The dawn was quickening red through the open window on that spring morning of my seventeenth birthday when the memory came snapping into my mind unbidden. At least that what I now think it was; then... well, it was a dream, and a few years later, a vision.
I was very young, maybe five or six because my faithful companion, a Hopalong Cassidy six shooter, was digging into my thigh and I was hiding in the cool, damp darkness underneath the back porch of Grandma's kitchen. I could smell the musty earth and feel the chill against my hot belly, for I had just finished a long, sweaty charge across the pasture and through the knee high corn, dodging arrows and bullets raining all about me, fired by the scattering hordes of renegade Indians. As I lay in ambush, catching my breath, hidden from the late afternoon sun slanting through the ring of oaks circling the soft backyard grass, I saw a quick movement shimmer through the boxwoods that edged the faded white boards of the well house and guarded the rear of the house from the ever creeping encroachment of the forest.
Even then, before I even knew what it was about, I was seeking ways to overcome my fears, ways to prove my courage. Why? I did not know. But I knew that the sharp green shaking sent a tingle of fear through me, including a new, strange sensation that settled momentarily in my groin. So I swallowed the knot of scare in my throat and slipped forward toward the hedgerow. The shaking stopped as I burst into the sunlight, then started again as I drew my pistol and stalked the movement. Of course, my imagination conjured all sorts of monsters to skulk in the boxwoods but I knew deep down that it was probably a cat or a-- and just then I saw its snout-- long, thin, rodent-like, and I knew I had cornered a possum.
Possums are their own special critter, meaner than most people give them credit far, and certainly something that can tear you up if you're not careful. Back then I didn't know that and it was a few years later after we stuffed a possum in Old Man Gribble's mailbox, that I came to appreciate the primal ferocity of this much maligned animal. But on that day, I knew nothing of them other than what they looked like, so when the possum poked its head out of the boxwood and its didn't have that typical possum beady, sneaky look, I really didn't notice. The possum stared at me for a time then hopped down on the dark green carpet of fresh-cut blue grass and waddled a step or two, flicking its naked tail like an old tomcat looking to either attack a string or a stray mouse. It stopped and swiveled its head around to look at me, then walked another few steps, turned and sat looking at me.
I didn't quite know what to do so I slipped my popgun back into my genuine imitation leather holster, sucked in another deep breath, and courage surging, stepped toward the possum.
In those days people, especially kids, were scared to death of mad dogs, and if I had been a few years older, I might have turned and run the other way because this possum was acting awfully strange. But even as I stepped toward it, the possum sat back on its haunches then spun about and scurried a yard or two past the end of the boxwoods. I thought it was going to tear off into the woods at that point, but it stopped, looked back at me, then took another quick step or two as I stepped forward. It paused again at the edge of the forest, waiting for me on the fringe of struggling grass between the back yard and the woods.
I ran toward the possum and it scurried into the forest. It stopped beside a huge fern, fronds spreading wide like a sylvan fan, and as I approached, the possum took off again and for the next few minutes we leap-frogged deeper and deeper and farther and farther up the gentle slope of the long ridge side into the forest until we came to small trickle from a nearby spring head.
I had never been that deep into the forest alone. The oak and maple and hemlock were huge, their heads disappearing into a green canopy, and the forest floor was mysterious, shadows melding one unto the other, forming a collage of dim shapes as the laurel and rhododendron and fern each fought the other to touch the few golden rays that found the leaf and moss underfoot of the deep forest. I was so small, a mere gnat of a thing, as I peeped around the rough trunk of of a towering oak and watched intently as the possum licked a quick drink from the small pool of cool, clear water. After tossing a quick glance in my direction, the possum headed up the stream, skimpering around the inevitable clumps of various vegetation hugging the banks along the bubbling stream. I followed, and after a few quick minutes, the forest brightened and a small clearing, with a deep, quiet, mysterious pool at its center, appeared in a gleaming, radiant shaft of sunlight.
My heart should have been pounding, my brow sweaty, knees weak, but fear was not squeezing my sphincter on that fine June morning. I was curious, excited at the thrill of another new discovery in a world where each day was new and fresh and revelations came by the baker's dozen, and unlike many virgin moments, this one was not attended by my near constant companion, fear.
The clearing was small for a bald but big for the deep forest, somewhere around the size of a typical cow barn.
****rest of chapter continues in manuscript