Beyond the Western
The Old Man Who hid Music
Tom Sheehan


Beyond the Western

One day at the little house where the dowser used to live a kind-looking man with a beard came carrying all he owned on an A-frame on his back. He set the A-frame on the ground and looked at the small house needing much work. Muscles moved under his shirt.

“Whose house is this?” he said to some children playing at an edge of a field. This was the place where the mountain came to a rest, but the river had not been found as yet.

One of the boys said, “It used to belong to the dowser, but he went away.” The boy used a stick to walk with as one leg was slightly crooked and made him lean.

“Why did he go away?” the man said, looking closely at the stick the boy had to use.

“People laughed at him,” answered the boy. When he looked at his friends some of them began to chuckle and grin. “Don’t,” the boy said. His sandy hair caught the wind; his eyes were hazel and steady.

“If I want to fix this house up and live here, tell me who I have to see.” The children could see some of the tools hanging on the man’s A-frame. On edges where the sun touched them the tools shone brightly as if they had been polished with gems.

“See Macklow the mayor. He lives down there where those walls meet.” The boy pointed across the wide fields. “He’ll be on his porch listening to the birds of the fields. My name is Max. What is your name?”

The man of the tools smiled at Max’s description of the mayor. “My name does not count, only what I do,” he said. He walked across the fields and soon had the house to work on. At first it was just the children who watched him fix doors and steps and windows, but soon other people, including Macklow, came to watch. All the time he used tools the man whistled different tunes. At his work he was a happy man.

The house was soon a sparkling and cozy place with no lopsided boards and no broken steps and no windows free to the air. When the man needed wood, he put the empty A-frame across his shoulders and walked off toward the mountain and the forests. In the evening he returned with a pile of wood of all lengths sitting across the back of his shoulders.

“Some day, perhaps soon,” he said one day to the children watching him, and a few of the older people, “I will have a surprise for you.” As usual, just at dusk, the man took some of his wood he had been working with and brought it inside the little house. The light went on inside so they knew he was still working.

Nobody knew what he was working on. But the light burned long into many nights.

And soon, to everyone’s surprise, a garden was also blooming behind the house. Macklow was really surprised because his own fields were slow. Nobody had seen the kindly man walk out of his little house at night, time after time, and put buckets of water on his little garden. The dowser’s well was right inside the little house and those who had laughed at the dowser never knew about the well and the sweet water it gave up.

One morning the man came out of his house and gave a new stick to Max. It was much better that Max’s old stick, and was smooth and polished and very strong. Max was proud of his new stick and could walk faster with it. Over his head he waved it and showed it off to his friends.

On each morning from then on the man began to build a fence around the house and the garden. At first he put up strong posts, then mounted stringers between the posts. When all the posts and stringers were mounted and connected, he began to place upright pickets on the stringers.

Now and then one of the pickets would cause someone to laugh and titter about its strange shape. Some of the pickets were not as pretty and straight as others. Some indeed looked odd and out of place. But the man kept adding both straight and odd-looking pickets to the fence.

“See,” Macklow said one day when village people were talking about the fence, “he brings out what he brought into the house the night before. What he does to it is a mystery, but let us not laugh at him. We laughed at the dowser and he went away in the night. This man is a kind man and has promised us a surprise. Do not laugh at him, no matter what his fence looks like.” When he looked at little Max with the new stick, Max and Macklow swapped nods, as if they shared a secret.

But laughter, though, did come each day, at the way the fence looked, at crooked or bent pickets, at the weird shapes of some of them.

Then the day came when all the vegetables in the garden were ripe and the bizarre fence circled the house. The man seemed pleased and put his tools down except for one knife and walked off toward the forest. He came back with one small piece of wood. From that piece of wood he whittled a small whistle. When he blew into the whistle he found only one note, a pure note, but only one note.

There was more small laughter and chuckling, but Macklow, remembering the dowser, thinking about the new ripe garden and his own slow crops, would not laugh. Nor would Max with his new walking stick

One morning the man spoke to some people looking at his crop and studying what he had done to fix the house and the fence he had placed all around it. “I have hidden the music here. Music is a part of the soul. Music is part of the water too. And water is part of the soul. Whoever finds the music I have hidden can have this house, for Macklow says it is mine to give.”

Macklow nodded his head.

In the morning the man was gone. The tools were gone. The A-frame was gone.

People pored over the house trying to find the music. They did not know what they were looking for. But they found the dowser’s well at the back end of the house and wondered at that. Macklow marveled at the well. However, he made sure none of them disturbed the things the man had done to fix the house.

It was curious. Nobody could find the music. None of them knew what they were looking for. But Max kept playing the whistle and kept hearing the note. He would sit on the porch and blow the whistle until people began to be bothered by it and asked him to stop.

But Max also knew that note deep inside his head.

For weeks people looked for the music. But they did not know what they were looking for.

And then, one morning as he walked past the house, Max hit one of the pickets with his stick.

Oh, how his heart pounded in his chest. How it grew it seemed that it might explode.

It was the same note from the whistle. The exact same, beautiful note.

Back to the gate he went, at the same note-sounding picket and began to walk around the house, his stick slapping against each picket in turn, the way boys have done ever since going by church and school yard fences.

And Macklow looked and the people looked and they all heard the music coming from the fence pickets as Max, walking without his stick support for the first time in his life, played elegant music on the ugly looking pickets with the stick the man had carved. The circled fence played out a whole lovely tune.

And Macklow saw to it that Max and his mother had themselves a new house to live in, at the place where the mountain comes to rest and the river is not yet found.