The Lark
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The Lark

Snuffing Out the Light

Should the truth be revealed or left to molder in the dark?

Fingers reach in to extinguish candle light.
Photo and digital art by Raine Lore

My mother had been pleading with me for ages.

“Please, dear, go and visit your grandfather. His mind is going rapidly — soon it will be too late; he won’t recognize you!”

I snorted derisively. “Yep, but I will recognize him. Not sure I’m up for that.”

“Lizzy, try to be more grown-up about things. You know he was a good father to me.”

“I don’t know how you can overlook the fact that he was a lousy husband to grandma for all those years,” I replied sanctimoniously.

“We don’t know what went on behind closed doors, love,” she reminded me. “Put your prejudices on hold and take a drive out to the bay.”

“Wouldn’t be comfortable staying in the same place as him,” I announced.

Mum produced a look of triumph. In her mind, I had capitulated by speaking of an overnight stay. When I realized my error, it was too late.

“No worries,” my wily parent replied. “Dad has a full-time carer now — Nancy. “She‘ll be there to make you feel more at ease. I’ll let her know you are coming. When shall I say?”

And so, once again, my mother’s skilled negotiating techniques, learned from years of selling encyclopedias door to door, had helped her make the sale!

It was difficult to pretend to be out of sorts.

The scenery from my grandfather’s backyard was glorious. Built on one of many gentle hills, the house had sweeping bay views; a vista of blue-green water dotted with colorful miniature vessels. Rolling green hills swept gently down to greet small stretches of golden beach, caressed by frothy undulating wavelets.

I was standing at the back boundary of the backyard, which was fenced to guard against unexpected falls down a steep incline to the ocean. I drew in a deep, revitalizing breath and turned to walk back to sit with my grandfather and Nancy.

Nancy was a nice older lady, with infinite patience, and a head full of world knowledge. Mum had been right; Nancy made me feel welcome from the moment I had pulled my car up to the front of Grandad’s lovely cottage.

She had noticed my approval as I gazed over the cottage gardens, brimming with color, surrounded by pristine lawns and neatly trimmed hedges.

“He still does all the yard, you know,” Nancy remarked that evening.

“Really?” I was surprised. “I thought Nana had taken care of the yard when she was, um, around.”

“Nope. The way I understand it, your grandmother took care of the house, he took care of the outside.”

The backyard, overlooking the ocean, was also well cared for, and I marveled that someone with dementia could still manage such a task. Nancy said my grandfather was probably operating from habit, allowing him to handle familiar tasks. She was quick to point out that she kept a close eye on her charge when he ventured near the back boundary line.

There was a time when I would have encouraged Nancy to stay inside with the laundry or attend to cooking duties when grandfather went outside to take care of backyard maintenance. You never know, the fence might be old and weak in places — unfortunate stuff can happen sometimes!

But now, I was beginning to soften my attitude. Grandad had greeted me with enthusiasm when I arrived, asking after my mother, and telling me how much I reminded him of my grandmother. I hoped that was a good thing, but he was smiling and patting my hair when he said it, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts of my nana were on my mind when I approached the garden seat under a beautiful spreading jacaranda tree. Nancy smiled, moving over to allow me to sit next to my grandfather.

The old man reached over and patted my hand. “She looks just like my Ella, doesn’t she, Nance?”

Nancy gave me a raised eyebrow expression. “You know I never met your Ella, Burt.”

Grandad looked to me for support, confusion in his eyes. “Of course, you did, all those holidays we spent here. How could you forget?”

I squeezed the old man’s hand. “I remember, Grandad. All the grandkids, Mum and Dad, Nana — they were great times.” I lied just a little as they weren’t always the best of memories. When the grownups thought the kids were asleep, bitter arguments often broke out, usually over my grandfather’s drunkenness and abrupt treatment of my nana. He could be a very difficult man to please. He certainly had a knack for spoiling things.

Grandad’s eyes seemed to glaze over with sadness. “I miss her so much! I don’t understand why she doesn’t come home! Why doesn’t Ella ever come home?” He turned to look at me, a tear running through the craggy lines of his skin.

Suddenly, his face brightened. “Ella!” he announced emphatically. “You’ve come home! Where the hell have you been?”

Shrinking back from his outstretched hand, I narrowly avoided an intended pat to my cheek.

“You haven’t changed a bit. Tell me you’re here to stay!” His animated face belied the dark sadness of his aged eyes as more tears slid from the craggy corners to run in rivulets to his chin.

My grandfather’s hand gripped mine like a claw; I was at once fearful and saddened.

“It’s alright, Burt,” soothed Nancy. “Lizzy is your granddaughter, remember?”

Nancy leaned over and gently pried my hand free. “Lizzy, you should go up to your room and have some time to yourself. We’ll see you at dinner. Okay?”

Glad to escape, I walked quickly away and headed towards the house; the sound of my grandfather’s pleading voice followed me.

“Don’t leave me, Ella. Please come back! I’m so sorry about everything. Come back… Eeeella!”

Thoughts of my grandmother sent me into an unexplained fugue. Nancy and Burt were still outside, so I took the time to explore the bedroom at the top of the stairs, which had long been referred to as the attic.

The attic held old-fashioned chests and yellowed cardboard boxes. Mildewed and dusty clothes hung on hangers wherever a hook was available. I recognized, with a sense of sad nostalgia, an old rocking horse Grandad had made for the young ones to share during holidays. It was still a marvelous piece of craftsmanship, not appreciated when I was a child. I would ask my grandfather if I could take it with me when I left.

It didn’t take me long to discover a box of old photo albums, which I manhandled back to my room. A dark feeling of despondency, difficult to analyze, still muddled my mind. I put it down to my grandfather’s outburst, but I knew it was much more than that.

Hundreds of photographs and other memorabilia covered my bedspread when Nancy called up to say that dinner was ready. I was reluctant to leave my discoveries and apprehensive about facing my grandfather, following his outburst in the garden. Still, I combed my hair, splashed my face with cool water, and joined them at the table.

I needn’t have worried. Grandad was happy, almost jovial, and Nancy kept the conversation flowing with interesting accounts of the local native flora and fauna. My ears pricked up when she began to talk about the caves several hundred yards along the beach. They had been a popular place for adventure when I was a child, forgotten over time.

“I remember the caves, Nancy!” I exclaimed with pleasure. “Nana used to take the kids there when we were little. Not too many people knew about them, but we loved them. Lots of small dark tunnels to get lost in and a few exciting caverns as well. Nana enjoyed them as much as we did!”

Grandad seemed to wake up from a happy trance at the mention of the caves. “What about the caves? Don’t think they are there anymore. Dangerous place for kids, if you ask me.”

He fell back into a morose mood, leaving me to wonder if all dementia sufferers displayed such outbreaks.

A thought suddenly occurred to me.

“How do you know about the caves, Nancy?”

Nancy hesitated for the barest of seconds. “Stumbled across them myself when I took a walk along the beach. I was a bit reluctant to venture inside. I’m not good with enclosed spaces, you know.”

Early the next morning, I slipped from my grandfather’s house and walked carefully through a light mist to the back perimeter of the yard.

I had noticed a set of reasonably solid, but weathered steps leading down to the beach, and I remembered using them often in days gone by.

The mist began to clear with the rising of the sun, and I took a moment to stand on golden sand, to marvel at the sheen of an almost motionless bay, still dotted with sailing craft and some early morning fishers.

The dark feelings of the previous evening were still with me as I walked purposefully to where I thought the caves were. As I drew close, I realized I would have to start physically searching for the cave entrance because years of falling stones, overgrown cutter grasses, and seaborne driftwood cluttered what might have once been a fissure in the side of the hill.

Half an hour later, I found the old cave entrance. My torn fingernails scratched hands, legs, and exhaustion bore testament to my determination to reveal my childhood playground.

“No way Nancy just stumbled on this,” I mused. “This hasn’t seen the light of day for at least twenty years.”

Although everything was telling me to forget about the exploration, I felt a pull; a need to go further; to try and unearth what it was that had stimulated my intuition into action.

I always go prepared and so it was that I had a trusty flashlight stashed in my back pocket. Suddenly, the exploration of a dark, dank, claustrophobic space carved by sea into the side of a cliff was very unappealing. I wished for the bravado that was mine during childhood.

The entrance to the cave was just as I remembered, only smaller. Of course, the fact that I was at least twice the size since I last visited would account for that. With beads of sweat on my brow and my hands trembling, I navigated the narrow entrance, then crawled through a confined tunnel to the first chamber. I was able to stand and shine my light around the small space, which illuminated old soft-drink cans and bottles. Amazingly, a cola bottle I had planted firmly on a flat rock all those years ago was still there!

This was as far as bravado had taken me during my childhood. Tales of spooks and lost souls had driven me out of the cave, and as I grew older, my interest waned.

I knew, however, that there was at least one other chamber to explore.

The thought of traversing another cramped, dank tunnel on all fours terrified me, but the thought of not doing it worried me even more.

The tunnel, deep in shadow, was difficult to find, and when I did, I discovered crawling was unnecessary. The space was sufficiently wide and high enough for an adult to walk through. That was some relief, but I couldn’t shake the thought that if an untimely earthquake should suddenly decide to rock this part of the bay, I would be squished, and undiscovered, for the rest of eternity.

The thought of Nana, the beautiful, lively spark of a woman I remembered from my childhood, seemed to be driving me forward. In my little girl’s brain, I used to think that Grandad was jealous of her. She was so vital and alive; the life and soul of any party. Later, I embellished the thought with an idea that Nana was way out of Grandad’s league; a beauty he had somehow ensnared, afraid she would one day escape. And then, of course, she did. But no one had ever discovered how, or why, or where she had gone. Mum had said something about not knowing what had gone on behind closed doors. Poor Nana! Was Grandad a beast behind a closed door? I was inclined to think so, except for the horse in the attic.

What the hell did that have to do with anything? I found it difficult to see hands that lovingly crafted a magnificent toy, being the hands of an evil man. The horse was a testament to wood craftsmanship, adorned with lovingly sewn leather accessories, and a paint job that was the work of a true artist. The horse was a tender gift to a bunch of loud, raucous, and wild grandchildren; kids that never failed to put a smile on Grandad’s face.

Shaking my head free of confusing thoughts, I cleared the second tunnel and stepped into a quite large, rather airless chamber. The room held the invasive smell of dead fish and rotting vegetable matter, but it was devoid of the rubbish that might have been left by children.

At first glance, my torch revealed only sand, rocks, and something shiny over in the far corner of the cavern. I almost missed it in the first sweep of my torch, a glint spotted from the corner of my eye. Cautiously, I retraced the arc of my light, then honed in on the object of interest.

With my neck hair saluting the dark, I approached to discover an old bottle sitting at the base of a large rock. So much for no rubbish! Lifting the bottle into the light of my torch, I noticed what appeared to be a note sealed within.

“Well,” I thought, “this is creepy. Probably somebody’s idea of a joke. Let me guess, “Help me, I’m stuck in this bottle!”

I unscrewed the lid and, using a pointy stick of driftwood, I managed to coax the brittle paper from its prison. A cold chill ran unbidden down my spine.

I sat on the rock to read, praying my torch batteries would hold out.

“Dear whoever finds this letter, I have a burning need to confess, but I just can’t tell anybody about this. I am hoping by the time this letter is discovered, I will already be long dead, and my family will be spared the horror of what I have done.

Ella was my one true love, and now, I have killed her!”

My hands shook wildly, almost dropping both the letter and my torch. Taking deep breaths of fetid cave air, I tried to calm myself and read on.

“She loved the bay, she loved the caves, she loved so many things, but she didn’t love me! I know she visited men in here, men who sailed in fishing dinghies to steal time with her, men who could somehow give her something that I could not.

“I came here to confront her. The pain of loving her was killing me. In some sort of misguided way, I thought we could work out a compromise. Ella was horrified with me. Horrified that I had breached her inner sanctum, a place that was hers. She screamed. I screamed; she screamed some more. We began pushing each other and then the unthinkable happened — she fell and hit her head!

“I buried her under the big flat rock, in her inner sanctum. I hope she finds peace here because I certainly will never find peace again. All I can hope for is that something will happen, and I will somehow forget this tragedy, that my brain will block my Ella out, and, too, the part I played in her death. I only hope she will somehow find her way home!”

The letter was signed, Burt Thomas.

I sat for some time on Nana’s flat rock, trembling, undecided, wracked with pain over Nana’s loss and Burt’s loss, too. The whole thing was too terrible to comprehend. Eventually, I returned the paper to its holder, recapped it, and placed it back where it belonged.

When I finally exited the cave, I was surprised to find Nancy sitting on the dappled sand. It appeared she was waiting for me.

Smiling gently, she asked, “Did you find her?”

I nodded, tears slipping down my face.

“She was my friend,” whispered Nancy.

“I know,” I replied. “I saw Nana’s photos. You were in most of them.”

“She was wonderful — we all lived for her smile, her sense of humor, her praise, but she was wild, uncontrollable, and Burt couldn’t tame her. Those of us who loved her enabled her, I’m ashamed to say.”

“He killed her, and she killed him in return,” I muttered sadly.

“When I heard of his dementia, I applied for the job as his caregiver. I wanted to help him live his life out in comfort and peace. He has never recognized me, you know.”

“I think you’re wrong about that,” I replied, reaching out to take Nancy’s hand, and assist her from the sand. “He said as much yesterday.”

Arm in arm, we walked back down the beach.

“What will you do?” Nancy asked, a frown creasing her forehead.

I shook my head sadly. “Wait for someone else to find Nana. Perhaps the authorities will get a call after Burt passes on.”

Nancy gave me one of her loving smiles. “Burt asked me to give you an old rocking horse he made. He thought you would be the only one to truly appreciate the work that went into it.”

I nodded. “I understand my grandfather better now, but there is a lot to forgive.”

“Perhaps,” mused Nana’s wise friend, “forgiveness is not ours to bestow.”

If you enjoyed this story, you might like ‘Lobelia’s Infusion’.

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