Arthur was mad as hell. Born in Ukraine in the halcyon days of gulag. Ducking from factory to bread line, dreaming of leaving the only world he knew — ostensibly to find the only world out there, deep in the heart of brown, barren fields.
He watched his parents die young. His mother to a particularly aggressive form of stomach cancer, his father overworked himself in the steel mills, trying to win the space race on his own. His ashes were scattered via satellite. They never fell to Earth.
Raised by his aunt on his mother’s side, Arthur’s nagging limp from an infant surgery misfire by Soviet doctors made his dreams of striking out on his own and living off the land impractical. His odd demeanor drew the ire of classmates. His simmering temper drew the ire of schoolmasters. From year to year, his dreams darkened and his eyes hardened. Arthur coughed and wheezed from years spent growing up dangerously close to the coal mills that pockmarked the villages along the Black Sea.
He found solace in bow-hunting, occasionally venturing out into the woods just north of town, taking target practice at small game and delighting in the thrill of the kill. Rabbits and vermin and such. Something manageable, something conquerable, something tangible. He dreamed of one day mounting a majestic moose-head over the mantle of his aunt’s fireplace. But there was no moose to be found, and his family was too poor to take vacation, and, after all, there were jobs to be done and appointments to keep, because in those days you simply went where you were needed, and dreams were the stuff of children’s books and UHF television.
On a gray November morning, a Sunday just before lunch, Arthur loaded up his crossbow and packed a duffel, headed for god knows where, nowhere yet anywhere. He kissed his aunt goodbye, and told her, “I am going to die, and so I cannot die here.” He trudged through the howling winds that whispered ghastly cries of, “No, please, no.” When he listened close enough, he could swear the whipping whir screamed his name. “Arrrrrrrrr-thurrrrrrrrr.” If you listen close enough, you can still hear it today.
His days out in the rugged countryside were tough. Wolves hollered from a distance. Food was scarce. Nights were long and cold. He huddled under a tree that rustled with each gust. He took wolves’ skin and fashioned him a heavy coat to keep warm. There was yet still some blood on it, but like all things, it eventually faded and soaked into the fabric with each successive wear.
Arthur stared up at the tree, clutching its brown leaves in its hands with a vice-grip, holding on by the thinnest of threads to what was left of its life. It was an oddity, a massive oak in a steppe where water was iffy at best. He counted the cracks, the bends, the blights. The countless autumns before where leaves dropped and fell, returning to the Earth, soaking and fading into the soil. Arthur saw it, and for the first time since his mother died, tears dampened his face and froze to his cheeks under the setting sun. He never returned home.
I met Arthur in the present day in an Uber a few weeks back, as he picked me up from the office after another day spent shuttling between conference rooms, meeting with total strangers united by a common pursuit of a paycheck, crunching Excel numbers and measuring them against our quarterly forecasts.
As we sledged down the 405 in his long black Mercedes-Benz with the windows rolled up and the A/C up way too high for an April in Southern California, I asked him how he ended up here.
He paused, smiled and caused his forehead to crinkle, and slowly recounted in remedial English:
“I was a young man like yourself, once. I could barely walk. I could barely breathe. I knew where I came from. And I knew I could never go back. So I just left. I lived off what I could. I hunted. I trapped. And in each village, I sold food and fur. After a full year, I reached the coast in Vladivostok. I took the clothes on my back, the cured deer and rabbit, and some money I saved, and boarded a barge, living among those old metal shipping containers, the kind my father would’ve fashioned. When I saw light next, I was here. I started teaching archery. And I was very happy. Now, I get to drive around this beautiful country and talk to people all day … I am at peace.”
I asked him to take me back to that tree. I wanted to know what he felt as he laid down, looking out into the yonder, up at the leaves, alone.
“I saw this tree. And I saw the way it blew in the wind. The cracks and all. This was an old tree! And a lonely one! The tree cannot move, you know? It starts there. It stays there. It dies there. It can never find peace because the wind won’t leave it alone. Bends it. Blows the leaves off. Strips it bare. And the rain wears it down. And I think, the tree cannot move — but I can. And if I do not do it right now then when? Time never comes, it only goes.”
I let that last sentence rattle around in my head for more than a minute. “Time never comes, it only goes.” I bid Arthur goodbye. I stared out into the Simi Valley, with bright sunshine painting my face. Over the lush green vineyards, to the sapphire coast, and out to the channel islands.
I left a $20 in Arthur’s car, and gazed as it drove down the hill and out of sight. I fixated on a field of oaks. And I was mad as hell.