That day was so hot that you could peel the sweat off like the skins of a hard-boiled onion. Sometimes the light would strike the mountains just right and we could see angels dancing across the ridge tops. Or at least that what we imagined the small puffy clouds scudding through the peaks to be. But then even the merest hint of a dark edge could, within a fleecy white cloud, be melded into a ferocious dragon that swirled and dove at the high ridges, sometimes repelled the angel guardians; other times, the beasts would win the battle and the thunderheads would roil down from the ridges and set the valley aflame with their lightning tongues.
The nodding, heavy stalks of fescue scratched at my arms and flickered in the edges of my vision, but that wasn't nearly as bothersome as the way the grass held the heat in and around so every stitch of clothes from collar to drawers to socks soon became a sodden mass, trapping the vaguely ugly smell of new sweat until, hours later, it has become old, sticky, icky stench that invariably tweaked every womanly nose within a quarter-mile.
We were hiding in the tall grass behind a peeling white board fence beneath the sparse winking shade of an old twisted dogwood. Sister, that's what we called her 'cause she was Wormy's sister by ten months or so, had her red pug nose stuck between the boards like some kind of red bone hound puppy sniffing the wind for the scent of far game. Tugging on my left arm, Wormy kept whispering, "Is it him? Is it him?" every time even the faintest sound wafted up from the far side of the hill where the dusty gravel road wound through the hay fields into the dark, cool, dangerous forest.
As Sister, Wormy, and I held in the front row of the hayfield board fence theatre, Ralph, and Duke prodded our backs with fingers and knees, anxious as kids waiting for the cartoon to begin at the Saturday triple horror flick, because we were, in fact, waiting to be entertained. We were waiting for the Rainbow Man.
In those days, the Rainbow Man was a mythic figure for the fifth grade set. His exploits were legendary on the kids' grapevine-- the recess circle of "Did ya hear?" patter; the crumpled note scrawled too heavy and too dark with old tooth-pocked number two pencils; and the out-of-context misheard whispers stolen just around the door frame from adult conversations. And it wasn't just the young softball and sometimes cowboys and Indians set. The older near-dating kids, including some boys who might even have a pack of Camels or Lucky's rolled up in a T-shirt sleeve or an old yellow, useless condom making big O circles in near empty billfolds, including some pony-tailed girls searching for cleavage, wondering about tongues, and scheming even then for a picket fence and a non-drinking husband, all knew about the Rainbow Man. Some had even seen his magic; some had heard his dark night melodies calling down the owl and bat. All had a story, a tale of the Rainbow Man.
This dusty, sticky August afternoon would be our first close-up Rainbow Man story; it would not be the last.
"Didja hear that?" Duke rasped in that squirrelly pre-man voice made too gurgly by constant spitting between wide-gapped front teeth recently erupted from a canyon of squishy baby teeth sockets. Duke wiggled his too-big body around banging into Sister, who shot an elbow into his ribs. "Owww."
"Shhh. Quit whining," Sister commanded.
Duke, sulking, settled back on the worn heels of his old Hi-Top Red Ball tennis shoes and started chomping on the pregnant end of a fescue stalk. Duke dearly liked to chew, and we all knew someday he'd be chomping away at a chaw of Red Man but for now he'd be content with pseudo-tobacco, just as he was content to battle the pseudo dragons he saw in the clouds and sketched in his tattered, secret notebook hidden beneath a loose board in the smokehouse floor. His daddy thought we called him Duke because of John Wayne, but that wasn't it all. He was Duke because he was the lord of a dreamland that sparkled behind his chestnut eyes that only he and his Club friends knew of and in that land he was the Duke, the Ruler, unlike the sweat soaked reality where the Twigg Twins waited behind every bush and briar patch to administer another beating, another humiliation.
Then I heard it, a muttering, lilting chanting voice whose words were melodic but somehow just barely indistinguishable, like an AM station newscast fading on every third word into hissy nothing. It was the Rainbow Man talking to himself, approaching us just over the rise of the small hilltop. We stared to our left, waiting, barely breathing as trickles of sweat stung our eyes and itched in erratic rivulets down already soaked backs.
Ralph leaned close and I could smell the shoe polish odor of his flat-top wax, a source of much pride for Ralph since it took a good deal of convincing to persuade his Ma that the flat-top was not the work of the Devil. Of course, the smell was not helped by Ralph's ever present aura of mothballs, a cruel fate perpetrated by a too frugal widowed mother who had every inch of family clothing, both paternal and maternal, stretching back to the Great Depression, neatly tucked away in the third, attic, floor of their Civil War era farmhouse.
I could just barely see a battered old straw hat bobbing above the crest of the hill when I noticed the grasshopper. It was sitting in a curl of paint, a plump bronze beauty with a jaw full of black, beautiful tobacco, Staring at the grasshopper, I suddenly felt a tight knot of guilt wrap around my heart: it was only two days ago that I had led a Club patrol, and, armed with BB guns we had stalked this very fence picking-off grasshoppers, splattering them against the ragged boards or knocking them spinning through the air or sometimes just disintegrating them like they had been hit with a death ray from a flying saucer. Was that munching bug someone's father, or maybe even mother? And why was it looking at me--
"Look. He's got the stick!" Wormy's whisper seemed loud enough to be heard across the far valley
We had all heard about the stick. It was another of those attributed that glimmered like the dusk fairies about the Rainbow Man Supposedly, the old man's walking stick was carved from the heartwood of the last fallen chestnut; again, another legendary ideal itself-- the dead husk of the oldest chestnut struck by lightning on Christmas Eve, falling in flames to a foot-deep snow by the Rainbow Man's homeplace and his daddy retrieving and carving three fabled walking sticks from its smoldering center. And that was the last chestnut, the rest were gone, killed by the desecrating, ravaging Asian chestnut blight, and what was once the monarch of the mountains was now gone, and along with them the mast that fed the deer and elk and pig. Most folks believed that all the magic of the long-gone chestnuts had effervesced into the walking sticks for what else could explain the tricks and stunts and spells they supposedly had. But then the old folks always found a spell in anything that fell even one jot outside of common experience.
Wormy knew he had the stick because he saw its top gleam in the hot sun as the Rainbow Man swung it toward the sky in a drum-major like arc. The sparkle was a tale unto itself, having been hammered from silver passed down from Juan Pardo through John Wesley to Sequoyah and finally to the Rainbow Man where, as the tale went, he, a teenager then, molded it to the top of the stick and used it to strike down a fearsome beast that was stalking the heart of the Blackwood. But that was a story for another time, several years later when the harvest moon was full and bright and I sat alone in the dark by Dungeon Falls. But then, as I squinted past the grasshopper toward the bobbing straw hat I saw the old man's face full on for the first time.
Until that very instant I had never been closer than three first downs to the man, since the occasion had not presented itself and well, my courage was lacking. But there in the hot afternoon hayfield beneath the flickering shade of a sparse dogwood with the emboldening company of my peers and Club members, I sucked in a tiny breath and beheld his "wizened countenance."
I really wasn't close enough then to see his eyes, though at that moment I did see the Carolina blue and stellar sparkle of his eyes, probably because they had been described to me so often. I could see the deep tanned wrinkles that danced around his eyes and framed his cheeks into a near perpetual smile. The salt and pepper grizzle of his eternal three-day beard shone with a few stray beads of sweat, though he should have been soaked through given the heat of the day and the fact that his large frame was swaddled from old white dress shirt to the tops of his ankle-high brogans with his namesake--a pair of overalls. But these were not just any old pair of overalls because, beginning just below the dirty Red Camel label, was the first of many rainbow patches sewed into the faded fabric of the three years past tattered overalls.
The Rainbow Man made the rainbows himself, constructing each one carefully with needle and thread sewed into a tow-sack patch. The arcs were all even, precise; the colors all followed the same pattern: the top arc was gold, then red, white, green, and finally blue. The main rainbow, sewed across the chest pocket, was about the size of a big man's hand, and his overalls always had at least two more rainbows on the outside legs near the ankles. From that basic design the Rainbow Man covered each rip and tear in the overalls with smaller rainbows and so, over time, each would become a rainbows of rainbows until they finally disintegrated and the Rainbow Man would wander into town and buy another pair. The last time that happened was VJ Day.
The Rainbow Man spun the walking stick into the air, its tip flashing round like a hubcap spinner, as he crested the dusty hill, and as the stick dropped back to his outstretched hand, for a brief instant he was a snapshot against the afternoon sky, the walking stick stretched high against the gathering thunderheads much as Thor must have aimed his hammer at the heavens or perhaps like Heston parting the Red Sea.
Small puffs of dust wafted upward from his steps and then, just three steps beyond the crest of the hill, the Rainbow Man stopped dead in his tracks, snapped the walking stick to ground, and slowly craned his head around as if he were surveying far vistas from atop the stunted hill.
We all sucked in a deep breath and sunk even lower in the hot, scratchy grass. I had never heard any tale of the Rainbow Man offering to harm anyone but in that sharp moment we reacted like we were hiding from the probing head of a full-coiled rattler. I stared below the fence board this, trying to see him through the trembling fescue stalks. Inches above me, the grasshopper merrily munched away. The only thing I could see clearly was a sparkle at the toes of the his old battered brogans.
The gleam was another bit of the his persona, and like an old song whose verses are known by all, his taps were famous near and far. One of my earliest memories was of sparkling feet skipping lightly over hardwood floors and the sharp, distinct click, tap as they alternated heel to toe while fiddles and banjos sang in the background. To this day, I'm still not sure if the memory was real or fancied, but in any case the feet would have to be connected ankle bone to shin bone to the Rainbow Man since flying everywhere about them were woven rainbows on faded blue denim.
The Rainbow Man's gaze, I felt, stopped on us hiding in the grass. I couldn't see, but I felt the prickly thrill of the unknown sparkle down my sweaty neck, and I knew he was looking at me. I dared not breath and for a long lung-busting moment he was still, then his feet were moving and the trill of a much practiced tune whistled through the fields as he sauntered down the hill.
I peeked above the fence board, moving too fast perhaps since the grasshopper buzzed away, and caught a whiff of something exotic, something as far beyond my young experience as the early evening aromas of a Cairo market. I stared after the Rainbow Man. Every few paces he would spin the walking stick about, do a quick side shuffle then heel-toe a couple of quick steps while whistling the familiar tune. With each step, whether of the ordinary kind or the jigging dance step, his taps polished bright on toe and heel, would glitter like chrome bumpers on date night and little dust devils would spout where they slipped into the powdery gravel road. He reminded me in that short scene of Uncle Remus, just freshly escaped from the big screen of the local drive-in. But this wasn't Song of the South
; it was me and my buddies hiding, sweating, staring at close range at a local legend.
Though that day was long, long ago, I can still retrieve a fresh, clean copy of the memory anytime I want to slip backwards into the mists of childhood.