It was sprinkling, not enough to be considered a drizzle but more than a mist. It was quiet and humid in the car. Despite the precipitation we rolled the windows down a bit and breathed the tangible air. My life was absolutely shattered at the moment, I was a husk of a human being and reeling, experiencing at once the sensations of freedom and fear, loss and joy, hope in a hollow heart. It was incredibly hard to be in the moment, and as we drove through the Appalachian Mountains, on towering road bridges like a castle keep over the forests which were just past the stage of looking as though they’d been splattered by a paint brush with warm hues, one place blurred into the next. Tiny mountain towns where we weren’t sure we would find a gas station, restaurants with “Mama” in the name, tourist shops built of logs displaying furs in the windows. I couldn’t tell you if we fought in the cemetery in Ohio or Indiana, or if the town where people only helped us to get us to leave their town was in Pennsylvania or West Virginia.
I was steeped in sadness, and not the kind that had become an almost comforting familiar face throughout my shadowy upbringing. No, this was heavy and sharp and unnatural, like a chunk of asphalt broken off in my chest and all I could do was replay everything I had done to bring this on myself. I was with the man who would become my husband, patient, compassionate, trying to lead me through sun drenched forests, over stretches of highway far from any of the horrors at my back, but I couldn’t talk to him. I was disgusting. Pathetic. Fragmented. I had nothing good to say.
We went a bit too fast, not stopping as much as we should have and learning that, in the East, “My Cows” is nearly impossible to play, cattle farms as infrequent as they are in the oldest settled part of the nation, but thousands of corpses to lodge in fields that grow only stones and polyester floral arrangements. You would wait an hour, scanning the horizon intently for the chance to shout, “My cows!”, only to lose them as you passed yet another graveyard five minutes later.
Although much of this trip is lodged in my memory as a blur of blacktop and trees, I remember a handful of things distinctly. The covered bridge in Confluence, Pennsylvania was my first experience standing in the middle of a calendar page (outside my time spent in wheat fields in early summer, which are photographed for their pastoral quaintness, appreciated only by people who never leave the city.) The river tumbling over stones, its temperature measurable just to look at it. The red bridge, bright like a barn, but with a more exciting job, doing an eternal plank in honor of the people who lived in the woods on the far side. It may have been that same day, I’m not sure, my future husband warmed slightly by the rare glimpse of a smile on my face at the bridge, wanting to see it again. We stopped somewhere I can’t recall the details of now, it may have been a state park.
It was in Pennsylvania too, a historical site in the woods. The trees were tall and thin, grass carpeting much of the wood, giving it the feeling of a meadow full of trees as opposed to the closed off hide out feeling of the western forests. (Although I hadn’t seen those yet.) This day was grey, my favorite. Somehow bright, sunny days had more of a melancholic effect on me, as though baring the opposite nature of all the experiences and memories that have filled my existence. On cloudy days there’s a sense of excitement, secrecy and the promise of life. I bounded from the car, ready to jump over stumps and brave rain slick, moss covered logs. We read the sign at the trail head. A Civil War battlefield. I remember the log hut in the first clearing, stopping to snap pictures of its roof becoming host to creeping organisms, the small flowers gracing the ground, their leaves edged in my favorite autumn hue- that explosive shade of orangey-pink that glows around the sides of still-green undergrowth. Every inch within my site was teeming with a feeling bordering on mysticism. Every plant; every tree both fallen and alive; every standing crystal droplet, holding onto its individuality before melding with the landscape; they sang of secrets I didn’t think I had it in me to access.
My love and I discovered the mirth of shaking thin trunks so that the rain drops resting far above our heads would come toppling down on our shoulders. I could feel the spirits in the clattering leaves. All the young trees here had fed on the blood of soldiers. The ferns had sprung from soil made of men. Men who believed fiercely in the creed of their homeland, or men who had to take a side to protect all they held dear. I admit, I wasn’t mentally present through most of high school and in middle school I just didn’t give a shit, which results in very spotty historical memory. I don’t know on which platform the men of Pennsylvania largely died. And that day, in my bones, it didn’t matter the most minuscule bit. What did matter was the wisdom their ghosts imparted, the simplest of messages, that I so desperately needed to hear. The message that had spurned my golden hearted love towards the road with me in tow, this time around. He just has this way of pushing me into living the answers I need and discovering them myself, without being told. The fallen soldiers whispered what he wanted me to see- “You are alive,” they intoned. “You are alive, you are alive, you are alive.”
In that moment, racing between the trees, scrambling over disintegrating logs and rocks whose lovelier colors the rain had released, I felt what I had always longed to feel: Endless possibility. I did not explore under my father’s crooked eye. I had no rotting hole to return to when we called it a day. My adventure was not piloted by judgement, control or fear. Anything, from that day on, was achievable. The stench of my past still clung to my clothes and hair, haunted my gaze and stooped my frame, but that was not my final state. This was not the end of me. I did not die defending my freedom. I broke out, of both the shadow I was born into and the darkness I stumbled into afterwards, unable as I was to see in the light when I was released from the cage of my youth. My naivete could have been my ruin but, though I live now with the scars of blind trust and the desire to see good in anything, they did not manage to own me. I did not pen the introduction, only scribbled unsanctioned bits in the backstory when I could rend the writing implements from my captors. I did write the first chapter, poorly at that, and full of unnecessary ills, but here I was, standing firmly in the next installment. I had lived as though it would never come, nearly resigned myself to defeat, but blood coursed still through my veins, not in the roots of trees over a century tall. I belonged, at last, to myself.