Meet Bert and Callum, with pieces by Kathy Shorr and Kirk Wareham.
On this episode, two pieces about old men, both from the newest issue of Passager.
For 20 years, Kathy Shorr and her husband lived part time in a small “outport” village in Newfoundland. She said that what struck her about her neighbor Bert was the contrast between his gruffness toward the encroaching outside world and the tenderness he shared with his wife in the privacy of their house. Here’s her poem “Bert’s Tree.”
Don’t touch those apples,
Bert yells at anybody turning
down his lane, a wizened
white haired terrier patrolling
his domain: this tree he planted
as a boy, a year after the fire
wiped out most of town
when he was just three,
though it’s hard to imagine Bert
ever young, gnarled-root hands
hardly able to hold a cup,
from decades of rum.
His wife Laura never steps
off the porch, she was born
old, neighbors tell us,
bird-like, pecking at the raisin
buns she bakes each afternoon
for Bert. From the porch
she invites us into the too-hot house,
kerosene kitchen stove cranked.
They try to teach us cribbage:
previous scores with neighbors
long gone, still on the paper pad.
But the heat makes us drowse,
content to watch the waves
of Bonavista Bay, out their back
window, beat against the jagged rocks.
When we leave it’s almost dark.
From the street, we see them
framed in the dining room’s bright light,
Bert seated in his hardwood chair,
Laura standing over him, fingers
exploring his scalp; and then she bends
as if to smell the weathered creases of his neck,
bends the way the apple-laden branches
reach toward their sweet, familiar ground.
“Bert’s Tree.” Kathy Shorr.
Kirk Wareham said he’s explored and hiked the Catskill Mountains for over 50 years. Here are some excerpts from his story, set in the Catskills, “Summer of the Fisher.”
When Isabella was six weeks old, with Mother’s permission I carried her proudly to the high meadow to show Callum Bailey . . . A survivalist of the first degree, he lived alone, with his back against the wall of the ridge that towered up from the river valley.
. . . Callum was now close to 80 years old . . . [He’d] left one of his legs behind in the war, but could no longer remember exactly where he had left it. The missing leg, however, did not hinder him from the business of life. Using a pair of crutches that he had wrestled together out of odd bits of metal and rubber, he was more than able to get around wherever he needed to.
. . . [Callum] took one look at Isabella, scratched his head with the end of a stick, then took another look. He turned back a corner of the blanket and held her up to the light to get all the angles, turning her slowly in the afternoon sun. Then he nodded his head.
“Fine little lady you got there, Marco. She got a name perchance?”
“You betcha,” I said. “She’s called Isabella.”
Callum scratched his head with the other end of the stick.
“Isabella . . . Isabella.” He turned the name over in his mouth, tasted it, and seemed to find it acceptable.
“To be right truthful, Marco, I’ve not seen such a pretty lass since before the war. You keep a good eye on her now, you hear?”
I grinned and nodded. “Yes sir.”
Then, on impulse, he leaned close, and bracing himself against the rough-hewn wall, laid a leathered hand on Isabella’s head.
“Lord,” he whispered, and his voice was soft and mellow like butterflies hovering over goldenrod, “there sure are troublesome things in this old world of yours. Bless this little lassie and watch over her. Amen.”
He wiped a tear away with the back of his hand, as a perfectly-timed squawk from Isabella sent [Callum’s dog] Old Scamp scurrying under the back porch, tail between his legs, where he buried his perpetual grin beneath a wrinkled bathmat that smelled wonderfully of Old Spice. That delicate little girl had power, even in her weakness.
Excerpts from “Summer of the Fisher” by Kirk Wareham.
Both of the pieces in this episode of Burning Bright are from Issue 72, the newest issue of Passager. To subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.
For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.