Today I woke up with sounds of my childhood — the call of the turtledove, and a lot of other birdsong. Opening my eyes, I looked out the window at a line of pine trees not so different from my childhood pine trees. Sure, the intervening ground here is more barren, but the line of trees on a ridge at eye level in the distance could have been the tree line visible from grandma’s garden.
In my distant childhood, when I was a little girl (rumors that say I sprang fully grown from the head of Mars are an exaggeration) I used to follow my grandmother around like a shadow. One of my favorite things this time of year was to go get grass for the rabbits. That involved going up the street, and through half-ruined gates and the remains of an arch.
Having goggled the aerial view of the village, I was shocked to notice that the woods were dotted with what had once clearly been foundations of houses, some of them very big, and churches, and what not. The scars are easily visible from above. I can’t tell you if it was the extent of the Roman settlement before the barbarians came, or if it is merely the extent of the village before the black plague. Or yes. I know that the woods were strewn with property markers, inscribed cornerstones, and sometimes gravestones, all of them in Latin. But it would be in Latin, anyway, medieval or Roman. And you might think I’m very dim for not realizing the woods couldn’t be immemorial, if there were remains of human habitation, but I assumed, of course, that these had been those isolated woodcutters of legend or such.
I always assumed were part of the great forests that one day covered Portugal — and some of it might have been, because there were still groves of Eucalyptus in the middle of the oak and pine. Portugal — the strip of land that would become Portugal — was once attached to what would become Australia, and in the last great wandering of lands got ripped out and flung onto what would become Spain. I have been too lazy too look if that was after plant life was to the point of trees. If so, maybe that’s where those eucalyptus came from. Or maybe they were seeded by Portuguese returned from long voyages. The truth is that there are eucalyptus groves all over the country. Too bad no one ever brought pandas. (Portuguese were doing this long before the idea of invasive species was a thing. Grandma’s house had been in the family for three generations, maybe three and a half — children kind of agglutinate things in their heads, so I’m not sure if my grandmother’s great grandmother or her grandmother built the house — and the yard was a repository of strange plants and things that relatives long forgotten had brought back as a gift to the lady of the house. Sometimes something sprouted which had been long dormant, and we all tried to figure out what it was. We had for instance a persimmon tree, which is how I know I’m allergic to persimmons. It used to be summertime breakfast for the family (but not me.) I’ve always wanted to write about a similar house and a similar family, only with starfaring, but can’t see it as anything but Bradburyesque stories, and well…. I’m not Bradbury.)
Anyway, so we’d go through these ruined gates and past fallow fields, to a meadow at the edge of the woods. (Those gates and ruined wall could be neither medieval nor Roman. Well, maybe the wall. The gates were iron though. From the ruins next to it, in which (in the rooms that still had roofs) a rabble of what I suppose we’d call “indigents” (Let’s face it, guys, the entire village were very very poor, by modern US standards) I suspect there had once been a manor house there, likely destroyed in the Napoleonic wars.
Anyway, we went in through those open gates, down a time warn path, across a little water-rivulet, and into the meadow. There, Grandma would scythe grass for the rabbits, and … well, I was supposed to help and had my own little scythe and an apron, but I got bored and would pick daisies and make daisy chains.
In my mind there is a perfect day which might indeed have been such or a remembrance of a lot of days together, with grandma scything the grass, and my picking the flowers, and the sound of turtle doves and then a lark climbed up singing…
When I woke up the sound of the day was much like that day, the air about body temperature as it was then, and there was the sound of turtledoves.
For a moment, I was transported back in time.
And it got me thinking over breakfast. Always dangerous my thinking, but listen: fairy tales are very old stories, and even when they’ve been Frenchyfied and tamed they still retain a pattern of truth.
One of my favorite fairy tale writers was the Countess of Segur, poor woman, who mostly wrote to support her many children, since her husband was one of those dissipated pre-revolution French noblemen.
There is a story whose name I can’t remember, where (this is common) the little princess is raised in a cottage and told never ever ever to enter the woods at the back.
But something happens and she goes in pursuing I think her dog. She goes into the woods and helps many people/creatures, until she faces the witch who had kidnapped her and imprisoned her in the cottage, where her faithful dog (?) was actually the prince she’d been betrothed to marry. All are returned to their forms and she goes back to the palace, which has a garden as beautiful as the cottage’s.
I was thinking that cottage was childhood, all hemmed around with prohibitions for our own protection. Don’t go into the woods, don’t talk to strangers, don’t–
It’s a happy place, sort of, except it gets awfully boring fast. I escaped into books and daydreams until the fence was down and I went pursuing my dreams through the opening and into the woods.
Which in this case are life and adulthood. Did I love those woods? Um…. mostly. It was a lot of work, perhaps because I chose my way into particularly strange woods, far from the familiar garden. There has been an awful lot of battling, the kind of thing that’s only fun in retrospect. And you know guys, as well as I do the times we live in are… worrisome.
But by and large I got through the woods and helped whom I could along the way (even if sometimes I helped the wrong creatures.)
I now see the other end of the woods, where the trees are thinning and there’s hints of a garden. That is, I’m not through battling (who is short of death?) but you know, the kids are almost raised. And I’m almost at a place where I’ll have actual writing time, not running around, and writing a few lines here and there between other work. Not quite there yet (this week I’m laying down floor in the living room. Let’s say the previous owners had unfixed cats…) But I can see it from here. And I’m kind of ready for it.
It’s not a return to childhood. Well, not yet. We are lucky to have an extra ten or fifteen or for the really lucky twenty years of relatively healthy life after the children leave, where we can still work and produce and be, but without the frantic work of providing for a family and the panic that being responsible for other human beings you brought into the world induces.
I’m not there yet. I can see it from here. And I’m not complaining precisely. Maybe in the far off future there will be a granddaughter I can take with me to… well… I don’t have rabbits, but when I have time I’d like to go to parks and draw. And maybe a kid can play nearby and listen to the turtledove and lark.
It’s not a fairy tale. But it’s not very different. We come to a world we don’t fully understand, and where we make a lot of wrong assumptions. We take all of that with us into the woods, and hopefully we emerge on the other side seeing more clearly and taking the pay back for the good things we did and the help we gave.
And after the woods, for a little while at least, maybe there’s a meadow with flowers.
Go forth into the woods. There are brambles that will tear your clothes and skin, and wolves that can threaten you. So be alert, work hard and help whom you can along the way.
You can’t stay in the woods, and you can’t make it into a meadow. Their fate rests with those who come after you, just like the ones who left the Latin inscriptions couldn’t control my life or that of the generations after.
But you do what you can, and you hope. World without end.
Maybe even, the lark will sing.