Thomas Mitchell’s Apprentice, 2009 Second Place Adult Division
By Todd M. Hubbard
“It’s a butterfly. See the design in the wings and these little pieces here… almost like antennae.”
He paused. Head down. Waiting for a response. He cradled the still glistening rock in his browned leathern hand as if it needed protecting. Fragile. His thick ridged nail outlining what he saw there. I stared, in both disbelief and amazement. My wife stood behind me and peered over my shoulder. Cautious.
“Okay, yeah. I see it now.” I lied. “That is amazing, almost lifelike.”
Lifelike? A stretch to be sure. My wife nudged me in the ribs. I stepped aside to put the old man’s bear-sized frame between myself and the late afternoon sun setting behind his uncovered shoulders. My wife followed. I visored my hand above my eyes and peeked up at the silhouette of his face.
“You find that here?” I queried. Pointing to the river just footsteps away. Stupid question. Only one that came to mind.
He stared for a moment. Squinted. Scratched the five day beard on his neck hard enough to draw blood.
“Well… not right here.” He gestured toward the immediate water. “Up the river a piece. Bout four, five hundred yards mebbe.”
It was late August. I had brought my wife to Idaho six months earlier promising her it was an amusement park of outdoor adventure. Fishing. Hiking. Whitewater. Married just three years, we were both raised city but always took our away time in the mountains somewhere… close to home. New England. Of course, by these new standards, they hadn’t really been mountains. Hills at best. Work had been bearing down hard. The transition had not gone as smoothly as I had pictured it or as I had sold it. The economy had played havoc. Sailing through had turned to survival. Long hours prevailed. We had not been able to leave Boise since we arrived. This was our first ‘away’. Middle fork of the Salmon it was called. The name itself sounded like adventure. Packed up the Subaru. Here we were. Here he was.
“You’re not from ‘round here.” A statement. Not even a question. I had grown up in Seattle and moved to Vermont shortly after college. Didn’t think I had an accent. My wife was Phoenix born. She hadn’t said a word up to this point.
“Well, if by ‘round here’ ,“ she mimicked “you mean Idaho, then NO. We’re Not.” I glanced at her. A little shocked. She was unnerved. I grabbed her hand.
“We’re actually westerners, originally.” I smiled. Repairing the threadbare response.
“New Englanders last few years. Just moved here a bit ago. Idaho. Love it. Love the mountains.”
“This man is a mountain,” I thought to myself.
I Continued smiling. He wasn’t. His eyes were deep set. Couldn’t see their color. The decades of deep lines in his face spoke of a living road map that detailed every journey he had ever taken. The sun burned hot. The day was still. I imagined he scarcely recognized the blaze on his exposed skin.
“Would you like to see where I discovered it?” he asked. ‘Discovered’ he said, as if it were treasure.
My wife tugged sharply on my sleeve.
“Sure.” I swallowed. “We were just about to grab something to eat though. Hungry.”
“Good. You can join me then. Starvin. Haven’t eaten in…”, he turned and looked directly into the sun with no attempt to shield his gaze, “a long time.” Strode away. Said no more. It was then I noticed he was barefoot. My wife joined the observation.
“Honey he’s barefoooot”, she whispered. A little too loudly.
“Hah! Barefoot. Not really. More like built in sandals at this point,” I mused.
You could hear the trail grind beneath his feet. The river drowned out the tones in seconds. We followed. Hesitantly. My wife gripped my arm. Tight.
“He makes me nervous”, she sighed.
“Me too. A little.”
We walked for awhile. More than, what was it he had said, ‘four or five hundred yards’? Nope. Further. We rounded a sharp bend in the riverbank. Stopped. The old man up ahead about fifty feet. He was turned toward us. Talking, it looked like. Or singing. Couldn’t hear a word. We slowed our pace to take in the scene.
Beneath a tightly knotted grove of birch, he stood beside what was left of a used-to-be-red van. 1970. ‘71. A collection of dented metal. Rust. The sliding door was open towards the river. The rear dutch doors were swung wide. A menagerie of boxes, tin cans, and odd containers by the dozens revealed there. The two tires in view appeared to have long been flattened. Rope had been strung from the ceiling in a criss cross pattern holding a collection of towels or cloth. Bedding. He gave us a chin up gesture with his head and turned to examine his reflection in the sideview mirror. Cracked. About halfway between the old man and the river’s edge was a small crude cross. Canted towards the water. Assembled with twine. A mound of soil. Hardened. My wife’s face went white. We stood. Staring.
“Ole Yeller”, he said. Suddenly. He was now not three feet from us. He motioned toward the memorial, “Jus’ like the movie. When I was a kid. My favorite. Hah! He wasn’t yellow though. Brown pretty much. But he was ‘Ole’. I got that part right.” A smile creased his mouth. Genuine. “He used to find the best ones ya know. Rocks. Would jump right in, head down in the water. Bam! Come up with real gems. Instinct I guess. That’s where I found the butterfly.” He gestured casually.
His voice deep. Rumbling. Sounded like the river.
“I miss him. That is fer sure and fer certain. Nuff said on that. Come on, why don’t ya see what I got?”
I took my wife’s hand. It was listless. Her face had softened. Her eyes were moist. She stared at the little mound. I put my arm around her neck and drew her in.
“I think he wants us to see some rocks babe. You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” She looked up from the mound toward the old man. His red brown shoulders bent over the van floor. Sorting. “He seems harmless enough. Lonely.”
The old man stood up and turned. Cloth was hammocked between his arms. He was holding… lunch?
“Well, I dunno what you folks brought”, he chuckled, “but I got some bread. A chicken leg. Pizza and a T-bone!” He laughed heartily.
Our host went down to one knee, spreading his smörgåsbord on the trampled soil in front of us. Rocks. A dirty old towel full of rocks. Wonderful intriguing little rocks. I laughed. My wife laughed. We dropped to the ground. Crossed our legs. Dug into the feast. I picked up the bread. Held the small brown loaf up to the sunlight dropping behind the trees. Small ridges in particular little rows dissected the stone horizontally. Slices. Perfect symmetry. A smoky gold wisp ran across its topside. Butter. I turned it over in my hands again and again. A loaf of bread. Cold. Hard. Wholly inedible. A loaf of bread nonetheless.
“Yuup. Now that’n there,” he motioned up toward my hand, “that’n there Ole Yeller found. He loooved him some bread!” He was pleased with his stone humor. So were we.
“Look at this one honey,” my wife leaned in, “it actually looks like a chicken leg. A whole chicken leg. With the thigh attached. If the colonel could get his hands on this recipe…” We all laughed. Almost in unison.
“My word,” my wife stopped, “here we are eating lunch together and we don’t even know your name.”
The old man shifted uncomfortably. Dropped his head a touch. Looked at the food. Waited.
“Thomas Mitchell ma’am, Thomas Henry Mitchell.”
“Well Thomas Mitchell, I’m Laura and this is…”
“And I’m Walker. Hendricks.”
Thomas Mitchell lifted his face. Kind eyes were there. Green. Red rimmed. Hoisted his weathered tree trunk. An arm in proper terms. Held out his bear-sized hand. A single tear traced a ravine down his cheek. His voice trembled.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks, I am most happy to make your acquaintance. It’s been quite a spell since I shared a meal with anyone but Yeller.”
Lunch consisted of exchanging food rocks. Hearing stories of the where and how of each one. The sun dipped behind the trees. Shadows elongated. A chill rode on a slight breeze. Thomas never seemed to notice the change in weather. He simply sat. Sat calmly in filthy pants that had disintegrated into shorts long ago.
He talked. He talked. He talked some more. Talked of his early years in Hailey. Driving cattle with his Uncle Rex who had moved down the valley from Imnaha. Never had folks he could remember. Died when he was young. His uncle had taken him on. He talked of fishing every available minute long into the night. Of teaching himself to tie flies and craft his own rods. He talked of working the mill in his married years. Horseshoe Bend. Building his first home. His own two hands and lumber from the mill. He talked of his wife May. She had worked in town. Met her there. Small diner on the river. No children. Couldn’t have any. May always said that was okay “one big kid was all she could handle”. He loved May. He had outlived her. It wasn’t right he thought. He was sure God had never made a mistake, except that one. He talked of the day he buried his angel. Tremor in his voice. Drawn. Heavy.
“I walked away n’ I just kept walkin. Nothin fit no more. Nothin mattered.” His face seemed to melt into the onslaught of memory.
I reached over and gathered Laura in closer. The breeze picked up.
“Through some ordered chaos, I ended up here”, he sniffed, “me and Yeller, halfway between there and nowhere. Little bit a work. Little bit a fishin’. Little bit a work. A whole lot a fishin’. Did some fence work for a fellow down near Soldier Mountain and he gimme this van.” He jerked his head toward the rusty transport.
“Me and Yeller, we nearly drove the wheels off that thing. We wore our own groove in highway 75. Stanley to Challis. Challis to Ketchum and back again. And to tell ya the truth, I can’t even remember where Ole Yeller came from. Right now it just seems like he was always here, ya know? Guess he is always here.” He stretched out his arm and patted the dirt.
“Yeller got old. Tired. We was on our way up Hell Roaring and I almost lost him. Fell into the whitewater and all but disappeared. That’s when we found this place. Pulled the van in. Parked.” He stopped at this. His head fell back. Trying to contain the tears pooling in his eyes.
“So that’s when you started then. The rock thing. Rock hunting?” Laura queried. Soothing.
“Hahaha! Indeed!” he bellowed. “I opened Yeller’s door and he shot out. Straight into the river. Nose down. Like he was goin fishin. He ran back out again just as quick and dropped a rock at my feet. I picked it up. I won’t tell ya what exactly I saw on that rock, see’n we jus met.” He winked. A sparkle in his eye.
“Yeller showed me beauty in the small things. Surrounded by this majesty in mountain and tree we don’t always look at the smaller beauty. The hidden beauty. Uniqueness in every detail. In every flower. In every rock. It calms the mind. Calms the spirit.” He picked up the loaf of bread.
“Over in all them boxes and whatnot,” he said, turning the stone over in his large hands, “many many treasures. Some simple. Some pretty. Some detailed and extravagant. Birds. Flowers. A hammer and a little rocking horse. Even an alien. But… all just rocks. N’ I ain’t crazy, jus’ in case you were wonderin’.” He dropped the little stone loaf on the cloth.
“I know this ain’t food and I know those ain’t birds and flowers. Sometimes you gotta look real hard. You gotta imagine that there is somethin’ there that you’re s’posed to find. A mystery. You gotta look past what you see first off. Look deeper.”
Thomas swept his arm through the air. A large arc above his head.
“To unveil the smallest mystery in this great majesty is a quiet satisfying reward.”
He rubbed his knees hard. “Aching a bit. I need to stretch.”
Laura held on to my shoulder. Pushed herself to stand. Thomas took his time getting up. His tall form bathed in shadow.
“I sure wish you could have met my May. She was the best of me. She would have liked you folks. Good folk.” He plunged a hand into his front pocket. Pulled out a flat stone. Worn smooth.
“This is the one. Right here. This is that first stone Yeller brought to me.”
He held it up so we could see. Placed it into Laura’s eager hand. Nothing. Just a stone. Gray. No colors. No lines. Laura looked up. Questioning. Thomas paused and held up his finger. Turned toward the river. In two lumbering strides he was there. Bent over and dropped his hand in the tumbling water. He returned. Eyes expectant. Excited. He cupped his hand beneath Laura’s. With the gentleness of a mother he slid his wet thumb across the surface of the stone. Laura gasped. Her eyes welled up with tears. I stood silent. My mouth dropped open. In the fading light we stared at what the water had revealed. A mystery no longer.
“You see it then?” Thomas’ whisper rumbled. All we could do was nod.
We stood ankle deep in the frigid river. Waiting for the sun to climb higher. Warmer. Both of us must have turned over a hundred stones by now. Finally. There it was. A worthwhile discovery.
“Hahaha, you’ve got to see this one. Incredible!” I shouted.
Laura waded over. Excited. Child like. What a treasure. The best of me.
“Show me! Let me see!” She laughed.
I held out the dripping treasure. A rectangular cube. Greenish. Horizontally along its length, quartz cut it in half. On top a short ridge protruded, looked almost painted. Sienna. A trace of mica squarely in the middle of the polished side resembled a small latch.
“Its my tackle box!” I cried. “A miniature stone tackle box.”
She giggled at my find. Plucking it from my hand, she gazed upward. Liquid eyes reflecting the thousand strands of sunlight that danced on the water.
“My master rockhound,” she beamed, “Thomas would be proud!”
I pulled her in tight. Kissed her hair.
“Not a master yet Laura May . . . . still just an apprentice.”
To unveil the smallest mystery in this great majesty is a quiet satisfying reward.