6:45 a.m. I wake up of my own accord. Fragments of a dream – cars? people? – slip away. I lie in bed a minute longer, enjoying the silence that envelops my aunt’s house in the country. The window to the left of the bed faces east; I lift the blinds and spend the next ten minutes watching the red sun lift through the trees until it disappears into the thick clouds waiting above. Snow lies thin on the ground outside; the house is still.
I get out of bed, dress in layers five thick, scrawl a note to my still-sleeping aunt to let her know I’d be back soon, and slip out into the early February morning.
Suddenly I’m eleven years old again.
When I was a kid (years before all I wanted to do was sleep in), I’d often wake up early, don my Laura Ingalls Wilder getup (bonnet, scraggly dress, apron, shawl) and spend the next several hours rambling through the woods and fields near my house with my dog. We’d chase the sunrise – an impossible task, since all of the land was covered in trees – pick plums and blackberries in the summer, and half-follow animal tracks in the winter. Those were times when I was Anne of Green Gables, Laura in her Little House, Caddie Woodlawn, Mole of Mole End: all of my cherished childhood friends.
My aunt lives in my grandmother’s old house, settled about a quarter of a mile from the house I grew up in. It sits back a little bit from the road, which dead ends just a few hundred feet away in what used to be a healthy wood but is now fallen trees, the result of recent logging. When we were kids, my brother and sister and I would traipse through those woods, following the thin trail and white-painted trees until finally arriving at the road. Now all of the trees are lying down, and you don’t need a path to see how to get anywhere.
It’s cold but I’m warm with my jacket and gloves. I follow the dirt path – now covered in a thin layer of snow and ice that crunches under my boots – from my aunt’s house, past the horses’ field on the right, past the old barn, and up past the goats’ pen. I get a glimpse of my old house but don’t go up to it, instead veering right onto another path, which leads to another path, set between a forest of bare-branched trees and a field of pines (a cornfield, in my youth). If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss the faint break in the trees that opens to the path I was looking for. Years ago, all of this property was my dad’s, but now it belongs to a nice guy named Steve, who hopefully won’t mind my taking an early morning walk on his land. I’m sure he doesn’t know that for me, it’s still mine and will never be anyone else’s. Everything looks the same here in the snow, but I could walk this land with my eyes closed and always know exactly where I am. I slip in between some trees and find myself on a narrow trail leading through the woods.
Halfway to my destination, I stop and listen. The loud crunch from my boots on the crusted ground is silenced; I don’t even hear a bird. In the far, far distance is a car, but then it too disappears. Turning slowly in a circle, I look around. Everything is both exactly as I remember, and completely different. What used to be a field is now covered in trees and briers. The path that used to be immaculately mowed now has sticks and fallen trees over it. But the snow hides its imperfections.
A few minutes later, I make it to the pond. It’s been . . . how many years? seven? ten? fifteen? . . . since I walked this path. I remember a large-ish body of water surrounded by a high embankment on two sides, a trickling creek on the other, and a grassy sloping hill. There used to be a rowboat moored on the hill: of course, gone now. Today young pine trees cover most of the area. The pond itself, now frozen over and covered with snow, is a fraction of its former size. The embankments, not so tall after all, are also scattered with dead overgrowth and brambles.
I pick my way carefully over to the other side of the pond, making sure to put my feet down heavily in the slippery crust of snowy ground. Once on the other side, I stand at the top of the bank, back to the pond, looking down at the trickling creek below me. Heels first, holding onto tree branches with freezing fingers, I walk down the slope until I am next to the creek.
Again, I stop. Again, silence except for the trickle of water that seeps through the thin ice.
Go throw some rocks in the creek. Fragments of yesterday’s conversation with my brother echoes through my head. That’ll make you feel better.
I look around for some rocks but don’t see any. The snow has covered them all up. So instead, I crouch down on the ground and stare into the water. The creek is narrow – maybe only four or five feet across – and shallow. Ice clings to its edges. I remember wading in this creek when I was a kid, always watching out for snakes. I remember riding horseback through this creek with my dad. I remember falling into this creek when I was four, my seven-year old brother wrapping me up in his coat and shirt and hauling me home, bare-chested. I remember exploring this creek with my siblings and our friends, finding trees carved with Native American signs and searching for arrowheads. I remember sliding down the muddy hill the day Dad first connected a pump from the creek to the huge hole that would become the pond, and how much I absolutely hated to be dragged down to it as a teenager.
A family friend from years ago once referred to our land as “Newsome’s Refuge Ranch,” a moniker that hasn't crossed my mind until today. Back when she said that, I was twelve years old, and wasn’t much in search of refuge. For me, it was my home and nothing else. Now I see what she meant. Everyone needs a silent place where they can escape every now and then.
But it’s getting late. Surely my aunt is up and waiting for me to come back. We’ll eat bacon and eggs and toast, buttered in the oven, and drink our orange juice and coffee. She won’t let me cook or wash dishes; instead, she’ll serve me breakfast and chat about her friends or old memories or just life itself. Then I’ll go back to my real life in Raleigh. But I’ll take a piece of this peace with me.