“The Cypress Altar”

by Mark Poe

The cold air of the pre-dawn November morning burned the throat as the hum of the outboard motor was lulling me back into any outdoorsman’s dreamland. The boat ride down Maddox Bay to the dropping-off spot of the deer hunters of the Poe family was cold but quick. The morning discussion covered where everyone would be hunting today and concluded with the choice of either quick-and-cold or slow-and-moderate for the 10-minute or so boat ride, depending on the vote. Quick and cold won out. We had all survived, as assured by roll call rounded as the boat slid to a stop on the sandbar. From here, we would begin our stalking of any legal whitetail to be found in the North Unit of the White River Refuge in southeast Arkansas. We had copied this exact scenario countless times in my 25 years of hunting with this family. No thought in heart or mind could foretell the future relevance of this over-played song of the deer hunter. Unbeknownst to any of us, today would change the lives and the future of the clan.

My nephew, Brooks, had selected a slough leading out to Hill Bayou. My brother, James, chose to hunt the opposite side of the Bay, on an oak ridge that ran parallel to the water. My father chose to hunt a crossing on the slough leading to Kansas Lake and I would head out with him and hunt an area between Kansas Lake and Cole Slough that has been a whitetail interstate for as long as the family had been there. My father was getting on up in years. His eyes were starting to dim and his back had begun to cause more pain than he would ever let be known. His body was paying the price for the many years of back-breaking work he had subjected it to – everything from chopping countless acres of cotton to loading wagonloads of watermelons, along with the other callous-producing labor associated with running the 80-acre family farm. Hunting was his escape from the reality of life. It was the driving force to make it through another day. The outdoors was his magic wand that transformed hell of life to living. And make no mistake about it; he was a wizard at it. He had a feel for the woods he trod and the lakes and rivers he fished. Never mind the elements. He would always produce something for us to eat. We knew that when Pop was out with gun or rod, the bologna could stay in the cooler. When he yelped that familiar “heeeup,” you could start peeling potatoes, because Pop was headed in with meat in-hand.

I followed him close that morning, with both of us headed in the same general area. The clay road that had been made once by the logging trucks of the Potlatch Company – and later by the graders and the dozers of the Federal government – cut through the dense tangle of woods and vines, just as a river cuts its way thru the rock-walled mountains. Even at my age of 33 I could see the shadow of the wide-shouldered man I knew as a child. He was still larger than me and I still saw him in my heart as a giant that would never meet his David. He had the ability to lead a family with his will and his eyes, without the use of guilt or force. There was never the thought of being made to do any job. He put it in a way that you knew it was expected to be done and was completed more out of the fear of disappointing him than the consequences of ignoring his wishes. He had a heart for people, but he also had a burning desire to be surrounded by family. Understandable, considering this man came from no family. He was adopted at two years of age and raised within shouting distance of the St. Francis river bottoms. Grandpa Jim and Grandma Ruby had no other kids. His real mother was full-blooded Cherokee, so that gave him an almost spiritual connection to woods and water. Not to mention being raised by Grandpa Jim, either on the river or in the woods, hunting anything that would run from him. This was never for sport. The taking of life was done so with the utmost respect for the sacrifice of the animal or fish. We thanked the animals for feeding us and we gave thanks to God above for providing us with the food and the strength to hunt and fish. This was instilled in us by the man I now trailed behind, as we cut off the hard road and down a wooded trail. I was watching him ease along in the total quietness of the morning, with just the faintest light leaking above the broken horizon, through the matting of trees and a cloudy morning. I thought about how amazing it was that a man could build a family unit that many others coveted. This family was the epitome of the Southern farm family. Work hard Monday thru Saturday and then Sunday morning found us lined in the pew at Black Oak Methodist Church, like turtles on a cypress log. Pop would be behind the pulpit leading song service. After church, we would walk into a house with the air flavor-soaked from the dinner already cooking. It was an after-dinner King Edward and maybe a hand of cards before everyone loaded up their families and went home. No one made excuses as to why they couldn’t be there. No one was too busy or worried with the daily grind. Your presence was expected, but not demanded.

Pop whispered over his shoulder that he would yelp if he needed me and took off on his trail through the dense woods, just skirting a massive thicket. Within a moment, he was out of sight. I followed the road until my slough came up on my right. I crossed onto the high bank. I eased down quietly to avoid spooking any deer that may have already crossed. I made my way to the same old cypress tree that had been supporting the backs of my family for years. After carefully moving any loose limbs that could possibly cause unnecessary racket, I raked the cypress needles and other ground clutter up to build my nest for the morning. I nestled in to my familiar spot, as light poured through the trees in a gray mist. The trees were lightly swaying under the cold north breeze that would still sting any exposed skin. The cold ground worked its way up my spine like dead fingers taking the life from every muscle and I went through the early morning ground shakes that anyone who ground hunts for deer experiences. I focused my eyes on any stumps or logs that might jolt the psyche into thinking it’s a deer and in my mind marked trees to calibrate the inner windings for the distances. As everything settled into the morning sound of the bottoms coming alive, the distant wail of snow geese riding the wind took me away from whitetails and my mind wandered back to my Dad. I thought about the times that he taught us to be honorable men, through lessons that were his everyday occurrences. Most were not even meant for our eyes. One of those instances was watching him stop on the side of the gravel road leading to our house and sort through a bag of household trash someone had dumped, until he found an envelope with a name. We went home, where he immediately called the county sheriff. We then took garbage bags back to the dumping spot. We were still sacking up the garbage, when the deputy arrived. Dad showed him the envelope and they talked quietly. We loaded the bags into the truck and headed to our own burning barrel. Within the hour the doorbell rang. Dad answered the door to the deputy and we followed him to his car. He opened the back door and out stepped a young man. Embarrassment and shame made it difficult to raise his head to eye level of my nine-year-old self. The weight of his petty littering was an anvil on him. The deputy proceeded to tell him that my father had cleaned up his mess and how no one should be too lazy to take care of their own garbage. Deputy Golden asked my father what he thought would be a good punishment. Dad said he didn’t want him punished, he just thought he needed a good lesson in right and wrong. For the first time, the young man raised his eyes to meet my father’s. He apologized for what he had done, thanked my father for cleaning up his mess and shook his hand with the promise it would never happen again. I never knew if that young man kept his promise, but I can assure you those young eyes of mine learned a lesson in responsibility, accountability and forgiveness that no Sunday school lesson could ever teach.

The lone breaking of a limb brought me back to the here-and-now. I froze and began scanning my peripherals. All other sounds quieted. My tensed muscles released when I heard the yelp. “Heeeup.” I knew I hadn’t heard a shot, so it wasn’t the need of someone to drag his deer. Was something wrong? Was he in need of help? I jumped up and turned the direction I heard the yelp come from and I saw an orange hat wave from behind a large tupelo tree. I yelped back and he stepped out. He said he was afraid the cracking stick would get him shot, because he just knew I was probably asleep. And then he flashed that smile that let you know he was messing with you. He came over and asked if he could hunt with me because, in his words, “some idiot that doesn’t know shucks from pignuts about deer hunting was sitting with his back to one of the best deer crossings in these bottoms”. After we settled in on opposing sides of the cypress, I poured him a hot cup of coffee from my thermos. He sipped and we started talking. Deer hunting was over, because a father and a son were connecting on a level that so many of us long for in this day and time. Not to mention the regrets and wishes for those chances that can never be. We began talking about this old cypress tree spot. He told me the background of when they found it and he told me about this being my Uncle Frank’s favorite spot. There were mentions of times spent hunting with him and of the times that he sat with his dad on deer hunts. We talked of the past and the future, as if they were one. We laughed at the untold embarrassments that had happened to each of us while out in these woods. He was the master storyteller. There was no need for a stage or an audience. Sitting in these woods was all the catalyst that was needed to set his tongue ablaze and he proceeded to burn through 60 years of family tales. Time was irrelevant. I wish it could have lasted forever.

I was not sure how long we had been talking, but I noticed he had gotten quiet on his side of the tree. I peeked around and noticed he was shaking.

“Pop, you ok?”

“I’m freezing to death MAP. You got some more coffee?”

“Sure do. Here, put this coat on and I’ll get you a cup.”

I fixed him another cup, as he put on the extra insulated coat. I wasn’t sure what to do or say, so we sat there a bit longer, while the warm coffee gave him some relief. After he finished the cup, I thought it might be best to head out to the boat for lunch.

“Hey, Pop, what say we head back to the boat? I can fix some sandwiches and get some more coffee.”

“Sounds good, MAP. Kind of a wasted hunt, huh? Sure did have fun just sitting out here and talking, though.”

“Me, too, Pop. Best hunt I’ve been on in a while.”

As I helped him up from beside the tree, something had changed. I noticed the hero that I had trailed behind my whole life, looked old. He looked tired and slumped over. It was if that damn cypress tree had drained him of years, right in front of my eyes. The same tree that I had watched all the other old timers waste away from. This tree is a thief of family and I will cuss it daily until I can sneak in under the cover of darkness with a saw and free the unused years of them all. The tree that we thought was a part of us has been a destroyer. I walked along beside my father, trying to fight back the tears, so as not to explain to him why they were there. I was confused, I was hurt and I was mad as hell. None of it mattered. We walked, arm-in-arm, down that same old wooded trail, him leaning on me for balance and me leaning on him for life. We made it out to the clay road and he wanted to stop, just for a second. Even though I was trying hard to mask the flood of emotions on my face, his fatherly wisdom saw the truth. What I thought was anger, he saw as fear.

“You know, MAP, these woods have always been like a church to me. What better way to see God in his creations but to be one standing in the middle of all the beauty he wanted us to see while here on Earth? God has been so good to me and my family. I’ll never forget today. Let’s get to the boat.”

As I sat beside him during the boat ride back to the landing, I realized something important. Those woods were his Church. It was where he would go to find peace and comfort in a maddening world. It was where he could plug in and balance it all. That old cypress tree wasn’t a thief; it was an altar. It held bits of every one of the Poe boys that had rested beside it. It had taken in the stories that were in each of us. It heard the grumblings of misses and the excitement of firsts and heard the prayers mumbled by those of us who had never darkened the door of a proper Sanctuary. It holds our memories. It continues to gather those today, as many grandsons and great-grandsons rest their backs on this same tree. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it holds a few of those “heeeups” that we knew so well.

This was the last time my father was in those woods. Hard work took his back and diabetes took his eyes, but there are still bits of him in every covered-over muddy footprint that he left in those bottoms. I count as my dearest and most precious memory, the day I got to spend visiting the Cypress altar for the last time my father walked out of his church. I still visit. I still stop. And I cry. Not out of sadness, but respect. So that I may one day sit and listen to him tell stories again.