Stars emerged beyond darkening skies over the Shenandoah forest. Though we’d just arrived at the campsite, Alex and Kevin insisted we build a fire straightaways. Fire assuaged ancient fears of tooth and claw buried in the lizard-brain and their grandfather’s stories about Wendigos, Mothmen and Jersey Devils had the boys on edge. I didn’t have to be their mother to see that much.
I set Hannah’s urn gently on the ground then sloughed off my backpack as Dad started up another tale.
“Used to camp here when I was your age. Met lovely Lois one summer.” Dad lowered himself on a log, dribbled water from his canteen over a handkerchief, and then placed it against the back of his neck. “She’d have probably been your grandmother if not for the Sasquatch.”
Having heard all his stories growing up, I knew it didn’t end well for Lois. Since neither boys’ bravado would allow them to admit their granddad was scaring the crap out of them, I stepped in.
“I think it’s time we quit with the heebie-jeebie yarns.”
“Awwww, mom,” they said in unison.
“I want to hear it,” said Kevin, my nine-year-old.
Dad fished an oversized Calabash pipe and a bag of tobacco from a sweaty pocket of his safari jacket.
“Tragic story, really,” he said as he packed the bowl with a bone colored tamper. “Lois was pretty as a song.”
“What kind of song?” asked Alex. All of twelve, my oldest had the world figured out except for girls.
The pungent aroma of cherry tobacco suffused the campsite. The smoke kept the mosquitos away better than an economy sized can of Deep Woods Off! so I didn’t mind. But I was over the stories.
I cleared my throat and cut my eyes at Dad. He rocked back on the log and blew four wizard-quality smoke rings. The boys “oohed” in harmony.
“Another time then, lads,” Dad said. He shrugged then slapped his hands against his thighs.
“So, let’s whittle up some roasting skewers for hotdogs. Got your knives?”
Between the smoke rings and the chance to finally use their new for-camping-trips-only Swiss Army knives, the kids forgot all about poor Lois. Armed with flashlights, the boys marched into the forest so Dad could show them the finer points of woodcraft.
I sat on the ground and put Hannah in my lap, wiping the urn’s brass surface clean with my sleeve. “It’s so pretty here, sweet baby. The cicadas are singing just for you.”
I knew I should have been pitching the tents while there was a bit of light remaining, but by the time everyone returned I hadn’t moved. The three of them regarded me in silence. Alex shuffled his feet and whispered, “At least she’s not crying.”
Dad gathered the canteens and called the boys to him. “Lads, we passed a creek a little ways back on the trail. Go run and top these off for your mom.”
“Just us?” Alex asked.
“Buck up, son. You got your flashlights. And your knives.”
“What about the Wendigo? What if there’s one out there?” asked Kevin.
Dad knelt in front of Kevin and put his hands on his shoulders.
“Ain’t no shame to be afraid. But if you don’t learn from your fear, then that is a shame. Now what happened in the Wendigo story I told you?”
“He gobbled up everyone.”
“That boy lived,” Kevin said. “Migisi.”
“Right,” Dad said.
“Migisi made friends with the East Wind,” Alex said. “He ran straight off a cliff with the Wendigo hot on his heels and the East Wind carried him away safe.”
“But I’m not friends with the East Wind,” Kevin said.
“The story isn’t just about friendship,” Dad said. “It’s also about trust. And I’m telling you there’s no Wendigos in this here forest. So do you trust me?”
“Off you go then.”
Kevin tucked two canteens under his arm. Alex grabbed the rest and they headed down the trail, arguing about who got to carry the bigger flashlight.
Dad stood and turned toward me.
“So,” I said. “The boys won’t sleep a wink tonight, thanks to you.”
He settled beside me, wisps of smoke trailing from his pipe.
“World’s a scary place.” He pointed the stem of his pipe at the urn. “One don’t rightly know how scary till you grow up.”
“And telling those stories helps how?”
“I always thought of them as a sort of inoculation. You know how they kill a virus then squirt it in you to you get immune? Them stories are kind of like a dead virus. There’s nothing that can really hurt you, but maybe you learn a little about dealing with fear.”
“Didn’t seem to work for me.” I stared at the urn, willing myself to remember the pink, alive Hannah. Not the blue Hannah.
“Worked just fine as I see it,” Dad said. “You found her in the crib like that and you didn’t panic. You did everything you was supposed to do. It was just too late.”
“But I’m still afraid,” I said. “I’m afraid if I put her down, I’ll forget her. You see how the boys are? They hardly even think about Hannah and she’s right here.”
“They haven’t forgotten. They’ve just moved on. That’s what you can’t be afraid of: moving on. You’ve been stuck in the same moment these last two years now.”
Dad cupped my chin in his hand.
“We spent lots of time out here when you was growing up. Lot of good memories. Think it might be a place Hannah would feel… comfortable? Place like this with good memories.”
I snugged Hannah in the crook of my arm. Remembered her smile. Remembered her inside me. Dad stood and offered a hand up.
“You gonna be my East Wind, Dad?”
“Sure. Anything you need.”
“I’m not ready to jump off that cliff today,” I said. “But let’s see how I feel in the morning.”
J.C. Towler feels it is silly to write bios in the 3rd person unless one is British Royalty, which he is not.