Across the road from my childhood home, there used to be a deep forest. The trees were twisted and gnarled, with moss growing on their exposed roots and creatures scuttling away when you peered underneath. It was always cold there, like it was another world. In summer I used to retreat to the damp forest floor and lie on my back, gazing up at the dappled sunlight and songbirds far above me. I would tell myself stories. I was a nymph, the guardian of the woods. Or maybe I was a great heroine who crept out of the forest in the depth of the night to slay villains. As this heroine, I lived in the trees – I even picked out which tree I would build my house in. At night-time when Mum would make me come home I would spend hours drawing elaborate designs of my secret tree house.
I moved away for college. I met my husband there, and we eventually got married and had children of our own. My parents moved into a retirement village and it was nearly twenty years before I found myself driving back past that little house by the forest. I wanted to show my daughter where I had spent my childhood, and I’d often imagined what it would be like to take her there and tell her all the stories I’d made up when I was her age. We’d lie there together on our backs, looking up at the songbirds and planning out tree house together. I even brought a fluffy blanket with us so she wouldn’t get damp leaves in her lovely soft hair.
There wasn’t a forest anymore, though. I almost didn’t recognize at first. I had to look behind me at my old house to make sure I was in the right place.
There were no huge, twisted trees anywhere. No moss, no roots, no shade. There was just a vast green park of neatly manicured lawns and colourful play equipment. Where my beautiful deep forest had been there was only an empty space filled with hot midday sun.
It was like being punched in the chest.
I walked out onto the lawn. The ground had been turned over and levelled, I couldn’t make out any landmarks. Not the little hill that lead down to the now non-existent creek, not the path that lead to the road far over the other side of the park, nothing.
It was just empty. All of it was empty.
My daughter had been waiting for me in the car. I must have left her there for too long, because I heard the car door open and close and then felt a tug on my hand.
“It was too hot in there,” she told me, and then pointed at the play equipment. “Swings! Can you push me?”
I wiped my eyes on my sleeves and nodded, letting her lead me by the hand over to the swings. They would have been about where my beautiful tree-home would have been. I couldn’t imagine what carnage there must have been when they cut the beautiful big trees down, sliced their ancient trunks into pieces and carted them away. They were probably furniture and firewood now – maybe my beautiful tree house was now part of someone’s actual house. Generic, boring and rotting away behind red bricks.
I helped her climb onto the swing and pushed her mechanically, wishing I could share the beautiful forest with her. She would never know what it was like there in the cool shade of the fairytale trees. She would never be a forest nymph or spend hours imagining her tree house.
“Push me higher, Mummy!” she was shrieking in between peals of laughter. “Look!” She dipped her head to the ground with her legs in the air. “I can fly!”
I smiled at her as best I could.
“You should get on the other swing,” she told me. “We can fly together. Maybe we’ll have wings and we’ll live at the top of that building over there!” she said, pointing over at a new office building in the distance. “What will your name be?”
I couldn’t speak. She didn’t need me to. “I’m going to be…” She swung backwards and forwards as I climbed into the swing beside her. “Cloud Girl!” she said. “And I think you should be ‘Cloud Woman’ because you’re my mum. We can be invisible when we’re in the sky!” She was already telling me all about our adventures.
You know, I never thought about being able to fly when I was in my forest.
I pushed off from the ground and stuck my legs in the air. My muscles felt tight and the movements were awkward; it had been years since I’d done anything like this. “So, who did you say we have to protect again?” I asked her, trying to swing as high as she was.
She smiled at me, delighted I was joining her. “Cloud Boy,” she told me. “He’s always getting in to trouble.”
It was actually my poor husband who made me come home that night. My daughter and I sat at the kitchen table while she drew our costumes and told me all about what all the parts of them did.
Well, I suppose ‘Cloud Woman’ wasn’t quite on the same tier as ‘Forest Nymph’ or ‘Night Huntress’. Watching her, though, I could see it was to her.