Papa’s Pile: A Children’s Story

To celebrate the wonders of the season, I’ve taken this opportunity to clean up my act, sweeten my disposition, and write a Christmas-solstice-New-Year story for children.

It’s a good story, though maybe not a practical one for children. It’s too long for a kid under six or seven, at any rate (though as that corresponds with the age of the main character, maybe it’s fitting). Worse than that, however, I have no proper illustrations to go with the text. Even if I’d had the time to draw, I can’t do it.

* Side note – any illustrator out there who wants to work with me on slimming this down and giving it pictures to make a real children’s book, hit me up! *

Enjoy.

Papa’s Pile

Joey was seven and had just started second grade, which was cool. It had been a few months already, he was used to it, and he had decided that he liked it. He liked his friends and he liked his teacher. He liked the books they read, and he thought it was cool when they got to talk about science sometimes. Some of the units on history, like the Ancient Romans and Ancient Egyptians, he loved all of that stuff. Second grade was turning out to be a pretty good year.

None of these things was his favorite thing, though. In fact, his favorite thing about second grade wasn’t what happened at school at all. His favorite thing was taking the school bus to Papa’s in the afternoon, where he’d hang out with Papa until Daddy and Mom got out of work and picked him up for supper. Sometimes, they would stay and everyone would eat supper together – those were the nights that Joey loved best.

He loved Daddy and Mom, but Papa was the funnest grown-up that Joey had ever known.

It got cold as the middle of fall gave way to the end of fall, and Joey had to stop riding his bike. Now, he just needed it to snow so he could go sledding all the time instead. Winter wasn’t a bad thing. They had told him there would be snow days where he would get to hang with Papa all day long instead of going to school. Plus, Christmas.

It was only a few days before Christmas when Joey got off the school bus and raced around the back of the house to find Papa bundled up, face insulated by a thick white beard, pushing a small roto-tiller. “C’mere, Sonny!” he called to Joey. “Come watch an old pro.”

Red sunset in a winter forest, Russia

Joey watched in amazement as Papa tilled the hard soil, tearing up the ragged brown and gray remnants of grass in the shape of a circle. “Whatcha makin’, Papa?” he asked.

“A circle,” Papa said. “Did you know tonight’s the longest night of the year?”

“Really? The longest night? It’s gonna be dark.”

“Yes, it is. But after today, the days start getting longer again, and that’s a wonderful thing. Even though we’ve got a lotta winter ahead, it lets us know that we’re not gonna get left hangin’ – no matter what, spring’s still gonna come.”

“But I like winter, Papa,” Joey said. “I want it to snow so I can sled on the toboggan all the time.”

“One of the great things about being young,” Papa laughed, “is how easy it is to appreciate every season for what it is.” He patted Joey on the head. “Don’t lose that. Always think that way.”

“All right,” Joey said. “But as long as I can still sled, I like it when the days get longer.”

“That’s what Christmas is all about, you know.”

“No…I thought Christmas was about the birth of Jesus.”

“Oh, it is,” Papa reassured him. “But do you know why the people long ago were excited to hear about Jesus’ birth?”

Joey thought for a moment. “Not really.”

“Well, you see, the people back then were living in a very dark time. One of the things people used to call Jesus was ‘The Light of the World.’ They believed Jesus being born was like what happens the day after the longest night of the year. The light comes back.”

“Ohh.” Joey thought for a while.

“It’s actually much more complicated than that, of course, but that’s what you can try and understand to start with.”

“Papa?” Joey asked.

“Yeah, Sonny.”

“Are we living in a dark time now?”

Papa laughed. “Maybe. Maybe, Sonny. Some people think so. Sometimes I think so. But if we are, it just means that soon, the light’s gonna come back. The old has gotta go and the new has gotta come. That’s the way it works.”

“Maybe it’s good that it’s a dark time,” Joey said very seriously. “It’s kind of exciting.”

Papa laughed some more. “Like I said before, kiddo. When you’re young at heart, you can really see the good in every season. You’re right. It will probably be exciting – even if you don’t always think that’s a good thing as you get older.”

“Oh, I’ll always love excitement, Papa,” Joey insisted.

Papa cocked his head to the side, leaning his two hands on the handle of the roto-tiller. “Maybe you will, man. That might be a bad example.”

“Don’t you love being excited? You’re always doing exciting things.”

“Yes, well, I suppose I do still love being excited. I guess I always have.”

“See? I’m just like you, Papa – I’m gonna always love it, too.”

“You’re probably right. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you – one day you’re gonna find out excitement comes with some heavy side effects at times.”

“Like from medicine?”

“Yep.”

“So, like a headache or stomachache?”

“Yes, very much so.”

The next day, after he got off the bus, Joey was thrilled when he saw Papa standing in the front yard holding his hand-carved walking stick. That meant for sure that they were going to go off for a hike down the trail in the woods behind Papa’s house. Joey loved the woods, but they hadn’t gone out there much in November or December.

“Got your hat and gloves?” Papa said, smiling through his bushy beard.

“Yep! Can we go in the woods?”

“That’s the plan. Papa needed some fresh air – plus it’s the day after the longest night of the year, and we’re gonna start a little project.”

“Cool! A project?” They started walking across the grassy part of the yard and quickly entered the woods on a well-worn path through the trees.

“Yes sir. There’s no time like the beginning of the new year to start a new project. And I’m gonna need your help for this one.”

“So what is it? Can I know what it is?”

“The rules are really easy – while we’re walking around in the woods, look for the most special thing you can find.”

“Can it be anything?” Joey asked, marveling at the possibilities.

“Anything we can carry,” Papa said. “It can’t be a tree or a hill – although, you should definitely tell me if you see a tree or a hill you think are special. But you gotta pick something we can carry because we’re gonna take it with us.”

Eventually, Joey chose a dead stick about two feet long, with pockets of bark and shadows of old lichen still present up its length. About two-thirds of the way down, it forked just slightly off-center into two divergent ends. This was what had led Joey to choose this among all the other special things lying everywhere in the woods behind Papa’s house. When they came back into the yard, Papa pointed to the circle he had dug in the grass the day before.

“Go and put the stick in the circle,” Papa said.

“Okay, Papa,” Joey said. “Then what?”

“Then we do it again tomorrow, and the next day, too. We’re gonna keep doing it so we can watch and see how every day gets longer.”

If for no other reason than it meant almost guaranteed time in the woods almost every day, this was probably the best idea Joey had ever heard. In the days that followed, he picked up a yellow leaf, a pine cone, another cool stick, and a medium-sized cool rock. They kept it up, day after day, each day adding one more thing to the pile inside the circle in Papa’s backyard. As time went on, they would collectively adjust the rules in response to questions that had arisen (almost entirely from Joey, of course).  On Mondays, if Joey and Daddy and Mom hadn’t gone over to Papa’s at all during the weekend, Joey would choose three special things to make up for the days they’d missed. The same would apply if they’d skipped a weekday due to freezing rain, Papa being tired, or other natural obstacles – the next day, Joey would take two things and add them to the pile in the circle.

As winter melted into spring, Papa noted how independent and confident Joey was in his approach to the wooded environment. As a surprise present, he bought Joey a digital Timex watch with an alarm, timer, and stopwatch. From then on, if ever Papa needed to skip the woods, he’d set the timer on his grandson’s watch for seven minutes and thirty seconds. When it beeped, Joey was to immediately turn around and come back, no matter what. Joey loved the independence and always came back in exactly fifteen minutes with something new for the pile.

To be sure, Papa still went with Joey nine out of ten times. When the time came that it felt as though the snow were truly melting for good, as the temperatures began to rise to averages that seemed warm, even if they were actually no higher than the upper 40s, and the sun’s power started to feel perceptible again, Joey was forced to resign himself to the fact that the sledding season was over. “I’m gonna miss it,” he told Papa.

“I’m sure you will – but it’ll be back again next winter and you really made the most out of this one, I think. You did a good job.”

“You’re right,” Joey said. “And it’s like you said back before Christmas – if winter doesn’t end, then spring can’t come.”

“Damn right, great memory, Sonny.”

“And spring means riding my bike!”

“Among other things, yes,” Papa smiled.

As the spring roared into bloom and the weeks went on and the sun grew ever higher in the sky, the daily exercise became much more light-hearted and pleasant for both of them – when it wasn’t raining, at least.

“Spring is old,” Papa said.

“And Spring has to end so that summer can come, right, Papa?”

“Exactly right,” Papa said. “Jeez, you’re gonna be dangerous one day, kid.”

“Dangerous? Isn’t that bad?”

“I mean it in a good way, Sonny. It means you pick up on things quicker than most people do, so most people are gonna have to watch out for you.”

“They better watch out,” Joey laughed. “Plus summer means no school – and more bike.” More time at Papa’s, too – he spent all day there, while Daddy and Mom worked. He always spent time reading and playing the little solo imagination games he liked to do, pacing back and forth playing multiple characters in an improvised crime drama. But he spent a lot of time in the woods. When the weather was good, Papa always came out at least once a day to hike, but even when Papa was doing other things around the yard or in the house, he started setting Joey’s watch-timer for thirty minutes and letting him explore for an hour at a time. And if there wasn’t any reason why not, if Joey came back on time – which he always did – and wanted to keep playing out there, Papa would reset the timer, make him drink some lemonade or seltzer, and send him back out to live.

Early in the school vacation, before the Fourth of July, it had been a hot and bright day as they walked down the familiar path. “Today’s the longest day of the year,” Papa announced.

“Really? That’s so cool! I wanna stay up until it gets dark, just to see how late the sun stays up.”

“That’s up to Daddy and Mom, but I bet they’ll let you. I let Daddy when he was your age. It’s a big part of the year.”

“So, but, Papa…does this mean now that starting tomorrow the nights will get longer again?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Papa said.

“But that stinks, Papa – I like the long days.”

“It’s all right, though. It’s gotta get real dark again so that the light can come back.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Joey said.

“Plus you’re glad it’s vacation now, but eventually you’re gonna wanna go back to school, and you’re gonna be glad it’s fall, and eventually after all that, Christmas comes.”

“Yeah – you’re right, Papa. And then the whole thing begins again, right?”

“You got it.”

“How long’s it been since the longest night of the year?”

“Exactly half a year,” Papa answered. “In another half a year, we’ll be back.”

“One year – the time it takes for the earth to travel around the sun,” Joey said.

solarrotation

“That’s what it’s all about, kid. That’s everything, right there.”

The pile in the circle was starting to get impressive. Occasionally, looser debris like leaves might blow out, but both Papa and Joey took good care to keep it in good order – as good an order a pile of random collected forest items in a roto-tilled circle can ever be, anyway.

When the time came that Joey’s skin was seven shades darker from time spent in the sun and when the late afternoon began to mean long dark shadows cast in the street as he cruised around on his bike, he knew that summer was coming to an end. He didn’t even wait for Papa to say anything about it. “Summer is old,” he told Papa, “and it needs to end so that fall can begin.”

Papa laughed. “You never cease to amaze, Sonny. You beat me to it.”

“At least I can still ride my bike, and even though I hate school I think it will be good to be in third grade. Plus, when the leaves turn colors, I’ll have a lot more special things to choose from for the pile.”

Papa just smiled and nodded. This kid hardly needed him at all for this, and they hadn’t even finished the full lesson of the year. By the time the longest night of the year did come back round again, Joey was fully immersed in the exercise. “The world is dark now,” he would say, almost daily, to someone, “but it has to get dark in order for the light to come back again.”

He got off the bus that day – he knew it was the longest night of the year without anyone having to tell him and had been counting down the days for several weeks – to find Papa splashing lighter fluid on a blazing mound of coals in his round grill. “It’s too cold for a cookout, Papa,” Joey protested.

“That’s true,  kiddo, but this little fire I’m making is for our project.”

“We get to play with fire?” Joey was thrilled beyond belief.

“You got it. That’s part of what’s great about the longest night of the year.”

When Joey had picked the special thing for the day, a small fallen pine branch that reminded him of a Christmas tree, Papa put his hand atop Joey’s head. “Nice pick – that’s the last one, buddy.”

“No, the last one? I don’t want it to be the last one! Why can’t we keep doing it, why do we have to stop?”

“Oh, we can keep doing it,” Papa said. “But starting tomorrow, it’s gonna be a whole new ballgame. Come on, I’ll show you.” Together, they walked over to the pile in the circle, next to which the uncovered grill was blazing, fueled insistently by a cold and straight winter wind. Joey tossed the pine branch more or less in the center. “Now, I want you to take a look at the pile in the circle,” Papa said. “I want you to take a look at what you’ve made.”

“It’s my favorite pile in the whole world,” Joey professed.

“So tell me,” Papa said, “what is it?”

Joey looked at it for a while. The approximately 365 special items that now filled the entire interior of the circle in the grass certainly formed no identifiable image – but especially now that the circle was filled, the way all the things came to be arranged seemed to form a certain kind of theme inclusive of pattern, mood, and even, Joey thought, symbol. It was almost like a logo. “It’s like a picture of something you can’t take a picture of.”

“Man, you’re sharp, kiddo. Keep going – you almost got it.”

Joey paused only a moment more. “It’s a picture of the year. We made a picture of the year!” he exclaimed.

“Bingo, buddy. That’s what the project was all about – how every day you just pick up one thing and you throw it on a pile, and when the year has come round again, you’ll find the pile has turned into something else, because it’s whole – because it’s done.”

“But if it’s done, like if it’s old, that means – ”

“Yep.”

“ – it’s gotta end so the new thing can begin.”

“Yep. What do you think the fire is for?”

“Papa…are we gonna burn it?”

“Yep. That’s the reward – and the only way we can start the new thing.”

“Okay,” Joey thought somberly a moment. “We really have to, right?”

“We really have to. But first – ” Papa pulled out his phone, aimed and centered on the design within the circle, and took three or four pictures. “We’ve got technology – there’s no reason we have to let ourselves forget what it looked like. I’ll send you a copy when you go back inside.”

The idea that at least an image of “the year” would be preserved was of great comfort to Joey. Following Papa’s lead, he began taking pieces from the pile and placing them in the grill, cautiously so as to avoid burning himself on the metal edge. It took a while to get the entire pile torched – and they had to take breaks when the grill got too full to avoid smothering the coals altogether. “So the year is gone forever, huh, Papa? Burnt to a crisp?”

“Burnt to a crisp for sure,” Papa said. “But not exactly gone forever. It’s over and done, we’ve taken it apart and burnt it, but part of it becomes all the smoke, and where’s the smoke going?”

Joey followed the smoke up into the crystal clear stars pockmarking the deep black sky. “Up with the stars.”

Papa nodded. “Up with the stars. And when things go up with the stars, they’re not down here any more, but in another way they’re up there and with us forever and always.”

solsticesun1

Joey watched the smoke a while. “Papa, are you getting old?” he asked.

“Oh, I’ve been old for a while at this point,” Papa said. “Now I only get older.”

“So, Papa…are people like the seasons and the years?”

“In some ways, sure.”

“So does that mean if you’re old, it’s time that you need to go away so that something new can come?”

Papa laughed and added a few final sticks and pine cones to the little blaze in the grill. “Can’t get anything by you – yeah, that’s right, Sonny. But that’s all right. Yeah, a life is like a year in a lot of ways. In the year of my life, I’m getting pretty close to the longest night of the year. I don’t know how close – nobody ever does – but I’m gonna get there sooner rather than later – and much sooner than you, kiddo!”

“Papa, I don’t think you should ever die.”

“I don’t think I should ever die, either,” he replied, tugging on his beard. “But I will. And you should know that’s okay, buddy boy, because I got to live a life. I went through a whole giant year, and when it’s done for good, you’ll be able to see a picture of my life just like the picture you made of the year – and then I’ll go and be in the stars. All things get old and go away and then the new things come in and take over.”

“So who’s the new person who’s gonna take over when you go, then?”

You are, Joey.”

“I am?”

“Yes sir. I am old and you are young. I’m on my way out and you’re on your way in. It’s up to you, kiddo, to take over and keep the thing going.”

“What if I’m not ready?”

“You’re already ready, bud. What do you think I’m teaching you all this, for? These are the things you gotta know before I’m done – once you figure these things out, the rest becomes easier.”

“I won’t let you down,” Joey said boldly.

“I probably won’t know it even if you do,” Papa said gently, “so don’t worry about that. You’ll do just fine and you’ll have me all around you. And a lot of years will go by, and one day you’ll have a smart grandson just like I do now, and you’ll have to teach him all this before you’re done.”

“I think when it’s time for the longest night of the year – in your life, Papa – I think the picture in your circle is gonna be the best picture there ever was.”

“Thanks, Sonny,” Papa smiled. “I like to think it’ll be well above average, at worst.”

When the fire started to die down because everything combustible was destroyed (they had taken all of the rocks and thrown them together in the direction of the nearby stream on the far edge of the yard), Papa put the lid on it and motioned for them to return inside. Even after huddling close to the fire in the grill, both had eventually been chilled to the core by the fresh winter’s cold.

“Don’t worry, though,” Papa put his arm around Joey as they walked toward the house. “I’m not going anywhere just yet. Not today and not tomorrow – and you know what that means, don’t you?”

“Time to start a new project – time to get the first new special thing and put it in the empty circle.”

“You know it, kid.”

“Now that the long night is all over the world, the light can come back.”

“Yep, you know it.”

“The old goes off and lives with the stars and the new comes in and takes over.”

“That’s the way it works, bud. Always.”

“Papa, even though I don’t want you to go away, if I like all of the different parts of the year, does that mean I like all of the parts of the big life-year?”

“Sure does.”

“I think I like it – even the end. There’s good parts about all of it.”

“That’s more than most people will get in their whole lives,” Papa said. “Don’t ever stop thinking that way.”

Together, old and young, they went inside and warmed themselves from the first day of winter’s cold.

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