An August day, heavy with humidity. I walked, all skinny legs and knobby knees to the meadow behind our house. Fueled by boredom specific to waning days of summer vacation: a quiet house and nothing good on TV. Down the street, circular saw blades strained against ash and oak, punctuated by roofing hammers. Three-bedroom split levels sprang out of the dirt like taupe layer cakes, rising in the Midwestern sun.
It was early afternoon. My Minnie Mouse backpack was hiked over my bony shoulders and filled with provisions. A can of warm Sunkist soda. Cherry Chapstick. A dog-eared Little House on the Prairie paperback. I traveled six neighborhood blocks to the open and wild, and left behind the concept of home. I stepped off the last paved street, with its new cement curbs and gutters, and entered the meadow.
I was pelted with birdsong. Calls and bickerings of robins, blue jays, finches. The buttery coos of mourning doves. Distant knockings of woodpeckers, drilling for bugs. I trudged through the swaying prairie grasses and weeds, spindly yellow and white wildflowers. Milkweed. Tiny purple violets shaded by purple thistle. The weeds nipped at my ankles. Burrs screwed into my saggy white socks.
I found my spot. I sat and settled, the flora forming a porous curtain. I saw, or maybe just felt a shift in the frequency in the air. An arrival: a positive or negative charge. A lion in the body of a kitten. A ravenous bear that didn’t look like a bear. A friendly face that would shape-shift into a monster. The cicadas buzzed to a frenzied crescendo. Their performance was shaped like a warning.
I saw who it was and grinned. Greetings were exchanged, like a hundred times before. His hand, huge, callused, and leathery, patted my shoulder, like a hundred times before. Then: Are you out here by yourself? This was not like the times before. When he bought me Hershey bars and cans of Dr. Pepper, and told me what a pretty little girl I was. His carefully cultivated mask slipped, and it was ugly. Hungry.
This time split the before and the after.
Dried milkweed abraded the small of my back. My rainbow t-shirt coiled around my neck like a bandana covering a wound. My face was a smear of tears and sweat. I tried to stare at the sun, but clouds interfered. I tried to speak, but words caught in my throat like gauze. I tried twisting, but the whole of my body compressed into a child-sized layer of earth. The birdsong went silent and the only sound was breathing. Grunting. Fabric catching on plants.
Then: The sun had fallen. It glared at me now between whispers of grass. There were small sticks and leaves in my hair. My shorts, dirty, had caught on one shoe. I don’t remember if he said goodbye. The warm can of Sunkist was on the ground. I left it. When I opened the back door, he was there sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper, and said, you better wash up for dinner now, your parents will be home soon.
It was a long time before I went back to that meadow. I dreamed about it many times, and the ending was always the same. I planned and I was ready. I wore a shirt over my shirt, and shorts over my shorts. I took my red Swiss army knife. It was heavy in my hand, my six-bladed sword ready for battle. I filled my backpack with smooth river rocks, as many as I could carry.
I entered the meadow and I summoned the birdsong.