This story is by David Elderton and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Are you kidding me, Dad? I was as stealthy as a ninja. How did you know I was here?”
He shifted his view from the shimmering lake to me and smiled.
“True, you were quieter than a floating feather.”
“Vibrations. Subtle, and most people would miss it, but I’m not most people, son. I knew it was you. Anyone else would’ve yelled from the house or clomped down the pier like a clumsy three-legged elephant, but not you. You’ve been practicing your ninja skills since you were six and they are superb.” Dad put his hands together like the kung fu master from a tv show we watched in the 1970s and quoted the character’s signature line; “You have learned well, grasshoppa.”
“That’s pretty good, Dad. For a second, I was six, sitting in the family room watching Kung Fu on our black-and-white tv.”
“Yes, fun times. What brings you here? Everything ok?”
“Everything’s fine. I just wanted to spend time with you.” I rested his shoulder and recalled the first time I realized my father was aging. Prior to that, he seemed ageless, but now… his mass was dwindling, his sinewy muscles softer. The years, like relentless waves crashing against a rock, had accumulated on him. He displayed a discernible weariness that wasn’t there on my last visit. An unexpected thought occurred; this may be the last time I see my father. I prayed my expression didn’t convey my observations.
“Son, there’s a busy sunset starting, and I don’t want to miss it. Park it.”
He nodded toward the second recently painted Adirondack chair. I took my seat and settled into the contoured, wooden slatted comfort. We built these chairs together forty years ago, when I was fifteen. Every time I sat in it, the scent of cut pine filled my nostrils like it did in Dad’s workshop. His chair was flawless, the result of a master builder, but the chair built by his impatient apprentice, not so much. He supervised my efforts, but he kept his distance so I could learn. It turned out okay, but it rocked back and forth. Despite the defects, dad always sat in my chair.
I handed him an ice-cold bottle of beer that wasn’t a twist-off cap to see if he still carried it. A wry smile crinkled at the corner of his mouth because he knew I was testing him. Dad reached behind his hip and withdrew the multi-tool I gave him ten years earlier for his 75th birthday. He flicked out the bottle-cap opener from amongst the myriad of tools with nimble dexterity and removed the cap effortlessly. Then he reached out his hand toward me. I sighed. I’d forgotten my own multi-tool. “How did you know?”
“I’m a father. I know things.”
He opened mine, and we clinked bottles, took a sip, and cast our gaze across the mirrored lake toward the setting sun. My parents sat in these chairs and shared countless sunsets together. Mom passed away some twenty years ago, but I sense her joyful spirit every time I’m here.
When dad took a swig of beer, I said in a little boy voice, “Daddy, tell me a story.” He spewed out his beer, which made me snort Coors Light out of my nose.
We laughed as we wiped ourselves off.
“Do you mean the legend story, son?”
“Yes, I love how you tell it. Nobody paints the story canvas like you, and sunset is the perfect time.”
“Well, that’s true.” Dad cleared his throat. “Ok, the legend of Sunset Lake. Once, a warrior princess, the most beautiful woman of the Ten Tribes, lived here. To win her hand, men fought amongst themselves until a champion emerged. Then he challenged the princess to a duel because she refused to give up her freedom. If she lost, she became his wife, but if she defeated him,” He locked eyes with me and slashed a finger across his throat, “It was curtains.”
“Yes, curtains. Means she killed him. Dead.”
“Yes, I got that. She must’ve been an extraordinary woman.”
“Oh, she was, but facing her was suicide because her skill was unequaled. The duels always began at sunset.” Dad began pantomiming the fight, playing both parts. “This contest was no different. In an instant, her blade was at the challenger’s throat. Everyone else begged for mercy at that point, but not this man. He said, ‘There is no sweeter death than to die by your hand.’ The princess hesitated and allowed herself to gaze upon the young man. Impressed by how calm and handsome he was, she granted him his life. She removed her battle-mask, confirming her beauty was indeed worth dying for. He didn’t win her hand; she gave it to him. You can’t force a woman to do something against her will. Who knew?”
“That part of the story can teach a lesson to all men.”
“Probably, but darned if I know what it is.” He shrugged his shoulders in mock confusion. It reminded me of where my unique sense of humor originated.
“They married before the sunset ended and enjoyed a long, happy life together. Their legendary love enchanted the lake water and compels couples to marry. What happened after you brought your girlfriend here?”
“We got married.” I raised my beer to toast the lake. “To legendary love.”
“That’s not the real legend, though, son.”
I stopped mid-sip. “It’s not?”
“Nope. In their entire time together, they never had a single argument. That’s the true legend.”
“Can you blame the guy? She’d kill him!”
We laughed again until it devolved into silence.
Long, languid minutes elapsed as we shared the impending sunset. Cicadas, bullfrogs, and birds composed a peaceful symphony in the picturesque surroundings. Ripple rings dotted the surface as fish snatched unwary insects. Meanwhile, curious bluegills sporadically jumped out of the water to see how the dry side lived. The slight breeze wafting across the water carried the clean, earthy scent of pine and cedar. I inhaled deeply and held it to make sure I captured the full bouquet of nature’s unfiltered aroma.
I hesitated to break the tranquil silence, but I wanted to relate an epiphany experience. “Dad, I think I understand you better now.”
“That’s music to my ears, son. What happened?”
“A while ago, I took the family camping in a national forest. After settling the kids, I sat alone and observed… everything. I took it all in, and…”
“You shifted from detached observer to an active participant in that moment.”
“That’s exactly what happened. Now I understand why you spent so much time sitting in the backyard, gazing at the world. I wish I could recapture that feeling more often, though.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Dad sipped his beer while observing the glacial descent of the sun. “It doesn’t require a special place or a magnificent view. Just stop, look, and breathe. It may only be for a minute, but usually, that’s enough. And, if you can share it with someone you love,” he looked at me, “so much the better.”
We returned to the beckoning silence as an ordinary moment transformed into an exceptional one, simply because we were together.
When the sun appeared to enter the lake’s edge, Dad used to say it heated the water for the fish’s bedtime bath.
We watched in relaxed anticipation as the sun slowly disappeared, inch by inch, behind the horizon. The moment the last sliver of the golden orb ducked out of sight, we both took a deep breath, held it, then released it.
Life was grand.
It was the last sunset I ever shared with my father, but it’s forever etched in my memory.
Thirty years later, I’m where my dad was then; wife passed away, kids grown, the oldest ready to retire. I seize moments whenever I can because my last sunset looms ever closer. Sitting in the same Adirondack chair, anticipating another spectacular end of day, I pondered life’s mysteries when something caught my attention.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Subtle, but distinct vibrations.”
“Impressive, Dad, you still got it!”
Behind his smile was the same expression I must’ve worn when I last saw my dad on the pier. I smiled back.
With ninja mode disengaged, he plopped in the chair next to mine like a huge sack of warm spaghetti and handed me an ice-cold beer. I reached behind my hip for my father’s multi-tool and flipped out the bottle-cap opener.
“Dad, you don’t need that. They’re twist-off.”
“I know.” My mind flashed back to that last shared sunset and my eyes turned misty as I experienced a secret connection to my father when I pried off the cap with the same multi-tool he had used three decades ago. I clinked bottles with my youngest son. “Watch the sunset with me?”
“You got it, Dad.”
“…Son…have I ever told you the legend… about Sunset Lake?”