Lem cracked a few dry branches and dropped them on the small fire, which flickered between us, then he went back to working on the possum hide he was scraping. His leathery face, crossed with shadows, looked more ancient and more mysterious than usual, if that was possible. He worked on his hide, occasionally looking up to watch sparks rise into the cloudy night.
"Once I made me a whole outfit outta possum: pants, coat, hat. Warmest coverin' this body ever had. Jest about killed me.'
I waited a moment, then asked the obvious question, "What was so dangerous about a possum suit?"
"Kept gettin' mistook for an old bear. If they could of shot better over in Ohio, I'd a-been three times dead that winter."
I waited for the inevitable tall tale, which was as certain to follow as water runs downhill. Instead, there was a moment's silence. Then the woods rocked with a tremendous explosion as lightning blasted the top of an enormous tulip tree close by.
The impact thundered through the woods. A second later came the roar of the severed tree top falling through the dense canopy of branches. The ground shook as the mass of wood hit the forest floor. Lem jumped up yelling something and grabbing my arm, but I couldn't make out a word of what he was saying. My ears couldn't hear anything but a dull rumble.
Lem ran into the darkness pulling me through the woods with one hand, the possum skin still in the other. I was surprised how strong the skinny old fellow was as I finally pulled free. He ran off in the direction of the lightning strike. I blundered along behind.
Thirty feet of exploded tree top lay in a shattered heap. All around, the air steamed with the reek of scorched sap and bruised vegetation. My ears were still ringing, but now I could hear Lem shouting nearby.
The old fellow was dancing around singing something that sounded like "zapwood, zapwood." Then, flopping the possum skin out on the ground, fur up, he gingerly began dropping steaming splinters of wood on the skin. He worked quickly, collecting what would have been a handful, before rolling them up in the fur. He then ran off like a thief.
I followed him back to his camp to find him burying the rolled-up fur. He smoothed the dirt over the shallow hole and slid the flat rock he had previously been sitting on over it. The old man settled back with a look of great satisfaction on his weathered face.
Familiar with Lem's odd ways I waited a minute. He built up the fire and began to explain. "You nowaday folks don't grab zapwood when's you get the chance?"
I shook my head as he explained: "Zapwood's the best thing a-goin'. Bestest, most useyful thing."
Thus happened my sudden acquaintance with Lem's miraculous zapwood. For at least an hour the old woods-walker extolled its powers and lore. It seems zapwood must be collected from a lightning-struck tree as quickly as possible to preserve its potency, which is then best maintained by a fur-covered burial.
Most any tree can give you good zapwood, but Lem was partial to pignut hickory. "It jest lasts longest, couple years in good skin."
What does one do with a cache of zapwood? Lem's voice rose with enthusiasm. "You kin make a fire in the rain jest by wishin' on a sliver of zap, an' you kin whittle a fish lure, an ketch you big fish any time or place. You char up a piece of zap an' rub the blackening on you, and skeeters never bite. Never. Poltice a sore with zapwood paste, an' it heals whistle-smooth."
Lem claimed that a stick of zapwood floating on still water would align itself north and south. An animal soured by mistreatment could be gentled by stroking it with a zapwood brush. Lots of other things, too. Zapwood couldn't be sold: "Take money for it an' it jest fizzes out."
Lem said you could tell a good piece of zap because it hummed when you held it. He handed me a long sliver to listen to, but I couldn't hear anything, even holding it against my ear. Lem looked at me in disgust: "Yer ears is gone duddy ridin' that Poppin' John machine across the fields."
I went to hand the zapwood back across the fire, and as I did, its feathery tip suddenly caught a spark and began glowing like a candle. Lem grabbed it and pinched the flame out hurriedly. "Don't never burn live zap, boy. You'll twist all the signs outta joint."
Lem grinned and patted the flat rock. "Boy, you kin jest take some zap when you have needs. Jest wrap that possum jacket up tight agin." The old man sniffed the zapwood and smiled as he waved it in the firelight like a conductor's baton. "Ahh, in't nothin' so good as some fresh zap," he said.