The Feathered Man
A short story I wrote for a creative writing course my sophomore year of college. 11/17/2000
He had slept in the graveyard last night, the first night in many months that he had lain next to his beloved wife of forty-seven years. Absalom had buried her yesterday. It had been a small service, with only himself, the preacher and the three other men from the community that had volunteered to help carry the casket to its final resting place. In the preceding years there would have been a hundred mourners or more packing the pews of the church, but all that had changed. There were few left to mourn.
Absalom stood on the hill overlooking the small, brick, North Fork Baptist Church and watched as the fog flowed down the mountainsides looking alive. It flowed as though seeking something, but found every vale and hollow lacking. With his breath fogging the air before him he took a step back and turning, he reached into his front over-all pocket producing his pocket-watch and saw that it was nearly six in the morning. Placing his watch back inside the pouch, he rubbed the beard that he had allowed to accumulate on his weathered chin and considered the fresh mound of earth that lay before him. Amongst the many gravestones that littered the small hill there were many that bore his family’s name, with many more having been worn away by the elements during the two-hundred plus years of their occupancy.
Brushing the dirt off his rear with one hand Absalom turned his head slightly to the side and loosed a stream of tobacco juice from his mouth then turned and began walking down the hill to where his truck waited. The grey gravel of the graveyard’s drive crunched under his mud-caked boots as he made his way down the hill, serving to announce his presence to the unruffled song-birds that had lighted on the limbs of the small trees flanking the drive. Running up and down their respective limbs the birds chirped at him as though they were curious about his presence in this place at such an hour. Allowing the birds but a cursory glance Absalom made his way to his truck and hopped—if a 65 year old man can be said to do so—into it. Starting the old Ford’s engine he pulled back on the shifter and started down the road toward his house. It did not take long to reach it, his home lying not a mile away from the church and graveyard. He was still unused to the new tar and gravel top the state had installed, and it now seemed as though he never would be.
Pulling onto the worn grass—Absalom had no graveled drive—he pulled the truck to the rear of the brick farmhouse and stepped out, his boots leaving mud stains on the carpeted interior of the truck. That had been Martha’s idea, he had thought carpet a bad idea for a farm truck, but she had insisted, and, as usual, what Martha had wanted Martha had received.
Walking to the porch Absalom passed Martha’s favorite oak tree and the bench she had placed beneath it so many years ago. Stepping up to the back door his left thigh briefly brushed the porch swing they used to share. Opening the door slowly he entered and allowed the door to swing to rest behind him. Walking slowly across the kitchen, unconcerned with the mud he had tracked onto the aging linoleum, Absalom reached the counter and leaned on it for a moment. Sighing, he reached out with his right hand and opened the cabinet above his head and fumbled with a bottle of Moonshine that he swung to his lips. Grunting, he sat the bottle down on the counter and turned, walking to the small round table that sat in the center of the kitchen. Scattered on the surface of the table were various letters and cards wishing him well during this time of loss. There were other papers as well, sitting to one side and toward the center of the table, as though the person who had last viewed them had pushed them away in disgust.
Absalom’s hand stretched reluctantly toward the pile of papers but recoiled as though burned. Reaching out once more, he pulled the pile toward him and pulled one from the top. He had read this letter so many times that he had it memorized, so he let his gaze slide easily on the main body of the letter and rest on the signature that brought it to a close. “Reginald Sporder” it read, the handwriting being nearly perfect, almost indistinguishable from the cursive writing that was used in workbooks to teach children how to write. It was not a local name, and the signature lacked character, Reginald Sporder had just recently moved to Western North Carolina.
When the local bank had been purchased by American Banking inc. the local residents had been assured there would be no change in services or character at the Marshall Savings & Loan, in fact there would be only one change of personnel at the bank, the bank manager, brought in from New York for a short period of time to familiarize the local employees with bank policy and move on to the next branch in line. Reginald Sporder had been that man. A small, stooped man, with thinning hair, bad eyesight and a lisp, Mr. Sporder was not cruel, but his manner betrayed that most hated in evil: its banality. Reginald Sporder had long ago tossed empathy and care for his fellow man aside in favor of the disinterested monotony of a man merely doing as his job entailed. That was why he now sought to foreclose on Absalom’s house.
Picking up the foreclosure notice and once again scanning its hated letters, a tear wove its way down the deep fissures of Absalom Buckner’s face. The face was a tired face; the face was a sad face. The face was at peace with what its wearer now intended to do. Lying the notice back amongst the stack of papers on the table, Absalom rose—dust rising with him—and moved slowly toward the narrow hallway that stood between the Kitchen and the living room. The hall led to the bedrooms of the house, rooms that had once been filled with the laughter of children and of a man and a woman in love. Now the sound was muffled and smelled of dust and mildew that, along with the lack of lighting, gave them the feel of a grave. There had been no light in the house since Martha had died. It was amazing how fast the transformation had occurred.
Walking to the largest bedroom, at the end of the hallway, Absalom went inside, pushing the old oaken door inward as he walked. Stepping inside on the old, but well tended, carpeting he made his way past the antique bed and its large vine-carved Chestnut columns to the door of the closet positioned opposite the rooms entrance. Slowly opening the door he looked inside and found the old strong box that had protected memories and documents for so many years and brought it out into the open. Walking to the foot of the old bed with the treasure, he sat down and stared at its top, unable to conceive of what he now had to do. Another tear rolled down his craggy cheek. Slowly he reached into his right front pocket and brought forth the key. Leaning over Absalom placed the key in the boxes old lock and turned until he heard a snap. Exhaling through clenched teeth—he had not realized he had been holding his breath—Absalom opened the lid of the box and stared at the gathered memories of his and Martha’s life together. There was the picture of them together after the war, when he had come home from Korea. He still wore his uniform and had the medals he’d won pinned to his chest—he looked every bit the soldier—but his eyes and his smile told a different story; he had never been happier in all his life than the day he came home to his wife. It had been Martha who insisted he wear the medals in the picture “They’re yours.” She had said, tears in her grey eyes, “You earned them. We earned them.” Wiping the tear from his cheek Absalom sorted through the memories until he came to what he was searching for; the deed to their home. The home he had built for Martha and their children, all of whom had preceded him in life’s final journey. He remembered the last time he had taken it from this box. Martha, just told by the doctors in Asheville that there was little or nothing they could do for her cancer, reached out and grasp at Absalom’s work-worn hands and gave them a squeeze. Her grip was not as strong as it had once been. If she wanted treatment, they’d said, she’d have to find it somewhere else. The doctors had still been speaking to her about the experimental cancer programs at Duke when he had slipped out and returned home to find the deed. Taking it over to the bank in Marshall he had asked for a loan, and his old friend Sam Erving, who owned the bank, had agreed, “Don’t worry what it costs Absalom, we’re all family here, and we’re all praying your Martha gets well. We’ll help in any way we can, and when you’re back on your feet we can talk about payment.”
It had not been long when Sam had passed on and Marshall Savings & Loan went to a cousin in California who, in turn, had accepted the offer of American Banking inc. to buy the place. That’s when Sporder had stepped in. It seemed he did not like the oral agreements that had been made between Sam and many of his customers and had demanded payments be made on all loans immediately or foreclosure would begin. Absalom had been one of those with an oral agreement.
“Mr. Buckner, perhaps you don’t understand.” Sporder said, tones clipped “This is not welfare, and I am not a social worker, if you have problems with healthcare perhaps you should go through the proper governmental channels to get help. I will have those back payments Mr. Buckner, or I will have your home. Quite frankly I don’t think your old house is worth that amount of money, so I’d prefer the payments. But one must always keep their agreements, hmm?” Sporder’s dark eyes looked up from the papers then and stared at Absalom with that infuriating squint.
“I’ll get your money, Sporder” he said, and stormed from the room.
That night He’d gotten the call from Duke medical that told him he’d better come now if he wished to see his wife before she died, there was nothing more they could do. Driving all the way to Durham, Absalom ran to his wife’s room and saw her lying on her bed in a peaceful sleep, her once full hair, now thin, framed her face like a silver halo. Walking to her side Absalom had placed her hand—it’s skin thin and almost transparent—in his and had began to pray. When he looked up there was a young, haggard-looking doctor standing in the doorway, dark eyes silently watching. When he saw that Absalom was finished he stepped inside and closed the door. Dragging one of the small hospital chairs over from the corner of the room the young man sat down, straitening his lab coat and tapping the clipboard he held nervously.
Rubbing his fingers nervously through his already greying hair, he began to speak in a halting tone “Mr. Buckner, I’m sorry. There was no more we could do, the cancer is just in too many places. I’m sorry.” Looking at Martha for a second he continued, “I don’t know how she’s made it this long, to be honest with you.” Looking back at Absalom, he said “She probably won’t wake up.” With that the boy had taken his leave and left Absalom alone with his wife and his thoughts.
The boy—”how old could he have been?” Absalom thought, “Not more than 25.”—was wrong it turned out, because right before she died Martha’s eyes opened and looked at him with an expression cleared of drugs and pain.
“Oh, Absalom.” She’d said; “I hear the sound of wings. It’s a band of Angels, I hear them Absalom, I hear them.” Turning her gaze to the window and moving it slowly to the foot of her bed she griped his hand and began to cry. “Absalom! They’re here, I see them. Beautiful, Absalom, beautiful. Its Michael, I see Michael. Absalom,” She said as she looked back at him tears and joy in her eyes “he says I’ll see you soon, Absalom.” sighing, she sat back in bed with a smile on her face and looked up at the ceiling giving his hand one last squeeze, she said “I love you.” And her soul was gone with her last breath, grey eyes staring into eternity.
Absalom had returned home and awaited the day of the funeral. It came and he had buried his beloved wife in the cemetery that overlooked the Church they had each attended since childhood. He shoveled the dirt in her grave himself, watching as the dark clods of earth broke over her white casket. All their friends had passed on or moved away, there was little new life in their community, and much of what there was had been transplanted and didn’t really count—the newcomers just didn’t understand anything and Absalom had grown weary of explaining. After he finished covering her coffin he went to his cousin Noah’s house and asked if he could borrow a few things. Noah told him that he had not had to ask, so Absalom thanked him and went to the barn and gathered the chemicals he needed and went home. Working down in the basement he’d snipped and soldered wires together, just like he’d learned in the Army. When he needed a timer he had went up stairs and found Martha’s favorite mantel clock. A small, expensive Swiss thing, made with rosewood and mahogany, It had always kept good time.
When the work was ready he returned late in the night to the burial site and lay beside—or rather, on top—of his wife for the first time in months. And now he found himself back home, sitting on the bed he and Martha had shared, in the room in where they’d lived and in the home he’d built so many years ago for her, staring at the deed for that home and for their lives. Closing the box and rising from the bed, Absalom walked slowly to the phone, picked it up in his right hand and used his left to turn the dial as he dialed the Bank’s number and asked to speak with Mr. Sporder. When the man picked up, Absalom told him that he could have the house “I’m leaving the deed on the kitchen table.” He said and hung up the phone before Mr. Sporder could thank him, not that he would have. Looking at his pocket watch Absalom nodded. He had not realized how long he’d spent in the house. Walking back out of the bedroom, and back into the hall, he moved slowly to the door to the basement. As he opened the door it made a slight squeak and absently he wondered if he should oil it, it might irritate Martha. Putting that stray thought aside, he descended the stairs, which creaked and groaned as he walked downward. Coming to the bottom, Absalom turned right and walked to his workbench and to the clock he’d left there the previous night. Reaching back into his pocket he produced his watch once more and checked the time again. It always took Mr. Sporder forty to forty-five minutes to get to his house. Reginald Sporder was nothing if not predictable. It was one o’clock p.m. Looking at the small mantel clock sitting on his sawdust covered workbench, with the strange wires protruding from its rear, Absalom turned its small hands—hands that Martha had carefully set many times—to 1 p.m. and carefully placed the trip at 2 p.m. Walking back up the aged stares Absalom walked the rest of the way down the hall to the kitchen and back out the door to his truck. Again he passed the swing that Martha loved, and the Oak she had placed flowers beneath, somehow getting them to grow, despite the Oaks own poisoned protests, and to his truck, which she had insisted have carpeting. Raising himself heavily into the cab Absalom fumbled with the key to place it in the ignition. Turning the key he placed his now dirt-encrusted boot on the break and pulled the transmission down into reverse. Pulling out of the yard he drove across the newly paved road into his once cattle-filled pasture and to the old logging road that led up the side of the mountain to a small clearing that afforded a clear view of his house. Parking, he sat, waiting.
The explosion woke him. Raising his head from the headrest Absalom Buckner looked down toward the small valley below and saw the black cloud that now enveloped the house where he’d once lived. Within the darkness red and orange flames whipped and swirled, consuming everything within. Watching it burn for a time he was enamoured with the black ash he saw falling on Mr. Sporder’s empty white Mercedes. Watching until the snowy white was as black as the blackest crow, Absalom started his truck up and started back down the mountain. By the time he reached the road there were fire trucks coming, as well as the Madison County Sheriff’s car. Coming to a stop before entering the road, Absalom killed the engine and stepped out of the truck just as Sheriff Ponder exited his patrol car. Throwing up his hand, Sheriff Ponder, a wiring man with hair still dark, despite his age of 62, made his way over to Absalom, looking first at the fire, then the empty pasture and finally at Absalom. Spitting to one side, he spoke,
“What a bad thing for Mr. Sporder, huh Absalom? Horrible accidents like this don’t happen a lot. Nope, these accidents are few and far between, wouldn’t you say?”
Nodding, Absalom returned the sheriff’s greeting and replied “Yeah, it sure is Ewy. Troubling thing is, I had his money ready for him.” Absalom threw his thumb toward the passenger seat of his truck behind him where the money from the sell of all his cattle lay scattered. The Sheriff nodded and spit toward the house again.
“Yeah, Absalom, these accidents are a horrible thing. Amazing how these foreigners get caught up in stuff ain’t it?” Not waiting for an answer Sheriff Ponder took his leave, “You have a good one now.” Turning, Ewy walked over to talk to the firemen as they watched the house burn. Absalom got back in his truck and drove down to the church where he found the Preacher getting ready for Wednesday night services. Looking up as Absalom entered the sanctuary the Preacher walked over to him and shook his hand.
“Absalom, you need to talk about what happened with Martha, you let me know now, hear?” His jowls continued to wobble slightly even after he released Absalom’s hand.
Saying he would, Absalom reached into his pocket and withdrew all the money that had been in the front seat of his truck. “Preacher, I want you to use that to pay off the Churches debts, and maybe build something for the kids.”
Eyeing the money, the Preacher looked at Absalom with his watery eyes slightly wide. “Absalom, are you sure? What about you’re debts?”
Absalom patted the Preacher on the back and said “Preacher, my debts are paid.” Absalom left the preacher with a dumbfounded look on his portly face and climbed back into his truck. Starting it up he began the short drive to the French Broad River. Upon reaching Barnard, which took longer than one would expect, on the curvy roads, Absalom parked and started to walk along the bank of the river. As he walked the ground started to rise, even though the river stayed at the same level. The ground grew rocky as he went up, and he eventually came upon an old trail, the old Drovers Road. Eventually Absalom stood on a cliff overlooking the rushing waters of the French Broad, swelled by several seasons of deep snow and abundant rains. As he stepped to the edge of the cliff, small rocks fell over the side, startling several of the birds that had made nests in the rock. Looking down into the white foam, Absalom breathed a prayer and jumped over the side. If someone could have seen him as he dove toward the waiting water, they would have seen hundreds of birds take flight from the cliff face with his passing. Absalom disappeared into a flurry of feathers. There was never a splash nor was his body ever found.
©Joseph B. Howard II 2000