~ William ~
It usually means deer: the rustling sound behind the house, the crunch of dried leaves underfoot. The doe and her two fawns come stepping delicately down the narrow path they've trod through the backyard wilderness that is Montclair. They leave their droppings, neat as a rabbit's, in the form of cairns to mark their way. At dusk, I sit on the back step with my tea and wait for them to wind their way down the steep hillside in back of the house. I love their velvety mouths, their huge female eyes. I leave cut up apples scattered on the hill, sitting on the tree stumps like offerings on an altar. Sometimes a small carrot, or a bouquet of parsley. They take all of it, chewing with their heads lowered, looking at me. I think they can sense it's from me, that somehow they connect the sweet taste with my form, the steam rising from the mug in my hands, the blue-gray color of twilight.
But yesterday it was a different sound, wilder and more chaotic than the deer. I looked out the window while I was rinsing out my brushes, and I saw a flash of color behind the huge fallen stump. Magenta, a splash of yellow. A high laughter, and then whispering. I stepped backward, away from the window, into the shadowy tunnel between the kitchen and pantry. There was a tiny square of glass still visible to me, and in that frame the size of a shoebox, I saw two sets of spindly legs, one brown, one creamy white. Torn sneakers, a lime-colored band-aid on one ankle. Two girls.
They stood on the deer trail, looking down at my house. The back door was open. They covered their mouths and giggled. "Look," one of them said, "Sleeping bags on the floor!"
Their heads swiveled round and their eyes popped at each other. "Camping... inside a house!" It was funny, so funny to them, they whooped and howled and the sound of their howling curled through the trees, such an animal sound.
I took my tea out, stepping quietly in bare feet, same as I do with the deer. My head down, not looking at them, just seeing the shadows that spread out from their feet. I noticed the quick silence, their staring eyes. Would they bolt, run back up the path to their house, huge and looming at the top of the hill? So many times I dream that that enormous house, awkward in the slow dance of an earthquake, will break in two, come crashing down to bury this tiny cabin, this shed built of balsa and matchsticks. I can barely see it through the trees, and I know that we are invisible to its inhabitants. Until that moment, until yesterday.
They watched me warm my hands around the thick white porcelain, watched me blow small waves across the surface of the tea. Then one of them spoke. "We just had a tea party too, over in my secret hiding place." She swept her arm back, gesturing to the upended stump. Hollowed out, it made a small rough cave, just the size for two crouched bodies.
Then the other, as if on cue: "It wasn't real tea though, we used pink lemonade."
"But we had real cookies."
"Do you want a cookie?"
I laughed out loud. "I would love a cookie."
And then one of them, the one with cinnamon colored skin, scrambled away through the brush, snapping thin branches. She had disappeared within seconds. The paler one, her face shadowed by a tie-dyed baseball cap, inched forward and sat down on the stone wall that holds the hill back, that keeps it all from tumbling into my kitchen. "I didn't know there was a house here."
"We have good camouflage." I saw her eyes snap for a second, a spark of recognition. She knew that word, and that pleased her.
"Camouflage. Like polar bears in the snow." She grinned. "I did a report on polar bears."
I nodded. "Polar bears are great subjects." I pointed to the looming shadow above. "Is that your house?"
"Uh huh. Me and my mom, and my dad, and my sister Charlotte."
"And what's your name?" I was stunned, enchanted, speaking to a wood sprite who had crawled from a tree stump. I would have been no less shocked if one of the fawns had struck up a conversation.
"Tish. And that," she pointed to the other girl, now making her way through the brush, clutching a plastic bag, "that's Lidi. She's my friend."
"It's good to meet you, Tish. I guess I'm your down-the-hill neighbor. Your invisible neighbor. I'm William."
She nodded thoughtfully. She was memorizing it. William.
Lidi called out, waving the bag, "Do you like chocolate chips or M & Ms?"
~ Tish ~
I love my secret hiding place. No grownup could ever fit, but I could squeeze in with someone else my size, or my sister Charlotte. But Charlotte isn't allowed down here, it's too dangerous, all brambly and steep. That's why I love it. It's just right for me, but nobody else. Charlotte could fall on the path, it's too steep for her. Even my friend Allison fell down last week when she came here, she fell down and bumped her head right on the stump. She had to go back up to the house and ask my mom for a band-aid.
Lidi never falls, though. Lidi is very good at hill walking.
The secret hiding place is in the middle of the woods and there's nothing here, just trees and plants. There's a little road for the deer and they walk back and forth. You can even see them from the street when you're driving by. There's a mom and two babies, and they bounce instead of walk.
Yesterday we took all the tea party stuff in a basket and went down there. We had pink lemonade in little china cups, and chocolate chip cookies that we made ourselves. Well, Mom helped some. Lidi asked me how big the woods were and I said really big, that they reached all the way down to maybe the 7-11 and she said let's walk down there. I know we're not supposed to go on the street ourselves, and I left all my allowance money in my room so I didn't even have anything to buy a slurpee with, but I said okay. If my mom looked over the porch she would still think we were in my hiding place.
So we started walking down through the woods and after a while we got to a little house, a lot smaller than my house, and it was a lot closer than the 7-11. The back door was open and I could see inside to the dirty kitchen floor, and sleeping bags all over the living room (I think it was the living room) and a row of glass bottles in all different colors lined up in the back window. There was a black cat with one white foot sitting on the brick patio outside. I could hear music, like a fast violin, from inside. Then a man with no shoes came outside and sat down on the step. He was drinking tea, and I could see it was hot. It had smoke coming out of it.
I thought that was a coincidence. I know what that word means. It's when two things happen that are almost the same, but you don't plan it that way, it just happens. Like me and Lidi were having a TEA party, and then we came down through the woods and we found someone who was also drinking TEA. That's a coincidence.
I told him we had just had a tea party too. I was a little mad when Lidi said it wasn't real, it was lemonade, but I don't think he minded. I think he let it count, as a coincidence. Lidi asked if he wanted a cookie and he said okay and then she went to get one so I sat down and talked to him. I can't believe this is a neighbor I didn't even know I had. I know about Deb and Judy, next door, they're my really good friends and I visit them all the time. And my friend Zoe across the street and her little sister (they have a lot more toys than we do, so Charlotte and I like going there), and the other neighbor on the other side with the nice lawn but no kids.
The new neighbor's name is William. He said he lived there in that little house when he was just two years old, Charlotte's age, and he used to play in my secret hiding place. Although I don't think it's a safe place for two year olds. Charlotte isn't allowed. Maybe boys are allowed to do more dangerous stuff when they're two. But he moved away when he was bigger, and just moved back six months ago. I can't believe he's been here for such a long time and I never even saw this house before. He said the house is almost a hundred years old and used to belong to his great aunt, but then she died and gave it to him. I have a great aunt Jane, but I don't think she's going to give me her house.
Lidi and I stayed a long time. We ate the cookies. William showed us his paintings, of upside down trees and people living in the roots, like fairy pictures. Some of them were scary and a little ugly, but I didn't say that. I said he drew a lot better than me, which is true. He let us draw on his back wall with special crayons that are a lot brighter, soft and crumbly, than the kind I have at home. He said they were made with oil. I drew sunflowers and Lidi made a rainbow that jumped from rock to rock.
~ Brenda ~
I've been complaining for years that this house has no lawn, that it's terrible for children, that we have to move, but now I'm not so sure. Tish has claimed the jungle back there as her own. She's found a secret hiding place, and drawn a sign that says DU NOT ENTR. It's her stump, her cave, her own network of branching trails and broken stone stairways. She maneuvers the woods with sure feet, while I stumble and scrape my legs and grasp at branches to keep from falling.
They played down there for hours yesterday. She carried down the china tea set she got for her birthday, cookies wrapped in a paper towel, a bottle of lemonade. Then Lidi came crashing back into the house, panting, flinging open the cupboard for more cookies.
I went to stand guard. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Didn't you have enough?"
"It's for our visitor."
I cocked my head. "What kind of visitor?"
"In the secret hiding place."
"Make believe visitor or real visitor?"
She stomped her foot, exasperated. "Real!"
"Child or grownup?"
"You've got a grownup visitor in your secret hiding place?"
"Man or woman?"
"Uh huh." I wrapped the cookies in a plastic bag and she tore them from my hand, her hair flying. I heard her clumping down the back steps. I called over the edge of the porch, my heart thumping. "Tell your visitor I'm going to come down and say hello."
She gave me a look, as if to say, he's our visitor, don't you interfere, but I turned away before she could protest. I put on my sturdy sneakers, hoping I wouldn't slip on the path and make a fool of myself. What was a man doing in the woods behind our house? I remembered that Andrew and I had talked about giving Tish the "don't talk to strangers" talk, the "scream if anyone touches you" talk. I hoped it wasn't too late.
I hung onto branches and followed the steep trail downwards. I found the huge hollow stump with the sign flapping outside. Continued down onto the deer path, strewn with the confetti of their dotlike droppings. Through a clearing, I could hear the girls' voices, and a man's.... and there was a house.
He was an Asianish man, young, in his twenties, with a ponytail and a narrow, kind face. I could see through the open door to the inside of his house, the Salvation Army couch, the piles of clothes on the floor, canvases leaning against the wall. A painter. I was so startled. He sat on the back step and munched on one of the cookies that Lidi had brought. When I stumbled down through the brush, scratched and awkward, he stood up and extended his hand. "Hi. I'm William." Then his last name, Takayama, and maybe it was silly, but it made me relax, made me believe he was connected somehow. I told him we were Okubo-Larsens, and there was that little spark of recognition, and we both said silently, oh you're hapa too. I felt comfortable for no reason other than that. I thought, the girls will like visiting him. He'll be good with them. They showed me the bright smeary drawings they'd done on his wall. Good, happy work.
And as I climbed the hill again twenty minutes later, the sound of their laughter floated up behind me. I called down from the porch. "What are you kids up to?"
Shrieking. Giggling. "We're playing! We'll be home later!"
An hour passed. I heard the sound of sneakers pounding up the stairs again. Lidi, her face blanched, came grasping for my hand. "That person died."
"What?!?" I looked around wildly for Tish, saw nothing, heard no footsteps. My heart held its breath, waited before crashing into a rapid, out of control beat. "Where's Tish?"
"She's down there. With him."
"William? What happened, Lidi?"
"You have to come help..." She was tugging at my shirt, walking backwards, pointing down the hill. "It's so scary, a lot of things fell down."
"What do you mean, Lidi? What happened?"
She couldn't tell me. I tumbled down the hill after her.
I loved having them here, their endless chatter, their questions (Lidi: "Do you have a wife? Do you have a mom? Who cooks your dinner?"). My answers: No, far away, and me, to which they looked skeptical. (Tish: "How old are you? Do you paint things you really see, or is this all from inside your head?"). Twenty-six, and both. It made me want to clean up the kitchen, make a pot of macaroni and cheese, drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. I let them squeeze worms of acrylic paint onto a porcelain saucer, and gave them some brushes to paint faces on rocks. I started with the dishes, my hands feeling good in the soapy water. Looked out the window, and they were crouched down so I couldn't see them but I heard their voices, so serious.
Suddenly I noticed the fawn on the trail, her nose grazing the stump, but I hadn't put out any apples today. For a moment I got confused, thought, is the fawn talking? Are they fawns in human form? and the smell of honeysuckle came rushing through the open door and I grabbed for the edge of the sink, something solid to hold onto. Missed it and found the dish drain instead, full of chipped porcelain, cast iron, a basket of forks and spoons. It came crashing down to the floor, all of it, and my body did a slow turn through space before blackness, that wild dancing in the dark, my head a nightful of lightning and thunder.
~ Tish ~
Lidi started crying and said he was dying. His body was like a fish, flopping around on a boat, like a fish with a hook in its mouth, not able to breathe. His arms and legs were shaking, hitting everything, and the chairs got knocked over, there he was on the floor, swimming around on top of all the knives, and I was so afraid he would get cut, that a knife would get stuck in him, that there would be blood. I tried to remember the numbers, nine nine one, nine one one, I couldn't decide which it was. I didn't see a phone. Lidi ran up the hill calling for my mom. I couldn't move.
~ Brenda ~
By the time I got down there he was sitting at the table. He was holding a washcloth to his face, and drinking a glass of water. There was broken dishware everywhere, food scattered across the floor. Lidi and Tish hid under the wings of my arms. He looked crestfallen.
"I scared the girls." His voice was low, shaky.
I fought the impulse to sweep the shards of china aside, to hold him in my lap. "Are you all right?"
He sighed, and looked out the window. "I have epilepsy."
I nodded. I didn't know what else to say. "Is there anything you need? Can we help you... pick this up?" My eyes swept the floor.
"No. Thank you. I'm tired." He smiled crookedly at the girls, who were staring at him, ghost come to life. There was a drop of blood on his chin. "Come back again, okay?"
We climbed the trail silently. Once in the house, they huddled together, whispering. "Yes. Let's do it." Tish pushed the stool up against the counter and climbed up to the cabinet, pulled down the oil pastels. The knelt at the coffee table, quietly passing the sticks of color back and forth. Drawings in thick layers: yellow smiling faces, daisies, trees, a deer with stick antlers. I bent over their shoulders to read. Im sorre wht hapined today. Hav a good day ( "how do you spell his name Mom?") William. Love Tish.
"Mom? We're going to bring him some art." What could I say, except come home by dinner?
They filed down the wooden stairs one more time, their papers blowing in their hands. When their feet touched earth, they stopped making sound; they entered the forest and their voices faded, sweet, into wind.