By Tom Sheehan
It was where the Dark Forest runs out of breath, not far from Xi Shuang Ban Na, and the Lan Cang River, pretending to be a thief, steals much of daylight’s silver. Here one morning, an elderly man with a broken walking stick came out of the forest and went along the river gathering its coin. He wore a cap for the weather and a jacket Time had touched roughly. And he limped.
The limp was a serious limp, almost twisting the man’s frame. His left foot had a dragging stutter to it and his makeshift boot was greatly worn. The man looked as if he would topple easily. And need or want moved in the air about him.
The single walking stick at his left side was crude and bound in places, where it had been broken, with tightly coiled wire. Ning Li the blacksmith, from his doorway, saw him first, noticed how he leaned to one side. “Hui,” he called, and his wife came to the door. “We will have another for breakfast,” he said. Her apron was gathered in her hands and she looked at the stranger and said, “I am sure we will.” As she nodded, she enjoyed the sun shining on the face of the river.
Ning Li, a big man with red suspenders and heavy brown pants, stood and hailed the other man. “Could you stand for tea and a biscuit, sir? We do not have much but we can ease some of your hunger. Eggs would be another matter.” Again Ning Li noted how the
man leaned almost to the point of falling. Then he saw the man’s kindly face, the clear blue eyes, and the way he held his chin. And his hands! His hands were delicate and smooth and did not look as if they belonged with the walking stick or had used the walking stick for a long time.
“You are too kind, sir,” the man with the walking stick said. A slight smile wore on his face. “We are in luck, for I have two eggs here I found last evening in the forest, and no place to cook them.” From a pocket of the worn jacket he brought out two brown eggs that could be yet idling in a nest. “If the lady of the house would oblige, she may do as she wishes with them.” He held out the two brown eggs and Ning Li called his wife. “Hui, we’ll have biscuits dipped in eggs today, just the way you like them.”
Then Ning Li pointed to a chair and said, “Rest easy while the biscuits get dipped and fried. We’ll have our tea here where the sun comes first. If I were a carpenter I would fix that walking stick for you, but my iron would be too heavy for you.” Then Ning Li said, “By what name are you called, sir?”
They call me Stick. They have called me Stick for a long time, for so long I know no other name. So Stick I will be. It is not uncomfortable for me.”
They ate their biscuits with a small mound of butter and sweet syrup. And a second cup of tea.
“Do you have far to go?” Ning Li said, as he finished his tea. “We could put some lunch in a bag for you.”
“Not far,” Stick said, “not far at all.”
When the tea was gone Stick said thank you and went on his way.
Just before noon, still where the forest runs out of breath and the river steals daylight, Stick was hailed by another man in his front yard. The man had seen the man’s serious limp in the heat of the sun. “Stranger, would a bit of shade and a small bite of food aid you on your journey? We do not have much, but we will share. I am here with my two daughters. Today is a day without meat for us. We have a few pennies left from rice we bought.”
“Such a lucky day it is,” Stick said. “Last night in the forest I came upon a deer who had recently impaled himself. I came away with some venison.” From deep in his jacket pocket he drew out a small parcel wrapped in dark paper. “However your daughters choose to cook it, let it be done.” The daughters danced away with the venison. Soon the aroma climbed on the air in the middle of the day. And there was a sauce to go with bread and the four of them dipped bread and ate the venison.
“My name is Feng Tu and I am a music teacher,” Feng Tu said, his big teeth showing as he talked. “If I could work with wood, I would make you a new walking stick to assist you in your journey. But I have no knowledge of wood. Nor what its grain is or where its strength lies, except here.” And with that he drew a violin up from below the table and played songs for Stick and his daughters. After a while, Stick said, “I must be going. But I do not have far to travel.” He left with his thank you as soft as music on the air.
Stick was not far away by the close of evening. A young boy came up to him and said, “My mother saw you coming for a long time from her window. We do not have much, but you are welcome to eat at our table. We have some rice soup. It is thin soup, but it will be warm.”
“Young man,” Stick said, “tell your mother we are in luck. Just last evening, in the middle of the Dark Forest, where there was a small patch of late sunlight, I found two potatoes, two beets and two carrots.” He dug deep into his jacket pocket and brought out the vegetables. “Tell your good mother to thicken the soup with these.”
The boy nodded with delight and ran off to give the vegetables to his mother. He soon came back and said, “She thanks you a great deal. If my father were here he could fix your walking stick for you, but he is away in the Great War that moves around the world. We hope he comes back soon. He is a carpenter and could fix your walking stick easily.”
At dusk they ate the newly thickened rice soup with the potatoes and the beets and the carrots cut up in it. The soup was delicious and the boy soon fell asleep on a bench in front of his house while the mother cleaned the dishes. Stick said goodbye. “I have to keep moving. You have a fine boy. I hope your husband gets back soon. War is a great separator, but often not the final one.”
His way took him along a stone wall for a few miles, the sun sinking all the while.
The river had nearly given up all of its daylight when Stick was walking past an old house sitting back from the road like a deep shadow. Not one window had a light in it, nor was there any smoke coming from the chimney. A voice hailed him from the darkness in front of the house. “If you have no place to sleep, sir, we could put you up, but you must be able to do with the darkness and the cold. We do not have any light or any kindling to start a fire or any matches for that matter. I am afraid that my children will not be able to do their reading this night and they might also catch cold. The edge of the moon says it is going to be cold.”
“You are most kind, sir,” Stick said, “but fear not. Last evening in the forest I found some flint and stone in an old pouch on a tree stump. We can start a fire with them.”
“All well and good,” the man in the darkness said, “but we still have no kindling to get the big logs burning.”
“Ah, but we do, “Stick said, as he slammed his broken walking stick over a large stone in the wall and splintered it for kindling. The sound crackled so harshly in the night it frightened the man.
“But how will you walk on the morrow?” the man said.
Stick had no hesitation. “You will make me a walking stick tonight,” he replied.
“I have been unable to work for a long time,” the man said. But all night he worked hard on several pieces of wood he found behind his house, knowing that before this stranger came he would not have even looked for such wood. Light came from a good fire and warmth filled the house and the children were asleep after reading their lessons. In the morning the man handed Stick a shiny new walking stick that caught the early morning sun all along its shaft. The walking stick was smooth with a lacquer finish on it and a pad on the top where it fit under Stick’s arm.
That sun was barely up over the horizon when Stick walked away in the early rays of sunlight. Down past the fields he went, past the stone walls, to where the river again was catching up all the daylight it could grasp. Once, with his new walking stick, he waved back at the man.
Later that evening all the people gathered in the village and were talking about the man with the broken walking stick.
“I am glad that we were able to feed him,” Ning Li said, his thumbs hooked on his red suspenders. “We gave him breakfast, a royal breakfast, a meal to begin the day with.” He paused, hooking his suspenders a little higher. “As my mother used to say, ‘A meal to touch the backbone.’”
“And we gave the poor man his lunch,” Feng Tu said, “with venison and thick gravy. A meal also fit for a king.” He smiled proudly, his large teeth showing. “We even played music for him to soothe his vagrant soul. If there were a place for that poor man to live, this would be it. We all did so much for him. All taking our turn with a stranger.” Those around him nodded in agreement.
The boy’s mother, not to be outdone, not wanting to be left out of a share of goodness, took her turn. “A most splendid and thick soup we gave the man. Thick as any soup can be, heavy with good rice and potatoes and beets, and new carrots to give solid offerings. A treat for any beggar on his rounds. The kind that sticks to one’s ribs.” It was a matter of punctuation when she added, “And he ate a goodly share of it.”
The others nodded in agreement again, seemingly all of one mind.
They were very satisfied with themselves, puffed and self-indulgent, but a voice from the edge of light, the man from the darkness, said, “Do any of you know what he gave to us? Why do we continually wrap ourselves up in our own gifts? Why do we tie up our own ribbons in such a manner?”
“Well,” the boy’s mother said, “what did you do for him? It was near dark when he left my house.”
“What fools we are, “the man answered. “It’s not what we did for him. It’s what he did for us. He took care of us. Me, a useless man for years, I made a walking stick for him. I haven’t worked like that in a long time and I guess we all know that.” For a moment he hung his head. “That’s one of the reasons he came here. The man needed a walking stick to get on with. And he saw to it that I made it for him. We did not really do for him. He did for us, but we are afraid to say it.”
The next morning, on the other side of the Lan Cang River, where the mountain suddenly stands tall and the field stops its long run, the man with a broken walking stick came limping out of the forest ready to lean on some more people.
Another elderly man, enjoying early sunlight, hailed him from his front door.