Excerpt: The Clearing

From The Clearing, see more here.

When I was a kid, there was a rolling field in my hometown, on the land currently occupied by the shopping center anchored by Target. It was covered with young, copper-colored horses. In the scale and romance of a child’s memory they were yearlings, and there were more than a hundred. We’d drive by on the way to my grandma’s house, and I’d always look for them, hoping they’d be gathered in the southeast corner where I could see them best from the car. Eventually the horses were gone, then the fences, and a few years later the shopping center appeared. Now I’m a parent, and it seems like I go to that Target twice a week.

Over the last couple of years, every time I drove out of the parking lot, I’d sit at the stoplight, looking west, into the next empty field. This land was shaped by water and wind, then it was agriculture, then neglect. Soon the trees and invasive plants warred to reclaim it, and shabby suburban wildlife wandered through. Some time ago a real estate sign appeared, like a diploma, signaling this land’s debut as a major development opportunity.

After the signs, the clearing starts.

It seems they need to strip off the bulk of the foliage to see the bare shape of the land the water has made, in order to sell it. Once someone buys it there is more clearing, then pushing the dirt around, sculpting it into a usable form. Creeks will be funneled into culverts, ponds filled. My husband read me a line from a neighborhood discussion board concerning the site: the writer saw an ancient snapping turtle, driven from the pond, hit by a car.

I went out to look at the site they are clearing now. I walked all around the perimeter, trying to find an angle that captured the magnitude of the erasure, but there was no good vantage point where I wouldn’t be spotted and hassled by the workers in earth movers. I climbed up a hill through tall grass, pushing on up the game trail, but the vista was unremarkable, just ugly dirt. I climbed back down on the hoof prints of the deer that use the trail – once a track from a big machine, diminished down to a slim break in the grass only wide enough for the deer’s slender legs. It sounds trite, but I felt a connection to those animals, slipping through the centuries on the path of least resistance, startling up birds from the grass and stepping around thorny locust saplings. 

Walking back to my car at the park to the south, I encountered a miracle, or a tragedy, I don’t know. A tiny spotted fawn was curled up near the trail, too far outside the thicket of honeysuckle to be concealed. I photographed her; she was breathing, slowly, and barely lifted her head in a kind of daytime trance before laying it back down. She was too vulnerable, with children and dogs and well meaning people everywhere. But there was nothing that could be done; she had to stay there unmoving, enveloped in the clatter of machines tearing down trees until dusk when her mother would return. So I made a little sign, imploring passers-by to look but not touch. I cried in my car, my own son a tiny fawn who I am afraid I will have no choice but to someday leave in what sometimes feels like a really bad spot.

I often think about the creeks that shaped my childhood, the trickles of stormwater I thought I could follow like a highway to my friend’s house across town. Now any of these images could be from my childhood, or his: the curving, dead-end streets with stucco and siding behemoths, the tire-tracks remaking this place, the fire pit in the woods, the thrilling, rotting abandon. Now he shapes me; the intimate friendships of my youth are falling away, and the acceleration of time is expressed on my face and neck. 

The last week the old dog was alive, we walked out to the edge of our neighborhood into the open grasses where they’re building new houses. I think we both felt a little wild – he, with senses still good, taking in the sounds of nightcrawlers bringing the springtime dirt to life again like a shuddering engine. Me, feeling like a ghost, standing in the dark with the light from the kitchens and television screens spilling onto the old pasture. I don’t have to walk far from my house in the dark to remember that I live in a surreal paradise that sits on the edge of chaos, violence. When I glance out the window of my own kitchen as I wipe down the cold countertops, I catch a glimpse of a honeysuckle vine overtaking the Callicarpa americana, and in the shadows underneath the bush I sense the dark heartbeat of the earth. 

Down the road at the site of the big development, I again walked the bitter land, still a hot moon of dry clay burnished to a shine by the tractor treads. I summited a hellish clod along its vertebrae, so I could see it all – the clearing they’d made. It occurred to me then that I was grieving, my gaze anointing the terra cotta beneath me. At the property line meeting the next-west piece of land awaiting its signs, walnuts were just beginning to ripen, and some hoofed beast snorted and stomped a warning. 

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