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  • A Tender Man; A Soft Saddle; and Dove

    He wasn't like any other man in our knoll; he just simply didn't belong there. All the other men spoke with loud, booming voices that thrashed about and shrieked like rabid bobcats. My daddy's was the biggest; his big thundering voice arrived wherever he was going well before he got there and was usually accompanied by things gone chaos that traveled with commotion. Even Pastor Dunn; his voice was so bound with rowdy that I do believe Satan himself was afraid to come to our side of the mountain; he would be no match for any of our men. I recall one Sunday morning Pastor Dunn hauled off and slung the Lord's name bound in leather clear across the heads of his whole congregation just to make his point. Even at my tender age I knew that was wrong. All those holy words had been collected by the same men who spoke from those pages telling the rest of us about the rules. I was certain that Jesus would not approve. Sunday morning service was thought to be the tamest time to sit in a pew with the men of our holler; they were worn out from Saturday night my momma always said. No, this settled man; this visitor to our side of the mountain just wasn't built from the same sort of hard stock. He was calm and kind, and spoke in tender tones that lulled the listener. He moved slow and sure; there was a peace about him like he had all the love in the world wrapped up in his heart; cradled in his hands and ready to dole out. In my little girl mind, Jesus and this man were the only two of the male species who knew this kind of tender; they had surely tamed their inner beasts.

    I fell into a trance the minute I saw the truck hauling that trailer up our old dirt road; a red cloud of dust kicked up behind it like a funnel of wind pushing the whole ensemble toward me. The truck passed the front of our house and eased in right alongside our well-tended garden. Momma left the laundry hanging from the line and went to see what the man towed up our hill. With an easy kind of quiet he left his truck and walked over to momma, took his hat down from his head, hung it over his heart, and extended his hand to her. I had never in all my five years seen my momma take a man's hand. She took it like she knew what to do with it. The two commenced in conversation; my attention wandered over to the trailer painted in pretty purples and greens just like the hillsides covered in summer's ironweed. But before I could get too close, I heard my name, "Twine, go on inside and get the rhubarb pie." I stopped right in my tracks, my legs akin to lead. I knew my momma's secret; I knew the power of the pie made to settle daddy when he'd come home. That pie was her weapon, no match for his fist, but a weapon nonetheless. He'd been contrite and even-tempered as of late, still on his best behavior since beating her eyes shut; swollen and bruised for days. He stayed away while she healed; I doctored her. That's when she told me how I came to be called Twine.

    She spoke of days when I toddled and she worked our garden; tended the rows like an artist. She used heavy twine to pull our spinach plants together. All the while she talked, telling how her baby girl was going to eat lush green spinach to make her strong for all of her long life. She said I was strong just like twine... tough, made from unbreakable threads. Strong or not, when she told me to get that pie; my knees melted right off the caps. But when I looked up and saw the man unlocking his pretty trailer, I ran for the pie despite the commotion I carried inside my belly.

    With pie in hand I saw her; a sleek coat of chestnut brown with rich patterns dripped over her like melted butter...and I loved her. I'd never seen such beauty; she moved slow and delicate like our pokeberry fields that lean into warm breezes. My momma took the pie before I spilled it and handed it to the man. She told him she had no money, but she could trade the homemade pie if I could take a ride on his pretty pony. The man smiled, spilled out a hearty laugh as he walked with the pie to his truck. For a moment I thought he would take momma's weapon and leave, but he called out over his shoulder, "Twine, if you're going to ride Dove you'll need to help me saddle her up." My momma smiled and dismissed herself into the house. We both knew if my daddy came home and found her and this soft-spoken man together; she'd be baking more pies using me as her eyes. She perched herself by the front room window keeping me in view.
    And then the man so full of tender introduced himself, extending his hand to me just like he did to my momma. I put my small hand in his, and he cupped it with his other as if he cradled a delicate fledgling. His name was Keith, and he was like warm soup on the coldest of days. He told me about Dove and how she was the gentlest pony in the state. He told me that he had traveled many miles going from one town to the next; back up into the hills as far as he could reach so kids could have a ride. As he talked he dropped a saddle onto Dove's back; she didn't mind at all. I listened and watched and noted the gentle way Keith pulled at the straps making adjustments, then I heard him say real easy like, "...and have their picture taken sitting on her back." Well, I couldn't stand it. Momma had bartered a pie to get me up on top of that pony and make Dove's legs work, but what would we use to get a picture as proof that I'd been there? Well, right on queue my momma called from the window; "Twine, maybe Mr. Keith could use one of our ripe watermelons for his trouble today." I hopped, lickety-split right over to the patch and plucked our biggest watermelon from the vine, and with my weighted, wobbly legs, I carried it over to Keith. He praised that green jewel like I had just plucked a gem from a mine. He placed it lovingly on the floorboard of his truck, patting its fat belly. He then took a duffle bag that contained what he called the authentic cowgirl garb. Together we opened up the bag and outfitted my little body with tassels and fringe. Soft suede was held together with shiny, silver disks etched with pretty little flowers that glistened in the sun like diamonds. The scent of rich leather made my head airy and light; it was only for the ensemble being strapped against my body that I was held down on the ground but lifted to cowgirl status. Keith took the camera from his truck. I had to hug myself because I'd never seen one and I knew the magic that they held inside. Lord have mercy; it was the happiest moment of my little life; I could just about breathe. He hung the camera around Dove's neck and helped me nestle into the soft saddle. He told me that I didn't have to be afraid; that Dove was one of God's gentlest creatures. He didn't have to tell me that; I knew when the truck climbed our old dirt road that peace had been delivered, if only for a short time.

    Keith led Dove around our yard and all the way down to the edge of the woods and back again. All the while he talked and Dove's ears twitched because she must have been a good listener. He told me he lived two counties over; told me of the little boy who rocked himself and cried happy tears the first time he sat in Dove's saddle; that's why he decided to travel our mountain with Dove taking pictures of kids on her back. He told me that he photographed our mountain's wildlife and landscapes and sent the pictures to magazines. He said they paid him lots of money if they kept the pictures. I hung on to Keith's words like I clung to Dove's soft mane. The next thing I knew, Keith had his camera pointed at me telling me to smile like I was having the time of my life; well... I was... so I did.
    ____________________________________________________________________________

    I never write of truths; my world is fiction, but I do remember sitting on the back of this pretty little pony in the hills of North Carolina; I believe I was about 5 years old. I do recall the man opening his trailer and leading that beautiful creature down the ramp and me losing my breath from the sight of her. It was in fact one of the happiest moments of my life. This smile busted right out of me and settled on my little girl face, I wear it still.
    Thanks for coming to my page.
    Pamela Wilonski
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