I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300-year-old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time. Other time-worn sojourners are here too: gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak. Even the carpet of huckleberry where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old. Much older than I am. Much older than I will ever be.
The tallest of the longleaf has been struck by lightning. I see the long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from the topmost branch down to the ground. The wound is old, but a wound none-the-less, a visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant. The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.
A ground-fire blazed up from the lightning strike. A momentary conflagration in the great cycle of nature’s binge and purge. Brief, yes, but intense. The smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon were scorched before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames. Such is the nature of summer storms. Not always the tallest and strongest take the hit and suffer. Sometimes innocent bystanders have the worse fate.
I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket. It is a talisman of a sort, a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon. We are not protected from jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the quiet stillness of heavy air. Such acts are not random, though they may appear so. They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time. No other way that they could be. Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day. No other place this trail could be. No other time that it could be walked by me in this way in or this moment.
I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line. It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me. I imagine from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough. The soil is eroded and thin. Nothing grows here for lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite. This is where the timber-rattler comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.
The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again. Another trail, faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope. A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent. Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know. Only time and the descent will tell.
I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now. I will go down the steep side-slope to the broad level land in the hollow below. A creek flows there, although I cannot see it or hear its music yet.
A little spot near that creek is my destination.
*Author’s note: Occasionally I like to write short fiction. I wrote this short story in 2013, so I expect that not many of you have read it. It is rather long for a blog format, so I will be publishing it here as it was originally presented, as a “serial.” This is good and bad. Good in that you will probably read it if I keep the word-count down so as to keep your attention. Bad if you somehow read the next installment without understanding that something came before it.