After chores this afternoon, I walked over the hill to check the cows in the new pasture. I was stepping right along, for the sky was getting ugly in the west as a fleet of heavy clouds was coming on. It rained two inches last night and set the small creeks running again, and soon it would be pouring once more.
I cleared the stream with a short jump and strode up the incline where the herd was grazing. With the prospect of full bellies, they ignored me.
While I was tramping back down the hill, I remembered that I wanted to find a pocket's worth of acorns under the red oaks near the gravel road. My plan was to plant them at the end of the garden, then transplant them in the yard if they sprouted in the spring.
I pushed my way through the brush while studying the ground for acorns. It was darker under the trees and hard to see, so I crouched lower.
Plunk. Something hit me on the head, an acorn. This tree must have a sense of humor. I put the nut in my jacket pocket and looked around for more. Plunk, another one hit me. This was odd, because I felt it on the back of my head, which is a difficult shot even for an oak tree. Then I caught on.
I went around the other side of the big oak, and, as I expected, there was Lem with a grin on his wrinkled face. I hadn't seen him all summer; in fact, not since spring, when he had returned from his alleged long walk to the South.
"Lem, you old coot. The last time I saw you, you were sleeping under a log."
"What you lookin' for in the brush? Lose sumpin'?"
"I need a couple of acorns to plant. I'd like some oak trees for the yard. But I guess the squirrels got them first."
Lem smirked and pointed toward my feet. Sitting there on the ground was his hat brimming with acorns. He reached down and gave me a handful. Then he picked up the hat, turned and dumped its contents into a cavity in the tree trunk. I was puzzled by this, but I didn't say anything. By and by, Lem gets to talking.
"Like 'corns for eatin', Johnny?" Lem said, sticking his arm inside the tree.
"Course not, too bitter, though I've heard you could boil the bitterness out."
"It don't bother me fer nothin'. Guess I be sourer then the oak." To prove his point, Lem popped an acorn into his mouth and chewed on it, then spit out remnants of the cap and shell.
"Got a tang, but it ain't none bad. 'Corns got heart, like oak's got heart." Lem swallowed, then spit some more shell. "And sometimes I just like to suck on 'corns."
"Your mouth will turn to leather with all that tannin, Lem."
"Leather lasts, boy."
I couldn't argue that. Maybe that is the secret to Lem's longevity. Maybe he has survived 200 years, as he claims, because he has turned himself to leather, inside and out.
Lem picked up a flat piece of rock and fit it neatly in the opening in the trunk. Then he went to the stream bed and got a handful of clay.
I watched as he carefully caulked around the rock, then slathered its surface with the wet mud. The old woodsman cracked some pieces of loose bark from the trunk and stuck them on the sticky mud until the casual eye could not detect what was beneath. He stepped back and surveyed his handiwork, then tapped the hollow trunk.
"Winter fodder. Got a couple pecks of 'corns here. Ya say they be too bitter, but they burn good'n hot in the gut, keep ya warm."
It started to sprinkle; there was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder soon after. Standing under the oak tree was not a good idea any longer.
I shouted back after I jumped the creek: "Lem, you're welcome to sleep in our hay mow." It was pointless to ask him to come inside -- he'd never come. A gust of wind hit me, taking off my hat.
"Don't need no invite. Don't worry about Lem, boy."
I jogged up the hill, slipping some on the wet ground. The pocketful of acorns bounced as I ran. I thought of eating one, just to see if I could get it down.
At the top of the hill, I could see Kathleen's car in the driveway and the yellow glow of lights on in the kitchen. I got thinking about corn bread and decided to delay my transformation into a leather man until tomorrow.