TW: swearing, abuse, violence, death, dark ominous tones.
Where land meets its end, there is only water and sky, and it is enough to take my breath away as I slowly drive through the juniper trees towards the cliff’s edge, gravel crinkling loudly beneath my car.
The sun is rising behind me, casting its light upon the ripples of the sleepless sea like twinkling stars dancing across its surface. The horizon is made clear by a blemishing pale blue sky and cotton candy pink streaks brushed across it like smeared paint, creating a stark contrast against the darker blue-grey slate of the ocean’s end.
I park my car and glare out at the edge of the world before me through my windshield, unable to believe this sight could be real. Having lived so close my whole life, I am stunned I did not know such a beautiful thing existed. I slowly open my door to step out, my lungs refilling with the crisp, fresh marine air. My mouth hangs open, desperate for more of it, and I chuckle at a pair of birds who are celebrating the newborn sun with their whistling tune and a game of chase. I can’t help but think they are siblings caught in a competitive round of tag. I make a mental note to paint this later. I'll call it Silas.
The whole scene is enough to make me forget why I am here, and for a moment, I can’t decipher the reason behind my suddenly blurry vision: the beauty of the ocean at sunrise or the thing that brought me to this plateau atop a 150-foot cliff.
Then, I catch sight of him, my father, standing at the very edge of the bluff, staring out toward the water. I push my car door shut, pull my hoodie over my head, tightening it around my face with a quick tug on its pull-strings, and slowly approach him, until I am side-by-side with the man who raised me. A small grunt and an inconspicuous swipe of his cheek is his only indication that he’s aware of my presence. The idea that my father could cry is so foreign to me that I lean forward just an inch to make sure it is actually him. The man next to me looks exactly like my father as I remember him that day I drove away seven years ago: with a full mustache hanging over his lips, bordered by the scruffiness of facial hair at least two weeks grown in; he’s wearing the same worn out trucker’s hat he’s worn since I was a child, hiding his uncombed and shaggy blond (now greying) hair; his overalls are still stained with years’ worth of grass clippings, shoveled soil, “unknown” markings (which only Silas and I knew belonged to blood of some kind), and split beer from him falling asleep with a can in his hand. Despite all the distinguishable parts of him, it’s the softness of his face that is enough to fool me into thinking this can’t be him.
I have seen my father punch in windows and hardly flinch. I have seen him blood-eyed and slurring, waving a chainsaw around in our two acre yard, slicing at the shrubbery wildly while he cursed and yelled obscenities at an apathetic world. I’ve seen him kick dogs and cats, and shoot at birds and deer, without even a thought or hint of remorse, as if life were his to do with what he wanted.
I have seen the bruises he’s left behind, first on my mother – who was quick to leave after her first broken bone without even considering to take us with her– and then on my brother, just a prepubescent twelve-year-old when my father first landed his fist on his face. I’d heard the crack, seen the splattered red droplets sprinkle the floorboards. I’d watched in my shimmery blue Little Mermaid nightgown, clutching my baby blanket and teddy bear in my arms (all three things gifts from unsuspecting grandparents who didn't live long enough to intervene), helpless to my brother’s yelps for my father to stop and his pleas for my mother to come home and save him.
I have seen my father do the horrible things that only monstrous people who have been morphed by the evils of childhood trauma, neglectful parenting, and alcohol are capable of doing.
But never have I seen him cry. Not even when he nearly sliced his finger off while butchering a chicken, or got his ass kicked by the one man brave enough to stand against him.
And while it’s been years since I’ve seen him, not even seeing it for myself could convince me that my father was capable of shedding human tears.
I don’t say anything.
Instead, I just gaze out at the beautiful horizon, breathe in the purifying air, listen to the birds, and let the breeze kiss my skin. It is my way of reaching out, calling out, and waiting for the response.
For a moment, I think I hear one, a distant pssshing sound, gentle and rhythmic. It is then that I realize, my skin is not the only thing the breeze is kissing. I peer over the edge slightly, and discover that the escarpment below contains no shore; there is no beach at its base, just ocean against sharp, jagged, steep rocks. The wind seems to be launching a full-on war against the ocean; there are enormous waves violently slapping against the sharp boulders of the cliff’s base. I gasp at the murderous sight. No one could survive that.
As if my father can read my mind, he breaks the silence: “Your brother died in a beautiful place.”
His voice sends goosebumps throughout my body, and his words nearly stop my heart. I am instantly reminded what brought me here: a phone call from my father, summoning me to this cliff, after delivering the news that my older brother, Silas, died in the water. Suicide.
While I know firsthand that Silas had it rough growing up – being my father’s only outlet for his anger (he’d never touched me) was a fearful and painful existence – suicide is not something I envisioned Silas being capable of; and now standing here on the ledge where Silas presumably made his decision, it seems entirely impossible. To think Silas, or anyone, could stand here, look down at the raging elements, and jump.
“Why was he even here?” I wonder aloud. It wasn’t like Silas to come to places like this. He didn’t like heights. He didn’t care for water. He loved meadows and dirt and trees.
My denial subsides for a moment, and I squeeze my eyes shut to trap the salted tears attempting their escape. I inhale through my nose and swallow, pushing down the weight of grief and guilt sliding up my throat. Guilt had always been a coin in my pocket growing up, but it had become a jam packed suitcase the day I decided to leave my brother behind with my father. When I'd accepted an art scholarship to a school up north and moved to San Francisco, I’d told Silas he should come with me, escape my father while he could, that we could get an apartment in the city and experience real freedom for once in our lives. But he didn't even consider it - maybe for a second - before he’d told me to go live my life, that he didn’t want me to bring any part of our old life with me on this incredible opportunity for a new one. That my father had stopped “smacking him around” as much now that they were older. He'd even managed a light hearted chuckle when he told me that he’d be fine.
A part of me had known what he really meant, what he was really worried about: he didn't want to burden me with the baggage of his trauma. He'd wanted me to be carefree and happy.
I'd wanted to tell him I didn't think I'd ever be happy, especially not without him. I'd wanted to tell him that not all trauma was physical, but, of course, he knew that, and it'd made me feel even guiltier.
I hear the smack of the water against the scarp, and it is a reminder of all the times I cringed and hid in the corner of our house, my hands tight against my ears, squeezing so hard in hopes they would just cease to work. Silas is not fine. He is dead. And I can’t help but think this is all my fault.
Silas had been the one in trouble our whole lives, and he had spent most of his trying to protect me. And worst of all, I’d let him. I’d done nothing to protect him, and then I left him.
“He was here with me,” my father says.
So easily blame can shift, so desperate our ego is to rid itself of guilt. I spit back, “Why the fuck did you bring him here?”
For the first time since I’ve arrived, my father turns to face me, the shadow of his hat darkening his eyes. “He brought me here,” he says.
My first response is, Liar! It surprises me, because he’d filled us with so much fear, trained us so well, that defiance was never a path in our minds. But seven years away, seven years of freedom, installed a backbone within me that young teenagers only think they have. Suddenly, grief, guilt, and rage become my armor, and I feel ready for this stand-off.
“Silas would never come here. And he’d never kill himself,” I stare into my father’s eyes, hatred burning, accusingly.
My father doesn’t flinch. He stares back. I expect to see the same boozy, inflaming eyes of my childhood, but they are different, softer, unlike any the little girl in me had ever seen, aside from the handful of caring and curious eyes I’d faced in a few of my elementary school teachers. They were unrecognizable on my father’s face.
“Allie, I’m sorry,” he says, exhaling what sounds like tears withheld.
Confusion pauses my racing mind, but I have no sympathy. “What the hell happened out here, Dad? Silas wouldn’t come here, and he sure as shit wouldn’t bring you. And, what the fuck were you doing when Silas allegedly threw himself off a cliff?!” I demand, tossing my arm out over the ledge.
My father cups his forehead in his hand, rubbing his temples. “Allie, Silas and I were doing good, you know. We’d settled our differences, and we were rebuilding our relationship.”
I cannot accept what I’m hearing. “Rebuilding your relationship?! What relationship, Dad? You nearly tried to kill him every day since we were kids. There was no relationship. We were your kids and you made us your punching bags. We were terrified of you. We hated you. No one could forgive you for that.” I am enraged, yelling. Years of silence unleash.
My father’s tears break, but they are few, which might as well be a cracking dam. “I know! I know, Allie, and I’m sorry. But believe it or not, Silas and I, we were moving past that. We were doing OK. He was trying to forgive me. He was helping me forgive myself. I'd hadn't had a drink in months.” He pauses to take in air, swipes his hand across his face, and looks out at the roaring waves beneath the lightening sky. “He told me he’d found a place that gave him peace. He wanted to show it to me. He’d said he thought it’d bring me peace, too.”
My body is vibrating, trying to process my father’s words, decipher the truth from the bullshit. The possibility that my father could atone for any of it felt like someone explaining the earth is flat. But, the forgiveness felt like Silas. His skin had hardened and callused with scar tissue and bruising, but his heart had remained soft like baked brie in Phyllo dough.
I try to imagine him tossing himself off the cliff again. I wince.
“Your brother was right, Allie. He brought me here two days ago, and it was like nothing I had ever seen. How we never knew a view like this was right in our backyard –”
“Because you hardly let us leave!” I interject.
He clears his throat and looks down at his feet. His boots kick at the dirt, and he continues: “This place did bring me peace,” he says.
A suppressed laugh erupts from my mouth. “You wouldn’t know peace if it hit you in the face with a baseball bat.” Then I cringe at the memory of fourteen-year-old Silas buckled over.
Still kicking dirt, his thumbs now tucked in the sides of his overalls, my father says, “Allie, your brother came here to kill me.”
It was almost a whisper, almost lost in the wind, but I hear it.
The conscious part of me does not believe an ounce of my father’s words. Silas would never. Silas wasn’t the violent one, you were. Silas was loving and forgiving and selfless. But then a tiny voice from the pit of my stomach tells me this is the truth. The truest thing my father has said. The only thing that makes sense. Silas’ last efforts to protect me, and his first effort at protecting himself.
The realization knocks the wind out of me. I wrap my arms around my stomach and suck in air. How had I become so disconnected from his life here that I hadn’t seen what was unfolding? How had I allowed myself to live a life as if I was the one who had been freed, as if I was the one who’d suffered all the trauma and needed to heal? How had I convinced myself that Silas was fine? Why had I believed him when he said that he was?
Then, my mind, after sifting through all of it, reaches its final comprehension. The final destination: “If Silas came to kill you…?”
My father reluctantly tilts his head to look at me, shame (another new color) glinting in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Allie. I’m so sorry,” he says, crying, begging.
My father is crying, and suddenly, I feel Silas. I feel him in his last moments, trying to catch his breath on his descent down. I feel his fear and the shock of his plans turning against him. I feel the utter defeat as he realizes he’s lost to my father for the last time. I feel him, disappointed for not being successful. For not being able to protect us.
Involuntarily, my head is shaking, and I’m stepping back away from my father, away from the ledge. I’m going to be sick. I realize now why I’d allowed so many lies to live in my body: truth is too much to digest. I release it all, a curdling orange spews on the sandy gravel surface beneath me, splattering my shoes, but I don’t notice.
He’d taken the beatings, for me. He’d sent me away, to protect me. He’d attempted to kill our father, for me. For us. And it’d cost him his life. And now he was gone, before I’d even had the chance to see him free, to thank him.
His dying moments were with my father, and they should have been on his own terms. He should have left with me. He should have been the one victorious. He should have been the one to call me to deliver the news about our father - we would have celebrated -, not the other way around. My brother deserved to win, just once.
And to think, it all could have been different if I'd stayed. Or if I'd forced Silas to come with me. If I hadn't given up so easily. All of this was my fault. I'd let Silas down, again. And now, my father had brought me here to what, to confess? To ask for my forgiveness? To atone? Did he think that would make it all better? Did he think just because he'd never laid a hand on me that I'd have mercy on him?
“No,” I say under my breath, wiping the lingering vomit off my chin. My father turns at the sound of my voice. I lift myself out of my crouch. “No!” I yell.
I take a step towards him, rage like an aura around my whole body. My father senses it. “Allie,” he says, lifting his hands up defensively.
Before he can continue, I am lunging. I run at him, arms outstretched.
When my hands make contact, there is silence. The sun's growing glow flickers across my father’s face. His eyes are wide. In slow motion, he descends, his face transforming in the ray of light. I see Silas - his face grinning like he did when I'd hugged him goodbye. His green eyes warm, full of love, full of relief that I was going to be safe.
The sound of water splashing is faint, but the tweeting of the birds is resounding. I look up at them, and I see that the one behind the other has finally caught up.