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I pictured a large man with a wild, tangled beard. I imagined him dressed in unwashed clothes, worn to softness, and sturdy leather boots. With a walking stick like this, he must walk everywhere, I reasoned.
It made no sense. I had hosted a party for my co-workers and what seemed like half the town, and after the last cocktail was served, the keg drained, the music silenced, I gathered stray coats and scarves and casserole dishes left behind. In the entryway of the darkened house, next to the heavy oak door, a walking stick as tall as my chin stood in the corner. It looked hand crafted from a slender tree limb, shorn of its branches and sanded, festooned with leather bands, copper brads, beads, and feathers. I thought it must belong to a medicine man or some kind of shaman, but why would such a person have been at my party? The crowd was large and I had only seen a fraction of the guests, and certainly not anyone who remotely matched this totem that looked as if it must be used in ceremonial dances.
I took it to work the next day and asked if anyone knew to whom it belonged. I placed an ad in the paper, asking its owner to come and claim it. No one did, so I placed it back in its corner by the front door, and considered it a strange and mysterious gift. I often reached out a hand and touched it on my way out. Occasionally I dusted it. Once, I polished it with oil when its surface began to look dull from disuse.
I thought it was beautiful in its sturdiness. I admired what I believed it represented – the loving care of the hands that had crafted it, large knuckled, calloused hands. Sometimes my sons showed it to their friends and they would run their hands over it reverently. When we sold the big house and moved into a smaller one, we brought the walking stick with us and placed it next to our new front door, an ornate purple door that opened into a tidy little entryway.
I left that house on a disastrous full moon, late July night, never to return except to pack my things and prepare it for sale. When I loaded up my car for the thousand-mile drive to my new home, I brought the walking stick with me. At my new home, a garage apartment in the treetops, the walking stick took its customary place next to the door. A year later, when I evacuated my new home in anticipation of a killer hurricane, I returned two weeks later to find the door blown open, the stick still standing in the corner.
Three years later, I moved again, then again in six months, and each time the walking stick has been ceremoniously placed in the corner next to the front door, a place of honor where it can be seen every day. It has grown familiar and comfortable, drained of much of its mystery, and now I pat it as I would an old dog, begging for a walk.
Out here in the middle distance, among crisis and change, I’m glad for a simple object that has endured and been constant. My fractured heart has healed like a boxer’s nose: crooked and swollen with scar tissue, prone to leaking. I look outside at the Colorado springtime with its blustery afternoons, at the brave seedlings holding up flakes of snow, and it feels as if no time has passed and an eternity has passed; nothing has changed and everything has changed. The dog presses his nose against the front door glass, waiting for the mailman, and in the corner, the walking stick stands alone.
Yesterday, I picked up the walking stick to take a good look at it. It felt light in my hand, hollow, as if it might not be a tree limb at all, but a replica of one. Was it part of a costume, a faux Indian outfit one of my long ago guests had brought to the party as a joke? Were the leather bands and the beads manufactured and applied in a factory somewhere, for a tourist to buy at a fake Wild West trading post? I’m sure it doesn’t matter. I give it a good wipe down with oil and put it back in its corner. When I am old and in need of a good walking stick, it will still be here, waiting patiently to be of use.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.