The Old Man - Perfection
The Old Man closed his eyes ad turned away, but he was not quite quick enough. The thickened smoke from the campfire had changed its course, swirling unexpectedly around his head as he knelt at the fire’s edge to reposition a burned-through log. The Old Man buried his smoke filled eyes in the faded flannel on his left shoulder. From somewhere across the fire, he heard the taunting voice of Henry Jacobs.
“Painful, isn’t it?”
The Old Man didn’t speak, but waited patiently for the aching pain behind his eyes to subside. Finally, he opened his water-filled eyes and tested the air. A tear followed a deepened wrinkle at the corner of the Old Man’s left eye before falling to the ground at his feet. The Old Man smiled and spit into the fire, causing a brief sizzle.
“Smarts a bit....”
Henry chewed on a piece of fried squirrel.
The Old Man returned to his camp chair and poured a cup of coffee from the blackened pot at the fire’s edge.
“...As I was saying, I was just about to touch ol’ Betsey off at that squirrel you’re eatin’ on, when I heard him paw the ground. It was just once. He pawed only once. I lowered my rifle to look and there he was. I was expecting a doe; ain’t never had a buck paw at me before, but it was a boy deer for sure, standin’ behind a blow-down in a honey-suckle patch.”
“How was his head?” Henry’s attempt to sidetrack the Old Man had become a familiar part of their friendship.
“Powerful... the whole sight was powerful. His neck was stretched way out high and he was lookin’ straight at me and I could see his nostrils flarin’ out like a mad bull. Heck, he wasn’t fifteen steps away.”
“I’ll restate my question. How was his head?”
“I’ll restate my question,” ...the Old Man smiled. “How come you’re so upppity? Forty years and starch shirted and it’s about time you changed.”
“Did the deer have particularly good antler development?” persisted Henry Jacobs, undisturbed.
The Old Man sighed. “Yes, Henry. The deer was as fine a specimen as I’ve ever seen....”
An October breeze rattled the hardened leaves above the campfire, stirring older memories than the afternoon’s deer. Henry looked up into the star-filled sky above the trees. The wind sent a cold shiver through the Old Man and he extended an outstretched hand toward the flames.
“I’ve been waiting for that,” said Henry.
“What’s that?” answered the Old Man.
“All summer I’ve been enduring the heat with the thought of that first October chill. It’s peculiar how the seasons give a man the exact change he needs. Each season lasts just the right length to make you appreciate the next. It’s truly amazing.”
“Which is your favorite, Henry?”
“Right now is my favorite. October does things to me.”
“I agree,” smiled the Old Man. “I get this feeling in October. It’s a half-scared, half-excited feeling that hits me right here.” The Old Man pointed to the center of his chest.
“It’s a feeling like when you miss someone real bad... and then... you all of a sudden realize you’re gonna see’em again.”
“I know,” said Henry, “and some years that sinking feeling lasts and lasts.”
“It’s a hard feeling to put into words, and it’s even harder to get shed of.”
They did not look at each other, but stared individually into the fire. Henry broke the long silence, by playfully raising an eyebrow. “Shed of?”
The Old Man raised a spoon full of white beans to his mouth and began chewing, happy to return to the challenge of Henry’s arguing. “That’s right... ‘shed of.’ You got problems with my speakin’ language?”
“For forty years I’ve had problems with your massacre of the English language. I know you know better. That’s what bothers me!” Henry motioned expressively with a fried squirrel leg.”You have chosen to speak... so... so rural!”
“Rural?” questioned the Old Man. “How ‘bout ‘earthy’? I like that better.”
“It’s disgusting. Just because one chooses to live in the country doesn’t mean he must talk in a manner that destroys such a functional language.”
The Old Man laughed. “Destroy? How ‘bout ...make better?”
Henry laughed back at him.
“For instance,” continued the Old Man, “you may have a ‘persistent’ case of poison ivy. I, on the other hand, would take on a case of the ivy itch that I couldn’t get shed of. I ask you, Mr. Stuffed Shirt, which gives the better picture?”
Henry sipped at his coffee through a smile. “Let me think about it for a minute.”
“Why not study on it, instead,” replied the Old Man. “Studin’ on it somehow makes me believe you will give it more thought.”
Henry laughed out loud as he refilled his coffee cup. “If you were terribly cold,” he countered, “could you tell me in any better way than by saying, ‘I was so cold that I lapsed into periods of uncontrollable shivering’?” Smiling proudly, Henry took a bite from his squirrel leg.
The Old Man laid down his plate on a flat rock, and deliberately searched his pockets for his pipe. Finding it finally on the ground by his chair, he started the procedure of preparing the tobacco.
“I was bird hunting over on Hurricane Creek back about forty years ago and the dogs bumped a covey close to the water. Well, those birds just picked up and set down on the other side. There was a log down across the creek and I reckoned I’d just hop across that log to the other side. Well, I reckoned wrong. To make a long story short, I fell into that chin deep water. It was January, Henry, cold January, and I was a couple of miles from the truck. I’ll tell ya’, ol’ friend, by the time I got home to the fire, why I was shakin’ harder than a bird dog passin’ a peach seed.”
Henry Jacobs promptly fell from his camp chair in his laughter. The Old Man with the freshly-lighted match tried to light his pipe, but his chuckling made it difficult.
“That’s cold!” said Henry as he found his empty chair.
The Old Man drew on the pipe. “It’s obvious, Henry, that you’ve seen a bird dog try to... Henry... you all right?”
Henry was clutching his throat. He was also trying to breathe. The Old Man jumped to his feet and slapped Henry hard between the shoulder blades.
“Are ya’ all right, Henry?”
Henry shook his head and dropped to one knee. The Old Man hit him again on the back. And again, and again, but Henry didn’t respond. Sam Kenton’s stomach churned. He picked Henry up from behind and tried to force the air out of his lungs with sharp thrusts under the ribcage. He tried until his arms ached.
“You Okay, Henry?... Henry!”
The Old Man turned Henry around and looked into his face. His mouth was gaping open and his eyes were blinking wildly.
The Old Man laid Henry on the chair by the fire. He dug frantically into his pocket for his knife, opened it, and thrust the blade into the fire.
“Henry? I’m gonna have to cut you just a little bit right here. Henry! Look at me!”
Henry opened his eyes to find the Old Man pointing to a depression below his Adam’s apple. Henry’s eyes widened and he shook his head violently.
“Yes!” shouted the Old Man as he grabbed Henry’s head and forced it down over the chair to expose his throat to the fire’s light. The knife gleamed in the Old Man’s trembling hand.
Summoning a last burst of strength, Henry hit the Old man on the chin, knocking them both over the chair. Henry landed stomach first on a fist-sized rock by the fire. The lodged piece of squirrel meat shot out of his mouth into the fire’s edge. He gasped and began to cough.
Sam Kenton heard the cough above the pounding of his own heart. He rolled to his back and looked up into the stars. The ground dew felt wet under his back.
“You all right, Henry?”
Henry’s breath was coming in slow, shuddering draws. With his cheek against the ground, he watched the dust move under his mouth from his breathing. He whispered, “Lord, that was close.” He paused, and then blurted out, “you were going to cut me!”
“You were gonna die, you old goat! What did you expect me to do, beat you on the back ‘til all your ribs were broke!”
A creek rock exploded in the fire, showering sparks over their heads, and abruptly ended their argument. Henry rolled over, joining the Old Man’s skyward view. They listened to the fire for a long time. A breeze passed through the trees above them.
“‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him’” Henry turned his head toward the Old Man. “That, my dear friend, is the most exciting description of heaven ever spoken. I was choking. I kept thinking of the greatest sights in my life, and sounds. And in heaven it’s going to get even better. That’s hard to imagine, but exciting to ponder about, don’t you think?”
The Old Man smiled. “First Corinthians, second chapter, verse nine.”
“I didn’t know you read....“
“What’s the grandest thing you’ve ever seen, Henry?”
Henry coughed again. “I’m not real sure. I’ve seen some fine things. The thing that I remember the most was a clear, cold April morning when I was trying to get to a gobbling turkey before he flew down. I was working my way up a ridge when the sun’s first light popped over the crest. There was a May Apple patch in front of me and the sunlight hit the dew drops on the leaves and there was a whole hillside full of glistening spider webs. There was a hundred, no, a thousand separate prisms of color, and little rainbows everywhere. It was so...” Henry stopped, unable to continue.
The Old Man ran his trembling hands over his eyes. “The sounds these old ears have heard. I remember one time when I sneaked out to an island on the river before daylight, and somehow while I was waiting for light to shoot, I realized that I was in the middle of a bunch of geese. I could hear them all around me, and finally at first light, something spooked then and they got up. It was snowing, I remember, and the sky was suddenly full of geese. They were so close to me. There may have been twenty thousand; I’m not sure. The sound was deafening with the air from their wings and the honking, and it kept on and on. I felt so... little... so lucky to be in the exact spot. I was overwhelmed.” The Old Man paused. “The only significance of my presence on that island was my understanding of the simple perfection of the scene around me. It moved me a great deal, and that in itself, must be important.”
Henry’s breathing was slow and even. He felt a tingling in his fingertips. “You’re right. That is it. It’s so wonderfully perfect. Every single thing we’ve learned out here over the years has shown us unbelievable perfection,” Henry paused. “How come we never talked about this?” he asked.
The Old Man smiled. “Don’t reckon words do it justice, whether they be ‘uppity ‘ or ‘earthy’.”
An owl called from somewhere behind them. Another answered just behind their tent. The Old Man noticed that he could see his breath in the chilled air above him. Henry strained to raise himself to a standing position, but his back didn’t straighten just right, leaving him bent forward at the waist. Henry smiled through his pain.
“Can you imagine, Sam? If the things we’ve seen and heard and felt don’t even compare to what we have ahead of us, can you imagine?”
The Old Man closed his eyes and suddenly he was back on the island. The geese came off the water in a magnificent curtain of honking wings and he could feel the wind from their wings on his face.