I walked inside the rhododendron bush that was two stories high, planted years ago by the hunchback, the first person to live in our blue Ardsley house.
We could walk in to this rhododendron bush as if it were a room. I sat on the “horse,” the long branch with a saddle seat curve that we hopped up and down on to make the tall bush shake.
But today I sat without jumping up and down. I was tired of this horse. I wanted a real horse, and I knew I would not be getting a horse.
Then I heard a Saturday mower.
The noise met me in the shade of the rhododendron. I lifted my chin to it.
Somewhere in the neighborhood, sounding its presence like a cavalry horn, was the first mower of spring. It ignited the sullen kernels of adventure in my ears and I got off the horse.
I knocked on front doors and said, “Let’s go to the stream.”
We were in walking distance to the “new park” and the stream along its far edge. New houses lined the stream on the other side, and people lived in them, but the stream was ours because we loved it.
Its bottom was soft and cushiony. We loved to lift rocks and peek for crayfish, scoop minnows and longed for its elusive frogs. We laughed and fought in the stream, threw buckets at each other and bounced on the wooden slats and shouted things like “I got one!” When we were hunting, we were careful to lift rocks slowly so we wouldn’t disturb the silt, which might allow an escape route for the living treasures underneath. We didn’t wear water shoes because they didn’t exist. Nor did we bring water bottles. We drank the stream. Sunscreen was for getting a tan at the beach and we actually called it suntan lotion. This was a playground, a safe extension of home that opened its world for us, every time.
But the stream of last year would not be the same stream of this year.
Standing barefoot, the water pushing my shins, I was alerted by the scrape of a window opening in the house nearby.
Its slow slide was infected, but I still didn’t expect the rush of arsenic from her voice.
“GO BACK TO THE PARK!”
I instantly registered the scream inside my body. We all did. We became statues, carrying her heavy poison.
We looked up at her in the little window, squinting.
Then we looked at each other, and back at her. She was in the house. Her face was violent. But the stream didn’t belong to her. We noted this quietly to each other.
“It’s not her stream,” we said. “This is our stream.”
We continued our searching, but there was hesitance to our play.
“GO BACK TO THE PARK! THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!”
Without speaking to each other we left our sneakers on the grass and knew to walk a little further downstream. She was in the window, watching us. We stopped in front of her neighbor’s house. She couldn’t say anything to us here.
I thought we were home-free but then somebody in our search party mimicked her, and that’s when I felt afraid.
“I’M GOING TO TELL YOUR MOTHERS!”
We didn’t think she knew our mothers, but I knew she went to our church. Even coming back from Communion her face was sometimes contorted with a soundless rage, perhaps her skull was hot, and I think she may have been a candidate for a pill of today, but back then, we gathered our buckets and began a march downstream to get away from her.
As the arsenic cloud lifted from our march, someone suggested going to Africa.
We looked ahead of us. The houses would soon stop but the hills cupping our stream continued on. We could see the thickening. Together, we knew it was there.
“Yes! Let’s go to Africa!”
We kept going until the stream had long thin branches that draped over us, sheltering our march that had slowed from the water’s cool depth. I looked over to my little sister and the stream was up past her stomach, her elbows crooked in the air, but she was smiling, so I smiled, too. Here, it was quiet, the breeze above us. We were nature’s guests.
When we saw a large green frog on the bank, we knew we had made it.
“We’re here,” I whispered.
Epilogue: At a donut gathering in the church basement, the woman from the window approached my mother. I watched her talk. She was animated in an angry manner, using pointy facial angles and expressions that were new to me. When my mother raised her eyebrows, a sign for her to cool it lady, I turned on my heels and took another bite of my donut.
Up Next, on June 5: Jilda the Dancing Nude