The old man whittled the branch down to a perfectly fine walking stick. He busied himself with carving a fancy grip, with flowers and whatnot, all the time with the sun held at bay by the elm tree and his wide brimmed hat. His glasses at the end of his nose, he focused, brushing the shavings away with his handkerchief.
I sat, watching him, his skin reddened, his lips tight. I was still too young to ask him if I could see his knife. I knew he'd say no, that mother wouldn't want me playing with such things. I didn't know what to ask him. I wanted him to think I was smart, not just a silly little girl. If I was going to disturb him, it would be for a wise question which maybe he couldn't answer right out. So I sat and thought a bit. Finally, it dawned on me. The right question.
"What is the most important thing in this world?" I asked. That should get him thinking awhile, I thought.
He kept whittling away, never taking his eye off of the handle.
"That's easy," he said. I pouted. I thought it would take more time.
"Kindness. That's the most important thing."
I brightened. "Oh, good! That's easy. I'm already kind." Imagine my happiness. I had already accomplished the most important thing in the world.
The old man switched his glaze from the handle to me. He took off his glasses with a quick sweep and got within inches of my face.
"Are you, now?"
My body stayed immobile but my head backed up to the furthest point back. I was startled.
"Well, yes I am kind!" Maybe he wasn't so kind, doubting my kindness! "Just ask my friends."
He sat back in his chair. A little smirk came and went in a flash.
"I don't need to ask your friends. I need to ask your enemies."
I scowled. "What do you mean? I don't have any enemies!"
"Are you sure? No one that talks about you behind your back? No one that thinks you're stupid? No one?"
I thought. Well, if you count that idiot Jeremy, who you should not count ever, then maybe one enemy.
I didn't have to say anything. The old man knew.
"That's right. That person. You have to be kind to THAT person."
"That's impossible," I blurted out. "He hates me."
"Well," laughed the old man. "It's easy to be kind to people who love you. But to be kind to people that hate you, that's another matter entirely."
In my mind's eye I could see me getting on the bus and saying, "Morning, Jeremy." The thought made me ill.
" I know what you're thinking. But it gets easier the more you do it. It's a habit you develop over time."
"But he's going to think I'm a pushover."
"Did I say anything about being a pushover? I said be kind. You can be kind and very strong minded and even stubborn sometimes, all at the same time."
I fell silent, my arms wrapped around my calves, my legs drawn to me, biting lightly on my kneecaps.
I should have just asked him a sillier question.