THE MONKEY AND THE IGUANA
When we reached the house Drew went by the fireplace to sit. Once there, he soon fell asleep. Mama went about her regular Sunday after Church routine of helping Miss Elly with the chores. They sat on the side porch rocking, talking, and separating the last of the sacred tobacco seed for the planting.
“Miss Elly,” Mama said, “I’m thinking about something special for supper tonight to go with those beans we’ve got soaking. What do you think about that fatted hen in the coop? Do you reckon she’d pluck out easy and boil up good?”
Miss Elly smiled. “I reckon she would indeed, Margaret. But what about Marse James? Won’t he be furious that we cooked up one of his prized hens without him being here to oversee the plucking and eat the breast?”
“That fat hen will be eaten and long forgotten before that man ever sets foot back on this property, if he ever does.” I was surprised to hear Mama say that.
“Then it’s settled, Elly,” she added. “Later, I’ll get a pot of water boiling and commence to pulling those feathers. We’ll make it a real fancy sit down supper and we’ll let Sassy make those dumplings we’ve been promising to teach her about. Will you ask Mose, later, to sharpen up his hatchet?”
“I will, Margaret,” Miss Elly said with a satisfied smile.
I didn’t know why they were planning this frilly supper. We only had chicken on celebration days and we would never do anything like this without daddy here. He would forbid it. I thought Mama must surely be going crazy or, at least, trying to hide her sadness by busying herself with a day’s worth of work. To sacrifice one of his precious hens without him being here was something that I just couldn’t understand.
It seemed that most everyone else, though, was excited about this last minute supper and a small crowd was beginning to gather around the chicken coop to watch Mose make that hen run around the stump with its head cut off.
I knew that my friend, Hilmon, would be on Writer’s Rock waiting for me but, I wasn’t ready, just yet, to go down to the rock. Those Federal men had come by the house first looking for my father and then they proceeded on to the church. Everyone knew my daddy was in jail. The terrible secret was out. Our pretentious innocence was covered with shame. I couldn’t face my friend.
I went to the only place I could find peace. I went to the tree. My oak tree. Along a line running north and south on the eastern side of the house stood a row of fifteen oak trees. All of them were 60 years old and they were each 20 paces apart. Grandpa knew how old they were because he planted them. He planted them all except the furthest one out from the house, the one that marked the entrance to our road. This tree was older than the other oaks. It was, according to my Grandfather, over 100 years old. When you walked down that long row of trees and got to the oldest and the biggest one, the last one away from the house, you were on the road to Dover.
In older times, Grandpa said, this old oak was the setting for the celebration of a new beginning. After the War of Independence, veterans of that War gathered here, around this tree, with their families to remember the sacrifices and to remember those who gave their lives for freedom. We whipped those redcoats twice, Grandpa loved to say. They used to assemble there every year in the summer, he said, to celebrate, but those days ended long before my time. He told me grand stories about the food and the happiness and the large groups of people that once congregated around this tree. My tree.
More than one Governor had spoken beneath it, he bragged. Grandpa said he missed those celebrations after they stopped. He said people forgot about the sacrifices that were made to win that War. People forgot about how hard it was to get free. He said his daddy reminded him of that every day. He said that making a free living, once only a dream, was made available to everybody because of that War, the War for Independence. Andy Jackson’s War only proved that we were right, he said, and they celebrated that here, too.
He always told me, the journey of life is the reward. Nobody remembers their beginning and the end is always just a little too sad. The journey of life is where your most precious memories are made.
He didn’t agree with that northern war that came to Dover. It didn’t seem right to him that we all had to fight again and even amongst ourselves. He said the problem was that people wanted perfection or at least they expected everyone else to be perfect. They expected perfection in an imperfect world and they had nothing more important to do than to hurry about pointing fingers about why everyone else was wrong. That was why they stopped coming to the celebrations, he said. It was because of all of the hurrying and the scurrying and the forgetting about what was important. It was because people were not taking care of their own.
It was under this tree, in the wonder of Spring, that he showed me the path to reach a higher plane, a plane separated from the tangled web of man. He showed me a place where inner peace could replace outer struggle. It’s a simple thing, really. Slow down, he said. Slow down. Grandpa taught me to lay back in the great tree of understanding. He said to let its branches be your cradle. Rest your head back, close your eyes, and breathe. Then, listen. Listen to the sounds around you and understand how to live within them. There is a peace to be found there, he said. And he was right.
This massive tree leaned just enough into the road so that footsteps carved into its side by my Grandfather provided an easy access to climbing up and into its hidden domain. Just as with him two generations before, it now became my fortress. It was my fortress of wood. I felt safe there. The world in all of its glory could go by and nothing could harm me there. I wanted the world to go by quickly now.
In the summer when the leaves are green and full no one can see you there. The branches are thick and one can easily lay on them without fear of falling. Hilmon and I stayed there for hours at a time watching the carriages and the people streaming by like so many fish on the road below us. This was the road to the West. This was the road back to the East. There was never a shortage of travelers on this road. Sometimes we would toss acorns or green walnuts at the backsides of their horses to see them jump and scatter. Hilmon was the best. He could strike a horse in the hindquarter with one throw nearly every time. Laughter became our only giveaway. The tree was our window to the world and together Hilmon and I watched it go by. Together, we speculated on its vastness, on its smallness, on its cruelty, and on its compassion. All of these things came, we soon understood, in their own time and in no small quantity.
Now, and again, came the beginning of Spring. It was my favorite time of the year. Only the rain was left of a cold winter and the summer days of life lie ahead. The leaves of my oak were not yet in full bloom but even in the Spring I could hide in the tree with little effort. Branches of enormous size crisscrossed the road and you actually had to lean out of them to be seen. The branches were open and comfortable and I lay there motionless on my branch watching carriages come and go from our house with some regularity. All of the haughty, stately neighbors were coming by to assure Mama that everything would be all right. They each stayed about ten minutes. Not even long enough for tea. Then, they left. Sometimes, as the carriages met in the roadway beneath me, they paused to discuss the situation with one another and I could hear them talking about the Excitement. The Excitement they talked about didn’t sound like the excitement that happened in our church.
I don’t know, but I think I fell asleep and was dreaming so it was a long time before I came down from the tree. I thought I heard Hilmon calling my name before I realized he wasn’t there. It was way after supper and almost dark when I finally got back to the house. Miss Elly and Mama were taking turns rocking and playing with Miss Elly’s new grandbaby on the front porch. Mama asked me if I wouldn’t mind stacking some firewood on the side porch. I knew we hadn’t had blackberry winter yet so I started right into stacking. Miss Elly asked me if I needed any help, but I said no, thank you. She smiled and started into the house but stopped just outside the door.
“Hil went down to the tree looking for you at suppertime. You feel all right, Comer”, she asked?
“Yes, Miss Elly, I feel fine”, I answered. I kept stacking wood on the porch until it was more than enough to warm a blackberry winter. I stacked it up high but safe enough to stand on its own. I didn’t know when daddy would be home but, I had a feeling that my sacred tobacco patch just got bigger.
It was dark and I was hungry so I ate some dumplings and cornbread before I went to bed. I tried not to think about daddy much and I slept well, for all the commotion of the day. I slept so well that the next morning I woke up late. The sun was already up. I was called, Miss Elly said, but missed a sit-down breakfast so I grabbed a biscuit and rushed out the door to find Hilmon. The sting of Sunday’s events had somehow softened with the arrival of a new day. The sun was shining and it was even warmer than the day before. It felt good on my face. It made me feel more like Summer and it made me more anxious to get to Writer’s Rock to see Hilmon Jacobs.
I ran to the end of the oaks, turned away from town, and ran straight to the first curve in the road where I cut across the hollow and down into the clearing where Writer’s Rock lay. There, on the rock, I found Hil. Even this early in the morning, with the sun, just rising, I knew I could find my friend there. The penetrating sun was beaming through the trees and warming the large piece of limestone that we christened Writer’s Rock. Hilmon was there as he always was and spread across the top of it like dinner on a table. I mean, he was all over it. As I watched he arched his back, stretching through the morning rays. Pressing against the stone’s hardness with his shoulders and the back of his neck, he rolled his chest upward. He reached back and pushed up with his hands beside his head and elevated the smallness of his midsection into the air until he formed a perfect, inverted arch on the rock. Once his stretch was complete he settled effortlessly back down to the prone position and wriggled his toes freely in the warm sunlight.
Hil was my best friend. He had always been my best friend. He taught me how to fish. Not just dropping a line in the water kind of fishing, but how to think like a fish. Where I might go, what I might eat, and when I might be hungry if I were a fish. That included showing me his best, secret fishing holes. We got fat on fish! We hunted squirrels together, swam across the river together, and when we played fox and hounds nobody tree’d Hil and me. I learned the world from Hil. I even learned how to kiss a girl from Hil. Kind of, anyway. I saw him kissing Lucretia Skelton behind the haystack at the Harvest Festival. He knew that I saw him. She didn’t know. I saw the wink in his eye proclaiming his pride. I witnessed his celebration in living and his passion for life. I needed Hil to show me these things. He was closer to me than my own flesh and blood.
“Hil, hey Hil,” I say.
“Hey, Comer. Down here. On the rock,” he called back.
As I reached him we smiled at each other and nodded but did not speak. We just milled about, sitting on the rock, and I took off my shoes, too, so the heat from the rock could soak up into the soles of my feet.
We understood personal trials. We’d been through that before. I stood by Hil many times when he was challenged about his color or his upbringing by some poor bred, towny rapscallion who hurled ignorant, angry words or demeaning personal insults towards him. Even so, Hil didn’t need me to do that. He was a strong man in his own right. No matter what was said about him or us, we stood together. It was an inner bond that we shared. It said, plainly, I understand you and, as your friend, I stand beside you at all times. You are not alone.
It feels good to know that you have at least one friend who will never reject you, at least one person who you can count on when you need them. There is strength in knowing that not everyone is against you. Especially, if that someone is someone you trust with your life. Hilmon would never kick me when I was down. We sat there for a long time, enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun until, finally, I broke the silence.
“Mama left out early this morning,” I said. “According to Miss Elly, her and Uncle Mose went all the way to Clarksville. Miss Elly said they wouldn’t be back until Wednesday night, if then.
“I know,” Hil explained. “I watched them from the tree until they got all the way around the far bend.”
The far bend was a country mile away from Hilmon’s vantage point deep in the tree. Watching family members or friends as they left the farm was a safety precaution Hil and I practiced religiously. It was an understood form of protection, spiritual maybe, to be watched or to be looked out for until the line of sight was broken. As long as you could keep someone in your train, to us, they would remain safe and in the spirit of safety. It was an unspoken signal of vigilance for Hil and I and whether we be sender or receiver it acted as a shielding vanguard to keep our world unblemished, untangled, uncomplicated, and perhaps, even innocent. If you could see it you could protect it, we believed. There are bad men out in the world. Even, we understood, in Stewart County. No one should have to be alone. Anyway, it was good luck, we said, to keep someone in your sights as they were leaving. I knew Hil had done me a great favor.
“Thanks, Hil, ” I said. “I reckon she had to get over to the Court to see about daddy. It ain’t a good thing, Hil. Something ain’t right.”
“Reckon its been that way a long time, Comer.”
“I know, Hil. Yankees and all coming, it’s got to be about the War. But that’s been over a long time, Hil. Why did they come back now?” I asked.
“Comer, I’ll tell you something, but you got to promise not to tell anybody. You promise?”
“I promise, Hil,” I said. And I meant it.
“Comer, them wasn’t Yankees that come and got your daddy yesterday. Up at the Free Will Church last night the preacher said they come and got your daddy and four other men in the County yesterday over the Excitement that happened in Town about 15 years ago.”
“The excitement, what excitement?” I asked. I didn’t know what Hilmon was talking about because I was only 14 years old. “That was before I was born, Hil. How could those men come and get daddy over something that happened so long ago? That was even before the War!”
“I don’t know, Comer,” Hil said. “The Preacher acted more different than I have ever seen when he spoke about this Excitement. He said it was a bad time and a lot of people got hurt, even killed. I could tell it was important because everybody got real quiet and then the preacher started praying for strength and understanding. He come and stood right by my Mama and put his hand on her shoulder. When the prayer was finished we all just come home. I asked Mama what it was about, but she just shook her head, no.”
“Miss Elly didn’t tell you nothing,” I asked.
“Nothing,” Hil answered. “She just shook her head. That’s all I know.”
“Thanks, Hil. I won’t say anything.” I thought about what my father had to do with this bad time. I worried that it couldn’t be anything good. After a while, I told Hil that I was going home to sit for a spell. I felt like I needed to be at home with Drew. Maybe, I could help him to understand. Maybe, I could help myself to understand. I still didn’t know anything but, I had a bad feeling way up in my gut. I put my shoes back on, we said our goodbyes, and I got up to leave from the rock. After I walked all the way back up to the top of the ridge, I turned and looked back down to see Hil. He lay there, still, bathing on the rock in the Spring sun but, all the while watching me. As I looked, he stood up erect and raised a long, sinewy arm above his head to wave goodbye. I waved back. It was then, at that moment, that I realized how much I needed Hil to be my friend and how much everything fit together between us. The trust, the honor, the respect, and the love was all there for me. It would be a very long time before I would come to understand that he could never need me the same way.
End of Chapter 2