Elzie Barefield grew up in the Delta with my paternal grandparents. When I was 8 or 9, I spent a few summer days at his place on Little Rock’s outskirts. That first night, he said we needed to take a walk. Wouldn’t tell me where we were going or what we were doing. He had his shirt pocket packed with freshly cracked pecans, and he toted a persimmon limb and a jar of peanut butter. The sky looked like a black-gumbo field just beginning to sparkle with cotton. No moonlight much. Elzie wore an old carbide miner’s hat so we could see.
At the forest’s edge, he nestled a pecan-half into the peanut butter he had smeared at one end of the limb. “All right, gobbler,” he said. “Hold this out in front of you like you were fishing.” I took the rustic scepter and did as he instructed. A minute or so of silence and there they were: flying squirrels like living maps of Arkansas crisscrossing in air. The bat-like marvels zipped past my face and all around in the carbide glow. Eerie with their pale patagia (skin flaps used in gliding; Elzie taught me the word), the squirrels were mysterious. They were also friendly. Before I knew it, one had alighted on my limb. The strange creature’s eyes were big, its ears mouse-like, and its tail—both airfoil and air brake—flatter than a regular squirrel’s.
Later that night, back indoors, Elzie and I had a snack: crumbled cornbread in sweet milk, I believe it was. After we finished eating, the old man said, “Gobbler, I made something for you—carved and painted it myself.” He walked over to the washstand and fetched a handheld looking glass from the middle drawer. Elzie had whittled me a squirrel in flight—complete with a head, tiny feet and a tail that doubled as a handle—and painted it with house paint; then he had glued a mirror to the underside. The sculpture’s colors and shapes were a little off and all the better for that. “Funny thing to make for a rough-and-ready boy,” Elzie said, handing me the gift, “but I always think of a hand-mirror when I see a flying squirrel’s shape. I figure even little boys comb their hair once in a while.”
Alone in the den at bedtime, I moved my cot close to the night-light, lay down and stared into my new looking glass, trying different angles and distances. I've held on to that present, an object and a moment merged. Times I’m short on wonder, times I’m at a loss to locate myself, I break out the flying squirrel mirror, look in it and say patagium, patagium—a child’s magic word.