In fall in Shelter Island there aren’t many cars. The tourists go find another beach, perhaps on another island. Somewhere where they can litter the sand with cigarette butts and bury them with their toes. There aren’t many cars blocking the narrow streets, but piles of leaves surround the grass. They become more visible without the blow and smoke from the engines pulling them apart. The leaves fall softly to the ground and are brushed by the wind into piles around the bases of the trees. The trees are left barren, stripped and naked in the bitter wind; shrunken wrinkled bodies, cowering, their branches curving in around their trucks, shaking in the cold. They are dangerous, sharp, high. But to my seven year old self they were just trees. Just portals to a world above the rough wet ground into the unworldly sky. In fact, they were almost more beautiful in the growing winter because I could see every indent, every callous, every stepping stone from the ground to the top where I liked to hang around the branches. My parents didn’t see that however. I could never get them to tear their eyes away from the ground and look to the sky. They seemed frightened that if they did they might lose their footing and come tumbling back to earth with a harsh bang, arms flailing wildly at lost sharp branches. And so whenever I climbed a tree they stood by the base, arms open and waiting, eyes fixed on the pieces of grass poking their heads into the cold, expecting me to come tumbling back to them at any moment. But I wanted to climb alone, see the blank green below me unhindered by a shadowed figure pacing around the bottom. I wanted to feel the danger along with the beauty, and one day I aspired to manage it.
It was gray that day. One of those days where the sun seems to have been sucked right from the sky with a large vacuum even before it’s even had a chance to rise, and the air was bitter. From window of our car parked on the ferry I looked out at the ocean beginning to stir, anticipating the wind pressing gradually harder down upon it. The world was in pieces because fresh raindrops blurred spots across the windowpane and blocked out parts of my vision. No one liked rain though, or so my parents said. It only brought cold and wetness. But to me it brought me myself, and I loved to stare at my reflection in the tiny drops and wonder how anyone could think these pieces of life were ugly. I could hear my five-year old brother hitting against his window, straining against the seat belt that pinned his heaving chest against the car seat, and left indented lines across his blue t-shirt. I didn’t listen to him though, or to my parents’ dimly humming voices discussing dinner or cars or life. I just looked out of the window at the world no one was paying attention to and focused on counting the small sad forgotten raindrops as they raced each other to the black felt bottom of the car door.
When the ferry bumped against the buffer of the dock, our car lurched forward with the sway of the boat. A few raindrops splashed to their deaths, smearing their blood in lines across the window. The others jumped back in fear and left uneven blotches over the screen. I ran my finger over the cold hard glass, but the raindrops didn’t respond, and my dad jammed the key into the ignition and the car whirred into life. The window wipers jumped with knifelike blades and sprayed the lives of millions of raindrops across the windshield without a second glance. We drove off the ferry and up the long paved hill to the connecting street. My dad took the key out of the car after parking in front of our house and looked at his watch. He brushed his hair back from his eyes so it stuck up above his head and mumbled something about the traffic being terrible and how we had lost the whole day. The sky was going from gray to dark outside and the nonexistent sun had given up its feeble attempt to break through the curtain of clouds. My brother had run ahead and was vainly banging against the locked door. I carried in a box of tomatoes. I passed the small white fence that separated our graying grass from the street. I dragged my sneakers up the cobblestone walkway, the toe catching in holes where the cement holding the bricks together was decaying. I bent down, and patted the stone gargoyle dogs that stood in front of our porch steps; small drops came off their heads and ran down my fingers. I walked past my brother and turned the key in the door. Three tomatoes rolled out of the box from the effort. My mother had run ahead shielding her head from the rain with a bag of clothes zipped shut, and had opened the other door. My father trudged past the dogs grunting under the weight of the remaining baggage and nodded for me to go in. A few raindrops hit my face before I shut the door behind us.
As dinner was cooking on the stove my brother had Spongebob playing in the background and I sat on the firm cushion by the window twisting my fingers inside and out and chilling my breath on the window frame. I lifted a small finger and traced my name into the glass. It faded into nothingness and steam lifted from my mouth. Dinner was ready and soon after the last dish was cleared from the table and only a few crumbs meandered through the candles and pepper shakers, my parents were calling from the kitchen to turn off Spongebob; to go to bed. They said it was “getting dark,” but I had never been afraid of the dark. I had never laid down, eyes squeezed tight, shaking from the shapes swirling above me—the monsters in my closet, thumping from under my bed. Instead, I watched the air dance around my room and smiled at the waving figures above my head. It never signified any danger to me, it was beauty, it was innocence, it was childhood, it was inviting; just as the rain that ran down my hands; just as the trees that cowered in the wind. And so as soon as I heard my brother’s deep breathing bouncing around the walls I pulled the covers away and felt a shock of cold brush my ankles. The stairs are long and loud, and every brush of motion makes a creaking noise permeate louder than usual through a listening house. But that night they seemed especially loud. I gripped the railing with small palms and swung myself over the side, dangling for a moment before I dropped to the ground. The clock that shone yellow letters above the TV read 8:30pm, and I could hear my parents laughing from the kitchen. I slipped on my sneakers, and out the sliding screen door; the one with the holes we never fix, and the splintering wood we never paint. I could hear my feet moving along through the grass of our backyard. I could hear them hit the pavement with a small crack. But everything felt numb, and I didn’t notice in my excitement that the goosebumps under my pajamas were not from cold air. I could barely see my sneakers; blurs of shape and color dancing across, almost floating, down the hill. I smiled and reached the meadow that overlooks the ferry dock and the water beyond it. The water was shimmering that night. And though the moon was just a sliver appearing behind the clouds it cast a bright light across the small meadow of grass and trees. I kicked at stones as I walked forward and didn’t look up until I reached the edge of the patchy grass. I couldn’t feel; my breath was catching in my mouth and silently choking me with a tender grip. My heart had begun to beat, but with anticipation or fear? Where was I? What was I doing? I couldn’t be here. I couldn’t be in this meadow when my parents were back in the house, when my brother was breathing deeply in the room. When the dark was dangerous, when the raindrops were sad, when the trees were…scary. And then I looked up. Standing above me was the tree I remembered climbing a winter before when I was seven. But, in this new dark, tainted with guilt, it was tall and old and horrible. The dark illuminated the grimacing faces carved into the breaking bark. The soft lines, indents and paths through it were gone, and instead its branches crept over me like silent fingers reaching toward my neck. Fear enveloped me, as the same question forced itself past and into my mind. What was I doing? I was breaking the rules. I had been wrong, I had disobeyed. I closed my eyes frantically and a memory shimmered across the open black in my mind. I remembered this tree, how it held me in its branches, never dropped me, showed me the world, kept me in the sky. I opened my eyes. And it was a tree again, just a tree, with indents and stepping stones, and cowering limbs. And suddenly without the guilt the dark wasn’t bad, it was freedom from my parents, it was beautiful. I reached a trembling hand toward the lowest branches and as I brushed across the wrinkled black I jolted backwards and feeling flooded back into my body. I looked up and shivered. I realized I had been soaked with rain and that had been pouring and pounding around me in a steady beat, bouncing off the trunk and layering itself in the branches of the tree. The drops raced down the front of the bark and dripped down my body in fluorescent flowing trails. I noticed every limb as I grasped it, and felt the tree grow around me as I climbed. It unraveled its branches and held me, surrounding me with the smooth indents of its smiling face. When I reached the top I looked up and I was no longer afraid, though I was hovering feet off the ground in a barren tree, though I couldn’t see my sneakers in the dark, though rain was dripping steadily off my nose. Life was quietly wonderful. My pain was completely blocked out. The questions I had asked, that had momentarily held me to the ground had stayed there even as I climbed away from them. So how could I feel anything but freedom, anything but the immense beauty of all things, the beauty of childhood?
There’s a difference between being guilty and feeling guilty, or so I’m told. But I didn’t know that when I was eight. I guess I thought that you were only guilty if you felt guilty. They had to be combined, one entity. But as I remembered that tree my doubt disappeared. As I felt the fresh wind streaming through the cracks in my fingers, and the branches rustling in my ears I didn’t feel guilty, I felt free. I was in the midst of my happiness, and since I didn’t feel guilt, then I knew I wasn’t guilty. If I had done something wrong I would have known. I would have felt the harsh fingers of darkness wrap around me, the sting of dying rain stain me, the grip of choking branches throw me to the ground. But I didn’t feel any of that, so how could I be doing something wrong? I didn’t feel guilt, so I didn’t come down.
And it wasn’t until I heard the faint yells echoing eerily through the wind that I shook in the branches. I listened closely, the wind was dying in my ears and I heard my parents’ screams. Something was wrong. The night wasn’t so beautiful as it was punctuated with jarring yells. I climbed quickly down, and felt the fingers of the tree sway beneath me. The rain was beginning to peter out, as though my dancing drops were running back into the fluffy protection of the clouds, chased by the piercing sharp screams behind them. And I turned around and heard them so close that a little burst of air blasted my nose. And then I looked into my mother’s eyes, she shaking me and then hugging me. And suddenly the questions came back. What had I done? What was I doing? As I saw my mother’s usually flat simple pupils dilated and flooded with fear, the guilt splashed around me, drowned me, and I began to sob. My father appeared behind her and I felt the added pressure of his hand on her back radiate through her to me. They were shouting, I could tell, even though I couldn’t hear their words. But it didn’t matter if they were scolding me or not, because I felt safe again entangled in the branches of my mother’s arms.
The next day I remembered the freedom, the security in the branches of the tree, and decided I must have done something right. The trees were still beautiful, and the dark was still enticing. But I also remembered the fear in my mother’s eyes, the empty shouts, and the shocking guilt. I decided if I felt that way I must have done something wrong too. Just as anything, I could not be innocent forever, and the day I felt that guilt reflected in the pain in my mother’s eyes I knew that beautiful things could also be dangerous. The trees that danced in the dark around me dripping with smiling drops could bring freedom through their branches, or fear through their eyes.
Kyra Guillemin, Age 16, Grade 10, Trinity School, Gold Key