Rowan was eight years old when he broke his mother’s heart. In truth, she had broken her own heart, but people prefer to blame others for things like that, even their own children.
“Oh, don’t you look lovely in your new dress? Come here, let mama do your hair.”
Robin hated having her hair done even more than she hated the dress. But mama was warm and would hum little songs while she worked, so she let it happen.
“Robin! What did you do to your shoes? You promised you wouldn’t get dirty this time and now look at them, they’re ruined! Why do you keep ruining all the pretty things I give you?”
Robin hadn’t promised anything, mama just liked to talk without waiting to hear what Robin had to say.
Eventually, even letting mama fix her hair had lost it’s appeal. Her warmth had become uncomfortable, she no longer hummed little songs, and her smiles were sharp and scary.
The day Robin took a pair of scissors to his own hair, mama’s screaming was piercing and incomprehensible. He tried to again explain but his voice was never loud enough for her to hear, so instead he ran away to escape the sound.
That was the year his father took him to visit Auntie Nadia, the year he first became “Rowan”, the year that stretched into a lifetime measured only in cool mountain breezes and bubbling laughter.
When he came back home, his father decided he would become a laywer and enrolled him in an elite private school. Dresses and hair-clips were replaced with books and expectations.
Rowan never saw his mother again.
On Thursday, for the first time since he started college, Rowan calls his father.
“What is it? I have a meeting with a client in fifteen minutes.”
“Is Auntie really dead?”
There’s a loud sigh on the other end and then a brief silence. “I meant to call you about that. I hope you didn’t listen to anything that hack lawyer said. They probably just want money to cover funeral costs or something. Don’t get involved.”
Rowan swallowed back a collection of words. “Um… do you have any pictures of her?”
“Pictures of your aunt? What for?”
“For an altar.”
Rowan grips the phone as it goes silent.
“I’ll take a look. I have to go.”
For a moment, Rowan feels almost disappointed that his father hadn’t mentioned his grades. But the feeling is fleeting. All his thoughts and emotions seem to be draining out of him rather rapidly now. He wonders what will happen when he’s left empty. Rowan makes it to the edge of his bed before his legs give out. He stares at the bare wall in a daze as the conversation with the lawyer sinks in.
“Yes, Nadia has you listed as next-of-kin. We have no record of her having any children. Do you believe this is a mistake?”
“I— No. I mean, it makes sense. I think.”
“Alright. In that case—”
“Um. When— How did—” His mouth feels dry. “Will there be a funeral service?”
“It seems the nearby town held a small service for her two days ago. I’m sorry we couldn’t get news to you sooner.
“I spoke briefly with your father. I understand he’s a lawyer as well. I assure you we won’t be asking you for anything during this process. And your father won’t be able to interfere unless you involve him as your lawyer or guardian. He has no rights over this matter, per Nadia’s wishes.”
On Monday, Rowan catches a bus to the next city. He had done a bit of research over the weekend. Everything the lawyer told him over the phone checked out, but he was prepared to comb through the paperwork himself.
Ultimately, Rowan signs the papers and takes the bus back to his apartment clutching a large manila envelope.
On Tuesday, a smaller envelope arrives from his grandparents. Rowan sets it aside.
The next two weeks are a blur. Rowan attends classes but nothing sticks. His make-up Political Science paper never gets turned in. Suddenly it’s Thursday morning again and Rowan stops in the doorway of his apartment, staring out at the lone tree in the parking lot and finally asks himself, why?
He takes a step backward, lets the door close, and starts packing.
It’s a strange and chaotic fervor that keeps him going that day. He has half a bag packed and the contents of a drawer strewn across the floor when he jumps to his feet, grabs his wallet and keys, and runs to the convenience store at the end of the block. The ATM inside is even more convenient right now; he’s already ignored three calls from his father today.
Rowan doesn’t remember sleeping that night but he thinks he must have at some point. When Friday morning comes around he feels…relaxed. He walks to the same coffee shop he goes to every week, orders his hot chocolate and pastry, and throws his phone’s SIM card into the trashcan on the way out.
Vaguely rectangular shapes blur beyond the train’s large windows. The passenger car rocks steadily, a rhythmical clacking of wheels upon rails that lulls Rowan into a light doze, only to be jerked awake by the loud squealing that fills the empty space with each sharp turn and every stop. His head is filled with buzzing that refuses to take proper shape. He doesn’t know what to think, about his aunt or about what he’s doing now. He’s afraid to think at all.
It’s dark, nearing midnight according to the clock above the station. Rowan stares at the clock to see if it’s even moving but in the end he’s still not sure. He walks over to the graffiti-covered area map and uses the flashlight from his phone to figure out where he is. A notice at the bottom tells him there’s a shuttle that travels up the mountain twice a day.
He looks around the station, at the two flickering lights above and the darkness beyond. It feels a little like a dream. He hasn’t felt awake in a while.
Somehow the first shuttle feels like a lifetime away from this moment lost in time, and Rowan doesn’t feel like waiting that long. He moves his backpack to his chest, puts his duffel bag on like a backpack, points himself in what he thinks is the right direction, and starts walking.
There’s no moon out tonight and not a single street lamp along this mountain path, but his eyes adjust to the faint light from the stars. The signs are few and far between, but the names all match the paper in his pocket, so he keeps walking. Turning back isn’t an option. It never is on paths like these.
The unknown ahead is frightening. And from this perspective, the past behind him is too. He doesn’t think about it. Thinking requires oxygen and his legs need that more right now.
Tonight, walking forward and walking away are conveniently the same thing.
When Rowan sees the first hint of light in the sky, he wonders if the clock at the station had been broken after all. To his right, along the edge of the forest, is a large rock covered in vines and moss, with something carved into it. Beside it is a steep dirt path that is easy to miss but just wide enough for a small Jeep or SUV. On the left, he sees the road split off toward a couple of buildings — the first he’s seen since he started climbing. The name on the sign matches. This is the town that had held Auntie’s funeral service weeks ago. He watches a pickup truck drive turn toward the town. It occurs to him that no one knows he’s here at all.
Rowan stares at this stone marker he can’t even read, with no memory of this place whatsoever, and starts walking up the dirt path.
Vines and grasses carpet the ground, muffling the crunch of dry leaves and twigs beneath his feet. One day Rowan would find the mixture of life and death here fascinating, but he had not yet traveled that far. He continues walking, doing his best to follow the road even as it narrows, winds, and fades. Young saplings encroach on the path as if the forest is already trying to erase it from memory. Rowan wonders how long it’s been since his aunt was healthy enough to clear it.
He stops, staring at his feet. The path had disappeared. He turns around and can still see the path he’s been following until now. He looks back ahead of him and before he can panic, catches a glimpse of something between the trees.
Ahead, in the direction the path alluded to but did not reach, is a cabin, quietly waiting for him in the middle of a small clearing. Or rather, it had been a clearing once. Not much of it could be called ‘clear’ now. The forest is taking this back too.
The cabin looks like what you might imagine any wooden cabin to look like, with stone along the base and wood everywhere else. Except the stone is green with moss and overgrown vines, and the wood has turned an ashy gray.
Rowan thinks it looks perfect. He also fears it might fall apart before winter arrives to finish him off. He stumbles toward the fragile-looking front porch as he tries to reconcile those two thoughts in his mind.
It’s the key that does it.
On the porch, Rowan shrugs off the duffel bag and rummages through his backpack until he pulls out the large manila envelope.
The entire walk here, Rowan has been filled with a sense of certainty. He recognizes nothing. Not the station, nor the mountain road, nor the names written on his piece of paper and repeated on the signs he’s passed. Even the cabin itself doesn’t call forth any memories — only a confusing sense of longing. Still, he’s so sure this is right.
The moment he tips over the envelope and lets the key fall into the palm of his hand, it all comes crashing into him at once. He doesn’t even get the chance to open the door. Instead, he falls to his knees on the porch, clutching the oh so familiar key to his chest, and cries.
Rowan was eight years old and sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, wrapped in two or three colorful blankets and sipping hot chocolate. Freezing wind whistled past the windows as the blizzard outside continued. Auntie sat next to him, in yet another brightly colored blanket, with her own mug of hot chocolate. The two of them talked about something, about nothing in particular, and about more than Rowan had ever talked to anyone else about. Rowan’s father had often thrown words at him which demanded two-word responses like, “yes, sir”. His mother on the other hand, would say lots of words very quickly, so quickly that Rowan could never respond. As Rowan listened to his aunt’s lively response to one of his many questions, he wondered why they weren’t more like her.
“You know, Rowan,” she said as they walked through the snow-covered forest. “In the winter, everything is quiet, so you need to be careful and make sure you don’t make too much noise.” Rowan paused mid-step, then tried to put his foot down slowly. The snow still crunched beneath it. “In the summer it’s fine, everything is noisy anyway. Even if you yell they rarely notice.” Rowan tries his best to tip-toe in the snow while Auntie laughs into her glove.
Rowan held his hand out. His aunt dropped several small round things into it. Rowan looked up at her. They didn’t look like peanuts or beans.
“They’re seeds,” she explained.
“For planting. Come on, get your boots on.”
The ground outside was still covered in a thin layer of snow, but the sun high in the sky warmed Rowan’s face more than it had in a while. Auntie was bundled up a little less than usual and holding something in her hand. She beckoned Rowan over and he walked carefully to avoid slipping in the mud.
Auntie used the thing in her hand to push the snow out of the way and make a little hole in the dirt. “Drop them in.”
Rowan dropped the seeds into the hole where they disappeared among the dirt. His aunt filled it back up and patted the ground gently.
“Thank you. Want to help me with the rest?”
Her smile was so pretty Rowan said yes even though he didn’t want to get all muddy.
Sunlight filtered through the bright green leaves of the brand new canopy overhead. The ground below them was soft, warm, and moist; but fresh grasses kept it from getting muddy. Birds sang cheerfully and fluttered from branch to branch. Some even flew down to see what they were doing. He wondered if the ground might just swallow him whole.
“But what if I drop it?”
“Then it falls.”
Rowan frowned. “But then we won’t be able to eat it!”
“That’s okay, someone else will come and eat it.”
Rowan nearly tripped over his own feet, but managed to catch the ripe tomato before it hit the ground. He sighed in relief.
Auntie laughed but the next tomato came at him anyway.
As they approached the cabin his aunt put an arm out and stopped him.
“What do you say you and I race to the porch?”
Rowan blinked. “Really? But—”
In his surprise, Rowan had waited too long and had to chase after her. Still, once he started moving, he raced past her easily, feeling lighter with each step. He ran right up the porch and into the door, laughing loudly.
He turned around to see Auntie sitting on the steps of the porch, leaning back on her elbows and laughing too.
Auntie was wonder. She was joy. She was alive in a way Rowan’s parents and teachers weren’t.
She was alive in the way Rowan was dying.
Would I be saved if I stayed here, he wondered.
I submitted this piece to six Creative Writing MFA programs in 2019. If you enjoyed this piece please consider buying me a Ko-fi to help me cover application fees! I have a goal set up on my Ko-fi page so you can see how it’s going. I appreciate the support while I wait to hear back from the programs!
I started writing this piece around March of 2019. It went through many transformations before coming to rest in it’s current form. There’s actually an entire second part of this story that I may or may not write later on. It’s on the back-burner for now, we’ll see.