Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Modern Spirit

Saturdays in springtime are like oases, unspeakably benign, so often taken for granted in spite of all they have to offer for the weary of mind and soul. Days like these are all but synonymous with the flowing of water and the flight of birds, and cool grass under sneakers and toes. Like all such paradises, Saturdays in springtime are made for children, though grownups might hope to approximate its joys through earnest effort. Unfortunately for them, their old dreams no longer fit them, and and their eyes can no longer see what their memories describe; what's lost is lost, and can only be remembered, not recalled.

So it is for children, uncomprehending and uncomplicated, to experience what poets most wish for; to come face to face with the sublime, and call it by its true name. Of course they do not know its true name, only that they love it. In this way they are blessed, or lucky, but they are not yet wise, and the great tragedy of existence is that one cannot be both.

Charles Allen was blessed, or lucky, but especially the latter, because it was a Saturday in springtime and he was by himself. He was in the forest, and of course no one is ever actually alone in a forest, it being filled with animals who lurk in the trees, the grass and the water. Charlie sat in a clearing where all of these things were at hand, and the sounds of frogs and crickets confirmed that the woods were alive, and full of lives.

And although he was alone, Charlie had a companion, who might not have actually been there, or even existed at all. But as far as Charlie could tell, he was there, and to be present implies existence. Still, his "presence" was admittedly a dodgy matter, as he seemed to shift about the scene, silently, without ever actually moving. He could be sitting to Charlie's left, or to his right; he might be standing right in front of him, or he might be somewhere behind him, heard but unseen. Sometimes he rested on a low hanging oak branch, which extended at a shallow angle from the base of the trunk, but more often he did not.

Charlie had never met his companion before, but he didn't question his "presence," as it were. He had appeared as soon as Charlie became alone on that sunny Saturday morning, and they had talked immediately as old friends, each knowing or assuming all of the salient facts about the other. For the companion, it was Charlie's name, his age (eight years, nearly nine), his interests, and various trifling details of his family and social life. As for Charlie, he did not actually know any details, not even his companion's name; it may well be that neither of them actually thought those facts were important, and so they were neither spoken nor assumed.

When they met, Charlie was running by himself along a trail through the forest, and his companion was running beside him, though he sometimes jumped, moving almost like a frog, or a monkey, keeping pace with uncanny agility and ease. They ran through the woods as the sun approached its highest point, and the day was growing steadily warmer; a breeze was picking up, and it caused the leaves to whisper to one another. They had nothing in particular to say, but they said it eagerly, for they burst with the spirit of life, were animated by the forces of nature, and they would not be still, even if they could. The companion, however, did have something to say, or rather to ask.

As Charlie grew tired of running, and the trail took the runners into steep, hilly territory, he slowed to a walk, and glanced back in the direction he had come from. His companion asked, "Why are you running from your father?" and it was a fair question, because his father (not to mention his sister and his brother) was indeed behind them, and Charlie's rapid backward glance could almost have been called fearful. But he was not afraid of being followed.

"I'm not. I just wanted to be by myself."

"But why would you want that?"

"It's more fun like this."

"What a strange thing for a boy your age to want," said the companion, and it might have seemed strange to anyone listening in, although it didn't seem strange to Charlie. The companion himself had the appearance of a boy Charlie's age, though this can easily be overstated. He might have appeared to be eight, nearly nine years old, but he seemed much older; really he seemed to be any number of years, neither very old nor young, but but somehow possessing his age, whereas others simply experienced theirs.

None of this bothered Charlie, who only insisted that it was truly what he wanted. "Besides," he added, "I told them I'd be back soon."

"How soon?"

"I don't know." The pair walked quietly down the path, feeling the warmth of the sun and treasuring each path of leafy shade as it came; it being close to noon, shade was scarce on the trail itself, and Charlie, his mouth dry from running, began to feel thirsty. He'd left his water bottle behind, and now decided he could do without it for a while longer, and drink his fill when he returned to the rest of the group. What he had now was more precious by far than water: solitude, closeness, peace.

His companion walked now to his right, though he had not always been there, and it wasn't clear when he had gotten there. More importantly, Charlie noticed that he was about to brush up against a tangled mass of leaves, and he spoke up urgently, "Look out, poison oak!" His companion, now perceiving the danger, nimbly jumped back, kicking the plant with his toe, but avoiding contact with his legs which, like Charlie's, were bare below the knees. Edging in close for inspection, the pair confirmed the plant's identity, taking care not to touch the leaves.

"Thanks, Charlie. How did you know it was poison oak?"

"I read about it in my nature book. You can tell by the number of leaves," he said, cautiously counting them with one finger, one, two, three. "I only saw it because I was looking for animal tracks in the dirt."

"Did you find any?"

"Well, there's some here on the trail, but I think they're just dog tracks." An animal is an animal, even if it's just a dog, but Charlie was clearly disappointed by what he saw, or didn't see.

"Are you sure they aren't coyote tracks? Coyotes look a lot like dogs, so their tracks probably do too."

"Maybe!" The thought pleased Charlie, and the tracks became coyote tracks, though in others' eyes their identity might remain an open question. In any event, he still wanted to see more interesting tracks; like raccoons, with their spindly fingers and thumbs, or deer, with their dainty cloven hooves, or even the large, deep-set paws of a cougar.

"You know," said the companion, who might well have been reading his mind, "we could probably find more interesting tracks down by the creek." Pointing a short distance ahead, he indicated a small sub-path, leading down the western slope of the hill to a dense grove of trees; the sound of the flowing water was just barely audible over the wind and the whisperings of the leaves. It was naturally quiet, like the silence of the universe swathed in the cumulative murmur of its inhabitants, and punctuated by broken twigs and stomping shoes as the child left the main path.

That is how the boy and his companion found themselves in the clearing that Saturday in springtime. At first they scanned the banks of the creek for tracks, as they had meant to, but they couldn't find anything as exotic as cougars, or even deer. "Perhaps," the companion suggested, "the cougars ate all of the deer, and now they're all gone."

"But where would they go?"

"I don't know."

So thwarted, and perhaps ill-advisedly, the boy took a drink of water from the creek, satisfying his thirst (but suffering the awful taste). He sat all alone in the clearing, resting his mind while his companion offered insights into this and that. For a while he spoke of the clearing, which was ideal, shaded by oak trees which offered even the clumsiest child a perch to climb on. A slight canopy of branches hid the sun but let its light pass, striking the fine, sandy soil as gently as could be. The ambient sounds of the woods were invariable, because they were perfect. They were the products of nature and nothing else. Charlie could hardly have realized it, because he was still preoccupied by the paucity of animal tracks, but he sat at the threshold of the wild world, which waited for him to cross it.

"What a camp site this would make!"

"Do you think people ever come here?"

"They must come here sometimes. It's perfect."

"The dirt is so soft..."

"Do you think we've gone too far?"

"I wouldn't want to stay too long. If I fell asleep, the cougars might come back."

"What's that floating down the creek?"

"Look at the way those branches spread out over the trunk."

"It looks just like a castle. Whose castle is it?"

"Maybe the squirrels? Or maybe it's our now!"

"This root is shaped funny, like a drumstick."

"This whole place is ours; we're the only ones here."

"I like this place better than the lake."

"Do you think they've caught up yet?"

"Look there, in the water!"

"I love these rocks, especially when they're wet."

"I like to see them with the algae growing on the side."

"I like to see them drying in the sun."

"Brrr, it's getting chilly in the wind!"

"I want to go out and climb on the big rock in the middle!"

"I'm going to go sit in the sun."

"I wish there were more clouds out today, shaped like things."

"I just threw some rocks in the water, did you see?"

"Yeah, that was awesome!"

"Where do you think they all come from?"

"They're everywhere, that's just the way it is."

"I thought I saw a deer track in the sand just now, but I think it just looks like one."

"Well you never know. Let's say it is!"

"I wish there were more around here."

"Is that a campfire spot?"

"I guess so. Maybe there were some people here before us."

"Why did they leave? I wouldn't ever want to leave this place."

"I'd like to have a tree house in the castle."

"We could put a roof in, and walls."

"What could we put in there?"

"It's like a house, so we could have chairs, and comic books, and a TV, and we could stay there all day!"

"But what would we eat?"

"I don't know."

"We could go back and get sandwiches."

"Did you hear that!?"

"No, what was it?"

"I think it was a cougar!"

"Maybe it was the others, following us."

"Look there, in the that a cougar?"

"I think it's probably just a rock. See how it's shaped?"

"Ahh....too bad!"

"I can't hear anyone. I think we're all alone."

"There's only boring animals here. Just frogs and bugs!"

"Wouldn't it be cool if we saw a bear?"

"There's no bears here!"

"But wouldn't it be cool?"

"Shut up! There's no bears here!"

"I'll bet one will show up any minute now, and what will we do then?"

"We could hide in the castle, and throw water balloons at him!"

"But we don't have any of those."

"We could hide them in there when we build the tree house."

"Hey look, a red-tailed hawk!"

"I love those birds! Do you think they have any bald eagles around, too?"

"I don't know."

"Where are they, do you think?"

The two of them went on like this for a long time, and it was never clear who was saying what, or what was said when, or when it came to a gradual stop, when Charlie found he was less interested in talking than before. Soon he was merely thinking, and thinking only requires one, but as simple as it was he could hardly think of anything at all. So for many minutes Charlie sat alone, not thinking but waiting for something to change, so that he could move again, or at least talk again. He closed his eyes, and the Earth grew no louder; he wanted to open them again.

"Where are they, do you think?" Charlie turned to his left, seeking answers and solace from his companion.

"I don't know. They might have passed us."

"Won't they come looking for me?"

"Probably. But how will they know where to look?"

Charlie had no idea; regrettably, he had not planned on getting back, because he seldom ever had to make plans for himself. He knew what he should not have done.

"But aren't you glad we did it?"

Charlie spread his hands through the loose, sandy soil, and the grey dust clung to the pale skin between his fingers. It was no good, now that his hands were dirty, but he loved the way it felt, and he wished that the dirt in his own back yard was so fine; or that this could be his new back yard, and his home would be right across the creek, with a little foot bridge; or even in the castle, the tree castle of low-hanging branches and gnarled bark.

Soon the two of them climbed the tree. Charlie climbed as high as he would dare, but his companion rested amongst the very highest leaves, impossible light, held aloft by little more than twigs and air. Even Charlie, however, was able to see quite a distance from his modest vantage. But what he saw was not helpful, only trees and mountains, green but browning in anticipation of summer's heat and dry, dry winds. The companion might have seen the trail, but he was not looking for it. He, who was not really there, was there in his element, unseen, unheard, except by the one who was there.

So there was joy in that tree, even though there was also terror, the subtle, cautious terror felt by children who know they have made a grave mistake, but still believe that their parents, in their wisdom will set everything right. There was no panic, because it was a Saturday in springtime and the trees and water and dust were all beautiful, and Charlie was not alone. But there was terror all the same.

"Why are you afraid?" asked the companion.

"I don't know what to do!"

"We can stay here, in this place."

"No, I can't! They'll never find me here." Charlie looked down, and thought that he might fall; his sneakers slid slightly on the bark, and his fingers dug in, paralyzed as he was. If he were any more frightened, he might have cried, but his companion would not have noticed.

"Do you hear that? The sound the hawk just made? The creek? The rattlesnake? Do you feel that little chill in the wind, and the warmth of the sun, and the way when you're up high, every direction is down, except for up? It's perfect, and you know it, and everything you want is here; why would you ever want to leave it?"

Charlie said nothing, and closed his eyes, unwilling to acknowledge that he agreed. He did not want to leave, any more than he wanted to be left. His dusty fingers ached, as they squeezed tighter and tighter. He opened his eyes, glancing up to see the sun.

His companion was on the ground again, standing near the path. "I think I hear your father, calling your name," he shouted, just as Charlie was thinking that he heard the very same thing; the faint echo of his own name rolling quietly through the grove. "Come on down, let's go!"

The boy gingerly made his way down the branch, until he was low enough to be brave enough to make a jump. He fell, landing on his feet, and kept falling until he was sprawled to the ground, and a big dusty cloud rose up from the dirt to give him its final goodbye. It didn't last long, and Charlie, thoroughly coated in dust, was up on his feet again, and they rushed back in the direction of the main path.

Charlie rushed through thickets and shrubs, because the sub-path had never been properly cleared; it would not have been very difficult to lose his way, if he hadn't remembered to follow the contours of the hill. The tree tops blocked up much of the sun's light, and sticks, twigs, and even thorns threatened his bare shins; he did not even think to check for poison oak. If any animals were around they surely made themselves unseen, because Charlie ran as fast as he could run, making what a squirrel or a cougar would consider a terrible racket. Charlie didn't care for the noise himself, but it couldn't be helped.

He emerged from the woods, dusty and out of breath, his legs nicked with faint scratches from the foliage. Glancing quickly down the path, he saw his father walking toward him, hands cupped around his mouth and shouting Charlie's name, just as he thought that he'd heard. When his father saw him, he stopped yelling, and rushed to meet his son, and the son rushed to do the same; it was the happiest he'd ever been in his entire life.

"Where have you been?" his father asked, and Charlie could only point in the direction of the creek and vaguely, excitedly describe the clearing and the castle. "Never mind," said his father, "everyone's waiting for us at the lake."

The two of them walked down the trail together, exhausted but happy, and while the father was no doubt shaken by thoughts of what might have been, Charlie had already put his anxieties behind him, eagerly anticipating the lake and the soft green grass. They walked together by themselves, without another human soul in sight, and as Charlie left the place that was made just for him, the forest took it back. Saturday passed to Sunday, and springtime passed to summer, and things were never quite the same again.

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