Cleaning out a bureau drawer, Jill discovered the key in a labeled baby food jar beneath her mother’s lingerie. For the rest of that day and much of the night, she struggled with her conscience. Her mother had been so adamant. But next morning, she arrived at the old farmhouse determined to go through her father’s things.
The large, cherry-colored cedar chest was sitting next to a full length, floor mirror. Jill stared for a long time at the locked container recalling the last fight she had had with her mother. It had been about this chest. For years, every fight she and Jill had was about the chest.
Since her father’s death a decade earlier, Jill found her mother’s coolness toward his memory confusing. When she tried to have a conversation about it, her mother shutdown, refusing to comment beyond, “There are some things best kept between a husband and wife.”
“Mom, please, go through that chest with me. Dad’s war stuff is in there, but I don’t know about any of it. When the time comes, I just don’t want to throw out something that was important to him.”
It didn’t matter. The answer was always the same. “Jill, leave me alone about that chest. I’m not going to unlock it, period. One of these days I’m going to call Joe Mullins and have him come and get that box for his auction.” Her mother never made the call before she died.
The attic air held mingled aromas of antique sachets and present-day mold. Treasures were scattered haphazardly amid the piled junk, heirlooms mixed with trash. Jill thought it looked and smelled like hope tinged with decay.
After raising the chest’s heavy lid, she began a careful search of its contents. The skull was tucked beneath her father’s army uniform, sitting under his combat helmet. When Jill first picked up the olive-green head covering and saw the grayish object, she thought it was a rock situated to keep the stacks of letters and papers below it from shifting.
Then she spotted the faded inscription, “Jap head. J.Donovan, Guadalcanal, 1944,” scrawled on the rounded surface above the place where once a spine had been attached. She read the words over and over before squeezing her eyes shut, a pointless effort to hold-back tears and the memory of her mother’s warning.
It was dusk, the sun barely visible above a gently sloping hill where sheep had once grazed, when Jill carried the paper bag into the lush backyard. Bending down, she put her father’s trophy skull and Purple Heart medal gently into the deep hole she’d dug near a patch of wild strawberries.
After the desolate grave was filled-in, Jill stood and imagined her parents on the other side of the earthen mound. They were holding hands, silent, and gray. Bowing her head, she whispered, “Secrets and lies,” until at last the ethereal forms crumbled into piles of dust like images from a long forgotten cartoon.
The twilight and mild air had changed to chilly darkness by the time Jill made her way across the grass to the screened porch. She entered the house not bothering to turn on a light before picking up the phone to call Joe Mullins.
About the Author
Jan Bridgeford-Smith is a free-lance writer living in the Finger Lakes region of New York with her pastor husband, a demanding cat and wall-to-wall pictures of her three grown children. Her work has appeared in Life in the Finger Lakes, The Post-Standard, Star Gazette, and various other regional publications.