My name is Joseph Tooley, and it was my father Jacob that went missing nine years ago out here in these very woods. No trace has ever been found of him in all that time. And believe me it hasn’t been for a lack of looking. His disappearance was the main reason I moved out to this area and built my cabin. The only other is that after my mom passed I felt no motivation to be a part of society and all the trouble people have to offer. Truthfully though, people don’t like me much and honestly I prefer it that way. Don’t get me wrong there are a few folks in town I get along with and actually enjoy a conversation with now and then. Like old William and his younger brother Walter who runs the tavern on Briggs Street, Caleb the local preacher, who I run into at the tavern quite a bit by the way, Orville the grounds keeper of the cemetery, and Mrs. Beatina who I trade furs with for candles and coffee and such. But other than that the rest are ghosts I try to avoid.
If you’re wondering of any sort of family history beyond that I’ll do my best to pull some details from the mist of memories and the haze that comforts my mind.
The oak tree, till the day I die I’ll never forget that oak tree. A symbol of love and commitment to something bigger than all of us, standing tall and strong in the face of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly changes.
My parents met in New York City in 1861 arriving from Europe with hopes of a better life, a better life than their parents had, as all those stories go. They told me they met in a rainstorm crowded under an enormous oak tree with webbing branches full of green leaves big enough to catch the largest of rain drops in the hopes of remaining dry. As they told it, they began to talk about their new lives in America, where they were from, and what their plans were.
Mom wanted to become a painter; an artist. Dad said he hoped to become an officer; justice. But, truth be told, as much as they wanted a better life than their parents had they both yearned for the countryside, be it an American countryside rather than a European one but a country life nevertheless. As the rain let up they decided to continue their conversation while walking around the city passing the most popular landmarks but too caught up in their own words to even take stop and notice and from then on never left each other’s side again, getting married not even a year later on the 2nd of June 1881.
Sounds like a happy beginning, because it was, but the city can be a tough place for people whose hearts are outside of its persistent pursuit of an enlightened life and one day they decided to follow their hearts and head for the country with the memory of that old oak tree leading the way.
They settled in Hapsburg, Indiana, a small town in the south-eastern part of the state and populated by about two to three hundred people and surrounded on all sides by virgin forest, where the animals surely outnumbered the town folks by twenty to one, on the 7th of August 1882 where mom worked for Mrs. Beatina and where she made just enough money to have some left over to follow her painting dream and dad at the wood mill where his mind was always someplace else.
A year to the day after they came to Indiana I came along in 1883. I came along just in time for autumn to show its colorful face and bring a new sense of togetherness for my parents. My younger days were great by any standard and I was a happy child if not a little rebellious. I was never much at school and didn’t make it very far, but the one thing that I am grateful to have learned is the ability to read. People say numbers will open the future, but words will let us get there and my parents were not the least upset at my choice to leave school and start working with my father at the local mill.
But as I stated, as these stories go, money got tight, and dad started hunting and trapping to bring in more money. He quickly found he had a knack for this type of effort and most of all he loved being out there in the silence of nature; that’s probably where I got it from. Anyway, with me still employed in the mill dad decided to quit the confining mill and hunt and trap full time and that was the first step down his path of vanishing into the very forest that gave our family so much because some years later on a fall morning dad gets his gear ready and kissed mom goodbye and slaps me on the back and tells me to wish him luck.
That was the last anyone ever saw of dad. A few towns’ folk, including Walter, William, Orville, and Caleb, spent a few weeks looking for him, but they eventually gave up hope and stopped and decided he would return in time. I couldn’t blame them for that; they tried, and they helped. What else could they do? They had their lives to move along in. But, none the less they stopped looking.
I never did.
I searched all of his ‘secret’ spots in and around the pass the now carries his name. Those places where he had the best luck in bringing down the most elegantly furred foxes, fattest squirrels, and the biggest deer the forest had to offer. Places that he would tell me about late at night; they were my bedtime stories that seemed to drift me away into a remote wilderness that had everything a man could ever want if only he knew how to blend in with the forest itself and listen to what the trees and animals were saying by their movements or lack thereof.
From the very beginning, I always promised mom I would find out what had happened to dad, and she would just turn away and smile one of those smiles that held more than I could ever guess. I think she finally gave up hope as well, along with the rest of the town, after five or six months had passed but she would have never admitted to it and her sorrow always came across to me as a sorrow that somehow I was not completely aware of or could entirely understand.
To me mirrors and dreams are the only way we are shown what we try to hide within ourselves.
It was during this time Walter’s Local 88, the best homemade whiskey around, began to play a bigger role in my life; as a companion and an escape, beginning each day earlier than the previous one and each night lasting a little later.
It was my attempt at trying to ease the daily pain of my mother’s loss, my loss, and the courage, or desperation some would call it, to keep looking for some sign of what had happened to my father on that fateful final trip out the door and into the forest. That sea of silent trees that see all but never speak of what they have seen. Some people in these parts call them witness trees because of what they look down upon on the forest floor and hold onto their sights tightly intertwined in the bark and grain and roots and limbs that reach out to tempt every passer-by with leaves of knowledge.
With dad gone I did what I could to help mom with money but it never seemed to be enough, how could it be because my drinking and my searching enveloped me like a hot bath that ultimately drowns you into a desired eternity. Eventually I gave up my job at the lumber yard to give my full attention to those witness trees and trails which meant we had to move to the outskirts of town where people who are slowly being swept aside seem to congregate in small shacks all thrown together as if they were a pile of dirty clothes. Unwanted land filled by unwanted homes built with unusable wood with unsatisfied people living a life chasing the shadow of optimism.
I hated those shacks like one hates themselves after a bad decision that costs more than imagined. Yet I hated them not because of the shacks but because of the way people who didn’t live in those shacks would look at mom and me when we came into town to get our supplies for the week; as little as those supplies became to be over the months.
Four more years passed and mom’s health got bad and slowly she lost her fight, I sometimes wonder if she was even fighting. There’s a saying that goes something like: the only way to win a fight is to walk away. I think mom walked away, and I like to think she won. After she had died, I had to sell most of mom and dad’s belongings to pay for the burial and headstone which read:
May the truth always lie within
I never quite understood why she wanted that saying on her headstone, but, she was always persistent in making me promise her that those words would grace the granite stone that marked her resting place. All she would ever say about it was that someday she hoped I would understand its meaning. To this day I still can’t figure out her intentions but those words burn deep into my consciousness every day at one point or another.
After that, I took the leftover money and the rug that now graces my cabin and moved out past Jacobs Pass and committed my following years to finding out what happened to my father. I was sixteen and on my own.