Friday, June 4, 2010

Lost: A Metaphor

One evening, rather late, I'd been out walking the dog, and my mind began to wander, as it often does on those occasions. When it gets dark in Maine, it gets d-a-r-k, and particularly so because of the trees. Tall white pines as straight as power poles, their needled tops intertwined and their lower trunks scraped clean, growing so close together they resembled fans in a mosh pit, formed a ceiling between me and the early stars.

How we got off our usual path, I don't know, but we did and it wasn't long before I began feeling slightly nervous. Nocturnal creatures abound up here and while "lions, tigers, and bears" weren't likely, coyotes were. Possums, woodchucks, and foxes are shy and standoffish, but coyotes run in packs and I wasn't eager to play Sharks against the Jets, especially since the rest of our gang was nowhere to be seen and Leonard Bernstein wasn't around to provide background music (West Side Story).

By the luminous dial on my new Black Dog watch I could tell we'd been 20 minutes and close to a mile into the woods when we came upon something I would only have expected from Stephen King. The trees spread apart, forming a glen, and on either side was a tall gateway with a wooden crosspiece bearing a sign beneath it. The one on the left read "Too Late" and the one on the right, "Never Too Late." Before I could say anything about the glass being half-full or empty, my dog and I both startled at the same time, noticing a man sitting on a fallen log off to the side, smoking a pipe. My dog growled, uncharacteristically.

"Easy fella, didn't mean ta scare ya," he said, in a typical Southern Maine accent. "You're new round heah, but I seen you two walkin'. Figgah'd you'd get heah sometime."

"We live somewhere nearby," I said, looking around and waving my hand in the direction I hoped was home.

"Mm. Lost. Happens a lot. Folks only think they know wheah theah goin'." He stood up and took a few steps closer, the smoke from his pipe trailing behind, he was like a locomotive getting up steam. Velvet tobacco, I thought, sniffing, the same as my grandfather. "Well, you got a choice," he said, using his pipe stem as a pointer, "one or t'other, everybody does."

Wondering if I'd inadvertently stumbled onto a scene from Our Town, I said, "Wait a minute, I'm just trying to get home."

"Home is where the haaht is and you're heah. You want ta get somewheah else? You gotta choose. I'll tell ya right now, most folks go left. Oh, they look right and some even poke their heads through -- don't know what they think they'll see -- but then pull back and go left. Guess theah too used ta things the way they ah. It's hahd to go against the grain. Anyhow, you gotta choose. May as well get on with it."

I glanced down at my dog, who glanced up at me and raised one eyebrow in response, imitating, as I like to imagine, Mr. Spock. The man relit his pipe and added, "Yoah some kind of preachah, ain'tcha? (How could he know?) Oh, I know lottsa things. You'll like this, then. Hell's motto is 'Too Late.' Yup, it is. You prob'ly knew that already, bein' a preachah and all."

"Hell's motto, eh? That simplifies everything," I said, and my dog and I headed right.

"You'd think moah folks would realize that," he said to himself, though loudly enough for me to hear.

We'd barely crossed the threshold when it became obvious we'd walked out of the woods into my hayfield, the lights of the house shining on the hill ahead of us. We'd been on my own property, all the time. I looked back, expecting to see an old man, clouded in smoke, framed by the gate we'd just entered, but there was nothing. Only the trees and a tiny glen.

Later that night, with my dog asleep by the fire and the cat curled up next to him, I wondered aloud, what would have lain in wait, had we gone to the left. "A lot of unhappiness and regret, most likely," I said, answering my own question. At that, my dog stirred, looked up, wagged his tail, and I was glad we never found out for ourselves. Some things really are best left behind in this life and the pathway marked Too Late is one of them.

(Photo copyright 2010 by the author -- double click on it to enlarge)

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