The Stranger Who Changed My Life: Merlin and His Slackline

Edwin FotheringhamThe man is doing something on his lawn that I don’t understand. As I pass, he’s cleaning a long

Edwin FotheringhamThe man is doing something on his lawn that I don’t understand.

As I pass, he’s cleaning a long canvas strap with a dull blade, as if he’s sharpening it. The strap is suspended, stretched between two trees. He nods at me, smiles from under his cowboy hat. I used to live in this neighborhood in Dallas, on this very street. But I don’t remember him. His beard is white, long, pointed. The red in his cheeks matches the red in his tie-dyed T-shirt. I nod and smile back, but then continue down the street, marveling at the new houses. When I return to the corner, the man is standing on the strap suspended between the trees. He’s walking, bouncing. In the time it took me to wander the length of the block, he’s pulled two thick crash pads onto the grass, shed his moccasins, and hopped up. As he bounces off I ask him how long he’s been tightrope-walking.

“Not a tightrope.” He shakes a finger. “A slackline, girl. Since October.  I can’t do much yet. Want to try?”

“I have the wrong shoes on.”

“Naw, girl. People do this in anything.”

I’m scared of things that are unstable, narrow. All my life, I’ve tried to avoid them. But I’m in my 40s. Time itself is narrowing in front of me. I find myself suddenly kicking off my clogs, standing in my socks. The stranger takes the dull spatula and cleans the dirt from the line. I ask his name.


He explains that I should get my right foot up first. I do. The strap, only an inch or so wide, starts shaking wildly.

“Just your nerves, girl. Pay no heed. Hop the other foot up. I’ll hold you. Keep your eyes straight ahead, don’t look down. When you think you’re going to fall, just bend your knees.”

I hold fast to his shoulders. He’s steady and warm, so comforting that when I’ve finally got two feet on the line, I can’t bring myself to let go. The strap is still vibrating, and I don’t see how I’ll … then I remember. Look straight ahead. If you think you’re going to fall, bend your knees.

I feel it. That strange moment when you forget yourself, forget that there’s anything at all unlikely about meeting a man in a cowboy hat and suspending yourself above his grass. It’s only for a few seconds. But I let go.

I grab Merlin, laughing, and hop off:

“You are a magician.”

“A poet too. Want to hear?

What are you afraid of?
That you won’t have enough money?
Or enough food?
Are you afraid you’re going to die?
Or that you won’t live?
Are you afraid you are going to fall?
And won’t get up again?
Maybe you’re afraid of everything, then?
Everything there is?”

“Of falling,” I say.

“But I told you what to do.”

Bend your knees. It’s not a tightrope. It’s a slackline.

I have never forgotten: Embrace the strange shaking. It is not the rope. It is you.

Mylène Dressler’s most recent novel is The Floodmakers.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest