Illustration by David Owens
“Once you see it, you’re not going to want to sell it,” Cora said as she flicked the blinker and exited the highway.
“Once you see it, you’re going to realize that selling it is the right thing to do,” I retorted. “Turn left at the next street and then we’re almost there.”
My younger sister, Cora, guided the car onto the narrow side road. Hours before, we had left D.C., driving deep into a part of rural western Maryland that a month earlier I hadn’t even known existed. As we drove farther away from what we knew, the roads became more narrow and pothole-ridden.
“Leah, you’re going to see how special it is,” Cora said. “It meant something to him.”
“That doesn’t mean it has to mean something to us.” I studied the paper map with the route traced in red. “This is as far as we can drive. We have to walk from here.” The atmosphere changed as the car rolled to a stop at the side of the road. Cora gripped the wheel, her knuckles white. She stared at her lap, not lifting her eyes to what was beyond the window. I felt like gravity had increased, pulling me down into my seat and keeping me inside the car. We were quiet; neither of us knew what to say now that we had arrived.
In May, two months before he died, our father bought a quarry—a rock quarry, abandoned, half mined and potentially worthless. He had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we had not yet changed his power of attorney. Through his clouded thoughts, he believed his purchase would make us all rich.
When he told us of the purchase, our father said, “ ‘A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,’ ” quoting Antoine de Saint Exupéry, our favorite author. He had always been literary. Even as his mind deteriorated, he remembered his favorite quotes, though not their contexts. As he grew sicker, he transformed this quarry into a cathedral, his legacy, our future. He believed it would always provide for us. Two weeks after his funeral when his will was executed, Cora and I received an email from his lawyer with the address of the quarry and directions to get there.
Right away I wanted to sell it. I didn’t need—or want—to see it first. Though we knew that early-onset Alzheimer’s ran in the family and were expecting it, his diagnosis and deterioration were rapid. I wanted everything to be over—the funeral, financials, everything. The quarry hung in my mind as another reminder of how my father lost himself. I had to get back to school; my senior year would start within a month. So the day after the funeral I found an industrial developer who was interested in the property. Cora did not want to move so quickly. She held tight to the quarry as a last connection to our dad.
So there we were, in Cora’s blue sedan, sitting at the side of the road. I decided to come because I thought seeing the quarry would convince Cora that it meant nothing, that selling it was necessary. She said she thought coming would convince me otherwise, that I would feel some deep connection to it. We had always been different in that way. She was poetic; I was realistic. She read fantasy; I read the newspaper.
“It’s down that path,” I said, pointing through the car window to an opening in the trees. Wordlessly, Cora nodded. She relaxed her fingers from the wheel and looked out the window. We left the car and followed the overgrown path into the woods. The light wind rustled through the trees, cooling the late August heat. As we walked, each gap in the trees drew my attention; I did not know exactly what we were looking for and if we could miss it.
The woods opened into a clearing, and just yards ahead the ground dropped away. The quarry gaped before us, half as wide as a football field. The whole thing was smaller than I expected, more intimate. I had been picturing an industrial mine with ramps and pulleys, but this quarry looked like it could have been mined in the 19th century and not touched since. Cora and I walked toward the pit. The gray rock was cut away in blocks, almost like giant stairs. Ivy grew in the cracks. Dozens of yards below us, roughly the height of a three-story building, the rock smoothed out into a floor, carpeted with moss and more ivy. The floor was uneven, and water collected in shallow pools. It was as though a team of giants had taken sledgehammers and pounded at the ground. How could humans have done this? The cliff seemed too big, too strong for even a hundred miners to have taken it apart. It was beautiful in an ethereal and timeless way, almost like a cathedral hundreds of years after its inception, how its presence alone inspires even greater awe than when it was built. I shook my head at the thought. It was like something Cora or my father would say.
I hesitated at the top, not wanting to intrude on some part of the past that was best left alone. Cora, however, with contained excitement, climbed down the steps, each half as tall as her. She scrambled to find foot and handholds, and within 10 minutes was at the bottom. She circled around, looking toward the sky, yet somehow avoiding a step into the pooled water. Then she looked down, studying the mossy floor. When she was done surveying the quarry, she sat down among the vines.
“Are you ready to go?” I called down after a few minutes. I wasn’t sure if my voice had reached her. Minutes went by with no answer.
Then she looked up at me. “Leah, don’t you feel him here?”
“No.” My voice echoed off the rock walls, making my response seem less sure, less definite than I had hoped.
“This place… it’s him.” Cora stood up to address me.
“It’s just rocks,” I yelled back.
“That’s…” Her words were pushed away by the wind.
“I can’t hear you,” I called, annoyed at the distance between us.
“That’s not true,” she repeated, her voice breaking. “It’s our last connection with him.” She bit her lip, and I could tell she was trying not to cry. It struck me in that moment how much she looked like our father. Her red hair curled just like his; her forehead crinkled. Even the way she bit her lip mirrored him exactly. For a moment, I almost felt like he was here, like he lived in her. Then Cora turned away.
“It means nothing,” I insisted, my voice louder than it needed to be. “He didn’t know what he was doing when he bought it. He may have never even been here.” As I gazed at the quarry, I realized that I was trying to reassure myself as well as convince her. “I’m sorry,” I said, turning away. I sat down on the edge of the quarry. My feet hung into the abyss.
As we sat in silence, I at the top and she at the bottom, the temperature began to drop and the light changed. Shadows advanced and withdrew. They crept up the walls and slithered along the floor. Pools of darkness joined the pools of water. The quarry breathed. The lowering sun projected Cora’s shadow across the rock, larger than life, like she wasn’t alone down there.
Then the sun set and the shadows vanished. In the sudden dark, the quarry looked flat and still. The rocks were no longer anything more than just that. The cathedral hadn’t just vanished; it had never existed.
“It’s just rocks, isn’t it?” Cora asked, her voice flat. Her question echoed in the dark, the disappointment in her voice magnified in each resounding echo.
“It’s fine.” She stood up. “I’m ready to go. You can call the developer.” I nodded. Cora climbed back up to the top and, without a word, we retraced the path back to the car. As we drove away, I grew unsettled. The last image of the quarry, flat and dark, faded in my mind as the distance from it increased, and the memory of the dancing shadows grew stronger. The quarry means nothing, I repeated to myself. Rocks are just rocks.
But as we drove away, I felt as though I had left something behind.
Lives in: Bethesda
What she does: A rising junior at William & Mary in Virginia, Franklin-Gillette is majoring in psychology with a minor in creative writing. “I work in the writing center, am involved with community service and am a research assistant in a psychology lab.”
How she got her start: Encouraged by her mother, who worked as a freelance writer, Franklin-Gillette started taking writing more seriously in the creative writing program at William & Mary.
Favorite place to write: “Anywhere outside.”
Favorite author: Kazuo Ishiguro