I slide to the bottom of the steep slope on my feet, skiing on the dew-wet grass, too excited to simply walk. Annette follows tentatively behind me. I pant for breath at the base and wait for her to catch up.
I’ve been trying to get into Annette’s group of friends all year but it isn’t until I read my short story to our grade 7 class that she pays me any attention. I’m still the weird girl who loves reading but now Annette is eager to see the gully where I’d had the adventures I wrote about.
The gully is a huge valley behind my house with trees, grassy slopes and a pond that freezes into a rippled ice-rink every winter. There are beavers, pheasants, muskrats, Canada geese and woodpeckers. And squirrels, mice, frogs and fish. The bigger animals can be kind of scary sometimes. Angry raccoons, vicious geese, frightened skunks, I’ve met them all.
It isn’t a park or a wildlife preserve or anything, just a chunk of wilderness in the middle of our big city. I spend a lot of time down there, usually alone. But I want to share it, the quiet magic that seeps into me every visit.
We follow the path at the bottom of the hill until we come to where it meets a creek. Annette stares at the tall tree lying there, blocking our way. It had fallen a few weeks earlier. I point out the creek still running underneath its branches. Annette glances at it but I can tell she isn’t interested. I need to find something more exciting. And I know the perfect thing–Jungle Jim’s hut.
“Hey, Laura, show me where Jungle Jim lived,” Annette says, as if she’d read my mind.
Jungle Jim was a long-haired teenager who’d lived in the gully last summer, a hero idolized by the neighborhood kids. Nobody knew what happened to him, he’d just disappeared one day. I got shivers just thinking about it. It was his story that caught Annette’s attention.
“Over this way!” I dash off through the trees.
We’re both out of breath by the time we get to the clearing with its small fire-pit. A bunch of boys are already there, sitting on broken lawn chairs someone had dragged down. The clearing smells faintly of the same kind of sweet smoke as Jungle Jim’s hand-rolled cigarettes. A haze hangs in the air and one of the boys holds a smoking joint.
“Take off, little girls,” he sneers. He takes a drag off the joint pinched between his fingers.
I want to say something but I don’t know these teenagers and they’re much bigger than me and Annette. I can see Jungle Jim’s little lean-to right behind them, half hidden in the trees. But there’s no way we’re going to get past those guys.
I stomp away, not noticing Annette isn’t behind me.
“Gimme a puff,” I hear her say.
I spin around and stare at her, standing there with her hand held out. I can’t decide if she is brave or stupid.
The teenagers laugh. “Go away, little girl, you don’t know what you’re doing,” the skinniest one smirks.
“I do too. Gimme a puff!” Annette snatches at the joint. The skinny boy is so surprised he lets it go.
Annette takes a long drag and starts to cough.
“See? I told ya!” He grabs it back and the other boys howl with laughter.
I pull at Annette’s hand, “Come on. Let’s go.”
“You are such a wimp, Laura,” Annette scoffs.
I think hard for something to placate her, “Let’s go to the pond. See the ducks and geese.”
We cut across the grassy flat bottom of the gully heading to the pond on the far side. It’s deserted except for the old lady I see every morning, walking her dog around the pond. She always smiles when she sees me, I don’t know why.
All the ducks are gone but there are a few geese floating in the middle of the water. We sit on the grass and scoop up rocks from the gravel path, tossing them in to see the circles spread out. Annette aims at the geese but she doesn’t even come close, it’s a big pond.
“You’re really lucky to have this so close to your house,” Annette says.
“Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it?” I lie down on the grass and look up at the clouds. The ground is cold under my back and a little wet but I don’t move.
“You should bring me here more often. I’d like to get to know those boys.”
I am thrilled. Annette is the most popular girl at school. I can’t believe she wants to spend time with geeky little me. Well, me and those boys.
“Okay.” I wonder what I should show her next. I look around for inspiration.
We are lying on a grassy slope beside the pond. Our feet are lower than our heads so it’s easy to look around. From here I can see most of my gully spread out in front of me.
My gully—it really does feel like it’s mine. I spend every minute I can down here. I know where the beavers rebuilt their dam every winter. I know the best trees for climbing and which ones have comfortable branches where I can sit and read. I know where the snowdrops first appear every spring and which trees are the driest underneath during the heaviest rains. I know where the squirrels keep their hoards of nuts. I know everything about the gully.
I can’t help it, I start grinning. I am Queen of all I survey. I even forgive those boys for not letting me show Jungle Jim’s place to Annette.
And laying there, all happy inside, with my new best friend beside me, I feel the earth move.
Not like an earthquake, nothing shakes or knocks us around.
I feel the earth spinning.
I feel the motion of the planet, rotating beneath me, flying through space.
The breeze blows in my face as we rush around the sun, the puffy white clouds dragged along by the same solar wind.
I am so small, so tiny, so insignificant, the planet is immense below me. I, no, we are just tiny specks on a ball rocketing through the cosmos. Huge empty space.
Planets and rocks and stars dwarf me.
My hands clench on fistfuls of grass, holding me down so I don’t fly off in the wind. I can barely breathe. My fingers grow wet with grass juice.
We blast through the blackness of space, atoms whip past stealing my breath. Everything expands outward, contracts inward. I am the pulsing heartbeat of the universe.
It is glorious.
Heat blasts over my skin as the sun creeps out from behind a cloud.
I breathe in the smell of crushed grass.
I breathe out the universe.
I blink and everything is back to normal; sun and clouds in the sky, grass and pond and trees down below.
Everything exactly the same as it’s always been.
The feeling fades, my throat feels tight with tears. I turn to Annette, searching for the words to ask, to tell, to share the wonder.
“This is boring,” she says.
I close my mouth, lock the words inside.
The old lady’s dog barks behind us and geese take to the air, honking.
“Hello, girls,” a quivery voice comes from the path behind us.
“What d’ya want?” Annette snaps.
I look at her in surprise and face the old lady, my cheeks turning red. “Hi.”
“Yes.” I don’t know what else to say so I smile at her. She smiles back, flickers of starlight peek out from her eyes, sunlight drifts from her soft wrinkles. Her white hair glows moonlight.
She is part of it. Part of the gully. Part of the universe. Part of everything. She’s felt it too, maybe not today with me, but she’s felt it. I smile at her again, a sharing that doesn’t need words.
“I’m bored. Show me something exciting,” Annette whines.
I glance at her. She seems smaller, deflated. My skin still tingles with stardust and memories. I can do anything, be anyone.
“You go on without me. I’m gonna stay here for a while.” I want that feeling again. A tiny part of me whispers “tell her” but the rest of me doesn’t want to share it, doesn’t want to dilute the memory. Certainly not with Ms. Popular who can’t be polite to a nice old lady. Not with a girl who is so busy looking for excitement that she misses seeing the cosmos.
Annette sneers at me. “Suit yourself, loser.” She jumps to her feet and stomps away, kicking at the rocks on the path.
I watch her go. I know I’m not going to be hanging around with Annette anymore but the thought doesn’t hurt as much as I expected.
The old lady nods her head, in approval, I think. Her footsteps clatter on the gravel as she and her dog crunch away.
Clouds race across the sky and I lie in the damp grass and watch them, waiting to fall into the universe again. Waiting as patiently as I can because I know you can’t force a miracle, an epiphany.
They need to sneak up on you, when you least expect it.