A burnt house stood deep in the woods near my childhood Connecticut home. During the summers of the early ’60s, my friends and I visited often.
We peddled blue bikes up the crooked sidewalk and turned onto a bumpy path. Our voices vibrated, our hands tingled, wind feathered our hair. As the sounds of the street faded away, we entered the place that bonded us to nature and each other, and became our summer playground.
Towering trees formed a canopy; sunlight filtered through like a kaleidoscope. Landscapes of laurel and twisted vines created our jungle enclave where our mid-grade imaginations wandered out of our parents’ sight for hours.
Whatever distractions detained us, our destination was always the same…charred remains of the burnt house. Scorched stairs led to rooms without walls and an upper story opened to the sky. I waited on the first floor for my more daring friends, spooking myself with ghostly images of flames devouring clapboard. Outside we searched the tall grass for trinkets–a cracked teacup, a headless doll, a tarnished perfume cap. Each piece of humanity clues to a family we never knew.
Down a cryptic trail, a car we thought big as a dinosaur was stuck in a ditch. It oozed oil rainbows into a stagnant stream. We didn’t give much thought to how that car got there, or if the passengers were hurt in the crash. We figured that they were hoodlums who roamed the woods at night with the other wildlife that lived there. And though we tried, we rarely spied animals more exotic than a chipmunk; the closest we came to seeing even a deer was at the city zoo.
When we tired of exploring, we divided into teams for a game of cops and robbers, speeding past thickets that grabbed us where we least expected. Logs reborn with fungus and dewy cabbage leaves concealed our hiding spaces. Soon enough we would grow bored and surrender in favor of something more fun.
We’d race to the rope swing that traversed the pond and one day found a cement-mixing trough. The rusty vessel became our boat as we piled in and set out for the south shore. We didn’t float far before we tipped the bow and dropped hip-deep in black water. We screamed like maniacs as slimy fern tangled our ankles and mud sucked sneakers off of our feet.
But we knew better than to head home just yet.
With wet clothes cellophaned to our bodies, we cycled to the sunny ledge where rocks slabs hot as a sauna evaporated traces of our mishap.