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The Old Man and the Diamond

A Short Story by Marshall Riggan

     The sun had finally emerged after four days of heavy rain when the old man found the diamond. At first, he thought it was one of the thousands of quartz crystals he had found on his land over the years, but he saw the facets of this crystal did not appear to have the familiar hexagon structure of quartz. For a long while, he knelt in the mud, a ragged old root of a man, staring at what he had found. His long grey beard and hair were sodden, his trousers and boots caked with mud. The sun retreated behind a cloud and another shower swept by. He raised his head and drank the rain. He touched the crystal to his tongue. Still on his knees, he prayed that the crystal was a diamond,
then prayed that it wasn’t.
As the light began to fade, the old man struggled to his feet. He gathered the day’s harvest of crystals, and then slowly made his way across Frenchman’s Creek to the log cabin he had built in the remote solitudes of an Arkansas forest. He moved onto the porch and surveyed the world where he had lived alone for nearly forty years. At times, he wondered what the forest had been like before the old-growth pine and hardwoods had been clear-cut. Now the new growth was beginning to mature, hiding the savagery of the loggers. Rain wept from the overhanging branches and a silver mist rose above the creek. He listened to the whisper of the willows and other young trees, his companions, sentient beings who spoke a language he was just beginning to understand. He listened to the call of a nearby hawk and to the treble voice of the creek passing by. He was content with his place in the Cosmos.
He put his pack down on the porch and returned to the creek where he stripped off his muddy clothes. He shivered in the cold water and as he washed his ropy arms, bony chest, and the deep livid scars on his legs, the thought once again came to him that his body and the forest had both been victims of terrible violence. He hung his wet clothes on a tree branch, then returned naked through the rain.
The cabin contained a single Spartan room. There was a blanket-covered platform where he slept, a central table and chair, a rough pine wardrobe, an iron wood-burning stove and little else. Baskets of onions, potatoes and dried beans from his garden hung from the rafters. It could have been a cabin built centuries before by trappers or Indian traders. There was no television, no radio, no electricity. Along one wall were boxes of books on history and philosophy he had gathered over the years, the only luxury he had allowed in his sanctuary from the outside world. Light was an oil lantern to read by. He placed the pack of crystals on the table, put on dry clothes, rekindled a small fire in the stove to chase the chill of a rainy day. Then he examined the crystals he had found.
There were several nice points and a cluster that would bring a few dollars at the lapidary shop in town. He set them aside and examined the small unfamiliar crystal that he had washed clean in the creek. It looked a bit like molten glass, rounded, but with tiny flat geometric surfaces. It was about the size of the end of his little finger. He held it up to the fire and he could see the flames through the stone. It was absolutely colorless and seemed flawless. The facets danced in the firelight and the gemstone felt alive in his hand. He recalled that the ancients believed diamonds were living organisms, tears of the gods or angels, splinters fallen to earth from stars. He remembered a time long ago, in California, when as a young man he had been walking by the sea and had found a small round stone, nearly transparent and smooth as flesh. It, too, had felt alive in his hand. He thought the stone might have been what was left of a planet that had fallen through space into the Pacific Ocean. He had decided to keep it and worship it since he knew of nothing more worthy to believe in than a vagabond planet. For years, he kept it in a leather pouch around his neck. He wondered what had become of this thing he had valued so profoundly. He drew some comfort in knowing it still existed somewhere, infused with the oils and the essence of his being. Often he imagined it might yet be buried in the killing fields of Vietnam.
A few years before he settled on Frenchman’s Creek, Benjamin Carpenter had very nearly been killed in Vietnam. As a Philosophy Major in a small liberal arts college, in Illinois, the last thing he had wanted was to go to war. Instead, all his days were focused on enjoying life, impressing girls and, perhaps, learning something of Truth from the wise philosophers of the past. But, like many others at that time, hardly a month after graduation he was drafted and before he could really believe what was happening, he was in basic training, in a rifle company and then within six months shipped out to Vietnam. All he knew of war was contained in the works of Sun Zi, the Taoist philosopher and military strategist, and what little he learned in basic training about how to kill like a soldier and stay alive. Within a few weeks of arriving in country, he found himself in the Mekong Delta, his platoon advancing against a village where a Viet Kong unit was hidden among the civilians. The fighting was more brutal that any of them had expected, splashing through paddy fields and wading endless marshes, loaded down with equipment, shooting, hurling grenades, screaming, numb with fear, walking over the body parts of strangers he had blown to pieces, women and children heaped like bloody laundry by their demolished homes. And then, on a day frozen in time, he felt himself flying and a white-hot pain diminished the sound of the world and then the light.
It took years and a string of doctors to put Benjamin Carpenter together again. The many wounds on his body were severe, but it was the wounds he had inflicted on others that continued to torment him. When he was finally released from the Veterans’ hospital and was wondering what to do with the rest of his life, he searched for a place as far from war as it was possible to get, where he could recover from his wounds, forget all the horror he had seen and caused, and maybe begin the restoration of his soul.
He found such a place in the remote mountains of central Arkansas. He purchased a few acres of land on Frenchman’s Creek and built his refuge from the world. He spent his days living simply, fishing for bass and crappie in the creek, tending a small garden, studying such works as Socrates, Plato, Emanuel Kant and the Stoic philosophers he had brought with him in his old war-surplus Jeep. Ben spent much of his days and nights trying to remember to forget. In time, he saw himself as a natural man, a fellow creature with the other life forms along the creek. As the Stoics taught, he believed he could tap into the very forces of nature and share in its creative force. He became conversant with the stars that hung in the night sky. He talked with the trees, the wind, the clouds, and to the true self he knew still inhabited his damaged mind and body. He composed poems but didn’t write them down so they could remain free. As the years went by, he became more and more reclusive. Since he rarely spoke to anyone, his voice became little more than a whisper, which was easily enough heard in his conversations with the natural world around him and within him. When he made his rare trips to town for supplies, he knew he was referred to derisively as “That Old Hermit.” Sometimes children followed him around, their eyes alive with curiosity and, perhaps, resentment, because he lived so free and they had to live by convention and rules. He was generally ignored by the adults and older people in town. He attracted no more notice than the stray dogs that wandered the streets. It made him smile to know he had successfully hidden the inner life that animated his thoughts behind the façade of a solitary old derelict.
After a time, he began to find crystals along Frenchman’s Creek, especially after a rain. He was fascinated by their clarity, the complexity of their structure, and the way they reflected light. One day he collected some of his favorites and took them to a Lapidary shop in town. He was astonished to learn that a large clear crystal point was worth as much as $24 and some clusters sold for $250 or more. He showed the dealer, a man named Thomas Hooker, his collection. Hooker purchased Ben’s crystals and said he would buy others he might bring in. Ever since he had sold Hooker just enough crystals to provide for his meager needs.
At Hooker’s shop, Ben had found a number of books about crystals and their use as healing stones. He learned that this part of Arkansas was a center for cults believing in the power of crystals to improve emotional and physical health. These true believers taught that quartz crystals aligned a person’s psyche with universal powers. Ben recognized their beliefs as a jumbled mixture of Eastern mysticism and self-deception. But it was all very interesting and not really that far removed from his own musings about the mysteries of strange stones seeming to embody some life force of their own.
Now, Ben held the small, unfamiliar crystal up to the firelight. He was fairly certain that it could be a diamond. He decided he would take it to Hooker and have it tested. Not that he really cared about its worth; he had all the money he needed to support his primitive life. But he was curious about what new mysteries a diamond might reveal. If quartz crystals held the power of healing, what greater powers could a diamond possess? What new insights about life might a diamond inspire. He realized that in recent years his thoughts sometimes flew away like that, like the minds of ancients who believed diamonds were the tears of God or of angels.
Ben fired up his Jeep and drove along the logger’s trail that led to town, engaging four-wheel drive to navigate the mud and rugged terrain. Since the forest had been logged out decades before, the trees he passed had not yet attained the size and grandeur of their ancestors. Yet, this new generation of pines and hardwood formed a lovely canopy over the old logging trail. The morning sunlight flashed through their branches and played in the mist that rose from the road. He watched for deer and once again mourned the fact that each year he saw fewer and fewer that survived the hunters. As he drove, he thought about the small crystal in his pocket. Maybe if it was really a diamond, or even if it wasn’t, in any case, he would make a leather pouch for it and wear it around his neck to guard the sanctity of his disbelief.
The logging trail reached a blacktop road that coiled across a green mountain and then down into the little town of Clearwater. Approaching the town, he passed abandoned farmhouses buried in honeysuckle and lean horses and rusted farm machinery in fields of goldenrod. Overhead, vultures soared and wheeled. Even though he passed through pockets of poverty and plastic and paper littered the side of the road, there was beauty to be seen on the way to Clearwater, Arkansas, if one had the grace to find it. Even the vulture, repulsive in repose, became magnificent in flight.
Back in the 19th and early 20th Century, Clearwater had been a thriving tourist center. People from all over the world came to bathe in its healing springs. But, in time, the springs dried up, as did the town, and what was left was a single main street filled with little more than abandoned hotels and boarded up souvenir shops.
Ben pulled up in front of Hooker’s Lapidary Shop, wondering if he was doing the right thing. He looked both left and right. The street was nearly deserted. After a moment, he climbed from the jeep and limped into the shop. A bell rang. The door window rattled in its frame. He closed the door and stepped into the shop. It was in one of the town’s few surviving 19th Century buildings. Ornate pressed tin ceiling. Exposed brick walls. Glass showcases filled with crystals and geodes and plastic containers of colorful polished stones. A ceiling fan whirled noisily. Hooker was reading a magazine behind his counter. He was a tall, angular man, balding, with eyes marked by years of disappointment or regret.
“So it’s you, Ben?”
The old man nodded, said: “Yes,” in his feathery voice.
“Been some time.What can I do for you?”
Ben reached into his pocket, removed and unwrapped the small crystal, placed it on the counter.
Hooker took the crystal, turned it in the light from the window. Then he examined it with a magnifying glass, breathed on it and wiped it on his sleeve, tapped it with his fingernail. He glanced up at Ben. Then he put the crystal down again. “Where’d you get this, Ben?”
“On my place.”
“Well, my friend. Looks like you might have yourself a diamond here.”
“You think so?”
“We’ll see. I can do some tests. Ultraviolet. Thermal conductivity. Make sure for sure.”
“Thank you,” Ben whispered.
“You can leave it with me.”
“No. I’ll wait,” Ben said.
While Ben waited, he looked out into the street. Several people moved along, going about lives he couldn’t even imagine. A car and a pickup passed. A young woman, two young children clinging to her skirt, came by. She was pretty. She paused right outside the window and looked at the large crystal displayed there. He wondered what she was thinking. In the window glass, Ben’s reflection was superimposed over the woman. He felt it was a kind of intimacy. A brief tug of sorrow touched his mind and for a moment he grieved for the life, for the world, he had rejected. It was a sorrow he had generally held at bay for more than forty years and it took him by surprise.
Hooker returned. “Well, Ben, looks like you’re a wealthy man. I’ve seen a lot of Arkansas diamonds. But this one here is one of the finest I’ve ever seen.”
Ben nodded his head. “Alright,” was all he could think to say.
“Would you like to sell it?”
“Don’t know.”
“We can get it appraised. But I know it’s worth a great deal. I’ve seen them go for more than a thousand dollars. Maybe much more.”
Ben said nothing. He tried to think how big a pile all that money would be.
“Look, Ben. I know this must be a surprise. But think about it. You wouldn’t have to live out there in the woods any more. You could have a real life. Buy a real house. Travel.” When Ben continued to remain silent, Hooker said: “Why don’t I keep it here in the safe while you decide. We’ve known each other a long time. I’ve always been fair. I can handle the sale for you.”
Ben shook his head, wrapped the diamond in its oiled cloth and put it back in his pocket.
As Ben turned to go, Hooker said, “You can’t just go around with a priceless diamond in your pocket, Ben! It’s crazy! And it won’t be safe out there in your cabin. There are people in the world who would kill for a lot less. Bad no-good Arkansas boys. Make sense for God’s sake, let me put it in my safe.”
Ben walked away. The bell rang. The door window rattled in its frame.
All the way back to his cabin, Ben thought about what he should do, and what he would do with the money if he did sell the diamond. He wished the diamond was worth hundreds rather than thousands. That would be easier to get his mind around. He recalled the words of the stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus who wrote that wealth consisted not in having great possessions but in having few. It had been the guiding force of his life since his return from the war. He had built a world away from the world, a universe in which he found a kind of happiness in simplicity and in his seclusion within a forest that was sharing his process of renewal. At first, he had been lonely. But in time his loneliness seemed to restore beauty, if not meaning, to his life. There were moments when he missed who he had been before he had become a soldier. Sometimes fragments of that life crept uninvited into his memory. Times of friendships, of promises made and kept, moments of possibility. Maybe now, it was not too late to journey back to the world he had rejected, to find something strong and useful in what life he had left. He could give the money away to a good cause, to those who fight for justice or support the poor. He smiled to himself, embarrassed at both the grandeur and the naivety of his thoughts.
That night Ben lay on his bunk watching a pale moon sail through a scattering of dark cloud. The diamond was in his closed hand, feeling now hot, now cold. He held the stone up against the moon and a spectral effervescence fluttered about the room like ghost butterflies. He saw that the light within the stone was pure white, not reflected light, but a white fire generated from within the stone itself. He wondered what secrets the diamond might tell. It spoke of great age and fierce heat, a source from deep within the mantle of Earth, rather than from the stars or weeping angels. He rubbed the stone lightly against his face, against the oils by his nose, over his eyelids. Once, when he touched the facets too forcibly against his cheek, he cut a thin furrow in the flesh. He rubbed the blood into the gemstone. In the moonlight, it seemed the diamond was bleeding.
Ben used the cover of a leather-bound volume of “The Discourses of Epictetus’” to create a pouch for the diamond. He cut a circle from the leather, punched holes around the circumference, then created a drawstring and lanyard from old leather boot laces. He tested the lanyard to make sure it was strong enough to protect the diamond from accidental loss. He placed the diamond in the pouch, tightened the boot laces, then placed this new stone of his disbelief around his neck, the pouch hidden beneath his long beard.
Ben wore the diamond around his neck night and day, only removing it to hold it in his hand or to touch it to the energy meridians of his body or to seek within its heart of white fire some new discoveries about the known or unknown Universe. In time, he began to sense a transfer of life force between himself and the stone.
The first visitor came when Ben was fishing a mile or so from his cabin. Having no luck, he returned to the little shed behind his cabin where he kept his fishing gear, gardening tools and tools for digging up crystals. Also within the shed was a workbench where he hand-carved fishing lures. He removed the lure from his fishing line, and as he was putting it away, he noticed that the lures in the drawer were out of order. Looking around, he soon discovered that there were other subtle signs of an intruder. He hurried into the cabin but was relieved that things seemed as he had left them. Although he was very precise in his habits, he decided he had been mistaken about the lures.
A few days later, when he returned from town with supplies, he found the cabin had been trashed. Every container, box or drawer had been emptied out onto the floor. His clothes had been removed from their shelves and searched. Food staples and his books and ashes from the stove were scattered everywhere. Ben felt an emotion he had not felt in decades. He felt anger welling up from his gut, a rage against those who had violated his home. Little by little, as he cleaned up the mess, his anger subsided and he went out on the porch, sat on the porch swing and watched the evening descend onto the forest.
Through all the years he had lived out in the wilderness, no one had ever come uninvited to his cabin. In fact, few had come at all. He looked out at the trees, very still, their silhouettes like paper cutouts against the grey dusk. He listened to the voice of the trees and the two words they spoke were: Thomas Hooker. Only Hooker knew about the diamond. He had tried to have Ben leave it in his safe. Maybe it wasn’t Hooker himself who had defiled his home, but some of those bad Arkansas boys he had probably hired. Obviously, they had been searching for the diamond while he was away, not knowing that it was safely in the pouch around his neck.
An owl. The murmur of the creek. The ticking and squeak of the swing chain. To the north, a moving presence darker than night consumed the stars. A cool wind breathed across the creek. Distant lightning cut thin jagged wounds in the cloud. Ben had never felt so alone and vulnerable. He knew they would come back, the Arkansas boys, and he remembered Hooker’s words: “People have killed for less.” Who would miss him? An old hermit in the woods. He felt a clarity of mind he had not felt since his Vietnam days. He sensed that he could feel his blood flowing through his veins, a tension like the moments before a firefight. And now he would have to fight to defend the peace he had found. His beloved Stoics believed in the virtues of courage, justice and temperance. But none of them, not Seneca, not Marcus Aurelius, not one of them, had been a pacifist. Even Epictetus wrote that to defend oneself, it might be necessary to kill from time to time.
He moved from the porch to the shed where he kept an old rifle. He had purchased the weapon years ago to chase away rabbits that had invaded his garden. It was an old Henry carbine. When one of his warning shots had accidently killed one of the rodents, he had put the rifle away in the shed where it had remained untouched for years. Now he loaded the rifle and jacked a round into the chamber. He wondered if he could bring himself to shoot again. He asked the trees and the willows, the pines and the hardwoods what he should do and they all whispered that he fight.
He decided to make his stand in a giant oak, one of the few old-growth hardwoods remaining on his property. Hidden within its branches, he would have a clear view of anyone approaching the cabin. After a deep drink of water, he climbed high into the tree, the rifle in its sling across his shoulders. He had climbed the oak many times before to watch sunsets over the mountains and he was at ease with the climb and the height. He settled into a crook where he could not be seen from below.
As he waited, he thought about the moment he would pull the trigger and he wondered if there might be a better way. Some way that he wouldn’t have to watch his victims die. He recalled that ancient Siamese monks placed their enemies in velvet bags and beat them to death with bamboo clubs. Since they did not actually see their victims die or see their blood, they felt removed and absolved of guilt. But why should he feel guilty about killing now? He had already overloaded his soul with it. There was no room for more. He thought of death and he thought of beauty, of violence and serenity. He knew his thoughts were flying away again, unhinged, wildly divergent, irreconcilable. He reached for the pouch and brought it to his lips. The diamond now seemed the only thing true and enduring.
By midnight, a cold wind came whistling through the trees. Then came the wind-blown rain, the drops hard and sharp. Buffeted by the wind, the tree began to sway, the branches supporting Ben became slippery and alive.
Swords of lightning slashed down from the black sky. Then he saw the dark shape of a man, two men, step onto the porch, their movements revealed by the lantern light through the window and the flash of lightning. As Ben quickly reached to unsling the rifle, he felt himself slipping on the wet branch and in an instant knew that he would fall. Then he did fall, and the leather lanyard hanging free caught on a branch. He felt a wrenching pain as the lanyard cut into his neck and he found himself struggling high above the ground. As he began to lose consciousness, he felt himself slipping out of himself, a spectator at his own hanging. From below, he watched himself fight to free the lanyard and then fall, spinning down, bouncing, through the lower branches to the ground. Looking up he knew that he remained there, high in the old oak, somewhere within the white fire at the heart of the diamond, safe from himself and from the tyranny of the past. He would live forever or until the sun swallowed the Earth.

If you enjoyed this short story, maybe you’d like my latest novel, “The Lost Caravan. You’ll find it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and on my website Marshall Riggan Storyteller.