Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Child's Sanctuary

Many of you know me as a reserved, manicured, always well-dressed person.  It's something of an illusion since at home I'm all about no-makeup, yoga pants and t-shirts.  What will really shock you is that once upon a time, I was a true wild child.  Not a hard-partying teen, but a constantly dirty, disheveled, head-in-the-clouds child.

I was raised in a small town for most of my very young childhood, until my family moved into the actual country (10 miles from a town of 100, on 10 acres of mostly forest) when I was 8.  I had already been something of a tomboy, but living in close proximity to neighbors made it hard to be truly free.  Our property in the country was vast, as was the land around it.  Nobody seemed to mind a tangle-headed, eager little girl roaming across their property, so roam I did.

At first, I was timid to leave our land.  There was plenty there to stimulate my imagination - a large creek with a swimming hole for cooling off in the summer; small streams to explore when they were dried up.  Even when the rains filled them and they ran below the handmade bridge over our driveway, my imagination made them into mighty rivers where I sailed acorns, boats made of bark, and scads of leaves.  In the winter, they became frozen landscapes of pebbles and moss.  The trees on our property made perfect grounds to fight imaginary foes, with pretend bows and arrows I made from twigs and string.  I even built a cave of dead underbrush and ferns, and used it to protect myself from dinosaurs, indians, and spies who were chasing me.

As I got older, I became bolder and ventured out onto the neighbor's lands.  In particular, the land directly across from ours was always alluring.  It had a huge tree in the middle of a field; I have no idea what kind but it had tons of branches that sometimes hid the sun.  Try as I might, I never conquered tree climbing - even though I gave that tree quite a run.  I was, in my heart, actually afraid of it - it's branches were gnarled with age and the entire tree was sinister-looking.

One day, I was particularly in need of getting as far from our home as I could, and I ventured past the guardian tree.  It was mid-spring and we had been having heavy rains, so the small stream I followed was bubbling happily.  Beyond the field was a dense wood; one that carried a damp chill and seemed dark no matter how hard the sun tried to get in.  Reluctant as I was to enter, I forged ahead and followed the small stream to keep my bearings.  Everything around me became mossy and large ferns grew thickly around the trees.  The ground was soft and loamy, and I kept losing my footing on the mossy rocks.  I climbed higher and higher for what seemed like hours, watching the small stream grow wider and deeper.  Finally, I reached a point on the side I was on where I could go no further, so I had to wade across the water.  I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans, and stepped in.  The water was shockingly cold, and the current surprisingly swift.  Thankfully, I made it across and continued my quest.  A path seemed to appear, making wading through the deep moss and ferns much easier.  The stream disappeared around a corner, where I heard a faint splashing.  As I turned the corner, I was astonished at what I saw.  A giant boulder and fallen trees had created a beautiful small waterfall, feeding a seemingly bottomless pool of crystal clear water.  Chilled as I was, I stripped to my skivvies and dove into the pool.  The water was cold, but felt lovely as it swirled around me.  I dove deeply, trying to touch the bottom of the pool, but it was too deep.  In the center, there was a large, flat rock, which I pulled myself onto after floating around the pool for a while.  As if on key, the sun peeked through the tree canopy and shone right on that rock.  I lay there, my long hair eddying in the water, my fingers trailing in the current while the sun warmed my skin.  I felt like I had found nirvana itself.  The sun moved away from the rock, and I felt the cold return.  I swam back to shore and dressed, my magic time in the pool fading.  I hiked above the waterfall and found a few more tiers of falls above it.  At the top, the trees parted and revealed a small meadow.  The cool dampness of the dense forest around it had kept the grass vividly green, and the ground was dotted with wildflowers I had never seen in the area.  Bright purple wild irises, orange tigerlilies, bachelor buttons, honeysuckle, indian paintbrush, tiny many colors.  I was so awestruck by the beautiful flower-dotted meadow that I didn't see the crumbling structure until I was nearly standing before it.

It had once been a house, it seemed....or at least a cabin of some kind.  The roof still stood, although there were holes everywhere.  The floor was wooden planks, warped with time and moisture.  In one corner, crude cabinets stood next to a rusting wood-fired stove.  In the other, a wooden bedframe stood, its mattress long gone.  The rest of the cabin seemed to be living space, with two chairs tipped over and shelves built into the wall.  The main wall held an immense fireplace, which seemed to be holding up fairly well.  An inspection of the chimney outside showed it had crumbled, the fireplace was for show only.  Miraculously, only one window was broken, and the door still hung by one hinge.  I was elated....this could be my own hideaway!  What kid wouldn't love a real-sized playhouse?

I returned home before it got dark, excited by my plans for the cabin.  I hadn't been missed, as I had figured....nor was it noticed that I spend most of the night in my grandfather's wood shop.  I found new hinges, a hand drill, screwdrivers, hammers, nails, and wood to cover the holes in the roof.  I even packed a small broom and some old curtains my mom had tossed in the scrap pile.

The next day, I returned to my secret cabin and began fixing it up.  Despite my inability to climb trees, I found climbing the cross-sections of the log cabin easy.  Once the roof was sound, I drilled new holes for the door hinges and re-hung the door.  It wasn't perfect, but it opened and closed.  Over the broken windowpane, I glued a stained glass (well, stained plastic anyway) panel I had made in art class.  It fit perfectly, and the little cabin was now waterproof.  I swept every cobweb off the ceiling, walls, cabinets, and counters - then swept it all out with the dirt on the floor.  I hung the old curtains over the windows, proud that they looked nice despite being nailed to the wood frame rather than hung on a rail.

Over the next few weeks, I brought treasures to the cabin - several castoff quilts and blankets to make the bedframe comfortable; favorite books and trinkets forgotten in closets for the shelves; even a rocking chair that had been forgotten in our fruit house for years.  The final touch was a hanging mobile of ceramic suns, stars, and moons I had made in art class during the school year.  It had been highly praised by everyone, but once home my mom had stuck it in a drawer, forgotten.  I hung it at the peak of the roof, so it dangled above the door.  The weather was getting warmer, but with the door and windows open, the cabin was always cool....and if I got warm enough, I could always go for a swim in the magic pool.

I spent many happy weeks at that lovely cabin, reading or swimming or just exploring the woods around it.  It wasn't until that awful day just before school started that I lost my cabin forever.

I had come home later that usual, just beating the sundown.  When I reached the house, no one was there.  While not completely odd, my mom usually went to the store during the day and was home before sundown.  I waited an hour, listening for the car up the driveway or for the phone to ring.  When a car finally did come, it wasn't my mother.  It was my grandfather, and his face was grim.  "There's been an accident." he said.

My heart plummeted.  Mom had already been in two car accidents that had nearly taken her life; was this the one that succeeded?  I steeled myself for the worst. "Your mother crossed the line and hit the Messengers (our neighbors) head on.  She nearly killed old man Messenger.  She's being held in jail right now." he said, his face pained and drawn.

"Why is she in jail?" I asked.

"Her blood alcohol was three times the legal limit.  At 10 am.  They are charging her with several crimes; I'm not sure when she'll be able to come home.  For now, you need to come with me."

"NO!" I screamed, running past him and blindly toward my magic cabin.  It was almost completely dark by the time I reached it, but it didn't matter....I had candles and an oil lamp that I had pinched from the pantry.  Once the candles were lit, I buried myself in the blankets and cried until I couldn't cry anymore.  When I was hungry, I ate some crackers and nuts while huddled in the rocking chair, moving it oh-so-gently with my own sad rocking.  I fell asleep there, my heart broken and my soul clenched in fear of the future.

I woke early the next morning and decided I should go back to the house.  I couldn't hide from this forever....besides, I didn't have enough food for more than a few days and no way to get more.  I closed up my little cabin and laid my head against the door, willing myself the strength for the walk back to the house.

Once there, I realized I had some explaining to do.  There were cop cars, plus other cars belonging to my aunt and grandfather....and my dad was home.  My feet found their strength and I raced through the door, blindly finding my dad's arms and sobbing.  His strong hands held me to him, his own tears adding to mine.  He admonished me for running away, but the fear and raw emotion in his own voice were what made me realize how much I had scared everyone.  "I'm sorry," I kept sobbing over and over.

Once everyone was up to date (I told everyone I had slept in an abandoned barn nearby, so as not to give away my secret), they all left, save my dad.  It was bad, he told was not going to be coming home until after her trial, and that was if she didn't get jail time.  I had never seen him look so distraught.  We wandered around the big house aimlessly until evening, when I made a simple dinner of Macaroni and Cheese with peas and hot dogs.  We both turned in early as dad needed to be in court early to see if the judge would grant mom bail that we could afford.

I awoke after he left....the morning was already hot and breezeless.  I decided to spend the day at the cabin, swimming and trying to forget about the nightmare my life had become.  I left a vague note about going to a friend's house and hiked to my little compound   As I reached the top waterfall, I was astonished to find my cabin was completely gone.  Not destroyed, not knocked over - simply gone, as though it had never been there.  Panicked, I ran through the woods, up and down and around where it had been.  There was nothing - no footprints, no signs of anything having been drug away.  It was as though my beautiful hideaway had never existed.  I sat where it had been and cried my heart out.  How could something exist one day and vanish the next?  It was impossible.  I kicked the leaf-covered ground in frustration, and heard a small tinkling.  There, beneath the dry leaves, was my mobile.  It looked old; as though it had been made back when the cabin had originally been built.  I hugged it to me tightly, wishing I could will it to tell me what had happened.

I spent the rest of the afternoon floating in the magical pool, hoping it would wash away the horrible feelings of loss and anguish I was feeling. All I felt was a deep sadness.  Finally, when it was time to go, I said goodbye to my sanctuary, and walked away without looking back.

I never returned in my childhood.  A few short weeks after the accident, my mother was convicted and jailed for a year, leading to my parent's divorce and me being sent away to live with family in another town.

When I moved back to the area in 2000, I went back and tried to find the magic pool.  I knew exactly where it was, but when I reached the area where the pool was and the tiered waterfalls, there was nothing but a gently sloping hill.  There was no pool, no flat rock.  Nothing but a small, dry creekbed.  Predictably, the cabin was also still gone.  Had it ever existed, or had my vivid imagination made it up so I could escape?  I want, with all my heart, to believe the magic I felt there was real.

I've come to realize that the most valuable thing I have from this time is the memory, whether it existed or not.  It was real to me at the time - the water cold and clear, the sun warm on my body, the cabin my sanctuary.  What good does it do to keep wondering if it was real?  It was, in one sense or another.  That is all that matters.

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