Walking along the beach road at sunset with the, to me, heart-breaking foliage—beach plums, bayberry, ineffably pink dog roses that fall apart if you try to pick them, etc... We were four grownups and a six year old, I turned to Jaqueline:
“If I were Kai’s age I’d dash right into that underbrush. I wasn’t allergic to poison ivy and so could make myself at home in any woods.”
Indeed, when I was little I had no friends outside the woods, where I was thoroughly at home. I knew where the bird’s-foot violets were and when; walk on a ways where, always with an abrupt halt, the heart-stopping Lady Slipper in its shaft of light bloomed on the oak leafed floor. And wild strawberries on the Fourth of July in Maine—where I saw a black-masked warbler beneath tall, yellow, moccasin-orchids. Yes, always wild strawberries.
I was fortunate that some of the best woods were in my family, as it were. Crossing Main Street to Aunt Laurette’s and through her yard with its elm tree where the pristine sack of a Baltimore Oriole’s nest over-hung her morning-room window and out the rhubarb sided track, past the shed where Claribelle, the goat, was tethered, then around the back of the old Ashley estate (paved with lilies of the valley in season) and into the Sawmill woods.
The Sawmill woods began abruptly with a leather green pavement of Wintergreen, then I was in the woods. The path immediately darkened with an audible hush. Nature took over and, if you were looking and listening, put on quite a show. The birds stepped up a few rungs in quality, their songs distinct and quotable.
The first event as you entered was an eroded cliff on the right glamorously scaled to a not-yet-grown person, the oak on its crest overhanging the yellow earth where its roots threw themselves out. The sun and the ground had a routine worked out whereby a beam piercing the leavers would spotlight a wild flower on its own shelf on the cliff face—one plant per sunbeam. The flat-faced heavenly blue birds’-foot violet with its little orange cone in the very center—one plant and the only one I ever saw. And Turks-head Lilies. Tall, thin, nodding and orange or sometimes, yellow.
Don’t think I was fully accepted. As much as I wanted the birds to make me ball gowns and mice surround me for a chat, I would sometimes be dive-bombed by birds and chided relentlessly from branch to branch by one squirrel in particular. And I would always fall for the wounded bird trick where the bird with a broken wing would flop around, just out of reach, until I couldn’t remember where the pantomime had started, and then knowing I’d been led far enough away she’d fly off and leave me ignorant of where on the ground her nest lay and I was deeper in the forest.
Then the woods opened up. To the left was the Sawmill River (the headwater of the Acushnet River eponymous to the real whaler Melville shipped out on that was the model for the Pequod of Moby Dick). To the right a sloping glade and directly in front an abandoned 18th century cranberry bog and beyond that the grey-black horizontal of a pine forest that formed the self-declared boundary of my woods.
Throughout the years I spent in the Sawmill woods I never saw a single person. My sense of privacy and safety were complete. There were no surprises greater than a toad underfoot or a quail’s clumsy thrashing into, but never quite making it into, the sky.
There were no unpleasant surprises, so that when I tell you that, here, I would sometimes turn right and sit on the moss and daisy upholstered fieldlet, and stare at the Pines across the bog or eat the wild strawberries growing within arms reach. My sense of solitary belonging was complete.
Around my eleventh birthday, that year, later in the summer, when the vines had taken their dominion over the trees, on a white and muggy day I lay on the daisy covered ground. I was only wearing a bathing suit, as usual—no shirt or shoes. I was golden brown from the sun and the baby hair on my arms and legs was golden. My head covered in whitish blond hair crew-cut but with a platinum cowlick over my left eyebrow dark like its mate over double-fringed black eyelashes surrounding eyes the color of a wild blueberry cut in half.
It was early in the white day, the sun at my left hand. I lay back, my hands tucked under my head. My knees bent up, my heels against the back of my thighs—let’s put a juicy blade of grass in my mouth—strawberries were finished.
I looked up at the white sky. Suddenly the sun was declining on my right hand. The whiteness had possessed me. I got up. My shorts were, I could see, quite far away. Eight or nine hours of my life had disappeared. Many years later trying to recapture what happened in that split second that took all day, I remembered the light descending and collecting around me. Whether that’s a real memory or something else—I haven’t a clue.
I was sixteen and living in Boston, working as an artist’s model, don’t laugh, it supported me. I lived on Beacon Hill but had friends at Coffee Corner near Mass. and Huntington Avenues. I’d walked down Newbury Street and was on the Mass. Ave overpass near Ives Gammell’s at Fenway Studios where I passed a very beautiful young man carrying his schoolbooks walking in the opposite direction toward the bridge to Cambridge. A design he’d heavily over-marked in pencil on the cover of one of his schoolbooks—the outside one, caught my eye. I swivelled on my heels, ran a bit, caught up with him and said, “Were you an ecstatic child?”
We stood there facing each other: the traffic and the pulse of a city dying away and he told me that, yes, he’d been an ecstatic child. I don’t remember where I was exactly going or where, ostensibly, he was off to; but previous plans were set aside. “Come with me,” he said. I guess he was eighteen or nineteen.
We went to his room. Boston at that time was honey combed with rooms. There were beautiful teenagers in rooms everywhere. The rent got paid, the educations were completed, and the sex was guilty.
We sat across from each other at a small table. This was a business meeting not a date and was not prolonged unnecessarily. I don’t remember saying good-bye—there was no further rendezvous contemplated or suggested, I never asked or found out his name, and what he told me ran something like this: At the age of twelve God began raping him. It was horrible. God would violate him forcefully, would ravish him violently and repeatedly. To be singled out like that is hopeless for a child—there is truly no one to turn to. I was the only person he’d ever told. We were both crying.
Realizing the futility of his situation and combining ingenuity with intrepidity at eleven o’clock mass, during the benediction, this beautiful twelve-year-old boy walked up to the altar rail as the priest’s back was turned to the congregation, who were kneeling and with bowed heads, my ecstatic friend banged on the marble altar rail and, in a loud voice in the hushed church, demanded, now screaming that God keep his evil hands off of him and leave him alone. I suppose, come now to think of it, he humiliated God enough so that as a result the ecstatics ceased. You can all write for yourselves here the movie of what went on in the church and at home after this—if he told me, I don’t remember. But if my memory of childhood has any insight at all, I’d say, not much. The righteousness in this little boy’s anger and the tone of his voice must surely have warned everyone who heard that this was an event outside their experience and to act as if it didn’t happen: In fact collective “oublie” probably set in.
I suppose we said goodbye. I know I left his room because I am not there now. But we had had the same experience, somehow. He had had his suffering and I had had a hole in time. Recognizing him re-affirmed the event for me. The words “ecstatic child” had jumped out of my mouth when he passed by: a symbol unconsciously scratched in graphite onto the cover of a school-book had leapt out at me and told me that what I had experienced was ecstasy—in a deeply incised double-cross.