In the forest there is a weathered shack, the graying boards leaking rainwater in fat drops. In the shack a baby sucks its small pruny thumb, desiring comfort. Near the baby, a mother cries, the long, gasping sobs of a broken spirit. Inside the mother, a heart breaks.
Helen didn’t know who her father was. Not in the sense that many young girls do not know their father, having only vague notions of his profession or the names of his friends, not knowing or caring much about his youth, how he was once a boy falling in love with a girl who would become a mother. No, Helen didn’t know the identity of her father, and unlike most girls, she was desperate to know everything there was to know about her father’s life. Where he was born. His favorite childhood game. How he and her mother met. How they fell in love. If he knew about his daughter. If he missed her. If he cared.
Since she’d been old enough to sense his absence, she’d been asking her mother questions, questions which she felt were both extremely justified and very easily answered. Her mother disagreed. Who is he? Is he dead? Does he have any other family? The answer to this last question was always the most important to Helen. If her father, whomever he was and whether or not he was living, had family, then Helen had family, too. She knew this question pained her mother the most, but she wanted the answer to be yes so badly she couldn’t help but ask.
“I am your family,” her mother would say, looking down at her needlework, deftly bringing the needle in and out as a simply pansy began to bloom on the cotton.
“I know, Ma,” Helen would say soothingly, “but we don’t have to be alone forever, do we? If we found Da’s family, they’d be your family, too.”
“You don’t know that, honey.”
Helen didn’t know, but she was determined to find out. It was summer, and her mother served as a laundress to wealthier families. She’d be gone from dawn to dusk, while Helen was supposed to be doing chores at home – washing and mending, cooking, picking berries and herbs to preserve for the winter. Their home was small, only two rooms, but Helen had the sense that her mother must be hiding something somewhere. There had to be a clue about her father in or near the house. Sparsely furnished with one shared bed, a few chairs, and a cooking pot, it didn’t take long to inspect everything. Of course, Helen was frustrated when nothing turned up, but she didn’t give up easily. She began carefully removing nails from floorboards, peering underneath them at wiggly bugs and spiders, meticulously nailing the boards back in place.
It took days, but she finally found it. In the corner of the main room, underneath a rotting board, there was a small blue satchel with drawstrings. Inside the satchel was a sliver of parchment. On the parchment was one word: Destiny.
Helen had been meditating on the word destiny for days. She’d casually slip it into conversation, seeking her mother’s reaction.
“Ma, I must get that lovely purple wool for my new winter blanket. It’s destiny, I know it.”
Ma didn’t flinch. “And who’s going to pay for that extravagance? You’ll do fine with the white yarn. It’s just as warm. Plus, you can dye it yourself if you like. We’ve plenty of berries.”
So that’s how it was going to be, thought Helen. No matter. She’d figure it out. Who puts a piece of parchment in a satchel with the word destiny on it and hides it under a house? Maybe it wasn’t her mother’s. Maybe it’d been there for decades. Maybe it meant nothing. Maybe.
But maybe meant that there was still hope. Maybe meant maybe not. She knew it was risky, but Helen left soon after her mother one morning and walked into town. She slipped quietly into the library, which was one room with a handful of rotting books and an aged bespectacled librarian behind a desk.
Helen cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”
The old man looked up and squinted. “Yes, dear? How may I help you?”
“I’d like to look up destiny, please.”
“Destiny? You require a dictionary?”
“Um, maybe. Yes. Please.”
The man rose from his chair and shuffled over to a dusty shelf. He peered at the bindings and eventually pulled down a large moth-eaten book with a green cover.
“Here you go, dear.” The man gestured at a rickety chair and said, “Please, sit here.”
“Thank you.” Helen sat and looked at the book in the man’s hands. He placed the book on the desk and opened it—a musty smell sharpened the air.
“Ah, let me see,” said the man as he carefully turned the pages. “Here it is. Destiny.” He turned the book toward Helen and placed a crooked finger on the entry.
Helen read out loud. “Destiny. Noun. Derived from the Old Language. Meaning: naturally occurring, inevitable fate, irreversible.” Helen frowned. This wasn’t very helpful. Everyone knew what the word meant. She sighed and was about to close the book.
“Indeed,” exclaimed the old man, followed by a phlegmy cough. “Read the next entry.” There was a second entry! In her excitement, Helen hunched over the book, almost rubbing her nose on the moldy paper.
“Destiny. In geography, Destiny is a small island off the Eastern coast of Namsinia. Destiny is sparsely populated and known for its export of fried fish and coconuts.” Helen frowned, unwilling to give herself over completely to this new thuddering in her chest. She’d never heard of this island before. Could it really mean something? Is this what the scrap of parchment referred to?
“Sir, do you know anything about the island of Destiny?” she inquired.
“Hmm. Let me see. I have an old atlas here somewhere.”
One cold autumn morning, as bright leaves dropped and danced, settling shakily on the ground, Helen slipped out of the shack in the woods with nothing but a small pack of dried fruit and meat slung over her shoulder. She was in pursuit of Destiny.
Lesley Dame is co-founder of and poetry and nonfiction editor for damselfly press. Author of the poetry chapbook Letting Out the Ghosts, her work has also appeared in many online and print journals. Dame happily lives, writes, and edits in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For more information, visit her website, www.wix.com/lesleydame/poet.
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and aspiring photographer. Her work has appeared in various journals, online and print, as well as several anthologies. She blogs about the creative life at http://wwwonewriter.blogspot.com.