On the road home—though strangers now live there—the tender green hills and pastures called like a living carpet begging to be to stroked. A giggle escaped my lips at the renaming of these country lanes in the last twenty years for the ease of the 9-1-1 system: gleaming green and white signs exclaim “Haymakertown Road” and “Country Club Road,” instead of Route “606” or “666,” on rusty black and white signs more suited to the farms they surrounded.
The familiar canopy of trees ushered me over the bridge, letting in drops of sparkling light between the shadows that ran like water down the back of my parched throat. The rays shouted down louder than the brook under the bridge. After a beat, the rushing water hearkened back to the big flood that brought cows floating down our mountain road.
High on the hill, brick front porch steps we never used now crumbled away from the house. Trees my dad scattered in the front yard to block the sun and wind—then, merely two-foot sticks–were now thick poplars fifty-feet high, like aliens landed from another planet on the empty slope where my sister and I used to sled. The strange concrete block that stuck out as our back porch atop the uneven hill had been wisely converted into a sunroom with a small wooden deck on back. But on the west side—on the empty meadow of grass where my sister and I turned cartwheels to the Theme Song for The Greatest American Hero in the sticky sun—my dad must have stuck more secret alien sticks in the ground. Giant poplars had infested our playground, creating obstacles for successful landings, shade where there should be room for unabashed sunbathing.
Worst of all, a quarter mile beyond, the skimpy pine saplings that lined the western fence had vanished. Our miniature dachshund, Tex—that my father gave away while I was at camp—always ran between those trees and under the fence to chase after the neighbor’s horses. Now towering pines forty or fifty-feet tall masked that fence-line, blocking the Blue Ridge Mountains where the perfect sunset marked everyday of my life after age nine, whether I witnessed or not. Suddenly shut out by this pine wall, I found myself seething at trees for the first time.
With a quiver in my chest, I peeked back to the east where the Allegheny Mountains should be. I stepped slowly around the new sundeck, where far too many bushes, shrubbery, a tree right off the porch obscured my view. It was as if the mountains had moved on me.
I walked down the back hill toward the woods searching for familiarity. Entering the forest, once again they became my woods; nothing compares to the freedom of that. Then, I veered onto a different path and found myself lost. A dark cloud overtook me as overgrown vines and branches blocked the path and clawed at my limbs, dragging me down with thorns. Tearing free, I finally found my clearing complete with a bench, which I rejected at first, planning to sit on the ground.
But then, I succumbed to middle age and embraced the change. Peaceful as in my memory, the sounds of wildlife crept around the high ground to the west behind the thick branches. My heart twittered, yet allowed me to be still enough in this moment to capture my thoughts. Here, I owned all this again, despite the absence of the tire swing, with not a remnant of visible rope in my sun-squinted view.
The rustle of the leaves in the wind moved like a percussion symphony that began its gentle rattle on one side of the forest and swooped through, using every instrument from the tympani and steel drums to the most delicate tingle of the cymbal. When it all calmed, summer clouds covered the sky, stilling the world for just a moment; the years peeled away until I was nine years old.
Anywhere else I would have been unable to sit in my loneliness. Yet here—the safe space to which my mind had travelled from the eleven places I’ve lived since—the stillness and darkness were a welcome emptiness, a release.
Somehow the bugs didn’t bother me, swarming around my head and arms, perching on my shoulders. I didn’t feel the heat. The impending rain didn’t rouse me because the forest is my meditation.
Gradually, I sensed that it time to go. The spell was broken. I thanked the forest. As I walked away from the bench, the first drops began to fall. The leaves sheltered me all through the woods until I reached the fields and paused, smelling the intensity of the deep greens as they alighted in the rain. I climbed the hill through the field toward the house more quickly, passing the barn my father built board by board and the garden he first tilled, blistering his back in the sun. Ducking into the car, I checked my notebook for water spots and looked back one last time toward the house and its absent owners before turning the car around and heading down the long gravel driveway onto Lee Lane.
Photo credit: “Misty Moonlight” by Brian Tomlinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.