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The Warden of My Hope

by Nancy Gwillym 10 months ago in Short Story
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The changed life of a woman seeking atonement.

The Warden of My Hope
Photo by Mikel Ibarluzea on Unsplash

Sometimes wildflowers miraculously grow under the canopy in the forest and the effect is spectacular. Through small spaces in the tree-obstructed sky, thin beams of light find their way under a carpet of dead leaves to warm the seeds and bulbs beneath it. These beautiful bursts of color among the browns and the greens of the woodland continue to be illuminated by streams of sunlight that sustain them. The result is a speckled canvas of purples, yellows, and reds lit up as if they are on fire.

Seeing such a resplendent endeavor in my own backyard often stops me in my tracks. This time I allowed myself to become mesmerized by the magnificent sight for much longer than I should have. Getting lost in the random panorama caused me to cry, almost inexplicably. Emotions had crept into my consciousness and I regretted that I'd allowed them in. After letting the tears tumble across the dry lines on my haggard face, I did some deep breathing and reminded myself there were matters to attend to.

By now, I am only about 50 years old, or perhaps 51. Although I look considerably older, surely I am not more than 52. I don't have a calendar and my memory remembers what it wants sometimes. It's hard to know how long it's been since I found myself here after the party for my divorce.

I drove a Maserati then. The car had barely more than 1000 miles on it. It was a gift to myself for all I'd put up with during those five years I was married.

It must have been a four-hour drive to the cabin that day but I don't remember it all. Only the barn owl, screeching in disapproval of my arrival, stays etched in my memory of that day. It seems like a lifetime ago.

I was still in my fancy dress with a tiara tucked into my updo. The girls had taken me out, the ones that still supported my side of the relationship anyway, and we wouldn't just be gathering at a random bar.

No, I deserved a formal affair. I deserved high-end champagne flowing in tall glasses throughout the night, in a private room at the best restaurant. I deserved my well-dressed companions spouting positive affirmations as to how well I was going to be now that I was single.

Everything was going my way, it seemed. I retained custody of the penthouse condo in the final dissolution, along with my pre-relationship financial portfolio. There was also a recent promotion at work. I was on top of the world. And yet, somehow that night ended at my father's hunting cabin being glared at by a large bird who resented my entrance to his lair.

That owl is still around, or maybe it's one of his offspring at this point. I'd swear though, that the judgemental predator glaring at me from the large elm these days is the same one that did so that morning eight to ten years ago. How long do those damned animals live, anyway?

It was still a bit cold out today. Too cold to lie in the small creek for my version of a spa day now. I like to pretend I am just a rock or a piece of wood and let the water wash over my body for an hour or two. I take comfort in being one with an entity moving forward. I try not to think of myself as a hindrance to its journey but as a part of the framework. Unfortunately, the conditions weren't right.

It was time for my semi-annual trek to the city to replenish canned goods and empty out my post office box. It was an ordeal that took a full day to plan for. I needed lists to ensure that I picked up everything I needed. If something was forgotten it would be a long time before I could attempt to get it again. The old Ford could have used an oil change but I already decided to put it off until the next trip. Doing the regular errands would be draining enough.

I checked the five large plastic rain barrels set up behind the cabin and noted there was enough water for a proper bath. I set out for extra firewood to heat it up.

It took a good effort to make myself presentable these days. I do so as to not call any attention towards myself as a "crazy old lady" at the supermarket. My nails were scrubbed as best I could and I even used some conditioner on the unruly tangle of grey curls that surround my lined and haggard face. I was aiming to just be left alone and remain unnoticed.

The city I was headed to was more than an hour away. There were a few towns in between but it's easier to be an anonymous stranger when you're in a bigger city. The long drive there would give my flip phone a chance to recharge and once in town I could exchange the library books I'd taken out under my other name. As much as my old self would have looked forward to what would probably be a productive journey, the new me dreaded it.

Although the city where I got my supplies was significantly smaller than the one where my penthouse had been, some reminders of that life still found me there. Large corporate banks, like the one I'd worked for, had branches there. Salons, boutiques, and coffee shops beckoned me. They had a big box home improvement store, with its customary line of immigrant labor waiting outside. I made a great effort to avoid it, despite how I could have used the help and the lumber with my current window project. It would have been just too great of a reminder.

I rushed through my list of things to do, counting the minutes until I could get back on the road to the cabin. I desperately wanted to return, as soon as possible, to that broken-down cabin that caused me injury after injury to repair. I longed to be at the tiny home I shared with a variety of unwelcome rodents. To the place where the majority of my meals came out of can and had to be heated up on a wood-burning stove. The cabin had no refrigeration or oven. There was no running water or indoor toilet. It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. And it was the place where a large nocturnal owl tormented me with bloodcurdling screeches and eyes of damning condemnation.

My father had always wanted a son and, even though I was something of a tomboy, he never took me hunting. It was just as well. I wasn't remotely interested in killing animals. But when he died, the hunting cabin and the 58 acres surrounding it, were willed to me. There was a trust that paid the taxes and explicit instructions on maintaining the water rights. It even had a reforestation plan in case of fire. I'm not sure why he thought I wanted it but he made sure it was taken care of.

I had practically forgotten about the place, having never visited it once in the 38 years since we tried to have a Daddy-Daughter weekend there but I'd complained nonstop about the insects. I knew he'd gone there frequently when he was alive, not just for game but for solace. For some reason, that came to the fore of my memory when I was in the Maserati cruising around my ex's new neighborhood after we'd all left the restaurant at closing time.

My inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement led me to drive around the city after far too many celebratory cocktails. My pride took me several neighborhoods away from the party to see if I could tell what my ex was up to. I wanted to drive past the house a few times and hoped that perhaps a set of curious eyes would see my flashy new car. The car would tell her I was doing just fine being alone and held the promise that I wouldn't be for long.

I know now I wasn't fine. I was lost and feeling sorry for myself and thought that buying luxury items to flaunt in front of my ex would quell the fear and loneliness that consumed me. If was being honest with myself I would have realized my ex wouldn't have been all that impressed with my purchases anyway. I hadn't fully realized it then, but my materialism had been a source of contention between us during those blissful five years. If only she could see me now.

The man I ran down that night was an immigrant. He was the kind of person who stood in front of big-box home improvement stores waiting for temporary work. I have no idea what he was doing, walking out there, in the middle of the night. I didn't even know I'd hit someone until that damned bird screamed at me and I saw what my expensive car looked like.

My first self-absorbed thought when I looked at that dented, dirty vehicle was that it was damaged and would cost a fortune to repair. I have a hard time reconciling what kind of person I must have been for that to have been my first reaction.

The bird snapped me out of it, thankfully. The screech of a barn owl is rather dramatic and I felt the wrath of his own vilification when he looked at me.

Barn owls tend to live among us invisibly. One could be a few feet above you and you'd never notice. There was no reason for him to call attention to himself unless it was to chastise me for being a terrible person.

I started to remember bits and pieces of an accident later. When I got to an area with internet conductivity I searched my phone for information. There was barely a mention of the person I had crippled. Many of the details were missing and it left me with many questions that I still wonder about.

In another act of materialistic self-absorption, I tried to assuage my guilt by paying the man and his family what I felt was a substantial amount of money. I did so anonymously, of course. I have yet to publicly admit my guilt.

The idea that throwing a few dollars at a family could erase the pain and hardship is ridiculous to me now. I know that civil courts do this all the time but, trust me, it's a superficial response to a deeply complicated circumstance.

I have since given that family everything I owned except this cabin and a small stipend I need to survive on. Someday they'll have that too. From what I've seen in the news, they appear to be grateful for the donations but no amount of money will repair a broken spine. It seems outrageous to me that anyone would think a few dollars could make that situation acceptable.

Due to various circumstances that even I don't understand, there is no arrest warrant out for the perpetrator who destroyed this man's life. No one is looking for me. I am not in hiding.

My penance at the cabin is a way to pay with my soul not just for what I've done, but for who I was. If you have any inkling of the way I thought of myself back before the accident, you'd understand that this way of life is far more punitive than any prison could possibly be.

I know now I didn't deserve that 'celebration'. If anything, the person I was then was mostly in need of pity. People who are the way I once was need stigmatization for being greedy and living so excessively. People like me need to know they are nothing special simply for being affluent and that vindictiveness isn't a trait to be admired.

I don't deserve to live free and unburdened. I require disapproval wherever I can get it and for now, that disapproval is expertly delivered by an unusually critical barn owl.

He is the most important figure in my life right now and he probably always will be. If he hadn't been there at that moment I might have gone on with my old ways, rationalizing that I'd done nothing wrong and was 'still' a good person.

Sometimes seeing the wildflowers in the forest gives me hope that I can be redeemed. If those glorious pockets of color can emerge from the darkness perhaps the same could be said of me. I would like to think it's possible to be forgiven. Could someone like me ever be welcomed back into the embrace of regular society? Perhaps. Would I ever forgive myself? I think that possibility is even less likely.

For now, however, the barn owl reminds me there is more to consider and learn.

Short Story

About the author

Nancy Gwillym

I'm a soon-to-be retired paramedic in NYC. I'm also a crazy cat/bird/etc lady who writes stories. Thank you for reading!

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