Tuesday, August 5, 2014

He Always Said He Could Fly

This Sunday would mark my dad's eightieth birthday. I wrote the following to honor him, the singer of songs and teller of tales.

My dad was a compulsive story teller. While other kids my age grew up with The Cat in the Hat or Charlotte's Web, I grew up with boys falling into watermelons and floating children, all compliments of a mind that saw beyond the ordinary and into a world of his own making. But it is no surprise his world would be extraordinary...he was extraordinary. And yes, he really did say he could fly.

He always said he could fly. How he came upon this thing in those snaky backwoods between the levees, where the most any man could hope for was to eat the fruit of his labors and not stay hungry was wondrous, but he was a wondrous man. The boy grew up in a magic place. It was a hole scooped out of the earth by a great earthquake. It’s said the shaking made the Mississippi River run backward and the swamps and bayous grew up in the rebellious water that refused to return to its banks. It was the kind of place where mystery and magic still thrived.
But as time passed, no one paid mystery and magic much heed. Between the plowing and the chopping and the picking and the swollen, bloody fingers and the chronic coughing from the dust of cotton, most men (and women for that matter) paid little attention to the magic around them. But he did. He found creatures in the forest, foul smelling creatures covered in hair but no one believed him. He found snakes with venom so powerful that one bite could kill a tree, but no one believed him. He found a large, wonderful catfish that could drown a man or pull him along down the long delta bayous all the way out to sea, but no one believed that either. But he knew what he saw and was not yet too careworn and hungry as to forget. When he sang in church on Sunday he heard the angels join, though no one else did. He heard the shuffle of feet in the night and knew it was those creatures too shy to show their faces to the children of men.
His mama worried. She had seen men, men just like him, men who saw the things that others chose not to, men taken to the state hospital in Farmington. He learned that it was best to keep the creatures and the mystery to himself. The wide eyes began to droop and he told himself the shuffling was a raccoon in the garbage, there was no music of angels, there was no catfish. And he started to become everyone else. When he chopped cotton, he thought of nothing. When he pitched watermelons, he thought of nothing. When he picked cotton and the thorny flesh of the boll cut his hands and his blood stained his pants, he thought of nothing. And then the wondrous thing happened…
It’s a miracle it happened at all. He had reached the age of reason where he learned to tell himself that the lights that hovered over the waters were swamp gas, the fireballs that rolled across the prairie were heat lightning, the boys that peered down at him from the tops of the trees were buzzards. He reasoned away the mystery and the beauty and nothing was left but the ugly, and he accepted the ugly because everyone else accepted the ugly.
One day the boy was standing on top of the levee with his hands in his pockets, looking as far as he’d ever need to go. His mama rang the dinner bell and the hungry boy began to run down the levee as fast as he could. And then it happened. He lost his footing and started to fall. He expected to feel the hardscrabble, sandy dirt scratch his cheek but the wondrous thing occurred instead. A gust of wind came out of nowhere and seemed to lift him. Now it could be said that he was a small boy and his ears were bigger than most, but whatever the cause, instead of falling he felt himself lift up. Before he knew it he was looking down on Number Nine ditch. He could see his mama ringing the bell, and he could see his daddy driving the mules home for dinner. And when the wind changed and brought him down, he ran to his mama. When he told her what happened her face grew pale. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she cautioned, “or they’ll take you away.” It was then that the boy knew his mama, too, had once known how to fly before her face became careworn and hungry.
And the boy grew up and married like boys often do. He had children and he told them of how he once flew. They were brought up in a place without mystery or beauty and they never understood how it was their daddy could fly. But one cold, winter day when the boy had become a tired, old man he lay in bed and dreamed…he dreamed he was flying again. And the careworn, hungry face began to smile and the boy flew away.