The Day Bob Dylan Dies

[Source: Google search.]

This is not an obituary.  It’s not a eulogy.  It’s a foreshowding.

I’m a sensitive guy.  I’m seventy years old and I cry at the final scene of Casablanca, several times during Dr. Zhivago, and at the end of Sleepless in Seattle.

I make no apologies.

But, lately, my generation (mostly the Boomers)  have lost more than our fair share of rock stars (or musical artists, if you prefer).  Music defined the Boomers.  We grew up with the Beatles.  Yet, years ago we lost George Harrison, John Lennon.  More recently,  David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Fats Domino…and more than I can remember or even want to think about because it saddens me so much.

I’ve seen him in concert, perhaps twenty times, and even if the show seemed “phoned in”, I still walked away from the theater or the arena with a deep respect.  Respect for a man who is spending his later years on a “never-ending tour”.  According to BobDylan.com, he has sang Like a Rolling Stone well over 2,000 times!

But, there is a date, as yet to be determined by the gods, when my ultimate favorite poet/rock star and Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan will join his comrades.

Dylan (as of this writing on December 10, 2017) is seventy-six years old.  His death could come in three days, seven months, nine years…but the way our musical icons are leaving us so fast, I am dreading the day when Dylan’s number comes up.

Some morning I will wake up and read on the front page of the New York Times that he had died.  Some people who don’t know how valued this poet is to me will not understand why I will cry.

I guarantee that I will cry,  I will weep.  I will sob.  I will mourn.

My sadness will be blowing in the wind.

 

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A Silent Eulogy: Late But Heartfelt

B:WFlowerSteve

Is it possible that a eulogy can take forty-one years to deliver?

The dreaded answer is yes.  I know because I spoke that eulogy…silently, silently so that only I heard the words.  It was a rambling prayer over a heart-breaking death.  I knew the young man who had died.  In truth, I was with him when he passed away, away into the unknown world that we all dread…whether we admit it or not.

He is interred in the soil of his hometown in sunny and warm Louisiana.  His soul departed on a snowy trail, on a cold night in the mountains of the Adirondacks.

I’ve talked to him, about him and prayed for him for four decades.  Our conversations weren’t all one-sided.  I felt his presence.  I felt his answers.  I’ve felt his forgiving words when I find those occasional moments, when the moon is rising and the air is crisp and the snow is five inches deep…just like it was that night in November of 1974.

Once before, many years ago, I stood over his grave.  I remember that day.  It was unbearably hot in the southern sun.  I thought then of how I was so near him in such an opposition of environments…from when we last walked side by side.  Now, I’ve returned with time heavy in my arms and dried wildflowers of the North Country in my hands.  Now, the temperature is at a mid-point…from that night to this day.  It’s 55 degrees.  There are pine cones on the ground…not a flake of snow within five hundred miles.

Yes, I’ve talked to him and relived our friendship when I stop to recall memories, those sweet and terrible memories.  I’ve spoken to a few people about him, but I have never, until now, written a word about my friend.

I’ve waited too long and kept too many recollections lock away in my heart and brain.  I need to share these with you.

We met in a hallway at the college I attended in Louisiana, or perhaps we met at the Pizza Inn where we worked evenings to earn a few extra dollars.  I have never encountered a more curious individual.  He picked my brain for hours about what life in the North was like.  At the Pizza Inn, we were often left with the task of closing for the night.  But, we wouldn’t simply clean-up and lock-up.  No, after the lights were turned off, and before the ovens were shut down for the night, we would make a pizza, the likes of which was never seen on the menu.  We’d lock the front door and find a booth in the back dining area.  And there, by the light of a single candle (we didn’t want to attract the police who would be checking the locks on the doors of the businesses along the avenue), we would drink beer, eat pizza and talk for hours.  We’d argue.  We’d laugh. We discussed the philosophy of life.  We talked about women.  We talked about racism. (He was the farthest thing from a ‘redneck’ I ever encountered in my years in the 1960’s South.)  More than once, when we left for our cars, the eastern skies were getting light.

Time flew for us when we had important matters to ruminate about.

A few years later, after I graduated and moved back to New York State, we kept up our friendship through letters.  We had a chess game in progress for months, sending moves to each other on post cards.  I don’t remember whose turn it was when our game ended so abruptly.

He was curious about life outside of the South so he moved to Binghamton, where I was living.  He got a job.  I moved to Pennsylvania to begin a career of teaching.  He wanted to join me on a hiking trip to the Adirondacks over the Thanksgiving break of 1974.  I said yes.  I wish I hadn’t.

I will place this humble bouquet against the headstone.  My wife will stand at my side.

I will say a prayer for him to a God who I feel has been too quiet for too long.

My private prayer for the dead will start with his name.

I will say: “Hey, Steve.  It’s been a long time.  Sorry I’m so late.”

O, Southern sun, shine warmly here,

O, Southern winds, blow gently here,

Green sod above, lie light, lie light,

Good night , dear heart, good night, good night.

[This is not Steve’s epitaph, but it could and should be.  I found in on a gravestone of a nine-year old boy named Addison Foster, Jr. in the City Cemetery of Natchez, Mississippi]

HandAt Steve's grave

My Grave Nightmare: A Halloween Story

SpookyImage

Was it a day in full blinding sun or a night in deep gloomy shadows?  Was I asleep?  Awake?  I don’t remember.  No, it was both.  I wandered about in my dream with my eyes open, my dream that quickly became a nightmare.

What I looked upon were reflections of my darkest thoughts and fears.  My sub-conscience was trapped in the dreaded landscape of the land of the dead–the churchyard, the cemetery, God’s Little Acre, the lawns and fields of the departed.

AngelOverlookingGraves

The angel stood on the rock and watched over the mute stones.

“O, What has come into this world that these once vital souls, who lived, loved and danced and sang must now repose until the Day of Judgement?”

I stood watching a man mourn the loss of his wife, lover, child, parent or self.  He cannot bear the loneliness of existence.  He pulls at the door.  It is solid and firm in its closure.  The door is thick bronze.  I touch his shoulder to offer solace.  He, too, is bronze.  It’s all metal and stone except for the dust that lies within.  He will remain in this torment until the acids of the rain reduce him to molecules.

BronzeAtDoor

I walk on.  I don’t know why I do this.  I know what awaits me behind the next tree or over the next hill.  I walk into the trees.  Roots have begun to ensnare a gravestone.  The trees will absorb the crystals in another century.  Then, who will remember?  Where will the flowers be placed?  Where will the tears be spilled?

RootedGrave

The only comfort for my eyes are the green and living leaves, mosses and lichens.  Objects with life hold firmly to the ultimate symbol of death.

True irony.

I leave the dark trees and stand to meditate the monument before me.  I read the inscription.  It’s not an epitaph–it’s a promise:

Somewhere in Mexico–when you were hurting and in despair, I sent my angel to comfort you.  You are not alone.  I will be with you even unto the end of the earth. 

ComfortAngelCaption

There is an old house with an open door.  I grew up and passed from childhood into manhood in an old house.  I must enter.  I walk into the foyer and along the hallway.  There she is.  The transparent image of a long-ago lover.  Or is she the sister I never had? Or is she my mother as a beautiful youth?  Or is she someone unknown to me–coming to hold my wrinkled hand and place her young cold lips on my warm cheek.

Instead, she passes through me and ascends the stairs to meet another shade–someone her own age to play with–someone as spectral as she.  I watch her ascend the stairs and experience an overwhelming sense of melancholy.  I wished to know her in life.  I probably would have given her my heart–the heart she would break when she passed away.  My heart breaks as easily as ancient Oriental porcelain.

SpiritGirl

I leave the house to her spirit.  I whisper a prayer for her restless soul.  Does anyone hear my words?  I walk on into a monochromatic world.  There at my feet is the grave of a man who is holding…is it his own face?  The head of someone he is longing for?  The visage of a family member?  I walk by and he continues to stare, without terror or anger into another pair of eyes.

HoldingHead

I have seen too much for a living and mortal mind to comprehend.  I want to be awake.  I don’t care if it’s just past mid-night or if the sky in the east is becoming pale.

Pale!  Enough pale! I want to be amongst the living and the breathing.  I want to mingle with lovers who embrace with a terrible passion for life.  I want to walk along flowered paths rich with bees and insects and birds singing for the company of a mate.  I want to help a lame farmer till his field, an old woman with arthritic joints knead her bread, a teacher tell his students the truth about life, calm a couples angry words, write a song a child will love, write a book that will make a man weep, kiss a wanton woman, drink a dark ruby wine, eat a mushroom in a desert, draw a picture that a blind person could see, dig a grave, speak words at a burial, pour Holy Water on an infant’s forehead, stand on a mountain peak so very sharp and pointed that the highest crystal pierces my thick boot soles and makes my foot bleed so that red stains on the heather will guide a lost soul to the low meadows.

I can feel sleep falling away.  But, I sit up in bed, still in a deep slumber and see my last vision for the night.

It’s the Angel of the Fog.  But is she fading away or growing more real?

FoggyAngel

I rise and boil water for tea.  I wrap myself in flannel.  I rub the Sandman’s leftovers from the corners of my eyes.  I am fully awake and fully alive.  I will use and live this day to its fullest.  I will live with faith and hope.  As I slowly stir a drop of honey into my tea, I begin to wonder…

What will tonight bring me as I put my book down and let the dark envelop me?

Do You Really Want To Go There?

Dark Lane 4 Blog

It’s early Autumn.  The air is crisp.  The broad leaves of the oaks and maples are sharp and bright in the sun.  Against the darker conifers, the reds and yellows are more muted–less distinct and less joyful.

There is a lane.  It seems to possess a faint voice calling for you to follow to wherever it leads.  The fair-haired, blue-eyed woman beside you urges you to take a few steps into the forest.  Her white hand suddenly is gripping your right forearm.  Without words she is telling you to not take another step.

“We don’t know where this path leads,” she says with her eyes.  You brush a red leaf from her soft hair.  You look down the lane again.  Something is urging you to explore–to follow the trail to its end.  On your left, a woman with dark eyes and pale flesh takes your hand.

“Come,” she whispers in your ear.  “We can’t keep them waiting.”

You look to your right.  The fair one has a distressed look as she stares down the lane.  Her hand trembles.

Turning your head, you see your car parked miles away.  How can this be?  You’ve only taken a few steps into the woods.  A breeze picks up a few leaves and stirs them at your feet.  The branches of the trees begin to weave and roll and shudder.

There is a tug at your right arm.

“Let’s go back,” the fair one says.  “I don’t like this.”

“Let’s move on,” your pale lover says.  “It’ll be good.  I’ll see to that.”

You are unable to move.  You stare into the distance and wonder where it will end and how far the walk will be.  Will there be a pool of clear water?  A bower of red and scarlet leaves?  An old farmhouse?  Does the backdoor–the screen door, bang in the wind?  Is the spring rusty?  Are the rooms empty?

Is there a house at all?  If not, why the road?  All roads lead to something in this forest.

You’re frozen with indecision.  You want to go forward and you want to run back to the car.

What about your lovers?  You look from left to right.  There is no one there.  Was anyone ever there?  Are you awake?  Is this a dream?

You look back at your car.  It is not in sight–there is no car.  Looking down, you see there is hardly a path.  It’s all overgrown.

A woman’s voice calls to you.  It’s a song–so very sad.  You’ve heard this lament before.  Nothing good can come of this, you’re thinking.  Nothing good.

It’s never good when you’re alone–in the woods when the sun begins to set.

Our Appeal To The Great Spirit

AppealGreatSpirit

[Source: Google Search]

It was the icon of our school.

It stood in the large foyer of the Owego Free Academy high school.

The title of this equestrian sculpture is Appeal to the Great Spirit.  The artist was Cyrus Dallin and it dates from 1909.  The original bronze statue is at the entrance of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  A small version rested on a table in the Oval Office of President Clinton.

My classmates and I were lucky to see this amazing piece of art everyday as we moved about the building near the main office and entrance.  I believe it stood in the old school (now a county office building) before it was moved to the front lobby of our high school.  It was never vandalized (to my knowledge), but more than once, some student would stick a cigarette between the fingers of the Native American as he sits upon his horse.  The Marlboro never lasted long there–a teacher or administrator would remove it.

But, somewhere in the minds of the students was the question: Why is he making a plea?  What does he ask for?

I recall having to spend a few minutes in the lobby alone with the statue sometime between the years 1961-1965.  I leaned against the wall and stared at the figure.  I felt I knew what the man on the horse was seeking.

As a boy growing up in Owego, NY, I collected arrowheads and sinker stones along the banks of the Susquehanna River.  The town is steeped in the history of the natives who lived on the site, undisturbed, until the late 18th century.

I pulled down my copy of the 1965 Tom-Tom yearbook.  I don’t find the Appeal; the cover is a stylistic “Indian” printed in white on burgundy.  But, I sensed his presence.

Other yearbooks in other years used the figure on the cover.

I look at the brochure inviting me to the 50th reunion of the Class of ’65.  There is the statue.

I think back on the years we walked past the statue dozens of times a day–on our way to gym, the office, the nurse–the front door.  The ‘message’ of the figure is unmistakable.  A young Native American in full-feathered headdress has his arms out stretched.  He is asking his god, his Great Spirit, for something.  Is he asking for forgiveness?  Is he pleading for a cause that he and his people would eventually lose?

As I leaned against the wall that afternoon, I wondered what his plea meant for us.  I didn’t know the answer then, but I think I have an answer now.

I stare at a downloaded image of Dallin’s work.  I think of four years among my classmates, my girlfriends and my teachers.  I think of a warm day, a June afternoon, in 1965.  Closing my eyes, I can see hundreds of people, parents and recent graduates walking past the statue.  We’ve just walked across the stage and received our diplomas.  For most of us, passing the figure on the horse would be the final time we would have an opportunity to look at his pleading arms.

Some of us would go off to war and lose our lives.  A few would come home from the war and lose their lives.  Many would move away, never to return to Owego.  Many would go off to a college and perhaps return–perhaps not.  And, many would stay in Owego and marry and have children and take their kids to football games and attend reunions.

A few would pass away from illnesses that we never knew much about, or even heard of, when we sat in our classrooms–those many years ago.

I can only speak for myself.  My answer to what the young man is appealing for is clear.  He, as our symbol, is asking the Great Spirit for a kind of guidance.  We didn’t know it when we left the building that day in June, but deep inside, we were scared.  We were afraid of what the future held for us.  We wanted more guidance than the well-meaning speeches we had just heard.  On the outside, we felt we had “made it” and were now on our own to discover the secrets of life.  But, on the inside, we feared what we would find along the trail of years that lay before us.  We feared we would lose our way.  Some of us did.

There are statues and monuments to great explorers like Captain Cook, Robert Scott and Henry Hudson.  They were all going into the unknown–without accurate maps–not knowing what awaited them.  Aren’t we all deserving of a statue? We all went “where no man has ever gone before”, and we did it without a starship.

Yes, the figure on the horse was our icon but he was also our Ultimate Class Speaker.  He had absorbed our hopes and fears for four years and now he was asking his (and our) Great Spirit for a guide to carry us from that day to this day.

Now we can say we “made it”.

On September 12, I will sit down at a dinner and look around the room at my classmates, now in their late 60’s.  I’ll see familiar faces of friends I’ve never lost touch with.  I will see faces of those I haven’t seen since the last reunion I attended in 2000.  I’ll see people I haven’t seen in fifty years.  And, I’ll see the empty seats of those who are no longer with us…there will always be a place at our reunion dinners for those who swirl among us in our memories only. Those of us who carry on with our lives are left with fleeting moments and stories to tell.  This is the double-edged reward for a long life.

Gary sitting behind me in homeroom.  Doug and Donny and David.  Nancy and Glen and Keith.  Too many to mention…too many to forget.  Too many.  Too soon.

We have followed our individual paths for over half a century.  Countless appeals have been made by each one of us, and countless more will find their way to whatever Great Spirit we choose to speak.

Let us raise our glasses…

OFA65 SeniorsSketch

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days…

                                                     –Mary Hopkin

 

 

 

Unexpected Memories

DennyinOwego with Camera

Seventeen years ago today, my older brother Denny, passed away.  It was not a sudden unexpected death but a slow decline with cancer.  His family misses him terribly.  My brother, Dan and I miss him.  I think about him a great deal.

We were a family of four boys.  Denny was the second oldest, born in 1942, he was a five-year-old when my mother brought me home, wrapped in blankets…a few days old.  The 1990’s were a bad year for our family.  I lost Chris, the eldest in ’95 and then Denny in ’98.  Now, only Dan, the third born and I are all that remains of that interesting family that lived on the corner in Owego.

Everyone who has siblings is aware that each child has a distinct personality of his or her own.  That was certainly true of the Egans.  Chris was always the science guy.  Too many pens in his pocket.  Too many rocks or fossils filling his pockets.  He went on into academia.  Dan, as a teenager, was into cars and model rockets.  I spent most of my energy in a world of dreams and fantasies of writing while struggling to keep up with being like Chris.

Denny was different.  He was the quiet one.  He didn’t like to be the center of attention, but when you spoke with him, he had a sharp wit and sensitivity that most people lacked.  To my knowledge, he never got into a fight or did anything destructive.  As an older teenager, he befriended a guy named Bob.  We all knew that Bob was gay (or queer as we would have put it then).  Denny knew it.  But my brother was probably the only friend Bob ever had.

There was an introspective nature about Denny that set him apart from the rest of us.  He loved baseball and he followed the Mets from New York to Houston when he was transferred by his company, Shell Oil.  He named his son after Tom Seaver.  He would spend hours in his room playing a board game that involved shaking dice in a can to determine the way a play would go.  I recall the game was called APBA baseball.  There’s probably a video version of it around now.  But I can still hear the rattle of those dice in the can to this day.  In fact, every time dice are thrown, I think of Denny.

It’s an unexpected memory.

He kept meticulous records of players and teams in a smart neat notebook.  He wrote the stats in a perfect format.

It’s no wonder he went on to become an accountant.

Denny never made a big deal of being a Catholic as I recall.  He was an altar boy, as we all were.  But he kept his God to himself.  He was like me in one way, however.  He seemed always conscious of death; it held a morbid and fearful power over him.  There was a story that one of his childhood friends died as a young teen.  The funeral was held at the family’s house.  I think I remember Denny telling me that the boy’s mother pushed him forward to the casket and made him kiss the boy’s forehead.

Maybe this event didn’t really happen.  In later years, my mother always denied such a thing happened, but I still wonder…

Maybe it was an unexpected memory.

Denny was also the only one of our family who saw two ghosts in our house.  The details aren’t important here.  But, over the years, I asked him about those sightings and he never wavered in his description of what he saw.  He believed it.

When Denny got sick, he was fully aware of what his situation was.  On the phone, a few months after his diagnosis, I asked him how he felt about things.  He answered:

“I know things don’t look good for me.”

I was amazed at his calm attitude.  Me, I was in tears nearly every day until I got the dreaded phone call on that dreaded day in June of 1998.

Just yesterday I picked up a sachet of balsam that is a common tourist item in the Adirondacks.  I put it to my nose and the balsam scent filled my mind of memories of camping as a family here in the Park…in the long ago days of the 1950’s.  I never think of Denny as a camper, but as a child, he loved the sand and the swimming and that balsam odor that permeated the summer forest of Golden Beach and Eighth Lake Campgrounds.

I have that sack of balsam beside me now.  I can smell the 1950’s, my cot, our tent, Chris’ canoe, and the sand on my feet.

Oddly enough, I smell a memory of Denny…the demons he carried around inside himself for decades…and I think he would love to sit with me on a beach once again.  We would tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.

Strange how powerful an unexpected memory can be.

Rest in Peace, Denny, God knows you deserve it.

1stBirchtree

 

 

Digging A Grave On A Beautiful Spring Afternoon

I stood in the soft loam, nine inches below ground level, leaned against my shovel, and thought about death and insects.  This is not a difficult thing to do when you’re helping to dig a grave on a day in May when the gnats and flies are biting ankles and arms.  After all, it is the Adirondacks.

Life is hard up here in the North Country.  The temperature can flirt with -40 F or the high for three days straight can be -9 F.  Yet, despite the cold that causes a finger to turn black and be amputated by a surgeon, the little annoying insects survive.  I get the science here.  They winterize themselves by simply not freezing, or if they do, some sort of chemical prevents lethal cell damage.  So, what seems to spend months in a state of near-death, merely needs a few days of warmth to emerge and find an unprotected patch of skin to bite and suck the blood (and they do).

Humans are different.  We don’t possess these uncanny abilities to stay alive when death is all around.  And, the tragic irony goes further.  Someone who was alive and breathing on a Friday afternoon, can be as dead as dead can be on Sunday morning.

Which brings us to cemeteries.  Many of my readers know that I am a volunteer photographer for an online group (something like Ancestry, but free).  I spend a fair amount of time roaming the forgotten, lonely country cemeteries in and around Franklin County.  I don’t find my fascination with cemeteries morbid in any way.  Indeed, I find them endlessly interesting.  I learn about local history, admire old headstone carvings, copy heartbreaking epitaphs and just sit and wonder about the lives that are behind the names on the stones.  I was roaming a large cemetery near Malone when a pickup truck stopped beside me.

“Genealogy stuff?” The driver asked.

“Kind of,” I replied.  These were two cemetery workers beginning on the spring burials.  I was thinking quickly.

“Do you dig all the graves with a backhoe?” I asked.

“Almost all,” the driver said.

“So you dig some by hand?”

“Well, this guy next to me is heading up to Brasher Falls.  He’s gonna dig one by hand.”

“Can I help him?” I asked.

“I’m sure he’d love an extra hand.”  He then gave me directions.

Half an hour later, I’m waiting at this particular cemetery when the young man pulls up in another truck.

“I’ll bet you never thought I show up,” I asked as I approached him.

“Oh, you.  I forgot.  Guess I didn’t think you were serious.”

He extended his hand. “Ray,” he said.

“Pat.”

So, I watched as he measured.  I watched as he cut the sod into slabs.  I watched as he spread out a tarp to hold the sod pieces until after the burial the next day.

I stopped watching and I picked out a shovel from his truck and began to dig.

I thought of many things.  The vast majority of human burials for thousands of years, were hand-dug.  I don’t know when the backhoe came on the scene, but digging a grave by hand will soon become a forgotten act of loving labor.

That’s correct.  I think about my taking a small role in preparing a hole for another human to be laid to rest is an ennobling act of a high order.  A guy on a machine is very different from a simple soul with a shovel and a blister.  While I dug, I made some quick mental calculations.  The grave was 8′ x 4′ x 6′.  That amounts to 192 cubic feet of earth that has to be moved.

I glanced at the sun.  It was getting low in the west.  We were about 65 miles from home.

“I won’t be able to help much longer,” I said.  I also had just lifted a sod piece to the tarp.  It must have weighed 40 pounds.  My back surgeon would have slapped me until my ears bled.

After another thirty minutes, I had enough.  Enough of moving soil and scratching insect bites on my shins.  I put the shovel back into his truck, gave him a cold bottle of water I purchased on the way, and said thanks and good-bye.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have finished the job with him.  I wanted to shave the sides and make everything just right to receive the old woman whose funeral was the next day.  I wanted it to be right for her.  I had no idea who she was, but this was going to be her final home…it had to be right.  But, I left that to  Ray.

I have no illusions about how hard it can be for many people to think about graveyards.  I’ve watched most of my family buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Owego, NY.  I’ve stood in the chilly rain and watched a broken-hearted family inter their mother.  It went well beyond the definition of sad.

I recently visited the grave of a former student of mine who was murdered by her husband.  I stood and reflected on her sitting in my classroom thirty years ago and smiling at my goofy jokes.

In a few weeks, I shall stand over the graves of my Irish relatives in a sea-side graveyard in Inishcrone, County Sligo.

As we drove along the country roads, I thought about the irony of life.  The insects “die” a temporary death during the deep winter, only to reemerge as hungry and voracious as ever.   An old woman lives in a hospice, in her home, wherever, and dies when the warmth of spring arrives.

One departs while one arrives.

It’s one of life’s exchanges.  I suppose it’s fair.

It doesn’t really matter.  There’s nothing at all we can do about it.  We can curse and scratch at the newly reborn insects…and we can cry at the departure of person.

I can’t spot any glitches in this.  If you can, you’re a better, more perceptive person than I.  For even the insect who comes back after sub-zero temperatures, must die at the end of the summer anyway.

No matter how you look at it, it’s a one-way street for every living thing.

diggine