Leaves set free by rustling winds float down through blue sky to the green carpet below, splashed with crumpled bits of gold, red and brown. Whirlpool-swirls form and just as quickly blow themselves out, adding further evidence of autumn’s glory to the scene outside my window….
I am a child running down the steep hill at Francis Slocum State Park, my papoose doll flying as fast as I can run in a vain attempt to keep up with the ragged rush of pretend-Indian children fleeing from the settlers who are making their way up the other side of the hill–cap pistols drawn, stick rifles raised in anticipation of the Miami Indians lying in wait for them.
My brother runs out and grabs me, pushing me behind the sassafras seedlings where the warriors, along with their women and children, are waiting to ambush the enemy now cresting the hill. Heart pounding, I press myself to the carpet of leaves, head raised just enough to peer through the tribe’s tangle of skinny legs to see the settlers advancing from tree to tree in a fruitless effort to see and not be seen. Blue jays scream overhead as they move into the small clearing, blind to the pounding hearts that wait, concealed from their searching eyes.
A sudden rustling from off to the side, and they turn as one to see an almost unheard of spectacle–a large doe crashing through the brush across the hill. Laughing in relief, the settlers do not hear the low bird-call signal before the blood-curdling war-cries of jean-clad boys with bandanna loin cloths who surround them, merrily snatching their guns in the gathering darkness.
A call, accompanied by another and another and another echoes up through the woods. “Ronnie Lee… Carolann… Sara… Tommy… Sam… Rita… Time to go!”
“Race ya’,” someone yells. “Last one to the parking lot is a rotten egg!”
Out-distanced, I slow down to walk the last gentle slope and grab the hand of my brother, who is waiting for me.
Small bits of a life gone way too soon decorate a shelf in my bookcase, and it seems so odd to have only these mementos plus a fully complete Erector set that still looks ‘too good to play with’ some 60+ years later as the only physical reminders of my brother. But then I do have the wealth of memories of the kindred spirit I built stone dams with and swam beside in the rain-swollen creek, returning again and again to catch bluegill and catfish at the deep fishing hole in the woods.
Every inch of the farm was our playground. The haymow where every summer we built a hidden fort of bales, secret to everyone but Daddy; the long chain swings in the mulberry trees where we played ‘what if’ on long summer afternoons; the basement where we played roller skate tag in the winter, the bins in the granary where we developed our circus act by walking on the edges of the bins, whether full or empty. We believed in each other’s dreams of traveling as far as it would take to find the families who gave us away and the brothers and sisters we imagined we might have.
My brother would have been 74 today. It’s been 44 years since a crazed wife he moved halfway across the country to get away from hunted him down and shot him. Yes, shot him and then got off scot-free because charges were never filed, even though the authorities thought it should have been otherwise. Perhaps if Daddy had been alive, it would have been different. The news came three days after Christmas that my brother would come home one last time.
The news of his death did make it back to our hometown–despite no announcement, no wake, no funereal words of comfort, just clicking tongues and a prayer before we followed the hearse to the cemetery and watched his casket descend into the earth he loved. I will never forget that day because of the stark reality of my anger because no one there had ever bothered to know the little boy who came to live with us at four years old–a package deal along with me because he needed a home where he would be safe from foster parents who left scars on his head.
So he came to live with us and left this world just 30 years later with no scars that anyone could see. I don’t know what my brother might have been one day; but then I don’t need to, because he’ll always remain the brilliant, kind, savvy boy, with the wry sense of humor and slow smile that he had always had, like that day and many others when we roamed Francis Slocum’s hills.