Updated: Jul 16, 2020
It began on the first cool day of the coldest winter we would have in decades. It would be a winter of snow and hard work just to keep warm. My oldest brother, two younger sisters and I would carry in more than a ton apiece of firewood that year. The time was not long before one could set a thermostat to fight the cold, but no matter how short the distance between the next inventions for making life easier the hardness of life remains in that short distance in between. We would look back on that winter, talk about how cold it was, how much more snow there was than before or since but I would remember it for another reason. It was the winter a fire began in my heart, a fire that I wouldn’t feel the warmth of until many years later.
A difficult life can make for a stronger heart and a stronger heart for stronger loves. My family, the Southlands always finished the day with honest praises and criticisms, shortcomings forgiven and forgotten and God thanked for whatever part He played in our lives that day. Maybe it’s been this way a long time but I’ve learned we seldom realize how a seed containing the mystery of a life, a life unlike any before or after, can be planted in a human heart in an instant. Maybe saddest of all human shortcomings is most mysteries don’t survive past childhood. Mine did not die though I almost pulled it up by the roots and cast it upon the rocks years after it had already yielded a bountiful harvest. Such is the foolishness of men.
The seed containing my mystery, I call it mine but no mystery of a life cannot not be shared, was planted in me that cool day just before I turned nine. It dropped hints that began to sprout that same day though it was years before I saw them. Not only did it drop hints of when it began but like all things blessed with life it gave birth to other mysteries spreading its branches till I could not get from beneath its shade. Thank God it will now continue to unravel its threads forever. I will get to it quick enough but understand as the mystery of a life unravels it weaves that life. A life knit with even the best efforts and intents is certainly not without hardships because there is no such thing. However trials and tribulations, mistakes and sins need not destroy the garment of one’s existence, but rather dye it with the colors of wisdom. You can be sure that without divine help we can kill a mystery making it useful only as a shroud for regret. To my knowledge, I had only one regret and God turned that regret into wisdom.
The beginning of mine and Rachel’s friendship began a few years after William W. Hanover moved quietly into our community into an old house down the road a piece. William was always called Mr. Hanover, never Bill or William by any and none knew what the W. stood for. There was not one member of our small community that came to know him well, though most tried. The women brought him cakes and cookies all of which he accepted graciously and always with less than a dozen words. The men hung back after the few who welcomed him received nothing more than a “Thank you.” They followed up the ‘thank you’ with, “Should you need any help with anything, most any of us will be glad to give you a hand, Mr. Hanover,” which fished from Mr. Hanover, “I surely will.” My Dad called Mr. Hanover, “…a pond lean of social aptitude and that such leanness is unusual for a gardener.” Mr. Hanover would speak most graciously but one might as well try to pull a chicken’s back teeth as try and hold a conversation with him.
It seemed to us William Hanover spent virtually all his daylight hours in his garden. It was this penchant for his garden along with the beauty of that well-tended plot which earned him the title The Gardener. Jessica Baling had long held the honor of being unsurpassed at coaxing the best from the soil and is said to have wept at having lost that honor. Anyway because The Gardener was rarely seen clean shaven we who were not yet adults christened his middle initial Whiskers. As solitary as Whiskers was, he was seen to have visitors fairly often who were total strangers to the rest of us. There was a lot of speculation as to who the strangers were. The two most popular assumptions were out-of-town relatives and buyers of produce, though no one ever saw anyone leaving with vegetables. For that matter no one ever saw Mr. Hanover’s visitors come or go. It was me, Joseph Bartholomew Southland, at the early age of eight who unknowingly correctly guessed them to be angels. Of course no one believes eight year olds sufficient to be right about much of anything. And even I discarded the idea until… well, you’ll see.
Mr. Hanover wasn’t a short man but those who visited him were a little taller and lighter in color as Whiskers always carried a tan. However, there were times those who visited had skin almost as black as the ebony keys on Mama’s piano. And though many tried to eavesdrop on Mr. Hanover’s conversations with the strangers not a word could be clearly discerned. What could be seen was a lot of smiling, some pats on the back and laughter. Suffice it to say Whiskers’ visitors though apparently as benign as his gardening did not set well with the residents of our small town.
I never knew for certain but I believe Whiskers Hanover was planting flowers on that cool fall day Rachel Friendship and I began to know each other. A northerly breeze kept the sweat at bay for the first time in months, the sun shown brightly not dimmed by summer humidity, the leaves were still turning yet to reach their full splendor, and the migratory birds were drifting south. As I mentioned before I was just about to turn nine years old. Not that I didn’t know of Rachel. She was a grade behind me in school. She and her family lived I thought far enough away that we would never cross paths. I knew Rachel Friendship the way one knows Venus. You know its there and if you make a special effort you can see it. And like Venus might last in one’s thoughts for a few seconds so it was with me concerning Rachel.
I had just taken in my last picking of vegetables from our garden. Mama said my time was my own till supper to do with what I wanted. I ran through the garden that was showing neglect, past the ragged scarecrow dressed in one of my dad’s worn out shirts and pair of faded overalls into our meadow. Grasshoppers, bugs of all sorts with and without wings, and butterflies scattered. I chased a few then ran between the huge pines on a forest floor carpeted with pine needles. Where the pine forest ended was a small bank. I jumped with arms spread wide, landed on damp soil and sprinted around the place we kept our milk. I was about to delight in the solitude of my most favorite place in the world when I saw her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She sat in the exact spot I had claimed as mine, with feet dangling just so she could tap the running water with the toe of her boots. She was whistling something and shaking the pony tail back and forth as if she owned my spot. Rachel had on some lace up boots that reached just above her ankles, white socks with lace around the top and a long sleeve cotton dress with small flowers all over it. Lace matching her socks trimmed the sleeves and neckline of her dress.
Without turning she said, “Heard you coming way back, Bartholomew. You always make a lot of noise? How you gonna sneak on anybody making so much noise?”
“How’d you know my name?” I walked up behind her and crossed my arms, not a little angry at having my territory invaded. If she’d been a boy… well you know how spirited eight year old boys can be. If he had refused to remove himself from my spot we’d both went home muddy. Regardless who had stolen my place, I intended to get it back. “And what cha’ you doing in my spot?”
“It’s the only place in the world I call mine and you’re in it.”
She turned and looked at me. It wasn’t a frown as much as it was an expression of curiosity. “They all said you’re odd.”
It would be later I understood what happened that day. I compared the color of her eyes to that blue sky and was reminded of her freckles when Mama sprinkled a cake with those colored beads of sugar. Not that she had colored freckles of course; it was just how much prettier the sprinkles made the cake. Actually I was taken back when I did think of Rachel Friendship when Mama finished decorating that cake because it had been some time since I had seen her, a year or so at least.
Anyway beside the branch that day she looked at me for a short spell with those pretty blue eyes. Ignoring her remark that I was odd I shrugged an emphatic, ‘You need to move or else, girl or not.”
“Awright, Bartholomew, do you mind if I make me a place to sit next to yours,” she asked. Still looking at me, she tilted her head ever so slightly and her expression… she might as well had been my old hound dog begging for my biscuit in the way he knew I could never turn him down. She patted a spot next to mine.
“I’ll get some pine straw for you to sit on,” I said. We sat and talked until I heard Mama calling me to supper. What did we talk about? I can only remember some of it and none of it seemed much until I got home for supper and Mama asked me where I’d gone. “Down to the spring,” I said hoping that would be enough. It was the first time I had ever not wanted to share something with Mama, well not quite the first time, but it’s the only time I can remember before turning nine.