In my memory the bank was twice my height, sloping, a buff soil as washed-out in color as the condensing vapor on my breath. Tufts of grass fringed the blank soil at top and bottom. The little ridge wore stark skeletons of dormant staghorn sumac as a crown, a crest running the length of its spine. I remember the feeling of frostbite deep in my lungs, shoving my ungloved hands deep into my meager denim pockets.
Warmth was only fifty yards away in my uncle’s house, but I was headed in the opposite direction along the two-rut road his farm machinery had made at the bluff’s base. Inside were cousins, and pie, and convivial chatter among the aunts and uncles who had married into the family, but I was sullen. The outside beckoned and I went.
In later years it would get to be a habit. My father’s family would gather for some holiday, and after I had enjoyed as much togetherness as I could stand I would head out, walk down strange side roads where farm dogs would run out at me, barking furious joy. Roan and scarlet naked branches in winter, or the unnecessary profusion of verdant oak and tulip tree jungles in summer, and I would walk through it until the guilt set in. Sometimes I would follow railroad tracks abandoned so long ago that rust an eighth-inch thick flaked off the rails, silver maples thick as my arm growing between the ties, the right-of-way a tunnel through forest grown back for the sixth or seventh time, an old station suddenly looming out of vaporous green forest. Its brick was eroded, cupped faces lined with mortar. The platform had long since melted into the earth.
But this was before then. A cold west wind came up the hill from Canandaigua Lake. I felt my earlobes going numb.
My uncle’s farm was what is now, perversely, called a working farm. Every dime of profit not needed for the feeding and education of my four cousins went back into the livestock, the equipment, the infrastructure. Lawns and paved walks and the like would have been extravagances. In mud season you parked on the gravel and walked planks to the back porch. They were 2 by 8s, I think, and they bowed dangerously in their middles when more than one person was walking on them, and the soles of your shoes got wet anyway. That day it was safer to walk alongside the ice-slicked planks: the mud had frozen and refrozen, scalloped with contorted footprints of kids and stray cows and my uncle’s workboots. I’d looked in the barn, but the cows were off braving the cold somewhere. I imagined them wincing against the wind.
Instead, I headed down the two-rut at the base of the little bluff. The bluff blocked the wind a bit, which for a few minutes — until the comparison with the wind had seeped from my memory — seemed a relief.
There was a little field between me and the paved road, tilled some time ago and then frozen solid. A car crunched along, breaking sheets of ice in the hollows on the pavement. The woman in the passenger seat stared. I must have been intriguing, reed-thin 16-year-old in shoulder-length hair and jeans patched at the knees until there was no denim left between ankle and ass, flea-market fatigue jacket with buttons missing. And Frye boots, if I recall correctly.
The car’s engine noise died off a quarter-mile down the road. The wind picked up a bit. Something odd flicked back and forth in a clump of teasel: a shed snake skin, tan and translucent, belly scale covers lenses magnifying the teasel stems.
That, as near as I can figure it, was the first time I noticed it happening. Whatever it was I’d been upset about was gone. A shed skin stuck in the weeds and I was rapt. An unexpected joy makes predictable annoyance fade in importance.
I had learned to see one ridge over, learned to negotiate the world outside almost within shouting distance of that little bluff, The ridge and its surround are the deep meaning of wild to me, as tame as they were. I have been days’ walk from the closest person and thought of that cold afternoon two miles from a comfortable farm town.
The staghorn sumac lurks as deep in me as a Jungian’s Shadow, though not so unhappily. It speaks to me in dreams. Last year, when all was disintegrating around me, I dreamed of an abandoned house not far away from that bluff, down the hill from the house where I learned to see. The house was a deathtrap, turning into dust, and an elderly neighbor talked to me of some vague shameful and violent event inside the house that had prompted the neglect.
Carloads of people drove by, heading toward a forested lake at the end of the road. They slowed to see the house. “Are they curious,” I asked the neighbor, “about the scandal?” “No,” came the answer. “They’re slowing because the house is for sale for five hundred dollars. The paper ran a story on it.”
There were things that had once been possessions in the house, a hundred pieces of garbage for every treasure, brass fixtures attached to rotting wood and old, delaminating mirrors atop Stickley dressers, Arts and Crafts settles with the original upholstery irretrievably mouse-soiled. A pervasive smell inside that a pack of territorial Rottweilers would only have improved. Bronze switchplates with the two-pole push-buttons long since broken. A Wedgewood stove dismantled in the kitchen. Half the kitchen floor a skylight for the dirt-floored basement.
I wondered whether the local fire department might burn it down for practice, whether I could live long enough in a tent or trailer — two winters? Three? — to build a small cabin back in the trees, to let twenty acres of woods come back a bit and plant the apple orchard. I wondered whether, if I took out the treacherous and rotting floorboards one by one, pulled out the crumbling and moldy plaster beneath the 70-year-old wallpaper stained with things at whose origins I cared not guess, there might be intact frame, joists not entirely riddled by termites. I thought of calling my cousin Tim, who lives a few miles away and who — what with his busy career and teenaged son — would certainly have nothing better to do than help me rehab a two-story farmhouse for free.
Across the road a driveway led fifty yards downhill to an old clapboard farmhouse. There were musicians on the porch. The fiddle player turned to look at me, took her instrument out from beneath her chin, stared at me frank and curious through lepidopteran eyelashes.