“Caleb, if I’m reading this map right, the house should be in the valley on the other side of this ridge.”
The early autumn air was brisk and the wind prickled goosebumps on any exposed skin.
“Let me see, Ruth.” Caleb looked at the map and returned it to his sister. From his pocket, he took the copy of the information from the plat book and the directions the old-timer had given them in town.
“The path should be below us,” he said and started down the slope.
Ruth followed. Both slipped and slid down the slope, sometimes holding onto the pines to check their descent, until they arrived at the valley floor. The mountain’s arms, the ridges cradling the valley, and the trees blocked the sun. The sky was but a ribbon of blue. Caleb and Ruth were bathed in twilight.
Ruth looked around. “It’s kind of spooky down here. How far do we have to go?”
“A couple miles. We’d better get a move on it.”
“Why are we doing this? You never mentioned this until Mom died.”
“So why am I here?”
“Because you’re all the family I have.”
Caleb took off and Ruth followed.
The trees were old, their trunks broad, their limbs gnarled. Leaves were turning from green to yellow, crimson, and brown. In another month or two, they’d all be on the ground, and the trees would be naked skeletons. And come spring, there might be somewhere the sap would no longer flow, winter’s icy hand having taken away the life.
Caleb had no recollections of the forest, only those vague shadow-memories of the house, and the knowledge that his mother never talked about it. Ever. Neither did he have any memory of his father; his mother never talked about him, either. He only knew Ruth’s father. When he looked in the mirror, he saw nothing of his mother. He could only assume he was looking at some semblance of his father.
Even though she never spoke of him, Caleb had a feeling his mother had loved him at some point. For he’d often caught her looking at him, and the look was soft and tender.
But his mother was gone now, and Caleb was free to explore his past. That was why he was in the forgotten valley searching for a house lingering on the edge of memory.
“I envy you, Ruth.”
“Because there are no secrets.”
She nodded her head. After a time, she said, “Must be tough. Not knowing.”
“Yeah. It’s like not knowing who I am.”
“How’s finding this house going to change anything?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it will change anything.”
“Well, I hope you will still be you.”
Caleb smiled and put his arm around her, giving her a sideways hug.
“Seriously, Caleb, what will knowing the past do? It can’t change anything. What is, is.”
“I have to see. I have to find out what I can. It’s like there’s this big hole. It’s like those old maps where the western United States or the middle of Africa was left blank. There’s a blank spot in my life. I need to fill it in.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know that feeling. I just hope you don’t change.”
“But you don’t know that. What if you learn something really awful? Something you can’t live with,” Ruth said.
Caleb hadn’t thought of that. So intently was he focused on knowing, he’d never thought he wouldn’t want to know--that he might be sorry he’d dug up the past.
“You know what Gram always said.”
“Yeah. You look long enough, you’ll find a horse thief, and who wants to know that?” Ruth said, giggling.
“The difference is I have to know.”
“For your sake, I hope what you find is good.”
Caleb never thought it would be bad. He’d always assumed it would be good. What if it wasn’t? What if, as Ruth was saying, it was something he didn’t want to know? Something his mother had protected him from for his own good?
The narrow valley floor was darker now. The sun was beginning its descent towards evening and then the night. Ruth took out a flashlight from her backpack. It made little impact on the dusky gloom.
“It needs to get darker before the light can make a difference.”
The path rounded the end of the mountain’s arm. They were entering the valley where, according to the plat book and the map, the house should be.
This valley was wider and the light was brighter here. Caleb thought of the psalm with its valley of the shadow of death. Answers. Soon. He’d have them soon.
The valley was something like a box canyon. Up against the mountain was a grove of trees. Caleb looked around, but there was no sign of a house anywhere.
Ruth pointed. “Must be in those trees.”
They walked to the grove and entered it. In the center, Caleb found stones, barely visible, laid out in a square. There lay what was left of a fading memory. In the silence of the stones, lay his answers.
“No,” he whispered, and ran to where the house had been. Caleb turned in circles, arms outstretched, as if to touch what was no more, then fell to his knees.
Ruth kneeled next to him and put her arm around him.
He looked at her, his eyes wet. “Now I’ll never know.”
“There’s nothing here for you. Maybe there never was.” After a time, she said, “Let’s go home.”
Written by: CW Hawes
Photograph by: Samuel Zeller