Writers Institute

Down the Bank

by Dana P. Diehl

 

When I remember the summers of my childhood, I do not think of the houses that popped up like crabgrass one by one in my development or the neighborhood friends that moved away. I do not think of the old Indian trails or hay fields that were buried under roads when my world started to expand. What I remember is the patch of woods behind my house, and my time there, before that too disappeared. I was six the summer I discovered it. It was my first day at my new home, a one-story ranch that my family had built in a new development in the mountains. I wore a pink tutu over a pair of shorts and a white T-shirt as I explored the backyard, a large, sloping square of dirt, the grass not yet grown in. I was immediately drawn to the patch of woods down the bank at the end of my lot. An old farmer’s path, overgrown with grass and fern and buttercups, ran through the center of these woods, and the trees on either side hung over it like a canopy, wrapping it in a dark, green shade. Golden bits of light danced across the ground where the sun broke between the leaves.

I held the tutu close to myself, out of reach of the bush’s spindly branches, as I crawled down the bank, away from my yard, onto the farmer’s road. I walked down the path, placing each foot carefully in front of the other in the high grass. Birds chattered above me. My mom was teaching me to identify them by their songs, and I recognized the twitter of a Black Capped Chickadee. I stepped on a twig, and a rabbit, a blur of brown, darted out of a bush ahead of me and across the road into a patch of fern. I walked after it, but it had already disappeared into the brush.

“Dana.” I recognized my dad’s voice calling suddenly from the house, but I ignored it.

Kneeling down in the fern, I could feel the dirt cool and soft under my palms. I felt the warmth of the sun on my back and could almost smell the green in the air. Over my shoulder, my house was invisible behind the bank and row of trees. If it weren’t for the sound of my dog barking on the driveway and the echo of my dad’s call, I would have thought I was completely alone.

“Dana.” My dad’s voice was louder this time.

I rose, reluctantly, knowing that I would be in trouble if I delayed any longer. I wiped my hands on my shorts, waded back through the baking grass, and crawled up the bank into my bright of my yard.

Those first few weeks, I grew to prefer the woods to my new house, which still smelled of fresh paint and varnish. It became known as “Down the Bank,” after the phrase we used to describe it. I’d explore, crawling through the labyrinths and mazes created by the bushes, pretending that I was an adventurer. I’d climb trees and get splinters under my nails and red, peeling sunburns on the back of my neck, but I would be happy.

I’d try to stay outside all day, but eventually I’d always have to go to the house to use the bathroom or eat lunch. Once inside, it took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Even when I turned on the overhead light in the kitchen, it would be as though I looked at everything from behind a dark screen. Nothing was ever as bright or clear as it was Down the Bank.

I developed a list of rules for life that I began to live by: Never eat the red berries. Stay away from the plants with the three shiny, green leaves. Don’t shake the tree with the papery wasp nest in its bows. Kick over rotten logs with your toe, in case a garden snake is curled beneath. Squish mosquitoes and pincher bugs under the sole of your sneakers, but let the spiders live. If you hold a buttercup under your chin, and your skin turns yellow, it means you like butter. Check the wild raspberries for ants before you eat them. A broken bluebird shell, as blue as the sky, is a treasure.

That summer, a family of five moved into the house next to us. At night, they would turn on their bright porch lights, and I’d play kickball with my new best friend, Danielle, and the other neighborhood kids I met that summer, Justin, Ashley, and Stephen, in the dry, baked grass of their backyards. We’d use things lying around the yard as bases. The lid to the trashcan became home plate. The lawn chair cushion was the pitcher’s mound. Afterwards, we went Down the Bank and caught fireflies in the palms of our hands and fed them to the frogs we found in the basement windows so their stomachs would glow. We were always careful not to frighten the frogs as we caught them. When surprised, toads peed yellow in your hands.

I liked the smell of the woods at night. The evening would swallow the dusty heat of the day, and the air would smell foreign and dark and sweet. The smallest sounds would become significant. The growl of our neighbor’s Collie. The flap of bat wings. The sudden splash and cry of a duck being disturbed on the pond across the street.

I was enchanted by Down the Bank. It was magical to me, offering a world of exploration and play and new discovery. Whenever I took my friends there to catch frogs or pick berries, I saw myself as the one in charge. No one else had woods behind their house, and I felt that this special privilege gave me a certain degree of authority. Out of everyone, I knew the woods best, and I knew the rules of the woods best. I loved this feeling of complete control and authority. It was something I’d never experienced before.

One afternoon, I went exploring Down the Bank past a row of thorn bushes. On the other side, I found a tree so thick I could barely wrap around my arms around the base. I climbed it, curious about what I’d see from the birds-eye-view. But when I reached the top, I could see nothing the road that bordered the other edge of woods, much closer than I would have imagined. There was a stop sign, and a garbage truck rumbled by as I peered through the leafy canopy. For a moment, I felt that warm glow of control and authority slipping, and I climbed down quickly. The road, the stop sign…they were part of a different world. A world that, to me, didn’t exist when I was in the woods. I tried to forget what I saw, and I didn’t climb that tree again.

The nights I wasn’t outside with my friends, I spent watching movies or playing games with my parents. One July evening, after dinner, my family piled onto the old, brown couch in the newly finished basement, shut off the lights, pulled the green and purple afghan made by my great aunt up under our chins, and slid “The Never Ending Story” into the VCR player. There came the painful, grinding sound of the gears, and the TV screen lit up, throwing patches of changing colored lights over the dark basement walls.

About half way through, my parents left without a word. We were at the scene when the horse dies. Dan and I watched as it sunk slowly into the quicksand, its head tossing, its eyes rolling. A boy kneeled at the edge of the sand, crying, calling out to his companion. I suddenly didn’t like the movie so much anymore. I could stand the people dying, but the animals, never.

After a few minutes, my dad reappeared at the foot of the stairs, saying, “Dan. Dana. I need you to come upstairs now. We can finish watching the movie later.” The room was consumed in blackness as he stepped in front of the television screen, blocking out the light like an eclipse, and as we followed him upstairs, he told Dan and me to put on our shoes. “You’re going to go spend a few hours with the Cozzas now,” he said.

The lights were on in the living room, and I drifted in, Dan close behind me. Mom was lying, flat on her back, across the sofa by the coffee table, hands resting at her sides.

“Dan. Dana. Hi.” Her smile confused me. “You two be good tonight, okay? I have to go to the doctor for a little bit, but I’ll see you soon.”

I looked through the doorway out into the kitchen. Dad was on the phone, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” I was holding her hand now, and it felt cold and moist.

“Probably nothing. Downstairs, I felt like I had some little heart palpitations. I’m just going to the doctor for a little bit to make sure I’m alright.” She looked past me. “Hey there, Dan. How did you like the movie?”

Our black Lab, Abby, barked from the garage, and Dad appeared beside me.

“Come on, kids. Mr. Cozza is almost here. Time to get going.”

The doorbell rang, and I knew by the one ring that it had come from the back door.

Dad led us away from Mom, through the dining room, through the kitchen, onto the patio, and into the arms of our graying, middle-aged neighbor, Mr. Cozza. I was crying now, and he held my hand as he led us through the backyard. I wanted to pull away. His hand was big and rough against my small fingers, and it felt strange in my own. I wanted my mom’s hand back.

We passed by the driveway, and I could see an ambulance with red, flashing lights sitting by our Plymouth van. Mr. Cozza started walking faster, pulling me closer to his side so that it was blocked from my view. The red lights still burned across my eyes.

“It’s okay,” Mr. Cozza told me, feeling my hesitation as I turned to go back to the house. “Your mom’s gonna be fine. Look at your brother. Dan the man! Look how brave he’s being.”

When we reached his house, Mrs. Cozza was waiting for us with bowls of chocolate ice cream. Mine melted into a brown, soupy mix before I could touch it. I was confused. What was happening to my mom? Why wasn’t I allowed to stay with her? I wondered why Mr. Cozza had tried to hide the ambulance from me, and why no one would tell me what was going on. The only explanations the Cozzas could give me were quiet, soothing reassurances that everything would work out.

Dad showed up a couple hours later, dark shadows under his eyes. He told us that everything was okay and that Mom was fine. I asked him what had happened, but he only repeated that everything was fine.

Walking back home, the grass, still wet from the sprinklers, licked at my ankles, and the air was dark and starry with fireflies. Past our house, I could see the dark, silhouetted trees of Down the Bank. I felt the sudden, intense urge to run away from my father and to the trees. I wanted to escape to a place that was familiar and comforting and made sense—a place that belonged to me, where nothing bad was allowed.

I remember little things starting to scare me more after that night. It wasn’t that I was traumatized by my mother’s trip to the hospital, but I felt more aware of the world around me than I was before.

A few weeks after my mom went to the hospital, I watched the evening news with my parents. There was a story on a young woman who jumped from a six-story apartment window to her death below. I had nightmares for a week, and I couldn’t get the image of the falling woman out of my head. I remember feeling guilty, as though the dreams themselves were wrong. I couldn’t, at that age, even begin to comprehend the concept of suicide. It was an idea totally foreign to me, and it scared me to think of “why.” What could have inspired this woman to take her own life? What was out there in the world that could be so terrible it would make her want to jump?

When I imagined the woman’s suicide, I saw night. Blackness. And bright, orange fire smoldering behind the apartment windows. I wonder why I saw this fire, even when I knew it was never there.

I think now that the fire was just my subconscious’s way of creating a comprehensible reason for her to jump. It paralleled how I felt at that age, frustration at being unable to understand this adult world, and fear at beginning to enter it.

When I went to bed at night, I’d sometimes lie awake for hours, afraid that thieves were breaking into my house. One night, the branches of the young dogwood tree next to the garage door scratched against the vinyl siding on windy nights, sounding like the tip of a fingernail inching its way towards my window.

The neighbor’s floodlight broke through the gap in my curtains, allowing a knife-thin sliver of light to fall across my bed and over the right side of my face. The sound stopped for a few seconds, and then continued again. More hurried this time, more frantic. Another beam of light, this one softer, fell from my door that was open just a crack. My senses were focused on it, and I wondered if I could find the courage to jump out of bed and sprint into the living room where I knew my parents would still be watching TV.

The sound started again, a strange, faint pattern of scratching and tapping. Lying there, I pretended I was still outside and looked for constellations in the glow-in-the-dark, stick-on stars on my ceiling. Like so many nights before, I saw a lion, its body curled in repose around my fan. I imagined that it was Aslan, come from Narnia to watch over me in sleep.

Reality scared me. In the woods, the rules were always the same, and if you broke them, wandering into a patch of poison ivy or disturbing a wasp’s nest, there were definite, predictable results. When I was in the real world, I had to follow a whole new set of laws.

Always keep the doors and windows locked. Never talk to strangers. Peek through the curtain and make sure you know who’s there before answering the door. Don’t pet dogs you don’t know. Play only in the yard. Trust your family and no one else.

If I broke these rules, the consequences were vague. Too terrifying, I imagined, to be spoken aloud. Words such as kidnap and murder would pass through my mind. I’d heard them on the news, on TV, sometimes even from the mouths of my parents, but I never really knew what any of them meant. I accepted these words as being part of the adult world, things that I couldn’t understand but had to fear nonetheless. Down the Bank was a place where things were simple and safe, and every time I ventured into that safety and peace I wished I never had to leave.

I ran away from home early that August, because I decided I couldn’t take living at home any longer. I was disgusted by this new side of the human world I had discovered, and I didn’t want to be part of it any longer. I locked myself in my room and stuffed my purple Jansport backpack with an extra pair of jeans and T-shirt, my sketchbook, and a tin of crayons. I swung it over my shoulders, waited until I could hear the sound of my parents’ voices in the kitchen, and then opened my door and stomped down the hallway.

“I’m leaving!” I shouted at them and slammed the door behind me.

Once on the front porch, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t allowed on the street, and I just wanted to get away. I thought of a book my mother had read to me in which a boy left his home to live in the wilderness. Something about that had always sounded so refreshing and exciting. I decided that I would live off the land, eating raspberries for dinner and drinking dew out of leaves in the morning. My feet carried me around the house, through the backyard, and Down the Bank.

It didn’t take my mom very long to come looking for me. When she found me, I was lying on my stomach in the moss, watching a line of ants carrying specks of dirt. Next to me was a crude little house I had created out of twigs and a piece of fern.

A couple weeks after I ran away, I left home again, this time to visit my grandparents for a weekend in Harrisburg. I came home from the city, anxious to reenter the peace of the woods and to continue my exploring. However, the moment my family pulled back into our neighborhood, I knew something was different. I could feel the emptiness. My dad turned the car onto the road that led to our house, and I strained my neck from the back seat, looking for the trees that signified Down the Bank.

They weren’t there. We turned around the final bend, and finally, the full emptiness of it hit me. Where that patch of woods had once been, was flat, barren earth scarred with the deep track of bulldozers.

“Mom?”

“Aw, that’s too bad,” Mom said from the front seat, looking as we passed by. “They must have cleared it out to make room for a house.”

We pulled into the driveway, and I ran down to the end of the yard before even stopping to go inside. I slid down the bank and my shoes sunk a little in the soft, upturned earth. It all looked so lifeless. The dirt was a light, dull color that I didn’t recognize. Whenever I was in the woods, everything was covered in green.

I wondered what had happened to the rabbits that had lived there. I wondered about that big tree I had climbed so high I could see the road. It was all gone now. I kneeled down and pulled a broken piece of wood from the dirt, feeling its roughness under my fingers. I felt suddenly lost.

I had put so much faith into Down the Bank. Year after year, season after season, everything would work exactly the same way, follow the same patterns. I had taken comfort in the knowledge that, no matter what sicknesses or deaths happened in the adult human world, on the outskirts where the forest lay, everything would always be the same and predictable.

That summer, I had seen the woods as a force that could not be stopped. It was shocking to me that decades of growth, erosion, birth, death could be brought to a halt in one day by humans. The woods had felt so real a couple days ago. Now they didn’t even exist. It was as though they never had. I thought I’d figured out all the rules of the outdoors, but the destruction Down the Bank was the one I had never allowed for.

I walked from one side to the other, my shoes leaving little prints in the dirt behind me, until my mom called me back to the house for dinner.

School started that fall. I went to Becht Elementary School, while all my neighborhood friends went to St. Anne’s, the local Catholic school.

I sat on the swings during recess, kicking my feet to go higher and higher, pretending I could fly. My eyes scanned the playground until they rested upon a girl who was, like myself, alone. She was short and compact and had a round, freckled face; red cheeks; wild, black hair; and shiny, black eyes. She was making her way across the blacktop, from the slide to the ducks, figure hunched over the ground. Every now and then, I’d see her stop, bend over, pick something off the ground, and continue on her way.

I watched for a few minutes, trying to make sense of what she was doing. When I couldn’t, curiosity got the best of me, and I dug my white Sketchers into the dirt beneath the swing, bringing myself to a halt. I approached her hesitantly. Once I drew closer, I felt suddenly shy. Her eyes were intent on the ground in front of her feet as she shuffled through the gravel, but she wore a big, lime green coat that somehow made her less intimidating to me.

“What are you doing?”

Her face darted up towards me, and she shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat like she had been caught doing something wrong. I stared at her until she answered.

“Looking for treasure.” Her voice was small, musical, and her eyes were dark beneath her eyebrows.

“What sort of treasure?” I took a step closer.

She looked at the ground, tracing a heart into the loose gravel with the toe of her shoe. “The Leprechaun’s treasure. They leave it everywhere, and I know how to find it.”

She pulled a hand out of her pocket, and I leaned over. In her palm, sat a pile of small, white crystals, catching the light of the cool, September sun. I reached out and touched them with my index finger. They were warm from the heat of her pocket. I was reminded of Down the Bank and the magic I had experienced there.

I stuck by her for the rest of recess, following the zigzag pattern she took across the playground. Under the swing set. Around the chaperone, Mr. Pride. Through the boys’ kickball game. Sometimes I would find the crystals cast amid the gravel. But the girl was always better at it. After half an hour, she had two pocketfuls of Leprechaun treasure.

When the bell rung, marking the end of recess, she grabbed my wrist and slid into my hand enough of the treasure to fill my palm. I saw it as the ultimate sign of friendship. I put the crystals into my front jean pocket and kept my hand there throughout the rest of the day, afraid that they might disappear.

After school, my mom picked me up for my dentist appointment. Sitting next to her in the waiting room, I leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Mom, I met a girl today. I think she’s a Leprechaun.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really? Did you?”

I squeezed my hand into my pocket and pulled out the crystals. “She gave me this treasure. She found it on the playground. Only a Leprechaun would know how to find it, right?”

My mom picked one of the biggest crystals up out of my palm. “Dana, this isn’t treasure. These are just big pieces of salt. They put them on the playground in the winter to melt the ice and snow.”

She placed the crystal back into my palm, and my fingers closed over them.

A few minutes later, the dentist called my name, and my mom and I stood in unison. As I followed Dr. Boyd into a back room, I realized how suddenly empty I felt. I was a six years old girl, and the world scared me. My mom got sick, people committed suicide, murdered, kidnapped. That summer, for the first time, I began to experience and observe the realities of the adult world. I was on the brink of understanding these realities, but they were still just beyond my level of comprehension. To protect myself, I would physically and therefore mentally run away. Sitting in the dentist’s chair, my mouth wide open as my teeth were probed by a metal pick, I put a hand to the crystals in my pocket. When Down the Bank was bulldozed over, erased from the earth, I had been so quick to replace it with the make-believe of the treasure. But now, even that was gone. My protection gone, I would have to face the adult world on my own.

The dentist finished examining my teeth, we came back into the waiting room, and my mom paused at the front desk to schedule my next appointment. As soon as we were out of earshot of the receptionists, she leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Dana. That salt…it’s still pretty.”

I nodded and picked my backpack up off the floor.

In the parking lot, when I knew Mom couldn’t see me, I reached my hand into my pocket and dropped the crystals onto the ground.

 




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