The last glimmers of daylight receded, leaving the kitchen bathed in the warm glow of the hearth, and with their meal finished, Sadie and Uncle Cullen worked together to clear the table. The dishes clattered together as they carried them back into the kitchen and set them near the sink.
“I’ve got these, Uncle Cullen,” Sadie said.
He furrowed his brow, and he shook his head. “How about I help you?”
“If you want.”
She worked the pump handle, feeling the resistance before the water gushed out in spurts, and after several pumps, she watched the clear stream cascade into the basin, the coolness of it splashed against her skin. She grabbed the bar of soap; its surface was worn smooth from countless uses. Rubbing it between her tiny hands, she created a world of suds and bubbles that caught the candlelight in the cabin. A rainbow of hues flickered across their surfaces before they clung to the dishes she was washing or popped, disappearing into the water.
The mundane act of washing dishes, something she had seen her mother do countless times, had fallen to her after her mother’s passing, and as she scrubbed and rinsed, the steadiness of the chore allowed her mind to wander, to drift through memories that brought both smiles and tears.
The only two people who meant anything to her were gone.
She glanced out the window, where the night had settled like a thick blanket over the landscape. The darkness was absolute, the kind that only a Montana countryside could wear—a darkness not just seen but felt. It was in this darkness that her father had promised to return, and in its vastness, he had vanished.
Sadie’s heart ached as she turned from the window, finishing the last plate and handing it to her uncle. He took it from her and dried it, putting it away in the cabinet with the rest of them.
“It’s probably time for bed, Sadie,” he said. His voice was low.
She wanted to argue, knowing sleep would probably not help, but didn’t at the same time as the thought of herself tucked warmly in her bed with her blankets brought a sense of comfort.
Uncle Cullen stood beside her, silently supporting their silent vigil over the sink. There was comfort in the shared silence, in the simple act of drying a plate and putting it away.
Without another word, Sadie nodded and shuffled towards her small room. The wooden floorboards creaked under her feet. She changed into her nightdress, grabbed her doll from the chair, and after climbing into bed, she pulled the patchwork quilt up to her chin.
Silence overwhelmed her.
The bed felt too big, the room too quiet.
Her father’s laughter no longer echoed off the walls, and the security of his goodnight kiss was now just a memory. How could she close her eyes and drift off to sleep when such a vast, silent chasm of grief yawned open inside her? Restlessness overtook her, and she tossed and turned as the minutes ticked by until finally, with a heavy heart, she rose to get a drink of water.
The dying fire dimly lighted the cabin’s main room, and as she tiptoed down the hallway, she found Uncle Cullen, a stark silhouette against the flickering flames, his head buried in his hands.
“Uncle Cullen?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
He looked up, a sad chuckle escaping him. “I should be asking you that. You’re the brave one, trying to comfort me when you’ve just lost everything.”
She opened her mouth but couldn’t think of anything to say. He resembled her father in many ways, yet there was a difference about him, too. She sat cross-legged on the floor, feeling the warmth from the fire, and her gaze fell upon a book on the table beside Cullen’s chair. It was Moby Dick, the book her father was reading to her. They were in the last chapter.
“Do you think we could finish the story?” Sadie asked, pointing toward the book.
Cullen followed her finger, glancing at the worn cover. He hesitated for a second, then smiled. “I think that would be a fine idea.”
As he began to read and Sadie listened, her mind was transported to far-off oceans, grand adventures, unimaginable danger, and ultimately, death as the captain was dragged under the sea. The story's final words hung in the air, a bittersweet conclusion. She knew the end. Her pa never would.
“You should probably try to get some sleep now,” Uncle Cullen said softly, closing the book with a gentle thud.
She nodded and rose to her feet. Her body felt heavy with fatigue, and her heart a little less burdened. “Goodnight, Uncle Cullen,” she whispered.
“Good night, Sadie.”
To be continued . . .