THE MAN WHO MET ZEN
Long was the winter. The blizzard had pummeled the farmlands east of Aquebogue. The cool howl of the windswept through the east end of the island. A white single-story house with a small front porch was set back on the land. A fence surrounded the perimeter. Albert sat on his rocking chair as he always did in the early morning. He rocked back and forth. The rocking chair crunched the snow underneath. Albert swore by his instincts that the winter would bring devastating temperatures. The cold was almost unbearable, even for him. Albert bundled up with two pairs of thick socks, boots, two layers of pants, a winter jacket, and a black wool beanie. His grey mustache submerged in coffee as his lips pressed against his steaming hot mug. Sipping softly, the coffee warmed the old man's breath. At 69 years of age, Albert had a certain immunity to frigid temperatures. Perhaps because of his overwhelming experience of being out in open farmland. He was a man of labor. Though, on this day, the world seemed to have frozen over. Temperatures were so low, the crops began to wilt. This particular storm came early — unlike he had ever seen before. More flakes began to sweep down from the clouds. Snow was the blanket that covered the old man's crops. Everything he had worked so hard for had been ruined.
The old man worked his entire life on the family farm. Starting as a young boy with his father being an aggressive teacher. Often with a hand that thrashed across his back for any wrongdoings. The momentary pain was nothing in comparison to the harsh realities of life. These lessons were learned over time. Albert loved his father. He missed him. As he missed most of his loved ones who had already passed on. Especially Martha…
The cold air rushed through on this late October morning. Albert peered out across the way. Snow stretched for miles. The earth remained silent. Albert was alone. As he had been for the past decade. Martha's death left a permanent stain on his heart. His wife had fought a hard battle with pancreatic cancer. Nature and Time are greater than flesh. She fought the battle but lost the war. Albert was by her side the whole way through. On the day she passed, Albert lost the greatest gift of his existence. Three sun rotations of sleepless nights. Nightmares of Martha awake in a coffin. Cold sweats. Albert committed himself to a metallic flask to ease the burdens at night.
Albert continued to rock in his chair, the cold wind was relentless. Clouds covered the sky. He pulled out the flask and poured in a little whiskey to warm himself. The old man puckered at his next sip. His ice-blue eyes held a glow. In that moment he became a witness to the nature that surrounded him. A lone winter bird swooped down and landed on the fence.
The bird chirped and bobbed its head. It flew to a bird feeder on the porch. The bird perched peacefully, pecking at the food. Albert halted in his rocking chair. It was just him and the bird. The whole world was still asleep. Every human, every creature. The winter bird dashed from the bird feeder onto the porch and hopped toward Albert. Flakes flurried from the sky. The bird's wings were as black as its belly. It paused only a few feet away from the old man. The bird bobbed its head and took to flight. It approached the old man and landed on Albert's lap. Albert remained still. As not the breathe and scare away the sacredness of the moment. The winter bird chirped. Albert looked down at the creature. The mug still in his hand. Albert's cheeks were red. His breath smelled like stale coffee and alcohol. The bird sat on his lap. With no judgment. With no other purpose than to be. "Hi there…" Albert's voice was soft. The bird chirped again and fluttered its wings. It rose from Albert's lap and landed on his shoulder. Albert slowly sipped from his mug which triggered the bird to react. It darted away into the cold distance. Albert watched it go until it was merely a dot in amongst the bleak gray clouds.
The day gave way to calm. The snow had stopped. But the weather was still biting. Albert walked out to the farm and stood overlooking a dip in the earth. Water had turned into ice. There was no way the crops would survive. It was the coldest day Long Island had ever recorded. Albert walked back to his house and entered to escape the devastating wind.
He lit a fire. The wood crackled in the burning flames. Albert sat back on a mustard couch. He turned on the television. A news anchor talked about the rough weather conditions. Tumultuous winds were picking up into the evening, icing over the entire east end.
Albert slipped off his boots and stared into the pit of the fire. Embers rose up the chimney. A slight perspiration beaded on Albert's forehead. The old man unzipped his jacket and sat back. He took a moment to reflect on the winter bird. Never in his life has a bird approached him.
That evening was met with the howl of wind and tumultuous snowfall. Albert laid back on the couch watching re-runs of his favorite childhood shows. Until his eyes grew heavy and he dozed away from the here and now.
The next morning came. Albert was up with the rising sun. He went about his morning routine, pulling the crust from his lonely eyes. He walked into the kitchen and washed dishes in the sink. He peered out of the kitchen window and witnessed a vast landscape of snow. The farmland was buried underneath. Long Islanders from east to west were bombarded by the storm. The trees' branches were frozen with ice. There was a gentleness in the day. The wind was no longer sweeping through. Albert finished rinsing the last of the dishes and dried his hands.
He cooked breakfast. Eggs over easy, bacon, home fries, a toasted bagel, and a glass of orange juice. On the refrigerator door was a picture of Albert and Martha standing on the rocky shoreline — young, vibrant, and beautiful. Martha had a winning smile. A smile most men would falter over. Albert could still see her face, but her voice was beginning to fade from his memory. It's the one thing he feared.
Albert hoofed in the snow with a shovel over his shoulder. Footprints of snow boots were left behind him. He made his way toward a tractor. There was a break in the clouds. The sun's rays were bursting through. Though, the temperatures were still below freezing. There was a glimpse of hope for a warmer tomorrow. Albert started removing snow from the tractor. Heavy swipes with the shovel took clumps of snow off the windshield. He moved around the tractor and cleared away the snow. As he made his way toward the rear of the tractor, he was met by the winter bird who swooped from the sky to the earth. Albert suddenly stopped. The bird bobbed its tiny head and fluttered upward onto the tractor. "Hi there little guy." Albert slowly placed the shovel onto the ground. He stood back up and looked the bird in the eyes. It was a beautiful creature of the earth. Its wings were small but powerful. In one swift movement, the bird could dart away. It didn't. The bird perched on the tractor and observed the old man. The peacefulness of the moment. Albert reached out his hand. The bird slightly pecked at it. A precaution to danger. And without warning, the bird fluttered its wings and flew up and landed on Albert's hand. Albert's eyes filled with tears. A heavenly sensation filled his body. The two were totally present. He remained silent. Albert even caught himself holding his breath as not to disturb the bird. What felt like fifteen minutes was only twenty seconds of disbelief. A clump of ice fell from a tree and landed on the earth. The bird dashed into the distance. Once again, Albert was left to himself.
The tractor was fully cleaned off. He had cleared a pathway up the walkway leading to his house and salted it to melt whatever was left behind. The phone rang. He went inside and picked up the phone.
"Oh hey, Jim."
"You lose power last night?"
"Shit Al. Lights went out over here 'round ten. Damn tree fell on a power line down the street. Whole block blacked out. Took a few hours this morning for electricians to get it back up. We're in good shape now."
"You okay over there? Just checkin' in to make sure you're alright. What are friends for, right?"
"I'm okay. Just cleared off the tractor and the walkway."
"How's the new tractor? Bet you won't need to use that for a while. Seems like the whole world froze over with this storm."
"I think my cabbage, carrots, and beets are destroyed."
"Is that right? Damnit. This storm was a bastard. Didn't even see it comin'. Anyway, hang in there. When the snow thaws Lynn and I will come over with a couple bottles of wine. We'll have a night."
Albert hung up the phone. Jim was Albert's long-time friend. They were both born and raised on the north fork. As adolescents, they'd go crabbing in the Great Peconic Bay. Over the course of the years, they remained close friends. Jim was well off financially after a series of fortunate business decisions as an east end contractor. Ever since Albert's wife passed away, Jim always checked up on him to make sure he was in his right mind.
As dusk approached, the sun set low above the horizon turning the sky pink and blue. Albert brewed a mug of coffee and spiked it with whiskey. He made his way to the porch and sat back on his rocking chair. Outside, the world was white and pure, with temperatures dropping for another night of blistering cold. Solemnity had become Albert's best friend. There comes a time in a person's life when one awaits total isolation. He became lost in his own thoughts. Somewhere between memory and subtlety. Albert thought about Martha often. How she loved simplicity. Nature being the calm that settled her nerves during her final days. She was the reason why they didn't sell the farm after the death of Albert's father. He took a big sip of his spiked coffee, placed it on the round table set next to him and closed his eyes — rocking back and forth.
He didn't know how much time went by when he felt the bird land back on his lap. It woke him. The winter bird sat on his legs tweeting. Albert didn't move. He couldn't move. It would startle the bird to fly away. He wanted it to stay. Forever if it could. He knew it was impossible. So he would accept the fleeting moments with the beautiful creature. Albert examined the bird's tiny frame. It was simply a miracle that the creature could even fly, Albert thought. It was night and the cold had turned the old man's face red. He gently placed two fingers on the bird's back and stroked. The bird didn't fly away. It didn't move. It remained there. Albert stroked the bird's back for a second time. It was at ease with Albert's touch. Albert cusped his hands together and scooped the bird in his palms. The bird was eye level with Albert, "Little guy, why do you keep coming back to me? Don't you have other places to be?" The bird bobbed its head slightly. Albert continued, "Ya know, I'm just a lonely old farmer. Really got nothing left in this world except for some frozen crops and this house." The bird remained seated in Albert's palm. He set the bird back on his lap and waited. The winter bird was comfortable in the old man's lap. "I think I'm going to call you Zen." The bird tweeted. Albert smiled and sat back chuckling… "Yeah… You're definitely Zen." Albert rocked Zen in the rocking chair late into the morning hours until the bird finally darted off into the early twilight. It was the last time Albert saw the winter bird…
Two weeks passed and the snow was finally melting. The crops on the farm were completely annihilated. Albert checked the engine of the tractor and toiled around with the mechanics. Upon finishing, he made his way back over to the house. Up the walkway, he spotted something laying on the walkway. From a distance, it looked like a small black stone. As Albert walked closer he noticed that the stone wasn't actually a stone but a bird. He ran up the walkway and knelt beside the lifeless bird. Albert recognized the creature. It was Zen. Streaks of blood could be seen on the pavement beside Zen. There was nothing Albert could do. Life was over for the creature. Albert glanced around and noticed a stray cat licking its lips in the neighbor's yard before dashing off.
In its death, Zen looked peaceful. As peaceful as any moment they spent together. Which wasn't long. Just long enough to know that there was beauty in their solidarity. Albert gave Zen a proper burial. He wept for the bird. It was the closest anything has come to his heart since Martha. And for that, Albert was thankful.