Let Us Gather in the Woods
Now, as it happened, once upon a time… That is to say, I don’t have the time to take to tell you everything. You should know, anyways. You was there. They was us, my family and me, right near where you found me, in a cabin by the woods. That’s where they rest their heads. I built that cabin with my own hands. Look, you can see the scars. This one’s where I demn near cut off my finger. See, lookit. Almost clean through. But that’s why. They can always put it back when it’s clean. I remember the way the sawdust smelled on the air. Every day, a hint of pine. Came home stinking of it, so my wife said. God rest her. Needed wood for the stove is all, but that’s not where it all started. Musta been longer than that.
We let ’em roam where they liked. Never saw no harm in it. Other kids’d join ’em too. They ran out here from town ’cause it was different, probably. Children need that. They need to be able to run ’round in the fresh air and have adventures. All you think is coop ’em up in schools and teach them things, but you gots only one window. Can’t see what they’d learn, can’t even see the sky that way. No, the world’s where they learn. Let ’em loose. They’ll teach you. You’d never even know, but they’ll teach you.
Now, why you even bother makin’ such a stir about it? We know. Children have mouths, you know. No, I suppose you don’t. ‘Seen and not heard,’ is that right? That’s what ol’ Whetherby said just this morning. Heard her passing beneath the bars. I demn think she smacked that boy of hers. On a Sunday morning, neither! And she’s not locked up, too, I suppose? But sho. I know. We ain’t like you. Not upstanding citizens, not tax payers, neither. Got nothin’ to buy. Just a little cabin by the woods. They called my wife a witch you know. Precious, never-hurt-no-one Miriam. Who ever heard of a witch needing firewood anyways? Yer all fulla nonsense, ask me! Couldn’t find a sense o’ decency if it hit you straight across the nose!
I’m excluding that man, Hinkle from all this, and I want you to know that. Never met a man I like more. Honest. Do you know what I mean when I say honest? A real chum. Say, you’s not heard what happened to his boy? Been worried sick. He came over not the day before I reckon asking for some fire wood. Can’t see straight to get it hisself, he says. All he can do is sit by that boys bed and pray while his wife tends to the house. On account of how cold it’s been and on account of he’s the only decent man I met in a good long while, I went ahead and give him the lot. Carried it there myself and saw. Well, by the blood, boy looked paler than the devil. Shook all over. What a sight. What a damn sight. Is the world right when you got to see your own boy like that?
Now why don’t you just hush up a minute and I’ll tell you. Just thought you’d like to know the whole story is all. And anyway, nonna this woulda happened if it weren’t for… but, no sir! Not that I mind! Not that I’d a-done it different were the devil t’ come down here right this very moment and offer me a deal to do it all over again. No, not after seein’ the death in that boy’s eyes. Only hope it helped some.
But right you are, you asked about the cave. I set the tracks all right. Best I ever done in my whole life, and Abel, he followed. Damned if that don’t make you proud as a father. Boy, you should’ve heard ’em that day! Whooo! Like they was chasin’ a ghost, or escaped con man or something out of a spy book. I gave them what for! You never heard such a lot, the way they’d hoot and hollar when they found a fresh track! Course, if they was chasing a real burglar, you know he’d of found ’em and sliced ’em open, all that racket they made, but that didn’t mind them much. You never can stop one of ’em when they’s on the hunt.
I could hear ’em from the perch. Followed all the way up tight and never once they saw me. That’s a little foolish, I s’pose. Why, once or twice, I’d swear Abel almost looked right at me. Right at me, but he never said a word. Just kept arguing if they were bear tracks or cougar tracks. As if my boy couldn’t tell the difference! James always has to have the last word, tho, so there they sat arguin’. No one ever asked if they were dangerous. Too excited. Wanted to see a real mountain lion, I s’pose. It is quite a sight. They got bodies that’s all muscle, and they pounce on you before you could even blink! One roared in the distance. Guess that settled that argument. No mistakin’ a cougar call. When they’s hungry, sounds like Satan hisself screetchin’ from the pits of hell. By Gawd, and when they’s really hungry, that’s when you best watch out. Stop their hollarin’. Sneak up on you silent as death. Never even had a chance. They huddled close together when they heard it, but Abel, he knew. I’d never let them outta my sight, not if the lion came and took me hisself. Told ’em to keep on.
Now, the path at that point thickens. Not the path, but the trees around it. You have to walk single file. Sideways sometimes, just to get through the trees. Lawd, what was his name? That one, the big ol’ fat one, you know? Thomas? Sure, Thomas! Why, you sholda seen him try! Why, the other kids had to push him through at the end! You ever seen a tomahawk? The way they stuff that big old rock in at the top between the wood? Ya, it was kinda like that. I’d swear to it! But they tumbled on through.
The maw of that cave coulda swallowed a man whole. Tiny little things. Babies. Used to suck at his momma’s breast and smiled after. Big old milk-toothed smile. Then them jaws towered over them. They looked like pebbles standin’ there fronta the cave. Abel spotted a double bent branch at the front. Someone steps on a branch, it breaks two places, see? So you can always tell. Two sides of yer foot, two breaks. Can’t fake it but by steppin’ there. Only I never gone that far. He stoops, gets all excited, puffs his chest out like a dem coctail. Cawin’ into the wind wheres no one quite hears because you already thrown him out on accounta he deems it neccesary to wake the lot in the wee fine hours of the morn. Demn proud. Demn proud indeed.
That moment, my heart jumped up into my head and did a little jitterbug. I heard it. The sound you ain’t s’pos’d to hear. I heard nothin’ at all. That’s when you know: The birds have all fled. All that creeps and crawls upon the ground fresh as the day Gawd done brought them from the dirt, they’s still too. Even the sun had stopped, straight up ahead. I never taught him the way the land sounds when it pauses to watch somethin’ tragic. Never did have the inclination. Not right, boy seein’ death for the first time. They find it their selves, you shelter ’em enough. Way it’s always been.
I wanted to shout out as I watched ’em walk into th’ cave, but you never did know such a lump cloggin’ up your throat. The darkness swallowed them whole. ’tain’t but a moment when the world froze round me, all that air stickin’ to you sos you can’t hardly move an inch. But the screams, that brought me to my senses, and I fell down that cliff and let it swallow me. Jesus Christ almighty, the blood! Pistol in my right boot. Drew it. Fired 6 times into the dark. Never even heard the click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Tommy had to put my arm down. Shook me hard. Shook me ’till I could breathe again. He weren’t fat but strong to bring a grown man to like that. They all shouted at me. What was the words? Can’t rightly remember.
The Cougar’s body lay next to my boy. My precious little boy. It didn’t move, but he did. He sho’ did, and when I realized it, just scooped him up, ran him home. Don’t recken I even remember there was anyone else around us. Have you ever watched a woman at work when someone she loves is dyin’? Hands like a master seamstress. Like lightning. Never saw but the imprint they leave after. She fled here and there around the house, into the garden, back to the stove. I could only stare into his eyes in the smallest of moments when you thought they fluttered at the sound of your voice.
She shook me. Didn’t realize she even said a word. ‘Josiah Emmanuel, you go git yer boy some fireword, dammit, or Gawd help me!’ Says she. But we got some not a week ago. ‘Sho did, but you give it all over to that freeloadin’ preacher man an’ his wife not yesterday! Man can’t git for his family ain’t deservin’ to have none.’ Now they was her words not mine, and I want you to know the words uttered by a woman in times of grief ‘s not to be taken for truth, mind. No, I wouldn’t a given it up fer nothin’ had I the chance.
So out I go. Grabbed every stick and log this side of the woods I could set my hands on. I reckon that’s about the time you showed up. Guess that meant the other boys’d made it home safe, and praise the Lord for that and I mean it, too! You’d think that’d make a man understand another man. You’d think. But laws is laws to civilized folks. Never even realized it was a Sunday, not that it’d make a difference to you. Folks not allowed to work on Sundays. Break th’ law for a po’ man like myself, ‘taint no tellin’ where it’d lead next.
And so you asked me, and so I’s told you. And I’d ask a question of you. Seems decent enough. I’d ask if it’s rest t’ sit ‘n watch yer boy as he fades from this world. And iffn’ you wouldn’t a done the same, go ahead! Cast the first….
This piece was inspired by Numbers 15: 32 – 41. It is not meant to be a theological statement, but rather a contemplative piece about the nature of Law -vs- Grace. The practice of crafting stories around the scriptures is an ancient Rabbinical tradition meant to take you outside of the text and open your mind to its implications. This is just one story-teller’s manifestation of an ancient text, drawing from the illumination provided by the New Testament (Matthew 12:1-12). I would love to read other interpretations, especially from opposing viewpoints. It’s always more interesting when we disagree.