Twenty-two years it’s been and yet still each spring when the roadside ditches flood I glance to the quick flowing waters and the green grass waving within their currents and pointedly do not think about you, I do not think about how I found your limp little body stretched out in a similar water-logged ditch just steps away from the safety of home yet now forever gone, forever stolen from me, forever beyond where I can follow, and I definitely do not think about my sister recalling, decades later, how my wailing preceded me up the long walk from the road to the house, or how I didn’t even have the decency to carry you myself but waited until my parents returned, had them confirm what I already knew, and I certainly never think about how I failed you, my sweet boy barely out of kittenhood, how I failed you, how I failed you failed you failed you, I just turn my eyes away from those flooded banks and pretend I never saw a thing.
heart still beats ‘neath the floorboards of a house I can’t return to, twenty years and more straining in the damp glacial till that nurtured a blackberry youth, and every night my spirit leaps free my slumbering body to fly ‘cross moonlit miles and reunite like no time at all has passed, what foolish business!, and thus I wake each morning curled ‘round that house-shaped cavity wishing I could say goodbye, wishing I could let that place go, wishing I could move on from a past that keeps moving farther on from me with every passing year
A childhood friend’s mother, dead from cancer since we were teenagers, smiles at me from the front door of an unfamiliar house. “It’s good to see you,” she says. “You’ve let go of all your protective camouflage from back then, especially that fake hair.” With the clarity that comes in dreams I understand she refers to things I did subconsciously as a child to protect myself from a wrath I often saw unleashed upon others. “Yeah, well…” I scuff my shoe on the gravel drive and flash her a wry smile. “Turns out there was a lot about my life back then that was fake.”
I was a child who hated dresses yet wore my tangled hair so long it reached the base of my back. I performed in ballet recitals yet despised the makeup they required be plastered on my face. I loved glitter and stuffed animals and motorcycles and wooden swords. I was a princess, but I was one who could rescue herself.
I did not call myself a tomboy, though. The word fit awkwardly in my mouth even then, much like choir dresses and pink tights fit awkwardly on my chubby form. It’s only in adulthood that I understand why I hesitated to claim the label: tomboy implied girl. To be a tomboy meant to be a girl who liked boy things, who was unlike ‘normal’ girls but who still, beneath the mud and the bruises, was a girl. And I was not a girl.
I was frozen pond water. Freshly mown grass. Coyotes howling in the night. I was wild blackberries and ripe apples and library books, wood smoke and Play-Doh and agates. I was thousands of memories and sensations squashed into the jelly bean-shaped body of a human child. They might have been consolidated under a given name and assigned gender but they never truly united into one concept. Yet what child worries about such things when they’re tromping through wetlands or howling at the moon?
I’ve since shed the last of the dresses and most of my hair, and with them all the labels I once accepted (albeit with resignation) as my default. Replacing them with nothing has left me freer than since I was that blissfully unaware child. Besides, I am still her, still mushrooms and noisy crows and pressed pennies; we just understand us better now.
You collected outcasts with hearts of broken glass, promising to fill their cracks with gold, but you made a grave mistake with me. My heart is not a fragile piece of blown glass – it is a chunk of volcanic glass, deep black obsidian, and when it breaks each shard is sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. I was never an outcast, you see. Outcasts yearn to be told their worth yet I inherently knew mine, for I had been born and tempered in the earth’s deep fires where no mere man may survive. I loved you, yes, and I believed in you, but I did not need you like the others and thus was the first to see through you when my rebellious edges drew your blood and then your anger. It’s no wonder you could never fix those broken hearts you hoarded; without one of your own, how could you know how the pieces fit together?
It would be poetic to say I was raised by wolves, but not entirely accurate. Wolves care for their young and teach them how to survive in the wild, and I cannot say the same for you. Perhaps, if I may extend the metaphor, I could say I was raised by lone wolves. Wolves who had walked too long without a pack and no longer remembered what it is like to be part of a structured society. Wolves who guarded their scant possessions with ready teeth and would snap the leg of a family member as easily as the leg of a prey animal, if only to keep them from leaving. Into this disfunction I was delivered, the feral human child begrudgingly allowed to follow in your tracks and chew on your discarded bones. No wonder I’m not quite right, uneasy among my own kind and having always to translate from wordless beast-thought to this clumsy human language. I think my fellow humans can smell the lingering musk on me, too, or perhaps they see the way I struggle to hide my teeth. I do not fully belong with them, and they know it; I do not fully belong in the wilds, and you will not let me forget it.
I could spend long nights wondering what I might have been like, had I never known you, but why? Nature, nurture, free will, fate, they all flatten to two dimensions with the passage of time. Maybe without you I would have grown up seeing the world through human eyes, and I would not have this hungry, restless thing caged inside me. But maybe without you I would have died in those woods, or reverted to something beyond feral, and I would not have even the harsh manners you imposed on me with tooth and claw. For better or worse, we are misfits together, lone wolves eeking out an existence on the fringes between the ones who reject us and the ones who hunt us.