On a quiet mountain trail is a little path that steals off down a slope and into the brush. It’s less of a path than it is a rabbit trail, but that’s almost the same thing in this context. Perhaps it is just an idea of a path that catches my attention when I pass by on my infrequent treks into this particular forest. When one happens upon it, they don’t stop. Most never even see it; those that do give a curious glance and continue on to their destination. But for me, it is the destination, or rather the beginning of a new journey.
Once my feet press into the soft, undisturbed soil under the layer of leafy decay, it’s like a memory flowing back into my mush-mind – the part of my brain that forgets all the little things that I didn’t think were worth remembering at the time. But now the feeling wells up and I suddenly think this is where I was supposed to be all along.
I feel a tremor rise up from ground like a lover’s anticipation. It passes through the soles of my worn boots and, now unimpeded, into my body where it matches my frequency. If we have souls, this is what it sounds like – a rhythm beyond tempo, a whisper of a hum that is inseparable from the corporeal but also bleeds out into the earth. The roots are long and tangled, indistinguishable from the hemlock next to me or the other soul that passed by when the sun was high overhead hours ago. For a moment, I stand still and silent, imagining I can actually hear this invisible world of roots and souls. My arms hang heavy, my fingers dangle lightly. I don’t mean to, but I can feel myself reaching them downward, longing to feel what my feet know. The next time I find myself on this path, this hidden rabbit trail, I may lie prone and take it all in. Today, though, there is a calling at the end of the path that enlivens my senses beyond all I can take, and so I’ll save myself for that moment and keep moving.
The path trickles down a gentle slope, enclosed in a sheath of all shades of green from the pale hint as in a watermelon’s rind to the rich, deep camouflage of the huntress’s cloak. It winds away out of sight and I’ve soon forgotten the well-trod trail I skimmed off just moments ago. Deeper I go, losing the light of the forest’s edge above me. The trees stretch and yearn for the last rays of the day’s gathered light, reaching up above the tired canopy that skirts the start of the path. I wind downward away from the unnatural sounds of metal and glass and things mechanical, and the passage behind me seems to close gently, hiding me or maybe itself from the world outside.
I must endure the thorny vines that try to tickle my cheek as I duck under branch and clamber over fallen tree. But the sure-footed step light and earnest over the hidden path knowing what lies at its end. I am one of the sure-footed. Not because of any natural adeptness, but only because I have to be if I’m to reach the end of the path before the half-light of forest twilight hides the world under a silvery veil.
A ray of light falls at my feet from the broadening gaps in the green conifers. The ray becomes a trail itself as my eyes follow it upward, long and shallow, to where it finds friends converging at the golden-yellow orb just kissing the horizon. The redness that is beginning to bleed into the ever-watchful eye of the heavens reminds me to step a little more quickly before it drifts to a slumber in this half-world and illuminates the next.
The path makes a final turn and jaunts down a tight slope, and now I see it through the thinning forest edge—a clearing, wide and shaped like a shallow bowl. I come to the opening and look out over the knee-high field of wild grass, smooth and flowing in the light breeze that falls off the cooling ridge surrounding the bowl. It’s always knee-high, it seems, and I can’t help but wonder who’s received the good fortune of keeping this secluded and deserted homestead. It’s never freshly mown, but I know how the forest creeps, longing to close any gap that defies her will, and so someone must own the duty of keeping the wall of pines, hemlocks, and oaks at bay.
My eyes scan the field from end to end before coming back to a point that spirals out from one edge of the clearing and forms a little hiding place. Behind that hideout is the reason for my trek. I take one last look at the sun making its final show just before dipping behind the rim of the bowl. A shadow marches forward and overtakes me and brings with it a cooling whisper that lifts the dampness off my brow. What’s left of the light reflecting off the sky won’t last long in these hills, so I set my path on the straight, a direct line to the point of trees standing out in the ocean of grass.
I can barely see it now in the fading daylight as I round the point and enter another little hollow, a child of the open field behind me. In the deepening shadows is a fallen form, a burnt out husk blackened by the fire that bathed it in orange flames many years ago. Kudzu creeps over the edges of the old cabin’s foundation and what remains of a wall of now haphazardly stacked timbers, tangling green into black and brown. Just under the song of the crickets and frogs that come out now to visit in the twilight, I swear I can hear the tenacious vine shuffle around bends and stealthily squeeze into the cracks of the stacked stone.
I watch now from the edge of the broken porch, patiently waiting for the alchemy of the heavens to be revealed as golden sun is transmuted into silver moon. Evening comes, and an imagined delineation of rooms seems to rise up from the wasted floor. I can guess this is where the kitchen was, and this is where the bedroom used to be, but just thinking so turns the guess magically into a memory. Further on, this is where the child’s room was filled with laughter. In the almost-night, even in my mind’s eye I only envision the sight in near black and white, but my memory tells me that this room was the most colorful and joyful of all the rooms of the cabin.
Now in the dark, the walls seem to pick themselves up with repair and become neatly stacked the way they were so many years ago. The char of the fire is washed away and beams are a satisfying wood color again. The floor sweeps itself clean of the detritus built up of the deposits the forest made into the unroofed house. The rooms are formed again as I remember them, even though the night breeze whispers through and moonlight peeks between the trees casting shadows through the walls I only imagine. But I know they are there. If I focus hard enough, I can run my fingers along the edges of the joins and feel every notch of the blade that hewed and debarked them.
In a closet in the cabin, tucked away in the back corner of a room long forgotten, is a door in the floor. The rug that covered it, keeping it hidden from inquisitive eyes, has long rotted away with only a few old strands matted and clumped near the corners. The door has been lifted up as if waiting for me. Whether by a tempest’s howl in the night or by the curious hands of a trespasser, the door has been thrust open, yawning wide and dark. But it matters not that it has been disturbed; it is a door and it must be opened, for what good is a door if it is to stay shut? The reason for hiding is past and it is only of concern to me as a remembrance.
I peer into the murky black opening, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I know what’s under, what’s beneath the well planned floor of this old cabin because I’ve been down the hole before. But the object of my interest is near the surface – I need but reach in and lift it out – and so I’m only waiting for a bit of clarity in the dark to spy what I’m looking for. It only takes a moment, and then it’s there. A glint of metal marks one corner that I can just get my fingers around. The leather strap would have made it easier, but that is long fallen away; cycles of day and night, winter and summer, rain and the intense Southern sun have all taken their toll.
I lay the tin box on the floor and try the lid. The old lock has rusted through and the top takes little prying anymore before it releases. Had it not, I would be content to look fondly on the box and remember the contents, counting each item out one by one until I had satisfied myself that my memory was still as intact as the box – a little rusty but still able to be pried open.
Now comes the part I hate. Everything to this point has been so serene, so peaceful. I look upon the open box, take a deep breath and let it out, and then unceremoniously tip the contents out across the floor, watching papers scatter and coins roll to a spinning stop. All the photos are right side up because I always make sure to put them away just for this. It’s easier this way – easier than trying to shuffle through and lift out each memento. My dexterity isn’t what it was, and grabbing clumsily at such delicate memories breaks my heart. This way is easier.
The coins are insignificant to my interests tonight, and the Confederate Greybacks are worthless now so I brush them aside. I want the pictures. I want to look on Margaret’s and Caroline’s faces while the moon is high, and remember them as they were, before the fire replaced the sweet images I could once conjure without hesitation with a flaming nightmare.
They don’t visit the cabin anymore, and it is just as well. I saw the pain then and I see it now. Though that night has slipped away into recesses of no one’s mind, they still bear witness. This is why I come for the photographs; because that was a time before they knew what would come, and the innocence shows through the aging paper in a way that their empyrean faces can’t conceal. The pictures know no suffering, and the truth of happiness in that moment is laid bare, uncorrupted by the Now.
I skim through a few images – there aren’t a lot as we didn’t have the money for too many – and soon come across the one that captures it all. Me, my wife Margaret, and my daughter Caroline, in front of the old homestead, shaded by an old maple that is no more. Through the seriousness of the occasion of freezing a memory in time, Margaret has her characteristic knowing smirk, and Caroline seems to be just learning it. A glimmer of amusement that said, I know what this is all about, so let’s show everyone who we really are not. This is after things got hard, but before the sorrow.
After the fall, but before deliverance.
I press my hand to the picture, trying to absorb some of that moment. The moonlight passes through and I can still make out the image of Margaret and Caroline in the dappled shade of the maple that stands like a sentinel over our home. I can see it, and now I feel it. I close my eyes and the ruffles of the ladies’ dresses shift easily under my fingertips, and each timber of the cabin has a roughness that is no longer my imagination. A little more effort, and I am transported back to that time, to that single moment in time where my memory transforms into more than ethereal imaginings. It is real, and now I’m standing once again next to my wife and child on that warm summer day. Everything comes back to me in that moment and I’m made whole again.
Now, only now can I tell you how I came to be here.
Check back next week for Part Two of The End of The Path.
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