I was ten when I became a man, that’s what my father told me anyway. It was when my innocence was taken from me. Snatched by the hands of fate, not quickly, but slowly and cruelly. A boy should remain a boy until the time is right.
It was to be a rite of passage, my dad said. Just like it had been with his father. We were to discover ourselves. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, I was too young.
Rock Creek started as a small trickle just off the interstate, in the middle of a lush forest. He told me that even the smallest of things can achieve greatness. That was the first time he mentioned something I can now look back on and think of as profound. I shivered to start with, as the icy weather seeped through my jacket.
We followed the stream down, as the flat mulchy forest floor gave way to rocks and gnarled roots of decades old trees. A few hours later, when we finally made it to the bottom and pushed our way through the underbrush, we heard the sound of the rapids.
I was stunned. Such power. It was as if mother nature herself was roaring.
“That all comes from that little stream?” I asked in awe.
“Yup,” he said, looking to the sky concerned.
The day was still young, though the clouds had gathered. When my mom told him we should leave it until the forecast was better, dad said it was my time, that it was important, and it was only for the day. He mumbled to himself and stopped.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He turned, as if to contemplate returning to the car.
“Nothing, son,” he replied.
“I’m not cold anymore,” I said, feeling a sweat gather under my jacket, the wind no longer cooling me down.
And with that, he continued.
The trek was easy going, a desire line from previous hikers had trampled down the path making it easy to continue on, even as the first flakes of snow began to fall. As the wind whipped up, the late autumn leaves began to shake from their gentle grasps on their branches.
Even through the sound of the rushing water my dad heard something. He put up his hand, I stopped. He pointed into the dense forest.
“Do you see that?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“It’s a bear.”
Petrified I stayed still. I couldn’t see it, which only made me more nervous.
“He’s looking this way,” he said in a whisper.
I grabbed my dad’s coat.
“It’s okay,” he said, “bears are wary of people. We have no food on us, he’ll leave us alone.”
Minutes passed, the wind died down, and the snow began to flurry. In that moment, I saw him. A big black bear, its fur almost slick against its body.
“It’s getting cold, he’ll only stay out if he’s starving.”
And with that, he plodded away.
I sighed franticly. Dad knelt down in front of me.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m here.”
And he was right, there wasn’t.
“Not much further,” he said.
I was glad when I saw the cabin come into view.
“I was born in there,” he told me, “on a day much like this. The snow is kind of fitting.”
I think the nostalgia had clouded his judgement. We should have turned back an hour before. It was as if seeing that bear had given him fool’s courage. Though he truly walked like the ten-foot tall man I idolized.
The door creaked open, revealing a run-down shack. Snow had begun to gather in the corners where the roof had come away from the walls.
“It’s not like I remember it,” he said, that was the first time I noticed something off in his voice, as if he’d walked into the wrong room and forgotten why he’d come there.
Without warning he stomped around the place, checking the windows and rooms. I turned to see the snow almost politely tumble from the sky, as if to trick us with its silence, slowly but surely gathering on the ground.
Dad returned and closed the door behind me.
“We need to make a fire,” he said, almost panicked.
He picked up pieces of wood from the floor, and I joined in automatically. I didn’t know what I was looking for, so picked up anything small enough that I could carry.
“Are these okay?” I asked.
“NO!” he snapped, a slight irritation in his voice, “sorry, but these are wet, we need dry wood.”
His voice softened almost as quickly as he’d become angry.
“Do you think you can find some dry wood?” he smiled.
I’d not seen him like that. He was always so calm and collected. I now look back and realize he was scared. He tried his best to keep that from me, though he couldn’t. He wasn’t an outdoorsman. I wonder now if that was the first time since he was a child that he’d actually gone hiking.
I walked around seeing what there was I could take back to my dad. I walked into the bedroom. There sat a double bed that had seen better days, splotches of mildew peppered the fabric that emanated a musky smell that turned my stomach. A blackened comic lay strewn on the floor. I picked it up, feeling that, although moldy, it was dry.
“I found something,” I said.
Dad ignored me, frantically trying to light the wood he’d gathered.
“What?” he barked, turning.
His face didn’t communicate anger, but something new to me. A sense of fear. I held the comic out in front of me.
“Well come on then,” he gestured for me to come over.
He ripped up the paper somewhat hurriedly. His hands shook, as he placed the strips underneath the firewood.
“I’m getting cold and hungry.”
“So am I,” he replied, “so am I.”
The comic went up in a green flame.
We watched as the flames died down, leaving behind only small embers on the wood. He lowered himself and began to blow and so did I.
We watched in fascination as the smoldering spread, until we could feel the heat on our faces. Then we stopped. Small hopeful flickers rose from the embers, until they turned into a blaze. Dad slumped back against the wall relieved.
“We will need more wood,” he said, and without asking I went looking.
On the floor in front of the fire we sat, adding a new piece of wood every couple of minutes. Dad’s initial excitement began to fade. He got up and found a glass from what was left of the small kitchen. He checked the cupboards for food, but they were bare. He placed some snow in the cup and put it in front of the fire. We sat in silence, watching it melt.
“You should drink,” he said.
“I’m still cold.”
He took off his jacket and gave it to me.
I drank the water and watched his expression fall. He’d made a decision.
I sat with my arms crossed, trying not to shiver. I could tell dad was cold, but he was doing his best not to show me. I could see his breath freeze as it left his mouth, though I couldn’t see his face, he hung his head.
“Son, do you know why the leaves change color and fall to the ground when winter approaches?” he asked in a soothing tone.
I shook my head head; engaging in the conversation as little as possible, as if to conserve energy.
“The green leaves turn the sunlight into energy for the tree in summer. But they also use up the valuable water.
“As winter approaches, the energy the leaves can produce becomes less than they consume. So, the tree does what it has to and takes as much nutrients out of them as possible, then drops them. Those leaves make the ultimate sacrifice, so the tree can survive the winter.
“Do you understand, son?”
I didn’t respond. He took out a hunting knife.
“My dad gave me this. It kept him safe,” he said, inspecting the clean blade.
“You should lie down,” I did what I was told.
I closed my eyes; hearing dad get up every now and then to feed the fire.
“I love you, you know that right?” he said softly in my ear.
“Uh hu,” I said, barely awake.
“You don’t want you ears getting cold.”
He pulled his jacket over my head.
“You’re a man today.”
That was the second from last time he spoke to me.
I woke with a startle.
“Dad? What’s that?” I said, trying to get up.
“Stay where you are son,” he replied, his voice soft, not from whispering but something else.
A huffing sound could be heard emanating from somewhere in the cabin. The slow crunches of claws on the cabin floor sent tingles into my stomach. I opened my eyes, but couldn’t see anything through the jacket that draped over my head.
“Stay still, everything will be okay, I promise.”
I felt something nudge my neck, and something else come to rest on my back.
“Hey!” I heard my dad shout, his voice almost vacant.
A snarl rumbled gently.
“Yeah that’s right,” dad said humorously.
I heard the gentle stomps as whatever it was retreated.
“Everything’s fine now, son, go back to sleep,” dad calmly said.
So, I did.
When I woke, it was pitch black.
“Dad?” I asked.
There was no response.
“Dad?” I asked again, removing the jacket from my face.
The fire had long since died, only a small wisp of smoke remained. The bright daylight beat in, I felt the warmth on my face.
I stood up, panicking, checking all corners of the cabin.
He wasn’t there. I checked the bedroom; it was how I’d left it. The only thing different was the corner where dad had been sitting, the small crack in the wall, that barely held the roof was now large enough for me to go through. The snow had mostly melted, leaving no traces of how we got in or how dad had left.
I ran to the water’s edge, hoping to find him there. A man kayaked along the river towards the rapids upstream.
“Help!” I shouted.
He changed course towards me. In the shallows he got out and dragged his boat onto the path.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
I explained and turned to point to the cabin. He stopped me, and pushed me to face him.
His voice changed into the panicked tone I’d heard from my dad the night before, “We’ll get you help. My car is only down the road.”
I took his hand and grasped tightly.
“Don’t look back,” he said, so I didn’t.
He placed me in the car, and even though the sun was shining, in the shade the warmth didn’t penetrate.
“I’m cold,” I said.
He turned the ignition and started the heater. He picked up a radio and talked. I was so tired, I didn’t listen, and in the warm car I began to fall asleep.
The sheriff drove me to the gravel road we arrived on, just a little way from the small trickle of where the river started. Mom was there, standing next to our car, just where dad had left it. She ran over and hugged me.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.
She was lost for words.
“Your dad,” she said, before breaking down, “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
She couldn’t or didn’t want to tell me.
“What’s that?” she said, as she released her embrace.
Her hand was in my pocket, and pulled out a knife.
“That’s dad’s knife,” I said surprised.
A smear of dried blood covered the blade.
“He said I was a man now.”
“You are a man, son. But you should still be a boy.”