Authors: Tim Wynne-Jones
Evan stands at the door to his father’s study. There is a sign at eye level:
. It was a present he gave to his father last Christmas, made of cork so that if the house sank, at least the sign would still float. Their little joke.
He raises his hand to knock — a habit he can begin to unlearn. So much of grief is unlearning. He opens the door, steps inside, and takes a shallow breath, afraid of what might be lingering on the air. But there are only the old familiar smells: Royal Lime aftershave, glue, sawdust.
This is where he found him.
He thought his father had fallen asleep. The only sign that anything was wrong was the new model ship lying on its side on the carpet. His father had finished it the evening before — fourteen days ago. Evan had picked up the ship; it wasn’t damaged. He found a space for it on the shelf with the other ships, a couple dozen of them. He placed it there to join his father’s bottled armada. “Not so grand as an armada,” his father had once said. “More like a flotilla.”
Clifford E. Griffin III, a modest man.
It was strange doing that, picking up the boat and placing it carefully on the shelf, pretending his father was asleep behind him. Only asleep. There was no blood, no sign of a struggle, just the boat in its bottle on its side on the floor. And his father pitched over his desk, his face strained, his eyelids and jaw tense, rigor mortis setting in. He even died modestly.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The muscle of his heart had been thickening. Evan had watched his father rub his chest a fair bit, the look on his face more annoyance than pain. And he would get short of breath when he was gardening. That was about it.
And then that was it.
Fourteen days ago. No — fifteen.
Now Evan moves into the room, heads over to the desk, the chair pushed back so hard against the wall by the paramedics that it left a dent in the plaster just under the window. The chair is still there up against the wall. The plants on the sill are dead. One more thing Evan has forgotten to do. There are dried leaves on the floor.
The ambulance arrived thirteen minutes after he called 911. The fire truck got there three minutes faster. Evan stood shivering at the open front door in his boxers and T-shirt, watching the cartoon-red ladder truck pull into the driveway, wondering whether he’d somehow called the wrong number. Huge men, dressed for putting out fires, piled out of the vehicle, sniffed the air, looked up into the early morning haze for smoke or flames — the kind of stuff they were good at. Then two of them set off at a run around the perimeter of the house — one this way, one that — while three of them entered, so large, they seemed to fill up the place and suck out all the air. Evan thought maybe he was suffocating.
One of them checked out the Dockyard. Another one found a blanket somewhere and wrapped Evan up in it, made him sit in the living room, trembling even though it was July. The third fireman brought him water in a glass from the kitchen.
“Is there someone we should call?”
Evan shook his head. His dad was retired now, so he wasn’t going to be late for work. Oh! The fireman meant family: another parent or auntie, an older sibling — that kind of someone. But there really wasn’t anyone. Not one he could think of right then, that is — right at that precise moment. Just him and Dad.
The book lies on the desk, precisely where his father’s head had landed. He remembers that now, looking down at the desktop: his father’s sallow cheek against the brighter yellow of the binding. He touches the book tentatively, turns it to face him with the tip of his index finger, like it’s booby-trapped — something that might go off in his face.
Kokoro-Jima, the Heart-Shaped Island.
The title is embossed in gold on leather that is pebbly, like sun-smacked sand. The man who phoned this morning had described it that way: sand colored.
Evan wishes he hadn’t taken the call.
He should have let it go to his father’s cheery message, a message Evan can’t erase or change because he doesn’t know the drill, because the house phone was his father’s territory — and, anyway, what would he change the message to: “Sorry, we’re not in. Actually, Evan might be in, but if you’re Evan’s friend, you’d call him on his cell phone. Clifford is dead, so don’t leave a message.”
Fifteen days and counting . . .
Most of the time he lets the calls go to voice mail. But sometimes he can’t stand the ringing — the jangling of it. “Just fucking go away!” he shouts to the empty house. But then sometimes he answers, just for something to do. And sometimes he doesn’t tell the caller the news, just pretends his father is out. Not that it is comforting to delude himself, but because it is so uncomfortable to tell the truth. Embarrassing, as if you have somehow fallen down in your responsibilities. “What? You didn’t know the walls of his heart were hardening? What kind of a son are you?”
When he told the truth, it felt as if he were playing this cruel game on the caller — the kind of smart-ass retort you save for telemarketers. “Sorry, the owner of the house is dead. Have a nice day.”
But this morning he had just said, “He’s not in. Can I take a message?”
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“Sorry, I wish I could tell you.”
“Is your mother around?”
“No. She’s not.”
“But she —”
“Yeah. Like when I was three. So . . .”
“Oh . . .”
There was the pause where the guy tried to think of something appropriate to say. Evan waited, sharing the discomfort, almost enjoying it. If you’re going to shove a knife into an unsuspecting stranger’s gut, the least you can do is hang around and watch him writhe a bit.
“So you’re Clifford’s son?”
“Evan. Hi. My name’s Leo . . . Leo Kraft?” He waited in case the name rang a bell. “I’ve been leaving messages. I don’t mean to be impatient, but I really just wanted to know whether the book arrived?”
“Yeah. It’s called
Have you seen it? It’s yellow, hand-bound — kind of sand colored.”
And immediately Evan saw it in his mind’s eye. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s here.”
“Oh, good. Great.” He could hear the relief in Kraft’s voice. “Thanks. Listen, could you ask your father to get back to me when he gets a chance?”
“I’ll —” Evan stopped. There was only so long you could carry on the charade. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. An odd thing to say, come to think of it.
And now here he is in the Dockyard, staring at the book, his father’s last resting place, this hard pillow. He half expects to see an impression on the cover, a stain of drool. The thought makes him woozy. He leans hard against the edge of the desk. Gets his breath back. He picks up the book, feels the warmth of it from the sun streaming through the window, through the dry spines of the dead plants. He opens it, and there’s a letter. He sinks into his father’s chair, unfolds the letter, and reads.
4586 Santa Cruz Road
Menlo Park, California 94025
June 21, 2014
Thanks so much for getting back to me. Here’s the book. As you will see, my father lavished attention on it. I believe it was one of the most exciting projects he ever undertook in a lifetime of many accomplishments. I only wish he had lived long enough to complete the goal he refers to in the prologue. And I wish he’d lived long enough to dispel the shadow that hangs over the story’s ambiguous and disturbing conclusion. As I might have mentioned, he held off bringing the book out, hoping for answers, but when your father proved to be so obstinate, he went ahead. Leaving us with a mystery.
What happened to Isamu Ōshiro?
I think, when you’ve read the book, you’ll see why this is a delicate matter. As I mentioned, Griff has not replied to any of our inquiries. You said he was “difficult.” What more can we do? We cannot proceed without his approval; our legal counsel has made that point abundantly clear.
If you could prevail upon him to talk to us, we would be so grateful. If going to see him would help, we will of course reimburse you for any expenses.
Please let me know that you received the book. Thanking you again for your help, I am, most sincerely,