Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Twilight Years of Life (07/02/09)
TITLE: The Old Man Oak
By Jim McWhinnie
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From the barn to the river was a journey not all that far, but it was just far enough to take a soul to where a soul needed to be. I once made that journey with an old man I deeply loved, and I have made that journey a thousand times since.
I loved opening that big, red, barn door, a mere everyday task for a grown man, but a mighty task for a young boy trying to be like his grandfather. On that morning, the old man retrieved a shovel from its place deep within the shadows of that barn. And that same old man brought with him a rusty can filled with two gallons of good earth and in that good earth was sprouting an oak-sapling. The old man carried the shovel and I carried the would-be tree.
It took about thirty minutes of footsteps to cross the back pasture, through the maple woods, down the slope of Hunter's Hill, across Gould's Meadow, and finally to the banks of the slow and broad part of the Chateauguay River Like five sturdy brothers, five oaks stood in a line along that stretch of the river - five oaks, five brothers, four uncles and my father. The far end of the line would be my place in this world, the place for my young oak to grow old.
But before we worked, before we added one more tree to the Creation, we sat for the task of getting lost in time, in that realm of forever that hides between the tick and the tock of the clock of life. We listened; an old man listened for dreams coming to life in a springtime spirit; a young boy listened for what-might-have-been in a November soul.
"You have to listen for the old man in the oak," my grandfather whispered to me in somber, reverent tones. "Listen. Can you hear the old man groan?"
I nodded, more out of the hope that I had heard him groan than because I actually had.
"If you listen, he'll tell you what's been going on down here by the river, in the lazy of the day or in the prowl of the night. But you have to listen . . . listen deep, listen long, listen slow."
I had to ask, though I tried not to ask, "What does the old man say?"
"Different things to different souls. I am not sure what the old man says to other folks, but to me, he lets me in on the secrets of the way things are and the way things could be, would be and ought to be. For oak trees, there is no might be about life, that's for souls like you and me who live out here, in the walkabout world. For oak trees, life simply happens; for us walk-abouters, life is created."
"Oh," I said, hoping that all his words would begin to make sense when they all had settled in my remembering place. But for now, I just kept listening with my ear leaning toward the grizzly, gray bark of this magical tree.
As my grandfather recounted his recollections of his conversations with the old man in the oak, I began to realize that he was not spinning yarns from the fancy of his imaginations, he was letting me in on the secret that he had come upon a long time ago, down here by the river, by the river that had always flowed.
And as my grandfather's voice strolled me further and further into the distant realms, I could begin to hear the old man in the oak, quietly at first, like the sound the wind makes when it freshens to life through the tops of the pines. Muffled, at first, then a little closer, a little clearer, until the old man's voice emerged from the oak, to enwrap us with a voice that was filled with the smoke of an October fire.
"Boy, where have you been?" At first, I thought he must have been talking to me. ... but he wasn't. He was talking to my grandfather and I was but listening in.
Now I am the weathered and worn, old November soul who sits in the shade of his oak tree. I sit here listening with my wide-eyed granddaughters for the voice of the old man in the oak while the river of life keeps flowing by.
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