The Old Man Who Whittled Whistles
by Tom Sheehan
In a country that had no name because it had no borders lived an old man who stayed in a small cabin at the side of the road and made whistles. Making whistles was all he ever wanted to do. Each time he made a whistle and tested it, he would make a present of it for a boy or girl who passed his small house.
The old man had no big dreams and no thoughts of grandeur. His house was a small house and once the forest behind his house had been thick and heavy with trees. Now it was sparser because of all the whistles he had whittled out of its trees. Boys and girls everywhere played his whistles. But the thinning forest still had nice shade and was a fine place to walk and spring brought new growth, new promise, new whistles.
Joy,it seemed, was everywhere about him for he knew spring was a celebration of the grandest order.
Each morning the man would sit on his rocker on the porch and listen to the birds. When the light of day came upon them, they began to whistle and send out signals to their friends. Very closely he would listen, picking up every sound that came out of the forest. He heard every peep and every chirp and there never was a bird’s song that he did not hear. After a while of listening he would settle on a sound or a song that best suited him for the day. He would set off for the forest to find a piece of wood to whittle to capture that sound forever.
In the forest came a kind of magic with the old man’s search for the right piece of wood. It was without fail that he’d find the right piece. It could be sitting in its place as a nice branch on a maple tree or it could be a strip of oak that lightning had driven away from its home at the top of a tree. Now and then it would be the shape of a piece of wood that caught his eye instead of his ear. But it was always the right piece.
And he always gave away the whistles that he made.
Oh, how he loved new songs the birds whistled, and he could tell practically which day of the year it was, the day of the season, because of the birds that stayed or the ones that already had journeyed far away. Some of the birds would end up way down in the other end of the world and would be gone for months. Some little red birds stayed all year long, singing songs for the old man. He loved the ones who stayed and the ones who traveled.
One day, spring warm as a reflection, when he was sleeping deeply in his late afternoon nap, a bad man stole the old man’s knife. The man slipped away on soft shoes and with all caution. How sad the old man became. How sad the children were when no whistles were being made. Someone in town said the birds had stopped singing, that the forest was a dark and dismal and too quiet place that could frighten any soul.
The leaves eventually began to fall in the forest. And then the snow fell.
And the old man was sadder each day he could not whittle.
Then one bright morning a new knife was on his porch. The old man did not know who left it there. But he suddenly heard a bird call from the forest. Out he went and found a piece of wood exactly as he thought it should be. The whistle caught the new birdcall perfectly and the old man hung the whistle on his fence.
Now all the boys and girls knew what had happened and none of them took the whistle away.
Next day the old man heard another bird and made another whistle and hung that one on his fence. But no one took it. He was sad, but making whistles was what he always wanted to do, so he kept at it.
The birds kept calling and he kept making whistles and he kept hanging them on his fence. And still, nobody came to take the whistles. The fence grew greatly, one whistle after another going into place.
Day after day, for the longest time, he heard the birds and made his whistles and hung them for the boys and girls. Each night he was sad. But he knew he would never stop making whistles. Birds were beautiful when they sang and his whistles were beautiful when they were played and somehow someday someone would come along to play lovely tunes on the small shafts of wood.
Soon there were hundreds of whistles hanging on his fence and not a single one had been taken. No boy or girl ever tried to play one or blow air into the mouthpiece or even tried to finger the little air holes. Not a single boy or girl tried one out. It was if they all were cautioned by the theft of his first knife.
And it was late that winter the old man became sick and lay in his bed and the mayor and some other people came from the town when they heard about his trouble. And the old man told them his life had been a good life and he had no regrets except that he wished the boys and girls would come to take his whistles off the fence. But even if they don’t, he had said, he had been happy making his whistles.
And then, late in the afternoon, the wind began to blow from the edge of the forest. It blew quickly and steadily down the length of the old man’s fence. The old man and the mayor and many other people suddenly heard the most marvelous sounds they had ever heard, the most magical notes of every range imaginable, as if from a heavenly source to be remembered forever, and not by chance the music from the soul of one old man who had found the secret of songs.
And before that windy selection was over, before the last soft note was sent on its way, the old man who made whistles all his life finally and happily closed his eyes as he heard music coming from the very first fence organ ever played.
Bio: Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening. eBooks; Korean Echoes, The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. Work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings,Cahoodaloodaling, Literary Orphans, Greensilk, Ocean Magazine, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3AM Magazine, Nazar Look, Eastlit and Rope & Wire Magazine. He has 24 Pushcart nominations. In the Garden of Long Shadowspublished by Pocol Press, 2014, to be followed by The Nations, about Native Americans.