A pair of rocking chairs, arranged so as to look out over the valley below, stood on the stoop of a neat log cabin high on a hillside. One of them responded to the blustery cold autumn wind by tipping to and fro, creating a rhythmic knocking on uneven floorboards. The sound resonated around the cabin, and startled the old man who lived there into venturing out to check that there was no-one sitting in the chair. Finding both chairs unoccupied apart from the faded cushions on the seats, he appeared saddened rather than relieved, and despite the cold wind, he sat himself down on the other chair and rocked there, watching the watery sun sink below the mountain peak beyond the valley below, and listening to the other chair's noise against the wood floor as the wind moved it.
As the light faded, so too did a light in the eyes of the old man, who made no move to get out of the chair and return to the warmth of the little house, despite the bite of the wind. There was no one to chase him indoors, no one to warn him of the dangers of hypothermia, no one to wrap his knees in a blanket. And no one to mourn him, no one to bury him, no one to say words at his graveside. Instead his body sat in the chair.
There was also no one to watch the work of nature that followed. A Golden Eagle was early on the scene and with its powerful beak and claws ripped at the meagre pickings. Carrion crows waited until the Eagle had had its fill and then moved in, squabbling over the leftovers. The mess that they left was visited by blowflies, who laid their eggs and left. And the larvae hatched, and feasted, growing big and plump very quickly.
A year later all that was left was an incomplete skeleton and some fabric rags, and a family of foxes found it and the cubs took the bones to play with. The sturdily built cabin remained, its door firmly shut against intruders, including the inquisitive bears that came, attracted by the tantalising smells that might have been food. And whenever the wind blew, the chairs rocked and the floorboards creaked.
The little log cabin withstood the force of fifteen more winters, and the roof didn't leak, and the windows held, and the wood beams that formed the walls turned from brown to grey as they were successively scorched, drenched, frozen and scorched again. The cabin stood through it all. And so it was that when a pair of more-than-usually adventurous hikers came across it one bright crisp spring day, they were entranced by the beauty of its setting, and by the quaint picture-book aspect of the little house. High on the mountainside, in a sheltered hollow formed by some ancient glacial action, the cabin looked out over a magnificent view right across the broad valley with its central lake and beyond it to the snowcapped mountain peaks in the distance. The intruders gasped.
It had been a long hike up the lower slopes of the mountain, and they had had to stray well away from the usual paths to find the high cirque with its solitary cabin. So they approached the little house and establishing, by the cobwebs and leaf litter surrounding the door, that it had not been lived in recently, they sat on the stoop to enjoy the food from their rucksacks. They did not sit in the rocking chairs.
So the first people to set foot in the cabin in fifteen years were a young couple, he tall, gangly, fresh-faced, she small, bubbly, with a head covered in unruly golden curls. And they only got as far as the stoop, respect for the property of others preventing them from trying the door – which they would have found unlocked, though the catch might have rusted. Conscious of time, they did not dally long, but shouldered their rucksacks, now slightly lighter, and headed back down to their guest-house accommodation in the valley, and the remainder of their holiday together.
The little cabin was the subject of much conversation between them over the next days, and they began asking the local people about it. They asked the landlady of the guest-house, and the librarian, and the postmistress, and they discovered that it was known as Ben's Cabin, and that Ben had died many years ago. Who the present owner might be was not generally known, but it was thought the local solicitor might be able to help.
The office of Turner and Grubb, Solicitors, lacked the imposing grandeur of the premises of a big city law firm, but it suited its occupants very well. Mr Grubb, a little overweight, slightly scruffy, genial, middle-aged, welcomed the young couple with a broad grin and a handshake and ushered them into his tiny chaotic office. He was able to tell them that the entire estate of one Benjamin Mitchell Stephens had been inherited by a Joseph Thomas Henderson, but there was no address on file for Mr Henderson other than Ben's Cabin. He accepted their commission to try to locate the present owner of the cabin, and if possible to negotiate its purchase.
Their vacation ended and they returned to the big city to resume their daily routine. Mr Grubb discovered what information there was to be discovered, and reported back to them by letter. As a result of what he told them, they made several visits back to the office of Turner and Grubb, and to the cabin on the mountain, and eventually, now married, they returned a final time and set up home in the cabin.
The owner had not been found; there was no record of Mr Henderson having sold the property, but he hadn't been heard of since the reading of Ben Stephens' will. He had no immediate family, no parents or siblings living, no children, but he had three nieces, who had reported that their father had disliked Joseph, and had cut off all contact with him at least thirty years ago, and since their father was now dead and Joseph was not in contact, they couldn't say precisely why that was, and nor could they suggest where Joseph might be found. If he was still alive, they thought he would be around eighty-five years old.
The young husband and wife had received instruction on the law relating to squatters' rights, and took up residence in the cabin on that basis. They spent money on improving the water supply and drainage system, and provided a small windmill to generate electricity. They looked upon the project as a great adventure, and enjoyed making the cabin into as comfortable a home as they could. They bought some new furniture and disposed of some of the old things, including the rocking chairs.
On the day when they first opened the door and stepped inside, they were amazed to find that the place had been left as though in a hurry. There was a plate and mug on a table, with marks which might have been the remains of a meal still visible. A pan was in the sink, with black goo in the bottom which must once have been the remains of some food cooked in it but not yet washed. Other pans were stacked neatly on shelves, each clean and bright, so it was odd that one pan was left unwashed. The big bed in the one bedroom was neatly made, with the counterpane neatly turned down at one side as though someone was about to go to bed. There were signs of occupation everywhere, but no sign of the occupant.
The girl opened the drawer in the bedside table and rummaged around. She drew out a little notebook. Inside, written in a neat, upright hand, was a kind of journal. She felt a sudden revulsion about prying into the private life of a person long gone from there and closed the book, then pushed it down into her pocket. She remembered it there that night when she took her clothes off, and sat on the side of the bed reading it for a long time. After reading the last entry she closed the book with tears in her eyes, and added it to the items she packed into a suitcase to go into storage. Things that needed to be kept, but which were not immediately needed or wanted.
The novelty of living in such a remote place, so high above the valley below, wore off in the winter when the gathering of wood for the stove took up a lot of their time. And when, the next spring, their twin boys were born, they made the decision to move back down to the valley, where they would be near the school, and the doctor, and shops.
By squatter's rights, the cabin became theirs, and they continued to spend some weeks there every summer, and although they enjoyed the comforts of the spacious family home they had built on the edge of the lake and with a view over it to the mountain in the distance, they enjoyed the simple lifestyle that the little cabin imposed upon them each summer. The boys loved it, and roamed all over the mountain, getting to know the plants and animals that made their homes on its slopes. After all, they too had a home on the mountain, although they had to sleep on the floor since there was only one bed.
The years sped by, and soon the boys were grown tall, and in the summer did not want to spend weeks up in the mountain far from their friends. So the family no longer went to the cabin every summer. For three years it was not visited at all, and the following year the parents went without the boys, who were now deemed old enough to be trusted at home on their own for a couple of weeks in the school holiday.
Twenty years took their toll and the couple who had been young, adventurous, idealistic, had become middle-aged, cautious, world-weary. Their sons had become adult, and took their place as the young adventurous idealists in the family. The boys had shared the experience of growing up with each other, as twins do, but now began to grow apart, also as twins do. One of the boys married his childhood sweetheart and set up home with his wife in a small house near her parents. The other boy, having no childhood sweetheart to marry, stayed at home, studied, passed exams, qualified as a solicitor, joined the firm of Turner and Grubb. Old Mr Grubb was happy to have the help, since Mr Turner had retired the previous year, and the boy became invaluable. Mr Grubb changed the name in the window.
The young solicitor made few friends, he was very quiet and shy except when behind his desk, where he developed a way of putting his clients at ease, and an ability to tell bad news with the minimum of upset. He began to form the idea of leaving home, and tentatively began talking to his mother about the old cabin. Perceptively, she retrieved the suitcase that contained things stored from the cabin, and found the journal. She gave it to her son to read, and it helped him to make his decision. Within two months, he was living in the cabin. His parents came up to help him move in, and then again to visit. And they met the young man who they found living there with their son. What they made of this living arrangement we will, perhaps, never know. But the parents continued occasional visits to their son and his friend up the mountain, and the boy and his friend frequently visited his parents, or his brother and his family, when they came down into the valley.
The two young men spent some money, improving a path up the mountainside, making it passable by Land Rover, so that it would be possible for them to commute between the cabin and the town. They made some further improvements to the cabin – better insulation, a hot water system, and they added a second bedroom; the guest-room, they called it. And after that the parents began staying overnight when they visited.
Winter arrived, and on the first really cold night they went to bed early, and warmed each other under the bedclothes. They had been in bed for some time, and found they did not want to turn the light off just yet. One of them (which one of them? It hardly matters) reached for the little book on the bedside table and read aloud from the journal that had been found in the cabin so many years before. He read the last entry:
Dearest Ben, I've tried, I've really tried, but I can't go on. I used to love the cabin because it was our home, you and me together, where we were free, and happy. So many years of happiness together, and now everything here reminds me of you. I see you sometimes, so clearly I could almost reach out and touch you, and I ache because I know I can never do that again.
I wonder why I am alive? There's nothing for me now, I have no wants, no unfulfilled ambition, no mountain left to climb. I just want to be with you again. And I'm here in our cabin, just waiting to die. I'm an old man, alone, and without you I find life has no purpose. Will you come back, Ben? Will you come and fetch me away to you, and please, Ben, will you promise never to leave your Joseph again?
The journal ended there, the writing marred slightly by a watermark that just might have been caused by a tear fallen on the page. Outside their bedroom window, the two young people heard an odd sound like a pair of rocking chairs tapping the floorboards as their occupants rocked contentedly together.
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