A LOOK INSIDE
Chapter 1 :The Setting
The Wake. I overheard snippets of stories about Big Dan as I moved from the edge of one group to the periphery of another. Dan MacNeil or Big Dan or just Big, for that is what my brothers and I called him, had been a man of few words.
He looked comfortable lying there, which was an odd thought to have, given he was dead. Thankfully, there wasn’t a plastic smile pasted on his remains. When Big was alive, smiles squeezed from his eyes slowly, keeping pace with the way he used words. No amount of artistic flourish by someone preparing him for the casket, could recreate that remembered mischief on his lifeless face.
It felt odd standing here listening to the murmured sighs around me. Big had raised other people’s kids, my mother being one, and taught my brothers and I to make hay and shoe his stubborn Clydesdale. That last one needed a good knowledge of words having less than five letters. Big even shared his dog Blaze with us, and that memory is still perfect.
Big had been a miner and farmer, and he and his sister Sadie owned a farm that two of my brothers and I visited often. Whenever we stayed there, the five of us would pick up where we had left off as if there had been no interruption in our previous stay. Filling the water buckets, emptying ashes from the coal stove, or taking an aging horse for a drink, consumed little of our time. There was considerable opportunity for mischief when we stayed on the Farm and adventures took us to the four corners of the property. Memories of those adventures overwhelmed me now as I looked over at Big in his coffin.
Big’s silent face reminded me that he often spoke in sentences of five words or less. My questions to him would generally be answered with “Over there;” or “Why are you asking?” His instructions could be cryptic “Go easy with that harse, haul back on those reins;” or “Fetch that.” All would be spoken while a crooked finger pointed in the general direction of what or where he meant, but really seemed to point in all directions at once. I rarely asked for clarification, preferring instead to have corrections where necessary, mumbled at my disappearing back. I never had what you could call a real conversation with Big.
My younger brother Greg looked as uncomfortable as I felt. Big called Greg ‘the other fool’ and me, ‘the fool’. I knew this because my older brother Danny told me. He also said that Big liked us. Danny had been called ‘the helper’, which meant he got more chances to turn the grinding stone and pour water on it, or spit when there was no water to pour. Watching Big and Danny from a distance, you could tell they had ‘real’ conversations. There would be none of these for me now. Memories stirred as I looked at Big and I felt another thought surface. “I am more than memory,” I imagined Big saying.
I shivered as the thought receded.
Seeing my reaction Greg came over and asked, “What happened?”
“You remember how Big would say something and expect you to know what he was talking about?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well he did it again!”
“When?” Greg asked.
“Just now,” I said.
“How could that be?” Greg asked, looking over at Big.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You imagined it?” Greg asked, looking at me.
“Probably,” I agreed.
“Maybe he’s going to haunt you,” Greg said with a smile. Then his mood changed, and his eyes misted. “I miss him,” Greg said. “Mother used to say, we should make more room in our heads for what Big had to say.”
I was looking at Big as Greg was speaking and the words “good advice” came to mind. I kept staring at him half expecting to see a smile on his lifeless face. There was none of course, but I could imagine a twinkle in his closed eyes. I had no idea that more of Big’s cryptic advice would soon be coming my way.