THERE WAS THE triumphant and the defeated, those polar opposites that caused elation as well as despair. It was for anyone and everyone. The less fortunate looked upon the lucky hunters standing next to their trophy bucks at the end of opening day. But most of those who fell short had many more opportunities to hunt another day and better the lucky ones with a skillful and daring hunt.
For Elmer this would have been true years ago, but now he felt like the old man that he was. He walked slow and careful along the Jenkins pass trail down the mountain to the orchard below. It was dark by the time he reached the opening of the top of Jenkins apple farm. Far off in the distance, at the bottom of the long sweeping hill, a light beckoned. It was the porch light just off the back door of Jenkins kitchen. It warmed the old man’s bones just to get a glimpse of it and smell the chimney smoke, like a delicate hickory musk rising up from the valley. It was a sight and smell he accustomed himself to a thousand times, when coming off of Jenkins Mountain at the end of a long day and out into the open fields overlooking the valley below. It always warmed him after a long day’s hunt when he was cold and hungry. As a boy, walking out of the woods with his father and older brothers, the light came from a kerosene lantern that hung from a crossbar just off the back porch of the kitchen. But then about twenty or so years ago, maybe more than that, the old man thought, the back porch was wired and the light, still in the same spot on the cross bar beckoned him still. But the light looked the same from far up on the hill, and it made him feel young again. It made him feel like calling to his father the way he used to as a boy, “Come out of the woods Pa. Come out of the woods so we can go home and get what Ma’s cooked up for us.”
The light always seemed to signal the finish line, the end of a long day in the woods, the completion of a hard and worthwhile journey. It signified warmth, and going home again. Back then, Violet would have stew meat cooking in the black cast iron pot with lots of veggies, potatoes, gravy and the old man’s favorite, dumplings. Rose their oldest child, would be mixing up a batch of dumplings while the other two played jacks under the kitchen table. When they heard the heavy boots coming up the steps of the back porch, the kids ran for the kitchen door to greet daddy while Violet put the dumplings in the pot. He stared deep into the light at the bottom of the hill. It was all so long ago. Those he had loved were gone. “Is it really home if the house is empty?” he asked.
A single brittle leaf on an apple tree rattled in a gentle breeze. The old man listened to it as he walked by.