Below the hard ground

They laid him below the hard ground of a hill.

The most notable feature of the hill he rests below is an ancient live oak.

He found shade beneath its branches and up against its trunk, which to a boy looks like it might touch the sky.

I was a boy in those days, but they’re long gone now.

They say time can take a man’s memory, but you coulda fooled me.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see him sittin’ there against the tree smilin’ at a snaggletoothed youngin’ who’d straddled a branch so old it just about dragged the ground.

He was missin’ a few teeth himself on one side of his mouth, and sometimes he whistled when he talked.

I got a kick outta that, and he knew it.

He got a kick outta hobblin’ up the hill, puttin’ his back to that big tree trunk and lettin’ go of the day.

The more the years went by, the harder the days got for him.

I didn’t know it then, but he was sorta a local celebrity.

All of the men stopped him for a handshake every time he went to town.

The ladies talked a blue streak about how handsome he was and how he was mighty welcome to come try some of their sweet potato pie.

Mamas wanted him to kiss their babies.

Their babies wanted to pull his beard.

It rested on his stomach and cemented his annual role as Santa Claus in the town Christmas parade.

He was always a kind gentleman, and he obliged folks’ requests for pictures and pleasantries, but even as a boy I could tell all the attention made him uncomfortable.

That’s how we met, come to think of it.

I saw him in a crowd across the street from where Mama window shopped, shakin’ hands and kissin’ babies who yanked his whiskers.

I reckon he’d had his fill of it all, because all of a sudden he tipped his hat, turned on his heels and took off toward the edge of town.

I snuck away from Mama and caught up with him in no time.

He’d have lost a race to a tortoise.

I stayed behind him a little ways so as not to be seen or heard.

“What are you doin’, boy?”

While I wondered how he knew I was even in the world, he asked me if I wanted to hear a story.

I was caught.

I took my seat on a low branch and listened while he talked about campfires, open fields, smoke, thunder and how he was part of a dyin’ breed.

The sky was gray when he died.

The town shut down the day of his funeral.

Everybody cried, except for me.

I wept.

When it was over, I stayed and watched them bury him below the dirt until the hill covered him like a blanket.

It was the perfect place for him to rest.

I closed my eyes and he was there, not under the blanket but above it, with his back on the tree trunk, talkin’ about thunder and smoke and flat fields.

“You wanna yell, boy?”

I nodded.

“Well, go on.”

I threw my head back and screamed.

“Naw,” he said. “Like this.”

The sound left him in guttural waves. Whoops and shrieks gave way to shrill barks mixed with screams, like a panther or a haint.

All of it seemed to meld into one sound, and it cut the afternoon air.

My jaw dropped, but he just leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes.

I asked him why he always leaned against the tree.

“Rest.”

He smiled when Mama hollered to tell me I’d better not be late for Boy Scouts.

The scouts went on a trip that summer.

The ride was a day or so by rail, and the first time I’d been on a train.

He was on the train, too, and I sat next to him.

There were no stories.

He just sat there with his eyes closed, like he was lost in the pages of his past.

The only sound I heard was the rhythm of the rails until the wheels screeched to a halt.

We stepped off of the train into a sea of tents.

They littered the ground everywhere, save boardwalk streets to separate men from mud.

We’d traveled a long way, and I asked him where we were.

“Pennsylvania.”

While we were there, we walked across an open field.

He slowed, then stopped and tried to get as close to the ground as he could.

I asked him what he was doing.

“Looking for my teeth” he said. “Left some here a lifetime ago.”

We heard the air whistle through the empty spaces in his mouth and we laughed.

Later, some men lined up on both sides of a stone wall.

“You wanna yell, boy?”

Before I could answer, he let loose with the same guttural sounds I’d heard on the hill.

This time, he wasn’t the only one.

Several men slowed by the march of time began to whoop and shriek. They continued with barks and shrill screams, like those of a panther or a haint.

When things quieted, the men shook hands over the wall. I asked him to tell me what I’d seen.

“Peace,” he said. “You’ve seen peace.”

There were a lot of talks between old men while we were in Pennsylvania. They shared stories of campfires, open fields, smoke, thunder and how they were the last of a dyin’ breed.

Life went on after he died.

People went to Italy and France.

They went to sock hops and soda fountains.

Then they went to Korea and Vietnam.

Life went on for me, too, and I’m old now.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still see the man who taught me about rest and peace, the man who now enjoys both beneath the branches of a live oak below the hard ground of a hill.

The story above is fiction. It’s in response to today’s WordPress Discover prompt, which is “below.” The 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1938, and was reportedly the last big reunion of Civil War veterans. Some veterans shook hands over a stone wall on the field where Pickett’s Charge took place.

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