The Man With The Broken Crutch
It was where the Dark Forest runs out of breath and the river, pretending to be thief, steals much of daylight’s silver. It was here one morning the man with a broken crutch came out of the forest and came along the river gathering its coin. He wore a cap for the weather and a jacket time had touched roughly. And he limped.
The limp was a serious limp, almost twisting the man’s frame. The object foot had a dragging stutter to it and the boot was greatly worn. The man promised to topple easily. And need or want moved in the air about him.
The single crutch at his left side was a crude apparatus, bound in places where it had been broken with wire tightly coiled. From his porch, Avershaw the blacksmith saw him first, noticed how he leaned to one side.
“Melba,” he called, and his wife came onto the porch. “We will have another for breakfast I am sure.”
Her apron was gathered in her hands and she looked at the stranger and said, “I am sure we will.”
Avershaw, a big man with red suspenders and heavy pants, stood and hailed the other man. “Would you stand for coffee and a biscuit, sir? We do not have abundance but we have sufficient. Eggs would be another matter.” Again Avershaw noted how the man leaned almost to the point of falling. Then he noted the kindly face, the clear blue eyes, the way the man held his chin. And his hands! His hands were delicate and smooth and did not look as if they belonged with the crutch or had much employed the crutch.
“You are too kind, sir,” the man with the crutch said. A slight smile wore on his face. “We are in luck for I have two eggs here I found last evening in the forest, and no place to cook them.” From a pocket of the worn jacket he brought out two brown eggs that could be yet idling in a nest. “If the lady of the house would oblige, she may do as she wishes with them.”
His hand held out the two brown eggs and Avershaw called his wife. “Melba, we’ll have biscuits dipped in eggs today, just the way you like them.”
Then, Avershaw pointed to a chair and said, “Rest easy while the biscuits get dipped and fried. We’ll have our coffee here where the sun comes first. If I were a woodsmith I would fix that crutch for you, but my iron would be too heavy for you.” Then Avershaw said, “By what name are you called, sir?”
"They call me Stick. They have called me Stick for a long time, for so long I know no other name. So Stick I will be. It is not uncomfortable.”
They had their biscuits with a small mound of butter and a sweet syrup. And a second cup of coffee.
“Do you have far to go?” Avershaw said, as he finished his coffee. “We could put some lunch in a kit for you.”
“Not far,” Stick said, “not far at all.”
When the coffee was gone Stick said thank you and went on his way.
Just before noon, still where the forest runs out of breath and the river steals daylight, Stick was hailed by another man in his front yard. The man had seen that serious limp in the heat of the sun. “Stranger, would a bit of shade and a small bite of food aid you on your journey? We do not have much but we will share. I am with my two daughters. Today is a day without meat for us. We have but few pennies left from what bread we could buy.”
“Such a lucky day it is,” Stick said. “Last night in the forest I came upon a deer who had shortly impaled himself. I came away with some venison.” From deep in his jacket pocket he drew out a small parcel wrapped in paper. “However your daughters choose to cook it, be it done.” The daughters danced away with the venison. Soon the aroma climbed on the air in the middle of the day. There was a sauce to go with the bread and the four of them dipped their bread and ate the venison.
“My name is Rastoff and I teach music,” Rastoff said, his big teeth showing as he talked. “If I could work with wood I would make you a new crutch to aid in your journey. But I have no knowledge of wood. Nor what its grain is or where its strength lies, except here.” And with that he drew a violin up from below the table and played songs for Stick and his daughters. After a while, Stick said, “I must be going. But I do not have far to travel.” He left with his thank you as soft as music on the air.
Stick was not far away by the close of evening. A young boy came up to him and said, “My mother saw you coming for a long time from her window. We do not have much but you are welcome to be at our table. We have soup. It is thin but it will be warm.”
“Young man,” Stick said, “tell your mother we are in luck. Just last evening, in the middle of the Dark Forest, where there was a small patch of late sunlight, I found two potatoes, two beets and two carrots.” He dug deep into his jacket pocket and brought out the vegetables. “Tell your mother to thicken the soup with these.”
The boy nodded with delight and ran off to give the vegetables to his mother. He soon came back and said, “She thanks you a great deal. If my father were here he could fix your crutch for you, but he is away in the Great War that moves around the world. We hope he comes back soon. He is a carpenter and could fix your crutch easily.”
At dusk they ate the newly thickened soup with the potatoes and the beets and the carrots cut up in it. The soup was delicious soup and the boy soon fell asleep on the porch of his house while the mother cleaned the dishes. Stick said goodbye. “I have to keep moving. You have a fine boy. I hope your husband gets back soon. War is a great separator but often not the final one.”
His way took him along a stone wall for a few miles.
The river had nearly given up all of its daylight when Stick was walking past an old farmhouse sitting like a deep shadow. Not one window had a light in it, nor was there any smoke coming from the chimney. A voice hailed him from the darkness in front of the house. “If you have no place to sleep, sir, we could put you up, but you must be able to do with the darkness and the cold. We do not have any light or any kindling to start a fire or any matches for the matter. I am afraid that my children will not be able to do their reading this night and they might also catch cold. The edge of the moon says it is going to be cold.”
“You are most kind, sir,” Stick said, “but fear not. Last evening in the forest I found some flint and stone in an old pouch on a tree stump. We can start a fire with them.”
“All well and good,” the man in the darkness said, “but we still have no kindling to get the big logs burning.”
“Ah, but we do, “Stick said, as he slammed his broken crutch over a large stone in the wall and splintered it for kindling. The sound crackled so harshly in the night it frightened the man.
“But how will you walk on the morrow?” the man said.
Stick had no hesitation. “You will make me a crutch tonight,” he replied.
“I have been unable to work for a long time,” the man said. But all night he worked hard on some pieces of wood he found, knowing that before this stranger came he would not have even looked for such wood. Light came from a good fire and warmth filled the house and the children were asleep after reading their lessons. In the morning the man handed Stick a shiny new crutch that caught the early morning sun all along the shaft. The crutch was smooth and had a lacquer finish on it and a pad on the top where it fit under Stick’s arm.
That sun was barely up over the horizon when Stick walked away in the early slant of the sunlight, down past the fields he went, past the stone walls, to where the river again was catching up all the daylight it could grasp. Once he waved back at the man with his new crutch.
That evening all the people had gathered in town and were talking about the man with the broken crutch.
“I am glad that we were able to feed him,” Avershaw said, his thumbs hooked on his red suspenders. “We gave him breakfast, a royal breakfast, a meal to begin the day with.” He paused, hooking his suspenders a little higher. “As my mother used to say, "A meal to touch the backbone.”
“And we gave the poor man his lunch,” Rastoff said, “with venison and thick gravy. A meal also fit for a king.” He smiled proudly, his large teeth showing. “We even played music for him to soothe his vagrant soul. If there were a place for that poor man to live, this would be it. We all did so much for him. All taking our turn with a stranger.” Those around him nodded in agreement.
The boy’s mother, not to be outdone, not wanting to be left out of a share of goodness, took her turn. “A most splendid and thick soup we gave the man. Thick as can be, with potatoes and beets and new carrots. A treat for any beggar on his rounds. The kind that sticks to one’s ribs.” It was a kind of punctuation when she added, “And he ate a goodly share of it.”
The others nodded in agreement again, seemingly all of one mind.
They were satisfied with themselves, but a voice from the edge of light, the man from the darkness, said, “Do any of you know what he gave to us? Why do we continually wrap ourselves up in our own gifts? Why do we tie up our own ribbons in such a manner?”
“Well,” the boy’s mother said, “what did you do for him? It was near dark when he left my house.”
“What fools we are," the man answered. “It’s not what we did for him. It’s what he did for us. He took care of us. Me, a useless man for years, I made a crutch for him. I haven’t worked like that in a long time and I guess we all know that.” For a moment he hung his head. “That’s one of the reasons he came here. The man needed a crutch to get on with. And he saw to it that I made it for him. We did not really do for him. He did for us, but we are afraid to say it.”
The next morning, on the other side of the river, where the mountain comes to stand up and the field stops breathing, a man with a broken crutch came limping out of the forest ready to lean on some more people.
A man hailed him from his porch.