There were these woods, when I was a child, that seemed magical. They were the woods behind my best friend Erin’s house—the parish house—the woods where the trees, the kind with a million long, thin branches, had fallen on their sides, offering us canopied boughs of small, richly green leaves. Erin and I would run out of that small house, with the old, stained carpet and the musty smell, our skinny, soft-hairy legs and big feet carrying us with abandon to the place where we were sure no adults had ever been, weren’t sure could even find. We yelled “C’mon!” and “This way!” as the ferns lapped at our ankles and the briars tried to grab us (but we were running too fast), the late afternoon sun landing in dappled spots on the fertile brown earth. And then we would stop, our thin chests heaving, laughing, at the place where the trees were on their sides. They weren’t dead, or didn’t look it, yet, at least. Their leaves were still green, their million fingers still supple. When I think about it now, it all has a soft pink glow, and even though I know that is impossible, it’s how I like to remember it. Erin with her honey hair and freckles and big round brown eyes and me with my wild untamed curls and flashing blue eyes. She was the pastor’s daughter. I was…well, I was just one of the poor kids. Where we went to school, there were the rich kids and the pastors’ kids. I was neither, but the pastors’ kids didn’t mind that I was poor. They were, too.
We had things in common, the pastors’ kids and I. Our clothes never fit right. Our pencils were the yellow kind from the dollar store, you know, the ones with the erasers that just scratch at the paper, leaving a pink smudge. Our moms drove station wagons that were as old as we were. And we never got out of school for a week to go to the Caribbean.
Not that we understood at the time what all of it meant, really. We knew we were less, the rich kids made sure of that. Some of the poor kids tried to befriend the rich kids, to see what they could get. If you were friends with a rich kid, you could go to her big house, drink soda from a glass bottle, play with her American Girl dolls. But you never wanted her to come play at your house. No, you made sure you always went to hers.
I always hated it when the rich kids gloated about the nice things they had, because I knew it wasn’t my fault I was poor any more than it was their fault they were rich. I knew it didn’t make me less or them more, but I could never explain that to them. I got angry instead. And because I had no way to express that anger, I hid myself in books, because books couldn’t tell me that my pants were too short.
Erin and I met on the first day of third grade. She wore a sherbet-colored taffeta dress and a bow in her hair. I don’t remember what I wore: I’ve tried to forget everything I’ve ever worn. Our assigned seats were the two front ones in row three and row four. That was the first time I spent a year in that classroom. The second time would be sixth grade, when Abby Staibel had breasts before everyone else, and would proclaim in the locker room after gym class, “I am a woman now!” Boy, was I glad when her family moved to Utah.
Erin was shy, and I guess I was, too. I hadn’t really had many friends before that; I wouldn’t have many after either. But we became friends in the way that children can, before they are hurt too much and know better. And so, on sunny, warm afternoons after school, her mom would drive us home in one of their secondhand Subarus (they had two) and we would drop our backpacks and run full tilt into the woods, along the skinny footpath, arms in front of our faces to push away cobwebs and branches, until we got to the place with the sleeping trees, the ones that beckoned to us with their countless shimmering leaves. We crawled through the maze of their arms, climbing to the top of their bough-mountains, and lay on our backs, splayed across the branches, staring up at the willowy trees that still stood and the way the sun looked like a disco ball, shimmering above their long, dancing arms. We would talk about whatever it is 12-year-olds talk about, and we would forget that our shoes were too tight and that our sweaters itched. We forgot that we were supposed to feel inferior. Because at that moment, we were the queens of our green-branched castles, warding off dragons and being rescued by knights. We were the wives preparing dinner for late-working husbands (the only kind we knew of) and caring for the babies sleeping by the fire. We were the Indians in our tee pees, shooting arrows at the attacking cowboys. (Or was it the other way around?) We transformed those woods, and I guess you could say that they transformed us, too. Because when we were in the woods, with the fallen alive trees, we alone determined our fate.
*A little bit of fiction for those of you who have asked.