Note: This short story takes place right after Heartbeat finishes and was written as an extra excerpt for a course Blog. For those that read Heartbeat and found yourselves wanting to know more, this is a little bit between father and son.
Heat from the late afternoon sun scorched Jeff as he and his father emerged from the thick canopy shade into the little clearing around the cabin he’d grown up in. Native bush stretched for hundreds of acres, and birdsong floated on the warm breeze that tugged his hair. His eyes drifted closed and he breathed deep. Home.
Then bone-deep coldness splintered the joy. His lungs constricted as if a vine choked his body. Mum was gone. Where he expected her laughter he heard only silence.
Long exhale, bracing inhale. His fault.
Resuming progress, he felt feet sink into crusty mud tracks from the abandoned motorbikes, left by those who’d wished his family harm. He’d remove them, then begin the regeneration effort.
His first daylight view of the damage the Wilson’s had inflicted revealed its extent. They’d used the bush as their personal BMX track with total disregard for plant or animal life.
“Help me fix this door,” Dad said. He hadn’t rested once since Evelyn dropped them at the roadside an hour ago – in fact they’d almost run home rather than walked.
“Later. We need to sleep first.”
Dad lifted the broken door off the remaining hinge, as strong and healthy as ever. His bare arms displayed a multitude of bruises; he’d been a pliant punching bag for his enemy last night. Not once in his life had David Jae lifted a hand to harm another or defend himself, and that was how he’d raised Jeff. His every action aimed at preserving life.
His dad hunted animals only for food and clothing, and then limited himself to those that threatened his conservation efforts – introduced species that decimated New Zealand native flora and fauna. The kill always involved one accurate spear or knife throw that resulted in immediate death. Jeff had learned the same precision with knives and homemade weapons from his father.
Now he laid a hand on the door his father had placed across two logs.
“Stop. You need to rest.”
“Can’t. Too much to do.”
“Dad!” Jeff gripped his dad’s wrist and forced him to stop. When he left four years ago, aged sixteen, his father had stood a foot taller than him at six feet; now Jeff shadowed him by an inch. Yet though his father was thirty years older, he was still broad-shouldered and muscular. “You must. Mum wouldn’t want you working yourself to death.”
“So that’s the way it’s to be, is it? You’re going to use her against me?”
Before him, Dad hunched into himself, and Jeff could only imagine the depth of pain Mum’s passing had created. She hadn’t been raised to live off the land but had chosen this life. As a young woman she’d passed the time hiking the pine plantations while her father, who owned a similar operation north of Christchurch, talked business with the owner. She’d become lost in thick fog and ended up falling down a cliff face and badly breaking her leg. Dad found her unconscious and suffering from hypothermia, so he carried her to his cabin. There he nursed her back to health, and during their time together she fell for her gentle-giant rescuer.
Jeff said calmly, “No; I’m reminding you of her love for us. She never let us work beyond our limits.”
“They used her knife.” Dad stared him in the eye, his body trembling, the tremors traveling through the wrist Jeff still held.
“I know.” His throat constricted and he pulled his dad in for a tight hug. “It’s why they can’t charge you – your prints couldn’t be found anywhere on it. Whoever planted it back here didn’t consider that. We will find out who hurt her, I promise.”
“That knife is too small for my hand. Anyway, she goes mad if I misplace her tools.”
Jeff stepped back, keeping a hand on his dad. “Why didn’t she tell me what was happening?”
Dad pulled away from him and shuffled toward the cabin. Jeff followed, the question burning for an answer. His stomach twisted violently – he could have saved them. Maybe kept Mum alive.
He tried again. “She wrote me letters – every week. Why didn’t she mention the trouble brewing?”
A bowl of water sat beside the door; Jeff waited while his dad cleaned his feet and dried them before he did the same, placing a hand on the rough clay external wall for balance. Blood from Evelyn’s bullet wound smeared the entrance floors and he sidestepped it as he entered. Inside the timber featured no treatment so removing the blood would be hard work. Another job in a daunting list.
Going from bright light to dim took adjustment. The window shutters were still closed. Dad straightened a chair and Jeff automatically fixed another, the smooth wood beneath his hand calming and familiar. He recalled carving it with the help of his parents.
Jeff hadn’t entered the cabin last night. Apart from a few items of furniture and belongings that had been knocked over, everything remained unchanged. A new board or two on the walls, but Mum and Dad’s rocking chairs still sat near the fireplace near the pile of furs he preferred to stretch out on. One shelf-lined wall held the familiar stack of wooden bowls, plus several rows of carved containers that held seeds and crushed powders. The smell of woodsmoke and herbs permeated the air and he breathed deeply, tense muscles loosening. He could still feel Mum’s presence here. She had helped Dad extend the cabin, creating the two bedrooms, so a part of her would always live in this place. That vine cinched tight again as he struggled for control.
Dad turned to face him across the table. “We knew why you left. The townspeople hurt you because of me.” Pain shrouded his father’s face. Regret too. “You needed to find yourself, and we trusted that when you were ready you would come back. We didn’t want a homecoming due to obligation.”
“You were angry when I left.”
“I was hurt, but Mum always understood more than I did, she explained that you required time, and when you did come back you’d be better for the time away. She was right. Always was.”
“No, she should have told me about the Wilson’s harassment, trespassing and destruction.”
“We made our decision. But I didn’t know what to do after -” Dad’s weathered hands gripped the back of his chair so tightly they turned white. Silence conveyed the unsaid. “I started a letter to you. I never finished it.”
Dad released the seat-back and moved to the small writing desk in the corner, where; he collected a piece of paper from the floor nearby and brushed it. “He stood on it last night. Wore dirty boots in here. Guess it doesn’t matter – you’re here now.”
Jeff accepted the offering as if it were a fragile new seedling. The handmade paper had been made from wood shavings turned into a pulp of fibers that Dad pressed, dried, and tied into bundles with flax. Mum loved to write and record the day’s events; their bedroom shelves held homemade leather pockets they stored her recordings in. He ran his thumb up and down the textured paper’s edge. Mum had taught him to read and write using feathers and naturally made inks on such paper. He remembered her smile every time he showed her his work. There was no doubt her family was her world.
Dad’s writing was shakier than Mum’s. At the top of the page was a date – the day after Mum’s death when police had allowed Dad to return home. Beneath that this address and then Jeff’s address. All written in the correct layout before Dad wrote the words: Dear Son, Your Mum passed away yesterday. They’ve taken her away. Bill from the hotel is helping to make the arrangements. I. Several dots suggested he tried to continue and stopped. Jeff wiped tears from his cheeks as he imagined his dad sitting there, trying to word an impossible letter.
He told his father, “Someone wrote to me but never signed it. I came straight away.”
“I don’t know who that would have been. Bill planned to post that for me when I’d finished, but I couldn’t write down feelings the way she did.”
“No one could – that was her gift. Bill didn’t say anything when I called ahead to book in. Just told me to ask for his best room.”
“Bill is okay. Mum trusted him with the letters each week.”
“I was supposed to fix his sign for him that weekend I left.”
Dad grunted. “I offered to do it but he refused – said you’d promised to do the job, so it could wait until you came back.”
Jeff raised shocked eyes. Dad didn’t leave the bush. Ever. Last night had been a fight.
His father shrugged. “You made a promise, then left before carrying it out.”
Honour. That made sense – Dad strongly believed in being a man of his word.
Jeff nodded. “I’ll fix it. But first we need some sleep.”
Dad took a seat in his rocker and pulled a possum fur blanket across himself. “Go on. Your room’s ready – always has been.”
I hope you enjoyed that view into Jeff and his father’s reunion. While Jeff and Evelyn’s story is still evolving, Take Down focuses on their youngest son 35 years later. Until next time,