He unfolded the musty map.
“You can see this?” the father asked.
“Of course I can see it,” she said.
“And you know what it is?”
“It’s a map.”
“You understand how to read a map?”
“Yes,” she said.
“This is where we are,” her father said, pointing at their location on the map.
“And this is where you need to go,” he said, pointing at the end of the road on the map.
“Why do I need to go?” she asked.
“Because everyone needs to go, eventually.”
“Why do I need a map? Can’t we go together, just as we have all these years?”
“No,” he said. “It’s well past time for you to go alone.”
“But what of all the beasts and creatures and wicked demons of the countryside?” she asked.
“There are none,” he said. “And you know that. You know they’re all things of legend meant to scare little children.”
“I’m still scared. I don’t want to go.”
“Yes. You are afraid. But you are no longer a child.”
He gave her map.
“Follow the straight road as we’ve always done before. It is on the map and you can see it runs straight as an arrow. Do not go off course. There are paths and trails leading off the road, but don’t follow them. If you need to, tell yourself the forests and fields are where the monsters hide in the shadows awaiting their prey. Believe what you need to believe to stay on the straight, open road. Do whatever is necessary to stay on it.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Your journey to your destination and back should be no more than 2 days, just as it’s always taken us. Just stay on the straight road, understand? You must understand, not only now, but tomorrow as well when you’re out there alone on the road.”
“I understand,” she assured him.
He gave her a canteen and an old coffee sack filled with fruits and dried meat. He placed them over her shoulder.
“These are enough to last your journey,” he said. “I have packed it for you. I have packed it for you so you wouldn’t be distracted from the task at hand. Do not concern yourself with what is or isn’t packed. Only think about the road.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“As you know, there are streams that run beside the road. As we have always done, only step off the road for water. Then step immediately back on. Follow your same steps going back to the road as you took to the stream. You understand?”
“Yes,” she said.
They embraced before she began the journey.
Under clear skies, she took the straight road for an hour, whistling and admiring the nature. She missed having her father along to converse with. Then she spotted some purple mushrooms in the edge of the woods. She stepped off the straight road to inspect the purple mushrooms. A few steps steps into the woods she saw a snail on a stump. She walked into the forest and up to the snail to touch it. She heard a rustling in the leaves. She saw a chipmunk scamper along a log. She scampered into the forest after it.
“How delightful all this is,” she said to herself.
She wandered deeper into the woods to investigate the mushrooms and snails and play with the chipmunks.
After 4 days, she hadn’t returned home.
Her father was overwrought.
On the fifth day he trekked the straight road, calling for his daughter. He walked all the way to the end of the road, calling the entire time. His voice grew sore. He trekked back to his starting point, calling his daughter the entire time. It was nightfall when he finally reached home with his voice in tatters.
In the morning, he began again. This time he wandered off the straight road. He, like many others, had wandered off the straight road before, being able to remember to follow the same path going back as going forward in order to arrive at the original point of departure from the road.
For days, from dawn until dusk, he wandered the many forests, fields and plains of the lands the long, straight road passed through. He called and called for his daughter, until his voice grew hoarse and sore. He called and called until one evening, on the last call from his overstrained throat, he heard, “It’s me.”
It was the voice of his daughter ringing through the forest.
He tried to return, “Keep calling.” That way he might pinpoint the location of her vioce.
But his throat was too worn. He couldn’t return her call, so he waited for another cry from his daughter. He waited and waited, but it never came.
The next day, with his voice renewed, he returned to the same spot in the forest. His daughter being absent for 10 days, he returned to the spot with a full waterskin and another coffee sack filled with fruit and dried meat.
He called for his daughter.
He heard, “It’s me, Father.”
“Keep calling,” he returned. “Until I find you.”
He followed her cries, stopping at last at a deep hole in the ground.
“Is that you, dear daughter? Are you down in this hole?”
“Yes,” she cried.
He peered down the hole. It ended in blackness. He got down on his hands and knees.
“How deep are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I am hungry, thirsty and cold.”
“Cover your head,” he instructed. “I will drop you an apple, water and a piece of fish.”
He dropped the food and the full waterskin down the hole.
“Do you have it?”
“Yes,” she returned.
“Are you harmed?”
“Only cold and hungry and thirsty.”
“How long have you been trapped?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was wandering a while. I ate berries and collected water from the steam. Then I found myself here.”
“You haven’t counted the time according to night and day? Can you see the sky from down there?”
“Yes, I can see the sky from here,” she said. “But I have not counted the days. I only sleep to the stars and the chirps of the crickets, then wake to clouds and the songs of the birds.”
“Be brave,” he spoke down the hole. “It is night by the time I reach home, so I must leave now. But I will return tomorrow with a rope for extracting you.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“But tell me first, how did you come to be trapped? I instructed you at length about not leaving the road.”
“I foolishly ran about the woods after a chipmunk,” she said. “I ran after it and became lost. I know it was silly, but it was so cute, I don’t know how anyone could resist.”
“But they do resist,” her father said. “And it’s very well worth considering how and why they do. Perhaps you should consider such a thing overnight.”
“Perhaps,” she said.
The following day he returned with a rope and a blanket.
He easily tracked the hole. He called into it. His daughter was still alive.
He tied the rope to a tree. He threw the unfastened end down the hole.
“Has it reached you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Feel for it,” he commanded. “You must do something.”
She felt in the darkness for the rope.
“No,” she said. “I feel nothing.”
He dropped the blanket down the hole.
“I shall return tomorrow with more rope,” he said. “And a candle. And perhaps more food and water, if I can manage it all.”
The following day he returned. He had only the strength for the rope and a little more food, his waterskin still down in the hole. And in his pocket he carried a candle and matches.
He dropped the candle down the hole, along with the matches.
He instructed his daughter to light it.
“Is it lit?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
He strained to see the flame, but the hole was too deep and dark.
“What can you see?” he asked his daughter.
“Nothing,” she said. “Only the dirt around and a little ways above me. The darkness is too vast.”
He pulled the rope from the hole. He tied the new length of rope to its end. He tossed it all down the hole again.
“Can you feel it? Or use the candle to see it.”
“Thank heavens,” his daughter replied. “Yes. I have it.”
“Praise the Lord,” he said. “Then pull yourself up.”
He watched from the forest floor as the rope went taught. It trembled. Then the rope went slack.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I am too weak,” she said.
“You need more food to regain your strength.”
“Can’t you come down and carry me out?” she pleaded.
“I have not the strength to pull the weight of us both,” her father said. “The journey out here with all these supplies makes me weak. If you were still a child of only a few pounds, then maybe. But you are no longer a child.”
He waited. His daughter returned nothing.
“But I shall return tomorrow with more food and water. And you must build your strength by pulling yourself as far as you can. That way, as your strength increases, you will be back to me in no time.”
He instructed his daughter to fill the coffee sack with any refuse and tie it, along with his empty waterskin, to the end of the rope. She did, so he extracted them from the hole, then tossed the loose end of the rope back down.
The following day he returned with another sack of food and his waterskin filled with water. He lowered them into the hole. His daughter filled her canteen by candlelight. Again, she tied the empty waterskin and burlap bag to the rope, and her father pulled it out.
“Did you practice climbing today?” he asked. “Remember, you must practice in order to regain your strength. Food alone will not suffice.”
“No,” she confessed.
“You must,” he said. “For, I have neither the strength for carrying you out on my back, nor for pulling you out from above.”
“I understand, Father.”
“If you failed to try to strengthen yourself today, then what have you done?”
“I have watched from down here as the sky passed through all its stages from evening to dawn to afternoon. And I have listened to the birds during the day and the crickets chirp at night. It is quite lovely down here, though very lovely in the moments when my attention to these things abandons me.”
“I will return tomorrow,” he said. “With more food and water and another candle and matches. But you must promise me to work on your strength. You must build your strength. You must practice pulling your own weight today so that tomorrow you might pull just a bit more.”
“I promise,” his daughter said.
He returned the following day with all that he’d promised. He lowered it all down the hole.
“Have you lifted yourself today?” he asked. “Have you practiced pulling the rope?”
“No,” she said. “The songs of the crickets were too lovely overnight and the songs of the birds have been too lovely today.”
“But you promised,” he said.
“I am sorry, Father.”
He began to cry.
“You can try now, while I am here. Please, try.”
“I am too busy eating now, Father. Perhaps later.”
He knew there would be no later.
“There is enough food and water to last you a few days. I will return in a few more days to check on you. I urge you to work on pulling yourself out. Please. Otherwise, you will remain weak and I fear you will never escape.”
He returned 3 days later with more food and water and another candle.
“How are you doing?” he called down the hole.
“Have you brought me food?” he heard.
“Of course,” he said. “And water and another candle.”
He fed them all down the hole.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asked.
“Just stay a while,” she said. “I’d like to speak with you about the stars and clouds and the crickets and the songs of the birds.”
He sat and listened until it grew dark. He needed to leave.
“I will return soon,” he told her.
“Thank you, Father,” she said.
He returned in a week with a supply of food and water to last his daughter another week.
He fed the supplies into the hole. He sat and listened about the stars and clouds and the birds and the crickets.
At dusk, he said he’d return in another week.
In a week he returned with enough supplies for another week. He sat and listened again about the skies and the songs of the birds and crickets.
On his leaving, he asked, as he always did, “Is there anything else?”
This time she said, “As you know, I am fond of grapes and pears. Perhaps, someday, you can bring me some of those.”
“Of course,” he said.
“And, I was thinking, it is so lonely down here. Perhaps you can catch me a chipmunk and put it in a little cage and lower it to me. That way I will have a friend to experience the stars and clouds with.”
“I’m afraid that wouldn’t be fair to the animal,” her father said. “So I’m afraid I cannot.”
“Why wouldn’t that be fair?” she asked. “I will treat it with care.”
“A chipmunk – like any other creature – needs more than just a hole and the stars and clouds,” he said. “I am afraid it would not be fair to the creature to put it in a cage inside a hole for your simple amusement and pleasure.”
“Thank you anyway, Father.”
Again, her father held back his tears. He composed himself enough to say, “Dear daughter, you used to speak of wishing to feel the ocean.”
“Oh, yes,” she said.
“Is this still a desire?”
“Of course,” she said. “In fact, especially of a stormy night, even down here, I still think about the ocean.”
“Then I promise, once you’re out, we’ll visit the ocean.”
“That would be delightful,” she called up.
The next week he returned. In addition to the regular supplies, this time he’d brought some ripe pears.
He lowered the supplies, then sat and listened about the sky and the birds and crickets and the taste of the pears.
Upon his leaving, he asked, “Have you thought any more about the ocean?”
“Oh, no. I’m afraid I haven’t,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked.
“The stars and the clouds and the songs of the birds and crickets seem to wash most thoughts of the ocean away,” she said.
“And you never grow tired of the stars and the clouds and the sounds of the birds and crickets?”
“Rarely,” she said. “There are moments when their attraction seems to disappear. That is when I feel my loneliness and longing for a companion. I might even think about the ocean for a spell. Then, it makes me sad to know how lonely it is down here. And how sad it makes me to realize I’ve never felt the ocean. Then, by the grace of God, I can look to the heavens, at his sky of stars and clouds, and all the sadness is erased. Like a miracle, all the joys and attractions of the stars and clouds return, as if they never left.”
There were times her father considered pulling up the rope and tying knots at intervals along its length. That way his daughter might use them as footholds, applying the strength of her legs as well as her arms for pulling herself out.
But, before executing this plan, he always paused to ask her first, “Dear, daughter, before I leave, is there anything else you need?”
He asked her again that day.
Predictably, she replied, “Only for you to rescue me. Barring that, only your occasional company. And some nuts or some pears or grapes would be nice.”
Her father sighed. He loathed to admit how he sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be best if his daughter simply expired. He loathed the thought so much, he always and immediately displaced the idea with that of his own sudden death, considering it far better solution to their dilemma.
This exchange between father and daughter went on for many years as the father grew old and far less able to carry himself to the hole. His visits grew more infrequent. The supplies he could carry grew less.
One evening he asked her, “Have you noticed how my visits are less frequent? And the supplies I can bring have grown less and less?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. Sometimes.”
“I am afraid someday I will not return at all. I am old and my end could come suddenly.”
“Then you must tell someone of my plight,” she pled. “Otherwise, what will become of me?”
“No,” he said. “I’m afraid I cannot. And will not. I will not allow this heartache to be passed onto another. I will not allow it to be any more a part of my legacy than it already is.”
“Sometimes I think you are a cruel man,” his daughter said. “Failing to extract me from this prison all these years. Bringing me nothing but dried meat and nuts and the most ordinary of fruit. And failing to provide me the companionship of any creature of the forest, as I once requested. You have been a selfish old man, I am afraid.”
“The only thing that allows me to return is my love for you,” he said. “A love that I wish could be more than it is, but sadly, it cannot be.”
“No. It is love love. It’s your guilty conscience that causes your return.”
“Guilty? Guilty of what?”
“Never doing enough to get me out of here.”
Her father no longer cried. He understood very well his daughter’s need to believe all those things. He understood how she needed to believe it as some people believe in an afterlife, while others cannot.
On what the father imagined might be his last visit to the hole, he extracted the rope and tied large knots all down its length. He tossed it back down, telling her of the change.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you’ve never cared enough to think about it for yourself.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
“For once, think. Really think, then act accordingly. This may be your last chance.”
He returned home that night and, within a week, he died.
And shortly thereafter, so did his daughter.
Her death by starvation and loneliness was agonizing, pitiful and tragic. But no less tragic than her father’s agonizing, pitiful death from his weary, abused, betrayed heart that could no longer handle the strain.