A SHORT STORY
                                                            Gerald Odom

John wheeled the old pickup through the entrance to the campground. He had forgotten what a picturesque place this was, nestled away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It had been years since he last visited, but the familiarity was still there. So many childhood memories were stored away in this place. He had spent many days and nights camping here with his dad and brother. But now those days were gone. 
       He drove by the old campsite. It was vacant, just like he had hoped it would be. He pulled the truck to the side of the road and sat staring for a moment. He could visualize his dad’s old 68’ Mustang sitting there. He thought about the time and money his dad had spent restoring that old classic, only to have it totaled in a wreck from which he would never return. How did they get all that gear and equipment into that small car anyway? And there, under that tree, is where they always put the little three man tent. The memories were as fresh as the smell of jasmine in the air. 
       He drove on around the curve and back to the general store he had passed earlier. He parked the truck and dragged his tired lanky body out of it. He stood there stretching in the warm summer sun, breathing in the fresh mountain air. Once inside, he surveyed the usual tourist paraphernalia mixed in with the necessities of survival. The store seemed oddly the same, yet strangely different. The difference he discerned, was in the variation of perception that occurs between age twelve and twenty-five. We all stay the same, yet we change. 
       After registering, he drove to the campsite, set up the tent, and unloaded the truck. By the time he had everything settled, it was mid-afternoon. There wasn’t much time left. He definitely wanted to take one last look around. In fact, he wasn’t even sure why he bothered to set up camp. But he knew it was necessary. 
He got into the truck and drove down to the lake. On the way, he passed the little chapel sitting back from the road. It looked like a postcard with the steeple, the green grass, and the pastel flowers lining the walkway. His dad always talked about going, but never seemed to get up early enough on Sunday morning. He wondered where his dad was now. Was all that talk about Heaven really true? God, I hope it’s true, he thought, I sure hope it’s true. 
       Thoughts of his grandmother seeped into his mind as he drove on down the narrow winding road. His parents were divorced when he was three, and he, his brother, and his dad, had moved in with his grandparents. She had meant so much to him. To John, she was his mother. He was thirteen when she died, and it was after her death that everything started going downhill. The drugs, the alcohol, the wrong crowd, all the hazy memories began to surface in his soul like a bad storm rising in the distance. As he remembered several stays in jail and two rehabilitation centers, a deluge of desperation and despair flooded the very essence of his being. Then he had met Marcy and life was looking good. She was the sunshine that had broken through the dark clouds of his life. And in the midst of the hard times, she was there, giving meaning to his life and a reason to live. Then the slow avalanche began. His grandfather had passed away sometime back and somewhere along the way he had lost track of his mother and had not seen her in years. His brother landed a long prison term and just when he and his dad were mending old fences, he was killed in the car wreck. And somewhere in the middle of the turmoil and confusion, the sunshine went away. It was more than he could bear and Marcy decided that she no longer wanted to be married; thank you Lord, for small favors. That was all he had needed. But soon, all this would be behind him. 
       As he passed by the dilapidated old miniature golf course, he remembered his brother Luke and how angry he would get when lost a game, which was pretty regular. He was a great competitor, but, unfortunately, his temper followed him throughout life, bring much sorrow and the present prison term. They sure had a lot of fun here. Seems like dad always won. “Fun, what’s that?” he mused. 
Backing into a parking space, he slid out of the truck. He walked slowly toward the lake, reminiscing about the days of innocence and innocence lost. Pausing for a moment, he gazed longingly at the old swimming hole with the double diving board. Smiling, John relived the many wonderful days he had experienced here. My, how he and the boys used to show off for the girls. He could do a double back flip and end with a cannonball splash. And, at night, the girls would meet them and they would sneak off to find out what exploring the nature trails was really about. Ah, sweet bird of youth, where are you now? He was already feeling old at twenty-five. 
       He adjusted his sunshades and stared out across the lake. There were the paddle boats he remembered from his childhood and the canoes he graduated to as a teenager. There is a certain amount of balance required in paddling a canoe. If you shift your weight wrong, you flip. And that so adequately described the way John’s life had been, continually off balance. He just couldn’t seem to keep his boat afloat. He spent most of his time drying off, or out. 
       Turning, he walked to the concession stand and bought a cherry Sno-Cone. It had been a long time since he had tasted one of these. Cherry was his favorite. Savoring the cool refreshment, he made his way back to the truck. Upon arriving, he retrieved his backpack from the cab, shouldered it and locked the doors. In two and a half hours he would be there. It would be twilight and the timing would be perfect. 
Stopping at the beginning of the trail, John read the legend about the Cherokee Indians that used to live in the area. He had read it so many times before, but that was years ago and it was foggy in his mind. It told how the Indians used to come to the mountains for healing purposes. They would drink the water from the cool mountain stream to cleanse and renew their blood. They would breathe the clean moist mountain air to refresh their spirits. He thought about his dad and how he had loved Indians. He had told John that his great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. John wondered if it was true. 
He started up the trail, walking over a little wooden bridge, one of many along the way. The trail followed the stream up the mountain, crisscrossing it in various places. He passed many signs warning people to allow themselves plenty of time to be down from the mountain before dark. Soon he came to the wading pool. He had forgotten how misty and mysterious this place was and how much he loved to play here as a child. 
       Darkness was steadily descending as he made his ascent upward through the forest. Fewer and fewer people were coming down the trail, until, at last, they were no more. Finally, he was alone in the mist. Slowly, he made his way up the winding trail. The only sounds he heard were the rushing of the water and the haunting songs of the birds fluttering in the trees above his head. 
Surreal twilight surrounded him as he reached his destination, halfway up the mountain. Sliding his backpack to the ground, he sat on a stump to catch his breath. Looking up he saw it, shining silently in the shadow of night; that sacred slanted slab, smiling at the stars. Fifty feet of nothing but sheer, bare rock, culminating in a thousand-foot drop straight down. He remembered his foolishness as a child, hanging on to a pine sapling growing out of the side of the mountain. If the roots had pulled loose, he would have fallen to his death. he remembered how his dad had coerced him into returning to safer ground with threats of skinning him alive. Later, when he was older, his dad had shared with him the weakness that overcame him further up the trail, as he thought about how close he had come to losing his son. 
Reaching inside the backpack, John pulled out a peanut butter and banana sandwich wrapped in tin foil. He slipped a root beer from the insulated pouch and opened it. Removing the tin foil from the sandwich, he placed it in his backpack and began to eat and drink. It was dark now, except for the faint reflection of the sun on a distant mountain peak. What a beautiful place for a last supper he thought, listening to the chorus of crickets singing in Heavenly harmony. 
       He finished eating and lit a cigarette, the only drug he had never been able to overcome. Lying back on the grass, he gazed at the star-studded sky, the moon slowly rising in the distance. His mind drifted back and forth from the past, to the present, to what was about to be. He could never understand how people could accept things as they are, never challenging the social conditioning thrust upon us from birth. There are too many questions to be answered and he, like his dad, never seemed to fit in with what was happening on this planet. War and violence, greed and hatred, abortion and pollution; where will it all end, this folly of mankind? His dad had always said that there had to be a better place to live and he looked forward to getting off the planet. John had never taken his dad seriously, but, since the wreck, he began to wonder if it really was an accident. There was never any justification as to why he ran off the road and split a tree in half. There was no mechanical failure and his dad was a safe driver who didn’t speed. Something did not make sense. But one thing was for certain, Dad was certainly off the planet; or was he?  
       The chilly night air startled John back to the present moment. Mashing the cigarette out on a rock, he stood up, stretching nonchalantly as if to ignore the creeping anticipation gnawing at his soul. The time had come. He carefully made his way along the edge of the incline until he reached the drop-off. Standing on the ledge, he stared into the black void before him. looking down, all he could see was darkness. He could feel the powerful force of the emptiness of space, pulling on him like a vast invisible magnet. A strange, wild, electric sensation began pulsating through his body. It was deliberately tugging and pulling at him, urging him to lean just a little further out and take that final plunge into oblivion. Something within him fought back, refusing to let go, yet unable to fully resist the temptation. A battle was raging in and around him, and John felt as if he had no control over the outcome. His breathing was short and fast, his heart pounding like an Indian war drum, sweat pouring down his face. Dizziness filled his head as his body grew lighter. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it!” He screamed, stepping back from the ledge. Suddenly, his foot slipped on a pebble, his body spurting out from under him. He hit the ground hard, his hands grabbing dirt as he slid over the ledge. He was hanging in a state of shock as the sand and stone fell into silence beneath him. As the dust cleared from his mind, he realized what had happened. As he plunged over the side, his hands instinctively reached and grabbed for anything and everything. Somehow, his hands had closed with perfect timing. For in his right hand, he was clutching a pine sapling. Tenaciously, he clung to the little tree for life. What was he going to do now? His wrist was twisted out of joint and his back was against the wall of the mountain. John tried to turn, but it was impossible to swing his body around. The pain in his arm was excruciating. He felt both relief and panic at the same time. Relief that his life had been spared and panic that it may not be for long. His mind was racing, trying to figure out what to do next, when suddenly his body jolted forward as the roots began to pull loose from the rocky facade. “Oh God,” he thought, “I don’t want to die; I really don’t want to die.” He could hear the wind rustling in the trees behind him. Suddenly, a cold gust swooped down around him as the roots tore loose from the side of the mountain. Intense pain shot through his arm like a fiery bolt of lightning as a vice grip clasp around his wrist. Slowly and methodically, he felt himself being pulled upward. 
       In the blink of an eye he was back on the ledge, panting for breath, slowly regaining his composure. Cautiously, he looked up into the face of the man who had saved him. A face mystically illuminated by the pale, silvery light of the moon. His emotions were shattered into a thousand fragments. He was both afraid and grateful, yet he could find no words to express his gratitude. He sat in stunned silence. 
After a few moments, the old man helped him to his feet and up the incline to level ground. Still sitting in silence, John watched as the old man built a campfire. Through the flames, he could see he was an Indian, his face mapped with the lines of time. He wore a colorful headband with a buckskin shirt. Jeans and moccasin boots rounded out his attire. Neither of them spoke, as the old Indian picked up a satchel and sat down beside John. He gently rubbed a salve on John’s wrist, and then wrapped it in a bandage smelling like sweet flowers. 
       “What is it?” Asked John, startled by the sound of his own voice as it broke the silence. 
       “An herbal poultice,” replied the old man, not looking up from his work. 
       “Who are you?” Asked John 
       “What difference does it make?” replied the Indian. 
       “None I guess,” said John, “I was just curious. Do you live around here?” 
      The old Indian finished wrapping John’s arm and rising, walked over to the fire. Stooping down, he opened his satchel again and took out a cup and some herbs. Pouring water from John’s canteen into the cup, he mixed in the herbs. Sitting it on a small rock near the edge of the fire, he turned, looking at John. 
       “Do I look dead to you?” He asked. 
       “No,” John replied. 
       “Then I must live here, even as you do.” 
       A moment of silence passed, and then the old Indian took the cup from the edge of the fire and brought it to John. 
       “Drink this, it will speed your healing.” 
       John was already shaking, partially from shock and partially from the cool night air. He took the cup from the old Indian and began to sip it. The soothing elixir was warm and good. After a couple of swallows, John’s anxieties vanished and he began to relax. 
       “What’s your name?” John asked. 
       After a moment, the old Indian looked up from the fire and replied, “Silver Eagle” 
John thought the name to be appropriate, considering the color of the man’s hair. He may look old, John thought, but he certainly moves with the agility and strength of a young man. 
       “There is a small violet flower growing beneath a shadowy overlay. It is near a large, old, oak tree, just off the trail beyond the little waterfall. It stands there all alone.” 
John’s eyes widened as the old man spoke. 
       “Do you know this flower?” Silver Eagle asked. 
       “Yes,” John replied, “I saw it this afternoon. How did you know?” 
       “And what did you think of this little flower,” asked Silver Eagle, still staring into the fire. 
       “I thought it was a magnificent work of art. It filled my mind with many questions.” 
       “Such as,” Silver Eagle asked. 
       Finishing his tea, John pulled his jacket up around his neck to ward off the dampness of the night. He was extremely relaxed now, and the words flowed freely from his lips. 
       “The beautiful little flower filled my mind with many questions. Why would God plant such a wonderful masterpiece in such an obscure place? Or did he have anything to do with it at all? Did I stumble upon it by accident, or was some invisible force guiding my steps? If I had not come along to enjoy its beauty, what purpose would it have served; and what about the millions of other wild flowers around the world who will never be seen by human eyes?” John paused for a moment, as if suddenly realizing something. Slowly he continued. “I guess that little flower was fulfilling a mission just by stirring up all these questions within me.” 
The fire crackled in the midst of silence, and Silver Eagle began to speak softly. 
       “The little flower is a silent messenger, whose voice echoes through the canyons of vanity, crying out loud and clear, ‘I am; I am’.” After a short pause, Silver Eagle looked up from the fire, his eyes meeting John’s, who was staring at him. 
       “And what does the little flower say to you John?”  
       A smile creased John’s face, as he wondered how this old Indian knew his name. But more so, he smiled because the old Indian was beginning to remind him of his dad. He could never figure out how his dad knew so many things about him that he shouldn’t have known. And Silver Eagle’s way of questioning was just like his dad, who would keep on asking questions, until John saw the light and solved his own problems. 
John, still smiling, replied, “I guess this little flower is saying to me, that everything has a purpose, and there is a purpose to everything.” Picking up a stick, he stirred the fire. 
       “My dad always said that God grows the most cherished fruit in the fertile fields of suffering, among the misty shadows of solitude.” 
       “Your father is a wise man,” remarked Silver Eagle. “Consider the mayfly,” he continued, “who has a life span of but a day and is gone. It has fulfilled its purpose, if only to unveil its beauty for a brief moment and share it with the world.” Rising, Silver Eagle placed a log on the fire, and walked to the left of where John was sitting. 
       John was tired and weary. The events of the day had drained him. He stared hypnotically into the fire, watching the rhythmic flames dance as he listened to Silver Eagle speak. 
       “And what about the salmon,” Silver Eagle continued, “It hatches, grows up, swims down river, and lives in the ocean for about four years. When the time comes, she returns to the same river from which she came. She swims upstream against the current to the place where she was born. After laying her eggs, she swims away to die, weakened by the difficult journey upriver and the lack of nourishment while nesting and protecting her eggs.” 
       Silver Eagle paused for a moment, watching a shooting star as it crossed the path of the full moon. John shuffled to a more comfortable position, cutting his eyes over his shoulder at silver Eagle, then back to the fire. Silver Eagle dropped his gaze to John and began to speak with a voice of tenderness and compassion. 
       “If you want to hear, you will. If you want to see, you will. The Earth is a treasure house, filled with the wisdom of the creator. Precious jewels are waiting to be found. Man was not created first, but last; and he has yet to listen to his forerunners. Unless he begins to hear the silent messengers around him, there may someday be no voice to hear.” 
      John sat quietly, staring into the fire, pondering what the wise old Indian had said. Suddenly, a supernatural stillness hung heavy in the air. Not a sound was to be heard. A cool breeze stirred in the trees behind him, then swooped down like a mighty wave, sending cold chills over John’s body. John shifted, turning to speak to Silver Eagle, but he was gone, vanished in the wind. 
John fell asleep that night, with a peace and assurance that he had never known before. His life had meaning and purpose now, and he knew he had a mission to fulfill. For even the smallest of God’s creatures has a purpose for being. 
       And the little flower stood quietly in the darkness, waiting for the morning light.