Friday, August 8, 2008
"And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."
I grew up in the countryside but our domestic animals consisted of the usual fare: cats, dogs, birds. Our neighbour, however, along with cats and dogs, had horses, goats and chickens- far more thrilling for children than the pets we loved dearly but considered lovable yet rather ordinary.
Our neighbour was then and still is a very wild sort of fellow, one whose skin turned to leather a long time ago. He was not precisely a farmer- he simply kept the assortment of animals on his little plot of land, driving from his home in the city every day to tend to the creatures, spending the day in the sun or rain building additional barns and henhouses before vacating it again for the night. They kept him company, and the sentiment was returned.
I was terrified of him. So was my brother; we had no particular reason to be so frightened save for the fact that the neighbour was not conventional and that he told rough tales of his exploits in handling fierce animals or people. We imagined he had been through many a battle.
The prickly predicament was this: my brother and I loved our neighbour's land, his animals and his mysterious dark barns with their cobwebs, sweet hay and scampering mice. He often suspected us of clambering over the barbed wire fence at twilight and pretending the animals were our very own. He suspected it and was quite correct in his judgement. One day, perhaps after finding our footprints embedded in his muddy fields, he urged us not to play with the horses. He felt he had to explain it in a coercive and loud way in order to make clear the message of danger to us: he said that the horses- especially the stallion- should be out of bounds for us because they might kick, bite or otherwise injure us. How much more sensational than our kind-hearted dogs who would not harm a fly.
I remember long Summers waiting for dusk, for our neighbour's van to roll out of his driveway and fade away with the last shreds of sunshine. We hid in the long grass on our property; the moment we could no longer hear his vehicle's engine, we hauled ourselves over the fence and became explorers. We never, I must stress, did any harm and our neighbour never feared that we would- his concern was for our safety. Our concern was that he must never catch us. Over the course of our childhood my brother and I garnished his personality, made him somebody to be wary of and to avoid diligently. It was more exciting, in our rural and sensible part of the world, to believe that we had to hide from him.
We dared each other night after night, year after year, to venture alone into one of the stables or barns, foolishly trusting that the other would not lock the door and run away. Petting the animals- goats, dogs, horses- chasing each other around the enormous fields- it was all utterly exhilerating because we were trespassers, we were young, and we were blessed with what seemed like miles to run about in and forever to do so. We fed the horses apples and grass, the dogs some scraps of meat.
One evening when I was eleven years old, our neighbour drove away at last into the setting sun. Having waited impatiently for that since earliest morning, I was first over the fence; there was just a single opening in the fence that bridged our land and his and we used that regularly. I was two feet, no more, from our field, and my brother was about to join me in adventuring. As I stood with my feet planted in the grass, watching my brother, thinking of horses and wondering how the goats were, I saw my sibling's face take on an expression I was not familiar with. I tried to analyse it. His mouth was opening bit by bit. His eyes were widening. His face was turning the colour of goat's milk. He was not looking at me, but at something just over my shoulder, behind my back. I turned around slowly and it was then that I became certain my heart would stop beating.
Our neighbour had returned. He had turned around on the road and was backing into his driveway. I had my hand on a horse at the time and to suggest that our neighbour had not yet seen me was naive even for a child. I knew, he knew, and my brother knew that there was no way to avoid the consequences.
I could but try, though, and I made a vain attempt that has stayed in my memory ever since.
Instead of taking two steps forward and coming back over our fence where all would be well and I would be safe, I backed away and started running down the length of the big field. The minute I began moving I knew it was a grave mistake but by the time I turned to look behind the fellow was already standing near that gap in the fence, watching me. I could not go back. My brother was nowhere to be seen. My neighbour- oh, yes, he became 'my' neighbour once my brother went into hiding and it was no longer his problem- started moving toward me. I had nowhere to run to and just kept on racing in a pathetic attempt to extricate myself.
At one point I crouched in some mercifully long grass while he hunted nearby for me and swished grass close to my head. I escaped again and in total ran about a quarter of a mile more than I needed to because of the roundabout and convoluted method I had undertaken to escape. I emerged, breathless, through our other neighbour's fence on the other side of our house and onto the main road.
I was just in time. As I entered our front gate I overheard my neighbour asking my mother if she had seen me lately, and encouraged her to warn me that I might do well to avoid the horses in future.
He may well have known that I was inches from him, just around the corner of our house.
I made sure from then on that my brother would always go over the fence before me and that we would never be caught again.
These days our neighbour is not the ogre we invented. He likes to converse for hours at a time, once kept Spouse for an hour for an over-the-fence discussion which I presume to have included my childhood exploits- and still enjoys the company of his beloved animals, lost though they might be without small intruders to feed and play with them.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:30 PM