Sunday, March 24, 2013

COMPANIONS–a short story; sort of

The old man sat on the ground with his back against an enormous oak tree that appeared to be centuries in age. His legs were extended, ankles crossed and resting on a twelve inch diameter log. Prominent blue veins were visible on the backs of his hands that lay in his lap, one atop the other. His head was angled sharply forward and a filthy wide brimmed river hat, the color of which was impossible to determine, sat upon his head and was pulled down over the eyes, covering his face. Upon his right thigh lay the head of a coon hound – its face appeared even older looking than his sleeping companion’s. The old dog’s muzzle was covered with silver and white fur which extended back along the dog’s cheeks all the way to where the ears grew from his head. His ears hung straight down and the edges of both were notched deeply and even missing pieces, indicating many previous encounters with coons or even wild boars.

An old red canoe floated on the water ten feet out front of them just off the river bank. A long, very thin nylon line extended from the bow of the boat to the old man’s ankle where it was wrapped around and tied. There was no brand name on the sides of the vessel as time eradicated such detail long ago. It was a quality built canoe as the lay-up was of wood and canvas with mahogany gunnels. The old red boat was badly faded giving it the appearance of being constructed of rusted metal. Many large black patches and home repairs made with duct tape were prominent on both sides of the floating hulk, the result of which distorted and replaced the once sleek shape of the canoe with a wavy, uneven surface reminiscent of something that was straightened out after being badly bent. The wooden end decks were split and even missing chunks of wood – all caused by rot and years of river voyages under the hot sun, not to mention the countless encounters with rocks and hard shorelines.

A gentle breeze wafted over the sleeping travelers as the early morning sun just started to appear in the sky on that April morning in West Virginia on the shoreline of the Elk River. A woodpecker could be heard beating his drum somewhere behind them on the mountain side. The sound of countless tree frogs was quickly being replaced by a chorus of wrens and warblers as they started their morning search for food. The old canoe drifted closer to shore and was softly thumping against a water logged snag – the sounds of rippling water quietly splashing, almost inaudibly, against its canvas sides. The old mans hand slowly, gently, softly fell upon the top of the old coon hound’s head – the only movement between either of them. The hooting of a great horned owl signaled the official end of night and the beginning of a new day.

Two old ladies shuffled about the kitchen preparing a special meal.  They discussed acquaintances who were recently admitted to the hospital or worse – the funeral home. The conversations between them were always the same.  Frieda Johnson had a stroke and was taken to the hospital late last night or Jim Beckley suddenly died while walking out of church two days ago.  The old man sat in the living room listening to the morbid details that seemed ever constant and routine in that house between those two women. He hated having to hear news like that because those situations were real possibilities that soon would become reality for him personally.   His wife had long since passed and the women were actually close friends of hers.  They stopped by on occasion to cook and clean up the house for the elderly gentleman.  

He looked over next to the ragged old couch at his old dog Tray.  Tray laid on his side, eyes half closed, taking in all the events going on in the kitchen. He was staring at his master with tired eyes as if imploring to be taken out of the house.  The old man smiled affectionately at the dog and quietly said, “in a little while boy.”  Tray was named after a dog that his father had back in the old days.  There was a song called (Old Dog Tray Ever Faithful) that his dad liked a lot and when a stray dog mysteriously materialized at the house – the old man’s father called him Tray.  That was years ago and he couldn’t remember what kind of dog it was.  Didn’t matter.  Didn’t matter at all.  The dog laying on the floor across the room was adopted by the old man when he was a one year old puppy.  That was fifteen years ago on the exact day of the old man’s seventy forth birthday and the two of them were inseparable all those years. Tray was sixteen years old today.  It was now April 3, 2012 and today was also the old man’s birthday, yet again.  He was 89 years old and, he felt it.

A nice dinner was enjoyed by all and a rather normal looking angel food cake with white icing was placed in front of the old man with instructions to blow out all the candles,  which he did.  Tray appeared bored as he rolled over on his other side and exhaled loudly.  The old man was feeling the same sentiments toward all the birthday fussing by the two women.  He cared not in the least about birthdays and wished he could just once get through a birthday without notice from anyone. He was glad to see the day end and said goodbye to the two old lady acquaintances as they walked across the yard, through the gate and onto the sidewalk that would lead them to the old folks home located in the center of town. The real name of the place was The Senior Rest Center but, he called it like he saw it.  It was a place where the worn out spent their last days.  He prayed he’d never have to go into that place.

His passion was paddling a canoe on the river and the passion was strong this morning.  At sunup he glanced out the bathroom window at the old, black, 1980 Chevy truck sitting in the yard with his prized possession sticking out of the truck bed.  His father gave him that canoe countless years ago and he coveted it.  He was a master with the paddle at a young age and the years of handling a canoe since had honed his paddling skills to perfection.  The boat wouldn’t fit neatly into the open truck bed so he had to rest the bottom of the canoe on top the tail gate causing six feet of the boat to stick up in the air and extend past the back end of the truck.  It wasn’t the best arrangement but, it was all he had as money was too tight to invest in a proper canoe rack for the truck.  He picked up his favorite river pants off the floor in the corner of the room and quickly pulled them on.  An old, torn, green shirt was lifted off the closet door knob along with a hat that had seen better service twenty years ago.  He liked what he called “easy shoes” when he paddled.   The Wall Mart elastic, slip on, no string, tennis shoes were pulled on his feet over the green silk socks. He had been ignoring the holes in the toes of the socks for weeks.  The shoes reminded him of cloth bedroom slippers – they were weightless and comfortable -  perfect for sitting in a canoe all day.  Tray was on his feet and limping toward the door.  He would wait there until his companion arrived to walk with him to the truck.  They were going somewhere and he knew it.  Tray was hit by a car many years ago and his hip was broken.  The old man rushed him to the vet and had Tray’s hip repaired.  As the dog became aged he developed a painful limp.  There was nothing to be done about it.  Getting old is an ungraceful affair sometimes.  They both suffered aches and pains constantly but didn't let that slow them down – too much. 

Tray slowly stepped into the canoe one foot at a time and sat down on the center of the floor just ahead of where the old man would sit.  The canoe was pushed away from the grassy shore and the frail looking gentleman stepped in and sat down. They were off.  However weak in appearance the old man was around the house changed when he got into a canoe.  He was instantly transformed into the knowledgeable, skilled, canoeist he really was.  He sat straight in the seat and the paddle strokes were executed with effortless perfection without giving them thought.  The canoe travelled forward, straight and true, exactly where the old man’s eyes looked.  The water was mirror smooth and non threatening allowing him to focus on the beautiful mountains that stood tall on both sides of the river.  Tray watched intently at a muskrat as it passed by silently in front of the boat.  His aching hips were temporarily forgotten out here.  They felt alive and vital!  They both were in their elements.

The old man had a destination in mind even before he left the house this morning.  Tray and he would always camp behind an enormous, old oak tree that sits upon a level stretch of river bank at the base of a tall mountain.  They’ve raised many a tent on that spot together over the years.  It was one of the rare places where the only sounds heard were those of the wilderness because the river turned deep between mountains with vertical cliffs where no motorized vehicle could venture or be heard.  They could look up and downstream from their position behind that big oak at the river’s edge and see nothing but the beautiful river and surrounding foliage. He couldn’t wait to get there.  They had been paddling for nearly four and a half hours and the familiar right bend in the river could be seen in the distance.  It was on that bend that they would rest and spend the day.  He said, “there it is boy,” as he pointed to the tall oak, as if the dog knew what he was saying.  Tray simply raised his head up an looked directly at the old man’s face as if to say, “you know I can’t understand human words.”  He steered for the shoreline and the bow of the canoe slid up and onto the grass.  The old man stepped out and stretched his arms out to the side and then extended his hands as far over his head as he dared and let out a loud, roaring yell.  Tray looked at him as though his partner had lost his mind.  The old man was exhilarated.  He looked down at the coon hound and said, “gotta be a human to do that.”

The sun was warm and they sat beneath the oak in it's shade.  He soon laid down on his back with hands clasped behind his head and looked directly up through the limbs of the tree and wondered, “how old are you old oak?”  He smiled to himself and in a low voice asked, “how old am I?”  Tray limped over, laid down and put his head on the old man’s stomach.  That dog adored his human companion.  It only took ten minutes for the old hound to make the loud exhalation noise that indicated he was sound asleep.  The palm of a human hand lightly rested on the dog’s head, the index finger gently tracing circles on the very tips of the fur that covered the dog’s crown.   They slept soundly.

It was the loud cawing of crows that awakened them.  Those black devils were high in the oak tree they were under.  A red tail hawk hastily flew out the front side of the tree with the entire flock of crows following it. Good riddance to them, he thought.  Those devil crows were harassing that hawk the whole way across the river.  Crows always put up a terribly loud squabble with everything they do.  Tray sat up and yawned – his mouth wide agape.  It closed with a slapping sound.  It was loud enough to gain the old man’s attention.  “Good sleep, old boy?”  Together they walked to the edge of the shoreline and looked up and down the waterway.  It was late – too late to make it back to the truck before dark.  A smile came to the old man’s face as he realized they would simply spend the night here under the old oak.  He knew he could paddle back, even in the dark of night but, he savored the excuse of darkness to justify the overnight stay out here along the river.  They could make it through the night just fine without a tent.  It wouldn’t be the first time they slept together under the sky.

Together,  they slowly trundled along the shoreline like two worn out creatures on their last legs.  The old man knew when Tray felt the jabs of pain from his aching, aged hips, as the dog would make occasional whimper sounds indicating he was ready to lay down.  The old man knew that Tray would follow him anywhere for any period of time no matter how much pain he endured.  He felt honored in that knowledge.  Not many, if any, humans would be that dedicated.  Tray made him feel like a rich man.  In return the old man did whatever he could for the dog to make him comfortable and happy.  The sun would be down in another twenty minutes and the old man picked up a canoe paddle and slowly stepped toward the canoe.  “Come on boy,” he said. 
Tray painfully limped to the canoe with his companion and was encouraged to get in before the boat was slid onto the water where the old man stepped in and sat down.  The paddle strokes were slow and deep driving the canoe forward at a slow crawl.  It was steered out into the middle of the river where the paddle was laid along the inside edge of the boat.  The old man put his elbows on his knees and cast his gaze toward the sky and watched as the sun disappeared from view. 

 Shortly, the brilliance of the sun was replaced by the soft glow from the moon.  The light was reflected off the mirror like surface of the lake creating a sort of gray appearance to both shorelines.  The trees lost their individualism and blended together to appear as a dark band framing the edge of the river – the moon glow created bright reflective areas on the surface that melded away into the tallest trees shielded out the moon’s light from falling upon the water.  Together they sat there enjoying each others company and marveling at the sound of quiet.  The old man caught himself dozing off and once again picked up the paddle and began to move the canoe toward the shore where the old oak awaited them. 

 He didn't even feel like pulling the canoe out of the water.  Instead, he left the canoe afloat and tied the painter line to his ankle, sat down on the ground and leaned against the trunk of the old oak.  It felt good to stretch his tired legs out.  Tray hobbled over to his side and laid down with his head on the old man’s thigh.  The expected loud sigh was heard and the old man knew his friend would soon be asleep.  He tipped his hat back and looked up through the limbs of the tree at the moon’s light and smiled.  He felt wonderful – simply grand!  He reset his hat forward on his head, the brim covering his eyes and fell into a sound, deep sleep.  They were two companions – travelers in their elements but not in the correct century.  The old man’s head fell forward as sleep overtook him.

When the sun arose the next morning they remained as they were all night.  The old man felt drained to the point that movement was very difficult.  Why move?  It felt wonderful here on this spot under the tree.  He felt the weight of Tray’s head on his thigh but could not detect the rise and fall of the dog’s chest as he breathed.  With great effort he moved his right hand off his leg and placed it upon the dog’s head and found the fur cold to the touch.  Rivers of tears instantly flowed down his face past the hat’s brim and fell onto his shirt.  Soft sobs grew louder and louder until he openly wept at his friend’s passing.  He had not the strength to even turn his head toward his dog Tray, nor did he really want to.  The pain in his chest grew in intensity and the tears increased in volume.  He felt alone and hollowed out inside.  His friend had left him alone – and still he did not move.  He found that he could not move.  The pain in his chest was more than an ache for his lost companion.  It grew in intensity until he thought he couldn't stand it.  Then, suddenly, it was gone and he felt weak.  He tried to wipe his eyes with his hand but found he could not lift it to his face.  He couldn't even turn his head.  “So, this is how it ends”, he thought.  “So be it.”  He very slowly inched his hand across his leg and back toward Tray and moved his palm along the fur until it rested on the top of the dog’s head. His finger tips caressed the fur and he uttered, “love ya boy.  Love ya.”

Some kids found an old, red canoe beached on the shore behind the bait shop at the back of town.  They were going to keep it themselves but, thought they better tell someone.  The constable instantly launched his old jon boat and headed up the river.  He found the old man and his dog together sitting under the oak tree.  At first he thought them asleep but soon discovered the truth.  The story of the old man an his dog was written up in the local paper as a special interest piece but, no one will know the real story – the story of respect for the magnificent wild places that exist for all to enjoy and of uncompromising  love between a man and his devoted companion who lived their lives together, each dedicated to the other,  separated only by the hand of death.  And, how sweet is that?