Dancing to a gentle tune

It was late in the fall when I visited the old man. His grey shingled farm, tucked among the tree trunks, was almost unnoticeable, so naturally did it blend into the hills and dales. ''Sometimes nobody comes near for ten days,'' he told me. Other times his home is warmed by company day after day.

He welcomed me into his kitchen, snug and timelessly peaceful. A latticed china cabinet enclosed farmhouse crockery, period furniture was interspersed with a plastic-covered table and stark wooden chairs. We talked of the one long journey in his life, when he travelled to Scotland to confront ''Kaiser Bill.'' From World War I, we skimmed easily through the years, its trials and its recompenses. His dog never left his side. The big black and white cat emerged from some unseen nook to vet me through knowing eyes, then receded to his warm corner, satisfied.

The man took a log from an old woodbox, an antique that glowed with the lustre of care and use. He handled the piece of wood with loving wisdom. ''It don't burn so good,'' he said. It was cut in spring, he explained, and left to lie, gathering water through the steady summer rains. He had been in the woods cutting his own supply till last year. ''But the nieces and cousins got at me,'' he said with a sad smile, and to please them he gave up. In a few years he will be ninety. He put the log in the gleaming stove, whose grey chrome and white enamel was reflected in the spotless linoleum floortiles of the same hue. The big tin kettle hissed and he moved it to a cooler plate. He was warming water for the chickens in his barn. They were his friends, like the cat and the dog. I was there to discuss the removal of the feathered band to my barn.

We sat at the bare table sensing each other, negotiating in time-worn style. Quietly, conversationally, we haggled. He enquired after our well-being. He had bought his chickens in a similar fashion and by rights should be selling them to me. Mainly, he wanted a safe, warm home for his friends in the approaching winter. My aim was to sound out his needs in return, for he had refused monetary payment. I searched the kitchen for clues, but its pristine sparsity gave away no secrets. No, he didn't need vegetables, he ate from cans; he had a brand of stew he didn't like, could I use it? He could have all the eggs he required, I offered. He hadn't kept the chickens for their eggs, he replied! He gave them all away. The chickens could come home to him when the weather warmed up again, I insisted. That would be unfair, he said. He wouldn't do that, but he'd take them back if we went on a holiday.

We walked to the barn, the dog close to his heels. The hens scampered after him, the Pied Piper whose music of love communicated itself through silence. We filled the small coop, the big furry dog stretched out in the middle, taking up most of the space, his eyes never leaving the man. The hens gathered around him, chortling in response to his quiet words. They cocked their heads and surveyed through beady eyes the stranger in their midst and filed out, squeezing close to the wall as they passed me, the disturber of the peace.

We returned to the kitchen and I tried again to find a source of payment. But , having little of worldly value, there was nothing he needed. Gently, he had won the contest. I was the one who was defeated. There was nothing I could add to his life, except perhaps a little extra warmth in his kitchen before another ten days passed.

When I return, I expect it will be the same. He'll be the giver. I'll be the receiver, for simply and wordlessly he had filled me with his lovingkindness. A quiet content has pervaded me since that visit, a warmth that glows like his antique furniture; that flowed from him as unostentatiously as the grey shingled farmhouse blends with the trees. I dance to the silent tune of the Piper, the music of a truly gentle man.

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