Sunday, June 16, 2013
It was an exceptional bonfire even by his family’s standards, which were high because he had nurtured their appetite for campfires over the years. A storm earlier in the year had vanquished a gnarled old cedar, its root pediment exposed and sprawled out for all the world like an alien creature that had just keeled over. The late cedar had contributed several large branches to the fire and its boughs, seasoned in the relentless summer sun, had been ideal kindling, snapping and popping with ignited resin.
He leaned back against their fallen benefactor’s bare feet and worried and worked at a muscular root joint with one of the several knives always in his possession, eyeing his circle thoughtfully, deliberately building anticipation. Fifteen-odd pairs of eyes, aged two to 16, followed his movements patiently, knowing he wouldn’t begin to speak until they were all settled and still. Most of them knew him as “Uncle Charlie”, but to five of he was Daddy. Audience and acolytes, ready to believe, they willingly went where his voice took them. And as their shaman and elder, he felt the weight of his tribe’s trust as a sacred burden, careful to conceal the smoke and mirrors behind a feisty grin. Barely 5’5”, brown has a hazelnut and wiry as a cat, his thin frame was clad in madras plaid shorts, a vivid Hawaiian shirt that was both untucked and unbuttoned, and heavy work boots to protect his tender feet. To his tribe, those were sacramental vestments.
The shaman smiled his signature smile. If a facial expression could define the spirit of a person, a state of being or emotion, his grin was mischief incarnate. Without a whisp of malice, intimate with irony but awkward with sarcasm, his grin was his most effective medicine. It was well known that his storytelling was powerful medicine, of course, most often practiced as a group ritual and employed as both diversion and subtle teaching tool It was a healing room entered into by mutual consent and the willing suspension of disbelief. But his smile snuck up on you and made you a co-conspirator. That grin could contain a Cab Calloway tune, your birthday and the prize from the crackerjack box of life when he wanted it to. Or it could contain subtitles to a story that said “I’ll just keep playing out this line until the hook is set, then I’ll reel you in.” His face could dance jigs and reels with no more than the corners of his mouth struggling with a twitch and crinkling, twinkling eyes.
Like grandma might label a jar of preserves, his wife had slapped a label on it years before, calling it his “shit-eating grin” long before she succumbed to it. Marrying his friend Junior’s tomboy kid sister “Beanpole” had shocked and startled a lot of people. But by now the years had rounded her to his liking and he figured he would keep her, despite the fact that it made no sense to think someone might grin while consuming bodily waste. He just accepted the label as her way of expressing the difficult to define, and nowadays he only heard the depth of feeling behind it. Just as he accepted so many things about her that puzzled other people.
Working at a tricky spot in the wood, a knot into which he was carving a leprechaun’s ear, he covertly surveyed his audience. Nieces and nephews arrayed around the fire with his own children among them, the oldest at age 16 holding the baby who was only four.
“So what kind of story do you want tonight?” he asked the assembly.
“Space aliens!” “Robots” “Trains” “Dragons” and “Horses” were among the answers shouted back at him at once. Then his eldest asked for a story about his service in the U.S. Navy. He leaned back and stuck his legs out in front of the fire, crossed at the ankles, and began “I guess I could tell you about how I ended up in a military mental ward….” and with that the hook was set and he began reeling them in slowly.