By Fred Elder (Jan 2020)
There was complete silence from outside. Not a single creature made it’s presence known, though the trees were bursting with life. I’d been expecting this quiet, of course, because no one had been up to the old place in more than two years. The forest denizens, spoiled by a pleasing absence of humanity for all that time, showed their displeasure by muzzling what I knew would normally be a cacophony.
It hadn’t changed. Oh, it was dustier, to be sure. Perhaps a bit shabbier looking, but essentially it was the place I remembered. Two years without maintenance had done nothing to ruin the structure, though the windows were grimy and let in only a feeble light. From outside, I had noticed the roof was in good shape; inside, there was no sign of water damage or little critters.
Why was I surprised? My father built the place forty years ago, using only the best materials. He tapped the surrounding forest for the wood and neighbors for their skills. Oh, he might have considered building the cabin alone, but this was going to be the place he retired to, eventually, so he wanted the best craftmanship to go into its construction.
As I wandered through the rooms, inspecting the condition of furniture under drop cloths, memories of long past visits came to mind. My father envisioned this place as a retreat, a place to get away from the struggle and stress of everyday life, so he built it with family in mind. There were bedrooms for each of his three children and a much larger one for him and mom. A huge kitchen, large enough to hold all of us and company, too, sitting around a long harvest table.
A large window dominated the main sitting area in front, overlooking a deep, pine-filled valley and, in the distance, fierce limestone cliffs. It was a million-dollar view that never failed to lift your heart. Here, in the wilderness of Maine, far from the madding crowds of our everyday home, we spent uncounted hours exploring, playing, relaxing, and simply staring at the majesty of nature.
Even with such an astonishing view out the front window, we would most often find my father at the small, kitchen window, watching for wildlife. He would stand there for hours, tin coffee cup in hand, just staring, waiting, hoping to see the smallest sign of life. His reward for unceasing vigilance included chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, deer and, on several occasion, a bombastic old badger. He told us once that a black bear visited, but he might have been pulling our legs.
More than once, we suggested he find a comfortable seat in the front of the cabin and marvel at the valley view. With a pair of binoculars, we told him, he was sure to see many more forest denizens. He would only shake his head, lift the mug toward the small window, and tell us that everything he needed to see was right outside there. We weren’t sure exactly what he meant by that and we never did try to parse it out. We were content to leave him standing there, cup in hand.
In the face of inevitability, life changed over the past fifteen years. Mom passed away, leaving a void that my father could never fill. My brother wandered off to some career in Australia, my sister to California. While I started a career much closer to home, my father ventured alone on most of his visits to the cabin.
Oh, certainly, I made time to join him once or twice a year, but as he grew older and began to spend more time in the wilds, I saw less and less of him. He begged me more times than I can count to visit but juggling a career and a burgeoning relationship took up all my time.
In time, I married. When Dad showed up for the ceremony, we all realized how sick he was. He never let on that he was in pain, but his eyes were windows into his misery. Now it was my turn to beg, asking him to stay with my wife and I, where we could take care of him. He refused, of course, saying only that he would miss his window. When we asked him what was more important, that damn window or his health, he only smiled and shrugged, unable to explain.
He passed away two years ago, leaving the cabin in his children’s names. As the only sibling still living close, it fell upon me to keep up the place. Feelings of remorse kept me away, however. The cabin was important to him, especially his vantage point at the kitchen window, and yet I allowed it to become unimportant to me. Yes, life often gets in the way of your best intentions, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
Finally, I’d worked up the nerve to come back. My wife understood something on a level I didn’t fathom, because she stayed home, citing her advanced pregnancy. She was lying, of course, because she knew this was a journey I needed to make alone.
So, there I was, staring out that stupid, grimy, kitchen window. There was nothing to see. Nothing at all. Just an old, tin coffee cup sitting on the counter. I leaned forward and wiped some of the grime away. It came away grudgingly, but I still couldn’t see because the outside surface was even more filthy. Two years of Maine weather, eight seasons, had left the entire cabin coated with dust and pollen and dead leaves and more than a little bird shit.
What’s the point, anyway? I already knew there wasn’t anything special to see out that small window. The million-dollar view is at the front of the cabin. But I didn’t come up to do any spring cleaning. Not this time, anyways. I’ll soon have a child, which means I’m going to be busy back home. The purpose of this trip was simply to determine if the cabin was structurally sound, to see if there would be a place to bring my young family at some point. And there would be.
Just a couple hours after I arrived, I was locking up the front door and climbing into the car. I was leaving the place much like I found it. There was no need for repairs, and cleaning could wait for another time. Besides, the forest hush was beginning to bother me, knowing that I was damming up a torrent of life and sound with my presence.
My wife was surprised to see me so soon and wondered just what I had accomplished in so little time. There wasn’t much to do, I answered, except clean one window and an old coffee cup. She shook her head, not understanding. You cleaned one window, she asked? Yeah, I answered, I know how strange that sounds, but it’s something I just can’t explain.
But that was always the problem with that damn window.