When I was little I lived in a townhouse on the outskirts of the city, where we had a green hill in our backyard and a forest to the side. Us kids in the neighborhood, barely twelve years old, would run into the woods after school to explore. The scent of pine and soft soil would hit our noses and we would run and skip over fallen logs, past crooked trees, under bent branches- we were reckless and naïve, but so free.
There was one girl in particular who would run the forest like she was a part of it, born in it, raised in it, and I remember laughing and I remember daring each other to climb higher and higher. I would grab the next branch up and heave my small body into the fork, glancing down at the ground below with my heart in my throat. I had never felt happier. I would look up and she would be a few feet higher already, grinning down- a gleeful grin and we together propelled ever higher. I trusted the trees like they were solid ground- we pushed our limits, daring a cosmic hand to come and knock us both to the ground so many fatal meters below- I trusted with my heart on my palm as we got to the top, perching on the thinning branches and glancing down at the cozy neighborhood below us. The setting sun would peek through the fluttering leaves, and we were happy.
We climbed from tree to tree, branch to branch, wild kids who had too much fun, who escaped from parents’ eyes and let loose. We had our fantasies, our daydreams of castles and grand adventures, but we also had the little touch of magic- we got to live it, every day.
But the forest was more than an imaginary kingdom for us, it was also a place of comfort and safety when there was nowhere else.
Sometimes, I would go alone. It would be early afternoon and I would creep out the back door and across the field and into the trees; I would settle onto the logs into the dirt, the dip in the ground where I would be hidden from most of the outside world. I would get my jeans beaten up and covered in dirt, and back then I didn’t care about that or the bugs or anything. I would draw shapes in the dirt with a broken branch and stay in that little hollow, safe. The trees were guardians towering above, majestic and loyal, unmoving, promising me that nothing would get me- the monsters and shadows held back.
But it couldn’t last forever. The day came when I learned that I was moving, bidding goodbye to my friends, bidding goodbye to my little kingdom in the woods, and it was with an excited but a scared heart that I moved from trees and hills to towering skyscrapers and roaring cars on curving roads. I was a stranger amongst the neon lights, and although I settled down and grew up, sometimes I would think back of the place I loved so much as a kid.
One day, several years later, I flew back for a visit.
Apprehensive, I went back to my old neighborhood. Our old house had been torn down; what remained of the townhouses me and her looked over on the tree tops were piles of dirt and logs on the empty green field. I headed to the forest; most of the trees had been removed; what was left was a small woods, and I picked my way through, feeling the gaping dissonance between the me the last time I was here and the me now. I stood where the clearing I used to be, where I used to hide and make up wandering stories in my head, away from everything. I stood where the tall trees had stretched towards the blue skies, the trees where me and her had climbed to the top, above it all. I craned my head upwards, stretching my arms, feeling too big for my skin. I breathed in the musty scent of pines, now fading, and turned, accidentally tripping on a tree stump hidden in the grass; I paused and sat down, grabbing the nearest branch and drawing it across the soil. Taking a deep breath, I laid back, staring at the floating clouds above. Maybe I was older now, bigger, smarter, but I felt the distance between me and the skies, the trees, the plants, in a way I did not when I was a kid. I shrank and shrank, into the soil, tangling with the grass, deeper and deeper, and I thought maybe I heard the voice of a little kid laughing, but I couldn’t be sure.
Maybe it was just the wind.