AIYLA SALAM 10M
The smell of my aunt’s house has always been there, in the back of my mind, a cup brimming with glowing memories. When I was younger, I used to spend winter evenings at home imagining those idyllic sunsets in the native Maryland woods behind her house, or the heat of the midday American sun reflected in the brook down the dirt-track road. The smell of freshly mown grass was often associated with these summers and these memories – but as I grow older I realise that this is just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. A part of me knows where the other pieces are. Scattered. Some teeter on the brink of extinction whilst others dart in and out of the glow of recollection. Some pieces are lost in the archives of childhood. It hurts to think that I have carelessly lost that little treasure I hold so close to my heart. I don’t want to risk losing it ever again so I shall simply write.
It’s incredible what exposure to raw weather can do to a person. Those evenings I used to dance in the summer thunderstorms, feeling the humid shower embrace me, I felt – and there’s no other word to describe it – so alive. As though the grey speckled skies released their blood-warm rain to fall to revive me and to wash away the troubles of life. I used to feel it slip through my veins, rejuvenating every cell in my body, as I stumbled through long grass, revelling in the nature surrounding me – my own analogous chorus of the roaring thunder and radiant lightning. Back then I roamed with nature, confiding to it the questions I did not understand, yet still yearned to answer. In turn, nature roamed with me. It whispered in my ears and painted a smile on my face – what it said to me I could not possibly say; only my juvenile self understood this language of innocence we used to share.
I remember the beautiful memories of hot days where the sky was so blue and the sun so bright that it ingrained itself into your vision every time you blinked. The urge to lose yourself for days and days, the only thing guiding you being your infinite imagination and lack of all sense of reason. I remember us scrambling amongst the thorns and nettles in a desperate attempt to grab the juiciest, biggest blackberries from the furthest branches, and then the juice staining our lips and fingers – and the pure feeling of satisfaction after indulging in the excess of fructose. Until hours later when our stomachs would ache as we sat, exhausted, under the blooming wisteria tree near a river. And then the immediate guilt after my mother scolded me for not leaving enough berries for the pie she was baking.
Certain days I can remember well. Like the one my cousin and I spent down by the river, wallowing like hippo calves in the shallow streams that meandered away from the main body of water. The water was as blue as the sky – sharp, cold and refreshing. Being the biologist I have been since a young age, the wildlife surrounding this river fascinated me. From the darting minnows, to the crayfish and the emerald water serpents, I watched over them as though it was a beautiful kingdom and I was the queen, free to roam among my loyal subjects without the need for rules or societal pressures.
The first time I caught a crayfish was magnificent. It was barely able to fend for itself against my tight, prying fingers and grip; but, all the same, I was so proud of myself. That was until it managed to clamp onto my knuckle and cut through the flesh around it – I still bear the scar today as a trophy of my adventures amongst the wild waters of Maryland.
I go back to that house every year, but, of course, it’s not the same. Age, maturity and experience, though I have little, still manage to mould a part of that memory to something new, unfamiliar and unexpected. And most often, it’s something unwanted. I went back there a few weeks ago. I hadn’t been for a couple of years and I was eager to escape the dreary streets of Putney to return to my own paradise. No rules, no responsibility, no restrictions. Just the purity of natural life, untainted by man’s mark on the planet – a solace, perhaps, sought in times of loneliness. I was battling my way through a rough patch at that time and I thought that returning to that magical place would provide a sort of counsel – a psychological remedy.
I don’t think I could’ve been more wrong.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I could feel the change. I felt it in the air. The sun squatted dully in the midday blaze and the comforting breeze was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t a light heat, but one that suffocated; heavy, feeling every single molecule crammed in your nose, throat, head, mind. When we began to ascend the gravel drive leading up to the house, I abandoned all negative thoughts and galloped to the garden where I so often used to lose myself. And then I stopped. And then I stared. Shock. There was nothing. The wisteria tree that used to stand in the centre of the garden was dead, its once lilac flowers shrivelled and its bark as wrinkled and thin as the pages of an old tome. The rows and rows of towering oaks that used to enclose the place had disappeared, leaving nothing but an occasional stump and the oppressive sight of a busy highway in the distance. The blackberry bushes were gone, leaving nothing, not even a root. The bamboo forest, the pond reeds, the tall grass – all of it gone. All that was left was a solitary patch of dead, blunt grass, stretching out to the road. This couldn’t be happening, not now, not when I needed it the most. I staggered to the centre of the garden where a pitiful, diminishing pond resided, hoping that I might still hear the unintelligible whispering of the wind through the creaking boughs of that wisteria tree, or feel the raindrops bless my skin.
It pressed down on my ears, harsher than the symphony that usually embraced the place. The crickets no longer chirped, the red robins no longer warbled their melodic tune. Only the marring buzz of a jeep in the distance. In the span of a few seconds, my remedy was snatched from my grasp. This was no longer a place of infinite possibilities, no longer an isolation from the outside world, no longer a secret to hold that only I knew of. I didn’t mind about the trees, after all they would grow back. Same for the blackberry bushes, the bamboo, the reeds. That wasn’t what upset me the most. It was the fact that this place just seemed so ordinary – that’s what hurt the most.
I had no idea it could ever change; I was gullible enough to believe that maybe one thing in my life could just stay the same. I was ashamed of myself for bringing my hopes up so high.
I have come to realise, as I desperately try to relive those ever-fading memories, that I don’t want to grow up. I don’t want responsibility, I don’t want maturity, I don’t want experience. All I want is to be perched on that crumbling stone wall in her garden, watching the world as something fascinating, pure and new, content to just sit there and watch the lanterns of the dancing fireflies as the fading sunset illuminates my world.
Farewell, innocence; I hope someday, somehow, we can meet again.
image: ‘primarily a mixture of oak, sycamore, tulip poplar and beech trees’
courtesy of My Virtual Maryland Garden