Homestead

She crosses the river where it bends back to the north and the water narrows to a span of only a few dozen feet. For most of the crossing, the water is only up to her shins, but twice her feet find deep holes, sinking Jamie to her hips and soaking the map in her pocket. By the time she emerges on the other side, wet and shivering slightly in the morning air, the sun is just cresting the peak, filling the valley with rich, pink light and waking the birds in the pines. She unfolds the map on a large rock bathed in early sunlight and lets it dry. Digging in her pack, she finds a granola bar that had been mashed to pieces since she left the car at the trailhead. She tears open an end and carefully pours handfuls of loose granola into her hand.

She thinks again of the dream – the one that had pushed her headlong west. His eyes – deep, chocolate brown in life – were split, one blue and one green, and stared through her with abandoned recognition. The house was the same, down to the pea green wool carpet that made her spine tingle when she ran her hands across it. But there was no furniture, save the blue and silver wheelchair.

“I’m Laura’s daughter,” she had said, “You know Laura? Your daughter?

“Of course I know Laura,” he smiled, “But I don’t know you.”

He laughed at that, softly at first, then louder until his sides heaved and the windows of the house shook with each boom. He grew larger and larger until his head scraped the ceiling and the wheels of his chair loomed and dug deep ruts into the ugly carpet. Jamie screamed, trying to be heard over the laughter, begging him to look upon her with mismatched eyes and recognize his granddaughter. Her screams were muted, buried under the waves of his amusement. She rushed him, pounding her fists against the tree trunks of his legs, but still he took no notice. Her heart racing, she woke with a start, unsure if the screams had followed her into life. Outside the window, a siren wailed on 11th street and she could hear the drizzle of rain that had started after she’d fallen asleep. Two days later, she bought a plane ticket.

The sun has climbed significantly, and the map is again crisp and dry. The pen line showing the way has run slightly, sending fractals of blue ink off into the woods. There was a time when a map was only a precaution – the path instead opening gradually as she went like the petals of a flower, leading her forward with confidence and an easy welcome. But her mind has become gridded and reliant on the sharp corners and squares of the city, and the wilderness has become too jagged to navigate alone. She checks her progress along the blue line before refolding the map along its creases and starting again toward the cabin.

Her first night in New York was the only one in her life when sleep failed to come for her. She met with friends who took her to dinner at a Cambodian Restaurant near the river, then dancing at a basement bar in the Village. The unfamiliar spice of ethnic food and the noise of the bar made her blood hot under her skin. She danced with strangers – among them a tall man with a European accent who snaked his hands along her body and told her she had to be the sexiest woman to step foot in the city in years. She drank with a newly found thirst and laughed in a way that felt both foreign and intoxicating. She thought of her family out west and wondered if they’d ever known such vibrant happiness. When she finally returned home at 4 am, she sat on the window sill of her empty apartment, leaning against the cool glass and listening to the hum of the city through the ringing of her ears. Six years later, when her mother called to tell her of her grandfather’s death, the ringing had yet to stop.

Jamie reaches her inheritance an hour later than she’d planned – a concession to her soft legs and a twisted ankle shortly after lunch. A branch has fallen near the porch and the pile of neatly stacked and split firewood along the western side of the building has collapsed into a heap. She circles the premises, taking stock. The windows are intact, but the roof looks to be sagging in places. Out back, she finds a splitting axe wedged into a stump. The head is deeply pitted with rust and the handle has gone gray from the elements. He’d been bound to the chair for the last ten years of his life, and was never so careless as to leave a tool outside. She wonders which cousin to blame for the loss.

She tugs at the padlock on the front door until it reluctantly snaps open. She kicks away the pine needles piled at the foot of the door and shoves it open. A meek wave of air rushes past her into the forest, and she is overcome with his scent. On the table of the one-room cabin, one of his favorite novels is tented face down to keep the page – its spine is broken from wear.

She is tired from her hike, and the sun is falling rapidly to the west. She shakes loose her pack onto one of the large chairs in front of the wood stove. There is much to do before she sleeps; she needs to start a fire and fetch water to be boiled for the weekend. But first she sinks herself into the other chair, propping her feet on the dusty hearth and breathing heavily in the stale air. The breeze from the open door swirls through the room, and each breath is fresher than the last. Jamie thinks about getting up and shutting it – keeping the smell of time trapped inside like a tomb. But it is too late; the cabin is fresh again.

She nearly gives herself to sleep, but her hunger gets the best of her. Struggling to her feet, she starts a small fire with wood that had waited years for its eventual destruction, then lights two lanterns still full with oil. She finds a small pan in the cabinets and warms a can of soup. While it bubbles on the stove, she takes an empty jug from its place near the door and walks to the creek. Behind her, the windows of the cabin glow happily in the dusk, and enormous silence fills her ears.

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