(First published in the December 2015 issue of Cyclamens and Swords Magazine)
Looking back, I wish Katz would have come clean when he had the chance. Explained why he roamed about like he did. A loner, following fence-lines and dirt roads for no apparent reason. He walked forward chin first and bent at the hip which set his shoulder length hair free to saw back and forth below his ears. In his hand, a walking stick that he pitched out ahead in perfect cadence. Pitch then two steps, pitch, then two steps.
“A creepy old loon is what he is,” said Claire Dewey. “Always peeping around. Why just this morning I caught him watching me hang my laundry on the line. I’m sure it was Katz. The old fool – staring – you know – simple-minded like. I can tell you what was on his mind. Thinking he might have his way with the likes of me. A woman like me’s got choices. Someone ought to lock him up. That’s what they should do – lock the bastard up.”
At the time no one paid any attention. Claire Dewey was known around town to exaggerate.
Curiosity finally got the best of Nate and I so we decided to follow the old man. We figured we’d sneak up the mountain where the old man lived to see what we could see.
His cabin stood a half mile up a narrow footpath that wound through a tangle of briars and thorn apples before giving way to a row of maples and finally to a cast of oaks whose canopy draped over the cabin. Katz had built the cabin twenty years back but before that he lived in town with a beautiful woman. They say she was striking, and that he, equally handsome, was soft spoken and gracious when young. She left him for another man not long after they were married – saying that once he had caught her, he lost all interest.
We were scared of the old man but Nate would never admit it. The first day we crouched in the weeds a hundred yards from the cabin, waiting for the old man to appear. It was barely light when he came through the door, stick in hand. He stopped and stared in our direction as if he sensed our presence.
Then he turned in the opposite direction, walking as if he had somewhere pressing to go. We followed him just out of sight. He covered a quarter mile of dirt laneway before he stopped just short of a mulberry tree. He squatted down in the grass and gazed up at the sprawling tree.
“Quiet,” Nate whispered. “He’s here to meet someone!”
We crawled through the brambles for a closer look.
A bluebird landed on the mulberry tree and began his morning song. He was joined by another, then another, until the tree was filled with a hundred bluebirds or more. As if on cue, the birds departed down the lane and across the field before lighting upon a pin-oak. Katz rose to his feet, turned around and made his way toward the cabin.
“Whoever he was waiting for isn’t going to show,” Nate said. “We’ll follow him again tomorrow.”
The next morning went much the same as the first only this time Katz passed the mulberry and stopped at the pin-oak. Again the old man hid in the grass and waited, and again, a lone bluebird began his morning song. Soon the pin-oak was awash with a flock of bluebirds warbling. Minutes later they flew from the tree to light upon a towering maple several hundred yards off in the distance. The old man rose to his feet, scribbled a few lines in a book and returned to his cabin.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” Nate said.
“I don’t like it. The old man is just following birds. Maybe he’s the fool everyone makes him out to be. Maybe he’s nuts after all.”
“Scared?” asked Nate. “Come on. You think he’s some kind of scientist? He’s up to no good – mark my words. We’re going to catch him red-handed tomorrow. Heck, maybe we can haul him in for some kind of reward.”
“I don’t like it,” I said. “We don’t know he’s done a thing.”
The third day was a replay of the past two. The old man passed the mulberry, then the pin-oak, then moved on to the towering maple. Again he crouched in the tall grass, and again, the bluebirds appeared – first to the mulberry, then to the pin-oak, then to the towering maple. The old man laid his walking stick down and watched, stopping only to scratch in a tattered book.
Before he finished his entry, two blue males collided in mid-air with a muffled thump and fell to the ground in a heap. With wings half-mast they retreated from each other, striking a pose that resembled a truce. Then, the larger of the two warbled his romantic croon. Out of nowhere, a gray female appeared. She had watched the quarrel from a nearby hickory. The smaller of the males cocked his head, gazed at her longingly, shook his feathers and flew away. So overcome, so completely filled with fascination was I with the romantic display, that I sat numb to the presence of the old man behind me.
“You can feel it, can’t you?”
With a start, I turned around and locked eyes with old man just six feet away. Katz did not blink or move.
“Did you feel it?” he asked.
“Did you feel God?”
“Shit,” I said without thinking, then rose to my feet.
“I… I don’t know, I guess. Maybe a little,” I said, unsure of what he wanted me to say.
“I’m not,” I said.
“There’s no need to be.”
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am,” he said. “The question is – why you and your friend find me so amusing. Following me now three days in a row.”
I looked around to find Nate but he was gone. He’d seen the old man coming as I watched the two birds scuffle and vanished like a cat.
I couldn’t tell Katz the truth – that we thought he was crazy. That for three days we had secretly hoped to find him doing something dishonest, maybe even dirty.
“It’s just, well. I don’t know. Folks in town think you’re a little off kilter that’s all – but not me. Honest.”
Old man Katz smiled without showing his teeth and set his square chin upon the walking stick. He closed his eyes to let the sun beat on the expanse of his great forehead and he seemed lost for a moment as though immersed in thought.
“Go on home, but come back in the morning if you want to. We’ll find the birds again and when the day is over, if you still think I’m crazy then you can let the whole town know everything there is to know about the old kook that lives up on the mountain next to God.”
“Next to God?”
“Next to God.”
“Meet me at the cabin at first light. Don’t knock. Just come in.”
“Okay,” I said and then turned around to make my way home.
Nate was waiting behind a maple tree half way down the mountain as I trotted by.
“Is he gone?” he said in a hushed voice.
“Yeah he’s gone.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No, he didn’t hurt me. Old Katz is harmless if you ask me.”
“Bull. The old fool is bat shit nuts, you’re not fooling me. The whole town knows he’s flakier than a can of oatmeal except you.”
“Come with me tomorrow and we’ll go to his cabin,” I said. “You’ll see. He’s a lonely old man and that’s all there is to it.”
Nate arrived early the next morning with his hands in his pockets kicking stones back and forth between his feet.
“Not going,” he said.
“Got things to do, that’s why.”
“Like none of your business.”
“You’re the one scared now,” I said. “Holy crap. You’re –”
“Said I got things to do. A job at Claire Dewey’s for one. And like I said, it’s none of your business. You’re crazier than the old man if you go up there. If you ask me, you’re just as nuts as he is, watching birds like some kind of loon.”
“I’m going anyway.”
“Don’t do it. I’m telling you! Something bad is going to happen.”
“Nothing is going to happen.”
“Think about it, moron. You’re the only one in town that thinks he ain’t nuts. You believe the whole town is wrong and you’re right?”
“Don’t go. I mean it or I’ll whip your butt. I’m telling you.”
“Fine, I won’t go. Maybe you’re right.”
But off I went. The fear I had of Katz a few days before had vanished. There was something that I liked about the old man, something that I trusted, perhaps even loved.
Katz’s cabin was perched upon a foundation of square rocks built into the high bank of a small stream. A narrow channel formed a millrace that fed a waterwheel mounted on the cabin’s side. The wheel turned slowly, and from it wept a supple melody, its sound, reminiscent of a bass violin. Four windows equally spaced, two to a story, sat atop the waterwheel and overlooked the valley below. Out of the windows poured a soft yellow light.
The front door opened to a small kitchen with wide plank floorboards spiked fast with square headed nails. The far wall was that of flat stone and was stark bare but a picture of a beautiful woman under which a calendar with curled edges hung from a peg. In the center of the room stood a table over which iron pots hung suspended in random order. A single chair sat in front of the table and faced the picture.
“In here,” he called out from the adjoining room.
Katz hovered over a large table, elbows down with a pencil between his teeth studying sheets of paper arranged neatly before him. Steel rimmed spectacles sat low on the bridge of his nose. Every wall was shelved floor to ceiling with textbooks, mostly leather bound. The air smelled of stale parchment, a fitting room for the old man who appeared like a scholar working to make sense out of the morass.
“Come in!” he said, throwing a glance over the top of his spectacles.
“This is nice,” I said, scanning the room, in search of something to say. “Most folks think you live in a run down shack.”
“Course they do.”
“Is it yours?”
“Course it is,” he chuckled, throwing another glance over his rims.
“Built it years ago – made the water wheel too,” he said gesturing toward the window
“Don’t want for much of anything on this mountain.”
The old man glanced at his watch.
“We best go. We need to hurry to make the maple before the birds arrive.”
“So it’s true. You’re chasing birds?”
“You might say that. You might not, too.”
We walked first to the mulberry, then to the pin-oak, then on to the towering maple before the old man stopped. With his stick, he motioned to a grove of sumac one hundred yards ahead.
“That’s where they’ll be,” he whispered.
“How do you know?”
“Because that’s where they flew yesterday while you were busy watching the two fussing over the female. They fly the same route every day. Someday, I’ll know where they go. And why.”
We stopped just short of the sumac and knelt in the high grass. A lone male lit upon a crimson flower and warbled. The sumac, bobbing as he sang, was soon filled with the chorus of a hundred songbirds. With russet breasts and celestial blue wings against the crimson flowers, they appeared a mystical cloudburst out of which poured a harmonious torrent of sound.
“Do you hear it?” he whispered. “Do you hear her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
We sat for an hour as the old man told his story. Of his wife, and why she left him. How he lost his job after twenty years and moved up to the mountain. But it was his fascination with bluebirds that occupied his time now.
“Bluebirds have somewhere to go every day – just like a woman. Can’t walk fast enough to keep up. Every day I make it just one tree farther. Just one tree, that’s all I can do. The next day I pick up where the other left off. Some years they take me miles away but that’s okay. I suspect I may never learn where they go in the end,” he said, motioning with his stick to the sumacs. “I know that now.”
After we returned to the cabin, the old man ladled bowls of soup into which we dipped hard crusts of bread. We sipped black coffee but only when one or the other stopped talking. When we finished, we looked over sketches, hundreds of drawings that captured every detail of the life of the bluebirds. Mid-afternoon, I ran home, eager to share the news.
I knocked on the front door of Nate’s house but there was no answer. On the walk home, I thought about how surprised and relieved he would be to hear the truth. That Katz wasn’t crazy after all. In fact I was anxious to spread the news that Katz was anything but crazy and the town’s people had no reason to fear him.
I flung the front door open to find Mom standing with her arms open wide.
“Sweet, Jesus you’re home!” she shouted. “Where’s Nate?”
“What’s going on?” I asked, taken aback by her unusual greeting.
“Did you hear? “Did you hear about poor Claire Dewey?”
“No. Not a word. She alright?”
“That crazy old fool finally did it. After all these years he showed his true colors. The sheriff’s department is up on the mountain as we speak. They’ll hang the old pervert if they don’t beat him to death first.”
And that’s just what they did. By the time I reached the cabin Katz was slumped sideways over the millrace, blood dripping into the water.
The sheriff, surrounded by three deputies dressed in black was the first to speak.
“Whoa, whoa, kid. What are you doing here?” he asked, as he gripped my arm.
“The old degenerate came at us with his stick,” one of the men said. “Took it away and gave him some of his own medicine right upside his head is what we did. Should have known better than to mess with us – mess with the law.”
The sheriff and his men puffed away at their cigarettes in a semi-circle and looked down upon the old man. With chins on their chests they scraped leaves from side to side with their shoes and chuckled in a tone that sounded congratulatory. Like men do at the end of a deer hunt. One of the men, Larry, kicked the old man’s boot.
“Dead as a nail,” he said, flicking ash from his cigarette.
“No!” I cried out. “He couldn’t have. He couldn’t have hurt Claire. I was with him.…”
“Better go home, boy,” said the sheriff. “This is no place for a kid.”
The sheriff led me by the arm to the footpath.
“Go on now…. Get.”
“Hey, ain’t you Nate’s friend?” one of them asked. “Wasn’t for you boys we wouldn’t a caught the ole dog.”
“Yeah that’s him!” said Larry. “He’s Nate’s buddy. I went to school with his old man and the kid’s a spitting image.”
“Well no shit, Larry, we never knew you had any schooling. If we’d a known, we’d a let you carry a gun.”
The semi-circle of men started laughing. The sheriff jerked himself upright and stopped as though he had caught himself off guard. Embarrassed. Like he remembered who was in charge.
“Be ready to come down the station when we call you, son. We’ll need you to back up Nate’s account of what happened. You know, just for the record.”
I had no appetite at breakfast the next morning when the call came. Mom answered the phone but I could hear the sheriff’s voice plain.
“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am, but we’re going need the boy to come down to the station and give his statement sometime today. At your leisure that is, Ma’am. In fact, you just take your time. We’re in no hurry whatsoever. Anytime this afternoon will be just fine. We all know what happened, Ma’am. This here’s just a formality. Just a formality that’s all.”
I had reached the footpath before Mom had time to hang up the phone. The thorn apples and the usual stillness under the canopy of oaks passed by in three breaths, or so it seemed. I reached the cabin to find the door ajar. Dead leaves had drifted in. There was no sound. The screaking sound of the wheel was silent. I went inside and sat down on the kitchen chair and stared into the eyes of the woman whose portrait hung above the calendar and for a moment imagined myself the old man. Her elegant, graceful neck was adorned with a pale ivory cameo etched with a bluebird. I closed my eyes to imagine her melodic voice.
“Can you feel it?” I whispered.
I tucked the chair under the table and made my way out the door – first to the mulberry, then to the pin-oak, then to the towering maple and along the way fashioned a walking stick that I pitched out ahead, awkward at first, in a two-step cadence.
A brilliant blue male, more brilliant than any before, lit upon the sumac’s crimson flower and warbled. A female landed next to him, stopping for a moment to preen her feathers before departing for a willow ahead.
Thanks to editors, Johnmichael Simon and Helen Bar-Lev for publishing ‘Cameo’ in Cyclamens and Swords. A special thanks to my friends and readers in Israel, home of this fine magazine.