“The Old Man, or the Good Man, or the Old Gentleman – these names for God are used even by deeply religious hillfolk…But the Old Boy means Satan.” – Vance Randolph and George P. Wilson, Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech
We used to have blackberry winters late in May when the fruit was plump and tart and the dogwoods were in bloom like forest angels, when the air tasted like gnats and sweat and honeysuckle. The wind would grow thick, and suddenly it would be snowing. My grandmother would pour flavored syrups over cups of cotton. I was too young then to get drunk on wine and talk about bad horror movies, killer Santas, oxygen levels, the never-ending heat. Back then I was green and sweet and elbows, elbows, elbows.
Old Man and Old Boy would walk out among the thin flakes. Old Man, gray and thin as pine straw, would eat handfuls of cold redbud blooms and touch the leaves tenderly with his long fingers. He would shake his head at the sky and mourn his garden and repeat “blessed be” like a mantra until his lips would crack. Old Boy, though, almost the same age as Old Man, would run as fast as he could, kick up puffs of white and decaying leaves and creek water, and clap his hands at the stars in the clear sky. His shouts and whoops could be heard around the holler.
“There goes Old Boy,” my grandmother would say whenever we heard his bellows echo through the tree limbs. The wind would blow and blow.
Old Man and Old Boy lived in a cabin with a tame bobcat named Tootie. I visited them on Sundays while Grandma took long naps. My Mary Janes would swing off the front porch steps. We talked about caterpillars and bark and yellow pocket knives. One day when we were deep in spring and I had just finished fifth grade, my mentors felt like this was an important time to discuss My Future, the dark and murky mudhole at the far end of the field.
“What do you want to be, Libby Girl?” Old Man asked.
This felt like a monumental question. I had been asked before, but now it had the weight of time upon it, and I could feel myself collapse beneath. I considered carefully my answer; I did not want to disappoint Old Man.
“I want to be a flying fox bat,” I said decidedly.
“Me too,” said Old Boy. “No, I want to be a goat.”
“I’d like to be a sail,” I said.
“I’d be an oar.”
“You two aren’t sensible,” said Old Man. He looked disappointed, but he smiled too.
Old Boy did not like to be sensible and neither did I. Grandma said to listen to Old Man and to ignore Old Boy, that Old Boy was full of fancy and feathers and few good things.
“Old Boy will make you suck an egg,” said Grandma. “He’ll tell you the moss is soft and then fill your hair with chiggers.”
But Old Boy had taught me to dance, to make my teachers ruffle their feathers like pigeons, to smoke Grandma’s cigars until my chest was hot as an iron wood stove.
“I want to be a river rock,” I said, “a minnow, my brother’s shelf of animal skulls, a book of ghost stories.”
“What about kind toward others?” asked Old Man. “What about loving?”
Old Boy was dancing in the front flower bed. “There once was a man who lived in a haunted house with an old skunk skull, and at night the skull would whisper, ‘Orance, orance.’”
His knees were jitterbugging. Tootie watched, eyes intense and daring.
“I should think that’s enough,” said Old Man. He was suddenly serious. His brows were like geese flying south.
“Can’t I be both? Can’t I be everything?”
Old Man shook his head, “That is not an easy thing.”
“Look,” said Old Boy. It was starting to snow. I darted with him out to the yard, and the two of us stretched our arms to the sky. “Orance! Orance!” I chanted, spinning and spinning till everything disappeared in white.
L.W. Nicholson is an educator and grower of tomatoes from Southeast Missouri. Her work has appeared in Moon City Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and others.