It was 7:30 a.m. The sunrise was supposed to happen five minutes earlier. Clouds had rolled in to obscure it. Rain and storms arrived the night before. The early morning Sunday October sky was dark and beautiful. Without thinking about it, I found that I was headed to a part of the trail I rarely walked. About a quarter of a mile in, I noted the three abandoned antique vehicles in the brush. The broken, ancient barbed wire fence appeared, its length sporadically still intact.
Over the last year, the wild brush and trees on the other side called to me as I walked by them. I had no idea who owned it. The apparent neglect signaled to me that such a careless owner did not own it at all. The serpentine topography hid all clues about precisely where I was, as did the dense canopy of trees. When I approached the creek bed that flowed under the presumptive fence, I saw that the fence there was gone. Though my shoes were inappropriate for anything except pavement, I stepped through the gap.
With the second step, the air brightened, and the scent of fall decay receded. I took a dozen more steps and pushed against the gnarled branches.
Though the valley should have been shadowy and dark, I could feel the sun’s rays touching my neck. I looked behind me to see that the neglected bushes and trees were gone. In its place was an ankle-high expanse of grass and flowers. I felt like I was experiencing a hybrid dream, one combining Narnia and early-morning half-slumber.
I turned back to look. Instead of foliage, I saw a large red barn with its doors wide open. A hammer clanged rhythmically inside it. A mule stood nearby, untethered.
The hammer continued its work.
“Come on in, I’ve been waiting.” The voice was baritone and melodic.
I didn’t hesitate to walk forward. As I passed it, I rubbed the mule’s neck. It turned slightly to welcome it.
Though the voice did not match my memory, I already knew who would be standing there. I could feel the surety of it.
He appeared to be about forty-five. I never knew him as anything other than old, with a brutal life already behind him.
He wore an old pair of work pants and an oddly green shirt.
“Grandpa? It is you, isn’t it? Your voice is different.” I hesitated.
“I have the voice that belongs to the ideal me. Can I call you Little Bobby, the name I used when we sat on the porch swing together?”
I nodded. Without answering, I walked up to him and hugged him like I learned to do as an adult. He smelled of Old Spice, sawdust, and Cannonball chewing tobacco.
“Little Bobby, I’m most proud that you leaned away from hardness. It could have gone either way for you. I’ve waited forty-four years and three hundred and sixty-two days to tell you that.”
“Yes, but I feel like a failure, Grandpa.”
“I know. None of that is real, son. None of it.” Grandpa put his hand on my shoulder.
He laughed. “I can’t tell you any secrets that you can share. My words are for you only. That’s how it is done. One hour with you is all we get. Help me with this horseshoe, and we’ll talk. Agreed?”
“Yes. Let me help you mess this shoe up. I’m no good at this sort of thing.”
“You were almost a carpenter Little Bobby. And a farmer. Now you’re a writer. Because your job is to find a way to communicate the truth I’m going to share with you without violating the rules here.”
I stood next to Grandpa as he hammered the upper edges of the old horseshoe. The clang of metal was constant and comforting.
Grandpa began to talk, his voice even and confident. I felt like the little boy who sat next to him on the porch swing in Monroe County. Grandpa wasn’t a talkative man nor expressive. Wherever I was, I wanted to stand there forever as he talked. As his voice trailed to a whisper, I realized that the hour was over.
I hugged Grandpa. Instead of sadness, I felt joyous.
“Remember what I’ve told you, Little Bobby. Go live the rest of your life and find a way to share it. We’ll meet again one day and not in the way you expect. You’ll see.”
He turned back to finish another horseshoe, the heavy metal hammer rising and falling.
I walked through the barn doors and ran my hand along the mule’s neck again. Expecting reluctance, I found myself consumed by haste. Not to leave this place but to return to my life, one that would never be the same. In moments I was standing on the trail again, the gap between the creek and fence behind me. Light rain spattered my head and shoulders.
I know you want to know what Grandpa said to me.
I haven’t had enough time to process it, disguise it, and repeat it back. It’s likely that most people wouldn’t accept it. That’s how truth works. It’s obvious after-the-fact but a difficult pill at first.
I’ll give you a hint:
Go outside and look up at the dark sky. Feel the rain lingering in the air. Get a cup of coffee. Find a loved one and put your hand on their arm or run your fingers through their hair. Silence troubled words, worry, or distress that you have no control over your life or the world. Look inside and toward rather than away from.
Hidden inside those words is a world of truth. It’s a zen puzzle that’s not a puzzle at all.
Somewhere, the hammer still rises and falls.
Shadows turn to sunlight.
Voices echo with resonance and truth.
If you’re not sharing your voice and your love, you’re missing the point of everything.