Cromwell was old. He was old in his muscles, especially in his back muscles, and even more especially in his lumbar muscles, but in his other muscles as well; he was old in his organs which worked sluggishly and reluctantly as if they were ancient retainers on a slow down strike; he was old in his appearance; his eyes were rheumy; his ears sprouted feathered tuffs of white hair and the skin of his face was like the rumpled skin of an elephant, cracked, discoloured, moled, and deeply crevassed. In all these things and many others he was old but unlike most old men there were two things about him which were not old - his mind and his will. But this, of course, calls for some explanation.
First, the mind. After eighty years of living Cromwell had succeeded in his ambition of doing away with the mind. He no longer had one. One morning, at the age of eighty-one, he woke up without a mind. This does not mean he did not have a memory or that he was unaware, or that he could not think, or that he was gaga. On the contrary, his memory was excellent. He was keenly aware of everything around him. And his thinking processes were in better shape than when he was much younger. Being without a mind in his case meant he no longer experienced himself as a separate and continuous being. In fact he didn’t experience himself as anything; he was no longer there, or here. Some highly religious or spiritual persons might call this freedom but Cromwell did not call it anything. It was neither pleasant or unpleasant; neither pleasurable or painful; neither happy or sad. Sometimes he felt grateful but the feeling passed by quickly as there was no solidity for this feeling of gratefulness to alight upon. Right after first blowing his nose in the morning, Cromwell laughed. For no reason at all he laughed many times during the day. Of course this made those around think he was crazy but Cromwell didn’t mind. Thinking he was crazy made them think they were, relatively speaking, sane, and Cromwell did not begrudge them this small frisson of happiness.
Now for will. Cromwell used to have one but in its old age it became shabby and frayed. He often dreamed of transforming it into a powerful stainless steel will, the kind which Hitler or Gengis Ghan or Augustus imagined they could have, a will which could cause the material and human worlds to be reshaped and enfolded into their own devouring body. Who doesn’t dream of such things? Dictators and power mongers more than others perhaps but even winoes dream of a glorious, transcendent meglomania. Children certainly do; that’s why adults must keep an eye on them. But when he was forty Cromwell gave up dreaming of this kind of will. He opted for a more domestic kind, one which would ride triumphant over the chaos of his everyday affairs. But by seventy he had given up even that more modest ambition, and at eighty-one, at the same time he lost his mind, he lost his will. This did not mean he no longer did anything. As with the mind, quite the contrary. He did many things which old men are not supposed to do. He lived by himself. He chopped all his own wood. He fed his chickens. He tended his garden. In the summer, every morning, he paddled his boat on the marsh with the inquisitive enthusiasm of a young boy. He read complicated books for pleasure. He made up songs and sang them to himself. He sent emails to his neighbors inviting them to supper. He snared rabbits. He cooked them. He tanned their skins and sewed them into winter curtains. He imagined elaborate archangels and painted them onto the walls of his cabin. And he did all these things without will, as if he were a two year old who hadn’t yet discovered will with all of its demands and sorrows. The same day he woke up and discovered he no longer had a mind he also discovered he no longer had a will. Now, ten years later and ninety-one, when he occasionally remembered that morning he was filled with happiness. But even his happiness was without will, an irrelevant happiness whose causal relations were held together by vanishing wisps of air and vapor.
Despite the fact that he was without will and without mind, Cromwell had a great grand daughter. His children and grandchildren lived far away in a city on the seacoast. Some came to visit but they had their own busy lives to live and he only saw them every once in a while. His great great grand daughter, on the other hand, lived nearby and came to visit every weekend. She was a beautiful young woman full of energy and, at least when she came to visit him, flying a complete set of world changing sails. She thought he should move into the city. She thought he should have a local woman come in and cook and clean. She thought he should stop paddling about on the marsh. She thought he should buy his wood instead of cutting and splitting it himself. At least he should buy a chainsaw. She thought he was far too old to be rambling about in the woods chasing rabbits. She thought he should have a well instead of drinking rainwater. While he sat on a corner of the screened porch drawing on an ancient homemade pipe, she paced the rough floor boards telling him all these things, sometimes all at once, other times concentrating on a single theme with many elaborations. Cromwell enjoyed her performances tremendously but he never followed her advice for it was obvious to any clear thinking person that she was out of her mind. Not mindless like her great great grandfather but out of her mind which is different. ‘Poppa’ she called him for great great grandfather is too much of a mouthful.
“We will have to look into it,” Cromwell replied to all her suggestions.
“You say that every time, Poppa, but you never do anything about it.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“That we should go paddling on the marsh.”
“But it’s dangerous!”
“Not with you along. If I croak while we are paddling then you can alert the authorities.”
“Aren’t you concerned about me having to deal with death and dead bodies?”
“No. You are a very competent person and will have no trouble at all.”
“What I mean is don’t you think it might cause me trauma?”
“Yes but a little trauma would be good for you. And if by croaking on the marsh I could give you such a wonderful last present, I would be happy.”
“Poppa, you are weird.”
“No I’m not. It’s the world that is weird. I’m quite normal.”
After an exchange like this, Cromwell would creak himself out of his chair and off they would go over the fields until they came to the homemade dock with the double seater kayak tied up. Chrissy in front, Cromwell in the back, they paddled off gliding through the high marsh grasses to examine beaver lodges, muskrat mounds, and an island filled with pelicans and cormorants.
Chrissy lived with a boyfriend whom she occasionally brought around to see her Poppa. He was a gangly youth wearing baggy pants large enough to hold both himself and two or three friends. He secured the vast waist of these pants with a belt wide enough for a wrestling champion over the bony points of his hips some distance below his belly button. On his feet he wore a pair of running shoes, black like the T shirt which covered his torso and declared in neon lettering ‘Don’t talk to me!’ Mostly there were earphones in his ears and an abstracted look upon his face but occasionally Chrissy chastised him for rudeness and pulled them out. The youth would then smile sheepishly and place both the earphones and a small rectangular music device on the porch table. When the youth informed Cromwell that the device could hold ten thousand songs, all available for instant playing, Cromwell was flabbergasted. Why someone would want to have ten thousand songs instantly available seemed to him an unanswerable question so he didn’t ask it. The youth (Jason) seemed very proud to be associated with such numbers.
“What do you do, Jason?” Cromwell asked one day.
“Cows,” replied Jason.
“Cows?” asked Cromwell.
“His dad has a ranch. He works with his dad,” Chrissy said as if she afraid that Jason would be incapable of giving out such complicated, linear information. Jason smiled.
“Do you like cows?” asked Cromwell.
“He loves them,” said Chrissy as if she were revealing a weakness in his character which, after much deliberation she had chosen to tolerate. Jason smiled once again.
“And what do you do with the cows?” Cromwell asked.
“Lots of things,” said Jason. “The hardest is giving them antibiotics. They don’t like the needle jab and run away. Catching them is tricky. My Dad makes me do that part. He says the young people should be the ones who chase after the cows.”
“Sounds like a young man’s job to me,” said Cromwell.
“Ha ha!” said Jason.
Chrissy came every Sunday to visit Cromwell. This went on for two years during which she gradually gave up trying to reform his habits. In fact she came to enjoy paddling about on the swamp and from browsing through Cromwell’s bird book while the old man made supper she learned to identify most of the birds they saw in their wanderings.
‘”What is it about birds that attracts us so much, Poppa? I mean beside their obvious beauty, color and grace.”
The old man was cutting vegetables at the counter. “Well,” he said, “their beauty, color and grace, as you say, put together with the warm season where we can be out and about to enjoy them. But there is something else. They are an element of the wild world, an element of the other. Human beings grow sick if they allow their only concern to be themselves. They become narcissistic, self obsessed. If we allow the birds and other natural creatures to lift us from our self obsession, a healing occurs. What we feel is this healing. We become grateful for it and if we learn to live in this gratefulness then we have a richer life.”
“A richer life?”
“ A life of connection. We have our existence in a great web of connection. The notion that we are separated individuals is an illusion. In truth we fly with the birds and the delight we find in their brilliant colors conducts us into the world of reality, the world of connection. They are our benefactors. Even dull and sluggish people cannot help but respond to the birds. They are much more powerful than even a lifetime of self indulgence and delusion.”
“Poppa, you are a very strange man.”
“No I’m not. I’m quite normal.”
In the spring of the third year after Chrissy began to visit him, Jason and Chrissy had a terrible fight. They were living together in an old house on Jason’s father’s property and after the fight Chrissy came to Cromwell’s and set herself up in the old bedroom at the back of the cabin. Jason came round several times but she refused to see him. He moped around the yard where Cromwell was working in the garden and then went off.
“He’s a monster,” Chrissy told Cromwell.
“What kind of monster?” Cromwell asked.
“He says he doesn’t want to get married.”
“He says he’s not ready yet.”
“He doesn’t have any trouble being ready to screw but when it comes to marrying he has one.”
“It’s not funny.”
“That’s it for him. I’m never going to talk to him again. If he doesn’t stop coming around here I’ll call the cops or shoot him with your shotgun.”
Cromwell went over to see Jason. He was sitting on the porch of the old house smoking a cigarette. Cromwell climbed the stairs and sat in the empty chair beside him. The young man seemed embarrassed and apprehensive about what Cromwell would say to him and was relieved when the old man started talking about gardening.
“I don’t have a garden,” said Jason.
“Hmmmm,” said Cromwell.
“Too busy with the cows.”
“Well, we should fix that right away.”
Cromwell got up, went down the steps and headed off across the yard. Jason followed. When they reached the barn Cromwell found a gardening fork, carried it over to the sunny side of the house and, after searching successfully for a good spot, started to dig. After watching for a moment Jason went around behind the house coming back with another fork. The old man was digging the perimeter of a twelve by twenty plot. Jason dug down the middle. The soil was soft and loamy so it didn’t take long. When they were finished they loaded and hauled a load of rotted manure from behind the barn, forked it onto the garden and dug it in. Jason went into the kitchen, made coffee and brought it out to the deck.
“Well,” said Cromwell. “That part is done. When I come back tomorrow evening I’ll bring some screened dirt and seeds.”
“I’ll pay you for them.”
“Why? I collect my own seeds and the dirt is free. If you want you can give me some tomatoes in the fall. I can always use extra tomatoes.”
The next day when Chrissy came home from work she and Cromwell ate supper on the deck. When they were finished and the dishes washed, Cromwell said, “I’m taking seeds and screened dirt over to Jason’s. Yesterday we dug a garden and today we are going to plant it. Want to come?”
“Why would I want to go over there?”
“To help plant the seeds?”
“To visit a nice young man?”
“I don’t see what’s so nice about him.”
“It is not unusual for young men to resist marriage, Chrissy. Sometimes you have be patient. And, as far as saving face goes, he came over here looking for you three times before you threatened to shoot him and you wouldn’t see him. So for you to make a return visit is responding and not making an overture of your own.”
“I don’t know if I want to respond to that miserable jerk.”
“Well, it’s up to you.”
Cromwell threw five bags of screened dirt onto the truck. He got a box of seeds from the shed, put it beside the bags and climbed into the cab. As he was putting the tranny in gear Chrissy came running across the yard and climbed in the passenger side. Cromwell noticed that she had put on a brightly colored blouse which enhanced her red hair and pale complexion. She smelt of perfume.
Jason was sitting on the porch. He came down the stairs and helped unload the bags and spread them on the garden. Cromwell passed out the seeds and began making rows and hills. Chrissy and Jason planted starting from opposite ends of the little garden. Each pretended the other wasn’t there. When they were done Jason went into make coffee and Cromwell and Chrissy sat on the porch. A stray chicken climbed the steps. Chrissy patted her and the chicken jumped into her lap.
“Chickens aren’t usually so affectionate,” said Cromwell.
“No but this one is a particular friend of mine. I’ve been giving her special scraps since she was a chick.”
“Does she have a name?”
“A very good name for a chicken.”
Jason came out with the coffee. He sat in the chair beside Cromwell, Chrissy being on the other side with Amelia. To fill in the gaps in the conversation, which were deep and profound, Cromwell launched himself on a monologue about gardening through the ages. After a romp through the hanging gardens of Babylon to primal gardening methods in the Peruvian terraces, he ended with, “I think that when people no longer garden then something goes missing. Our connection with the earth, with the primal. When we become so sophisticated we avoid dirt and barn smells then we become more and more neurotic and speedy. Of course then I have known a lot of neurotic gardeners in my life so maybe these theories of mine are totally wrong. There was once a guy who lived down the road from me who had a huge garden yet he drank himself to death and at the end threatened to shoot anyone who drove up his driveway. Gardening didn’t seem to help him. So something else has to go on besides gardening I suppose.”
“Exactly. Anything you do overly aggressively and egotistically doesn’t do you much good.”
“But even if you are a wreck then gardening might be better than nothing. Your drunk down the road, for instance, probably lasted much longer gardening than he would have otherwise,” said Jason.
“True, true,” said Cromwell.
“So now you have your life’s model, do you?” Chrissy said to Jason. “A crazy drunk who threatens to shoot people.”
“I’m not the one who threatened to shoot someone,” replied Jason.
“Well that’s because nobody did anything to you. Probably if they did you wouldn’t even threaten them. You would just shoot them straight off without a warning.”
“You are the crazy one. That old drunk compared to you was most likely a very sane man.”
“Perhaps,” said Cromwell, “it might be better if we changed the subject.”
“To what?” Asked Chrissy.
“How about to what a lovely evening it is, to how gorgeous the melted mud in the yard smells, to what a lovely chicken Amelia is. That sort of thing.”
Chrissy laughed. “Well, it is a lovely evening and Amelia is a marvelous chicken,” she said.
“And the cows have all calved so the super busy time is over and I can go fishing on the river two days a week,” said Jason.
“And you never ask me if I want to come,” said Chrissy.
“That’s because you have always said that fishing is boring,” replied Jason.
“Perhaps, but puttering around in a boat can be fun.”
“Well then you could come and putter and I’ll fish.”
Of course fishing led to other things and Chrissy moved back to the old house and the next spring they married. The reception was held on Cromwell’s front lawn where Jason’s father erected a huge rented tent, a line of gas barbecues stood up against the house, and the lawn was completely covered with relatives and neighbors talking and shouting and laughing.
Jason’s father gave the young couple the deed to the land their house was sitting on. Cromwell gave them a restored horse sleigh and an invitation to help him build a meditation house.
Cromwell sat in the shade gathering his thoughts in the failing light. The young men were lighting storm lanterns and hanging them on poles hammered into the lawn. The fiddler was rubbing rosin onto his bow and some of the older men were putting together a make shift plywood floor for dancing. The young women were gathered around the food tables arranging things; the older children playing baseball at the south end of the grass; the younger chasing one another along the passages made by the dining tables set up under the tent. An old friend from down the road was sipping a watery scotch in the chair beside Cromwell’s.
“Good God!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Where do all these people come from?”
“I was asking the same question of myself, Henry,” said Cromwell. “Of course there are lots of theories but theories in the end are bloodless and useless. Explanations of explanations. The truth is that every once in a while you open your eyes and there they are, fully fleshed and unavoidable. Quite shocking, really.”
“Stop it, Cromwell.”
“Sorry. On occasions like this it’s hard for me to prevent myself from going off on one of my little rambles.”