The Water of Life

When the second prince had thus been gone a long time, the youngest son said he would go and search for the Water of Life, and trusted he should soon be able to make his father well again. So he set out, and the dwarf met him too at the same spot in the valley, among the mountains, and said, ’Prince, whither so fast?’ And the prince said, ’I am going in search of the Water of Life, because my father is ill, and like to die: can you help me?

— “The Water of Life” by Jacon and Wilhelm Grimm http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-51.html

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Photo by Mabel Priddy

Hunt’s Hole at Witcher Creek, West Virginia. Long, dark, leafless branches reach to the water’s edge, lines of ink against the untouched snowfall that blankets the woods and marks the creek margins. Heavy rocks, large and small, sit with all their weight in the same position for generations. Used to be you could dive from the biggest rock right into Witcher Creek from this place. Teenaged bodies, skinny from nicotine and hard work, flying like sinewy prehistoric birds into the air and hanging, just for a moment, in the sun above the water, off the rock, frozen in that perfect pose and moment of  everything being right. Nothing can touch them in that place, that sacred place where you are not held down to earth by anything. You fly out over the Water of Life of your own volition, and you are weightless, and everything below you is just that, below you, and when you land you are submerged in something holy.

White marble statues of a baby deer and a blessing angel watch over the ever diminishing water; someone placed the guardians there after a young man in the community was stabbed to death by his own cousin for not going out to get more beer; that’s what my friend and her friends who lived out there and grew up there told me. My friend said the murdered boy was about the sweetest boy you could ever meet. She said that exactly, “He was about the sweetest boy you would ever meet.” She also said the cousin had spent time in jail for scalping someone. Took a knife to another man and pulled his outer self clean off his head.

This was the swimming hole and the baptizing place for many local churches.  My friend was baptized there. There was a man who used to climb up on the rock and dive into the water; he had no legs. How did he get up there? No one could remember, but they remember him diving, diving off the rock into the water that made people disciples of Christ. They remember the water used to come all the way out to the road. It was deep enough to dive in. It used to be.

I take some whiskey up there in my mind. I’m at Hunt’s Hole, on Witcher Creek. It’s summer and I’m in a two piece bathing suit. I drink and watch the sky, pull leaves off of branches and throw them like little scrap messages into the water. Standing up I roll my neck, then my spine, and pull up the bottoms of my suit. It’s foolhardy to drink and swim but no one else is around and I want to feel the water around me, want to feel that moment in the air. I fly, and I feel the warm air and precious minute where the world can’t hold me, I am free. Then I’m falling, and I hit the water, and it rushes over my head and pulls my hair out long and far behind my neck. I push up and burst clean and free into the outside world.

From the rock above I hear a boy shout, “Hell, yes!” I look up to see him, all bones, a stark frame against the suddenly-night sky, white and linear and I realize the water is too shallow now. “Stop!” I yell as loud as I can but it comes out a whisper. The boy freezes in his perfect moment, and another voice says, “Aw, shit, let him go.” My eyes track the voice to a man sitting on the rock, smoking a cigarette and laughing, his legless torso long and straight, my own legs now just ankle deep as I stand up to walk out of the water.

In a Man’s Voice: Daddy Used to Whistle by Steve Alberts

Steve writes faith-based stories about “God’s grace throughout (his) life.” He dabbles with song lyric writing, is attempting to write a novel, and enjoys acting, photography, hunting, fishing, and woodworking.

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, raised and educated in Spencer, and having Bachelor and Master Degrees from WVU Steve says, “I now live in Tennessee and love it here, but West Virginia is my forever home…until I get to the other side.” Visit his blog, On Steve’s Mountain.

Daddy Used to Whistle | by Steve Alberts 

I love wakin’ up in the mornings!

It’s just starting to break dawn, but I‘ve already been up here for an hour or so… I was way up on top of tHis mountain before I ever woke up this morning…could hardly wait to visit the past…up on my mountain.

Lookin’ down on the little community of Speed…near Spencer…Roane County…West Virginia.

Moved there in ’47.  I was just barely two years old at the time.

We lived there until we moved to town in ’56.

It hasn’t changed much since we lived there in the late forties and early fifties.  O.O. “Double O” Casto’s horse show arena and barns are gone from the field beside Charleston Road, but our old house still stands on up the hollow… it’s the next to last house.

My bedroom was on the left just at the top of the stairs.

When I was real little I didn’t sleep there often ‘cause most nights I had dreams that would awaken me. Most nights I would slip out of bed, sneak down the hall and into the bedroom that Auntie and, my sister, Roylene shared…slip to the sanctuary of Auntie.

Never did figure out why Roylene got to share a bedroom with Auntie and I had to have my own bedroom.  After all, I was the one who woke up every night imagining the bears and wolves from Grandpa’s stories coming to hunt me down. Even the Roy Rogers bedspread with its six shooters and lariats woven into the fabric wasn’t the sanctuary that Auntie provided.  But, that’s another story.

When I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old … and sleeping in my own bed more frequently, early summer mornings I would often awaken … bedroom windows open…the humid summer air barely stirring…and just listen to the sounds.

…songbirds

…the grey fox barking up near the barn in the hill meadow

…the rooster crowing

…the feed buckets clanging

…the barn cats meowing for their breakfast

…and, daddy whistlin’.

It was comforting to hear the sounds of those routines being repeated.  It meant my world was safe and solid.

I could tell when daddy had just fed and milked the old Jersey ‘cause I knew the sound of the stall door opening and the gentle lowing from her little bull calf as he was “turned back in” to nurse the last of her milk.

I knew the barn cats would get a portion from the milk bucket as daddy made his way back to the cellar to set the milk to cool before he finally made his way back to the house.

If daddy stayed with his normal routine next would be the sound of the chickens contentedly clucking as the grain was scattered and then the sounds of the trace chains clinking along the floor of the barn as he began to harness which ever work horse he was going to use to skid logs to his sawmill across the run.

The little grey horse was more tractable, easy to drive, stood well when being hooked, but was lighter framed and best when skidding the logs down the mountain.  If there was to be a long haul or if the logs had fallen in the bottom of the cove and had to be skidded up hill the bay was used as he was a little stouter ‘though a little more difficult to handle.

Lying there in my bed in the early morning I could even tell which horse he had harnessed just by listening to the rhythm of the trace chains as the horse pranced across the barnyard…then I would know whether daddy and Bud were cuttin’ on top of the mountain or somewhere around in the cove … in case I decided to test my resolve by hiking up the mountain later to share his cheese sandwich and drink from his water jug at lunch.

I guess it was part of my growing up to leave the sanctuary of the house, wander up the mountain through those scary woods, find daddy, sit with his arm around me as I ate part of his sandwich, then have to return down the mountain by myself.  I knew each end was safe, but the journey in the middle was sort of scary… at that age.

Once I got near the top of the mountain I always knew what final path to take through the woods by listening for the gentle rhythmic sawing of the cross cut, the sound of the horse skidding the logs toward the landing, or …daddy whistlin’ his way through the day.

The little sawmill is long since gone, but I can clearly see it in my mind’s eye sittin’ on the bank at the south side of the run…the motor and drive train from some old truck providing the power…the large circular blade slicing through the white oak and red oak…the sawdust piling up beneath…the slab pile…the ricks of lumber being air dried…Daddy and Bud Nichols using the peaveys and cant hooks to sort and align the logs to get the greatest yield, the straightest grain… and daddy whistlin’.

Cuttin’ red oak and white oak logs with a two man cross cut saw, skiddin’ it to the mill, sawing and stacking was all hard work.

Most days the routine was the same except for Saturdays when we went to town or Sundays when we went to church, visited with neighbors and rested in preparation for another week probably just like the last. 

And, … most days … daddy would whistle all day long.

Daddy used to whistle

…as he wandered through the day.

‘Till now I hadn’t even realized I had heard him

…I’d been young … busy with childhood play.

Whistlin’seemed to make daddy happier

as he made up a brand new tune.

The tunes were seldom ever alike

Whether ‘twas in the early morning, or

late

…in the afternoon.

Except that “Rock Of Ages”

or

“Amazing Grace”

would sometimes just appear.

I guess those hymns were thrown in to keep him grounded

…humble,

…grateful

…to help keep Jesus near.

‘Till lately I hadn’t realize just how much that whistlin’ stuff

had stuck there in my mind.

But, now I think of daddy’s whistlin’

often

And,

…now

I whistle

…from time to time.

I see daddy when I whistle.

I see him driving his old truck.

I see him working at his little sawmill,

…skidding timber

…and,

…doing other stuff.

But most times when I see daddy

He’s standin’ in the creek

…waiting,

…white shirt,

…dark tie,

Easter Morning,

…lightly snowing.

Standin’ up with his friend Carl

… the Reverend Raymond Straight’s just startin’ to speak.

Daddy “standing up” with his friend Carl Cutright – Roane County, Spring Creek along US 219 south of Spencer – “out Charleston Road” – an Easter baptizin’ – probably around 1950 or so.

Friends and neighbors from the church

were watchin’ from the bank.

Most had already been baptized

but, some were waitin’ their turn.

And, still a  few others were dunkin’

…for a second time

…just to reaffirm

…the cleansing of an Easter baptism

at the shoal along Spring Creek

between Watson’s barn

and the Hickman place

with the neighbors lookin’ on.

I see daddy when I whistle.

It puts a smile upon my face.

Don’t know if it’s seein’ daddy,

the baptizin’

or,

if it’s the whistlin’ that’s takin’ place.

But, more important,

Whistlin’ taught me

at an early age

…to listen

…by now, I guess you knew.

That whistlin’ reminds me of daddy,

…of Jesus,

…of life’s lessons,

the ones we should daily do.

And

…every time I whistle

whistlin’ make me a little happier, too

There’s a whole lot more to this whistlin’ than a man would have ever thought

First there’s

…the whistlin’,

then there’s

…the listenin’.

that leads me to

…the thinkin’

about the sanctuary of my earthly and heavenly homes

…the sometimes scary journey in between

about grace and faith along my path

in things I have not yet seen

I think about my daddy

standin’ in the creek

I think about the cross

about

…our eternal sanctuary

that through God’s gracious act of love

our savior, Jesus, bought.

Thank you Lord for another dawn, thank you for giving me another beautiful sunrise, thank you for those memories of growing up, thank you for a family that taught me Your ways, thank you for not giving up on me when it perhaps would have been easy to do, and Lord, thank you for a daddy that whistles…today up on tHis mountain.

Steve Alberts

                                                                                                            Bethpage, TN

 September 3, 2007

© 2007 Steve Alberts

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.