"The big sweetgum by the front gate finally died."
Every death affected him these days, animal or vegetable.
"Oh, really?" I answered, still unaware of its significance in the scheme of things.
"I took the tractor and went down to the gate to cut it down the other day."
He crushed a pecan with a hammer. Shells skittered across the counter and spilled onto the floor.
"I hooked a cable onto it, up high so I could pull it down, you know?"
I nodded, having seen it done many times before."
And then I went to cut a vee out so it'd fall the way I wanted it to. It's a big tree."
I shuddered. He had no business pulling down trees like that sweetgum. He was eighty-two, and still doing the work of a younger man. But to tell him otherwise would be cruel. Better to let him die quick and violent than to take away his power.
I remembered the time we brought the pony into town in the back of the Scout. The pony wouldn't budge. He was a stubborn brute with a mean streak. Finally, he reached down and picked up its front hooves and put them on the tailgate. Then he squatted down behind its hindquarters and lifted while we children watched, astonished, as muscles strained and bulged and 600 pounds of horse was heaved bodily into the truck bed.
Those boys are men now. They still talk about it in tones of marvel and wonder.
"Well, when I started making the cut, I got about six inches in, and realized it was hollow. So I worried that it might not fall the way I wanted. I called Power & Light and told them they’d better send some people out to cut it down. It could fall the other way and bring down those lines out on the road. You know?"
I nodded, quiet."It was the weekend. So I left it hooked to the tractor 'til they came out on Monday. They brought a crane and cut it off at the top, got it down to a manageable size. Then they said, 'Let's go ahead and pull it down with the tractor.' So we pulled it over. It broke about halfway up the trunk. And you know? It was the strangest thing."
"What was?""When it broke, the front half of the trunk fell off, but left the rest of the tree standing. And inside the trunk, about six feet up, was a horseshoe hanging on a nail."
"No. You should've seen the look on the faces of those men. That tree had to be over a hundred years old. And it was solid, all the way around. No knotholes, nothing. And six inches thick. "
I had to see.Before we left the house, he put the cat outside.
“Oh, no,” he said as he opened the door. “There’s a dead chipmunk out here. One of the cats probably killed it.”
“He's brought you a present.”
I smiled.He didn't.
“I wish they wouldn’t. They’re cute little things and I hate to see them dead.”
It surprised me to see him so upset over a chipmunk. I could remember when we were little, and he’d come home with a deer he’d killed. He’d hang it from the rafters in the barn, make a cut all the way around its neck and set a hook into the skin. He’d attach a chain to the hook and attach the other end to the bumper of the Scout. Then he’d back the Scout up, pulling the skin clean off the deer. It was quick and bloody with a thick, coppery smell that hung in the air. He didn’t give it a second thought.
Now he spent his days putting out salt licks and corn, and chasing off anyone who dared try to poach a deer, in season or no.It was late afternoon and the light was slanting at sharper angles, sending shadows out across the field. We stopped by the workshop in the woods.
"See that metal post right there?"
"Okay, now look over there."
He pointed to another post some distance away.
“Those two posts are forty feet apart. If you take a string and tie it between the posts and measure 20 feet, that's where you'll find the water line for the house. I know because it broke one time and I had a heck of a time trying to find it. When I did, I made sure to mark it. I couldn't mark the exact point because it's in the roadbed, but you measure, and that's where it is. I'm probably the only person who knows that."
He sighed and his shoulders seemed to sag.
"You’re going to need to know these things when I’m gone.”
I nodded but couldn’t speak.
“You know, when people die, it really doesn't matter who they were or what they did. They're only remembered by the few people who knew them, and once those people are gone, you’re forgotten. It's like you were never here at all."
I knew he was right. I’d thought it, myself, on occasion.We spied two deer eating acorns under the oaks before they saw us and fled for the woods. "Brandon died day before yesterday." “Oh, no. ”
Brandon was the golden retriever he’d rescued a couple of years ago. He couldn’t stand seeing a dog without a home and he now had a pack of about 14 dogs. At least two or three times a day, they’d gather in the front yard. One would begin with short, high yips and within a moment the others would join in, howling and yipping at ghosts. Brandon had been a steady quiet, companion who never complained.
“Remember how he chased after the car the last time you were here? A few days later he just lay down and died. He seemed just fine, and then he died.”I wondered how old he'd been. We stopped beneath the oaks from which the deer had fled. He showed me how to tell the difference between a buck and a doe.
“The scat the doe leaves looks like little round balls, like pebbles. See?”
“Now, look over here. This is a buck.”
Several mounds of scat, larger than the first, like little mushrooms bloomed beneath the tree among the acorns and the leaves. I thought about all the lessons I’d missed by moving so far away.
By the gate, the trunk still stood as he'd left it. I looked down into the hollow. Twisted through the trunk was some ancient barbed wire that emerged again on the outside of the tree.
"Only thing I can figure," he said, "is somebody hung that shoe on that fence a hundred or more years ago, and the tree just grew around it."
He reached in and pulled out the shoe where he'd hung it.
"Well, I'll be," I said, shaking my head.I wondered why the shoe hadn't become embedded in the tree. Who had put that shoe on the nail? How long had they been gone? Does anyone remember them? I tried to remember when barbed wire was invented. How many people had come and gone since that day?
I remembered the arrowheads we'd found in the lakebed a few years before, just feet from that spot.
"I'm tired," he said. "I don't know why I'm always tired lately." We started back to the house so he could lie down for awhile in the cool of the evening.