This story is by Paula Jean Reinbold and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He died alone, at the hand of the natural world he had so loved and tended. A neighbor who looked in on him from time to time found him in the creek bed in the woods. The autopsy cited broken ribs and punctured lung from the tumble down the bank into the creek, and hypothermic exposure from the early-spring night. But this story isn’t so much about my father as it is the transformation, with his passing, of the place he had made home for thirty-five years. Nothing seemed peculiar when I’d visited the previous summer. It was as though his passing swept away with it the lightness of life, and left behind a dark and heavy emptiness.
My parents were drawn to places shaded by trees and graced with water – a lake, a spring, a pond. Weekends during my childhood were spent at the lake, either on our boat or in a weekend vacation spot. The house where I grew up was near a creek. Part of it ran through deciduous woodland, and my dad had planted maples and pines in our yard.
My parents’ original intended retirement property was a small farm about twenty minutes from our house. Tenants would occupy it until my parents were ready to renovate and move in. The farm had both a creek running through it and a good-sized spring-fed pond. The spring burbled quietly in the middle of a sloping field and ran in an unassuming course straight to the pond. The pond’s outlet wended its way around a shale hill, wandering here and there beneath the shade of shrubs and trees, attracting many songbirds on its way to the creek. Witch hazel and dames rocket grew on gravelly islands. The third of the property on the far side was steep forested hillside – spruce, hemlock, pines, and hardwoods. Shrubby understory provided shelter and nest sites for cardinals. Vireos could be heard singing from the heights. I rented the place for a year or two in my early twenties, and my parents sold it shortly after I moved away.
The place where my parents actually did retire was on the woodsy side of a country circle. It, too, had a creek running through it. It also had an artesian well that became our source of household water for several years. But, that’s still a few years ahead.
By the time I reached high school age, my elder brother had already married and moved away. We had recently moved to a new town forty miles away for my mother’s new job, and my parents’ choice of retirement location had shifted. While living in the English Tudor home that my mother adored, my parents began looking at property where a smaller house would be more maintainable, and my father’s workday commute to our previous town would be shorter. Driving from our new city to the previous one, one day I called their attention to a For Sale sign along the side of the road. At the time, it seemed a pleasant combination of woods and a meadow, a creek, and a derelict apple orchard. My parents would build a house there during my college years.
Not one of us guessed it would become the cause of my father’s death, and a home to his sadness in years leading up to it.
The house they built in Newfield had a board and batten exterior, opaque-stained a dark brown color. They had wanted it to blend in naturally with the surrounding trunks of the trees. That does not account for their choice of dark interior. Dark walnut paneling. Dark brown linoleum flooring. Deep olive-green wall-to-wall carpeting. Dark wood cabinets, china hutch, and dining table. A dark brown and wrought iron café table in the kitchen. Avocado appliances. A dark-stained deck to the back. This darkness of décor was something new. I don’t know what prompted it.
Looking back, I wonder if it was the place itself. The location. Did it have a history of Native American lore? The seller had told us that he was part Native American. I don’t recall what, if anything, he had told us of the land and its history. When we moved in, it still possessed life. You could feel the energy of those of us who inhabited it.
My mother was a physically attractive woman, always well-groomed and attractively dressed. And she was smart. Intelligent men were drawn to her. Her manipulative side evidently was too subtle for them to notice, or maybe they didn’t care. Perhaps she hid her critical nature from them. Whatever the case, she had a history of charming her bosses and them falling for her.
A couple of years after moving into the Newfield house, I left college, and my father just wanted me to get a job, be self-supporting, and move out. My absence gave my mother the freedom for which she had bided her time, and she moved into an apartment in town. This left my father there alone.
Being gregarious and witty by nature, my father had many good friends, and became close with his neighbors. He dated other women – women who bore a physical resemblance to my mother, sometimes right down to the French twist hairdo of their naturally red hair. None led to marriage, nor even cohabitation. In our phone calls, he used to tell me that he wished he had a good woman living with him. I wished he did, too. It seemed that despite an active social life with his friends, an undercurrent of sadness flowed through the wellspring of his soul. A neighbor who looked in on him during his later years told me that sometimes he found my father asleep on his bed with a picture of my mother in front of him.
Tragically, the man my mother believed to be the one with whom she was meant to be suddenly passed away just weeks before he was to join her where she had moved down South. She still maintains a “shrine” to him in her home, and has had no interest in another, after nearly fifty years. After the man’s passing, she played my father like a yo-yo for years, inviting him to join her part-time in a new residence while ensnaring him in it financially. Meanwhile, he kept up the Newfield home and traveled back and forth between the two.
Somehow, over those years, the place grew heavier. Yet, on my rare visits it didn’t strike me as a place of utter sadness and desolation until after my father’s passing. He had fallen, unnoticed, down a creek bank, dying from his injuries and exposure over a chilly April night. Even with my brother and my grown children there to prepare the property for sale, it felt as though the place had become cloaked in a dark lens of sadness. Anything from the outside that reached the house and its wooded yard was bent into a focal point of despair. Even now, just thinking of my father and his life there is enervating. It drains positivity, leaving fatigue, nothingness, and longing.
It’s not just the house itself, but its place within one’s memory and mind holds such gloom that just thinking of it, a dark and weighty force tries to swirl one’s soul down a drain-hole of despair. The musty odor of mildew that never had been there before seems to infuse one’s mind with its rot, befouling the scent of life’s sweetness.
Never noticed when I’d lived there, nor when I’d visited, the windows now warped the sounds of traffic somehow heard through the woods and across the creek into a descending whoosh before fading away, as though they had leapt from a cliff, uttering a muted wail into a bottomless blackhole abyss as they passed.
Even the invisible birds in the treetops didn’t sing of sunny days or chirp a cheery refrain, but rather whined a dirge accompanying a descending eulogy to tragic lives now lost.
Was this the gloomy force of my father’s final loneliness? Was his solitary soul cloaking the home of his final years and passing? Was he warning others away or staking his claim? Or was it a dark spirit that had come with the forest? Perhaps it was a darkness of spirit that my parents had constructed through their own animosity.
Whatever the case, we shan’t know the cause. Just thinking of it drags one’s soul down like a lead-weight sinker to drown as the light fades into the distance, and I want none of it.