1920 — Clear Creek, Pennsylvania
They once were a family of three, but death became the heartless mathematician performing its cold calculations, with subtraction leaving the final sum of two.
A father and his young daughter of barely 6 years old remained, and it was the father ushering the young girl from the room so he could pull the shades, signaling to the few townsfolk who waited outside that she now lay dead. The few caring folk whispered things in the drizzling rain like, “What will they do now? How will he raise her? He’s a man. A young girl needs a mother.” There were words of blame cast at him like stones for not taking her down from the hill to the doctor when she got the fever.
Their concern dwindled as they headed down the path from the four-room shack setting high on the hill away from the town. The small group of people walked away in a short weaving line of sad shaking heads, and their sympathy, like the rain, soon ended. There was talk of cooking some things and bringing them back up to the log cutter and the girl, but it went no further than talk. So it was the log cutter left with the task of burying his wife.
It was in the morning when she asked for her mother, and he tried his best to explain heaven, and when she stood above the ever-deepening hole growing in the dark damp soil, she expressed to him her confusion. If heaven is above, why, then, was her mother going down there? The log cutter hid his tears from her, and prayed that he’d hit rock with the shovel’s pointed tip so that his sobs might be covered by metallic grating on stone, and he made a great effort to gain composure.
She stood in the tattered dress, her blond locks damp against her forehead. Her downcast blue eyes looked on him and saw a hero. They had to survive together now.
They were outcasts long before the death of his young wife. They didn’t fit into the society of town. Long before his wife’s death, he heard the whispers when they went down to pay the bill at the general store. The words “hillbilly” and “hill folks” cut the air like a leather whip on his soul. He felt their eyes upon him. Yet those who laughed or looked or spoke in whispered gossip were the very same whose credit at the small store was late, while not once did he ever miss his payment.
Later that night, as the log cutter tucked his daughter in, she again talked of her mother. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair and tried once more to explain. He dried her wet tears with a worn cloth laundered by her mother on the washboard just last week, and when he finished, he couldn’t help but hold it to his face and breathe in the deep fragrance of the lye soap that she somehow knew how to perfume.
It was his wish that he might sing her a lullaby, but he knew only pieces of what his wife used to sing to her. He tried, but his daughter’s eyes, in the light of the coal oil lamp, reflected the truth. His gravelly voice was not that of her mother.
Sometime during the night, while his daughter slept, he removed his wife’s body from their room. In the small shed out back, he worked through the night to build her coffin. As the orange sun rose, painting the gray bark of the aspens and the beech with marmalade light, he dressed her in her best dress. The very same one she wore when they were married fewer than 11 years ago. He carried her to the shed in back of the small house.
As he fitted the lid, he wondered if he should let his daughter see her one last time. Agony, despair, and a mixture of emotions coursed through him much like a raging river after the winter thaw. He wished to have his daughter remember her alive, and he picked up the hammer. The tool’s smooth handle fit the calloused palm of his right hand as his left picked up thick nails.
The hammer served him well in happier times. It pounded the nails that built the shack called home. It pulled out stubborn spikes deep in trees that he removed to save the teeth on his crosscut saw. He loved the hammer then, but with the first hollow strike on the head of the nail locking her in forever, the log cutter hated the hammer. Each angry swing grew louder, and with the last nail, he fell to his knees and sobbed.
The log cutter never heard the door of the shed open. He only felt her small hand on his shoulder and her soft voice telling him she understood now. He was ashamed. He didn’t want her to see him like this. He squeezed his eyes hard, pushing out the last tear, and before he turned to face her, he wiped his strong forearm across his face. But she knew anyway. His pounding had woken her.
As he pivoted, his knee ground deep into the dirt floor of the shed. She reached with small arms half covered by the sleeping gown her mother made her last fall. She hugged him tight around his neck and smiled at him. How could he not be strong? Her blue eyes darted from the coffin and then back to his. Yet she never said a word. She told him that she would be back, and he watched her leave out the door.
Thinking that she had returned to the house, he struggled with the coffin and loaded it on the homemade cart he built for hauling firewood. If he were quick about it, maybe he would have her in the grave before his young daughter returned from the house. He didn’t want her to witness such a thing.
The mule came with one whistle, and he hitched it quickly to the wagon-size cart. He rushed into the shed, returning with a coil of rope, and led the solemn and lone procession toward the freshly dug grave all the while scanning the front door of the house for any sign of her coming. He worked feverishly at the grave, and with the mule and two trees close by was able to lower the coffin into the hole. His shovel cut the mound of dirt beside it when he heard her yell from the tree line just beyond the cleared land. She dodged old tree stumps as she ran toward him.
“Papa, wait. Please wait.”
The log cutter stopped. What else could he do? It was her mother. As she grew closer, he saw the bouquet of wild flowers held tight in her hands. There were tiger lilies and thin vines of honeysuckle and trailing arbutus, all roped together with strands of ground pine. There was a look of peace and acceptance on her young face. He wondered if she understood the finality.
“It’s OK, Papa, you can finish now.”
The tendons in his wrists ached with the squeezing of his hands wrapped around the rough handle of the shovel as he paused. A red-tailed hawk soared overhead, casting a shadow on the shafts of light that reached the top of the coffin. It was she, tossing the bouquet on the top of it, who signaled the beginning of permanence.
The anger lifted from his shoulders with each shovel full of dirt. Each thump of heavy soil brought him closer to realizing just how strong he’d have to be now and in the future. He would carry on with strength for her, for a better life.
With life comes death. They would make the headstone together sometime soon. The walk back to the shack was one of silence broken by the cooing call of a mourning dove. And by the happy voices of the townsfolk far below whose visit yesterday no longer existed in heart or mind.
For the log cutter and his daughter, the pain of loss would not be shared. It would remain their very own.