Stem Cell Hunting Season
Ben’s hounds paw their chain-link pen, quit baying at his command. Inside his cabin he droops into an armchair—shaky, but not as weak as he was two months ago, his plaid flannel wrinkled as ever, cheeks sandpaper stubble. Above us hang four stag heads and an antler-wreath chandelier; over the door, a handsaw painted with a woodland scene.
The first time I sat on his couch, I asked who mounted his bucks. “Taxidermist costs too much,” he declared. “Got ‘em at the Flea Mall.” Ben has hunted deer, bear, and wild boar since boyhood. Before Davy Crockett roamed these parts, settlers tracked wild creatures with bow and arrow, black powder, and firearms for food as much as sport. They still do. I’m city-born, but I respect the self-sufficiency bred in East Tennessee’s mountains.
Around our cabins rove 640,000 acres of Cherokee National Forest. For twelve years Ben’s headlights have raked my window at 3:30 a.m., pickup crunching gravel on his way out with Bo, Blue, Big Boy, or just his fishing rod. It’s good to see him up and about since complications from diabetes and congestive heart failure pinned him to his bed.
“I was goin’ down,” he confides. “Pain 24/7. Doctor talked hospice. I said hell, no. Got thirty million stem cells injected, from umbilical cord. After two weeks I felt better. The stem cells go wherever damage is—some to my heart, some to my knees. Even my cataract healed.”
Conversation rambles to his bear hunt two weeks ago with B.J., the preacher up the road. They took along a young guy, a big talker. He put Blue—howling at prey—in peril by refusing to clamber through a gnarled thicket. Ben’s voice dripped scorn. It can take a man two days to crawl through a laurel hell. My friend has some years on him now, but he used to lunge down ravines, ford icy streams, creep across hells, trudge steep slopes.
Ben backtracks. “The treatment is good for ninety days. I’m comin’ up on that. Cost me $7,000, not covered by insurance.” He pauses. “Need to decide whether to do it again.”
I look up. On the log wall a rainbow of 200 fishing lures glints in morning’s sunstream. I’m like a walleye in Lake Tellico, beguiled by spinnerbait. In the dazzling tapestry, I spy a small, determined figure: Ben working his way uphill through stands of oak, hickory, walnut, elm, poplar, pine. Crossing glades wild with ginseng and rhododendron, the grape-scent of mountain laurel. Tracking higher into radiant birch, flaming maples, lacy hemlock. Cresting onto grassy balds. He is rising through his history, from childhood on to an engineering career, past a family feud, pausing now and then near dogs he’s buried, countless potlucks he has graced with smoked bear, stewed venison, fresh walleye, up to panoramas of ash-blue peaks.
He casts his eye at the distant lake. Casts his rod across dark water, quiet and sure. Aims for what old-time hymns call Home.
Recent prose by Gail Tyson has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and Lowestoft Chronicle.
The Ekphrastic Review
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