A QUICK GLANCE DOWN THE WOODED LANE (Pfeltner 1994)
I rolled over in bed, gazing at the picture on the bed stand. It was a picture of a blond seven year old boy and his dog, in front of an old two-story white house. I’ve been ill and illness makes me lonely. I detest loneliness. I picked up the picture and brushed away the years. There is something magical about the age of seven.
“I can’t stay in bed forever.” I pulled back the white linen curtains to look out the window at the farm. It’s late evening on a typical Kentucky midsummer’s day. Mom and dad will be taking their sunset stroll in a few minutes. I pulled on my jeans and a red shirt, and ran downstairs to the kitchen.
Grandmother was cutting the chicken to fry and mom was peeling apples. When I walked into the kitchen, grandma seemed surprised. “I see you finally decided to rejoin the living! You shouldn’t spend so much time in bed.”
I smiled, “Hi grandma, hi mom. I can’t stay in that bed any longer. I thought I’d walk with mom and dad to the marsh.”
Mom set the bowl of apples by the pie pan and laid her hand across my head. “Are you sure you can walk that far? You still have a fever.”
I shook my head, “I’m okay, mom. Where is dad? I thought he would be home by now?”
Mom put the apples in the pie pan and folded over the top crust. “Go wait on the porch. Your dad will be along in a minute.”
Mom saved a small piece of dough and rolled it into a ball. I smiled and stole a small piece of apple. The apple was green and made my mouth pucker. “Sour apples in a pie? That doesn’t sound right to me.” I headed back to the porch shaking my head. As I opened the screen door, Queen ran up to me jumping, licking my hand, and generally going crazy.
“Go sit down,” I said as I sat on the porch swing. The white paint was pealing from the arm of the swing and the house needs painting again. I was born in this house and so was my mother and grandmother. The house lives and breathes, because we live.
Mom and grandma are school teachers. Mom says she was teaching school before there were pencils, but grandma was teaching before there was chalk. I have never understood their humor. I learned to read and write long before I went to school. Dad is a lumber jack and he taught me the names of all the trees, flowers, and animals in the woods. I don’t think I have forgotten a single thing in my life. Not everything should be remembered, but I can’t have it both ways. I remember pain and I feel the pain of too many years.
Grownups ask me what I want to be when I grow up, but it’s a dumb question. “I just want to be seven. Isn’t that right Queen?” I rubbed Queen’s head as her tail beat against my leg. I could swear her tail is made of wood. Queen is a brown and white English pointer that dad raised from a pup. I’m seven years old and the dog is eight. “You’re my best friend.” I said, scratching her head.
Queen jumped up and ran down the road toward the corn field. I suppose she saw a rabbit. The corn is eight feet tall, tasseled and green. It’s hot and humid and I can smell the subtle scent of corn tassels blowing across the road. Finally, dad came down the road with Queen jumping all around him. Dad was wearing a red plaid shirt, just like mine.
Dad waved and smiled as he approached, “Well, look who’s out of bed!”
“Hi dad, I’m going to walk to the marsh with you and mom tonight. Is that okay?”
Dad stepped up on the porch fending off the dog’s affections. “That’s my boy! What did your mother say?”
“Mom said it’s okay. She’s finishing an apple pie for dinner. I miss you dad.”
“I know son. I miss you too. I’ll see if your mother is ready.”
Dad pushed queen out of the doorway and scratched her head. Queen walked over to the rocking chair and curled up on the porch. I heard mom and dad goofing around in the kitchen and the dough ball plopped against the wall. When she makes pies, she saves a small dough ball to throw at dad. I guess that’s love?
Queen stood, barking at a rabbit that wandered into the dirt road in front of the house. The rabbit ignored Queen at first, but after further consideration the rabbit ran back into the corn field.
Finally, mom and dad came out of the house. Mom wore a blue dress and was carrying a sweater. I suspect the sweater was for me, but she didn’t make me put it on, yet. Mom held out her hand to help me down the stairs.
Dad said, “Let’s go, the sun will be down before we get there!”
I jumped down the stairs, two at a time. “It’s okay mom. I feel much better now! Queen is going to catch a rabbit!”
The dog and I led the way. We had to take the long way to the lane, because mom won’t climb fences. We walked through the barnyard and dad opened the gate for us.
Uncle Joe was herding the milk cows up the lane to the barn. He waved, “I see you finally got out of bed!”
I yelled, “We’re going to see the sunset!”
We walked down the lane to the woods on the backside of the farm. The woods to the left were dark and damp, and the evening shadows seemed to follow us. The dog barked at the woods, but I saw nothing. The woods are scary in the late evening, and I never go in them at night. Queen ran ahead, sniffing the air. “Queen, there goes a rabbit! Awe, it’s too late! He ran into the woods.”
Mom and dad stopped by the sweet gum tree, calling out the names of the wild flowers. I yelled out, “May apple and ginseng.” I knew all the flowers on the farm. Flowers were my life’s study.
We looked for a possum in the persimmon tree, but he was nowhere to be found. A beautiful blue winged teal swam near the edge of the marsh with her baby ducks.
Queen showed great restraint, but I held her collar all the same. It was only a twenty minute walk to the marsh, but it seemed as if we had walked to another world. The marsh at sunset is a magnificent sight, and life itself must have begun in the marsh.
I walked ahead of mom and dad with Queen, spotting the birds as they took flight over the marsh. The dog and I were several steps ahead of mom and dad as they talked in whispers, pointing to the moon. I watched as the sun touched the marsh. The animals so active, only moments before, stopped and quietly watched.
The dog and I sat quietly as the sunset transformed the vague pale gray clouds into beautifully painted sculptures drifting across the sky. I searched the sculptures for the face of God, because I was told this is where he lives. I rubbed the dogs head, while she sat in my lap. We watched the red-winged blackbirds flitting among the cattails. We listened to the frogs for several minutes, until the sun finally disappeared. I sat in the twilight enjoying the warm afterglow, as a large owl made a single pass over the marsh. The owl landed in a high tree overlooking his territory.
Queen nudged my arm and I turned as mom and dad walked into the woods one by one. “Hey, wait for me! Where are you going? Don’t go in the woods!” I ran to the edge of the woods, but I lost them in the shadows. They didn’t answer. Queen barked several times and refused to enter the woods. I stood with Queen, facing the forest in the twilight.
“Why did they take a short cut tonight?” I looked at the dog, disappointed. “Now we have to walk home alone, in the dark!”
The beauty of the sunset was forgotten, abruptly replaced by the uncertainty of darkness. A chill crawled along the ground from the damp woods into the lane. I saw a frightened look on the dog’s face as something touched my back. The dog winced and ran for the house. There was no need to turn and look. I took the dogs advice and ran toward the house.
I could hear the crushing of the leaves and I knew he was close behind me. When he touched me again, I redoubled my efforts to fly. I ran along the edge of the woods, passing trees with long bare branches that hung over the lane. I scared a rabbit from his hiding place and I saw the owl take flight. I ran past the rabbit and heard him scream. I don’t know if the owl caught the rabbit. I couldn’t chance a look.
The house was in sight as I ran by the apple orchard and jumped over the fence by the wood pile. The dog was on the porch, clawing for someone to let her in the door. I reached the sidewalk and screamed, “Grandma! Mom! Dad!” I opened the door and the house was dark and empty. The dog ran ahead as we ran up the stairs to my bedroom. We jumped on the bed and crawled under the covers. With hearts pounding, I held the dog, waiting.
I heard someone open the door downstairs and slowly climb the stairs to my bedroom door. I wanted to scream, but there was no one to hear. The dog had left me to face the demons of the night, alone.
I lie in bed, arms heavy from fear. There was a strong presence at the door. I listened afraid to breathe and could hear nothing as Death quietly entered the room. I saw the face of Death, then I pulled the covers over my head gasping for breath.
Death pulled back the covers and I was a much older man with gray thinning hair. In total darkness, I could still see the calm face of Death. I grabbed my aching chest as the sound of an irregular heat beat finally came to rest.
Death held out his hand and I saw a knowing kindness in his face. I took his hand and he took my pains; past, present, and always. There were many questions I wanted to ask, but now they didn’t seem important. Released from the pain, I hugged Death with a sincere embrace. “Thank you, thank you for allowing me to visit my old friends!” I held his hand and rose from the bed for the first time in many years. We left the house and headed back down the lane.
The exquisite clouds slowly drained of color until only one remained. There was a moment of silence for those who feel the need to pray or perhaps for the awe of the sunset years, as I took that final walk down the wooded lane to the death of day.