He walked along the side of the mountain behind his uncle’s cabin, where he’d spent a cold night shivering on the floor. He’d half expected the old man to still be there just as he was all those years ago, unapologetically broken toothed, waving away as his nephew walked down the long path toward the highway that led to the city. But the cabin stood empty now with only the unblinking eyes of two busted out windows to greet his return.
It hadn’t occurred to him that his uncle wouldn’t be there, not once in over fifteen years and fifty thousand miles of riding shotgun with red white and blue truckers and old couples offering coffee and the gospel. Not once. His uncle had always been there to greet him as he’d lain on his dorm room bed and walked his way back up the trail, had been waiting as he’d lain on a bare floor. He’d lain on moldy bunkhouse mattresses, and squeaky camp cots, and in grassy ditches and walked his way back to his uncle. But only now that he had walked back for real, he found the old man gone.
He didn’t know why he’d never made it back before. He’d wanted to. He’d wanted to until his body bled with rot gut whiskey and his lungs oozed constant streams of cigarette smoke. But how could he go back home without his dreams? Those dreams his uncle had tended like they were the seeds that would one day grow to crops to keep them both from starvation? The dreams the old guy’d packed in the rucksack like precious heirlooms and sent him down the road with? He’d lost those dreams. A quick glance in his eyes would have given away how hollow they now were—all that as lost.
It was shame really that had anchored him to the road.
Somewhere along the way the dreams abandoned him like runaway lovers, and slowly he replaced them with the ghosts of old memories: a cabin on a mountain side, fly fishing with a patient old man, nights playing cards at the kitchen table by the light of a Coleman lantern and the whir of an airtight stove.
He pulled a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and some papers, then crouched and set them on his lap. He pinched a little tobacco between his fingers and dropped it on a paper, before rolling it into a tight tube and sealing it closed. Surveying the land as he stood, he tucked the pouch away. The sky filtered through the bushes like deep blue berries, as he lit his rollie and started off again, not exactly sure where he was going. Not that he’d ever been sure where he was going. Not the day he walked down the mountainside. Not in coming back.
After he’d lost his dreams, he’d chased after new ones. But every time he got near the gilding faded to show the facade: a girl, a job, a promising opportunity—none of them the real thing. And then when he’d seen there was nothing of substance behind the shiny lure, he’d run from them. Each and every one.
He picked his way along a deer trail that snaked through the brush. He could hear the soft footfalls of his uncle just ahead of him. Hear his breath. He squinted his eyes and in the early morning fog, the outline of the old man’s broad shoulders in a red lumberjack coat came into focus.
Gloria would be crying now, waking to find he hadn’t come back. He should have felt more guilt, but then he figured she should have seen it coming. The truth was, he had always left one foot on the road, had never been able to get it past her door, always knowing that the day would come when both feet would have to stand on the same side. Yesterday was that day. It was kind of a shame that things worked out like this, because she’d been a good woman. It was never that she wasn’t the marrying kind. It was just that when he looked at the back of her head in the dark of the night, it didn’t make him forget the dreams he’d lost.
He dropped his cigarette into a deep indent made where the hooves of deer and the hands of time had worn through the moss, and snubbed it out with his boot. Uncle, where are you?
The wind answered with a rippling of pine boughs and a shaking of birch limbs.
Why did I come back here?
The harsh squawk of a raven stood the hair on the back of his neck on end.
I lost them. I don’t know where they went. Wearily, he settled his weight on a fallen log. I had them, but I lost them. I don’t know where they went.
Through the curtain of foliage came the whispering reply. They’re here. Bent-backed and marked with the heavy awl of time, the old man stepped out into the light. Well, damn! Been a long time. Didn’t expect much to ever see you again.
The man rubbed his eyes. Uncle?
Well who else did you come to see?
His tongue tied itself in tangles leaving him speechless.
So where do you think they went?
I don’t know, the man said lowering his eyes and shaking his head. That’s what I came back to find out.
Sliding over, he made room for his uncle to set his crooked frame down. He took one of his uncle’s weathered hands and held it tightly. It was the type of connection he hadn’t reached for since he was a child, but he needed now. It was too much. Fifteen years of self-imposed emotional solitude had left him so starved out he couldn’t hardly get out of bed most days.
The old man smiled. Come on, I got something to show you.
Still holding the time tanned hand, he followed silently through the bush.
So, you want to find your dreams? I looked for mine for a long time, too...looked out my window for you to come back here with your fancy degree and fat spoiled kids, and thought maybe I’d get one of those telephones installed and we’d talk on Sundays. Or maybe I’d move into town and play bingo on Wednesday nights and babysit for you and your misses on Saturdays. But…he turned back to face his nephew…you didn’t come back at all. And I got to realizing that morning, that morning when I packed those dreams up in your bag, I packed the wrong ones. He stared deep into his nephew’s eyes. It was mine. I sent you down the road with mine. And, here I sat with yours. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get filled up with them, you know? Tell me son, you ever get filled up with mine?
The man shook his head.
They came to a clearing and the old man stopped.
I don’t understand. How did I take your dreams away with me?
Well, it’s like this... His uncle laid down in the tall grass. Beside him a rusty axe blade and grey worn handle protruded from a stump.
Uncle, are you all right? The man bent and offered him a hand up.
The old man waived off the help. See, you walked out of here with a rucksack full of wanting a fancy degree and a wife and a big home and all those big notions, and you left behind a life of trapping and fishing and hiking the back trails of this here mountain. And when a man’s carrying the wrong dreams, they can’t never be the right ones. Those wrong dreams, they got to be put to rest. New ones got to grow, the kind meant for the soil of a man’s own heart.
He shook his head. No, I really wanted to make you proud. I really wanted to do it all for you.
His uncle let out a deep guttural laugh. Horse shit. You never wanted to leave. I wanted to leave.
He peered into his uncle’s eyes and the flecks of them became like tiny wood ants, scurrying along the surface. He reached again for one of his uncle’s hands, but it lost substance, crumbling like water logged timber. The old man’s mouth fell silently open and from it sprouted a tiger lily. Ferns grew up between his ribs, and mushrooms from his shoulders.
Desperate to hold on to his uncle, the man brushed aside the tall grass that surrounded the decaying debris of an old tree. Beneath it, the limbs were stripped bare, but for the scattered shreds of rags from a faded lumberjack coat, and the scattered dark patches of mildew freckles against bleached bones.
The man fell to his knees.
He sat there for a time equal to fifteen years, smoking home rolled cigarettes beside the body of his uncle who had long ago met his end of the road.
When he felt he had no more tears left in him to cry or prayers left to make, he stood again and started back toward the cabin, gathering bits of dry brush along the way.
He came to the place of his childhood home with its busted out windows, and carried the bundle inside, opened the ancient creaky door of the rusty airtight stove and placed the tinder and branches in its belly. He took his lighter from his pocket and lit the fire.