Into the Woods

Fall had arrived in full force as the trees huddled on the edge of the vast pasture that stretched up the terraced hill. A strong wind galloped atop the tall grass waving at the young boy and his friends as they stepped into the field. The wind buffeted them, penetrating the thin coats that clung loosely to their small frames. The bruised sky above them rumbled along, the clouds like slow-moving trains pulling slowly out of the station all at once.

The boy with the copper hair turned to his friends and motioned for them to follow him. The wind muffled his words and tussled his hair, but he yelled to be heard and pushed the hair out of his eyes. Eight legs beat a path to the edge of the woods defying the wind with each step. Their progress halted as the four boys peered into the dense forest before them.

The muted light provided by the cloudy day gave the forest an ominous feel. Trees, once bright and lively in the spring, sat dull and dark with spotty, brown leaves covering their gnarled branches. One tree hunched over the path with its bony fingers lifted in warning. The view gave the boys pause. Shadows lurked on the path and suddenly the feeling that they were not alone slithered down their spines. The copper-haired boy looked back at his friends for reassurance. One boy pulled his knit cap lower on his head. Another clutched his jacket closed. A third swallowed hard. Courage eluded them.

Fearing that he’d appear less than brave, the copper-haired boy stepped onto the path leading into the forest. His red hair provided the only color in the dark, musty passage. Ten steps later, he looked back to confirm that his friends had followed. They had. Clumped together in fear, they beat a path through the woods down to the creek that gurgled around the ancient trees. The wind rattled the trees above them surging in a chatter that was at times deafening. Stray, mostly small limbs, fell upon them as they walked quickly along the path.

As they approached the creek, excitement rose in their throats. The gurgling water fell silent in the boastful wind, but the young boy remembered what it had sounded like in the summer. Long, hot days spent jumping in and out of the water had yielded so much fun. The change of season had turned the water colder, but it still felt refreshing to his hands as he scavenged among the rocks in the creek searching for crayfish.

One boy dropped the bucket they had brought onto the bank of the creek and hopped onto a rock in the middle of the lazy stream. He braced himself against another rock and dug his hands into the cool water. When he found nothing after a moment of searching, he pulled his hand back and shook the numbing cold from his fingers. The boys moved up and down the stream kicking rocks over in the water and splashing around until their shoes were soaked and the knees of their pants bore a waterline. The lower hems of their coats dripped, but none of them seemed to mind. Their singular focus on the hapless crayfish clutched their imagination.

The wind still roared above them as the trees fretted and grazed bony fingers against the heavy clouds. The bucket remained empty as the boy’s enthusiasm for the hunt slowly gave way to cold feet and hands chapped by the gusty wind. The copper-haired boy looked down the winding stream and sighed. Not today. He spoke and his friends looked up. They all stood and hunched over in disappointment as they trudged through the water and up the hill from which they had descended only an hour earlier. None of them said a word as they beat a hasty retreat to the field at the edge of the woods.

The light brightened as they emerged from the path into the woods. The fussy grass mimed an “I told you so” when they paused for a moment at the mouth of the dark path. Disappointment dampened the moment more than the cloudy day. Spring and summer had yielded a hopefulness that the fall had gladly taken away. In unison the boys heaved a deep breath and pushed forward, all silent save for the cajoling wind.

Letting Go

Deception Pass 2015 (134)

This past weekend, I took my family on our annual camping trip. Once again, we went to Deception Pass Park on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. The park sits on the northwest corner of Whidbey at the foot of an 80-year-old, steel bridge that connects it to Fidalgo Island to the north. This idyllic setting is a great place to relax and get away from the frantic pace of everyday life. I love the hikes and the beautiful views of sunrises behind the bridge and sunsets into the Sound, both of which offer plenty of inspiration.

As a kid I spent most of my time outdoors with my brothers and friends playing in the woods. We explored every inch of the vast wooded area that surrounded our houses. We’d play games that relied most heavily on our imaginations rather than anything of the electronic kind, so it’s a great pleasure to see my own kids running around in the woods playing with nothing but what nature provides them. I hope they are similarly inspired by the overwhelming beauty and the excitement of discovery.

Such surroundings make me appreciate settings in the stories I write. As I walked through the overgrown, verdant paths that encircle the tip of Whidbey Island, I described what I saw in my head, flipping through my catalog of words looking for the right nouns and adjectives to capture my perspective perfectly – well, as perfectly as is reasonably possible because words don’t do the gorgeous Pacific Northwest much justice. My mind wandered lazily down paths that it doesn’t often have the time to explore. Story ideas popped and bloomed. The scenery reinvigorated my senses – exactly what a vacation should do.

Since I was camping, I didn’t write while I was away. Instead, I just let my mind run loose without any constraints – no need to write things down or leave myself a voice memo. I wasn’t worried about losing ideas. Instead, I knew that letting myself go like that would benefit me later. These scenes, feelings, and experiences would likely show up later in my writing. In the future, one of my characters will walk through the verdant paths of some old-growth wooded area and smile with wonder, recoil in fear, or any react in some way that is conducive to the story I’m writing. Stephen King is right – you have to read to get good at writing, but you also have to exercise your senses and relax every once in a while to keep a fresh perspective. I hope my vacation serves me well.

Swim

The door swung open into the dimly-lit room with walls covered in dark paneling. Only a thin beam of sunlight peeked through the heavy curtains. A musty, mildew smell greeted the family that crossed the threshold. The father, a cigarette dangling from his pressed lips, exhaled a cloud of smoke as he bent down to turn on the old, brass lamp. The meek light barely brightened the room. The mother, observing the futility of the lamp, flung open the velvety curtains and sunlight eviscerated the darkness.

The young boy, short and pale with a shock of copper-red hair, followed his parents into the room and immediately jumped on one of the beds. He stood up and smiled before he started bouncing on the squeaky bed. The thick navy blue bed cover bore the imprint of his tiny feet with each bounce.

“You’re gonna get hurt,” his mother admonished. She gave him a hard stare until the smile left his face. The boy stopped and sat down on the edge of the bed sullen and despondent.

He watched his mother busy herself with getting settled into the hotel room. His father reclined in a chair near the window savoring the last of his cigarette. Relaxed after the long drive, he watched his wife and son. The sad look on his son’s face concerned him.

“You want to go swimming?” he asked.

His son’s face brightened as he became animated once again. “Yes!” he yelled. He jumped up on the bed again but only stood up for fear of his mother’s wrath. His mother and father exchanged a look that he didn’t understand, but he could tell his mother was reluctant to go swimming. His dad smiled anyway.

The flurry of activity required to go swimming easily bested the limited patience of a four-year-old. His mother seemed frozen in time as she got dressed in her bathing suit. His father was ready in a matter of minutes. The boy bounded from one side of the room to the other bursting with restless energy. Finally, his mother emerged from the bathroom ready to go.

When they stepped outside, the sun seemed exponentially brighter than it had been through the window of their room. The boy squinted in the bright light. His copper hair, corkscrew curly, rustled in the slight breeze and sparkled like a campfire. His pale skin burned a phosphorus white. Anticipation tugged at him as he held his mother’s hand. She gripped his hand a little tighter as they neared the pool, the smell of chlorine overwhelmed them.

The pool glistened in the bright sunlight as tiny waves rippled across the surface. Despite the heat of the day, few people lounged by the pool. A woman lay on her stomach to their right. Her bathing suit straps were undone and flung to the side. She looked like she was asleep as she didn’t acknowledge the new arrivals to the pool.

The hot concrete that surrounded the pool pricked the young boy’s tender feet. He yelped a little and hopped along until he could pull himself up onto one of the pool chairs. His father laughed.

“Do you want to go in the big pool or the kiddie pool?” his father asked squinting at the boy. His son noticed that his father’s cigarette was gone, a rare sight.

“We’ll go into the kiddie pool,” his mother interjected. They exchanged another look before his father turned and walked to the big pool.

The boy watched as his father stood on the edge before he dove into the water head first. His father disappeared and then re-surfaced with his thick, dark hair plastered to his face.

“The water feels great!” he said from the deep end. His mother smiled and nodded before she took her son to the kiddie pool just a few feet away. Both mother and son tip-toed into the water, which was only two feet deep.

“Be careful. A lot of kids drown in pools every year,” his mother warned.

“Does it feel good?” his dad asked from the edge of the big pool. He looked pointedly at his son who stood hesitantly on the bottom step in the water. His son smiled and shook his head. “Why don’t you let him come in here?”

The mother looked chagrinned. “No, this is good enough.”

“He has to learn to swim someday.”

“We’ll get him lessons.”

“I never took lessons.”

The couple stared at each other without a word. Finally, the father shook his head and dove back under water. Meanwhile, the boy had ventured to the center of the kiddie pool and began splashing and playing in the water. His distrust of the water, a trait he inherited from his mother, had subsided, for the moment at least.

His father emerged from the pool and made a beeline for the pool chair to retrieve a cigarette. He stood there for a moment, water dribbling off his thin, sinewy frame still muscular from a youth spent doing hard labor. The man flicked his lighter and puffed the cigarette to life. His son stared at him and admired him from afar. He loved his father’s strength and admired how easily he took to the water.

His father walked over to the kiddie pool and sat on the edge as he enjoyed his cigarette. “Are you going to get in the water?” he asked his wife.

“No.”

He looked at her for a moment and shook his head. “He has to learn how to swim.”

“I know.” Her face resisted any further conversation.

The boy, still playing in the middle of the small pool, splashed his father on a whim. The man looked irritated at first but he returned the favor mostly missing his son and hitting his wife with the bulk of the water. She screamed and turned away. The splashing war continued as she backed up the steps and trotted to the pool chair for her towel. Father and son laughed. Finally, the splashing stopped and the boy joined his father on the edge of the small pool. His father reached over and rustled the boy’s wet hair. They sat there enjoying the moment, another one that the boy would remember long after his childhood ended.

Candy Apple

The concrete sighed under the relief of darkness as the day’s heat gave way to the sticky softness of humidity riding on a slight, cool breeze. The young boy, wide-eyed, his senses overwhelmed, peered down the vibrant street with its neon storefronts and pulsing crowds. The cacophony of chatter and slow-moving cars buffeted him like the waves of the pool had earlier in the day.

He looked to his left and right. His parents stood on either side, walking slowly to accommodate his short legs. His mother smiled down at him. She seemed so tall to the short boy. His dad rustled the boy’s curly hair with his free hand and chuckled. The sparks of copper brilliance didn’t shine so much without the sunlight, but occasionally a street light or the glaring lights of the store fronts would hit his head just right and set off an explosion of brilliant reds.

He bounced as he walked, a relic of his toddler days, and with him his hair bounced too, a fluff of curls tightly entwined in an erratic wave that ran from his forehead down to the back of his neck. His dad pulled his hand back and smiled. With his other hand, he put a cigarette to his mouth and took a long drag before he exhaled up and away from the child. The small family walked toward the din of the busy shops awash in tourists looking for souvenirs or searching for a late dinner.

Unfamiliar and familiar smells greeted the young boy. Sunscreen, sweat, taffy, popcorn, and chlorine stolen from the surrounding hotel pools all converged upon him at once. His dad’s cigarette smoke, as common as the man’s aftershave, wafted above him. He inhaled, and the memory of the smells solidified itself in his mind. He would forever associate the mixture with the time he spent with his parents on a rare vacation.

His mother held his tiny, pale hand in hers as they walked and looked through the store windows. The warmth of her hand conveyed a protectiveness and maternal love that he innately understood. Content and happiness rolled over him. Each store front brought new surprises, visuals, and smells that he quickly catalogued in his mind. He looked on in wonder as a man demonstrated a tiny puppet suspended from invisible wires. The man smiled and gawked at the young boy, but his parents weren’t interested in the pitch.

They continued their stroll down the street as the young boy looked back at the puppeteer, disappointed that he couldn’t have his very own puppet. A few more windows passed, some interesting, some not. The boy perked up when he saw the next window. Inside the smudged plate glass, large, caramel-colored apples floated on a carousel. The sweet smell of the honey-brown goodness greeted him. An eagerness swelled within him. His eyes pivoted expectantly from his mother to his father. An initial unwillingness gave way to acquiescence, and the boy hopped in excitement.

His father approached the counter and paid for a candy apple. The boy watched the old man behind the glass case carefully place the cash into the register and slowly retrieve a treat from the carousel. Anticipation overwhelmed the young boy as his mouth watered at the prospect of biting into the tangy sweet apple.

Finally, his father handed him the treat, which dangled from a wooden stick driven into the core of the fruit. The boy balanced the weight of the apple in his small hand and took an outsized bite. Caramel smeared on the tip of his nose and around the edges of his mouth, but he didn’t care. He took another bite inhaling it like it was his last meal.

His mother dove in between bites with a napkin to wipe away the residue on his face, but her fruitless efforts were greeted with more caramel spread on his cheeks and, eventually, the front of his shirt. She shook her head at his father for the mess he had created, but he just smiled in between puffs on his cigarette. The boy looked up to his parents and smiled too from behind a mask of sticky caramel as they continued their stroll among the crowd and the shops with a messy little boy in tow.

Lessons

The sun bore down on the little boy who sat atop the cinder block steps leading to his house. His unruly copper hair danced on his head and glistened in the sunlight, but his pale skin looked as if he hadn’t seen the sun at all in his short life. He bent his left leg at a right angle on the steps and rested his tiny elbow on his knee holding his head up like he was resting. He wrinkled his forehead and furrowed his brow over his pouting lips. He hated it when his mother didn’t let him do things. He was a big boy at six years old. He could do things on his own. She just didn’t understand that.

He looked back at the clear storm door behind him and listened for his mother. She had just stepped back in the house to get him a cup of water. He couldn’t hear her or see any sight of her. He hopped up and glided down the steps quickly. He made a beeline for the road in front of his house moving with a speed that would put him over the hill by the time his mother returned to the door.

He stopped for a brief moment at the edge of the road and looked left and then right just like his mother had taught him. The slick rural road with heat emanating from the blacktop sat silent and empty. He couldn’t even hear any cars coming. He took one step onto the asphalt and felt the excitement of adventure awaiting him. He took another step and hurried across the road without hesitating.

Once he crossed the road and crested the hill on the other side, he could see his great aunt in her bonnet below meandering among the blackberry bushes picking berries methodically. He smiled. He had wanted to go with her when she had walked by his house, but his mother refused to let him go. Didn’t she understand that he always helped his great aunt when she had important work to do?

He continued walking down the hill toward his great aunt on the cross street that ran perpendicular to the big road he had just crossed. He stayed to the far left facing any potential traffic just as his mother had taught him, but staying on the edge of the road proved difficult given the uneven asphalt. He persevered focused on his great aunt ahead of him. She didn’t notice he had crossed the road and was walking toward her because she was so absorbed in picking the scrumptious berries. He kept quiet. He wanted to surprise her. She’d love it that he came to help her.

At the foot of the hill, a slight breeze pricked his neck and tickled him, and then, a sudden, long shadow cast about the valley in which he entered. A shrill voice yelled his name puncturing the quiet that had bottled his determination. He stopped in his tracks. His great aunt turned and looked at him and, then, angled her neck to look up to the top of the hill. The boy knew what she saw before he turned around to face his insubordination.

At the top of the hill, his mother stood with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. She yelled his name again and demanded that he return to the top of the hill to her. The little boy slumped his shoulders and looked at his great aunt. She offered no shelter from the wrath of his mother. He whined and exhaled frustration before he turned and stomped up the hill toward his angry mother.

As he reached his mother, he protested and gave his reasons for disobeying her. He was a big boy. He only wanted to help his great aunt. Why couldn’t she let him do what he wanted to do?

His mother would have none of the argument. She grabbed his hand tightly in hers, looked both ways from the edge of the road, and dragged her son back across the street. He resisted, and she pulled harder until the heels of his feet rested on the grass in his yard as she pulled him toward the house. She yanked him up into her arms and carried him into the house. He started crying in anticipation of the punishment.

He had disobeyed her specific orders to never cross the street alone. She had told him that he couldn’t go with his great aunt, and he went anyway. For that, he had to be punished. She put him on the couch and demanded that he stay there. He froze and cowered in fear as she left the room momentarily.

When she returned she brandished a fresh switch in her hand. The angry look on her face said more than the words she would mutter. She raised her hand and brought the switch down upon his pale legs. The thin branch lashed his legs leaving a little red welt across them. Her arm flailed like a mad woman until the cries and pain reached a crescendo. She stopped. A rash of red welts cut across his legs.

Did he plan to disobey her again? No. Did he understand what he had done wrong? Yes. Did he understand the dangers of the road? Yes. Would he ever cross the road again by himself? No.

Some lessons are learned the hard way, and this one, the little boy would never forget.