Matthew Jankiewicz is a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at Columbia College Chicago, working towards completing his thesis. His fiction has appeared in The Alembic, 3 Elements Review, Toasted Cheese, and was selected to accompany an exhibit of Ron Jude's photography at the Museum of Modern Photography (MoMP). He is also the founder and co-editor of Flyleaf Journal, a literary periodical that publishes works of fiction in print and digital formats from emerging and established authors. For more information on how to submit or subscribe, visit www.flyleafjournal.com.
THE SIGN MAKER’S DAUGHTER
The sign maker and his family lived in a remote three-story Victorian home along the outskirts of town behind a wrought-iron fence bearing a placard that read: “Safety does not happen by accident.” To reach The Safe House, as the sign maker called it, one would have to navigate the serpentine gravel roads that cut through the sloping hills outside of town, leaving behind the last vestiges of civilization to burn like embers in the distance while the bumpy roads climb higher and the pine trees draw nearer.
It is there, inside the detached garage that now served as his workshop, where the sign maker would spend his days hunched in his stool, leaning over his workbench deep in concentration. Here, alone in his own world, the sign maker created what he considered to be works of beauty, painstakingly engraving messages into metal or wood that he designed, cut, and hand-painted. The art of giving new life to ordinary materials, of transforming them into signs to be posted in various places across the globe instilled a deep satisfaction in the sign maker.
The sign maker’s wife was a florist and took great care in nursing flowers, which would be used to create beautiful bouquets and floral arrangements for weddings and funerals. Over time, she had transformed their backyard into a two-acre flower garden that was teeming with bright roses, daisies, lilies, orchids, tulips, and an assortment of rare species gathered from distant lands. The sweet fragrance of the flowers was so pungent that the townspeople claimed they could smell them from miles away. During the spring, when the bulbs blossomed, thousands of butterflies would flock to The Safe House. Mrs. Halloran, who owned the food market and made weekly grocery deliveries to the house on the hill, once swore that there were so many butterflies covering the windows of the home that she thought they were made of stained glass.
Like most homes, The Safe House was decorated with artwork, mirrors, photos, and the various personal items one accumulates over the duration of a lifetime. Unlike other ordinary homes, however, these decorative accouterments were interspersed with hundreds of signs designed by the sign maker himself, all for the general purpose of maintaining a safe environment.
Affixed to the tiled backsplash in the kitchen was a sign that advised to REMEMBER TO UNPLUG ALL APPLIANCES AFTER USE. As if to reinforce the message, an illustration depicting a burning house was printed under the words.
A plastic sign in the shower stall stated CAUTION: SLIPPERY WHEN WET.
In an effort to avoid the potential of ingesting poisonous substances, a sign in the laundry room served as a reminder that the cleaning chemicals stored on the second shelf were HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.
Due to an unforeseen incident that had occurred three years ago, circumspect signs were arranged to prevent accidents in the surrounding outdoors. It was on that humid August afternoon while traipsing through the garden that the sign maker’s daughter had stepped off the flagstone path that meandered through the colorful flowers like a ravine in a valley, her foot landing atop a bee nest. The enraged colony of bees retaliated against the hapless girl by engulfing her in a buzzing cloud that chased after her as she ran toward the house. Her screams of pain and fright drew the attention of the entire household, who poked their heads out the windows to find the source of all the commotion. Her mother, who heard her daughter’s cries from the living room where she crafted her bouquets, rushed to the backyard, unfurled the garden hose, and released a shower over the young girl and the surrounding swarm of bees. After the last of the hive was finally washed away, the girl was left with over a dozen bee stings and spent the remainder of that summer indoors coated from head to toe in Benadryl. Alarmed that such an episode could happen under his watch, the sign maker immediately set about the task of fashioning a sign to prevent future incidents from occurring. By the week’s end the young girl’s father had devised a white wooden sign that he staked in the soft soil of the garden every few yards cautioning to PLEASE REMAIN ON THE PATH.
Today marked the twelfth birthday of the sign maker’s daughter, and to celebrate the special occasion the family had gathered in the dining room along with her two best friends—who also happened to be her only friends—Anna and Linda. It was a sunny afternoon in early June, and outside the flowers had stretched their petals into full bloom, emitting their nauseatingly sweet fragrance to infiltrate the entire house through the open windows. Remembering the flower’s pungent assault on The Safe House from previous visits, Linda brought a clothespin with her to clamp around her nostrils. Anna, on the other hand, did not appear to be bothered by the flower’s saccharine stench in the least. Being the daughter of a successful perfume saleswoman, Anna had served as the test subject for all of her mother’s latest concoctions. As it turned out, the excessive exposure to chemical compounds had resulted in the limited use of her olfactory senses by the age of nine, allowing Anna to detect only three distinct smells: copper, apples, and dirt.
In light of their daughter’s birthday, the sign maker’s wife had adorned The Safe House with festive table decorations and dozens of oval and triangular flower arrangements that had been intended for a wedding that was cancelled at the last minute. In a futile attempt to mask the stench of the flowers, Aunt Fanny—the sign maker’s sister who lived in the attic apartment—had spritzed a deodorizing concoction of lemon, lime, grapefruit, and vodka. What little remained at the bottom of the bottle, she drank quickly when no one was looking.
After all the guests were seated, Aunt Fanny placed a cake molded into the shape of France, the country that the young birthday girl most wanted to travel to, in the center of the dining table and inserted twelve white and pink-spiraled candles through the thick layer of icing. They remained unlit, however, during the singing of Happy Birthday, since the lighting of candles of any kind was strictly forbidden in The Safe House. THE FLAME OF LIFE CAN BE SNUFFED OUT WITH FIRE declared a sign posted next to the fire extinguisher near the kitchen sink.
After the cake had been eaten and enjoyed by all, the sign maker’s daughter began to unwrap her presents with a grin of delightful anticipation.
Anna gave her a nail polish kit and one of her mother’s best-selling perfumes called Wet Passion.
“Too flammable,” her father muttered under his breath.
Linda’s gift sent a quiver of anxiety through the sign maker, causing him to tumble backward and knock over a cluster of posies resting on the table behind him. To the average twelve year-old-girl with a burgeoning preoccupation with their personal appearance, the hair straightener that the birthday girl uncovered beneath the many layers of wrapping paper was as valuable as any sacred talisman. In the eyes of the sign maker, however, the beauty appliance was nothing more than a dangerous weapon, and as her father and protector, he felt it was his duty to make such concerns known.
“That can cause burns,” he admonished.
“Oh, please,” Aunt Fanny said, rolling her eyes in response to her brother’s statement. “You always manage to find the danger in even the most ordinary of objects. A car, according to your logic, is nothing but a form of population control, rubber bands are a choking hazard, and now, apparently, a simple hair straightener is a weapon of mass destruction.”
The sign maker’s daughter and her friends giggled at Aunt Fanny’s outburst. The sign maker clamped his lips into scowl but managed to contain any further objections while his daughter opened the rest of her presents.
Aunt Fanny’s gift bag contained a pair of white socks and a bottle of rum, which she greedily removed from her niece’s hands, telling everyone it was an accident, that the present must have been intended for someone else. “Although I’m not sure how in the world anyone could possibly live in this house without a good stiff drink now and then,” she muttered.
Her parents gave her twelve gifts to celebrate the occasion, each one having passed their stringent safety criteria: markers, two bars of dark chocolate, another pair of socks, a bandana, a nail filer, an Elton John record, a Quarter Collector’s map of the United States, four state quarters, and Fodor’s Travel Guide to France, which she would add to her growing collection of travel guides.
Despite being in the company of her friends and family, surrounded by the objects of their generosity, the sign maker’s daughter couldn’t quite shake a gnawing disappointment. Like the flowers her mother grew in her garden, the sadness bloomed in her heart, swelling until it hurt too much to ignore. She was now a year older, and accompanying the passage of time was a deeper awareness of the differences between life in The Safe House and the world outside, a world that contained a multitude of surprises waiting patiently like buried treasure to be discovered. Her desire to leave, to indulge her curiosity of everything outside of her father’s control, had been under development for years, and would continue to harden with time.
Later that evening, after her friends departed, the girl lay awake in bed with her hands pressed over her ears like mittens in an effort to stifle her parents’ argument spilling throughout the house. After a half hour, the yelling subsided, leaving The Safe House to become, once again, shrouded in a sleepy hush. The sign maker’s daughter closed her eyes and dreamed of late evenings in Paris, drifting down the Seine River on a steamship, the Eiffel Tower standing as a beacon in the distance while she listened to the reedy bellows of an accordion mingling with water lapping against the side of the boat.
The squeak of her bedroom door woke her from her dream. Squinting against the harsh light that had suddenly filled her room, she saw the outline of her mother standing in the doorway.
“What’s going on?” the young girl asked.
“Shhh,” her mother whispered reassuringly. “There’s something I want to show you. Follow me.”
Still wearing her pajamas, the curious young girl followed her mother through the quiet house, out the back door, and across the flagstone walkway that wove through the lush garden. Despite the warm afternoons this time of year, a chill had snuck its way into the air. The young girl watched the vapor of her breath disappear into the darkness while her mother pulled the folds of her robe tightly around her neck to shut out the cold.
On the lot beyond the gardens stood a few oaks, a few bushes in the front, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood a wall of sunflowers as tall as a grown man. They came to a halt when they reached the sunflowers. The girl looked around, wondering what they could possibly find out here in the middle of the night.
“Just a second,” her mother said as she stepped around the row of sunflowers and pulled something out that had been concealed. A soft bell rang out. The young girl stepped to the side as her mother steered a pink bicycle into view, its wheels sinking into a muddy patch.
“Wow!” Her daughter’s eyes peeled wide with excitement. “Is this for me?” Last year she had begged her parents to buy her a bicycle, but her father had adamantly protested, listing off the many dangers associated with bike riding: she could fall and hurt herself, she could be snatched kidnappers, she could get lost and be unable to find her way back to The Safe House.
“You have a curious mind,” her mother said with a grin as she watched the twinkle of excitement in her daughter’s eyes. “I think it’s time that you explore your surroundings beyond The Safe House.”
“Has Daddy approved this?” the young girl asked, remembering his reaction when she asked for a bike the previous year.
She shrugged. “Your father loves you very much, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Your father loves you very much. The young girl had heard her mother speak those words countless times in the past, used as a way of defending her father’s cautionary behavior. Whenever her mother said this, there always seemed to be a deeper unspoken meaning like the water that trickles through underground caverns. Even though you don’t understand his methods of protecting you, it still doesn’t mean that he cares any less, is what she meant to say. Love is a riddle, could have been another translation. That’s the problem with love; you can’t argue against it because by definition it implies that an action is unselfishly carried out for the benefit of someone else with no expectations of gratitude or remuneration.
“When I was your age,” her mother continued, “I had a bike of my own. It was wonderful, having the freedom to go wherever and whenever I pleased. I remember the wind pressing against my face when I would glide down a hill, the exhilaration filling me up like helium, making me feel weightless, free from worries.” She sighed and looked up to the sky, her eyes reading the constellations above like they were a map to the past. She looked back to her daughter, who thought she could see one of the shimmering stars stuck in the corners of her mother’s eye. “I want you to be able to experience that for yourself.”
The girl wrapped her arms around her mother and felt a kiss against her cold cheek followed the warmth of her mother’s tears.
The sign maker’s daughter was ten years old when she learned about the many unexpected deaths of her relatives. One night, she’d been secretly reading a book about New York City under the bed sheets (this was before she’d developed an interest in international travel), the images of skyscrapers illuminated by the glow of her flashlight, when she heard a shrill cry from downstairs. Alarmed, the young girl snapped the book shut and planted herself at the top of the stairs, straining to listen in on the conversation that was taking place below.
“…Green Lake County police on the phone,” her mother said, her voice somber and heavy with hesitation. “They said there’d been some kind of accident.”
“I can’t…I can’t believe this,” Aunt Fanny said. “I can’t go through this again.” All of her words were muddled, turning into what the young girl called wet speech. Even when her aunt wasn’t sad, sometimes the wet speech would intrude in her conversation, especially when she had too much to drink.
Although the young girl wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to her uncle, the moaning of her aunt and the deep trembling sobs from her father filled her with sadness. She retreated back up the stairs and climbed into bed. She cried for hours until her eyes were sore and snot dripped across her lips, eventually falling to sleep.
The next morning, the sign maker’s daughter found her mother at work in the living room bundling up various flowers into bouquets. Still deeply troubled by what she’d heard the previous night, the young girl sought to find out what happened. When she asked about the commotion from her father and Aunt Fanny, her mother sighed deeply.
“Your Uncle Harry had an accident last night. He’d been at a wedding reception and had consumed several drinks. Apparently, he and several other guests left the party to go to smoke on a balcony. He leaned against the wooden railing, and according witnesses, there was a sharp snapping sound and within an instant the railing collapsed behind your uncle, sending him tumbling over the edge and…well, he hit his head pretty hard.”
“Will he get better?”
Her mother shook her head, and the young girl knew that the accident was serious.
“That’s why I’m making these flower arrangements,” her mother said. “They’ll be on display for your uncle’s funeral.”
She tied the stems of several roses together with white ribbon. “There’s something else that I need to tell you.” Her mother stared at her for a moment, collecting her thoughts, and began to speak. “Your father and Aunt Fanny had six brothers and sisters,” she said. “And of the eight siblings, your father and his sister are the only remaining two alive.”
As her mother continued, it became clear to the young girl that Uncle Harry’s death was not the first brush with misfortune the sign maker and his sister have encountered. The other siblings, like her uncle the night before, had all died tragically, each in an unlikely manner: a drowning, a motorbike accident, a heart attack. One of them, her Uncle Thomas, who she never met, had been struck by lightening. Of all the terrible accidents that had befallen her father’s family, however, the most peculiar were the deaths of her grandparents.
“Your grandmamma and grandpapa were celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary in the same way they did every year with a trip to the Wisconsin Dells,” the sign maker’s wife told her daughter. “We found several photographs they’d taken during the trip that showed them wearing the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen on them. It was during their drive back home, however, when things took an unexpected turn, the odds of which couldn’t have been less than one out of a billion. They’d been following the route they always took while navigating the country roads of rural Wisconsin when, suddenly, a bale of hay weighing half a ton rolled down a sweeping hill, gaining momentum. The police believed that the two of them never saw the bale of hay in their periphery as it gathered speed, plowed through the rickety wooden fence that bordered the road and tumbled on top of the sedan, crushing them instantly under its tremendous weight.”
The story was as equally bizarre as it was sad. The obvious question that entered the girl’s mind was what would have happened had her grandparents left for home one second earlier or later than they did? Perhaps they could have stopped for gas or grabbed a bite to eat at a diner along the way. Her grandmother could have pointed out a nice little produce stand on the side of the highway and said, “Look darling, fresh watermelons,” and they could have pulled over and avoided their ghastly fate entirely.
“Why didn’t you tell me all of this before?” the young girl asked her mother, her eyes swollen with tears.
“You were only two years old at the time when it happened, so there was no way you would have understood. Your father and I thought it best to wait until you were older to tell you. We didn’t want to frighten you into thinking that something bad was going to happen to you.”
After a moment of reflection, the young girl asked, “Do you think this has anything to do with why Daddy makes all those signs?”
Her mother swallowed and glanced down at her fidgeting hands. “People deal with grief in different ways. Sometimes, we can’t make sense of others reactions, but it doesn’t negate their feelings. Your father loves you very much and would do anything to keep you safe.” Although her mother did not say it exactly, the girl knew that all of the tragic deaths accounted, in part, for her father’s odd behavior. The safety signs had simply become a replacement for the silence that had inserted itself between her parents.
The morning after her twelfth birthday party and her mother’s secret visit in the night, the sign maker’s daughter awoke full of excitement at the thought of riding her bike. She jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs. Sunday mornings meant that her mother would be cooking pancakes and eggs while whistling some old tune she wouldn’t recognize. When she stepped into the kitchen she found the stove cold and no one around. She searched in the living room and found that it, too, was empty. She searched the parlor room where her mother made her bouquets, then the dining room and the laundry room, but her mother was nowhere to be found. Finally, when she opened the door to her father’s workshop, she found the sign maker sitting at his workbench with his head slumped over a piece of paper that seemed to be swollen with teardrops. She didn’t need to read what was written on the note to understand that something was wrong. She closed the door gently, not wanting to make her presence known lest he realize that she had caught a glimpse of him in such a vulnerable state, and fled to her mother’s garden.
Nearly an hour passed before Aunt Fanny found the sign maker’s daughter lying in a patch of daisies and gazing up at the limitless blue sky.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” her aunt said as she lifted the girl’s head onto her thigh and began brushing her hair with her pruned fingers. “Your mother will come back soon. You’ll see,” she said. “Everything will be better.”
The girl knew that these were merely hollow promises meant to lift her spirits. She didn’t cry, not then. There would be many spilt tears in the years to come. But in that moment, she concentrated her gaze on the indigo sky as she worked out the scattered jigsaw of emotions, fitting the pieces together—heartbreak, isolation, anger, confusion—parsing each of the past twelve years of her life to search for a memory that might help her invent an excuse for her mother’s abandonment.
One afternoon several weeks after the sign maker’s wife left, Aunt Fanny returned from Ageless Antiques, where she frequently shopped for things she did not need but wanted very much. She asked the sign maker’s daughter if she could lend a helping hand in carrying her newfound treasures from the car—which had been filled to capacity—upstairs to her bedroom. One of the heaviest items was a large dollhouse that, oddly enough, held a close resemblance to their real home. The dollhouse was much less cluttered, decorated with the kind of precision that you would only see in a luxurious hotel or on a movie set. There were no people inside the home, but the girl imagined that any family who was lucky enough to live in such a lovely place would surely be the happiest in the world.
Aunt Fanny’s room was crowded with furniture and mounds of objects that carried no significance to the young girl. Like a police officer directing traffic, Aunt Fanny motioned with her hands toward a piano that was missing several keys and told her niece to place the dollhouse on top of it. The girl obeyed her aunt’s directions, treading along a narrow aisle that had been carved through the clutter.
“Do you like the dollhouse?” Aunt Fanny asked.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. “It’s alright.”
“I used to have one just like that when I was a little girl,” she said, smiling faintly.
“What happened to it?”
Her aunt’s smile melted. “It broke. I dropped it by accident and it split in half.”
“Oh,” the young girl said. Then, unable to think of anything better to say, added, “You must have been very upset.”
Her aunt shrugged and said, “Nothing lasts forever. I’ll go and get the last few things from the car. Feel free to play with the dollhouse.” She rubbed the top of the young girl’s head and disappeared out of the room.
The girl played with the family in the dollhouse for a few moments before her attention drifted to a precarious pile of objects that slid like an avalanche when she touched it. A small wooden box bearing an insignia of a heart etched on the lid tumbled to her feet. She picked it up and opened it. Inside she found a collection of old Kodachrome photographs.
In one of the pictures a boy and a girl were sitting on opposite branches of a tree, looking down with bright smiles at whoever was holding the camera. Another one showed the same two kids clinging onto a tire swing being pushed by a hefty child. In the next one they were sitting behind the wheels of bumper cars, crashing into each other with reckless abandon. They both looked so happy in all of the pictures, doing things that she only dreamt of doing herself.
There was something familiar about the features of the two children in the pictures, especially the girl’s tangled curly red hair and the boy’s ears that stuck out wide from his head. It was her father and Aunt Fanny, she realized, although the disguises of their smiles made it difficult for her to recognize them.
The door shut behind her, and when the girl turned, she saw her aunt standing over her shoulder. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been watching her thumb through the past entombed in the photographs.
“Those were good times,” Aunt Fanny said dreamily as she lowered her weight slowly until she was seated next to the young girl on the floor. “Yes, good times,” she repeated, softly.
“You and Daddy did so much when you were young,” the young girl said, unable to draw her gaze away from the photos. It was difficult for her to imagine him doing anything outside of The Safe House.
“We did. Back then the world was a much larger and more exciting place.”
“But all of the things you did in these pictures were dangerous—hanging from tree limbs and swimming and sledding. You could have gotten hurt.” The girl was surprised to hear the echo of her father’s voice in her words.
“Nonsense. Look at our grins, the dimples impressed in our cheeks. Do you think we were worried of falling or tripping or hurting ourselves in any way? Of course not! Our minds weren’t capable of producing such ridiculous concerns.” Aunt Fanny’s breath smelled sour, like the clear liquid in the bottles she kept on the shelf next to the bookcase. Her eyes were red around the edges.
“Why don’t you do any of these things anymore?” The girl asked.
“Because we’re wiser than we were back then.” She pointed to the picture that the girl was holding in her hands. “That one is my favorite.”
The girl looked down and saw her father and her aunt standing on the beach next to her grandparents along with who she believed to be their siblings—all eight of them. The expanse of the ocean spread out behind them, vanishing into the horizon. They were all smiling with squinting eyes under the radiant sunlight.
“We should frame it and hang it in the foyer,” the girl suggested. She had never seen a photograph of her grandparents and all of her now-deceased aunts and uncles together.
“Your father wouldn’t like that. The pictures would bring back too many memories.”
“Why wouldn’t he want to remember?”
Aunt Fanny put the photos back into the wooden box and placed it under her bed. “Some memories are just too painful,” she said.
Something in her aunt looked broken, and it saddened the girl to know that she couldn’t fix whatever was wrong. She was all-too familiar with this broken part, because it hurt inside of her whenever she thought about her mother.
Above the seat where her mother used to design and arrange the flowers into her masterpieces, a small banner made out of felt paper dangled from two hooks that her father installed on the ceiling. The sign read: We miss you so much. Please come home.
It was difficult for the sign maker’s daughter to accept the idea that her mother was gone and that it was unlikely she would ever return. Whenever she inhaled the scent of flowers it seemed that, for a brief moment, her mother was standing right next to her, smiling and telling her that everything would be okay. She’d hand her a corsage made out of silky roses and posies, and tell her that she kept all of the heart-shaped petals for her.
She picked up one of the half-finished bouquets in her hands, wondering where her mother was at that very moment. The petals were brittle and crumpled between her laced fingers like tissue paper.
The next day, while sitting on a garden rock and gazing at a double-page spread of the Eiffel Tower in her new travel guide to Paris, a brilliant idea formed in the mind of the sign maker’s daughter. Since happiness dwindled as people got older (at least, that was what her aunt told her), then she should try her best to preserve the present, to keep her own box of memories. A camera would be needed and she knew exactly where she could find one.
“I need a camera,” she asked Aunt Fanny one morning while she was putting on her makeup. She was getting herself ready to leave The safe House for the day to go scavenger hunting at various estate sales around town, something she did every Monday.
“What will you give me in exchange for it?” Aunt Fanny asked, always hesitant to give away any of her prized possessions.
The girl thought for a second before she said, “I’ll give you my travel guide to Bangladesh.” It was an outdated edition, so she had no qualms about giving it up.
Her aunt’s eyes flickered with curiosity. “Make it two books and we have a deal,” she bartered. Negotiations had become second nature to Aunt Fanny, who nearly spent as much time hunting for bargains as she did in The Safe House.
After spending some time rummaging through the mountainous piles of stuff, Aunt Fanny found not one but three cameras. Two of them were non-functioning, but the third one she found to be in perfectly good-working condition.
With the camera slung over her shoulder, the girl rode her bike—which she kept hidden behind the sunflowers—down the gravel road, past the gate that marked the beginning of all that lay beyond The Safe House until she reached Anna’s house in a neighborhood a couple miles away. Her father, who was busy in the workshop, would assume that she was busy reading in her room (the safest activity for a young girl, he believed) or playing in the garden with her friends.
This was the first time she’d ever been inside Anna’s house because her father was convinced that the environment of the home was too hazardous for daily living, let alone recreation. Her father did not inspect Anna’s home in person (in fact, he hadn’t stepped outside of The Safe House for as long as his daughter could remember), but instead, had sent his wife with a list in hand to appraise the safety of the home. The young girl was fascinated by how empty the walls looked without the foreboding signs.
After a lively welcome by Anna’s mother, the young girl was invited inside and asked to try four different types of perfume on her neck and wrists. One of the perfumes, called Intensity, induced a sneezing bout in the young girl that lasted for ten minutes.
“I appreciate you volunteering to try my perfumes,” Anna’s mother said when they were finished and the stinging sensation in they young girl’s nostrils dissipated. “Your input is invaluable.” As a consolation for her time, she gave the young girl a small sample vial of Snuggle, the only fragrance that didn’t make her nauseous.
When Anna was ready, she and the sign maker’s daughter met up with Linda. The three of them rode their bikes together, feeling like explorers in a strange land. They swam in the nearby ravine, spied on the boys who played baseball in the park, and picnicked together on the lakeshore.
The sign maker’s daughter chronicled her adventures that summer with her friends, taking photos of their surroundings and posting them in an album with titles like “The Wilderness” and “The Unknown” and “The Changing Tides.”
Over the years, with no one to tend the garden, the landscape of the sign maker’s home fell into disarray. The flower petals wilted and the maidengrass and purple fountaingrass faded under the broiling summer sun, never to grow back to its former lushness. The scent of the garden, once as potent as the perfumes Anna’s mother sold, had faded away entirely along with any hopes the young girl had harbored of her mother returning to The Safe House.
The sign maker’s daughter, now eighteen years old and no longer a small child, was ready to leave The Safe House to attend college in California to study photography. Her father begged and pleaded with her stay home, hoping to convince her to become his apprentice so she could learn how to make signs. “Signs make the world a safer place,” he would reiterate over and over again. But the young woman had seen enough contradictory evidence outside of The Safe House during her clandestine escapades to know that her father’s cautionary words were formed on groundless logic.
“You can’t keep her here forever,” Aunt Fanny told him just a few days before his daughter’s departure. “It’s time for her to experience the world for herself.” This statement had a shattering effect over the sign maker. He spent the next three days locked away in his workshop, only leaving to get food from the pantry and to sneak a bottle of rum from Aunt Fanny’s private liquor cabinet.
It was a bright and crisp October morning, and the sign maker waited anxiously near the mailbox at the end of the driveway—the farthest he would venture from The Safe House—for twenty minutes, pacing in circles to whittle away the time until the soft rumble of the mail delivery truck could be heard over the whispering wind. The deliveryman hardly parked the truck before the sign maker dashed over to the side door and greedily snatched the mail out of his hands.
Clutching the envelope and National Geographic magazine to his chest, the sign maker ran along the driveway toward The Safe House, his silver hair waving against the breeze like a dandelion. Once inside, he called out to his sister, “Fanny, the mail is here!”
He heard the slow thump, thump, thump of his sister’s cane marching down the stairs. Her leg had been flaring up with bouts of pain for the past few months, for which she’d been taking several prescriptions to help ease the discomfort. He waited patiently for her to enter the kitchen before opening the envelope that his daughter sent him. With their heads only inches apart, they leaned forward and read the letter together:
Dear Daddy and Aunt Fanny,
These past couple of months have been a whirlwind for me. Oh, how I wish you could be here to take in all the sights that I’ve seen. Copenhagen is even more beautiful than the travel guides portray with the building’s many pastel colors and river passageways crisscrossing through the city. Last month, I met a man from America who is passing through to study the city’s marvelous architecture. He himself wants to become an architect and build magnificent structures that will overcome the amnesia of a bygone era. Listen to me ramble! It seems that I’ve already picked up Nathan’s penchant for poetic language just by being around him. I hope one day soon you and Aunt Fanny will be able to meet him.
I’ve included several photographs with this letter for you to see what my words can’t describe. You’ll find them in the magazine that should be delivered with this letter. I hope I’ve managed to do the scenes justice.
As always, I love you both and wish you all the happiness in the world.
Several months later another letter arrived, and again, the sign maker and his sister slanted their heads over the piece of paper, greedily reading its contents.
Dear Daddy and Aunt Fanny,
I’m writing this letter to you on a cruise ship. Nathan and I are traveling to Aruba, where the water is the clearest and most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. In the evening, when the sun begins to dip below the horizon and the locals begin their merengue, the entire ocean is smeared with a golden light like icing. As you can imagine, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a photograph.
It brings me great excitement to announce that last month Nathan and I got married in Paris. Words cannot begin to describe the feelings that coursed through me during our travels together. I so badly wish you two could have made it to the wedding, but I understand that there were certain complications associated with getting you here. There is a surprise for you in the National Geographic I sent you (you’ll find it on page 49).
I love you both and look forward to seeing you soon for Christmas.
The sign maker opened the magazine to the page mentioned in the letter to find several photographs taken by his daughter in Paris. In the first photo, twilight had nearly fully embraced the city with its shadows, turning all the buildings to coal against the fiery setting sun. Standing prominently in the center was the Eiffel tower standing sentinel against the rest of the city. He turned the page to see the famous landmark illuminated with flashing lights that shone like stars against the backdrop of night and squinted to get a closer look at what appeared to be a white flower at the top of the tower.
“My magnifying glass,” he said. His sister opened up a drawer labeled Miscellaneous and found her brother’s magnifying glass. Holding the lens up to the image, he saw that the flower was in fact his daughter dressed in her wedding gown standing next to her husband, the man they had only met through their daughter’s letters. They were smiling and waving from the top of the tower toward the camera at ground level. In the caption beneath the picture, the sign maker found the title of the image: FREEDOM.
Over time, a pattern developed between father and daughter. Every couple of months she would send him a hand-written letter along with the latest issues of magazines containing her photographs taken from all around the world. For the sign maker, the sights captured by his daughter’s camera became an extension of his own small world.
He would correspond with her through mail as well, postmarking his responses to a P.O. Box in California that she checked during her return visits to the States. His letters were full of compliments on her latest publications, telling her how proud he was of her for all her accomplishments, for taking so many risks. He would relay to her any news that was happening around The Safe House, which was usually very seldom and often inconsequential. “Mrs. Halloran has sold her grocery store and retired with her husband to Florida,” he told her once. Another time, he wrote to tell his daughter that her childhood friend, Anna, had a baby girl recently and that he’d sent her a wooden plaque engraved with her daughter’s name, date of birth, horoscope sign, birth weight, and an imprint of her baby feet and hands.
Most recently, he delivered the unfortunate news that Aunt Fanny had passed away from liver disease. After the doctors delivered his sister’s prognosis, she and the sign maker made every attempt to enjoy their last few months together, cooking all of their favorite foods and listening to records they found in the attic that they thought had been lost long since their childhood. What could have been a time of sorrow, they had managed to transform into days of joy, full of remembrance and laughter, right up until the very last days.
Now that his sister was gone the hermetic house seemed vacuous and much too large for one person. He didn’t mention this to his daughter in his letters because he didn’t want to upset her. After Fanny’s death, the sign maker no longer addressed his residence as The Safe House but rather as The Lonely House. That is how he felt now, alone in his own home, and there was no one with whom to share the burden of his isolation.
It was Christmastime when the sign maker’s daughter and her husband, Nathan, paid a visit to The Lonely House. Every time she returned, it always surprised her just how distant the house was from the neighboring town, as though it had been built on unsteady ground that was slowly sliding away like the continents shifting on tectonic plates. They always travelled to see her father during the holidays, and every time, he would gather them in a warm embrace and ask them a litany of questions about their worldly exploits. In the past, Aunt Fanny would bake the softest and sweetest maple-nut cookies and apple tarts and rhubarb pie they had ever tasted. Christmas simply wasn’t the same without the smell of pastries baking in the oven or her lengthy discussions about her latest treasure hunts at the antique shops, complete with the history of the items, where they came from and how much they were currently worth.
With the absence of her mother and Aunt Fanny, there was something different about the house. It wasn’t just the quiet that permeated throughout, but something physical as well. She didn’t notice it at first, but as she moved from room to room, the reasons why all the rooms felt emptier became clear: all of the signs had been removed. Where cautionary discretions had once hung there were now only faded spots on the floral wallpaper.
“What happened to all of the signs?” the sign maker’s daughter asked.
The old man shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t need them anymore.”
When she was about to ask him why, she saw his face clearly: the sunken cheeks, the tired and aimless eyes, his white hair as thin and wispy as cotton. She could hardly recognize this man as being the same she knew from her childhood.
Later that night, after eating Christmas dinner together and opening presents, the sign maker and his daughter sat outside on the patio, bundled up in their warm coats while they watched the snow fall in swirling motions as it covered up the vast expanse of land that had once been brimming with color. Inside, Nathan slept soundly on the couch, having had too much eggnog during dinner—a recipe that had been passed down by Aunt Fanny.
“It’s been quiet here without your aunt and your mother,” the sign maker said dispiritedly.
“Yes, I can imagine.”
“It gives me a lot of time to think.”
There was a moment of silence between them filled with unspoken memories and regrets.
“I’m sick,” he said eventually, his voice cutting through the silence like a knife with a dull edge.
“Well, of course you don’t feel well. You must have eaten too much for dinner,” his daughter said in an attempt to deflect the seriousness of his tone. But when she glanced at her father, his dull gray eyes revealed that his sickness was more serious than indigestion.
Her father spoke slowly as though he were remembering the words he was supposed to say from having played out this moment many times in his head.
“Doctor Metzler came to see me after I called him about these persistent migraines I was having nearly every morning. After his visit, he told me to see a specialist, and I told him I couldn’t do that. Fortunately, the specialist was able to have a PET scanner transported on a truck to our house. Shortly afterwards, Doctor Metzler called to tell me the results of my scan. He told me I had a brain tumor—stage four. Based on the sound of his voice, I could tell that it was very upsetting for him to have to share the bad news with me, and when I asked how long I had left, I told him to be honest with me. He told me that I’d be lucky to last six months.”
“When did you find out about this?”
“Four months ago.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, opening and closing her mouth several times while she formed her thoughts before finally saying, “I wish you would have told me sooner.”
“You were away in Australia at the time, and I didn’t want to worry you.”
“I still would have liked to know. We could have spent more time together.”
“You mean I should have joined you on your travels?”
“I mean you should get out of this house, this goddamn prison that you keep yourself locked inside of all the time.” Her voice was flimsy, on the verge of shattering like a dropped dish. “I see you withering away in this place, keeping yourself contained in some kind of effort to preserve yourself. Or maybe it’s some kind of punishment, I can’t tell the difference.” The tempo of her words quickened as she spoke, spilling out of her mouth like a levee that had collapsed.
Her father’s gaze was fixed to the edge of the patio where the awning ended and the snow began to form a wall. He couldn’t bring himself to look his daughter in the eyes.
“No matter how hard you try you can’t bring your parents back and you can’t save everyone, Dad. The idea that you could somehow protect us all was ludicrous. You didn’t attend my graduation. You couldn’t even come to our wedding,. When are you going to realize that staying here in this house is causing you to miss out on your entire life?” Or what’s left of it, she thought with a jolting realization. She had finally said what had been building up inside of her for years, and even as the words were coming out of her mouth, she felt a wave of regret take over her.
Her father stood up slowly, his joints cracking as they always did when it was bitter cold outside, and made his way to the sliding glass door. He looked so fragile under the pale moonlight, her father, like a piece of glass that could shatter at the slightest disturbance. Before opening the door, he turned to her and, brushing his gray stubble with his thumb and forefinger, said, “I certainly don’t want you to worry about me.” He disappeared inside, spilling a wave of warmth and the smooth voice of Nat King Cole singing the Christmas Song.
The next morning, the sound of frying eggs and soft humming could be heard all throughout The Lonely House. The sign maker made his way downstairs to the kitchen to find his daughter cooking breakfast. She stopped humming Christmas tunes when she saw him enter the kitchen. After he took his seat, she poured him a glass of orange juice and placed the morning newspaper on the table in front of him.
“I’m sorry about what I said last night,” she said.
He stared intently through the large windows that overlooked the barren land in the backyard.
“I’m really sorry,” she said again.
He took a sip of his juice, grunted, and after a pause, he said, “There is a place I’ve always wanted to go—or rather, return to.”
The sign maker’s daughter remembered biking to Chestnut Hill when she was a girl. The top of the hill provided an extraordinary view of the entire valley and the town that sat at the bottom. You could stand anywhere in town and have a clear view of Chestnut Hill’s summit.
She found the idea laudable that out of all the places in the world to visit, he wanted to go someplace that was a mere five miles away. “There’s nowhere else you’d rather see?”
“No. I want to go to Chestnut Hill.”
“Now,” he said without the slightest bit of hesitation.
Even though the sun was now poking out from behind the clouds, several inches of snow had fallen the night before. Driving along the narrow icy roads up the hill would be dangerous. He must have been out of his mind to even suggest that they go out today.
“Dad, you’re sick. I can’t take you up there. What would I do if you fell and hurt yourself?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, you’ve been trying to get me out of this house for the past thirty years, and now you’re going to let a little illness get in the way of that?”
He finished his breakfast and, using the table for leverage, pulled himself up onto his feet.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“If you aren’t going to take me to Chestnut Hill,” he said defiantly, “then I’ll go by myself.” He disappeared into the garage. There was no arguing against the old man. She knew that once her father made up his mind about something, nothing could lead him astray from his convictions.
Seeing no point in arguing with him, she knew that the only alternative was to help him. A wish, after all, was a wish, even if she would have chosen differently.
“Nathan!” she called out at the bottom of the stairs, rousing her sleeping husband, who clambered down the stairs rubbing the corners of his eyes.
“What’s the matter? What’s all the shouting for?” he said. His long sleep had evaporated most of his intoxication.
“My father wants to go to Chestnut Hill,” she said with a smile. Her husband stood for a minute, but once his foggy mind had process what she’d said, his eyelids parted wide. “Well, what are we waiting for then? Let’s go!”
Nate brought the truck around to where the open garage door was. In the center of the workspace sat a large pile of metal sheets and string and wires and a collection of tools used for building signs. The sign maker picked up a few supplies in his arms, and, struggling under the burden of their weight, carried them to the bed of the truck. No one knew the purpose of all of the parts. The sign maker hardly spoke a word except for the occasional, “Be careful with that, it’s fragile,” or “Easy now, we’ll need everything,” while his daughter and her husband helped to load the items onto the truck.
Once the hatch was filled to capacity, causing the cab of the truck to slump ever so slightly under the heavy load, the sign maker and his family set out for Chestnut Hill, the snow crunching softly under the tires.
“We’ll need more help,” the sign maker said. There was no explanation affixed to this request, and when Nate asked why, there was no response. “We need more people,” was all he said. He covered his eyes with his hands in an attempt to ignore the treacherous road conditions.
The sign maker’s daughter knew exactly who might have been willing to help them, and several minutes later, they arrived at Anna’s house. After sharing their predicament with Anna and explaining that her father wished to go to the top of Chestnut Hill, Anna agreed to help them accomplish whatever it was that the old man had in mind. Anna’s daughter and husband drove behind them as they made their way toward their destination. They made one final stop to pick up Lynda, who also agreed to help the family.
With her childhood friends driving in tandem behind her, the sign maker’s daughter could hardly believe that this was actually happening.
“Slow down, the sign maker said. “I’ve been waiting thirty years to get out of the house. I don’t want to get into a car accident before I get to the hill.” His eyes were trained on the speedometer, ever-vigilant to catch the slightest deviance from the posted speed limit.
The caravan of cars drove carefully up the gravel- and snow-covered slope. The slightest slip on the ice would send the sign maker into a fit, causing him to make sharp squealing noises with a look of profound terror distorting his features. Nate tried to calm the old man’s nerves by playing soft orchestral music over the speakers, which seemed to allay his fears to the point where his yells simmered to a soft whimpering.
They were nearly at the summit when they came upon a guardrail bearing a reflective sign that announced the end of the road.
“We can walk the rest of the way,” the sign maker said. He stepped out into the chilly morning, slipping on a piece of ice buried under snow and nearly tumbling backward. He managed to latch onto the side of the truck and regain his balance.
“Dad,” his daughter said imploringly, “watch your step. We’ll get the stuff from the truck and carry it up for you.”
“I’m okay,” he said, waiving his hand dismissively. He straightened his coat on his weak body and made his way over the guardrail and up the last fifty feet of the hill. Lynda, Anna, and her family followed after the old man bearing expressions of concern. But the old man’s pace was quickening, fueled by a sudden burst of excitement.
“It’s around here somewhere,” he muttered. He scoured the snowy landscape, looking at the ground like a treasure hunter scanning a beach with a metal detector. “Perhaps, over there,” he said. His companions looked at each other and shrugged their confusion, waiting for directions from the old man.
He stopped in front of a snow-covered bush and began to shake the powdery snow off its branches, revealing the bright pink flowers of the Japanese cherry blossom. Even after all of these years, the flowers remained exactly where his wife had planted them all those years ago for their wedding day. The old man’s eyes widened. “It’s here,” he said. From the place he was standing, the entire group could see the panoramic spread of the surrounding forests and the valley and the town that occupied the basin, so small and insignificant from the high altitude that the buildings looked as though they could have been made out of matchbooks. Beyond the town and over the crest of another hill, The Lonely House stood on a plot of land all by itself.
“We will build it here,” the sign maker said.
It took them the entire day to build the sign from the parts they brought with them, using ropes and pulleys to hoist up the metal sheets so that they interlocked with each other. Sitting in a lawn chair behind the group of friends and relatives, bundled up in his favorite heavy coat and fur cap, the sign maker watched the assemblage of his sign, doling out an occasional instruction or piece of advice here and there. Nathan, having designed many buildings, was able to discern the old man’s blueprints with ease.
When they were finished, their fingers were numb from the cold and the ache of exertion. But they remained under the massive structure they had constructed, standing seventy feet high above them like a monument. It was by far the most elaborate and striking sign the old man had ever made. Behind them, the sun began its long decent view, spreading fiery banners of light across the sky.
The old man remained in his lawn chair, marveling at the structure in front of him, and whispered, “She’ll come back now. Just wait. She’ll come back.” He smiled as the sun completed its disappearing act.
Far below in the valley, at the foot of Chestnut Hill, the townspeople fixed their attention on the enormous structure that loomed high above them, captivated by the image illuminated by hundreds of solar lights like some divine message, enticing anyone who laid eyes upon it to try to unravel its mystery.
Reverend Sharp paused in the middle of his evening sermon, looking squarely at the sign that appeared through the round window at the back of the chapel.
Mr. and Mrs. Adler, who ran the diner, peaked through the window blinds, their mouths hanging agape, to get a better view.
The Ullmans’ were eating dinner when they saw the dazzling sign, their forks and knives still fastened in their gasps.
All across town everyone stopped what they were doing to marvel at the sign, each person drawing their own individual meaning from it. Even if the townspeople didn’t understand the sign entirely, no one denied its significance.
Days and weeks passed, and still the sign remained standing upon the hilltop, gazing down upon the town like some omniscient being. Bewildered by its sudden appearance, no one dared to remove it for fear that the slightest disturbance would result in misfortune.
Even from the small window in the corner of the hospital room, the sign maker had a clear view of his greatest triumph. He grinned with satisfaction as he lay on the unfamiliar sheets in this unfamiliar place, reading the message over and over while waiting with a practiced patience for his wife to return and bring him home.