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Original artwork by Katie M. Zeigler


Alexander Mahdavian

“Soil’s good?” asked Joseph.

“As rich as any you’ll find in the valley.” The old man bent down and dug his worn hands into the dirt. He drew out a small clump of soil, looking at Joseph as if the appearance alone was validation. “I’ve never had much trouble getting things to grow. Neither will you, if you know what you’re doing.”

Joseph grinned and looked out across the valley. The farmland sat on a hill, sloping downward slightly. As far as the eye could see, mammoth hills stretched on with flat, cultivated land lying in the middle of the valley. Far off, other farms could be seen. The evening sun lent its rays to the valley floor. The resulting effect was a heavy golden haze blanketing the entire countryside. It was beautiful. The weight of Joseph’s thoughts and anxieties slipped from his shoulders as he stood in awe of California’s raw beauty. It was a far cry from the fields of Europe, war-torn and riddled with trenches. It was a far cry from anything he’d seen before. The mountains which rose around the land made Joseph feel protected, like sleeping giants ready to ward off predators. It was a vibrant oasis in the midst of an ever-industrializing nation. Here, the tall city buildings of brick and concrete gave way to natural beauty. The East, which conjured up images of dark smoke tainting the blue sky, was safely out of sight.

The old man led Joseph out of the fields and into the house itself. It was in good shape. Years of upkeep by the old man left it looking relatively new, despite being built during Reconstruction. The creaking of the porch steps demonstrated their age as Joseph and the man climbed up. Three worn rocking chairs sat on the porch. The old man had told Joseph all the furniture came with the house, should he decide to buy it. Before they entered, they stood and looked out across the fields once more. The sight of the countryside succeeded in amazing Joseph once again, as he stood transfixed. It was a view that he decided he wouldn’t mind waking up to every morning. “Watch your step,” said the old man, opening the front door and stepping inside. Joseph followed after him.

The interior was similar to the exterior: old-fashioned but well-maintained. It was two stories. The old man led Joseph into the kitchen, which was illuminated with natural light. The plentiful kitchen windows allowed for a pleasing view of the valley and the sleeping giants that were the mountains. The walls were a light yellow color. Joseph inhaled deeply, taking a moment to appreciate the scent. He couldn’t pin down precisely what it was. Simply put, it smelled like age. It seemed like decades of age, stability, and bliss had been distilled into one scent. Maybe it was the hardwood floors that created such a scent––or maybe it was years of home cooking. Joseph concluded that, whatever the smell was, it was nowhere to be found in urban society. Only here could such a scent ever exist.

“My family’s owned this place since it was built.”  The old man spoke with a firm, rough voice. He stood still and looked around, surveying the room proudly.

“Could I ask why you’re selling?” Joseph wasn’t sure if this was impolite. The old man nodded and looked at the ground for a moment, pondering.

“Age makes a place like this too much upkeep for a man.” The old man looked up and started walking before Joseph could say anything. “Come, let’s take a look upstairs.”

Joseph followed. The walls in the main hall were a light blue. The stairs inside the house were quieter than those of the porch, but still loud. At the top landing, a hallway to the right led to two more bedrooms and a bathroom. The old man walked into the smaller of the two, which had two twin mattresses. 

“Whose room is this?” Joseph wondered if he was being too intrusive, but the old man didn’t seem to mind. He smiled and looked towards the bed with a lively glow in his eyes, as though he was fondly picturing the past.

“My two boys used to sleep here.” Joseph noticed the old man’s use of the past tense. The old man looked down. Joseph felt guilty for asking, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” Joseph apologized. The old man laughed a bit.

“It’s alright.” He smiled warmly and shrugged. Joseph stood, fascinated by his new acquaintance. He did not know whether to feel guilty or glad about the interaction. The old man started walking out and down the stairs, as Joseph continued inspecting the room. “How about lemonade?” shouted the old man from down the hall.

* * *

They sat on the porch, drinking freshly-made lemonade. The picturesque view of the rest of the valley put Joseph at ease. The old man just smiled and rocked back and forth in his chair. Then, he looked over at Joseph. “Did you serve?” he asked.

“Yes, actually.”

“You’ve got the look.” The old man chuckled. Joseph self-consciously brushed back his short brown hair. “You know, my oldest fought in the war. He didn’t make it back, unfortunately.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

The old man shook his head. “I’m thankful for the time I had with him, though I wish I could’ve given him a better life.” As the old man spoke, Joseph listened diligently and nodded. The old man enjoyed having an audience to whom he could impart his wisdom. “My wife and I drifted apart when the boys were young. One day, she took our youngest and ran off. I haven’t seen either of them since.” Joseph opened his mouth, but he paused, searching for the right words. The old man cut him off before Joseph could apologize again. “I’ve made my share of mistakes, but this is a peaceful final chapter, and it’s decent enough.”

Joseph smiled. “That’s a nice way of looking at it.”

“It’s the only way of looking at it.” The old man grinned. “Do you have kids yet?”

“One on the way,” Joseph told him in a quieter monotone.

“Congratulations. Don’t sound so excited.” The old man spoke sarcastically, mimicking Joseph’s monotone. Joseph grinned.

“It’s a lot,” Joseph said.

“It is, but you’ll be fine,” the old man began, laughing. “None of us know what the hell we’re doing.”

Gradually they both transitioned from laughter into a blissful silence as they observed the evening sun project its light across the valley. The old man continued rocking back and forth, and they sat quietly.

Joseph wiped the sweat from his brow and spoke hesitantly. “Not long ago I thought I was going to die in a trench, and now I’ve got a whole life planned.”

“There’s no instruction manual. When you become a parent, you have this overwhelming sense of responsibility. You get the feeling that you’ve got to be a pillar of virtue, morality, kindness, and every other admirable quality. Here is the truth: the kid is gonna revere you no matter what, unless you give them a good reason not to. Steer them in the right direction, and hope for the best.”

The silence resumed. The old man sipped his lemonade. The sun came closer to clashing with the mountains on the horizon. The clouds were emboldened in its golden haze. The distant, vast mountains started to become silhouettes as the sun came closer to the horizon.

“You asked why I’m selling,” said the old man, squinting like it was something he’d been meaning to bring up.

“Yes, I did.”

“I’ve got no one to inherit this place.” He pursed his lips and paused for a moment, considering how to continue. “Maybe I’m too sentimental, but I’ve got to know who’s getting this place. I don’t want to collapse one day and leave no apparent heir. I don’t want one of those corporations to buy up my land and tear it up for profit. I don’t want to leave, but I need to know who is taking the reins from here. And I need to trust them.”

Joseph felt a kinship with the old man who seemed to have found some sort of tranquility in facing his own end. He envied him.

Joseph held out his hand. “I’d like to buy this land.” The old man smiled and shook his hand.

The sun was well on its way down. Bright shades of pink and purple were projected onto the sky, just above the mountains under which the sun was fleeing. Away from the spectacular show of light, stars emerged. The bright lights of cities no longer hid the constellations; the stars could be seen like fireflies in the sky. As Joseph looked around, he could see actual fireflies showing off their momentary glow. The old man rocked back and forth in his chair, as Joseph started to do the same. They each sat quietly, observing the day fade into night. The old man pulled out a cigar and a match. When the match was lit, he held it before his eyes briefly, allowing its warmth to spread to his bony fingers. He lit the cigar, with its end growing bright as he drew in a large breath. He held it in briefly before parting his dry lips, with the smoke drifting out slowly. Then, he extended the cigar in the direction of Joseph whose stare was fixed on the distant mountains. He glanced over briefly and accepted the offering, quickly refocusing his gaze on the sleeping giants. The cigar’s end grew bright again as Joseph inhaled.  Abruptly, Joseph broke out into a coughing fit.

“You’re not supposed to breathe it in,” said the old man, chuckling. He reached over and took the cigar from Joseph, handing him his glass of water. Joseph swallowed a mouthful of water, and his coughing slowly ceased.

“You know,” Joseph began, still coughing a bit, “it’s just dawned upon me that I never asked your name.”

“Jedidiah.” He spoke stoically, looking off into the distance.

“I’ll take good care of the land, Jedidiah.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

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