cooling cheeks. But like poison, the fever gained strength and began to spread. The slow vibration in my hands turned to shaking and ventured up my arms and in to my spirit. This is a feeling usually welcomed by hunters, but this time, for me, too many questions lay unanswered up the misty path. So I did what any hunter who is fortunate enough to still have his father around as his number one hunting partner does, I called him.

He picked up on the second ring.

“Did you get him?” He asked.

“I shot. I couldn’t tell much. All I could see was one side. I’m not sure. I think he was…” My thoughts were like late November leaves in a windstorm. My words quietly and quickly chased each falling flicker. My dad cut me off.

“Listen. Slow down. When did you shoot?” He asked.

“About five minutes ago. The mist was heavy. I thought my scope was fogged. I knew where is shoulder was. I knew he was quartering away. He kicked.” Each sentence was a harsh whispered exhale.

“Okay. Well, if you think you hit him good, just relax and give him some time. It’s really early. You have plenty of time. The last thing you want to do is bump him. Just take it easy and try to clear your head before you get down and start tracking. And remember to mark the spot the deer was standing when you shot and mark the last place you saw the deer after it ran. Mark those places in your head before you start climbing down. Get you some reference points.” All of the things my dad told me on the phone were things I already knew—things that he had already taught me countless times on countless cold mornings and dusky evenings kneeling before countless specks and sprays of animals that were dying fast and gallantly. For the hunter, this is not as much a checklist as it is a mantra. For many Buddhists, chanting is used to prepare the mind for meditation. The chants alter the cadence of breaths, thus affecting the oxygen in the blood. As my dad went down the list of the crucial steps that all we hunters come to know, the tension behind my eyes started to fade. My hands reassumed a slight vibration rather than shaking uncontrollably. I breathed deeply through my nose and watched the sun turn the mist in to a golden pond down in the bottom. Thirty minutes later I quietly began climbing down the tree.

As my feet landed on the leaves, the first thing I noticed was how damp they were. Upon this realization, my ears sharpened to what sounded like rain. The moisture was so heavy in the air that it was pooling on the leaves above and dripping on to the forest floor. As my anxiety increased, I grabbed my gun and went to my first reference point.

As I made it to the tree I had marked as the one he’d been standing near, it became clear that the mist had deceived me more than I had anticipated. There were two main trails cutting the side of the hardwood ridge. One ran on the high side of my reference tree and the other ran ten yards below it. From the vantage point of my stand I could see that the deer could have been on either trail while remaining in my shooting lane. My thoughts began to pick up speed again. The dull burn of doubt slowly crept in to the darkest recesses of my mind. I started zig-zagging over the two trails, slowly, methodically. When the thoughts impeded upon my tracking, I sat down. When my head felt clear again, I stood and continued tracking. After fifteen minutes with no blood, I was sick with doubt. I decided, after much consideration, to cut out away from the high trail, walk twenty yards parallel with the trail and cut back in. Within minutes I had my first drop of blood. It was faint and watered down. I sat next to it and looked up at the sky. I welcomed both the joy and the fear as if one could not live without the other. I hadn’t missed the deer but that is all the first drop ever means. We learn early to look the first drop in the eyes and to look for lies within its pattern. My first drop had no eyes. They’d been taken by the weather. And one can’t trust a thing without eyes to look in to.

I looked ahead and saw no more blood. I saw no kicked-up leaves or freshly broken branches. I slowly moved forward, occasionally looking up at the bluebird sky as part of my mantra. After ten feet or so I found new blood. This was more than a drop. It was a six-inch line of crimson hope. I looked ahead and could see blood for the next thirty feet or so, yet I maintained my steady pace—constantly surveying the blood—looking in to it’s eyes—seeing finally some truth in the pattern. I walked twenty yards further and the blood darted towards the lower trail. Yes, the lower trail—the trail that goes in to the thicker woods—the thicker woods where the injured go to die. I could feel hope swelling in me like a Georgia thundercloud. This blood was not lying to me. This blood was truth, and I knew it.

As I followed the blood in to the thicker woods I kept my eyes on the ground—half of me staying true to my discipline—the other half simply relishing each step of the sacred dance. As I continued forward, a small branch caught me near the corner of my right eye. As I jerked my head up and backwards, I saw the deer. My movements ceased. My arms fell limp at my side. During such moments as this, I cannot help but contemplate just how malleable time really is. Maybe I stood there, mouth agape, for five seconds, maybe I stood there for half an hour in awe. I can’t accurately tell you the truth here. Time is funny like that. But I can tell you, as I slowly walked up to the deer, that I said aloud to myself—

“My God. So this is what a ghost looks like…”

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Between the Choirs

•August 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

When you’re standing in the country with crickets in your eyes
and the distant dwellings could be tears
within your eyes.
Don’t fret rabbit
in the ditch.
Don’t cast high
your pitch,
coyote;
your mother gone.

Tho-

Georgia is a kind old stead
whose embers ne’er flare out the hearth,
keep calm your jaw.
Let cool rivers erode
the high places
of your instincts.

And swaying sing the dwellings.
Slight nods from the strangers.
Listen to their silence.
Air between the choirs.

In the Shadow of my Wave

•July 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

You said you loved my vulnerable side
but it was at your side I sat alone,

thinking of pressure cracks
and the architecture of dams,
of ice creaks
and frozen ponds.

I saw a city washed away.
A fish thawing dead in the spring.

Along those dusky miles of back-roads
between our hearts,
fireflies flickered death in December
and flower petals found frost replacing pollen.
Had we not been trapped within that
undying hue of doubt,
night would have surly sabotaged her constellations.
Lending only a limp string of lights.
And from the shadows of imagination,
the nameless mistress would have
shone down a starry smile
at the lost.

I saw the eyes of caged creatures
and my relation sent screams between
the bars.
[Your owners abandoned you, you fucker!
And you wandered to the next house
thinking you’d be bathed in flea shampoo
and given a collar and cold milk.
But no.
No.
No.
No.
They turned you in.
Just another form of abandonment.
Do you know that?
Look at me!
Do you understand?
Yet you still…
You still look out from this new cage
with your old, sad eyes
for any person to take you in!]

I wanted blood trails leading in to dark woods
or the grassless patches of dirt beneath back porches.
I wanted eyes wild with fury, passion, desperation,

life.

But it was then,
the small warm drop splashed my arm.
And from it,
ripples of light penetrated the darkness.
Ripples of hope entangled the doubt.
And without my knowing,
the small warm drop that your eye could contain for no moment longer
greased the rusty bedding of my tongue
and gave me bravery.
Gave me breath.

In the shadow of my wave you stood
with love streams to your chin.
And as I broke free the cage,
to you, I ran again.

Bukowski

•July 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Thank you for the fire breathing
and staggering through the night.
I see you in dreams
at times.
Swaying above an old black typewriter.

You Japanese skyscraper
wet with hurricane winds.

Women jump from your highest window.
They scream through debris-
“Fuck your goddamn poetry.”

Your books filled my floor
long ago
and friends began leaving
at 8:00pm
Friday nights.

I craved your straight jabs
and left hooks
that bounced me
off alley walls.
We waltzed to the hiss of
tom cats
through gutter steam
and clicking keys.

But,

we waltzed alone.

I thank you still, though.
For the birds in the bath
and the weeds in the garden.

You left so many weeds in the garden.

The Dweller of the Shadow

•June 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

[in evening light]

What say you to it;
the dangled thought which stretches dark within the piney evening shades
and shows no attachment or affirmative
to
suns
and of
stars

?

O!
How must such undiscovered-ness
inspire
the dweller of the shadow.
Who,
in his thread-frayed death is rediscovered and rescued
by the night.

[on morning’s gown]

Beneath bright blossoms,
in love-sheet creases upon the line,
within pockets where her thumb once traced your pulsing frame,
along collar stains of the sweat and pain of love,
small darknesses
wait to whither
but not to die.
And the great lion of the horizon,
of that place-less land,
(where father mountain and
mother valley are rendered useless;
reduced and reconciled,
Distance draws the truth
with a single stroke.)
rears its unseen face,
radiates its massive mane,
and with quiet roars 
illuminates the intoxicating mists of morn.

[where days are born]

How looks she to you,
now,
in this fading, mystic light?
Go to the frail and now-torn velvet veil.
Walk through the hole which grows
and find Dawn smiling.
Her fingers trace each spiraling thread of  clothesline and love-sheet alike.
And even now from the distant lands
of long running shadows
that no more climb the walls or trees
but only the legs of men
who have made the crucial pause
which beckons the ivy of misplaced thoughts and misplaced signs-
The unnatural grin.
The incomprehensible distance the eyes may hold.
The silence that cried where words once laughed.
The willowed hand.

Yet still,
her hue seems true.

[beneath lamplight]

The darkness leaves,
for now.

As we wander we find ourselves (a lengthy caption below these pictures)

•May 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

image

image

image

image

[photo: the poem before this post was inspired by miles of backroads. My wife is the photographer of our little family and I like to be her pilot. Sometimes I intentionally get us lost in hopes of finding a new pasture so sick with heart colored thistle that we’d dive from the tar coat fence posts like bullfrogs if we didn’t know any better. On this outing, however, I took her down more familiar roads. I knew of an abandoned farm house. It sits on a now-bank-owned 80 acres and has since I first stepped foot on the property when I was a pre-teen with a cheap zebco bouncing on my shoulder, a piece of saw grass in my teeth and a can of worms in my hand. When we pulled into the grass covered gravel I sensed her excitement. To our right was a long stretch of field that was overrun with various weeds. To our left was the farm house. A lonely broken window stared at us through the encroaching growth of small trees and polk salad. Her hands began adjusting her camera while her eyes were scanning brightly this new place. We wandered through the old building. The outside world was quiet. A quiet that only the country can know and other than the rubbings of vegetation against the tin above the only noises was our shared breathing and her camera clicking as it focused on the otherwise forgotten dregs of the south. We traced an old watering hole at a blooming pace. It was years without a cow or horse track. I remarked that the drought had killed the fish but that the frogs seemed to be thriving just fine. From there we cut a trail through a fenced patch of high grass. I told her to keep her eyes at her feet. In the spring, doe will leave their fawns in these places of neglect and one can nearly step on the babies before they’ll dart away or bleat out for help. I remember thinking of the dichotomy between man and the wilder beasts as we stepped high through the grass. Such a wavering, fleeting thing is human instinct. Regardless, it seemed to be a fawnless stretch of ground and we separated as we approached the backside of the old barn. The first thing I saw after the split was a ladder that led to a dark and dusty hay loft. There was a nostalgia that ran the wood grain of each step. It was a ladder leaned against yesterday. Probably constructed from otherwise useless scrap pieces of the barn. It was as man-made as a baby or inadequate words.The rails had been worn smooth from calloused hands and the ancient dirt left long ago from farm hands still lingered like a muddy creek running into a pristine river. [Faint smear of the working America. I see you there, and may you rest well.]
I must have been in the loft longer than it had seemed because eventually I heard my wife’s calling. “Zach, where are you?” She didn’t sound scared but there was a lack of comfort in her words. “I’m up here.” I said. I helped her up the broken and questionable ladder and we took many photos in the dusty and tricky light. The majority of the floor was hay covered and it was hard to distinguish where the boards ran true and where great holes lay hidden. She eventually grew dizzy around the time a truck rolled by slowly, almost stopping. As I watched through a crack of light, where dust particles dart like stars and rarely linger,  I said as he was out of sight, “We should probably get out of here before that fella turns around. He’s probably got some weed planted back here somewhere.”]

Today

•May 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

To

gas up the truck

and
to

drive beyond familiarity.

To
find;

new barns abandoned and
ditches weaved with cedar root.

To
ask,

What lies beyond the curve
where muscadines sprawl splattered?

And
to

drive through the sweet fermented air
of their last song.

To
become

the only wondering ear that drove to hear
it.

Before the hum of flies
arrived
to coat
it.
Before the buzz of bees
could seize
and claim
it,

to
day.

 
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