Once There Was
Once there was a childhood full of space. Long stretches of stillness. A deep sense not of loneliness but alone-ness. This was in far upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. There were three little girls, sisters who dressed up for Easter, and for the first day of school, and never else.
The oldest woke every morning to the sun slanting through pines at the far edge of the field across the road. She stood outside in the darkness before bed and looked up at the stars glittering thickly in the heavens, diamonds on black velvet. When she lay her head on her pillow her ears were drawn inward to the depth of the surrounding silence, and the shushing of her own heart was all she heard.
There was a giant maple tree at the end of the driveway. Every summer afternoon the three sisters gathered there at three oâ€™clock, and their mother read aloud to them.
There was a dirt road that meandered down the hill and through the woods and over a wooden bridge that spanned the brook to a far meadow.
Down the dirt road there was a swamp that – if they jumped from hillock to hillock – they could cross without getting their feet wet. In the midst of the pine trees that grew on the other side was a clearing made holy by its thick carpet of pine needles, by the sunlight sifting through outstretched branches. The sisters called it their pine tree house.
There was a green insulated knapsack that their mother packed bologna sandwiches in, to take down the dirt road, across the swamp, to the pine tree house, for picnics.
There were blackberry canes down the dirt road, bending over the brook. There were green paperboard berry boxes that they carried down the dirt road to the blackberry canes. Drone of insects. Beat of sun. Burst of sweet juice on tongue. Long auburn hair caught in thorns. A curving scratch on a knee, beaded with blood.
There was a broken-down barn filled with hay. A rope swing tied to a rafter. Three little girls heaving hay bales into stacks, pushing out tunnels in those stacks, making a hidden fort. There was a flashlight and a book being read in the silence and darkness of the hay fort. A girl listened to her sisters running on the hay above her and shrieking as they swung out on the thick rope swing.
There was a tree house built by the oldest that neither of the younger two could manage to climb into. The girl took her jackknife and carved her initials into a slender branch: A. R. M.
The dirt road? Still there. The pine tree house, still there, and the broken-down barn, and the holy pines. The giant maple, gone. The scratch on the knee faded to a whispery white line. And the three sisters grown to women all, their shadow baby selves still wandering the dirt road of their childhood. The A.R.M. is fat and pillowy now, cradled in the embrace of the branch that healed around it. And the girl who carved it is sitting right now in a bagel shop thinking of Neil Young, who wrote, “All my changes were there.”