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Volume 10, Issue 3: Pictura


Nathan Wilson

The porch swing had always been old. It hung by the door and kept watch over the silent house. If it had ever been painted, it wasn't in this century. Chains rusted and wood like bone, the swing stole your trust and pleaded with you to sit and watch the fields ripple in the wind and the heat bake the grass. Here I sit and slowly rock, listening to the creaking of the swing describe to me the house, the fields, the well and the trees. The swing knows all the stories. And while I sit and listen, I become part of them.

This is the house where my great granddad had been born a slave. From where I sit, I can see where he is now. This is the house where my grandma had been married, lived, bore my daddy, and died. This is the house, and this is the swing.
I had come back to the house because I had to. I'd worked in Boston since high school. I had kept busy enough that at first I never noticed my ache. I had no family, I had never married, I had never vacationed, I had never lived. The guys at work had always invited me over for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and at first I had gone. Now I hadn't accepted the invitation in years. They'd done it because they pitied me. I'd gone because I'd pitied me. Now I was well beyond self pity. When I retired, they had thrown a party. They gave me beer, books, and had all chipped in and bought me a TV. I never watched it.
For years after that I lived in a retirement village outside Boston. My pension was small but so was my place. I would pay my rent and buy my groceries and then I would stick the rest of my money in a box under the couch. At first the guys would still call me, but after awhile they forgot. I don't blame them. They had families. After dinner sometimes I would sit outside and listen to the noises from the other places. I could hear couples talking about health problems, pets and barbeques. I could listen, but I could never talk. Some times I would sit outside and play my guitar. I could make it talk to me, and I knew it was talking to my neighbors. They heard me play, and they knew that I was there. My guitar kept me from talking to myself.
On my birthday, I would walk down the street to the little grocery store and buy a pint of ice cream. Then I would go home and listen to the noises of my neighbors and eat my celebration. I could never finish it. During the day I would work in my garden. (I had a garden. Sometimes I would play for it.)
When I was younger, I had painted over my loneliness with hard work. I had tried to think that I was going somewhere and becoming someone. Now, I had no lies left to tell myself. I was nowhere. My life was over and I had gone no place. But what was worse was that I had gone no place with nobody. Nobody. My image of Heaven was a place where there was someone to talk to. Someone who would listen to me play my guitar. But I'd been to church before and I knew there was no such place. Now, more often than listening to my neighbors and pretending, I would listen and face the truth. My life was empty -- no meaning, and no joy. I would sit in my door and look around the cul-de-sac at the lit windows, and I could hear the conversations that make up relationships. And I would cry, for I had neither of these things. I would cry until I was afraid my neighbors might hear, then I would go back into my place and cry for the shame of my wailing
I had lived this long. I had nothing better to do. Somebody said that despair like I had is deadly for a man, because it'll kill his want to live. That's not how it was with me. I was afraid of emptiness. So I woke up every morning scared, scared of the empty day ahead, and of the nothing it would bring. But that didn't mean I wanted to die. I knew the empty I would feel six feet under would make my life look exciting.
The day before my eighty-sixth birthday I woke up knowing I was beat.
I didn't want to die, but I knew death was all that was left for me. I got up, ate breakfast, and went outside and watered my plants. When I came back inside I knew I was going to run.I had to change something. A long life was behind me, but I was still too scared to die. What I wanted was to find somewhere that meant something. Something for me. I put clothes into a bag with all the money from under the couch. I needed to say goodbye to my place and my neighbors, so I took my guitar outside and played. I played longer than I had ever played before and a lady even came outside to listen. Then I slung my guitar over my shoulder and, carrying my bag, I headed off for the bus station.
It had taken me a day and a half, but I had found the house. Still sitting back between the two hills, with the big elms in front. Still surrounded by hay fields. It was empty and dead to the rest of the world, but not to me. The last time I sat in that swing, I'd been fifteen. Come out of town to watch my great uncle get buried. The swing still remembered me. It remembered my daddy and my granddaddies.
Now I sat in the swing. And I listened, just like I had listened to my neighbors, only they hadn't been talking to me. I listened to all the stories and watched the fields and the trees. I watched the hills, and they listened too.
I heard about my great granddad, and how strong he'd been. How he'd been so strong that his master had him tug o' war with one of the mules. And how his master gave him five dollars when he won. I heard and I laughed, and the trees and the fields laughed, because they remembered. The swing told me about how he'd met my granny, and how the master had married them. It told about how he died fighting in the hay field across the creek. And I was proud that he was mine.
I sat in the swing and laughed. The swing rocked and creaked, and told all it knew to its prodigal son. It forgave me for coming so late and so did the house and the fields. They forgave and embraced me. They told me where I was from, and what I was, and to them I was not empty. To them I was part of a picture. A picture of joy and even of sorrow. But not of emptiness.
While I sat and laughed with the trees and fields, while I listened to the swing creak its story, I loved. I loved my granddad and his young bride. I loved my great granddad and his courage, I loved my grandma's cooking and my momma's dog. I loved my family and I loved where I came from. I learned what it was to sacrifice from my grandad and I wept at his death. I learned what joy was and the meaning of sorrow. I had no sorrow before. I had only emptiness.
Then the swing told me about me. It told me about how I had tried to climb the big elm out front in my Sunday best after Great Uncle Toby's funeral, and about the whipping I got for it. It told me about how I'd fallen down the stairs in the back and lost two teeth. It brought back old and long dead memories of who I was. And then it told me about my momma's death and how my daddy had moved us to the city, so I could get learning. It told sad stories of moves and deaths, and then the quiet.
When it finished its stories, my eyes were swimming but I wasn't crying. Then I told them my story. I got out my guitar and they listened. I looked out at the fields blow while I sang. I watched the trees sway and the wind climb the hills. The swing rocked gently with my story. They listened to me, the same way they had watched my granddaddy and my momma. And my story wasn't a sad one. I had a strong daddy, and a strong great granddaddy. My momma loved me and my granny could make the best strawberry pie. They listened to my story, but my story had changed. It was full. Full of love and joy for a family I was part of. And when I'd finished my story, I just kept on swinging.
Now I sit and watch the sun set over the hills where my granddaddy died, just another sunset in the swing's story, and I think about all the things that happened here at this house, in this swing, beneath those trees and on those hills. I think about all my family, and I laugh. I know that death isn't empty.

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