A burnt house stood deep in the woods near my childhood Connecticut home. During the summers of the early ’60s, my friends and I visited often.
We peddled blue bikes up the crooked sidewalk and turned onto a bumpy path. Our voices vibrated, our hands tingled, wind feathered our hair. As the sounds of the street faded away, we entered the place that bonded us to nature and each other, and became our summer playground.
Towering trees formed a canopy; sunlight filtered through like a kaleidoscope. Landscapes of laurel and twisted vines created our jungle enclave where our mid-grade imaginations wandered out of our parents’ sight for hours.
Whatever distractions detained us, our destination was always the same…charred remains of the burnt house. Scorched stairs led to rooms without walls and an upper story opened to the sky. I waited on the first floor for my more daring friends, spooking myself with ghostly images of flames devouring clapboard. Outside we searched the tall grass for trinkets–a cracked teacup, a headless doll, a tarnished perfume cap. Each piece of humanity clues to a family we never knew.
Down a cryptic trail, a car we thought big as a dinosaur was stuck in a ditch. It oozed oil rainbows into a stagnant stream. We didn’t give much thought to how that car got there, or if the passengers were hurt in the crash. We figured that they were hoodlums who roamed the woods at night with the other wildlife that lived there. And though we tried, we rarely spied animals more exotic than a chipmunk; the closest we came to seeing even a deer was at the city zoo.
When we tired of exploring, we divided into teams for a game of cops and robbers, speeding past thickets that grabbed us where we least expected. Logs reborn with fungus and dewy cabbage leaves concealed our hiding spaces. Soon enough we would grow bored and surrender in favor of something more fun.
We’d race to the rope swing that traversed the pond and one day found a cement-mixing trough. The rusty vessel became our boat as we piled in and set out for the south shore. We didn’t float far before we tipped the bow and dropped hip-deep in black water. We screamed like maniacs as slimy fern tangled our ankles and mud sucked sneakers off of our feet.
But we knew better than to head home just yet.
With wet clothes cellophaned to our bodies, we cycled to the sunny ledge where rocks slabs hot as a sauna evaporated traces of our mishap.
We acted out fantasies on this Flintstone glacier, mining hunks of mica, peeling shiny layers as if each flake were Jurassic currency. We found answers to questions as we flipped rocks to watch a salamander slither, or examined veins of a waxy Maple leaf. We created our own adventures respecting the territory and the life within, sometimes a little too much, the day we all dressed in black, bearing lilacs, to hold a funeral for a dead rat.
Over forty years have passed since my childhood days. I can still see those magical times when we played in the woods. I remember how moss felt like velvet, the smell of wet bark in the air. I remember the smiles of my friends. My life was touched by this.
It was a place once preserved by cool dusk. Now it is preserved in my mind.
Patti Cavaliere grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut when the suburbs were still bordered by wooded property. She now lives in East Haven, where her home faces acres of winding paths that remind her of the childhood and friendships that outlasted the woods of Jewett Avenue. She was a veterinary nurse for many years and now works in research at Yale University. Her love of animals and people is reflected in her writing. She has published short stories and is working on a first novel entitled Looking for Leo.