It was a dirty business. Of course, we didn’t mind—I guess at some point we gave up on preserving the color of our sneakers. Mud was our currency and the woods provided endless cash flow.
Our city is divided into quadrants, with the park nestled in the middle of the northwest. Two thousand acres felt infinite back then. The innumerable trails intertwine like veins, or coalesce into clearings framed by knotted maples and ferns.
Every so often, a smudge of blue or yellow chalk designated the sanctioned paths. Those weren’t for us. We preferred to forge our own, crossing the glimmering creek like a game of hopscotch and shouting into the aqueducts just to measure the strength of Mother Nature’s echo.
My best friend Katia, who lived just six houses over, usually led the way. I tended to have my eyes on the sky. Once, we brought my dog along, and he took off diving into the creek. We ran in, the water licking us clean with mud as we waded under the bridge to find a tributary we had yet to explore. Katia looked at me.
“We’re entering the deep, deep woods,” she warned. Then a pause. “Let’s go.”
There was an unspoken divide, invisible lines we crossed and continued to cross. We must have had some lingering fear of the unknown, which was tied up with our thirst to dive deeper and drink in every sun-flecked atom of the land that felt like ours.
We eventually marked our territory more deliberately. Up a slope of clay and fallen leaves, we nestled behind a gargantuan oak and perched under a shelter of abandoned plywood. Fashioning slingshot arsenals out of twigs and rubber bands, we met our matches on a torrid afternoon in the summer. The boys thought they owned this spot—we knew who really did.
When we walked with our parents or pets, the world’s immensity would press our feet into the mossy ground. But when we were in the woods alone, things suddenly seemed small. Every time the ice crunched under our gravity, every time the lamb’s ears seemed to shiver in the heavy air—it murmured allegiance to some unseen force, the same one that pushed our grimy limbs always forward through the brush.
One day we forayed into our neighbor’s backyard at the edge of our cul de sac. It was the same place where I got my first bee sting and had to hold a bag of frozen peas on my knee for what felt like hours. We slunk through the weeds until we reached the checkpoint: a looming hedge that shadowed a hollow center where we plotted.
The adjacent neighborhood was enemy territory. Not the boys this time—we called the invisible adversaries vampires or devils, but it wasn’t the fear of evil or harm that propelled us onward. It was the exhilaration of being where the unexpected was expected. Day after day, we carved our path through no man’s land.
Ducking under cherry blossoms and darting through alleys, we came to a barricade of ivy and vines. Katia insisted what was on the other side of the trees was familiar. It wasn’t. We found ourselves waiting by the side of the road; beside us, a tall stranger sat in a red pickup truck on the phone with our parents. Soon we were back in the barracks, nursing shame and grounded for two weeks.
They said never again, but it was out of our hands. We had become the mud that caked our shins, clay to be molded into bodies that would last.
This summer I went back. I walked under the beeches with bark that peels like yellowed pages of manuscripts older than we are. We never did carve our names into one like we said we might.
I allowed myself to get lost, the paths I knew giving way to others that seemed to bend toward a twin world. Each footfall brought a glimpse of our past, like the time we sat in the cool solace of the rhododendron and found a home. Like the time my dog disappeared, chasing a deer for stretches upon stretches of brambles and burrs. Like the time we picked green onions and made them into a bland soup. Like the time we ran from the bucks that stared, eyes like mirrors, encountering us encountering them. Like the time my brother found a coyote skull by the side of the path.
My dog limps now; as he charges forward in search of the murky creek, he favors his right side ever so slightly. But every time I free him into the dappled shade, he runs until he can’t and stands, looking back at me. The woods still cradle him in their solid embrace. I step forward and wait to be made whole.
-Magazine writer Sophia M. Higgins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @frigidnoise.