They Walk Among Us
All my long life, almost 68 years, I've heard stories about those who walk the earth who are not of the earth but of spirit, both good and bad. And thinking along those lines, when I was a child, there were two people who made such a strong impression on me that I have never forgotten them. One was a woman, a minister of sorts, that my mom told me about. The other was a man who became my friend and taught me wondrous things, then left without a trace. I've never been certain if the things I will speak of here happened or if they happened in my dreams. For that matter, who is to say our dreams are not more real than what we call reality? But let's say this story came from a dream, just so I don't get carted off to a psych ward somewhere.
The man I'm speaking of was called Artie or "Art" by everyone in the rural area in Arkansas where I grew up. He knew everything, as far as I was concerned, about nature: which trees were which, what plants were poison, what berries I could eat, what mushrooms I should not touch, and much, much more. He just knew everything about nature and, as I have come to realize, he knew almost everything about life.
All About Artie
Artie told me once that everyone thought he was 65. He said, "I'll tell you a secret if you promise you won't tell a soul."
"Okay, Artie. I won't tell. I promise."
"Well, I am 85."
"Artie, are you sure you're not fibbing? You don't look all wrinkly like Mr. Weatherford or Ms. Jameson and they're 85 or so. I think you're fibbing."
"Mary Sue, have you ever known me to fib?"
"Okay. So there. I am 85 years old. I take care of myself and I get lots of exercise and eat right."
I thought to myself again that Artie was fibbing because in truth, he didn't even look 65 to me. But it didn't matter much to me how old he was. I loved to take walks with him, to pick strawberries with him, to pitch hay with him, and to walk through the mean old chickens and the rooster with him. When I was alone, they pecked me every time. When Artie was with me, they never bothered me at all. Best of all, I liked to gather eggs with him. It seemed like there were always a lot more eggs when Artie was there and the chickens would perch up above us and preen, like they were showing Artie how proud they were of their eggs. They clucked at him and he clucked back. Seemed like he knew a language for every animal.
Things Didn't Always Add Up
Sometimes when I was picking strawberries with Artie, it seemed like I just couldn't get anywhere. I'd pick and pick and they'd fall out of my hand and get lost under the leaves and so forth. The funny thing was that when we were through, both my bucket and Artie's were always full to the brim. And I swear, I wouldn't remember picking so many berries. When I'd say something to Artie, like, "Where did all these strawberries come from?" he would say, "Don't question the generosity of the Universe, Mary Sue. Just be grateful for it."
I wasn't too sure what that meant, but I did know that Artie never seemed to really try very hard at anything. Anyone else who picked strawberries from their garden got hot and sweaty and tired. Artie never broke a sweat and as far as I know, he was never tired. I remember hearing my dad talking about Artie one night. He said, "Something strange about ol' Art. He just doesn't seem human sometimes. I had him help me cut a couple of trees last week and he handled that cross-saw like one of the guys at the mill. A cross saw is something you have to develop a knack for, not just pick one up and be able to use it."
"Well," Mom said, "maybe he has worked in a mill."
My dad laughed at this. "My experience with Artie is that he must have worked at just about every job in the world because he's equally adept at every damn thing he tries. Nobody has that kind of talent."
"Well, what are you saying, James? If you think there's something wrong with him, I don't want Mary Sue hanging around him every minute of the day."
"No, I'd say there's something awful right about him, so right it's downright intimidating. I would never have a problem with her hanging around with him. I think he'd protect her as well as we would if need be."
Well, I was glad they agreed on all that and I agreed with my dad, that there was something different about Artie. But it was a good something.
Saving Baby Bird
One day, Artie and I were taking a walk, carrying some sacks of corn over to the Willow sisters, two older sisters who had a farm that they worked all alone. Sometimes Artie had extra corn, or so he said, and we took them some. As we walked down the dirt path to their farm, we saw a small bird in the path. I ran to it and started to pick it up. "Leave it alone, Mary Sue. Don't touch it. Let me see what's wrong. Birds don't like to be touched."
Artie knelt down beside the bird and looked at it for a long time. "I think this bird is ready to leave this planet. Let's just leave it be." He got up and started to walk away.
Now, I was only ten and began crying and begging. "Artie, please, make him well. I don't want him to die. It's just a baby bird. Please make him well."
Artie stood over me and thought about the dilemma. Artie was only about five feet seven and certainly didn't tower, but at that moment, he seemed huge. His red hair with gray mixed in glinted in the sun. I was literally holding my breath, waiting for his answer. For some reason, the life of that bird was the most important thing in my world at that moment.
"Oh, well, okay. But you can only intercede once, so don't be ever asking again. No matter who gets sick, even someone in your own family, this is your only time to intercede. And you mustn't speak of it, Mary Sue, or all the good people in this community will be surrounding my house and burning me out."
"I won't talk, Artie, I promise." I thought it was cool to have a pact with an adult, especially Artie. I had no idea what intercede meant, but I went along with the deal.
"Meet me out here tonight. You have to be here since you're the one that wants this done. It will only work if you're here. And don't get caught, please. I don't want James and your mom thinking I have bad intentions toward you, having you come out at night and all that."
"No, I'll be here. What time?"
"8:00 sharp. And don't be late."
Ritual in the Woods
I was getting pretty excited about the whole bird thing and a little anxious about sneaking out. I just didn't know what I'd tell James if he caught me. (I only called him James in my imagination. I would get my behind blistered if I did it in person.) It would be easy to sneak out. I went to bed at 8:00 and Daddy just peeked in my room when he went to bed at 11:00. I would roll up some cover to look like me and he wouldn't even notice. And he didn't.
It was a little creepy walking down that ol' dirt road in the dark. I managed to get Daddy's flashlight out of the house and then realized the batteries were dead. The moon was out, though, so it was pretty much okay. Then I saw Artie in the path. He had put the dead bird up in a tree, laid him on some moss growing on the tree.
"Now, Mary Sue, you stand there and get real quiet and you close your eyes and you think about that little bird flying all around in the sky. Just picture him in your mind, flying and swooping and soaring. Just keep thinking about that same thing, the little bird flying and landing in trees and eating and chirping, all the things that birds do."
And I did. I could see that little bird as plain as anything flying about. I didn't even tell Artie, but I pictured him stealing one of Artie's strawberries and that made me laugh. I watched him in my mind for at least five minutes, then I heard a sound. I opened my eyes and the little bird was sitting up on the limb, looking around. I held my breath and started to say something. Artie held up his hand, "Shhhh."
Then out of nowhere the orbs started to come and surround the bird. I kept looking around for where they were coming from. They were white circles of light that seemed to be alive, pulsing and glowing in the dark. They completely covered the bird now. I wanted to ask Artie where they came from but he still had his hand held up, meaning for me to be quiet. Then the orbs lifted and the bird flapped its wings and flew. I watched it fly as long as I could see, then lost sight of it in the trees.
Artie said, "Go home now, Mary Sue, and don't say a word about any of it."
And I did go home. And I never said a word until now because I was never sure if it was real or just a dream. A few years later, my mother became very ill. I knew she would die soon. I thought of Artie and thought I could do the ritual alone because he was gone; but I remembered what he said, that it could only happen once. For a while, I was very angry that Artie let me use my one intercession for a bird. Then I realized that it was all part of the lesson and I made my peace.
I never told the stories about Artie to anyone except a friend of mine who was a psychic. She said Artie was a good warlock. I don't think he was, but I didn't argue. I think he was just a good man who had faith in his own magic. I spent several more months following Artie around, helping him in his garden, helping him carry corn, and listening to everything he said because I knew he knew everything. Spring became summer, hot as hell, and Artie and I spent time in his little one-room house, with his cat, Penney. Penney was a big fat cat with gray hair and yellow eyes. Artie had a window fan and kept it on all the time, but his little house was always cooler by far than any other place in the 100-degree Arkansas heat. He read me stories about Swiss Family Robinson and Peter Pan and such. He taught me how to cook poke salad and how to clean fish. (I know some folks say polk salad. It's poke.)
Summer passed slowly, then fall, with its radiant colors, then winter came. That year, I saved up my allowance and other money from chores I got paid for to buy my own Christmas presents. I bought Artie a new wallet that I knew he would like. It was brown and was real leather. His wallet was old and had creases all over it. I was so excited about bringing it down to his little house that my parents finally said okay that Christmas morning, but to be back in an hour and no longer. As I approached Artie's little house, I knew something was off. It was a cold day and there was no smoke coming from the chimney. Artie always burned his wood stove, all winter long, even on days that were just cool and not cold. I ran to the door and knocked. Nothing. I started to panic and ran from one window to the next, calling his name. Then as I beat on one of the windows, I looked in. Everything was gone. Everything. His table, his chairs, his bed, Penney, everything. And I sat on the ground and cried like the little kid I was that he would leave me. Of course, children don't think further than "me." It was my universe that was being affected. I never thought about Artie and why he might have needed to leave.
He left the house immaculate and the farm was in good shape. My dad told me Artie left it to a cousin of his who later moved in and lived there with his family for years. I asked Daddy why he left and he said no one knew. Daddy said, "I guess he was just ready to move on. Artie had a lot to give of himself and maybe he gave all he needed to right here."
That made me cry again and I went to my room because maybe he was through giving but I wasn't through getting. I was working myself up into a real angry mess.
Not Really Good-bye
That night, I got out of the house a few minutes after I told my folks I was going to bed, at 8:00. I just scooted out the window after rolling up some covers to look like I was in the bed. I walked down the path Artie and I always walked. There was a place he always stopped when we were walking, a place where there were several trees growing in a row. He liked to just sit on the ground and look up at those trees and talk about life and how we have to believe something to be already true before it will happen. I didn't understand Artie back then. I was only ten years old. I do now. He was trying to teach me the principles of metaphysics. I think he knew it might be years before they meant much to me, but his words still echo in my mind sometimes.
It was a dark night and I had to feel my way along the path. When I finally reached the stand of trees that Artie loved, I sat down in the white sand on the path. I just sat there and thought about Artie and all the things he taught me. He used to say that all the kids that made fun of me for being so skinny were just hurting inside from something else and to pay them no mind. He said when my daddy got mean and yelled at me, it was because that was what his daddy did. He told me not to always be asking God for things, that the best thing to do is to thank God for what you've got and he might give you more. Being grateful, he said, was a powerful thing.
As I sat there, the orbs began to come. I noticed the first one because it hovered around my hands, then others came and others until they were everywhere. They stayed a very long time and brought with them that feeling of love and peace that Artie always gave. Eventually they left and I began to walk slowly home. I remembered what Artie always said about being grateful and I started to do just that, think about all the things I was grateful for. That night, the time I had with Artie was at the top of my list.
When I got home that night after going to the stand of trees, I took out the wallet I got for Artie and put it on my bedside table. Artie told me once not to always be asking for signs, to just ask when you felt like you had to have some guidance, some proof that you're not alone. That night, I felt like I just had to do it. So I put the wallet on the table and in my mind, I said, "Send me a sign." The next day, the wallet was gone.
There were stories about Artie after he left, about the fact that he was a witch or a warlock. I don't think men can be witches and I don't think Artie was a warlock. I think he was just a good man who knew a lot about life and how to live it. I think about him a lot still. Of course, by all we know and believe, he would be dead now, almost 58 years later. But I think he's still somewhere, planting things and loving nature and teaching people. I think he's probably still 85 and everyone thinks he's 65.
When I was in my 40s, I did volunteer work with people with AIDS. I often spent time in the French Quarter because that was where most of the people I was assigned to work with lived. One day after attending a grief and healing workshop for those of us who had had multiple losses of people we were assigned to help, I was sitting on a bench in Jackson Square, just letting the sun do its work and enjoying the autumn breeze that was blowing, trying to wind down after an intense workshop. I kept feeling someone was watching me and finally turned all the way around to see behind me. And there was Artie. He had on jeans and a blue flannel shirt and his old work boots. When I met his eyes, he nodded once and smiled. I immediately jumped up but when I turned toward him, he was gone. I think the nod was his approval, or I like to think so. I hope it was.
This story is dedicated to Mr. Flynn.