The breeze blew cool upon my face, and I paused to inhale the silence that moved among the late day shadows, to smell the sweetness of the clover from the nearby field. Spiky blades of grass poked at my bare legs and tickled my wrists as I lay next to the rich earth. My fingers clutched at the moist, black soil until they ached, then I opened my hand and stared for a long while at the clump that sat there, thinking of the time I shared with him, thinking of the incessant joy of our wonderful years together, feeling the never ending ache of our time apart. I sat another moment with my thoughts wondering if I should voice anything at all, but I had things to say, and I wanted to say them aloud, I wanted my words to take up space like so many tiny air ships. Maybe that would make them last longer than mere puffs that blow away in two seconds, maybe that would make them fill the space of empty time.
I was just thinking I wanted to talk to you and now I don’t know where to start. Maybe that time you said just you and me against the world; they ain’t never gonna find us here? You were five, I was six. We were digging that damn fort that almost killed us. For days, with shovels twice as tall as we, we dug and dug and dug, and every night at bath time my mother failed to understand why dirt filled my hair. I told her it came from the hill behind the school, the forbidden hill, and I begged her not to tell Daddy.
I hated lying, but you had sworn me to secrecy. Besides, if I hadn’t been with you, that’s where I would have been, on the forbidden hill, so it wasn’t really a lie. For several weeks, though, when I got to the part of my bedtime prayer that said, ‘If I should die before I wake,’ I inserted, ‘and please dear God, it wasn’t a real lie.’ Once a clap of thunder rattled the windows and made my bones tremble, and I feared God was about to strike me down.
On the private roadway a few feet to my left, a car crept past, respectful and silent. Though it may have been someone I knew, I didn’t turn to look for fear the sound of a human voice might sever the delicate thread winding through my mind, the thread connecting him to me. Soon all was again still, except for the chirping of a nearby robin and the urgent cawing of a faraway crow and the wail of a distant siren.
You remember the forbidden hill-I know I’ll never forget the day that giant yellow Caterpillar tractor clanked and putted down the dusty road past our house filling the air with the wonderful smells of diesel and grease and oil and dirt all mixed together. I ran to our fence and watched it turn onto the lot behind the school where the weeds were taller than you and I-taller than the fearful looking man with dark glasses and blue hard hat and big cigar that puffed as much smoke as the tractor.
By the end of the week, when the tractor and fearful man clanked and putted back up our road and out of my life forever, they left behind a magnificent hill. The next morning I raced to my bedroom window fearful it had been a dream, but that wonderful mountain of brown earth as tall as the school remained. I dressed in the wink of an owl’s eye and grabbed my gravel truck, the red one with dual wheels on the back, and started off to investigate. It was the most glorious place; it became my private place.
“”I don’t want to hear of you playing on that dirt behind the school,”” my father said a week after I started spending a large part of each day there. He sat in that overstuffed green chair and peered from behind his newspaper, his eyes big and round through his thick, wire-rimmed glasses. “”Soon that deep hole will fill with water. Too dangerous, far too dangerous.”” He puffed his Sherlock Holmes pipe, filling the air with clouds of smoke that smelled of sweet cherry wood. I loved that smell. Whenever I catch a whiff in the air, I turn, half expecting him to be there.
“”Yes sir,”” I said, as he disappeared behind his rattling newspaper. You won’t hear of it, I said to myself and snuck a peek at my mother, who seemed not to notice our exchange. Even if she had, I doubt she would have sold me out.
After that, I made sure to play on the side he couldn’t see from our house. I also made sure to play on the side that sloped away from the water, which had turned a dark brown and smelled like cow’s urine, but I knew it wasn’t.
That’s where you found me, remember? You came around the corner and stood there with your hands shoved deep down into the pockets of your overalls, the black ones with the ripped knees. You didn’t say anything, and, for the longest time, I pretended not to see you, but I have to confess, with your white hair shining in the sun, your head looked like a giant light bulb. Every once in a while I get out my photo albums and look at those old pictures of the two of us looking like ragamuffins, always grinning from ear to ear.
My eyes dampened. I crumbled a handful of dirt and let it sift through my fingers. Some landed on my sandal. I wriggled my toes, and the grittiness felt good. A frog croaked nearby as if readying his voice for a great aria, and the sparrows in the rows of silver maples began a lively discussion, probably their last of the day. I shielded my eyes against the sun. Its warmth would soon be gone.
Let me see, where did I leave off? Ah yes, the great dirt pile.
“”Whatcha doing?”” you finally asked.
“”Nuthin,”” I replied, being careful to not look at you, pretending to be more intent on driving my truck down the special roads I’d created, pretending to not care one iota that you were there.
“”That your truck?””
“”So what if it isn’t?””
You stayed quiet for a moment, and I made all the truck sounds I could think of, roaring a hundred different roars as I shifted up and down the hills, squealing and hissing the brakes, and blowing the air horn.
Then you said, “”Bet you don’t even know what kind it is.””
“”What kind is it then?””
“”Cuz you don’t know, that’s why.””
“”What kind is it then if you’re so smart?””
“”International Harvester; they’re not much good.””
“”This one is,”” I said. I felt like giving you such a punch.
I leaned back on my elbows and stretched my legs and back. Off in the distance, the houses of the little town looked like part of a miniature movie set, and the sailboats on the dark blue water of the lake beyond looked like tiny white flags. A sweet tasting spear of grass found its way to my mouth. I chewed the end and sucked the juices, then rolled it from one side of my mouth to the other. He’d taught me that. We used to see who could look like the toughest cowboy, squinting into the sun, chewing on our big piece of grass, spitting out the little bits that ended up in our mouths. I glanced over, wondering if he remembered, suspecting he did.
You hurt my feelings that day when you said my truck wasn’t any good. I think you knew you had because you didn’t say anything for a while after that; you just stood there with your hands still shoved into your overalls, and I stared at my truck, hating that you though it not much good. The next thing I knew though, you were standing less than a foot away.
“”Your mother know you’re here?”” I asked, trying to belittle you for belittling my truck.
You said, “”Don’t matter if she do or don’t.””
“”Dangerous place,”” I said. “”That stinky water ‘n’ all.””
“”How come you’re here then?””
“”I have permission.”” I didn’t have permission, but I wasn’t about to tell you that.
“”You gonna tell?”” you said.
You had me on that one. You knew I wasn’t a tattletale. No kid in town was. Tattling was the worst crime.
“”You wanna play?”” I finally asked.
“”I got somthin better to do.””
Again I wanted to punch you, but the next thing I knew we were digging that damn fort, and when we finished, we crawled inside and lit a fire. The next minute, we came charging out amid clouds of smoke, our eyes red and burning. We rolled on the ground, hacking and coughing, thinking we’d die.
“”We can’t tell anyone,”” you said, after we could breathe again.
“”My mother’s going to smell smoke,”” I said.
“”Tell her you had a cigarette.””
“”Are you crazy?””
“”Pretend you’ve got a stomach ache. Tell her you’re sick. Promise you won’t do it again.””
“”That what you’re gonna to do?””
I could tell the way you looked that you weren’t. I knew I wasn’t. Not in a million years.
I pushed a wayward tress from my eyes and looked up at the gold and purple streaks splashed across the western sky. Soon the sun would drop behind the mountains and I would have to go. A tear found its way to my cheek, and I brushed it with my finger. A tear for him; there would be more.
Then there was the day you drowned? Remember? Summer vacation after you’d finished grade three and I’d finished grade four? It wasn’t at the dirt pile though, it was at the canal. That silly dare thing the older boys had, the one that said if you swam across you became a member of their stupid non-sissy club. I pleaded with you not to do it.
“”I can make it,”” you said, though I could tell from the look in your eyes that you were really scared.
“”You’re crazy,”” I said.
You gave me a funny look and said, “”What do girls know about anything anyway?””
“”I’m gonna tell,”” I said, and started to walk away.
“”Go ahead; see if I care””
Then I heard the splash and spun around, my heart lodged in my throat. There you were, in the fast moving water, your arms and legs churning like a windmill. I screamed. I started to cry. I could tell you weren’t going to make it. You’d started too close to the bridge and weren’t half way across when the strong current started to suck you under. I thought you were going to die. I thought you’re not even in grade four yet and you’re going to be dead.
Then Kenny waded in on the downstream side of the bridge. The water almost covered his nose by the time he grabbed your arm and started towing you to shore. The other kids jumped up and down on the bank hollering and yelling. I screamed some more.
When Kenny got you close, others jumped in and helped pull you onto the grassy bank. You flopped like a rag doll. Everyone thought you were dead. You looked dead. Eddie started pumping on your chest like he was possessed. The big girl that lived down the alley behind our house reached inside your mouth to make sure your throat wasn’t clogged with canal grass, and Eddie kept on pumping, up and down, up and down. C’mon Eddie, c’mon Eddie, everyone started to chant, and he pumped harder. I thought your chest would cave in.
Then you coughed up more water than I or anyone else knew you could hold. And grass and mud-that wasn’t pretty. “”Ugh,”” some of us said, and then you sat up and everyone started patting you and Kenny and Eddy on the back.
“”What happened?”” you wanted to know.
“”You made it, kid,”” Kenny said. “”You’re one of us, now.””
A couple of older kids started to object because you hadn’t really made it, but Kenny was king.
“”He made it,”” Kenny said, and that was the end of all discussion. I was so proud, but that’s another thing I never told you.
Off in the distance, the lights of the town started to twinkle and the setting sun painted a wide orange stripe across the glassy surface of the darkening lake. A loon’s lonesome wail touched the silence and sent a shiver through my body. I wished he and I could have seen and felt this together. He would have loved every color, every sound, every aroma.
We never thought it odd that Kenny pulled you out-he was fearless, but no one would have picked Eddie, no one would have guessed that he knew anything at all about artificial respiration. Maybe his brush with death had something to do with it. I’ve often wondered if he ever got rid of the horrible burn scars on his hands and face or had his left ear replaced, the one the fire burnt off.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that Eddie runs a youth camp up in Alaska. He married that pretty girl with the deformed hand, the one who lived in the trailer park south of town, Skye I believe her name was. They fell in love in grade seven, and I don’t think they’ve been apart for a single moment since.
A puff of wind scooted past, momentarily rattling the leaves and rustling the taller grasses. The night turned cool. I pulled my sweater around my shoulders and wrapped my arms around my knees, holding my skirt more tightly to my bare legs. My nose wrinkled with the smell of a nearby skunk, and I glanced around cautiously, hoping I wasn’t within range.
I just got a good whiff of a nearby skunk. Remember Tommy Carter, the kid who lived with his rich mother in the big, old house in the apple orchard-Mary’s boyfriend. He got sprayed by a skunk the night of our hayride. Remember the hayride? You were in grade eight, I was in grade nine. God, I was so head over heels in love with you. My friends couldn’t understand why I dated a kid from grade eight when they were dating guys in high school. Most of them were having sex, and those that weren’t said they were. I told them I wasn’t ready.
Mary told me that sooner or later you would want sex, that sex was the only reason you went out with me. She was wrong, but I think we came close a couple of times. The hayride was the closest-Valentines Day. There must have been thirty of us, bundled to the eyes with heavy parkas and colorful scarves and wild and crazy toques. I remember yours, the blue one with yellow tassels. Two horses from our ranch, one black and one brown, bells jingling from their harnesses, pulled that rickety hay wagon that seemed about to tip at every turn.
We went skating on the big pond, the one behind the canal where you almost drowned. After that we roasted wieners and brewed hot chocolate in the big iron pot. Smores, remember the smores? I must have had ten, you too I think. So wonderfully messy and gooey. We kissed with a mouthful and our lips stuck, and then we kept them together long after the stickiness provided an excuse.
Everything was so perfect. I guess that’s why I thought we might have sex. It was when we were returning to town, nestled in the back, covered in the wonderful musty, dusty hay, arms around each other, kissing, telling each other how in love we were, how we always would be.
In one way I wanted to…to quell the volcanoes of passion erupting in the blood of my puberty. In another way I didn’t; I wanted to cling to my fair maiden’s dream of remaining chaste until my knight in shining armor swept me away in a whirlwind of endless love. I prayed often that you would be that knight, that you would soon come for me, but we were young, too young to commit to a time as long as forever.
Later that night, as I lay in my bed thinking about you, I made a promise that one day, the day I became certain that our love was meant to last for all time, I would give you a single red rose. I never told anyone for fear they would think it stupid-a girl giving a rose to a boy.
You moved away that spring, not to the next town, but three-hundred miles. I feared I would never see you again, and I was right. I never did. I wrote to you, once. You never responded. I phoned a couple of times and talked to your mother, but asked her not to say I’d called. You had moved on. Someone new had captured your heart. I cried a lot; there was nothing more I could do.
I stood and pressed my hands to the small of my back, wincing as the ache became a spasm. The refreshing scent of lake water wafted on the breeze, and I looked up to the darkening sky that busily hosted the arrival of countless stars. How many times had he and I lain on our backs, listening for the crackle of the aurora borealis and searching for and always finding our special constellation? Far too few. I felt his hand touch mine. Tears filled my eyes.
There’s our constellation. Remember our star, the center star from Orion’s belt of pearls? It was our favorite. You always said that one day you would give me a belt of pearls, and I want you to know that a little thing like dying doesn’t let you off the hook.
The dew-laden grass felt cool on my bare toes. The shepherd’s crook lamps lining the road and pathways blinked on, their greenish glow casting eerie shadows. I dropped to my knees. I brushed my eyes with the back of my hand.
Your mother told me why you didn’t want me to know. I was the only one, she said. She said you wanted me to remember what had been, the love we once had, not what you’d become. You’d never stopped loving me, she said. Why, oh why, in God’s name didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you let me come to you?
Tears streamed down my face. No amount of time would heal the emptiness that burdened my heart, but its pain would be salved by the ecstasy of a young love so perfect it had never died. I removed the single, red rose from its special wrap and twirled it between my fingers, wincing as its sharp prickles punctured my skin. I pressed it to my breasts, then held it to my nose and inhaled its delicate and mysterious aroma. Its full, rich petals glistened with my tears as I placed it on the black earth.
Goodbye sweet Jeremiah, my eternal love.
The world fell silent. I turned and trudged toward the car, daring a glance back. As if on cue, our special star beamed down and bathed Jeremiah’s rose in its golden light.
“”I shall always love you,”” I heard his voice say.
My footsteps became like air, and the music of the night embraced my heart.