David and his grandfather walked through Blenheim Forest looking for May apples, the first sign of spring. His grandfather moved slowly, his bowed legs more wobbly than ever.
When he was younger, David thought his body was fueled by tiny men inside him, ironing clothes or tending to their small homes. When two or more of them grew tired or ill, so would David. As they rallied, so would he. Later he learned that the body was muscle, blood and bones and eventually it would let you down.
Hal showed David how to look for the sponge-like shapes of morel mushrooms under tulip poplars and pinch off their tops to preserve the root system.
He taught David how to play dominoes and about the bone yard, where you pick from the remaining tiles.
“Life is all about choices,” Hal would say, selecting a tile.
Hal dropped salted peanuts in the shell into his bottle of coke and drank off the fizz before it spilled over onto the table. David did the same, though he didn’t care for peanuts in the shell.
David loved the woods, the humming of insects, the birdsong, and the fact that he could hear their footfalls as they walked.
“May apple, also called mandrake, racoonberry, and witches umbrella. The fruit makes a sweet jelly, but the root can kill you,” his grandfather said.
David scanned the forest floor.
“Right there?” he asked, pointing.
There was a small forest of green umbrellas. Plump seed pods peeked out from below the leaves. As they walked toward the May apples a slow rain began to fall.
David had been an average student until sixth grade art class. Mrs. Snyder held up his work, raising her arms in the air and with it the hem of her dress. David was pretty sure only the girls in class noticed his drawing.
His art set him apart. He didn’t like being different. It was one thing to be a good athlete, but an artist?
His grandfather was different too. He didn’t go to church or believe in God.
This scared David. He thought that God would be just like his grandfather, tall and commanding with a deep knowledge of nature. God would know just what to say, like his grandfather, who told him last week out of the blue that it was OK to be special.
David drew a picture of a forest full of flowers and trees, a clearing with a table covered with dominoes, a single peanut by a bottle of Coke, his grandfather’s heaven. Then he realized he’d left his grandfather out of the picture.
David started with a paint-by-numbers kit. He was amazed those small patches of color actually looked like something. He substituted black for yellow and red for black. The colors created shadows that gave contrast and depth to the image.
He would be on the ball field and notice the contours of the ball as it flew through the air, the play of light on the dust motes that got kicked up when someone stole second base.
His class went to the Speed Museum in Louisville to see French Impressionist paintings, David stared at a dab of white paint at the bottom of a glass. Up close it was a spot of paint, five feet back it was the French sun reflecting off the bottom of a glass of red wine.
When David looked at his grandfather, he wanted to pick up his paintbrush and add the muscle and flesh of a younger man.
Fire Tower trail was marked by faded strips of red ribbon tied to trees. David heard the movement of the leaves, waves of sound from the cicadas, and his grandfather’s breathing, heavier than usual. He slowed down to let him catch up.
David opened his canteen, held it out and watched as his grandfather braced himself on a tree, tilted his head back and took a long swallow.
“Want to rest?”
“Let’s go on.”
David listened to the wheezing breath and tried to visualize his grandfather’s lungs, the air moving in and out. He saw an accordion, bright red with black bellows.
David could see the stairs to the fire tower. From the top they could see the forest canopy, Mount May in the distance and the jelly bean shape of Lake Devon.
“Help me, boy,” his grandfather said, just before he fell to the ground. David ran to get the park ranger. When the ranger asked for his grandfather’s name, David drew a blank for a minute.
“It is Hal, Hal Emerson.”
David stood in front of a blank canvas. His grandfather was in the county hospital, his heart rhythm as a series of jagged lines on a monitor. While his grandfather slept, David had tried not to stare at the machine.
He picked up his paintbrush and mixed a yellow, the color of corn silks.
His grandfather had taken him into the cornfield when he was small, held him level with the plants and taught him how to check for holes left by sugarcane beetles.
David ran his brush across the canvas, making a cornfield where there was nothing before. The field blurred before him.
David stood next to his parents in the graveyard. All around him were the trees and the birds that his grandfather had taught him about: purple ash and sugar maple, barn swallow and finch.
David thought about all the paths he would walk alone from now on. His mind wandered to the May apples, their tiny umbrellas, their poisonous root.
His grandfather told him that everything fell apart eventually. He’d shown him mold underneath fall leaves. “You’ll never feel more alive than on a fall day surrounded by decay,” he’d said.
David would be there in the fall. He’d finish the painting of the field, filling the canvas from edge to edge.