“I suppose you’ll be selling the place?”
They were the words that had started it, spoken in the town store the day after the funeral. In her raw, confused grief at the death of a father she had barely known she had taken the words as a sneer, a hint that a city girl like her couldn’t possibly survive in the lone cabin out in the woods.
“Actually,” Sarah had heard herself reply, “I’m thinking of moving up here.”
As she drove home she thought about her throwaway remark. She was nearing forty, bored with her job, newly single – again – and feeling empty. She was curious too, about why her father had come here, leaving her and her mother and moving away from the world. She barely remembered him – a silent man with none of the playful love of other dads. Then one day he’d been gone.
“Your father is a good man,” Mum would say. “He just needs to be alone.”
As she grew Sarah had raged at this absolution. She had had no contact with her father, even when Mum passed, and now never would. The town doctor had found her details among his few belongings, and had got in touch.
Now she found herself thinking of trying his path, to see what was so much better than life with a loving six-year-old daughter. She could move up here, enjoy the peace, grow her own produce. The idea took root.
It had been practically the only thing that had.
The only things that grew that first year had been lettuce, spinach, and dock-leaves, which she had thought were chard.
The townsfolk had been great. The women would arrive, saying that they were just passing – though there was nothing beyond her cabin but deep, dense woods – and bring pie, saying that they had baked one too many.
The men would bring rabbits. These she would bury as soon as they left, as she had neither the skill nor the stomach to skin one.
At the beginning she had marched proudly into the store with her seed orders. Later she had done the walk of shame, buying actual vegetables.
She had stopped driving in to the bar in the evenings. She couldn’t bear the silent scrutiny of her tired face, her thinning body.
But Sarah had come to enjoy the solitude. She felt that she had begun to understand her father’s choice of a life without people, alone with the silence of nature, by which is meant night-time sounds of scurrying, snuffling and occasional howls.
And one day she had caught a fish – she had no idea what kind – and the sizzle, the aroma, and the warmth in her stomach had steeled her resolve.
So here she was at the start of a second Spring, seeds beside her, tugging at the earth with her bare fingers. She pulled at a clump of earth, which wouldn’t move. She pulled harder and a fistful of wet clay came away in her hand, so that she punched herself in the face with it.
She sighed and looked wearily down at the clump. With the section of clay gone she could see the corner of a metal box.
Buried treasure, was her first thought. No, was her second, because you’re not Scooby Doo. She pulled the box from the hole and used her trowel to work the lid open.
There was a gun inside.
It was a service revolver, evidently brought home by her father from the war. People had been supposed to return them, many had not. There were other things in the box. There was a Purple Heart. She had never known that her father had been injured in the war. She remembered his slight limp, but child-Sarah had thought that was because he was old, in his thirties.
There was a photo of him with three other soldiers, all laughing at some time-lost joke, faces filled with the impossible beauty of the young. The other three had dates written beside them in faded biro. All of the dates were in the late sixties.
And there was a photo of her, looking into the camera with a huge smile and huge eyes. Those eyes filled with tears now as she pictured her father – her Dad – looking at this.
Sarah picked up the gun. There was one bullet in it.
She wondered how many nights Dad had sat staring at his lost life, with the gun on his lap. She felt proud of him as she imagined the day he had made his decision, when he had chosen to live, and had boxed up his demons and buried them, settling instead for this solitary existence, away from the loved ones whose hurt incomprehension he could not abide.
She looked up at the cabin, then around at the garden. She knew that she owed it to Dad to go on, so she would.
Sarah put the box back into the earth, and covered it. Then she stood and tossed her trowel far out into the woods.
She would go on by living a real life, with laughter, people, and hopefully love. By living the life that had been stolen from her Dad by a war no-one wanted and after-effects no-one understood.
She was going home.