Avoiding the logging roads with their cavernous ruts and knee deep muck seemed like a good idea. The deer trails and moose highways were no improvement … and I knew that because I’d just slogged seven miles, straight out.
It felt like more, probably was. The GPS chirped and burped. With the ups and downs and heavy growth, there was no way I could know for sure.
The burn hadn’t hit yet—that was for the downhill when my shins would scream for mercy.
You need to stay out of trouble. I can’t always be there to bail you out. Yadda yadda.
Damn him and his protectiveness.
So I ran. Fast. Until my lungs shriveled in the frigid air.
There was a dip up ahead. If I’d calculated it right, I’d be near enough. With a glance at my watch, I shuffled around a low hanging pine and dropped along a dry wash, careful of rolling the larger bits of glacial aggregate.
If I so much as twisted an ankle, I’d never hear the end of it.
Like pealing bells, the rush of water over rocks drew me forward. The creek—or ‘crick’ as they called it in these parts—sliced through a stand of old growth, the bottom land kept clear from the dense overhead canopy.
I smiled as I slid the last few feet, not much caring about getting more mud on me. My tights were coated clear to the knees—I’d hardly notice more on my ass. My favorite spot lay ahead, an ‘ess’ curve littered with leaves and deadfall. Usually by now it’d be hip deep in snow, but not this year. For that I gave a small blessing.
It meant he would be here. At least I hoped so.
Crouching at the water’s edge, I let the icy swish whorl about my hands, savoring the solitude, yet wishing it away. Trees on the upper ridge swayed and creaked in a symphony of snare drums. Down here, sheltered, the silence was almost stentorian.
I felt his approach, my heart skipping a beat, two. It had been so long.
“You came.” The voice echoed off to my right and behind me. He must have come from the cabin—the cabin I’d yet to see.
Nodding, I continued to scrub at my hands, knowing full well I’d regret the needles sluicing along the nerve endings.
Sometimes I felt unclean. Or maybe … unworthy. Introspection wasn’t my strong suit.
Trying to mask the unholy pleasure his presence brought me, I rose and said simply, “Jacob?” with an up-tilt. As if I trysted with anyone else in this back of beyond.
Turning, I watched with admiration as he advanced closer, his huge frame barely fitting in the narrow spaces between stands of birch and maple. He stopped just short of the flat pan on which I paused, awaiting his pleasure.
“Got somethin’ to show you.”
Moving off, Jacob angled downstream aways, not bothering to wait and see if I’d follow.
When had I not?
Aside from downed trees in the crook where floods had etched a new signature, the way was clear. Jacob moved with a strange rolling gait, a man used to negotiating rough terrain, the only hint to his infirmities a hitch to his shoulders. I let him stay ahead, a courtesy we both acknowledged, leaving it unremarked.
But eventually I came alongside, marching companionably, content to be near, to share the space denied…
“I brought my boy. Hope ya don’ mind.”
Hope and a frisson of pain raced down my spine. I choked out, “Not at all,” and truly meant it.
Jacob held out a hand and with a wink and a tilt of his chin he grasped the child’s hand, the gnarled fingers in a gentle flex, as I mirrored his movement and together we swung the boy up and back and the squeals echoed to the treetops.
The path narrowed, forcing us to twist and wriggle, keeping our precious package safely sandwiched between us. I looked up at Jacob. He was watching me, always watching me, sometimes with curiosity but not today.
Today it was wistful. I tasted his sadness. Shared it.
We climbed, the stream falling away to our left, the child now wrapped in Jacob’s arms, a burden so light it sank heavy on our hearts.
The obituary had been terse.
*Tavis J. Arnold, Master Sergeant, late of Winterville, ME, was killed in the line of duty… Predeceased by his wife of five years… Sadly missed by paternal grandfather, Jacob Arnold.*
There’d been few to mark his passing, no flags at half-staff, no memorial, just a shared memory and hope.
“You coming, girl?”
I smiled. He always called me ‘girl’. And Tavis was always ‘the boy’. It had ever been so in life, and now in death as well.
I scrambled up the slope and halted next to him as he crouched and peered into a jumble of roots and loose stone.
“The boy ‘n me found a den,” he pointed to a blank spot, an absence of light, “can you see it?”
Whispering, “Is it a … bear den?”
“Yee-up. We won’t disturb it. She’ll have young ‘uns most like.” He set the boy on the ground and murmured, “Ain’t that right, boy?”
Kneeling before the altar of our mutual despair and sadness, he patted my hand, seconds and minutes, time itself settling like a mantle.
“I cain’t make it go back, can I girl?”
“No, Jacob,” my voice hitching, “you can’t.”
“Well then, we make the best of it.” He stood and extended his hand, this time to help me up off the damp ground.
Facing him, I said, “I could carry him … the boy … for a while. If it’s alright.”
“That would be right nice.” He glanced at the darkening sky, taking its measure, then handed me a gossamer gift.
Retracing our steps to where he’d graced me with his strength and resolve, we paused to go our separate ways. He leaned down and whispered a breath along my cheek.
“Should I come alone next time, girl?”
I pressed my palms on my womb and murmured, “No, not alone, Jacob.”
Listening as my heartbeat measured out the old man’s steps, I finally yielded and began the long run home.
I prayed someone would be there.
I needed to empty my soul of tears.