It rested softly in her hands, aged and frail. “Do you want to open it now?” asked Angela.
Her brother shook his head and looked toward the black cockatoos brutally pruning the eucalypts by the creek. The land sloped down from the house, overgrown shrubs crowding around what had once been an expanse of lawn. “When I was six, this was as a big as a cricket ground,” he mused. “Now look at it. I used to think that there were bigger and bigger things waiting for me out there in the world. Bigger than I could even imagine. But there aren’t. Things shrink as you get older. Your house, your town, your life get so small you can’t live in them any more.”
Angela put the letter down on the single table. It was the only piece of furniture in the room, although they had each brought a large cushion from the house. “Well, take your time then. We can do it tomorrow. If you like.”
“Yeah, fair enough, it’s the reason we’re here so we should open it,” said Jake. “But it’s the last one. Feels like we should, I don’t know, do something special.” His eyes were still turned to the windows but he could feel the presence of the letter behind him. The last letter.
Angela said nothing. She acknowledged the impressiveness of the cockatoos but there was something scary about them; they were so black, so senselessly violent when they felt like it. No, it was the garden that kept her attached to this property. She could try speaking to the new tenants about the state but in all fairness it was still kept to a reasonable standard. It just wasn’t the way she remembered it. Tinged green even in summer thanks to a belt of rainforest swaddling the property. Space to play games with the hose on hot days. Time to watch her mother suddenly appear with a tray of cakes whereupon Angela would offer to go to call her father from The Lighthouse. And as dusk rested its head he would appear from the two-storey outbuilding where he passed most of his days. He would pick her up and smile as she described how good the cakes were. Over his shoulder the gaunt wooden tower was empty. No-one was ever seen there except their father.
“You know, he never ate any of the cakes.”
“Papa never ate of the cakes that Mum made,” explained Angela. “You remember, we’d be playing Head For The Hills or some other game in the late afternoon and she’d come out with something for us. And she’d say that Papa would come down for his later. And whenever he came down, he never had any. Just looked at it once and said it was for us.”
Jake stretched his neck but kept looking out of the windows. “He’s been dead a long while now … I don’t think it matters. Do you?”
“Bugger you, Jake! I’m just trying.”
“And what, what about this?!” he exploded. Jake spun around and flung out a hand wildly. “What the hell is it? I’vd never seen a structure like this elsewhere. No kidding. And I don’t ever remember coming here when he was alive. But I remember he was here. I watched him from through the kitchen window from the stools at the bench. He’d go all the way to the bottom of the garden, then disappear for a few seconds, then I’d see his face again.” He spun suddenly once more as if lurching to a new realisation. “Here! With his face at these very windows. All on his own. The last months of his life he was here, in whatever this was. For what?!”
“I don’t know, maybe he talks about it in the last letter. Look, what you were saying about making it special. What if we make cakes or something. As if it was Sunday afternoon in the garden and we were waiting for Papa to come down. When it’s time for him to come down, we’ll offer him some of our cakes. We make them now. We’re grown up. He’ll take one for us, you’ll see. When it’s time for him to come from The Lighthouse, we’ll read the letter and he’ll be there with us.”
The windows whined slightly, a sign that it was getting cooler. Up at the house a single light above the back door was already collecting moths. Jake turned around slowly. “And I want to leave the letter here tonight. As if he was writing it. So when we read it tomorrow it’ll be like he was here.
* * * * * * * * * *
Night is so mute I can’t sleep. There are noises out there but they belong to other times. I don’t really hear them. It’s empty now.
No, he’ll be along soon, we can have some without him, I’m sure he won’t mind.
I like nature but I don’t like camping … how does that reconcile?
He’s resting. We can’t take him cakes now. I’m sure he wants you to have his.
For us it was only a summer house. But mum spent her last years here. Said if she was going to get funny in the head she might as well do it away from ferret-nosed neighbours. Sold our old house in the suburbs and bought an inner-city townhouse for us. It’s close to my work and Jake’s gone back to Uni to do a Masters.
This is a story he wanted you to hear. He made it up himself. His throat’s a bit sore so I’ll read it.
We don’t get much rent for it, but at least there’s someone here. Jake and I only come up for a look every six months or unless they ask. This current guy likes to be left alone a bit. Only says what he has to and then he’s waiting for us to get on our way. Wants to be talking to the organic artichokes he has growing round the side patch. Funny thing is that Papa talked a few times about growing artichokes. Said they were his favourite vegetable, flowers of heaven.
Angela, can you please go and play outside with Jake for a while. I’ll be out soon but I have some things to arrange with this man. Please.
Once a year we come up here and camp for a weekend. Just to remember what it was like. We bring one of the letters with us and sit down to read it. We’ve always done it in the Lighthouse. It wasn’t decided or anything, that was just the way it started ten years ago.
“According to a codicil of the last will and testament of the late Mr Albert Winters, the presence of Ms Angela Winters and Mr Jackson Winters is requested at the office of Solictors XXXX … “
Seeing as Jake had reached a certain age, we were given these letters. There was a handwritten note attached to the bundle saying he would be grateful if we took the time to read them, and Papa’s signature. Ten letters.
Time is against me. Once I thought the world was, but such illusions can be lived through. Other things cannot. By the time these letters reach you, you will both be old enough. Not quite my age, but then again I never grew up. We are infants before each other, are we not? So vulnerable to each other’s words and movements. Withal transience or balance, presence of mind or indecision, I cling but loosely now. These are my last words.
* * * * * * * * * *
It’s the kind of dream where you know you’re in it, you’re aware it’s a dream, and you even know that if the absurdity gets really out of kilter you might be able to flee to wakefulness. I’m sailing down a river, a pleasantly-wide blue gusset to a valley I don’t recognise. But each tree we pass has a grey cormorant lounging on an extended branch and each cormorant bears the face of someone I knew from primary or high school. Many of them I can no longer name but the faces are as clear as … as what? As the class photographs I have in my memory? I stare at the cormorants, trying to rearrange them into various years and the regimes of various teachers. The boatman of the raft, after having observed me for some time in a state of mild disorientation, pulls a shot from his locker: he says the price of the trip has doubled and if I won’t pay then he’ll just take me back. As if you want to pole this barge back up river, I challenge. Well you’d better pay or I’ll just dump you somewhere he retorts. You’ll be marooned. Ma-roo-ned! I’m an orphan I say. Can’t get much more marooned than that. Mum died early last year when she has hit by a truck. She had various chronic illnesses anyway, everyone was surprised she lasted as long as she did. Papa died when I was almost six. But I never thought of myself as an orphan even then. He was somewhere; I just had to find him. It’s like a treasure hunt and you know it’s out there in some place but probably not that obvious. I’m telling all this to the boatmaster and his eyes are rolling like Chinese acrobats. The letters came into our lives after I turned twenty-one. Angela and I had to decide what to do with them; we knew we sort of wanted to keep them for a rainy day. We still used to come down here every summer with mum. We’ve read one letter each year. Does that sound like a lot, Mister Boatman?! You wouldn’t believe these letters, each one is like a little book. They go for pages and pages. Each one takes a subject and my father tells us everything he knew about it, what he thought about it, what he wanted us to know about it. Mum said he wasn’t very together during the last year of his life. That’s apparently when he wrote these letters. But she never read them. Didn’t want to. So she never knew how brilliant they were. And probably no-one else ever will either. Angela and I will keep them to ourselves. I’ll never be marooned Mister Boatman, not by you or anyone else. I’m the orphan who wasn’t. My mother carried me in her belly, I’ll carry her in my heart. My father spoke his knowledge to me, I’ll listen all my life. Boat or no boat, mate. The boatman falls backwards into the river, goes down with barely a ripple of anguish and takes his pole with him. Suddenly cormorants come from everywhere, from upriver and down, from left bank and right, from past and present. These cormorants now have the faces of complete strangers. Each one, I can see, wants to tell me a story. They arrange themselves around the perimeter of the raft with one eye on me and another on the upcoming bends in the river. I feel safe.
* * * * * * * * * *
Angela put down the plate. The letter was in the centre, and around the perimeter was a careful arrangement of ten butterfly cakes.
“Ho ho, ten and all, that’s mighty significant. My sister’s been taking lessons in How To Be Momentous.”
“Shut up, it was a packet mix and it made ten. Who’s complaining? You’ll eat a couple every time I turn my head.” Angela made as if to seal the offer with a pout but Jake was gazing through the windows again.
“But did you really get it, Ange?” he asked simply.
“This. All this.”
“You mean the letters? Well, I think Papa wrote the letters to tell what he wanted us to know.”
“Exactly. He knew he was dying. We didn’t. Or at least I didn’t. You? I doubt it. It was your job to protect me. They would have set you on the other side of the Dark Secret, not made you drag it around with you. Papa is dying. The three words we never heard. I don’t know that it would have made a difference.” Jake stamped one of his feet. “But I wanted to hear it. Not then. Now. It’s now that I wish I had heard it then. I would have … I don’t know, it just would have been different.”
“I never knew Jake, I swear.” She rested one hand on the shoulder of her brother, shuddering as the caustic January wind through the trees.
The afternoon yawed toward evening. The cockatoos returned, cakes disappeared one by one. Angela offered the letter to Jake but he waved her to read it first. The Lighthouse’s ageing bones creaked in the heat. Jake opened one of the windows and breathed in stewed summer until it was his turn. Angela picked at a cake while he read.
“That’s all there’ll ever be,” he said blankly. “There’s nothing left. No more letters, nothing.”
“I think I know what this is, Jake. It was us who named it the Lighthouse. Before that I don’t think it had a name. Papa’s study, whatever. I don’t remember exactly, but it was some other name. After he died we were allowed to play in it. We made up the game about the ship going around the cape. One of us the ship, the other the lighthouse master trying to warn it away.”
“I remember. It was a good game.” Jake smiled at the plate empty of cakes. “You’re right. But so?”
“It was a Lighthouse. I mean, it was for Papa too. What does a lighthouse do, Jake? It watches out for ships. Papa had this built so he had a place from where to watch us. He knew he was dying. He knew it probably wouldn’t be pretty. But he didn’t want to hide away in a room. Not like, umm, like a sick room. So he made a special room. This is it. Turn around.”
She guided him until he was facing back towards the house. Vines blocked the kitchen window but the door, still in use, was quite visible.
“See. Everything. From here he could see the place where you played cricket against the back wall. Where I sat and drew in my scrapbook. Where we did television news in a cardboard box. He was watching us. He couldn’t do anything about his illness, but he made sure he saw of much of us as he could. And why here? Why didn’t he just sit in a bath-chair in the shade? Why, so he could write these letters Jake. He spent the last year of his life solely for us. Watching us, writing for us. We were the only thing that mattered to him Jake. He wanted to be a lighthouse for us. He wrote these letters to help us on our way through life, safely, with confidence, with peace. He watched us with all the love he had. Our father wrote ten glowing messages to our future, and I’m glad I have them. Navigation, Jake. A Lighthouse and ten stars to guide us on our way. ”
Jake took his sister’s hand. The cockatoos howled away in a black cloudburst that disappeared over the ridge. “You’re right,” Jake murmured. “Always were. They were wrong about you. They could have trusted you with the secret. You would have known what to do.” He squeezed her fingers, the tiniest nudge that says I am here, I am here. And somewhere inside him a voice says I am here, I am watching, I am here and and I will watch forever.