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The Life of Hovis Washam
Hovis Washam is a man, but not just any man. Hovis is an old man and has been around for as long as anyone can remember, yet no one can remember just how long he's been around. He's the kind of man anyone would think of as a hermit'a bent white-haired figure with a sparse, stiff beard, leaning on a cane, who lives way up where no one else even knows exists. On the outside, Hovis may just fit that hermit's description. He does have white hair. It's sparse on his head and stiff. His sparse beard, although mostly white still has some strands of brown'the only tell-tale sign of what the old man might have looked like in his youth before Age descended upon him.
Hovis also has a bent figure'a bend at the shoulders that makes his right elbow stick out a slight bit, and he leans on a curving cane decorated by the delicate carvings that only men with the experience age brings can so perfectly make. All these things you would clearly see if you passed Hovis on the street on any old day, and you would just dismiss him from your mind as an old man who lives somewhere on his own and has nothing to do with you.
However, had you ever stopped to watch Hovis'watch the way he walks'with a slight jump-step and a careful, steady but light step of one foot in front of the other. If you watched the way Hovis' slightly clouded eyes never seem to dart all around or jump about, yet see every little thing that goes on. If you watched the wrinkled, faded and age beaten face as he walked along, as he crossed the street, as he thought his thoughts. If you watched all these things and if you really wanted to see into the shell of a man, you might just be able to see that this little unassuming man has a huge story.
If you look into Hovis' face and stare at his eyes, they flicker just a bit. And in that second of a flicker, you can almost see those wrinkles fall away, the clouds on his eyes disappear, the fuzzy, tiny bit of stiff white hair on his balding head flow back in time to the shock of curly black it used to be. You can almost see the sucked in, wrinkled mouth regain its fullness while its pale line of lips strengthen in color to a rosy pink of youth. If you succeed in this, you will see that this old hermit of a man was once a blithe, gallant young man. Even though you just saw this flashing transformation for just a second, when the old Hovis returns, that rapid alteration will stay with you forever. Now you know that not all that is seen from the outside is a mirror of what is inside. In fact, the exact opposite is so often the case.
Now suppose after you saw this change in the old man that you previously thought of as a nobody, you thought that there must be even more secrets behind the aged face. This thought stayed with you until you yearned to know more. You go and visit the old man to satisfy your curiosity.
As you reach Hovis' house, you are seized with a sudden doubt. Could that transformation have been just your imagination? But as you think back to the event that changed your perception of the old man, you realize with a new fullness that it was indeed a reality.
At your tentative knock, the old man slowly rises out of his chair and stands a while to clear his head before he proceeds to limp to the door to allow his visitor to enter. He cannot remember the last time someone knocked at his door, but with all the other things he has been forgetting lately he doesn't trust himself to remember anything like this. He had felt queerly different that morning when he woke up. Something hard to describe'like a wave of grace'had passed over him. He was glad to have company'some one to be with'whoever it might be. He fumbles with the rusty old latch on his oaken door and opens it to see the face of a youth. For a moment Hovis stands motionless except for the slight swaying motion that can be expected from old people. As he looked into the young face of the teen, he was plunged into reminiscent memories of when he himself had been that young. As he did, he reveled in the fact that his elderly brain had at least allowed him this slight moment of near fun. Almost painfully the old man wrenches himself from his beloved memories to attend to his guest.
The boy, now feeling sure that he had disturbed a mad man during his senseless ramblings, had almost turned to go when the old man spoke. It was not merely the words that the old man spoke that made the youth turn around again, but the sound of the words spoken. They were not the hollow, raspy, lisping words of an old, toothless hermit. They were the words of a man. Yes there was a slight lisp, for Age had not been as kind as to leave the elderly one with all of his teeth. Yet except for that small factor, the words of the man were like the forest itself--strong, solid and deep, yet also soft and swaying. They surprised the youth, and in spite of himself, he found his strange desire to know more about this man return in full force. 'Yes, me boy,' Hovis spoke. 'Why have ye come to me house on this fine day?'
'Um, sir. . . I was going . . . well, you see, I . . .' Even though he immediately liked the old man, he found himself unable to speak just the right words he intended to say to make a good impression. Then the strangest thing happened. Hovis looked deep into the youth's eyes and said,
'Ah!! So ye've come to see and hear about old Hovis here! Well just ye step right in, son.' This Hovis said as if the youth had spoken his exact intentions out loud and clearly! Amazed and a bit stunned, the youth, known as Jake, followed the bent figure of Hovis into the small, but well lit and arid one room house. The surroundings showed exactly what kind of man Hovis was. The room was well lit--all the shades thrown open to welcome in the light. The air flowed freely through. It was not at all like one would expect an old person's apartment or house to look or feel like: all stuffed up and smelling like medicine. This little house smelled of something different. . . what it was Jake could not quite make out until he saw all the different dried spices, herbs and flowers hanging from the ceiling of the corner of the house that was the kitchen. All four walls were decorated with hangings of detailed wood carvings as big as portraits on cross sections of stumps. The exact, tiny, and exhaustive detail immediately made Jake wonder how such an old man who obviously didn't wear any glasses could do such precise, minute work.
'Is the carvings you see don't ye boy?' Hovis asked Jake, who was obviously enthralled with the carvings.
'How do you get them to stand out of the wood and look so real? The best carvings I have seen in the museum back in town don't look this good!' The boy, in his excitement, had forgotten his awkwardness.
'Ay. The carvings are of me thoughts and past,' the forest-like voice answered Jake's question. Hovis arose from where he had seated himself and hobbled a little until the crink in his legs loosened. Then he walked over to join the boy. 'Which one would ye be likin' boy?' Jake took his time and looked all around the house at each carving. Having studied the carvings, he finally pointed to one that had immediately caught his attention. Hovis' face lit up, and as he turned to smile at the youth, Jake saw a lightning-like scar flicker across Hovis' left cheek as the elderly man smiled at his choice. The carving had such great detail the figures in it leapt out at the old man and boy as they stood staring at it and thinking their own thoughts. Hovis wasn't much of a talker and neither was Jake, so this moment of silence meant just as much and said just as much as a bunch of gossiping housewives in a cross-stitch get-together. The bear in the carving stood tall on its hind legs, each hair on its body carefully carved out on the wooden slab. The beast towered above a boy, also in the carving. The boy's face was carved in such detail you could tell that he must not be much older than 15. The boy held a gun and it was pointed at the bear whose face showed all the fury, evil and malice of an angered female beast. One could almost see the pure white of her glistening, bared fangs. The boy's face showed no fear or panic as one would expect the face of a boy of 14 facing a bear to show, but an expression of calm, almost amusement, covered the smooth boyish face.
'You carved this?' Jake asked incredulously.
'That I did, son. That wee boy in the carving,' Hovis said looking up at Jake, 'That wee boy is me.' And Hovis smiled again, and again the slight lightning scar flickered across his left cheek as the skin pulled tight when he smiled. Jake looked at the old man.
'And you weren't afraid, sir?'
'Why should a boy be a-feared if he's got his whole life ahead of him? If he be the lady's choice? If the Father up in Heaven be on his side? No, son, I was not afeared. I was out to kill that there bear and I was gonna do it. I never carve what did na' happen. I carve what is real, son. I do na' lie in the carvings. If I lied in the carvings, I would be lying with my speech, for the carvings are my life, son.' Jake understood perfectly now. All these carvings were the man's life! He didn't need to talk after all. He and Hovis could just walk around the room and let the carvings talk for them. Jake picked a place to start.
He picked a carving with the youngest character as a good place to start. As he studied the carvings on all four of the walls, Jake found himself plunged into a world that he could never have imagined. Jake assumed that the boy in the first carving was Hovis because there was no mistaking'even though the boy was younger'that it was the same boy of the bear carving. The boy was walking in a gorgeous meadow filled with flowers gently towing a little girl along by the hand, who was trying to pick every flower in view. The boy's face was one of pride and certainty, while the little girl's was one of amazement at all the beauty around her. The next carving was of the boy again, older now. He was seated in a school room. He alone, along with a fat, wilted teacher. Obviously the boy was in detention, for he was the only one in the room and he was staring out a window with the most melancholy, wistful look on his face. As he stared out the window, all the other children were leaving for home, hand in hand and laughing. The next carving was the one with the bear and Jake passed this one by with a smile.
The carving in the next slab showed the backs of two youths, about Jake's age of 17 sitting on a swing under a great weeping willow. The girl's soft curly hair trailing out behind her as she rested her head on the boys shoulder, and he in turn rested his head on the girls shapely crown. A sunset glowed in the distance and one could almost taste the romance that must have hung in the air at that time so many years ago. As Jake finished looking at this romantic scene, he took a quick glance at Hovis with a roguish look in his eyes, but Hovis was back in his old rocking chair slowly puffing on a pipe, oblivious to all the fun Jake was having discovering the great moments in the elder's early life.
Jake moved on. The carving in front of him now showed a couple dressed in finery'the handsome man in a suit, and the attractive, witty girl in a flowing dress and veil. And behind them in the distance stood the faint outline of a tall steeple. The couple's arms were linked together and they were looking deep into each other's eyes with bliss so great written on their faces that one might find himself starting to congratulate the newlyweds before he realized he was still staring at just a carving. Jake found himself lingering on this particular carving as he thought of Alice back in the village.
He presently moved on though, unable to dwell too long on any one carving in his excitement to learn what would happen next in the earlier life of this Hovis Washam. The next carving showed a man walking up a dirt road to a house, his hoe slung over his right shoulder. His face wore the tiredness and strain of a good days work in the fields, but also the joy of a job well done and the eagerness of wanting to see someone, as he lifted his bronzed, handsome face towards the porch of the house. On the porch, stood the someone the man longed to see. It was the same beautiful girl in the wedding carving. She had one arm wrapped around a pillar next to the stairs of the veranda and in the other hand she held a dish towel. Her hair blew in tiny wisps out of her high bun, and beneath the lace-lined apron tied around her neck and waist, was a small bulge that Jake quickly interpreted with a sort of tingling happiness for the old man as he hurried on to the next carving to see what he hoped it would show.
The next carving was not at all what Jake had expected to see. He took one look at it and stepped back with a little gasp. The carving depicted two mounds of earth. One regular sized with a neat bunch of wild flowers placed at the head of the mound. The other mound so small that it wasn't even half the size of the bigger one. Upon this tiny grave a single rose was placed, all that was left in remembrance of the child Hovis never knew. As Jake's eyes moved away from the two fresh mounds of dirt, his heart filling with sorrow, he saw that above the two graves, a swing hung from a great weeping willow tree. Jake turned to look at the old man, words of sympathy welling up in his thoughts, but as he met Hovis' eyes, the aged man just waved Jake back to the carvings, taking slow big puffs on his pipe and turning once again to the window to gaze into the afternoon glow.
Jake turned back to the carvings, giving the previous one just one more quick look of dazed sorrow before he moved on. Next he came upon a blank piece of wood. I guess to say it was blank would not be quite accurate. There was a pattern of lines and dashes and symbols that, at first reference, might seem very complicated indeed. The more one looked, however, the more aimless, patternless and dull the carving seemed. And Jake understood. This carving explained everything that Hovis must have felt with out his beloveds. At first he felt a complicated jumble of emotions, but as time wore on, everything just became aimless, patternless and dull.
Jake could think about that carving no longer and quickly moved onto another figure, praying that this one at least, would bring some, if not much cheerfulness back into this once happy series. But it did not. The next depicted a man alone. Standing braced against a tree, with a sadness and faraway look in his eyes, the man stood away from the crowd which was gathered, all smiles and happiness, around a newly wed couple. The man's hands were in his pockets and he stared from his lonely place at the jubilant faces of the happy couple with the crushing his heart was experiencing showing so clearly on his drawn, but still handsome face.
Jake moved on. He had to see some light in these pictures, darkened with grief, or he would start tearing up. The subsequent carving, if not light, at least showed something different. It contained a small boy, dressed in rags standing on a street corner. The little boy had a dirty but not unlikable face that showed he knew exactly who he was and what he was doing at all times. The boy was not older than eight, yet something in that carefully detailed face showed that the boy's experiences made him older than his years. The boy was not the only one in the picture. A man was also there and the two were having some sort of staring competition with each other. The handsome, but now slightly aged, face of the man showed that he was amused, yet thinking hard about something as he and the boy continued to look into each other's eyes.
Jake moved to the next carving hoping that it would shed some light on this puzzling picture. It did. The next picture told what the previous one had failed to tell. Two people were working in the fields. One, with the strong glistening back of a true farmer, sickle in hand, was placing smooth, steady strokes to the stalks of grain. His face'the handsome one of Hovis'was set as he worked. It did not look at the stalks he was felling, but at the other figure in the carving with a slight trace of amusement as he watched. The other figure was definitely the boy of the previous carving. He was not dressed in rags anymore but in a pair of overalls a little too big for him. Unlike the true farmer Hovis was in the picture, the boy was a complete novice. He held the sickle with both hands and was bent over in a way that showed his concentration, but not in any way easing to his work. His face showed no sign of worry or giving up, only complete concentration as he worked, only bending the golden stalks of grain as he chopped, and not slicing them through as the other figure. Jake smiled at the carving in spite of himself.
The next picture skipped quite far into the future. In it, was a large wagon harnessed to two muscular horses. Inside the wagon was a young man'early twenties by the looks of him. Even though so much time had obviously passed, still the face of the young man in the wagon was recognizable. It had the same certainty as it had in the carving when it was first introduced'as a beggar boy in rags. Sitting next to the man in the wagon was a young lady. Her bonnet was covering her face, yet by the way her hand lay gently and lovingly on the young man's lap, showed that the two must definitely be engaged if not married. One of the young man's hands were holding firmly to the reigns of the impatient horses while the other was grasped tightly in a solid handshake with the other character present in the carving'a now more than slightly aged man, but with the unmistakable face of Hovis. Hovis' face was firm in the carving. He smiled yet it was a strained smile, not a true one. The young man in the wagon's face was also firm, yet he was not so successful in hiding all his emotions. Jake didn't know whether to be happy for the new couple or sad for Hovis, and not liking to be so undecided, he moved on.
There were only three more carvings left now. The first showed the aging but still handsome figure of Hovis loading up a car. Moving out of the house that had held so much joy and so much sorrow. As he lifted the last box onto the old fashioned vehicle, his face was sad but also relieved. Jake wondered where in the world the man could be heading to now, and stepped over to the second to last carving. This one showed Hovis building a house. Jake was sure it was the very house in which he was standing this minute. Simple, yet made with the skill of a true farmer and woodworker. Made with the same hands that had towed along a little sister so lovingly. Made with the same hands that had killed a bear so unfearfully. Made with the same hands that had placed a ring on his beloved's hand, trembling with excitement. Made with the same hands that had then dug those seemingly endless holes to bury pieces of his heart only a year later. Made with the same hands that had taken a homeless boy in off the streets and cared for him, being so lonely and full of love to share, that he was willing to take the risk of having the boy only run away soon. And finally, made with the same hands that had worked so hard working the land, raising a boy who was not his own, and sending the boy off as a man. As Jake thought of all this, he paused. Had I not come here today, he thought, I never would have known the life this man had. I would have continued to pass him on the road and think of him only as an old, strange hermit. Jake was almost satisfied enough with this ending that he almost forgot to look at the last carving.
Hovis watched the boy and was glad that he took so much fascination in his woodwork. He finally felt a peace, now that someone knew about his life. A peace that made him feel he could live the rest of his life as a loved man.
Jake moved slowly to the final carving and looked into the tamed roughness of the wood to discover the secret that it held. The last picture was different from all the rest. It did not contain humans at all, only angels. Angels with shining heavenly faces were floating on the pearly clouds of heaven. Some had trumpets and others tambourines. They were dancing with joy for something that Jake did not know. There was no sadness at all in this carving and Jake stood to look longer and get every little piece of the carving engrained in his head like all the others. Then, as he finished, he sighed slightly and turned around to tell Hovis what a grand carver he was and how he had thoroughly enjoyed his stay. At the moment he turned around, Jake knew something was different. The room had become still. There was no steady puff of Hovis on his pipe, nor the monotone of the slightly squeaking ancient rocker. As Jake completed his turn he inhaled quickly. There sat Hovis in his chair, but he was different. He was still. He was no longer alive.
His head was slumped back on his ancient rocker. His hands hung limp at his sides, the pipe slipping out. Jake would have raced out of that house as quick as lightning, just as anyone else would have, rather than be with a dead man, yet something made Jake stay. He looked at Hovis' face. All the sorrow and strain of his past life was in it no more. Its expression was peaceful, almost joyous as it hung limp against the back of the rocker and all of a sudden the youth understood. The last carving was not of the past as all the others had been. It was of the future. And hadn't old Hovis mentioned 'the Father in Heaven' at the beginning of their meeting? Yes, he had. Jake took one last look at the man, now freed of all his sorrow, before he silently closed the door of the little house and walked, hands in his pockets, back to the town and to notify the police. If he hadn't come to visit Hovis today, his house and its contents would have been sold, once he had been discovered, and no one would have known that those artful pictures carved on the wooden cross sections of a stump, were Hovis Washam's life story. As Jake continued down the winding road, leaving the old man's lifeless body in peace, he thought of one thing only'the book he was going to write.