I walk toward the steep grassy hill, each meeting of my leather boots with the mist-softened earth pulsing the message that something is missing. I push open the familiar wooden gate at the trailhead and walk past the large-lettered sign forbidding hikers from feeding or “harassing” the wild ponies that live along this trail. The feeling stays with me, though I try to ignore it, and I catch myself looking over my shoulder, halfexpecting to see Mom, Dad, and James passing through the gate behind me.
James. His name is like a punch to the gut, paralyzing my senses as the shock of his death overwhelms me yet again. Suddenly I don’t see the bushes and wildflowers that surround me, don’t even feel the steep slope burning my legs, because the sound of his name has taken me somewhere far away from Grayson Highlands State Park. It has taken me back to that night, that summer visit to my parents when the jarring ring of a midnight phone call woke me from my last peaceful sleep. I feel the softness of the quilt on my parents’ bed as I sit close to Mom, straining to hear the precise English of the African voice on the other end of the line—Ajani, the man who James lived with during his mission in Nigeria. I hear Ajani tell Dad something I cannot comprehend: that James is dead, killed in a senseless outburst of violence.
I remember how, before my eyes, the lively grin James wore in his senior picture, which sat on top of the debris in his drawer, faded to a mere shadow of itself, to that indefinable tint that affects everything associated with the dead, the tint that makes it clear that the smiling young man on the news is gone, even before the anchor says a word.
I remember how certain I was that I had misheard. How I waited for Dad to laugh uncomfortably, tell Ajani how horribly the underwater phone line had twisted his words, ask what it was he had really said. But he didn’t, and my legs automatically moved me to James’ room, its walls still hung with the same basketball posters he had loved in high school. I opened the desk drawer where he always put all those things that he didn’t know what to do with or want to sort through—pay stubs from his first job selling French fries at minor league baseball games, souvenir postcards, unused key chains, old birthday cards, and photos. My fingers wandered through these tokens of my brother’s childhood, grasping each item as proof of his existence, evidence that Ajani’s words were a cruel joke. A lie.
But grief had already permeated the house, coloring everything in the room with tragedy. I remember how, before my eyes, the lively grin James wore in his senior picture, which sat on top of the debris in his drawer, faded to a mere shadow of itself, to that indefinable tint that affects everything associated with the dead, the tint that makes it clear that the smiling young man on the news is gone, even before the anchor says a word. I looked away, focusing on the opposite wall. A Terps basketball poster hung there, but even its bold reds and blacks had faded to the color of tragedy. It was that spreading and overpowering color that convinced me that James was really dead.
Birds flutter and chirp in the sunny meadow, but I do not hear them. Though I manage to tear my mind away from that night in June, I cannot tear it away from James. I travel back fifteen years in time to the day that James and I hiked this same trail amid the songs of a different generation of birds living under a younger sun.
It was the most unusual of the many times we had hiked this path together; we didn’t talk at all, pouring all our effort into moving as quickly as possible. The rocks we normally stopped to climb and the wild blueberries whose tangy sweetness we could never ignore did not distract us that day; we didn’t pause until at least twenty minutes separated us from our more reasonably-paced parents. We stopped at the border between forest and sunshine, leaning against twin smooth-barked trees as we waited for our breathing to slow to normal.
Finally, we were ready. James swung the black daypack off his shoulder and pulled out an old wooden-handled trowel and a large Tupperware container that he had “borrowed” from the kitchen—our time capsule.
The capsule had been his idea; at 13, James was fascinated with history and genealogy. “Because they last,” he had explained to me earnestly many times before. The time capsule—he had corrected me firmly when I had accidentally referred to it as a piece of Tupperware—would last too, he said.
“You put photos and stuff in it, Katie,” he had explained knowledgably. “Stuff that represents what your life is like and what people in this time period do. Someday when we grow up and have kids, we can show them where we buried it and they can add things, and they can show their kids, and one day in the future scientists will discover it and we’ll be in history books and stuff.”
“Why can’t we just bury it in the backyard?” I had asked him. I had seen no reason to haul the thing halfway up a mountain when the soil in our yard was probably deeper and a good deal less rocky.
“Because then Tucker would dig it up and think it was a bone,” he had replied, sighing slightly at being asked to explain the obvious. “Besides, we don’t want just anyone to be able to find it.”
James set the capsule down beside him as he knelt to dig. He had covered the interior with black construction paper, to keep the contents secret, he said. Secret from me, even—he had only laughed teasingly when I asked him what he was putting in the capsule. James loved to have a secret. I had shown him everything I planned to put in: a small red stone that I had found by the river once, a plastic elephant figurine my aunt had brought me from India, a miniature wooden cross replica I had made at summer camp, and my favorite picture of James and me. I had taken it the summer before, right after getting my first camera for my ninth birthday. In the photo, James and I stood in front of the giant oak tree that shaded half our yard, our faces close together to fit the frame. As usual, my brown hair was flying out of its twin braids in all directions while James’ peeked from the sides of his worn Terps baseball cap, his smile wide and sunny. I was glad that Mom had developed doubles for me; I wanted people in the future to know what made me happy.
I sat and watched while James punctured the mat of needles beneath the spruce tree, turning up a thin, sandy soil, which soon proved to be studded with firmly entrenched rocks. Each turn of the trowel yielded only a small pile of loose soil, and tiny beads of sweat lined James’ forehead as he struggled to make the hole big enough for our time capsule. I watched in silent sympathy after my offer to help resulted only in a grunted, “I’m fine,” and a spurt of extra-vigorous digging.
Finally, a pile of salt-and-pepper soil rested beside a hole large enough to conceal our Tupperware time capsule. James reached over to pick it up, delicately, as though it were made of glass rather than plastic. He placed it in the hole and jiggled the edges to settle it in.
“You can cover it up, Katie,” he said graciously.
I scooted over to the capsule’s burial place and pushed the mixture of sand, dirt, rocks and needles back into the hole. It covered the container, trickling down the sides, and I pressed down on the spot to make it as firm and flat as it had been before. But no matter how I arranged the soil, a little bump always rose above the natural contours of the ground. I finally gave up, carefully covering the disturbed soil with red needles before stepping away.
At the thought of that buried container, of being able to touch something of James’ that had escaped the reach of a grieving household’s sorrow, I begin to walk faster, ignoring the burn in my quads as I reach the crest of the hill. I climb up one of the wooden stiles that regulate the movement of the park’s wild ponies and enter a sparse stand of windswept spruce and birch trees, their trunks covered with multi-colored splotches of lichen. I remember, smiling, how I used to love ripping the lichen off the tree trunks when I was little—it had given me the same satisfaction as peeling dried glue off my fingers in art class. But I didn’t do that anymore, because James told me not to. The lichens do an important job, he explained. They take nitrogen from the air and change it into a form that plants need to survive. When it rains, the nitrogen goes into the soil and helps everything in the forest grow better.
James had always understood things better than I, and not just when it came to nature, either—when it came to life, too, and ideas. Like the day he told me he was going to Nigeria. We had made plans to get lunch that Saturday at The Black-Eyed Susan, a little sandwich place we both loved. I opened the deli’s white-painted door that Saturday in an irrepressible mood, knowing that lunch with my brother would be the best way to end a week of crisp November days and incredibly good behavior from my second grade class.
So at first, I didn’t notice James’ slight edginess or the absence of his usual intense investment in my words as I rattled on and on about my amazing week. He just waited patiently, turning his aluminum fork over and over but not touching his sandwich, until I finally finished talking about myself and asked him about his week. Then he took a deep breath, and I noticed that his usually wide smile had smoothed into a serious expression. I was suddenly paying close attention.
“Katie, I just made a big decision,” he said, in a tone so solemn it scared me. “I’m leaving for Nigeria this summer, to be a missionary.” The secret out, he began to relax, a tentative smile growing on his face as he waited for me to return it. But I just stared at him, my mind a balloon of floating, untethered questions.
“It’s this professor I knew from undergrad,” he said to fill the silence. “When Purina Mills laid me off I emailed him to see if he had any ideas for me. And he told me about this congregation that wants someone to start a church in Nigeria. They wanted someone trained in agriculture, too, to teach farming techniques that could help people feed themselves better. So I contacted them, and the door just opened.”
By the end of his explanation, James’ uncertain smile had transformed into an expression of sincere enthusiasm, and he looked to me to share his excitement. But I couldn’t. My head started to spin, as though the rest of my world was preparing to leave me, too.
“C’mon Katie, isn’t that exciting?” he asked, his smile dimming somewhat. “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer him, because I knew that whatever I said would reveal how little I shared James’ altruistic spirit. I knew that James, with his training in agricultural science, could help the local Nigerian community tremendously. I believed that churches should send missionaries overseas to tell people about Jesus. But I didn’t see why my brother had to be the one to go there. It would be dangerous, and he would be far away. Wouldn’t it be enough for God if he just stayed here, went to church, and gave money for other people to go to Africa?
But I didn’t know how to express any of this to James without exposing my own small-mindedness and eliciting his disappointment. So I forced out a smile and told him that nothing was wrong, that the idea just took some getting used to, and that it was great he was going. Now I wish that I hadn’t lied. Maybe if I had warned him of the dangers, made him see that he needed to stay here, maybe then he would still be alive.
“How about if we say a prayer,” he suggested. I agreed, but as he thanked God for the blessing of having each other and for the opportunity to tell other people about His Son, I looked down at the green-and-white checked tablecloth and my untouched BLT. I had my own talk with God, asking Him why James had to go so far away and praying that He would bring my brother home quickly.
Pain in my lower back returns me to the present as my backpack presses down hard on my hips. I emerge from the patch of trees onto a ridgeline meadow, where I finally stop to take a break, sitting down on one of the many large boulders that dot the grassy field. When James and I were kids, this section of the hike always exasperated our parents. There was a boulder every ten yards at least, and we always had to stop and climb each one, decreasing our progress four- or five-fold. Dad had timed it once—we went half a mile in ninety minutes.
The bare ridgeline reveals an endless horizon of mountain waves, hazy color fading from green to blue to purple. On a clear day, James told me once, you could see all the way to Kentucky from this place. But compared to Nigeria, Kentucky is practically just around the corner. How had Mom and Dad been okay with him leaving? They were so composed, saying all the right things as we saw him off at the airport: I’m so proud of you honey; write every day; don’t worry about calling collect; we’ll be praying for you.
But I hadn’t known what to say. No matter how much I had told myself that it was good he was going, I still wanted him to stay. I needed him to be there for me, to talk me through my problems, to make me laugh when I needed it, to remind me that a half-empty glass is also half full. So I hugged him and told him I was proud of him, all the while swallowing the half-formed pleas that struggled to escape. I stood on the tips of my toes to reach around his neck, and his muscled arms nearly squeezed my breath out as we hugged goodbye. An image of skinny 13-year-old James floated across my mind, his red t-shirt hanging from his spare frame like a curtain, his body perpetually off-center, arms and legs moving like out-of-sync windmills as he balanced on rocks while crossing a stream. I wondered where that James had gone, how he had so suddenly changed into a man.
I had changed too, though I never fully realized it unless I was looking in a mirror. To one of the airport’s suited passersby, I probably looked polished and grown-up in my floral sundress and matching cardigan. But I felt small. Small and selfish, unable to be happy about the experiences my brother would have, the lives he would touch.
I picture myself circling the area for years, never finding the place where a piece of my brother’s 13-year-old self lies buried, untouched by tragedy. It has to be here, I tell myself, and my legs move faster.
The forest canopy closes over the trail again, immersing me in birdsong and filtered light. My throat suddenly constricts—the spruce tree marking the time capsule’s resting place should appear soon. Assuming that the tree still stands, that it still marks the edge of a clearing. What if the tree is dead, or the clearing overgrown? I picture myself circling the area for years, never finding the place where a piece of my brother’s 13-year-old self lies buried, untouched by tragedy. It has to be here, I tell myself, and my legs move faster.
The trail straightens and I see it, a towering spruce marking a sunny overhead gap, standing only slightly taller than I remember it. A white-and-brown pony grazes in the center of the clearing, her chestnut foal beside her. They see me coming, and the mare guides her foal to the far edge of the grass. She isn’t too alarmed; hikers are common along this trail. I shed my backpack and open one of the side zippers, pulling out an old, wooden-handled trowel I borrowed from my parents. I wonder if it is the same trowel that buried what I am about to dig up.
I kneel down and scoop away layers of decaying needles and dusty dirt, dig out the loose sand that lies below and keep going, extracting rocks and sifting the soil. My arms begin to ache, but I don’t stop. I dig deeper, waiting to hear the thud of metal on plastic. Nothing. Maybe I misjudged the place. I shift over slightly and begin a new excavation to the left of the first. My arms burn and my back aches; I need a break, but even more I need to find the capsule, need to open it and touch the objects that James put there, that were special to him.
But I dig deeper and find nothing. Where could it have gone? Scenarios float through my clouding mind. Some kid dug it up for show-and-tell. An overzealous park ranger noticed the mounded soil and took it away, a violation of the “take only photos and leave only footprints” code of outdoor ethics. The pile of dirt grows higher, and I grit my teeth. I don’t stop digging until I have fully excavated a semi-circle around the side of the tree that faces the clearing. The empty hole forces me to admit the truth: our time capsule is gone. It will never be a giant scientific discovery like James had promised. It didn’t last even one generation.
My body folds at the realization, and I find myself lying face down on the grass, unable to comprehend that the time capsule is gone. Gone, and with it my chance to recover a piece of James untainted by the pain of his death. A piece that wasn’t there that night when the world changed, that didn’t hear the phone ring or see my dad cry or smell the heavy perfume of a million flowers, a sickly sweetness that couldn’t begin to erase the truth of an open casket.
For the second time today, time spins backward, stranding me in the darkness of that same June night. But instead of sitting disbelieving on my parents’ bed, I stand phantomlike by James’ side, fully there but powerless to change anything, do anything. Boots strike packed dirt as uniformed men fling open doors on shelters made of corrugated metal, raising machetes over sleeping children and screaming parents. They come faster, louder, and the flimsy door of Ajani’s shack falls to the ground as two men enter, blood dripping from their machetes, hate pouring from their eyes. Ajani’s terrified wife huddles in the shadows, attempting to shield her four young children, make them somehow invisible. But in the midst of fear, James’ grey eyes are steady and calm as he walks forward weaponless, standing between the intruders and Ajani’s family. Speaking words of love. “Please tell me, friends, why are you doing this?” he asks. “Does it make you happy to hear children scream?” But the men understand only James’ words; his meaning penetrates as deeply as bullets on an armored car. They raise their weapons toward him as my brother speaks for the last time, calm and unhurried still: “I want you to know that I forgive you, and so does the God who brought me here.”
They go for him then, and I see my brother sink to the ground in a pile of his own blood, his jugular a river of scarlet, his intestines spilling from an open abdomen. I cannot see his eyes.
The grass beneath me is suddenly wet, and I realize then that I am crying for the first time since James’ death. Crying because my big brother is gone. Crying because it is unfair. Unfair that he had to die, so painfully, so far from family, at the hands of people who hated him without knowing him, when James never hated anybody. Unfair that God would let him die, when God was the reason he was in Nigeria to begin with. Unfair that he could never tease me again, never amuse both of us by sneaking up behind me when I least expected it, never call in the afternoon to relate some interesting fact he had just read. Unfair that the time capsule was gone, that I would never know what portion of himself James had added to it. Unfair that all my memories of him, all the pictures, everything, were all tainted with that horrible glaze of death, that I could never think of James with a smile, that the gut-wrenching sorrow of his loss would always intrude on the pleasant memories, on the truth of who he was.
I grab onto a fallen spruce cone and pull away its wafer-like scales one by one. “Houses for seeds,” was how James had explained cones to me. I feel a wobbly smile form as I remember how it used to annoy me how often he had explained things like that. “Just because you’re in Boy Scouts doesn’t mean you know everything, James!” My nine-year-old self says, her hands on her hips.
And suddenly I realize that everything in this forest connects back to James somehow. I look at the sky and remember lazy summer days spent identifying the shapes of clouds, how we could somehow name even the most ambiguous form as a rabbit, or a turtle, or, if nothing else, as a cotton ball. I stare into the grove of trees on the opposite side of the clearing and remember the evenings we spent playing hide-and-seek with our neighbors in the woodlot behind our house. I see the ponies grazing on the edge of the clearing and remember the first time I touched one, how James spoke softly to it, holding out a bouquet of wildflowers till it came near enough that I could stroke the fine fur of its nose and run my fingers through its coarse mane.
I lift my face from the grass and sit up, causing the mare to cast a watchful glance my direction, and I smile my first real smile in weeks. I imagine him that final night, and for the first time since Ajani called, I don’t picture blood or pain or the murderers’ eyes glinting demonically. I just see James, serious but secure in the knowledge that he is doing the right thing. Willing to love, willing to die, trusting that it is all for a purpose. I wonder what it would be like to have that confidence, that absolute sense of purpose that eliminates fear.
I pick up the trowel and fill in the holes I’ve created, smoothing needles over them when I am done. I look over the ground, bumpier than before but whole again, and I feel a fluttering of peace, the beginning of a prayer. It falls away too quickly though, and I wish that James could come back, just for a minute, just long enough to show me whom to trust.
Holly Kays is a senior from Williamsport, Maryland, who is pursuing dual degrees in English and Natural Resources Conservation. An avid writer since childhood, she hopes to produce fiction while using her natural resources background at magazines within that field after graduating. Holly has had nonfiction articles published in Virginia Tech Research Magazine, The Christian Chronicle, and College of Natural Resources and Environment News. Her short story, “Second Grade in a Chrysalis,” has also been published in Silhouette. Holly often finds inspiration for her writing from the outdoors; “Searching” began with the setting of Grayson Highlands State Park. Advisors and professors from both her majors have encouraged her to pursue her interest in writing and helped her find opportunities to do so.