By John Thomas Tuft

Early evening is the slack tide in the ebb and flood of the day, a moment of calm, still waters before the darkness settles in and the night begins its restless worries and wanderings. It is a time when ridge runners and flatlanders alike, all along the Appalachian Divide stop to wish the sun well on its journey. Creeks murmur, cicadas strum, nightingales serenade, bull frogs insist, and humans beseech country roads to take them home to the place where they belong, real and imagined. For the evening, time slips into neutral. At eventide lovers whisper vespers to each other and proclaim the beatitudes of pleasure and commitment.

When humans first decided that they needed to keep track of years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds and gave them names and numbers, it was a way to corral time in a decently and in order predictable progression. The pause of a slack tide interrupts the inevitable tug of gravity just as the early evening reminds us that the day was never ours to begin with. We did not ask to be here and leaving is inevitable. Ponder such things in the early evening, preferably with good friends who hold us to account and tolerate our foibles. Choice of drinks is optional, but this is why cookies were invented.

Thus it was that one evening, Sneed the old ridge runner appeared at the end of the path to the mountain cabin. “Preacher Boy, gotta minute? Got some fresh white lightning for ya. Didn’t drop the bead on it, double run through the thumper, straight from my best blackpot. Goes down real smooth, then kicks like Mama’s old mule.” He cackled and thrust two jars forward. I motioned to the rocker next to me and he took a seat. I took a swallow and learned the empirically grand truth of his description. We sat in silence a spell, watching the dusk envelope the distant ridges, the light receding to give the night its turn at the dance.

“I know you got cookies, Preacher. You always got cookies.” I pulled the lid off the old blue tin and offered him homemade chocolate chip (no nuts, don’t even go there), soft in the middle, and we sipped and chewed as we rummaged around in our thoughts. The day birds got their children into bed while the night creatures filled the woods with the busy skitterings of preparations for a night out. “Whatta think, Preacher Boy? Look at all them fireflies.” “You mean the lightning bugs?” I said around a mouthful. Sneed snorted. “Sometimes I forget you’re from Pittsburgh. Ya’ll talk funny.” We laughed the way friends do to remind each other that the friendship is what matters.

Sneed shifted on his seat. “I’ve been thinking about what you said at Esther’s funeral, Preacher Boy. About how so many of us think life is about hopes and fears.” I took another cookie and a big swallow of spirit, wondering what came next. “So many flatlanders get their shorts all in a bunch over money and death, know what I mean? Hope they make it, whatever that means. But it’s usually money, I can guarantee you that. Hope other folks like them, afraid if they don’t. Hope they’ll be recognized for being good, then afraid what happens when they die. They end up all anxious and alone. Be careful, Preacher, that stuff sneaks up on you. Don’t want to find you down at Ross Creek, singing to the bears.”

I washed it down with another cookie and asked, “So if it’s not hopes and fears, what is life all about?” A perfectly legitimate question for the evening and it was too early for the whiskey to be talking. He sighed and smiled. “Don’t play dumb, Preacher Boy. The mountain breezes tell you, the tides on the ocean tell you. Watching Esther live her life taught me. Ain’t that how we learn most things?” His chin quivered a bit, and he swatted imaginary mosquitoes away from his eyes. “What did watching Esther teach you, Sneed?” He appreciated me giving him a moment to recover, as friends are wont to do.

The old mountain man stared up through the leaves at the first stars, older than the hills, lazily readying for their ride. “Ideas and joy,” he whispered. “She was filled with imagination and delight, Preacher. I’ll take that any day over hopes and fears. If there’s a God, he’s here in the ideas and joys.” The sounds of the forest paused in the stillness of his communion. He stood to go. “Anyways, that’s what I’m trying to do in my life. Be like Esther. It takes some practicin’ though, Preacher Boy. Every day in every way. Think that’s in the Good Book, maybe.” He made a small bow, a gesture that touched me unexpectedly. “Gotta go.”

I sat there in the evening after he left. Determining to do the same. Be like Esther. Practicing to live my life in a way that I was filling it with ideas and joys. Imagination and delight. And see if that is where the sacred resides…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.