The house I grew up in was tiny, but it had an astonishingly large backyard, especially considering how close we lived to the city line. It was shaded almost entirely in mammoth poplar trees and maples as old as the town, and it sloped down to a stream which wound around the entire neighborhood in twisting coils my classmates and I regularly tried to track and always failed at.
On one side of the yard was a large stone wall the ran the length of the yard and kept my annoying neighbors out (though there was an ivy-covered staircase from my yard to theirs which you could only find on my property; it was used regularly in the summer to steal back lost baseballs and flying hula hoops). On the other side, our yard mingled with the overgrown property of my neighbor, a 96 year old woman who gave me her left over holiday candy her grandchildren didn’t eat, and taught me how to garden.
At the end of both our yards were paths down to the stream. Whoever had lived in my house before I did had carved a set of stairs into the bank out of tree roots, and left a knotted coil of rope tied to the nearest, sturdiest tree for us to climb up and down. From the first warm days to spring to the last temperate days of fall, my brother and I, and whatever friends we felt like sharing our stream with, would venture down and spend every sunlit hour we could there. That was our magic place.
Sometimes, we’d pretend we were in book or cartoon worlds – Calvin and Hobbes, Narnia, Neverland -, but most of the time we would make things up.
There was an inlet filled with broken colored glass that the water had worn smooth: these were precious jewels from a sunken ship, or a mermaid’s horde, or the mosaic floor of a flooded banquet hall. In the deep sections of the stream, where we’d hunt for crayfish, there were leviathans and sharks and monsters we wagged a bitter war against for dominion of the sea. The fox den was a dragons cave, or a trolls home, or sometimes it was just a foxes den and we wanted to try see the kits.
On either side of the stream were ivy covered trees that reached way up into the sky and let light down to us through webs of branches. There was a tree that had fallen over, making a bridge from one bank to the other.
My cat Hobbes, a big gray tabby with equal amounts of brawn and brain, would come down to the stream with my brother and I, only coming into the water on the hottest of days, but more often jumping from tree to tree along the sides. I remember seeing him pad across the fallen tree, nearly devoured by moss and ivy, and thinking each time that he was a tiger, watching us as we made our way to some hidden temple at the end of the stream.
I left the house I grew up in when I was eleven, when my parents got divorced, and I’ve never been back to the stream. But I’ve never forgotten it and the summers my brother and I spent there blissfully happy. I was convinced as a child that the stream was magic, a feeling that’s reinforced as I get older and realize how many of my happy memories of my childhood are tied to that place. When I dream, I frequently find myself back there, with the light warm and green and gold on my shoulders, and the water cool and comfortable as a hug.
Sometimes, I wonder how my brother and I got into such artistic interests and career paths. Looking back, it makes perfect sense to me. How could anyone who’d been able to enjoy so much beauty at such an early age and for so long not want to add more beauty to the world?