I bet when you were a kid there was some place of magic. A place of retreat, where you turned your back on your everyday world with its everyday routines, and found a gateway into a place that—however close by on the neighborhood map—was hidden, mysterious and beguiling, with special secrets just for you.
Yeah, no doubt you had that place of magic—what kid doesn’t? Or, when I think about it, isn’t it a sad, sad kid indeed who doesn’t? But I’m wondering if you ever found your way back to that place as an adult? Was it the same or wrenchingly changed? Was the magic gone, blown away by adult perspective and adult cares—or did it still capture your imagination and your heart? Was it still a door into a world without care?
This is the story of my return to that magic place. And yes, oh yes, the magic was still there.
My place of magic was the woods down behind my grandfather’s house. Way out in the country, few other houses around—you were leaving your everyday behind just by showing up. Always great to see Granny and Granddaddy, of course, but wonderful to jump off from their unadorned little house under some big hackberry trees, tucked in among the barn, a garden, and a giant fig bush, much treasured I assure you—and head to the woods. Stay down there the rest of the day. Lost to the world, as they say.
It was especially fine to tramp the woods with Richard, my closer-than-brother cousin, if he happened to be visiting our grandparents at the same time. The days we spent there together shine as the most glorious of my childhood and youth.
Just as I had once left everything else behind when I entered those woods, I was about to leave my old life behind and enter a Zen monastery in the Catskills of upstate New York. It was time, it was time—I was worn out by a gypsy life of always-on-the-move, without a compass. But first, it seemed right to get back into those woods, to revisit that time when things were simpler and I still had a sense of magic right there in an easily-reachable place, before things got so scattered, so urban and rootless. As it happened, Richard was free that week before my departure. We met near the farm, bought steaks and beer, and headed to the old place. Both my grandparents were long dead by that time, and their poor house was literally falling apart, but my uncle and his son, another well loved cousin, lived nearby. We checked in at Uncle Tommy’s house and let them know our plans to spend the night in the woods.
Both were country to the bone, which meant among other things never entering the woods without a gun. Toby offered matter of factly: “I’ve got a .45 automatic, a .22 repeater, or a double-barrel twelve-gauge—take your pick.”
“Nah,” I replied, “I can’t imagine needing a gun.”
“But there’s snakes in those woods,” warned Uncle Tommy.
“Aw come on,” I brushed it aside. “We’ve been running these woods all our lives—we know snakes. Besides, what good is a gun against a snake?”
“There’s bobcats down there, too,” Toby added.
“Oh you know a bobcat’s not going after a man! Matter of fact I’d love to see a bobcat.”
Tommy again: “There’s packs of wild dogs in there. Just the other day—”
“We’ll take the twelve-gauge!”
So it was that Richard and I headed out, neither Abercrombie & Fitch nor Dan’l Boone, which is to say inelegantly burdened with our grub and beer in plastic shopping bags, wearing our city-boy shoes, toting the shotgun. But gay as daisies, you bet!
We trudged down the big sloping field on the adjacent farm, showing more red sandy-clay soil than plant cover, to the bottom of the field—where the ground fell away sharply to the creek below—then turned to continue along the field’s edge. We passed the Gullies. Maybe you’ve seen cuts in the land made by runoff? Have you ever seen one cut deep enough and big enough to fit in several good-sized houses? There were three or four that big. When we were kids they were magic places for sure—we’d somehow scramble down the almost-vertical sides without breaking our necks, and explore their canyon-like depths, hiding out in nooks and behind buttresses cut by the angry rains. Now the magic was gone, because now I knew that soil erosion on this catastrophic a scale could have had one cause only—bad farming. I turned away my eyes as we skirted the heads of the Gullies, my heart squeezed by grief for the appallingly abused land.
Well past the Gullies we took the plunge, into the woods and downslope, skirting clusters of blackberry brambles and yes, keeping a sharp eye for snakes. And then we were there, through the beloved portal out of the everyday world and into our own bit of Eden. We set our loads down in front of The Rock and sat, drinking in the clean air and the song of the rocky creek a few yards below.
The Rock is the size of a small house, jutting out of the hillside, under the lower edge of which is a cave-like opening that could keep you well out of the rain or easily sleep ten boys. My father and his cousins had often spent nights there, and I had made many pilgrimages to it when growing up. It was the first of many very special places along the creek.
Special? I might even say sacred. And since we were on sacred ground it seemed appropriate to consecrate it. So we smudged it, dedicating to the purpose a generous portion of Cannabis sativa. As we mused in dreamy silence, lulled by the burble of the creek, my eye wandered to the big tree trunk beside me, which with a start I recognized—old friend!—as The Initials Tree. Do you know the American beech, Fagus grandifolia? What a lovely tree! Sawtoothed, prominently veined leaves that shimmer greenly in the dappled shade in a summer breeze, and rustle crisply after fall calls time-out, bark smooth like elephant hide. Bark like that just begging for a boy to carve his initials.
I caressed the trunk, then focused more intently. What had at first seemed patches of lichen were in fact carved initials which, with the fading of the years, had sealed over and spread out as the tree healed its skin and its trunk grew. My eye traced the patterns. RU and HU I could make out, then realized the rest was a date. I squinted, frowned, cocked my head, then yelped: “Richard! What is the date?!”
“No, the date.”
“Hmmm—hey, isn’t it the first?”
“Oh—my—god—Would you look at that!” And there it was, the ghosts of letters and numbers but legible to the attentive eye: Aug 1 1959. Twenty years previously, to the day.
We carved new initials with their astonishing parallel date, then set off to visit the Holy Places. We crossed a stream, a tiny tributary of the creek, to arrive in what to me had always been a place set apart, hemmed in as it was by the creek and The Falls and that little tributary, maybe only, what, an acre or so, but with its own little hill with outcroppings of lichened rock and clusters of mountain laurel with shredding cedar-red bark and glistening leaves. I remembered an afternoon when I was there by myself and threw off my clothes and ran the glade naked, doubtless because going naked was naughty but mostly because it made me feel clean and unburdened and free as the breeze.
We came to The Pool, carved out by the swirl of the water as it cleared a ledge of rock, clean and clear though stained deep brown by the tannins from the forest litter. We sat on the mossy boulder overlooking the pool as Richard told me—yet again—about the fishing trip to this spot with his father and older brother John when he was just a wee lad. Everett and Johnny plopped worm-baited hooks into the pool and—though its bream and perch were hardly sport fish, just humble “pan fry”—watched their cork bobs eagerly. Soon bored by the inaction, Richard found it more satisfying to poke his fishing pole at a water moccasin swimming by. The snake snapped around, angered, so of course was even more fun to poke at. Until she came out of the water. That is to say, she launched herself clear out of the creek, straight at Richard’s face, that cotton mouth flat-wide-open with fangs hungry for revenge. Just in time Everett saw the snake’s rise and caught it in midair with a whistling sweep of his fishing cane.
On to The Falls. I guess here the contrast between the boy’s view and the man’s should have been sharpest—but it wasn’t really. True, now we could see The Falls as a pretty small fall of water indeed—the creek running smoothly under overhanging mountain laurel poured through a gap in a jumble of mossy boulders and tumbled into a frothy pool about five feet below. But what a marvelous fall it was, humming a deep-throated burble and spilling from the pool through an expanse of worn broken rock, the break in the forest canopy like an eye winking at the sky.
Just past The Falls lay a sliver of rock and black soil and ferns and slender saplings isolated by a short split in the creek from either bank. Which is to say—an island! To me as a boy, any piece of dirt however small surrounded by water was an island, and I always raced to be the first to leap the stream to The Island and claim it. To explore it. I never discovered the last of its secrets.
Ringing laughter. Bubbling reminiscences. Drunk with the singing water, the shade dappled with sun, the smell of moss and leaf litter. Such was the visit to the Holy Places, brought to an end only by the approach of evening.
We returned to The Rock, cut our forked sticks, made our fire, grilled our steaks. Ate greedily, washing down the hot meat with beer kept cold in the creek. Then sat, staring into the rippling flames and murmuring of times long gone by. And then lay ourselves down right on the ground to sleep in the warm summer night, setting the shotgun close at hand, taking as we did rumors of wild dogs with deep seriousness.
I drifted off to sleep. Lulled by the creek, I dreamed.
Then snapped bolt upright when someone screamed! I felt Richard at full alert beside me: “What the hell—?”
It was so close by, just beyond the light of the camp fire. Anyone that close could see us—why would they scream like that rather than calling out if they were in distress? Were they crazy—literally deranged? If so, how dangerous could they be? Or had Toby come down to mess with our heads, was he out just beyond the circling dark, laughing his butt off?
The scream came again, loud and so close. This time its timbre ruled out Toby as the culprit—couldn’t possibly be from the voice of a man. But a woman in these woods in the middle of the night?
At the third scream I realized we were not hearing a woman either—there was something too wild about it and a little . . . feline. Ah!—the bobcat I had wished to meet. I relaxed and leaned on an elbow, enchanted. The next scream made me realize she was circling our little camp. Probably had picked up the residual smell of the steaks, or maybe just happened by on her night hunt and was checking us out: Who’s this and what are they doing here? Careful not to show herself, staying just outside the circle of the fire’s light as she padded around us on hushed paws.
There was nothing threatening or challenging in her screams, no sense of fear or concern. She was announcing herself, letting us know this was her place. Having completed her circuit she gave a longer farewell scream that faded into the faint popping of the fire and the demure purring of the creek in the deep silence of the midnight woods.