I little story of a not so wild thing…
She was a wild thing, at least that is what the old man said whenever he caught her before she could eat the treats he left for her on the blue plate that looked like a piece of sky amidst the scrubby grass below the lemon trees. Wild thing. She liked the way it sounded in his grumbly voice with the lilt of the deep south like syrup. She smiled, face pointed down to her chest, he thought he caught her but often she stayed even when she saw the fat cats creeping along the edges of the orchard, scouting for their master. When he finally made his slow way to her they would settle around her, so fat they resembled small soft rugs, like those hunted trophies some men had in their homes. The citrus scent of lemon, orange and lime would surround her as he stood a few feet away watching her. He would sit upon the old rattan rocker that was falling apart under one of the trees. He left it here for these moments, when she didn’t run before he could make it all the way to this last stand of trees where the grass and trees grew more and more wild as time flowed by. She finished the sun warmed cornbread and pleasantly sweet tangy barbeque chicken he had left under the glass cover to keep the ants at bay. She knew he had a sweet with him, he always did, as a reward for these not so chance encounters. She had spent precious hungry moments scrubbing herself in the cool spring that lay hidden back here feeding the orchard. It only smelled faintly of sulfur, but she had used orange peels and sand to scrub under her arms and in her hair. He had made comments, quiet undirected comments about the funk she sometimes carried like a protective cloak. She didn’t like it either, but it kept people away. Yet now when she came to the shelter of trees, cats and citrus she stopped at the spring. It reminded her of the before time, when she wasn’t alone, but only faintly like the scent of sulfur.
“I appreciate you waiting for me out here girl” He grumbled from deep within his wide barrel chest that hinted at the much larger man he once was.
He bent over with obvious effort and placed the small plastic wrapped square on the cleaned off plate in front of my downturned head. I watched it for a moment, resisting the urge to snatch it like the stolen scraps I often nabbed from forgotten plates on the patios of fancy restaurants along the waters edge. Here in front of the old man I tried to pretend I wasn’t hungry. We both knew different, which is why he left me the sky plates with their bounty heaped like offerings to forgotten wood spirits. Sometimes he would bring old books filled with tales older than him, of fair folk tricking the unknowing, witches making unwinnable bargains and of clever children finding paths through the thorny brambles of the riddles meant to trap them. Sometimes, like today in the slightly cooler shadows of the twilight, he would lean back in the rocker and tell me of the places and people he and his wife visited around the world. He built and carved beautiful pieces of furniture in his younger days. As he spinned a tale of commissioned grandfather clocks meant for the grand homes of rich men in the North I gently unwrapped the pale brownie dotted with dark chocolate pieces. For once my belly was full, so I lie back in the scrubby rough grass and felt it tickle my exposed arms and legs with one arm cushioning my head and savored the sweet buttery confection the old man gave me to keep him company and listen to tales I replayed over and over in my head when I was away from this quiet place. His deep lilting voice flowed over me like the warm water at the shore where it washed up and over my feet and legs. His voice had become one of the things I trusted, that soothed me just like the oceans’ touch.
The sun set while he spoke and I realized that the sweet treat was nothing but crumbs on my lips and that his tone had changed. He was asking me a question and I had missed the individual words, lost in my content reverie. I looked up at him, with obvious confusion and he repeated the question.
“ What would you say to coming by a few times a week and helping with the cats and the trees? I ain’t as nimble as I was and I would appreciate some help now and then. You know the old shed back by the spring? It ain’t much but if you could see yourself giving me a hand I’d be grateful enough to let you stay there as long as you want. “ His words were like honey over sharp jagged rocks, kindness wrapped in glass.
I knew the shed, more like a shack now, with the voracious growth of the land taking it over quicker than this old mans physical decline. It had a roof and four walls and not much else. We both knew I had stayed in it on stormy lightning filled nights. The soft bedroll and boxes of crackers that appeared as if by magic between one visit and the next attested to the farce of my ignorance. The bedroll stayed and the crackers were replenished and I had found myself there more often over the last year or so, even when there was no storm to hide from. He had never said a word about it, but now he was asking for me to openly admit a need I never mentioned either. I wondered for a moment if this was how he had collected the fat purring orchestra scattered around me, tempting them with treats until they were too fat and content to go anywhere else. A quick image of my current situation flickered past me, lying on the ground, belly fat, skin warm and I almost snorted with a burst of giggles. I suppressed the undignified urge and rolled onto my side, looking at him through the, now dry strands of hair, partially obscuring my eyes. He was looking at me, but not directly, eyes sightly focused off to the left of my gaze. leaning back, like he didn’t care what my answer was but I saw the tension in his hands covered in paper thin skin, marked with thin white scars grasping the arms of the chair. We had both been alone for a long time and the thought of these bright comfortable nuggets of time becoming commonplace had us both on edge. The time he called the gloaming stretched like taffy between us, a time I knew from his books to be one of shifting and change. It seemed a good setting for the ground that seemed to be moving beneath me, though I knew it was doing no such thing.
I sat up, crisscrossing my legs beneath me. I thought that the serious question that was said in such casual tones shouldn’t be addressed while lying on the ground covered in crumbs. He waited me out, as comfortable with silence as he was with the one sided conversations we often had. He treated me like a skittish animal that might run at any quick movement, which was probably why we had gotten here in the first place. Endless patience for a broken wild creature. I had looked at him often when he didn’t know, spying in his windows from tree branches, while he puttered about the house that even through the window, seemed empty without his beloved wife. The house was scattered with beautiful pieces of wood, that he still carved, sanded and polished. I knew from his stories, that he was still asked for precious pieces that took so much longer to create now. He would take the sales once a year or so, not for the money because despite the spartan way he lived I knew he was comfortable and wanted for little. He sold them to know that he was still a part of this world, even if he never left the house, brilliant pieces of himself were sent out into the world to be cherished and passed down from one generation to the next. He and his wife never had children but I thought that maybe his work was that for him, a thing that would live on past his time here, a solid memory. I looked at him and saw the same loneliness I knew was in me. I saw responsibility that might trap me, each kindness building a debt I didn’t know I would have the currency to pay. My hand found the fuzzy warmth of a receptive cat belly and as his eyes finally met mine I nodded my head, yes.
The stars had begun to peek through as his whole body visibly relaxed.
“ Well that’s settled, I’ll expect you in the morning to feed ‘em. Might even be able to scrounge up some breakfast for you, wild thing.” and with that he used the momentum of the rocker to propel himself upward to a standing position. The cats made similar rolling motions and got ready to scout the way back home. As he turned and slowly walked back towards the glowing windows just visible through the trees I got up too.
“ My name is Eve, but wild thing is okay too” the words came from me but surprised me as much as they seemed to surprise the old man, since he startled the slightest bit and turned his head back towards me.
“ Well that seems fitt’in doesn’t it? My name is Jacob. I’ll see you in the morning, Eve the Wild Thing” He replied with a slight smile and turned, and continued his path toward the light.
I turned the opposite way and found the barely there path leading to the shed carrying the sky plate with it’s glass dome. I rinsed them in the spring and found my way inside the small room, and stopped dead in my tracks. The bedroll was up on a small cot, off the dirty floor where I had left it rolled neat in the corner. A quilt that was faded with age and washings now covered the whole thing. A shelf was now above the cot with a collection of books lining it. I walked over and picked up the small sturdy carving of fat cat that stopped the books from tipping over. There was a small narrow bedside table with a bowl and ewer on top next to the cot. A slightly larger table with lovely, simply curved legs gleamed in the far corner with a single matching chair pulled up to it. On the side of the table that pushed against the wall there was a small camp stove with a single burner, one pot and a tank of kerosene hooked up. Above the table were two more shelves, one lined with boxes of crackers, dried fruit, oatmeal and a single plate with one bowl, a fork, spoon and knife stacked neatly together. The second shelf held a lantern, two tall wide candles, a box of matches and a small stack of folded white wash clothes.
I sat on the edge of the cot, desperately clutching the soft warm wooden cat, my bare callused feet resting on a round braided rug that was yet another surprise. He knew, he knew I would say yes. I fought the panic to run, to hide, to forget about all of this kindness and warmth that might choke me, lull me into complacency, with tooth and nail I waged a silent war inside my head. I felt my shoulders shaking with the effort not to run into the night. Instead I forced myself to lie down, and wrapped myself in the soft quilt that smelled of lemons and sunshine. I fought against the fear, hating to let it win yet another battle. I forced my eyes closed but didn’t think there would be any sleep tonight.
My last thoughts were of an old woman smelling of that same lemon and sunshine mixture tucking me in and kissing the crown of my tangled head.