Behind my childhood home, with the sweetly-scented bushes and cherry blossom trees, past the pond on the edge of the woods, there was a small cottage where an old man lived. Mum warned my brother and I early on not to go near him, or wander by the pond unsupervised. The neighborhood rumours was that he was crazy, unmedicated, dangerous. But we never listened. We were kids, we were adventurous! So a crazy old man’s cottage by the pond is exactly where we found ourselves exploring after school.
The very first time we arrived at his porch, I could tell he was wary of us. My guess was we weren’t the first kids to wander our way to his home; but I remember the way his demeanor changed when my little brother stretched out his hand and introduced himself all proper-like. The old man beamed–a big toothless grin, and shook his hand with vigor.
This became a ritual, our after school visits to the old man in his cottage. He would make us mugs of vanilla-scented tea as he rambled on, telling us tales of gingerbread lakes. We ate them up, crazy as they were–they ignited our young imaginations. When evening would roll around, and our parents neared the house, we would thank him for his time and hurry on home. We had timed it perfectly, so that when mum and dad walked in, we were settled in at the dinner table with studywork in hand. We never really fooled them, they could always tell we hadn’t been there long, but my brother would switch on the telly so that it appeared we had spent the afternoon in front of it. The ruse itself was a cover-up, and they were none the wiser.
Every now and then, when we’d arrive for our daily visit with the old man, he would be so excited, hardly able to contain himself. On those days, instead of storytelling he would hand us each a wooden fishing rod and shamble out towards the pond singing out to the water. We never could tell whether his song was another language or simply nonsensical; but his raspy voice was like magic, charming the fish right up to our toes. Sometimes my brother would forgo his rod entirely and just stick his hands in the water, gently stroking the bolder of species. I can still remember the way the old man’s eyes would twinkle when he laughed, often at nothing in particular, like he was simply tickled by the existence of the universe itself.
We were with him the day he died. That day, it was us telling him tales. He had laughed himself silly at one of my brother’s jokes, so we hadn’t thought anything of him grasping at his breast. After he collapsed, my brother ran to the house to call 9-1-1 while I knelt beside him on the floor, holding his hand. Despite his pain, he died with that same toothless smile on his face, and a twinkle in his eyes.
Years later, my brother and I still visit his cottage when visiting our parents’ for holidays; reciting those cherished tales word-for-word, precisely as I’d preserved them in a notebook disguised as studywork.
We made sure that his stories lived on, passing them onto our own children. We kept them true to how he told them, nonsensical and brilliant, though we made sure to always include a crazy old man and his gingerbread lakes.