Mouse skeletons, walking sticks, and the voice of the forest
The lovely author and blogger Janie Bill asked me over to share my thoughts. As I pondered what to write, my mind traveled back to a simpler place of fond memories I was quite fortunate to experience, before the rise and rule of electronic gadgets: a place where we children had to find other forms of entertainment and the world possessed something I hardly ever hear anymore: silence.
“Nestled behind my childhood home lay a wild wooded area we called ‘the lot.’ To the casual observer, it was no more than a tangle, serving as a screen between our house and the street, yet there was so much more to it than unkempt vegetation and rocks. The lot was my own private retreat—a region of enchantment that fed the imagination and initiated my first ideas of writing.
In the simmering heat of summertime, I would slip away into deep green foliage, and disappear from this world into another. Mysterious and quiet, foreign and impenetrable to adults, it sheltered and nurtured me. A well-hidden path I discovered (or created) once led me to a miniature enclosure made by a circle of skinny trees. This became my sanctuary. Here, with stubby pencil and notebook paper, I crafted stories woven from forest whispers, which is a green, amused, softly breezy language one forgets how to understand when grown. (There’s only one place I’ve found as an adult where I can still hear it.) I had not yet read Thoreau or Kipling, but my time in the lot resembled the simple, free existence of Walden or The Jungle Book. Eventually I taught myself how to step without sound through brittle undergrowth—to move against the breeze until I could surprise foraging sparrows. Rather than human intruder, I named myself a creature of this wood, belonging there as much as robins or squirrels.
Here, in this earthy, secret atmosphere, I first read C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, and believed. While traversing forest paths, I was always searching for the doorway that would whisk me into that magical land. Charms tingled through my fingertips and Aslan’s golden breath kissed my cheeks.
Though the lot ultimately kept its portals to other worlds hidden, it proved generous in other ways. Once, I happened upon a gray wooden staff, four feet tall, as straight and round as a pole, with even, sanded ends. Worm-sign covered it like druid runes. Perhaps they were druid runes. Another time I unearthed a complete mouse skeleton, airy and fragile, from my enclosure’s moss and leaf-carpeted floor.
One of the lot’s most valuable, long-lasting gifts was a distinct appreciation of solitude. I learned to lie still, watching the changing cloud patterns through a frame of leaves and branches, for hours. Under this fertile canopy, stories crept through my mind like dreams, or voices perhaps, from other lives.
At times, so many years later, I still wonder what happened to my walking stick. The mouse bones crumbled, and my childish stories were tucked into nostalgia’s drawer. Yet the lot remains, after a fashion. When my parents moved, the new owners contained it behind a high cedar fence and chopped down most of the old trees. Landscaped and civilized, the once-wild area now lies obediently prim and suffocated under benches and flowerpots. I wish they had paused to listen first to the elegant, rustling wisdom those trees were so willing to offer. Would they still have wanted to lift the axe?
I wonder what our world would be like if every child had access to a wild, secret place of his or her own? My time in the lot didn’t prepare me for this life—rather it offered seclusion from it. Indeed, it hindered me from taking my place in the cold city forest. Though I became adult in body, the world’s constant blare and metallic essentials has always battered at my sensibilities. I have unconsciously constructed walls to shield myself from the assault. Nonetheless, I will always believe my small plot of land did cultivate something tangible. It wrapped me in a cocoon of poetry that tinges every word I write. Because of the lingering effect of those days, I suspect writers cannot be social beings in the same way other people can. They must thrive in solitude. They must discover how to listen to unseen things, and they must learn to trust what they hear. My voice came to me under a leafy awning, murmuring within the breast of Mother Gaia. The lot actually turned out to be far more supportive than my mortal parents; without it, I doubt I would have ever found my writer’s voice, or the courage to do much of anything.
What the lot gave me didn’t disappear, turn to dust, or molder in a drawer. Graciously it remained, an integral part of my writing and of me.
You know, maybe the lot did allow me through its invisible gateway after all. For now, even in stark adult reality, the fantasy and magic that first befriended me there, on a tiny scrap of wild, isolated land in Kansas, remains vivid and alive, a mere thought away.”
Excerpt from The Thinara King:
A blanketing mist rolled in from the sea; the caress of water against sand gave off a hushed, tranquil susurration. Themiste’s voice faded away beneath the heightened sound of Aridela’s breathing. It filled her ears, punctuated by the steady thrum of her heartbeat.
Menoetius’s gaze shifted from Chrysaleon to her. As they stared at each other, shocked surprise replaced the frown on his face.
She had never felt so strange, so separated from what was real. Her mind seemed to soar into the mist. She saw Menoetius as he used to be, his youthful beauty restored—Carmanor as she remembered him.
Through some divine visionary gift, Aridela was allowed to see through Menoetius’s eyes everything that happened the morning he carried her out of the shrine, bleeding, near death. She felt his desperate need to save her, the tenderness with which he held her, the kiss he placed on her forehead. She startled along with him when the doves in their cages began their terrified fluttering and the dim torches abruptly blazed. She felt her soul slip away as he raced up the steps, shouting, and saw the beautiful, shining handmaid, smiling at her.
Her eyes stung with tears.
At that moment a voice broke into the memory. Gentle and melodious, it merged with the whisper of the sea. She couldn’t distinguish if it was male or female.
I have lived many lives since the beginning, and so shalt thou. I have been given many names and many faces. So shalt thou, and thou wilt follow me from reverence and worship into obscurity. In an unbroken line wilt thou return, my daughter. Thou shalt be called Eamhair of the sea, who brings them closer, and Shashi, sacrificed to deify man. Thy names are Caparina, Lilith and the sorrowful Morrigan, who drives them far apart. Thou wilt step upon the earth seven times, far into the veiled future. Seven labyrinths shalt thou wander, lost, and thou too wilt forget me. Suffering and despair shall be thy nourishment. Misery shall poison thy blood. Thou wilt breathe the air of slavery for as long as thou art blinded. For thou art the earth, blessed and eternal, yet thou shalt be pierced, defiled, broken and wounded, even as I have been. Thou wilt generate inexhaustible adoration and contempt. Until these opposites are united, all will strangle within the void.
Aridela couldn’t move. She couldn’t even blink. As she stared at Menoetius, he disintegrated and remolded into his blood brother, with Chrysaleon’s green eyes and honeyed hair, but the cruel expression worn by this phantasm immersed her in dread and anguish.
The voice spoke again.
I have split one into two. Mortal men have burned my shrines and pulled down my statues. Their arrogance has upended the holy ways. I decree that men wilt resurrect me or the earth will die.
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more.