A stone walk led up to the door, and a small garden with brightly coloured flowers surrounded it. There were white pines everywhere, and complete silence. The cabin was a traditional log exterior, and someone had painted the door candy apple red. Above the door was a hand-crafted wooden plaque with an inscription: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’ intrate. I pulled the key from under a brown welcome mat with a smiling beaver on it, slid the key into the lock, and entered. I stepped in to a small open space that resembled a Kinkade painting I’d once purchased for Lacy, called ‘The End of a Perfect Day’. Wood stove, tin roof, and a canoe in the back near the edge of a pond. I felt a peace I hadn’t felt in the desert.
Marilyn and Conrad and I had embraced in a triple hug like old friends, standing in the small Adirondacks airport. People drifted past slowly like souls floating, unlike the way they scurried quickly to baggage claim in other airports, and it was in that moment that time stood still. I would not see them again. There was no past, no future. Only now. We wept like infants after one of us broke, like a strong dam set free.
The last words she said to me were catalogued in my brain, right below the last words Boo had said, and then Lacy. I was keeping a list now, an electronic rolodex of last words, of those who’d travelled on to the other side.
‘I love you, Daddy…’
‘How’s our baby girl?…’
And then standing there in the airport, ‘Some people who have decades to live, are already dead inside, Jonathan. Right now I feel more alive than ever. Be alive, Jonathan, not one of the walking dead. Lessons of this sort cannot be taught but come from one’s own struggle to find truth.’
I walked across the hard wood floor, my bare feet feeling the rawness. How’s our baby girl? I felt a sense that I’d been there before, but I chalked it up to the comfort I’d felt when I had visited my grandfather’s cabin on the lake, decades earlier. I love you, Daddy. Some things remain in your DNA for ever. I opened the door and walked outside, stepping onto the small wood porch. I observed the way some trees swayed deep, while others stood rigid. Like humans, each one moved slightly differently, changing with the shift of the wind. Be alive, Jonathan.
I sat in the chair and imagined those who had done it a hundred years before, imagining the lives and messages we receive like one eternal thread, connected. I thought of my brother who had loved hunting and fishing in the mountains with our grandfather when we were young, while I was content to skip rocks in the stream, unable to stomach the thought of killing a deer. I considered calling him, but there was no telephone and even if there was, what would I say? Everything was different now. He’d be unable to understand my desire to escape. He’d want to talk me into coming home, talk me back off the ledge of this new journey and into the normalcy of my abnormal existence. But what would I go back to now?
I fell asleep again in the chair sometime after 4 in the afternoon and when I woke it was dark and the wind howled through trees. I had much to do, but couldn’t. Much to say, but couldn’t. Much to feel, but couldn’t. The shrink back in California had said I’d entered a ‘dorsal vagal shutdown’, which in plain English meant that I was frozen. The answer, she’d said, was social engagement via the ventral vagal nerve by laughing, or connecting with others.
Everyone it seemed, had an answer.
My Christian friend Bob had told me that isolation was the tool of the devil. That although it seems like a gift, it’s also a curse when we become too inward, withdrawn from life and disconnected. He’d said that the enemy can get to your emotions only after you’ve been isolated, a strategy used by the greatest generals of all time. Isolate, then defeat.
‘How long you staying?’
The voice startled me, and I turned.
The man walked with a limp, one leg obviously shorter than the other, with high rubber boots over jeans and a flannel shirt. He shifted his weight to the good leg as he ambled up the path towards the cabin, stopping to catch his breath.
‘I been waitin’ for you,’ he said, approaching the deck. He carried a long shovel, the end covered in mud.
‘Really? But I…’ I was about to say I’d just arrived, that he couldn’t have possibly known I’d be there, because I didn’t know it myself. But my energy ran out. I had no more to give, no more explanations. He was the caretaker, it seemed. He’d leave the wood, shovel something, be gone soon.
‘I’ve got wood in the truck,’ he said, ‘to load up the stove.’
‘Go for it,’ I answered.
The man pulled the chair from the other side of the deck and dragged it over, slowly and painfully. I considered giving him a hand but he seemed to be doing fine. I surmised he’d been there for years, probably the employee of charitable and wealthy land barons who owned this cabin and the magnificent property surrounding it. The land at least, would be worth about four million.
‘My name’s Peter,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘After Saint Peter. Or Peter the Great. You choose.’ He laughed then, and threw his head back. ‘You here for long?’ He had a slight accent that I couldn’t place.
‘I don’t know, Peter.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘I may stay a month, I may stay a year.’
‘It’ll be about five days I suppose,’ he said, checking his watch.
I glanced at him curiously. ‘You have someone else checking in in five days?’
He stood slowly, and entered the cabin. Through the open door I watched him walk into the kitchen and open a cabinet. There were a few tins of food there, and a torch. He reached for something and started back out.
‘I keep some Jack in the cupboard,’ he said. ‘Want some?’
I shook my head. I hadn’t drunk since ‘91, when I almost wrapped my car around a tree after a birthday party for a friend. I hadn’t been an alcoholic, but it was that moment that woke me up to the fact that I was seconds away from it. Being something or not, is a very fine line.
Peter poured me a shot of Jack Daniel’s anyway from the large vintage bottle and poured himself one, too. He handed me a shotglass and I took it, downing the harsh dry liquid all in one gulp.
‘Jack Daniel’s is legendary company,’ he said, settling into the other chair on the deck. ‘The founder saved a small town with the distillery. The first bottle produced cost less than two dollars.’
‘You know a lot of trivia, don’t you?’
‘I’m a lifelong learner,’ he said, ‘I like to know all I can.’ He poured me another shot and I drank it fast, feeling the burn down the back of my throat.
‘So is that all you do? Sit up here and drink Jack Daniel’s in the forest?’
He glanced over as if he were pondering his response. ‘Sometimes it’s a nice end to a perfect day,’ he said.
I looked at him, and wondered. Something about this journey was surreal. In the beginning, I hadn’t known where I was going. I’d bought a ticket to somewhere I’d never been, walked for miles, and ended up in the desert with a woman who had less than a month to live. Now here I was in a cabin at the opposite end of the earth with someone entirely different. Where would I be tomorrow? The whole of it was hard to ignore.
‘You need something for that wound on your face?’ he asked.
I shook my head and instinctively touched it with my hand. ‘Nah. You take care of this place?’ I asked.
Pete nodded. He leaned back and hoisted his rubber boots high onto the porch railing.
‘Do you know how I officially check in?’ I asked. ‘I know they left the key under