Our Word :: Week 1 Day 3 :: Place (Now)
I live in the house I grew up in. That’s not strictly true — our first home was two doors down, and later we traded the poplars and sycamores for spanish moss and palms — but this is the home my grandparents built, and it is the only solid structure, the only thing that’s lasted, in my life. It was too big for them, and it is too big for us now, but it is the lynchpin for so many of my memories. There is a tiny troll door in the guest bedroom, an unfinished attic that holds the remnants of my grandmother’s hoarding, white columns with woodpecked holes too high to reach, and every summer, dirt dobbers and wasps gather in the eaves, humming like I imagine blood would sound from inside my own body. In the spring, the dogwoods bloom, and I remember how my Nan told me Christ was crucified on a dogwood tree, and that’s why their petals form a cross, with tiny bloodstains at each edge. Half my childhood was spent passing the tree we had at the end of the driveway and whispering, thank you Jesus as I touched the places the nails had made. I guess it was an evangelical equivalent to the sign of the cross, a little girl rosary. I was big on symbolism even then.
Behind the house is a wooded area. It can’t be much more than a mile or two of trees and tiny creeks and a small pond that makes for pretty poor fishing. When my brother and I were kids, our Pap would wake us up early in the summer mornings, before the suffocating heat of the day had really had a chance to get hold of the day, and we would gather up our cheap canewood poles and tackle. There might be worms we’d dug up the day before, or plucked from the sizzling asphalt driveway before they fried completely. The barbed wire fence was relatively new then, and we had to climb up and over it, skinny legs as brown and quick as a fawn’s, my grandpa’s hand as big and sure as the world as he helped me jump down. It was almost a wilderness back there, water moccasins slipping in and around the banks, making my skin crawl and shiver. I was a nervous child, and all my time in the woods was spent half at perfect peace and half in a quiet state of terror, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the way I have all my life when something seems so good, when I’m on the cusp of total contentment. We’d catch a bunch of fish, and throw them back in, and when we got back to the house, Nan would make us sandwiches with tomatoes still warm from the sun in the garden, the juice and seeds dripping down our chins and in between fingers that still smelled like pond water.
One of the times I was away, the old woman who lived in the house on the other side of the pond died. She was small and brown and wrinkled; she wore an eye patch like a pirate and I was convinced she was a witch. Her land was sold, and developed. Almost every tree on her property was razed down, leaving the hill disconcertingly naked and shy. It broke my heart a little bit the first time I saw it, stepping easily in between two trees where the wire had been stripped away, leaving a clear path. A bench had been put in on the outer bank — “In memory of Sid” engraved on a small plaque the color of old pennies — but it was later removed after the boards rotted and started to cave in. I liked it better without it. I stopped being scared of snakes — I stopped being scared of a lot of things after New York — and walked often among the trees still growing wild on our side. If you got far enough in, you couldn’t see the buildings or hear the highway anymore. It seemed like the most important kind of quiet, then, the kind of quiet that lets you grow, that lets you heal.
For a season, those woods mothered me: the reflection of the sun off the water, the stark white of the sycamore against a blue sky, a family of turtles sunning themselves on a tire in the shallow end of the pond, the way the reeds whispered in the warm wind, all a balm on my splintered spirit. We buried my cat on an outcropping surrounded by falling pines, and I sat on one, the setting sun catching the tears gathered at the ends of my lashes and turning everything around me into crystals and rainbows. I knelt down on scorched summer earth, hot under my hands, and wrote a poem for a dead girl, folding up the paper and handing it to her mother one Sunday morning as we passed each other in the pews. I walked circles around the water, watching for signs, finding new names for divinity as I picked dry leaves out of my hair. I leaned against peeling bark, a steady hand in my back, sick with new love and breathless with the accompanying vulnerability. I gave my roots permission to dig down deep, to unfurl out and away from me, and I let my soul stretch straight up into storm clouds the color of watered down whiskey, circling me like messengers, holding out my hand for what they had to tell me.
And now, today, an hour ago: she walks with me, collecting and naming things, sticks and half-eaten pecans and prickly sweetgum balls. A solitary dog bark echoes from around the block, and she calls back woofwoof!, her face scrunching up, and the birds tweet to each other in their sweet way above us. Down by the water, we find a turtle shell; I shake it and several tiny bones rattle out onto the ground. I pick them up and put them in my pocket, not knowing why, just knowing that all bones are sacred and sometimes I need something sacred to carry with me, to remind me we’re all consecrated. The shell is old and weak and the bottom part peels away in her hands; we take the carapace with us, smelling like the sea in the hottest part of summer, mild decay and salt and musk, and she places husked out pecans inside it when we get back into the yard. I put the bones in a tiny mason jar, and am surprised to see they float in water. That’s holy to me, somehow, and I think about all those suffocating bones, heavy under dirt, how maybe for some of them there is an empty longing to float along free somewhere, to feel cool water in every pore, to feel the way the sun dries you out on the surface, and I hope somebody will throw my unsinkable bones out into the ocean some day, or a river, or the pond behind this house. I’m still big on symbolism.