MAYA DROPPED THE SHOVEL and stepped away from the hole, her gaze drawn to the Doc Martens box on the grass a few feet away. Livingston is in there, she thought, hardly believing it. She had lost two cats before, but they just didn’t show up for a few days, so there was time for the reality to sink in. But this. She had found Livingston just off the road’s shoulder, an unmoving form, his gray fur moving in the breeze.
She had wrapped him in a towel and sat with him on the kitchen floor for a good, long time. Someone had once told her you should sit with the deceased so as to able to better accept things. That was so right, Maya thought. She had sniffed back tears while cradling him for a solid half-hour. When she’d gotten hold of herself, she carefully laid him in the cardboard boot box she found in her closet and took him out the backyard to bury him, which is when the weird thing happened.
Maybe it was a response to what she decided to do—or rather, not do, which was to try and figure out where to dig. Instead, she did something that was very un-Maya. She asked for guidance—from the universe. Why? She didn’t know.
Please, she had thought. The first prayer of her life.
She had walked the grounds slowly, listening in to her thoughts, hoping to sense something—an idea, an inspiration, a direction. Do this.
When she reached far end of the yard where the grass passed under the fence into the woods, the weird thing happened: Sort of a tug at her shoulder.
She wheeled around.
No one was there.
Then, another tug.
She felt an urge. A powerful urge. She found herself gazing at a particular patch of lawn near the big oak tree. She rushed over, and as though on autopilot, began to dig.
Now the hole was almost deep enough. Staring at it, Maya felt an odd mix of sadness, bafflement and excitement, which was actually a welcome change from what she had been feeling of late—depression. A gloom had settled over her after she’d moved back in with her mother four months ago, right after graduating from Towson U. Most of her friends were traveling, moving to real cities, starting lives. And what was Maya doing? Drifting. Languishing. She had earned a degree all right, but a piece of paper didn’t do anything. A person did. And this one was clueless.
She rammed the shovel’s blade into the hole like a harpoon, thrusting it in over and over and lifting out mounds of dirt. The pile was growing fast. She would figure out how to go on without Livingston, though she wasn’t sure exactly how to do that. It was so easy to love a pet, far easier than people. They asked for so little, yet gave so much.
Her gaze drifted out toward the street in search of her mother’s Lexus. Maya couldn’t help it, the hypervigilance. It happened all on its own. If Muriel pulled in now, well, things could get interesting. Maya could practically hear Muriel’s gravelly, too-loud voice: How could you! Do you have any idea how much I pay the gardener? Unbelievable!
But she probably wouldn’t be home this early. She was working again, gracing the world of home buyers with her practiced spiels as she showed houses most every day right up until Happy Hour. After that, it was often a different, darker story.
Maya paused to tie her hair into a ponytail with the scrunchie on her wrist. She lifted up her face, feeling the sun’s warmth on her cheeks. Things would be fine. She’d figure it out. She forced a smile, mostly as a reminder that one could be happy. People tended to like her smile. Often, she sensed their attraction to her soft, expressive face, and to her vulnerability.
She stomped her boot on the blade, feeling the tip sink into the earth.
What was this? She tapped around in the dirt, probing.
Huh. She dropped the shovel and crouched down to look, seeing a shiny spot. Excitedly she brushed it clean, as a metal surface came into view. She scraped a gully around it with her fingers and pulled, and out popped a metal box.
Astonished, she set it on the grass in front of her. She stared at it. What was this? Treasure? Here in the backyard? The box was about the size of one of Grandpa Burke’s cigar boxes. Beautiful images were engraved on the lid: the sun, the moon and many small stars. There was rusted clasp on it. Maya took hold of it, and without wasting another moment, lifted it.
The treasure was a leather-bound journal, chestnut brown, cold to the touch, yet somehow warm at the same time. She took it out and felt its weight. She opened it.
“Oh, my God,” she said, staring wide-eyed at the first page. “This is impossible. This can’t be.”
Yet there it was—the answer to a riddle that Maya had tried to solve for as long as she could remember. Written on the worn, yellowed page was a single sentence that reached forward from the past as if to grab her and shake her violently.
To Maya, with love from your father
At the bottom he’d written, “Ben Ambrose.” A revelation. His name, in his writing. She turned a few of the pages, and realized what she was holding in her hands: his story, from around the time of her birth. What had happened, why he left.
Memories flooded in, unbidden, and she was pulled into the current. The years came back to her—mostly the desire, the yearning, and ultimately, the disappointment. Muriel would not speak of him, ever.
As a child, Maya had tried to find him. She had pored over every corner of the house in search of clues—a page with his signature on it, a wallet, a baseball glove, anything. But she found nothing. Until one winter morning.
It was a photograph pressed into the pages of an old map book, hidden in the cramped storage space beneath the stairs. A man’s eyes beckoned to her. Maya knew it was him. She rushed to show Muriel, who looked closely at the image. A shadow crossed her face and she turned away. And without saying a word, she slid the photo into her purse, never to be seen again. But the memory lived on in Maya: Muriel, and yes, Ben, sitting on a bench, the tall buildings of a city rising up behind them.
And now this! Maya fell back on the grass, grinning up at the bright sky, hugging the slender volume. She would savor it. She would consume it. She would read each line a hundred times. She would read between the lines.
A few feet away, the old bench-style swing caught her eye. She smiled. No, she thought. Not yet.
She laid the journal back in its box and picked up the other box, jolted back to reality by the familiarity of the weight—nine pounds that had never been so still—and again, tears flowed. Livingston had been eleven, exactly half Maya’s age. He’d been with her just five years. Now he was gone. Looking down at the hole, she thought, One out of the earth, one into it. Was life like that, an even exchange through a revolving door?
She gently placed the boot box into the grave. “Goodbye, sweet Livingston,” she said. “Goodbye.” She picked up the shovel and began to replace the dirt and sod.
The rusted frame of the swing creaked in protest of each of Maya’s gentle pushes. She opened the journal in her lap to the first page. She immediately smiled. It was his handwriting, which looked much like hers, a crazed mix of cursive and printed letters, just barely legible. She was exuberant. The bond was forming. Had he had as difficult a history around penmanship as she?
As a child, Maya could not write a single sentence from start to finish without all sorts of interference creeping in, as if her brain and hand weren’t synced up. She remembered hearing her third-grade teacher, the prune-faced Mrs. Booth, tell the class that Maya’s papers looked like relief maps. Maya had to look that up. How could she say that? Maya had been doing her best, and with little help from anyone.
Now, for the first time, she viewed her labored penmanship not as a liability but as an inevitability. An inheritance—from a father. My father.
She began to read.
Maya, I miss you already. And you are right here in front of me, sleeping sweetly as I write this. Whatever has happened or will happen, this much is true: I love you.
There is no easy way to explain why I must go. My reasons, which are—or I should say, were—compelling, cannot match the disappointment you must feel in not knowing me. It is my sincere hope that this can change.
It is early evening as I write to you in my study. My window looks out onto the farm—
Maya set the book down, feeling suddenly light-headed, slightly dizzy. His words, to me. It was beyond belief. She grabbed hold of one of the swing’s support poles, seeking for comfort in its solidity.
It was true. This place had once been a farm. Maya remembered those years well—summer afternoons spent ranging over the fields in search of Indian arrowheads; playing Capture the Flag with the neighborhood kids in the tall grasses; just walking. At dusk she loved to stare out of her bedroom window at the sun setting over the rolling hills.
Then Grandpa Burke passed away and the property went to Muriel, who promptly sold most of it to a condominium developer. So what if the farm had been in the Burke family for a hundred and fifty years? Muriel didn’t care. It was prime real estate situated in the beautiful Maryland woodlands of northern Baltimore County, and worth a lot.
In time, the neighboring farms were sold, too, and Plainfield gradually became a suburb, its former rural nature sliding into the forgotten past. Muriel had had the farmhouse demolished and a tract mansion built in its place. It was “upscale.” It was “the next thing.” To Maya, it was cold and efficient, the thief of a beloved past, of little value in the way she saw value.
One thing remained from the old days: a small section of picket fence at the far end of the yard near the woods, weathered beyond recognition, like a headstone from the Civil War. Muriel would not say why she had left it. Maya imagined her father gazing at it from this very swing as he wrote in his journal.
She read through a few passages in which he expressed his guilt at leaving her. Maya had strong feelings about that—feelings she would set aside for the moment. Then his tone changed.
So let me get on with it. I am a researcher at the university and elsewhere, and this is where my message to you begins. In my work, I have stumbled (and that is the right word) onto the discovery of phenomena having to do with the way that change comes about. By change, I mean societal change. The way cultures evolve.
As I dove further and further in, analyzing the data from every possible angle, seeing the results confirmed in test after test, I came to understand that what I had found was truly extraordinary. I tell you this, Maya, because you must be warned. Everyone must prepare.
A global change is coming of such magnitude that every human system—nations, governments, cultures—will be transformed. Societies will be rocked. Cultures will disintegrate and be reborn. Monumental forces churn, even now as I write to you. But this is not what you may think. The change will be internal, coming from the inside of man, not from without.
The old does not yield willingly to the new. Great discord often accompanies great change. You, dear daughter, must be ready. But take heart, for the storm will not last. Look beyond its violence to the nourishment of the rain, for that is its greater purpose—
Maya set the journal down, again feeling overwhelmed. She focused on her breathing to try to calm herself. She pressed her boot to the ground to stop the swing. I must understand this, she thought. She had to comprehend it. But it was a lot to take in. Fantastic, is what it was.
No great change had happened in the years since he penned those words. No “storm” had struck. One could say the world was crazy and ever-changing, but it was pretty much the same world from one day to the next.
She frowned, as she stared out at the woods. Who was this wayward father of hers? Why would he write such things? Was this how he wanted to introduce himself to his daughter? As unhinged?
Yet she desperately wanted to make what he’d written all right. She was determined. She started the swing up again, gripping the rusted iron pole, pushing hard, hoping for an idea.
After a few minutes, a smile spread on her face. She realized that he was right. Incredible. There was validity to his predictions, for hadn’t the most incredible one just been proven correct?
I found your journal.
He had buried it in that exact spot, expecting that she would do just that.
But how could that be?
Just then a car horn honked, startling her. The book almost fell from her hands. Josh’s Mustang was idling in the driveway. He waved to her.
Maya looked over at him and then back at the book, torn, her heart still racing. She would tell Josh to go away so she could remain on the swing and take in more of this miracle, this catalog not only of her father’s life, but probably hers, too. But then she recalled how insistent Josh had been that they go out. She waved to him.
“Be right there!” she shouted.
She placed the journal back in its box, and snatched it up and dashed for the house. In her room, she slid it far under her bed, sending the dust balls down there skittering like tumbleweeds across the hardwood floor to gather at the base of the wall.
Standing at the bathroom sink, Maya scrubbed the dirt and tear stains from her face and ran a comb through her hair, pleased to be looking at an attractive young woman who had kept her tan through the long Indian summer, a woman about to get a grip on life.
She grabbed her jean jacket from the back of the chair and started for the door, but then stopped, bent down low and peered under the bed.
“Later, Dad,” she whispered, noting the strange feel of that word on her lips.