There are few places built by men that can ever affect us as deeply as those untouched beauties of nature created by God. The Taj Mahal, for instance, which the Sunday Times in London calls “Thrilling, exciting, ravishing!” could never approach, in magnificence, a structure like Mount Everest—touching the heavens, gilded with the white marble of snow, commissioned by the supreme ruler—a crowning glory for the kingdom of Earth. In most instances, God remains the supreme architect, the supreme landscaper, the supreme builder. In a few creations only, we clumsy mortals, dabbling in His arts like a child with colored Crayola wax, approach the skill of the master.
And as a child, no creation of God held, for me, the majesty one solitary cabin did, built by the calloused, work-chaffed hands of a mortal, nestled in a forest of pines in the mountains of northern Arizona.
That cabin, Uncle Jim’s cabin, as we called it, was built by my uncle before I had learned to speak, and to me, was the embodiment of the flavor of summer. It tasted like polished pine drizzled with tree needles, covered in quilts stuffed with the smell of August rain. I lived for the weeks that would be spent there, every summer since before I could tie my shoes, since before I knew that most people’s summer vacations were spent at theme parks and beaches and foreign countries. And even after I realized this, I felt lucky somehow. They had thrilling rides and salty waves and beautiful vistas, but I had gooey fire-eaten marshmallows and romps through the forest and an old rope swing.
* * *
The swing was my magic carpet, my fairy wings, my happy thought. I spent a great deal of my childhood wishing I could fly, sprinkling sand on my hair to take the place of pixie dust and jumping off of garbage barrels and cars and trees and frightening my mother with my resistance to the chains of gravity and a life consigned to solid ground. But physics always won and I inevitably returned to the earth. Solidly, firmly, with various amounts of spilt blood. But the rope swing was different. Science didn’t apply. The old rope hung from a monster of a tree on the edge of a slight gully off to the side of the cabin, dangling down to hover three feet above the ground. I would grab the rope and pull it as far backwards up the hill as I could, so as to build up the greatest possible momentum. Reaching up the rope as high as my skinny fingers could grasp, I would latch on and lift my feet from the ground, sometimes only getting my foot into the loop at the bottom after I was already sailing through the air. High over the gully and back. And back. And back.
My little brother, Scotty, was still small at my earliest swing memory—too small to reach the loop that was as high off the ground as his head. I remember him watching us once as we squealed with delight, whooping at being able to lift off the ground and not have to come down again. His somber eyes were calculating, his head tilted, as if the picture didn’t make sense. I remember my older brother picking him up, holding him in one arm, close, tight against his side, grabbing the rope with the other hand, letting go of the ground. I can’t do anything but remember the pure joy that took over my brother’s baby features—the smile that split his face, the ringing song of glee that exploded from him, carrying through the pines as if it had been waiting his whole life to get out.
* * *
There were other things I loved about Uncle Jim’s cabin: the banisters carved and polished and curving down in perfect slides from the upper story down to the main floor, the forest green carpet so soft and thick it hid my feet completely up to my ankles, the way the crickets talked to each other, argued with each other, sang lullabies to each other so loudly that my mother’s own lullabies were lost in the symphony, the deer and other animals that had never learned to be afraid of human beings.
* * *
I remember being awakened in the darkness of an early morning when I was no more than four or five years old, before the sun had risen, before the darkness had shrunk only to shadows. My mother’s excited whisper pulled me from the warmth of the colored quilt.
“Christina! Come see!”
My legs were bare and tingled in the ghost of a chill that trickled through the room as I sleepily followed her out of the bedroom and into the living room. The wide, glass French doors bordering the fireplace sparkled with moonlight and tiny specks of dust that flickered and reflected the light like glitter. The porch light was on. My mom held onto my hand and pointed out the window. There, separated from me only by a nearly invisible piece of glass and a few inches, was an enormous black bear, pawing through the garbage can, his black eyes glinting in the light from the porch, his shaggy fur quivering over muscles that could tear me apart in less time than I could make mine carry me far away. My whole head could’ve fit inside his paw.
“Ohhhh…” The sound came out as a mixture between a gasp and a whisper of awe. At that moment, the creature paused, pivoted his body with a liquid grace that a dancer would be jealous of, and looked at me, his eyes penetrating and unblinking, the breath from his nostrils a dancing wave in the cold night air. My fingers reached out and touched the glass.
I never stopped following that bear. Caressing the idea of him with the awe of someone who for a moment connects to something so vastly different from herself. When I was in high school, black bears went on the endangered species list. They were being hunted. Their lands were being cleared for homes. Their forests, and their own bodies, were being consumed by fires. When I was in college, I did a research paper on them and they came off the endangered species list. Every time I drive into the mountains, I look for them. Sometimes I see them. I am sure that sometimes they see me. But never once since that first night have we seen each other—locked together in the same moment, splitting a single gaze.
* * *
One summer, when I was about fourteen, my mom got sick. It came fast, or at least it seemed so to me. Kidney infection, my parents decided. We were at the cabin that week, and the remoteness that had always seemed so thrilling was suddenly frightening, menacing, cold. It was miles to the nearest town. We had no medicine, and there were no doctors. My mom lay on the couch, moving little, pain filling her lungs instead of oxygen, moving through her back, her chest, aching her arms. I remembered the time my little brother had gotten frighteningly ill, the way he didn’t want to play, didn’t want to move, didn’t eat for three days. I remembered the rasp that shook him as he breathed, as if he was exerting all his energy to fight a foe I couldn’t even see. But we had had a doctor then. The day my mom’s illness was the worst, I remember sitting in my room in the darkness of the cabin, seeing the sun streaming through the window, and realizing that the darkness was only in me. I prayed then—prayed the way people pray when their choices are death or miracle, when their faith is forced by desperation. I prayed a prayer of love, as all real prayers are.
My mom got better—slowly, peacefully. My dad had found, outside the cabin door, a juniper bush growing merrily and gaily as if it were a weed. He boiled the green berries from it into a tea and fed it to my mother. And slowly she recovered. I wondered if my uncle had planted the bush or if God did.
* * *
Once, the cabin became the battlegrounds of a civil war—a frantic, screaming, thundering, desperate war with brother against brother, mother against daughter, peppered with shaky alliances that switched sides in instantaneous moments of treason. Rubber bands secured to curved sticks with clothespins were released and went flying—into sofas, enemy backs, and occasionally rung the antlers of the stoic, stuffed spies on the walls. When ammunition ran low, the littlest member of each battalion was sacrificed and sent forth to gather up those rubber bands that had hit their marks—or not—and were left in pockmarked patches all over the floor, staircase, and dark corners of each room. Sometimes, ammo stashes were stolen in their entirety, forcing an entire side to take risky dashes into another’s territory, looking for hidden piles with which to arm their weapons. I don’t remember now who won the war. I don’t know that the war even could have been won, considering no one ever died from a rubber band wound, and a smart snap on the skin rarely slowed down a running soldier. The real war we fought was one we didn’t even know we were losing—time.
Last Christmas, after all the gifts were opened, and the living room was strewn with various paper and wreckage of the morning’s raid, my dad brought out one last gift. It was a gift to the family, from him, and we let my youngest brother, Nathan, open it. Inside was what might at first appear to be a very odd assortment of paraphernalia. My little brother’s thirteen-year-old face was screwed up in a slight look of confusion, though it was only seconds before his eyes grew wide with a ghosted remembrance. He picked up one of the six smooth pieces of pine that had been cut into the rugged outline of a pistol and I watched his eyes trail from it to the bag of Ace Hardware rubber bands shoved in the corner of the box with an equally large bag of clothespins. I wondered how much of that long-ago battle he remembered. He had been so young—and before the war came around again, the battleground that was our cabin had vanished.
I don’t want to end the memories, as I sit here and think about them, knowing that the next paragraph must shove nostalgia into reality. I want only to remember the bat we found in the bathtub, soft brown leather wings, blinded by the light, curled in crashed flight. I want to remember the campfires we built outside, preferring them over the luxury fireplace indoors—the camp songs that we added nonsense verses to until they were tangled and unrecognizable and our laughter was squeezing salt water from our eyes. I want to remember the lazy afternoons in the hammock, squished together like string beans, sometimes swinging so high we flipped, rolling onto the sharp pine needles below, the smell of sap and pinecones marinating the dirt beneath us. I want to remember the way the trees cleared and the stars rolled in at night like concourses of everlasting armies come together in scattered array, more pinpoints of brilliant light in the heavens than there ever could be men on earth—the immortality of them forcing me to taste my own predestination for death. Years later, the stars are still there, but the ashes of the fire have gone cold, and the hammock and beams and winding stairs have become part of those ashes. It was not many years before God took back the land that man had built on, and made it His again.
I’ve never really tasted summer since my last visit to the cabin. I was sixteen the year it burned—turned again to the dust that had once fed the seeds that became the pines that built its walls. I know why hell is called an inferno, why fire lives in the breasts of the damned rather than the saved. I knew some portion of hell the day that fire consumed the first place I had ever loved. Hell and fire. They went hand in hand, belonging to each other like I had once belonged to that cabin—like I wanted it always to belong to me.
But the black ashes that kicked up at my feet as I looked on the acres of scarred ground in the silence the settled as my family got out of the car and paused, looking at a ghost, were part of the land now. Flat land, bare land. Not a trace of the chimney, the beautiful oak door, the curving balcony that had once moved gracefully around the upper story like a necklace curving around a woman’s neck. And then my eye caught a flutter of white. There, miraculously, bafflingly untouched by the ravages of the raging fire, was the old rope swing, still dangling over a blackened gully. I ran for it, hooked my foot in, and let go, feeling the wind in my hair as I flew for the last time—flew and wished I didn’t ever have to come down—flew and wished—flew. Quietly, then more loudly, then growing to a wild chorus, the bubbling chortle of pure joy of a little boy years ago echoed in my mind, rang through my ears, swam over the empty land. And of all the creations, the buildings, the structures of God and man, left with the fingerprints of their makers, I knew in that moment that the cabin was different. It didn’t matter who had built the place—what mattered was that the place built me.