Friday, May 6, 2011

the old place

photo: jetheriot

The yard around the camp narrows at one end, becoming a winding footpath that cuts through a small patch of woods before opening up again where a graveyard of ancient tractor parts graces the mouth of a meadow. There’s a green-yellow swing-set in the meadow near the graveyard, rusting. It must be forty years old.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. I’m standing in that meadow looking for the swing-set, studying the long shadows my lantern casts: parsley in the dark, pepper plants, sawn branches staking the ground, mosquitoes around my lantern, in my ear, onion tops, an armadillo or something walking in the woods, hay where the tractor mowed. Trudging through knee-high thistle, I hold my lantern out in front of me as far as I can and still no sign of the swing-set.

I remember climbing it when I was three or four, one of my earliest memories. Hanging from the cross-beam, monkeylike, I rattled a nest of wasps hidden in the hole at the end and six or seven of them stung me. I felt zapped. What was that? Such pain and so surprising. I remember the strange prickle, how new it felt. That’s what frightened me the most, I think: the newness of the pain. My right hand angry with what I soon learned were welts, I wondered what other surprises life might have up its sleeve. The world was one way, or so I thought, and then – ow – out of nowhere I was stung. I remember my father stuffing some newspaper into the cross-beam, then setting the newspaper on fire. Half a lifetime later I’m just grateful to have the memory, any memory, painful or not. Memories are hard to come by anymore. I wasn’t stung the day before or the day after and those days are long forgotten.

When I get to the end of the meadow, I turn around and walk back, this time deeper in the shadows, certain that the swing-set is just out of view. I could have sworn it was still here. From the top of a leaning utility pole, a looping wire hangs down into the front window of the old place, its cracked panes spidering in the moonlight. On the sill, a bloated phone-book, its white pages yellowed and brittle. The Little Dipper . . . 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 . . . seven stars smiling in the sky, the ghost of a green-yellow swing-set.

I set up my tripod and bring the lantern up the steps of the sagging porch. The screen door is already open. “Don’t be scared,” I tell myself, creaking the raggedy floor-boards. “It’s just an old house. There's nothing to be afraid of.” I leave the lantern on a table in the heart of the house, glowing, then take pictures until the sky turns blue.