It looked like something fallen from a charcoal sketch in an abstract art class but it was much more. The lines were thick and dark and somewhat askew. The forest was thick around it, unyiedingly so, embracingly so. The cold thin river ran from the higher hills past oblivious in the way space and form can be over the years. There were people in there.
The snows of 30 winters had covered this place and 30 thaws. The great quakes of past decades and years had surely flattened the shacks before, the permutations past of sticks and rocks out so far from the cities and even towns small and isolated. At that point far in the past they just walked away, shed the things the rest of us know like an itchy old skin to molt. This was the rumor anyway, the odd often disputed rumor that only persevered as there never were bodies, a return or the grave.
I was one of the geologists who had tried for years to raise funds to explore the area to examine the quake damage, the sediment patterns and the area topology so out of date on analog maps from the barren difficult nature of this far off area. We had failed for 7 years. It was always either paperwork, some last minute budget issue or some vague reason from high above the food chain. I heard he had two sons, two daughters, heard he fled the war as so many dreamed of doing. It was all conjecture of course, the thesis of the unwritten text, the hypothesis alone as though cut clean from all tangible things alone.
I am of little consequence here, a ghost, a moth, little more. These words are a compass maybe, a sad catalyst yes but this will come later. I have a face, hair, a body, a shirt , pants and shoes most of the time, the collected excitement of bowls of plain oatmeal in cold water, instructions to make a cake in my best moments perhaps. I have two parents, a brother, a couple of degrees, the wit of a potato, the zest for life of a disillusioned stamp collector. I have a name too. It too here is of little importance. There is something of me that will come around later, but it is that temporary tenant so often found in body and life. It also will prove to be a destroyer.
We took up camp by the river near where the old hole and ruin was said to once have been found of their earlier home. The weather was benign, the sky benign, the chill in the air a spring reminder of winter’s end , nothing more. The sun shone on the cold river waters as fish swam at times glimmering like mirror fragments under the waters. The three of us caught a few fish and otherwise spent the afternoon setting up tents and checking our equipment. I fumbled with field data notes for hours with the ocasional shard of thought about those people, the unsutured space between us and them, if they were truly there at all. My face might scare them more than snakes or lightning, this boring ball with a choppy beard may make them scream or shoot. Those kids had likely never seen another human being aside from their family. We three scientists may arrive like something from the skies, like beasts in pants and long shirts, pencils and paper in hand.
The story was that the man had fled that war. The father, mother and at the time infant son had just shed it all , city blocks, radio, television, conversations, street chatter and all the rest, the fog of days. The father was said to be 6-7 and thin as pencils but tough and of an off the charts intelligence that left school as a boy. They surely had no idea that they had embodied rumors the way of insects in flight, of a kind of crowd of self made as strangers, as incompletions miles from their little shack and river. They would have no idea. Nobody would. At times these thoughts over years had fascinated me, saddened me…but again I am irrelevant, an asterisk in glasses and loosely tied shoes.
We trekked up the next day after an uneventful night of sleep and quick meal by the river in the early hours of yet another pleasant day. The other two Geologists were older than me, a bit more experienced but otherwise cut from the same cloth and again peripheral, intrusions, the insect on the water’s surface that makes circles as it skitters past and away. We walked for a good 2 miles when it appeared. The stories were not lies. The shack was a pile, crooked to one side, just logs and leaves and a tiny window the size of the door of a microwave, something they surely had never heard of. My heart beat great drums as we neared the clearing and then the “door”; this was it, it may be finding a tragedy laid bare for winters on end, an amazing closing of a space, or shots at us from an aging gun.
The skies remained benign and calm, blank and ripped open to some other place’s far off horizon. We neared the front of the seeming charcoal sketch that had no resemblance to a home we had ever seen, not by miles and a figure appeared. I froze. This was it. If he shot it hopefully would be a miss.
“Who are you? What in the devil do you want?” The quivering yet severe voice demanded.
“We just came to say hello” I said, the words sounding so small, so absurd in the moment.
The giant, shadowy figure visibly tensed up and we ran like scared kids in a miserably failed prank, the river glittering at times with fish, the sky warm with a few tiny cotton clouds. We ran back to camp and waited till the next day to try again. Again a good night’s sleep, pleasant sleep and breakfast. I dreamed of the shadowy man though. He was made of trees and charcoal, was tired, did not need us there, had become some bit of this land and just the cheeks, eyes and mouth of that long lost creature of the city the intruding rest of us.
The next trip up we three men of science walked in a clot under a sky that looked more and more like it wanted to rain, the gathering ashen clouds seeming to die into each other off the higher mountains, some tragic geometry of form and water high above. This sent a brief impotent wave of unease through me that the other two seemed to be unaware of. Again the river glittered at times with fish, again the trees thickened before that open clearing. Again there was that odd little crooked dwelling. Once again he may wish us gone. As we neared the front my stomach did spins like the fish were in its acrid waters looping and looping. Again the shadowy giant appeared. We froze in our tracks.
We had come too far.
“What brings you here again? What do you want of me? To arrest me for some crime” The giant aging shadow bellowed.
“Um, no, we just wanted to say ..uh..hello” I again stammering with the words seeming to fall to the forest floor like so many popped silly, brightly colored balloons.
Amazingly he let us in. The interior walls were black with years of ash from cooking and soot. The floor of the single room was made of crushed nuts and leaves. There were ancient cooking utensils and clay pots full of water. The whole family was there. The shadow giant was indeed the man of the legends in the city so far away. He was in his seventies as was his wife. His children were in fact two daughters and two sons. The children were now adults all, twenties to thirties. The children spoke in odd elongated phrasings and at first it was impossible to understand. We explained that we were not to arrest him or take him away, that we just were looking to see their life and spend some time in it.
We had a simple not unpleasant meal of nuts and a bit of those fish that glimmered like glass in the light. The skies opened into a heavy spring rain. It lasted for hours until we bid them goodbye for the day. Upon returning to the tent in our camp we found it wet and cold. The night’s sleep was not as pleasant as before. Two days and two visits and chats later the two other scientists had colds. One of us had just felt a bit off the day we left, it was not the weather but it did not help. The rains were heavier each day, a freak we would later learn. The older daughter came to visit us first. She brought soup and marveled at our tiny portable television and radio devices. The others later came and for a few more days as we nursed fevers passed back and forth the whole family came and played our video games, became fans of apps on phones, learned the war was over had ended 22 years before in the outside world. We learned of their leaving to flee war and of the kids learning to speak by their parents writing letters with sticks in their primitive soil and leaf and crushed nut floor over time.
Oh yes, dear reader, you are surely wondering what they looked like. I am sorry. I neglected this for reasons I will leave intentionally vague at this point. The mother was of a grace and strength and said little. She was the most resentful of our presence. This was made clear in furrowed brow, narrowed eyes of distrust and never a smile or question. The children were all grown, all tall, all of faces like a light to brighten or darken in a flash, their features to cast deep jagged shadow like canyons or a gauze of glow bright like sun on water. They too were wary of us, understandably so, but opened more and more, fascinated by their lost modernity.
“what is this called?” the older sister asked smiling of my cell phone on the last day we all spent together.
“A smart phone we call it” I replied. She thought this hilarious as things could not be intelligent.
“Why not just call it a multi purpose device?” she asked while playing angry birds.
This was a great point. She was extremely intelligent, perhaps more than the old man in the legends that long navigated the alleys and rooms of the city he long ago left as a singular cold ghost.
We left a few days later and stopped by their dwelling for a last goodbye. To our horror after again passing disco floor shimmering fish scales and an again clear robin’s egg blue sky unfurled far beyond all the hills we found the family ill. They lay on their floor and we chatted for a time with growing alarm and worry. Decades alone in their crooked space tucked at the edge of it all they had no immunity for such things as colds. We were all several days over even lingering coughs. They never told us their names. We three men of science, interlopers, intrusions, flies in water once still, lingered trying our best to help. They eventually recovered, all but the youngest son who we saw buried by that river. We left and even as the oldest daughter waved warmly goodbye and the giant shadow of a father waved slowly and weakly from the clearing before their home we knew what we had done.
The years passed and now word has come that the oldest daughter is the only one remaining alive and lives there still, shunning the world like never before.