The following nonfiction short story was written by Harold Macy, a person with Parkinson's and author of several books.
Abel always thought it’d happen to the other guy. Not him, now it had. The last roll of the dice, the flip of a card. He never imagined his days would end like this, fallen into a freezing ditch, stuck fast and soaked to his hips. It had snowed for three days and then, as so often happens on the Island, it rained.
Water has three forms – liquid, ice, and air. Mixed they are slush, like quicksand, having no edges, no hardness, offering only passive resistance.
The more he flailed the tighter the clamp around his soggy pants, his legs already aching from the cold. Sunk into a roadside trench, of his own need and desire, across the sidehill of the family woodlot. It’s getting dark and he couldn’t feel his feet. Teeth chattering. Shivering. A mammal’s final response.
A flock of chittering chickadees flitted through the thick conifer branches looking for a last evening meal from their days stash of seeds and buds. They cocked their black-capped heads and, with bright curious eyes, watched Abel. He also watched them ruffle themselves into feathery footballs for the night.
Cozy, he thought. Wish I was one.
He knew his situation was dire but his brain seemed to observe his dilemma detached and far from it, unable to act. He looked down at his own legs as if they belonged elsewhere, the ability to move forgotten. Thoughts hovered, then fled unheeded.
Several years before, a similar rain-on-snow event had occurred but he stayed home by the warm fire and only glanced out the window at the gloomy afternoon thinking all was well. The next day, he drove his truck up to the woodlot behind their rural home. Around a corner, the road was simply missing. A deeply eroded gully, full of dirty rushing water and clattering stones, cut into the grade. He grabbed a shovel and struggled up what was left of Branch West 120 until he found the clogged culvert diverting meltwater out of the ditch, sluicing tons of rocks and gravel down the disintegrating roadbed. He scooped out the plug of mud, branches, and creeping blackberry, thinking about calling Howie and his bulldozer to push the gravel back up hill.
A low beam of weak late winter sunshine slanted through the smooth glistening trunks of the young forest of fir and chalky alder, focusing on a solitary crystalline prism of pendent snow with enough heat to release a single drop. The water did what water does. It fell into a palm-sized pool, then tumbled in a giggling trickle to become a rivulet, gaining direction and purpose. More water joined in a wildly playful release to form a stream following the path of least resistance in a headlong rush to the great awaiting saltchuck.
He deepened the ditches to hasten their descent.
Abel had leaned on the shovel and thought he was a fool to ignore the weather signs and promised never again. He finished chastising himself and looked up at the young forest around him. He had planted a hundred trees for each child and grandchild born. He remembered last April when the musty smell of awakening forest duff rose from the hole he had dug. His granddaughter carefully nestled a seedling and tamped soil around the hair-thin, cinnamon-coloured roots. When the bucket was empty, they found a log in the sun and unwrapped apple slices and leftover chicken drumsticks. They ate quietly, only talking to point out magnificent discoveries.
Now the kids were gone, making their own ways in life, the trees grew tall, straight, strong and he was an old man with gimpy legs and a thick folder in his doctor’s office who had just told him it was time to take it easy. But pride is a hard burden to unload. Try as he might, Abel thought that laying it down was not worth the effort.
“Isn’t it enough just to know in your heart that you’ve done the best you could. Why make a fuss?” He tried to explain.
“I've spent fifty of my seventy years in the west coast forests, in a place where one’s value is measured in output, in grit, in the ability to stand out in the raging gale, drenched to the skin, on the bounce, dodging hazards of every description – vegetal, animal, human, or mechanical, and not give in. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to sound macho or heroic. I wouldn’t have any other history.”
But after all these rough and tumble years doing what he loved, his body began to fail. He knew why but shrugged when the doctor asked. Careless acts are not made less so by disclosing them.
He had been falling trees on a pole contract, taking only the selected few: pipestem straight with scant branches and no defects such as catfaces, scrapes, or fungi.
Concentrating on making his saw cuts true to aim, he hadn’t noticed a forty-foot hemlock snag, dead from root rot, beginning to loosen and fall from the impacts of his previous trees hitting the ground. Something or someone made him turn his head and twist his body around at the last minute so the tree came down across his shoulders, not his head, glanced off his back driving him to the ground and pinning him there. He fumbled for his metal safety whistle and blew six times for help.
He had taken a week off and was left with a shiny blue tattoo where the skin had been flayed. But grateful to be alive, thanks to that unseen something or someone that made him look up in time. The corner of his eye was a busy place, like an old-time movie — images flickering as transient as a spring cloud’s scoot. Other times he thought he heard voices like echoes off a rock face across a lily-pad lake, then fading away. Was that it?
Since that day, pain and a chronic backache were constant reminders. And the x-ray confirmed the damage.
He knew something was wrong when the technician holding the print looked at it, gasped, “Holy cow,” and called for the doctor.
It revealed a spine that resembled a train derailment. One vertebra was jammed into the next in painful misalignment, all grinding away at his quivering nerves. He was admitted for spinal decompression surgery; screws, bolts, and pins now becoming part of him. And not delicate Swiss watch type fittings as he imagined, but hardware he might employ fixing the tin roof of his hen house.
He followed the post-surgery exercises as best he could, and for a month he healed, stretched and moved gingerly. Then the physiotherapist noticed Abel’s right leg wasn't responding like it should. Yes, it was dragging behind the rest of his body, like the Newfoundland time zone, half an hour off the other Atlantic provinces’. The left leg struggled in vain to compensate.
It was like they had lost their wires to the brain, and his brain forgot it was connected to a pair of legs. Every step or movement now required planning and forethought. He had to tell one foot to move, then the other. A short walk to get the mail was exhausting and hardly worth it. Usually only adverts or requests for money.
The physio had quietly mentioned other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and tests verified it. An affliction which fastenings couldn’t fix, like some ravening Beast within his own body, uninvited and unwelcome.
After that diagnosis, Abel stumbled and gimped, avoiding the scrutiny of the masses where possible. Their curious eyes slid from his face to the dull leg and shuffling foot. He often felt like a vole frozen in fear by the unblinking stare of the predator looking for the halt and lame. Centre ring for the circus of oddities. Like having a public affliction, this stooped posture, this limping walk. Always the irritating questions, always the need to share their unwelcome advice and experiences, always with the unspoken ‘There but for the grace of God….’
He had never been much for going to town once he quit drinking at the hotel, but a shopping list gave him a reason. After buying a few groceries, a box of galvanized nails, and watching for errant pedestrians and bicyclists who thought the road theirs alone, he decided he had earned a reward. He lurched out of his truck aiming at Starbucks for a ridiculously priced fancy coffee, but got distracted by the usual display of the urban unusual, caught his scuffling toe on the curb and fell flat on his face. The hipsters with their man buns and beard beads rushed up and asked “Hey, bro, you okay?” As if lying in a pool of blood was normal. As if, despite his years, they still called him a “bro.”
Abel later admitted he enjoyed all the attention from the pretty ladies who ran out of the coffee shop, but he failed to convince them once the bleeding slowed and the world stopped whirling, he’d be just fine to drive home if they’d help him into his truck.
“Can I call someone for a ride? Can your wife come and pick you up?” asked one of the crowd, noticing Abel’s worn wedding band.
“I doubt it. Sonja died two years ago.”
Abel returned to his farm following treatment. Food had lost any appeal and with no one else to cook for, he became more gaunt. After punching the last holes in his belt, worn bib overalls clothed him. He made his regular morning porridge in the same pot he heated his noontime soup, then his supper of canned stew on even numbered days, mac and cheese on odd. One pan, one bowl, one spoon. Facing one empty chair across the chipped yellow kitchen table.
He sought familiar routines and places for reassurance and solace, tried to find comfort in night sounds: the hum of the fridge, the tick of the wall clock, wood stove crackling, his old dog Blink, his last best friend, lay jerking, snoring, and flapping wet pink lips in dreams of his own youthful antics.
The big black lab, now with a greying muzzle, was named for how quickly he could disappear into the night for his hours-long prowl raiding the neighbour’s garbage cans and patrolling his turf. Abel often feared he’d never return. Would the wolves corner him, or a cougar he treed tire of her awkward refuge and descend on Blink, calling his bluff? On the pitch-darkest night with rain and wind howling in on a south-easter up the Strait, Abel listened for a scratch on the door. There would be Blink, soaked to the bone, tongue lolling out from a satisfied feral grin. Relieved, Abel would dry him as much as Blink allowed, who then made several circuits of his cushion by the woodstove before clunking down with a deep sigh.
Time became like dark amber maple syrup. He moved slowly for someone once used to stepping over all obstacles. He walked in halting steps to his shop in the back of the barn, where he sat on a stained dining room chair and stared at his blotched hands, knuckles like dry walnuts, palms with geologically deep cracks, then raised his face to look around the room.
Wooden apple crates from the Okanagan, dove-tail cornered ammunition boxes, a dozen shovels of every size and shape, the heavy Jack-all, a peavy, ropes, chains and a come-along, cardboard boxes of plumbing and electrical left overs, cans of bolts and nuts, metal tool boxes full of wrenches, pliers, and socket sets, sacks of bird seed for winters visitors. A Christmas tree stand from when the farmhouse was filled with family. Used nails to straighten out on a rainy day. On a spike driven into a beam hung a weight of power saw chains, sharpened down to a nub for saws he no longer had or could not safely use.
A shower pattered on the tin roof; the wind rattled the loose-fitting window he never got around to nailing tight. So many things left undone. Now with the Beast Within, he wondered if he ever would. What was it he did yesterday that took him all day to do?
Another winter had come and Abel tore off the last page of his calendar. Forty centimeters of heavy snow had fallen in three days. Then it rained. Trees in the woodlot cracked under the load. The snow settled as well, but was still deep. The feeder was busy with the jaunty chickadees, juncos, and raucous jays.
His preferences were trees, dogs and some, but not all, blood relatives. This beloved forest was his sanctuary. Even with the Beast erasing cogent thought, the bush was familiar, yet every visit gave a new sight or sound. Expecting the same welcome, he drove as far as the snowy road remained passable, then slewed the truck around. Years in the bush ingrained the habit of leaving it facing out in case he needed a speedy exit. Some things he remembered. He left the truck and slogged up the hillside road ensuring that the culverts and ditches were flowing free with the huge volume of runoff. He was determined not to repeat his previous mistake. Impatient water gurgled beneath the sagging snow.
He took just two steps off the road and suddenly sunk up to his knees in icy slush, which quickly saturated his woolen pants. Already wobbly and sweaty from the effort of walking, he was now firmly gripped. Slush, like fine cold silt, clamped around both legs. He realized he had ten minutes before hypothermia would overcome him.
He twisted around to look at the sanctuary of his truck. The Ford’s safety looked as distant as his home bed. Cab light was on, Blink’s head silhouetted as he whined and paced back and forth in the cab watching Abel struggle.
As the dusk shadows lengthened, an evening breeze moved the snow-laden branches, dumping more snow on his head and back. He envied the black-capped chickadees that had taken shelter in the dense fir boughs, bunched together for the long dark night.
I’m done for, he thought. Hope the dog gets found soon. Don’t want him to pee in my truck. Then he heard something or someone moving through the darkening forest, a big something. With a snapping of dry lower branches, a fir snag fell across the ditch just in front of him, spraying a scattering of fresh snow shaken from its crown. The disturbed chickadees exploded, scolding, out of the roost tree and disappeared into the forest.
Abel stared at it for a minute, not immediately recognizing the opportunity. But the shiny scar on his back had its own memory. He reached out his sodden arms and grabbed the stem with dull fingers. The talons of the Beast released and his boots came free.
With caution, he began to wallow himself out of the ditch. On the road, he tried to rise from his hands and knees only to collapse. But each struggle brought him closer to the Ford.
Eventually, he opened the door and pulled himself in. Blink looked up and licked life into Abel’s blue fingers grasping for the steering wheel. Another bush trick: leave the keys in the ignition. No fumbling. The engine started immediately and blessedly warm air sighed from the vents.
In a few minutes, the foggy windshield cleared and as he dropped into first gear four-wheel drive, he glanced in the rearview mirrors and saw the broken snag laying at an angle over the desperately trampled snow around the ditch.
“What do you think, old Blink?”
The dog perked his ears, shook his head vigorously, spraying lab slobber around the cab, made a couple of circuits on his blanket, then dove down to sniff his crotch.