June 15, 2012 by The Citron Review
Onie and I were only nine and I could not understand the stakes in such big-boy games, with prisoners, stalkings, hideouts, and spoils — forbidden zones and enemy camps. There was real meanness, like an unearthed night-crawler down your sunsuit, an unexpected seizing while merely lazing, chipping pinecones on the bank. I remember that day, when the game got too real for me, when I marched out of life into the throes of something deadly, the boys all feral and forthright in their nerve. They said they would scalp me in their lair. They would stake me and burn me. They would dance in the flicking shadows as the fire wrung its hands. I walked quietly, not resignedly, not even tearfully. I just dropped into a trap door that opened in mid-stride, and fell bodily in. They could do whatever they wanted to me. I was no longer there.
Onie redeemed the forest for me, in all its boundlessness and mystic clarity. We were twinned so early and she had always taken the lead. There she is painting herself with mud from the Coralee and plunging into the green-grey swirls below the Falls. There she is charging Adam Redke and his band of slow-mouthed bullies, squirrel-slaughterers all, her pointed stick taller than fear, her silence louder than their war whoops. There she is tagging me free as I processed through some chthonic part of the forest, Adam and Brig Benjamin guarding me on both sides. Even now I can feel the slick and crisp of the fall leaves, breathe the smell of rot and riverweed. I can see the familiar gusts of sunlight weltering sanely between the gaps in the branches, sense the pent birdsong, the weird exile of terror and detachment.
Onie could be a scrapper. She could pummel and pounce and ride a bucking back, using hair and collar as reins. She would haul off and kick the brawniest of shins, especially if something tender and harmless was at risk. I once saw her shout down scruffy old Den Wallace, shaming him — a grown, infernally reclusive man — into releasing a sack of kittens he had slated for drowning. “I’ll curse you, you killer. Let them go or you die!” Her bravery, her fury both thrilled and terrified me. Old Wallace muttered “Damn witch” and flung the sack into the brush. Onie started toward them even before Old Wallace strode away. Coming from witchy folk has practical advantages. Even a particle of remembered family lunacy has power to thwart and appall.
That time, though, the time with the boys, she neither screamed nor scrapped. The strangeness was that they did her bidding simply because she willed them to. “Let her go, Redke.” She spoke only to the leader. I can hear the childish timbre of her nine year old’s voice even then tapping something ageless and terrible. It wouldn’t have crossed her mind that she was unevenly matched. A little girl, a gang of boys — all alone in the woods. I don’t know that she ever thought things through with anything resembling practical reason. She was instinct, pure and true. Instinct and dauntlessness. Even as a child she seemed to exist on some non-rational plane, to defy commonplace notions of order, of boundaries, so self-contained was she. At once fixed and incredibly fluid, her personality always seemed rooted to something bigger and older than little Olwyn Sutter.
I want to get it right, this description. It seems important to me somehow to see if words, like the pots that I throw, can hold ash and essence. But the precise dimensions of Onie’s fierceness and delicacy elude my faulty measuring. If I could crack open the word, “am” and release a fizz of cosmic bang, watch it sally into eons of elemental flux, and set it on an outcrop in the Garden of the Gods, the old moon gladdening the peaks– giving it a strong Scottish jaw, eyes like the greeny grey of the falls, a blast of untamable red-gold hair — this might do, in a pinch. I’m not used to the rough and tumble of words; they’re more slippery than clay and it’s hard to get the treadle speed right. But I need to acclimate to human explanations if I want something written to survive.
“Let her go, Redke.” The boys stopped in their tracks, all sheepish and bewildered. There was no recourse to grownups, no flouncy, cock-sure “I’ll tell!” thrust like a pin to the chest. There was no desperate beseeching, no stratagems, no art. “Don’t ever capture her again. She doesn’t like it. Let her go. Right now.” And, unaccountably, they did. Just like that — I was free as the Coralee. The rough hands fell back. The rough shoes scuffed away. Sticks that an instant before were brandished, now gingerly poked the earth. Before my leery eyes, the boys transformed into a pack of amiable scouts, hiking in the grainy sunlight. I half-expected them to shout a chorus of “See ya’s!” or to call us to witness a tree toad or fox den — which, after that day, they did. Yet I cannot think of those earliest days without conflating the menace of the boys and their marked but unknowable notion of territory with the later trial and grievous error of my adolescence. Adam and Brig all grown-up, still slow-mouthed, still striking unawares.
Kate Falvey’s work has appeared in a number of print and online journals, including Memoir(and), Danse Macabre, Subliminal Interiors, Hospital Drive, Crit, Women Writers, Literary Mama, Hoboeye, Fringe, Qarrtsiluni, the Aroostook Review, Red Line Blues, Hearing Voices, and others. She is on the editorial board of NYU’s Langone Medical Center’s Bellevue Literary Review and is editor in chief of the 2 Bridges Review, published through City Tech/CUNY, where she teaches. www.2bridgesreview.org