I remember the Magic Treehouse books, a series about time-travelling fourth graders who learn about history by maintaining a magical library. They described a little four-walled house in the branches of an oak tree, hidden in the forest away from prying eyes. As a young boy I would look at those books sitting on the shelf of my family's library and think “I want that. That treehouse should be mine.” I would read stories about kids who had fantastic playgrounds, elaborate forts or wooden hideaways, and wonder why all I got was the woodchip lot with 6 swings and a slide behind my elementary school. There were magic places hidden in the world, and I was going to find one.
One summer I was given a miracle. My father came home from walking the dog with tales of a tree fort hidden just inside the Springbrook parkway. He said it was just a platform, hanging over a little stream, supported by a structure of 2x4's and long, sturdy branches. I'd never seen anything like that around my house, a vestige of some forgotten and romantic time slipped secretly into my humdrum world of plastic and concrete. It had been left for me by some benevolent spirit, now long-passed, and I felt I was destined to mark it as my own. For that I needed one thing and one thing only: I needed paint.
So I went into the garage and started rummaging around. We had recently painted the garage door a deep shade of green, in contrast to the beige and grays of suburban siding. One of the used cans felt mostly full, and so I carried it along with a paintbrush out onto the back porch. Inside this can was the mystical vial that would capture magic and bend it to my will. The mark of this paint would bind the spirit of that place to me, and crown me king, if only I could get this stupid rotten can open.
“Daaaad!” I called through the back door. “How do you open a paint caaaaan?” I pulled at it with weak 10-year old fingers.
Dad responded slowly, coming outside with a screwdriver, a paint-stirrer, and a tall cup of ice water all balanced bus-boy style in his hands. He put down his drink and handed me the screwdriver, then went to plug the stirrer into the socket near the back door.
And so, here on this cement precipice of enterprise, it was to be combat, a duel between my brandished steel and the aluminum lid that sealed my destiny. I went at it with the ‘driver, using the can’s own brim as my fulcrum to wedge the guardian aside. It matched me blow for blow, clinging bodily to the last few chords of its once-proud circle.
“I got it open, Dad!” I exclaimed through grinning cheeks. The threshold had been rent away, and all that remained to do was pass through it.
“Nice job, guy,” returned my father with his characteristic nonchalance. “You’ll want to stir it up though, use this.”
He handed me what looked like a power drill with a hamster wheel attached at the end, some kind of bizarre tool of the craftsman. “So just put it in and pull the trigger?” I asked, already doing so zealously.
The green swirled to life, the dull coating on the surface mixing into a brighter shade, like dawn over an aquatic world. Soon, very soon, this brew would become my monument. So rare a thing, thought I, for a man to mix the ink with which his own destiny was to be writ.
“Is it ready yet Dad?” I had been stirring for several seconds and the change had been immediately apparent. I wrinkled my brow impatiently.
“Yeah, I’d say so. Just give me the whisk so I can wash it and you can take the paint.”
There was no time to waste! With the paint can and the brush both securely in my possession, I did not look back to the house. I took the gate, through the sideyard out into the wide world, down the path my father described. The long sidewalk stretched before my home for almost a full block before it came to a great road, across which lay my destiny. I walked.
The sun was nearly at the top of the sky and the late morning shone brightly. Little wind blew as my young legs carried my mind, overripe for adventure, along the One Path that leads both to Mordor and Avalon, Dairy Queen and that one little convenience store down 87th street. The can quickly grew heavy in my hand- so many steps revealed a weight which the short journey from the garage to the porch had kept hidden. I had to use both hands on the thin handle, and jammed the brush into my pocket. The way would be harder going than I had imagined, but I would persevere.
As I went I heard a sound from the street behind me, the whirring of bicycle tires quickly approaching. A young boy whom I knew, with a bright yellow backpack, saw me and slowed to a stop.
“D’you wanna come to Robert’s house? We’re playing Pokemon!”
My friend offered a tempting diversion from my difficult task, a road back to a life of ease in an air-conditioned living room, far from the hot sun and heavy hands; but it was not for me. I was called by a greater force than magical attack-beasts, a truer magic that wafted like morning mist from the last remaining streams and wild places of the world.
“Not right now, I’m sorta busy,” I told him awkwardly. In my mind I might be a hero but my weak tongue failed me. The boy, unperturbed, rode off towards cooler climes, as my small feet advanced to the intersection that marked the edge of the familiar world.
My subdivision had many trees that shaded the sidewalk from the summer sun, but once I stepped onto the great road, that canopy disappeared. I was now, from here to the prairie, to walk through man’s vast wastes of concrete with nothing but wind between me and the sun. My hands began to sweat, and the weight of the can grew painful; but I pressed on, growing nearer now to the place where the grass opened into prairie and a thin path led to the waiting tree.
I found the opening, and began my trek through wilderness. The grass was mowed at first, and a clear path was marked between a thicket and a mound of mulch behind a house. But quickly the path narrowed and the reeds and thorns rushed in close, threatening to snatch up my paint can and leave me helpless. I remember a cut on the back of my leg just above my heel, from a low-lying vine covered in spines. I was a marked man now; I had given blood to the quest and the quest had accepted. “Ouch,” I said in the eloquence of the moment. “Dumb thorns.”
All at once it was upon me, a looming plywood Polyphemus, taunting me with its height and splendor. A platform, towering mightily over a small stream banked by yellow prairie grass; and I, a young boy of ten, armed only with green woodpaint, a cheap brush, and a full head of dreams. We were locked together in a battle of wills; the fort clung to its bareness with warrior's prowess, and I was propelled to clothe it by a force supernatural.
Since I had forgotten to actually bring the screwdriver I needed to open the can in the first place, I found a flat rock on the bank of the stream and, with difficulty, pried the can open again. I had come too far to accept an unjust defeat. Placing the open can on the near edge of the platform, I began to climb.
I started my painting at the outer edge, careful not to put too much weight on the outside branches. Every stroke of my brush was like a swing against some ghostly foe, executed with the force of my whole body. The sun heated my back and made me sweat as I fought on and on, swinging and swinging my brush against the glaring blank wood, beating wildly against the walls of a shrinking world in a desperate search for forgotten beauty.
But the harder I painted, the less platform I had to stand on, and the less room I had the harder it was to paint, and as I poured my muscles into the fibers of the wood I could see the paint dry too quick and thin under the sun. As if by some demon I was being devoured, diminished and exhausted even by the very flow of my passion. It was a losing battle, and like the muddied waters of a suburban creek the beauty I sought seemed to run through my fingers, leaving nothing but grime and beer cans in the sifting nets of my once-youthful soul. I had raced on an abandoned and decaying track to a goal long-since dismantled, for an audience long silent and gone.
I had not built this, my addled mind told itself. It was the vestige of some other, better person's efforts and could never be mine. The beautiful green paint seemed now to be so much graffiti on the base of a great monument, and to my exhausted senses all was lost. I had hoped to have a treehouse, to spend long hours reading and playing and picnicking above a babbling brook, but there was nothing here for me. All hope collapsed quickly into fiction, and throwing down my paintbrush I fell against the tree in defeat.
I leaned there for several minutes, looking at the prairie and lamenting the loss of some victory I could never have defined, until something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. A glint of light, the sun reflected from my paint... My paint. The sun reflected from my paint, basking my face in green and yellow, the colors of the prairie, somehow not of the prairie but of me instead. They were my colors. I climbed a little higher into the tree's branches to look down at the platform, now solid green, striking against the stream, and my eyes found a different vision. This place was no longer my enemy, the shade of the past no longer hung above me but instead I thought of the future. I thought of bringing my parents to see this place, and of bragging to my friends about painting my treehouse. I was no more the combatant, but the joyful explorer again, the child in a wondrous world.
I left the tree to find a shaded wood nearby where the stream had been split in two by a small island, shaded over by a dense grove of tall, slender trees. A bridge of logs had been lashed together by rope across the narrower side of the stream, and I crossed the bridge to find a wooden board nailed between two trees. I took my brush, and for one final time I swung. The bar was bathed in glowing green; flecks of paint spun away through the air and speckled sleeping leaves with color. That's enough, I thought. I don't need anymore.
As I turned to leave the prairie and the forest behind, the paint on my hands called to life uncounted generations of childhood. I heard my great-great grandfather playing with hoops and sticks on the village green, and saw his grandmother imagining the fairies that dwelt in the woodlands. Something in me spoke in a tiny whisper of memories much older still, though I did not understand what it said; it spoke in a language which I did not know, yet somewhere had heard a hundred times before. I paid it little mind, and set my feet home.
When I returned, my mother had made cookies. I set down my paint can, washed off my brush, and ate. My hands were still green.
"Dandelion" by Katrina Taylor
The yellow, rough petals of a dandelion reflect the color of a sweltering summer sun, which only opens up underneath the heat and closes when icy weather settles over the ground. It is May, the start of spring, where every thing can begin anew and the humid weather slowly curls around arms, legs, and necks. The ripples in the murky pond glide the water to the left where it lightly splashes against the rocks and drips onto the moist grass. The smell of last night’s rain radiates off the dewy ground and seeps into the skin, creating a damp sensation. And the leaves on the skinny trees launch their transformations into becoming full and green, welcoming in the new season.
The same transformation of the leaves was occurring to the weed standing next to the skinny tree. The petals were unfurling into soft spikes and the notched, toothy leaves were growing on the fleshy stem. The small weed had no choice but to live among the bright green grass and blooming, delicate daisies and sweet peas. While being tortured by the delicious perfume that wafts off of the flowers, the dandelion stands as tall as it can towards the sky, watching the bees tend to the beautiful blossoms. Its tiny life is left to rot away and be trampled upon by grander objects that lack the time to notice it. He cannot help, but feel the strong tug of loneliness that results from being ignored by other plants and humans, and the feeling of being useless because his only choice in life is to keep growing and spring back up whenever he is put down. He is a perennial plant that has had to carry the weight of being thought of as being more trouble than he is worth, which excites in him the feeling of shame.
Although, he is thought of as annoying, he has done nothing wrong and the only blame that could stick to him is that he is not as pretty as the daisies and the sweet peas. But, the dandelion cannot help being himself, which is why he asks the world why it is so crucial to resemble everyone else. This life was given to him and even though he may not smell as pleasant or be seen as attractive as another flower, he still reaches towards the heavens like all other plants.
As time passes, a human walks towards him and he braces himself for the inevitable heel of the boot. But, he is surprised to find the human crouching down and moving to gently pick him up. He is lifted away from the place where he was tortured by the beautiful daisies and sweet peas, laughing at them because for the first time he was the one that was chosen. His leaves are used to add flavor to salads, his roots were used to cure liver problems, stomach pains, diabetes, and fevers. This weed had stopped reaching for the sky and had now relaxed, because he had realized that he is more significant than the daisies and sweet peas whom were only picked to be stuffed in glass vases.
"For the Birds" by Sierra Wylie
The caged sparrow hung her head in silence, forgoing the simple joy of singing. This gift that was once taken for granted now would not come so easily. There was something rather disappointing about looking out of the same plastic alabaster bars day after day, year after year. She had once flitted about her insulting enclosure, banging against the sides of a world that was much too small- but that time had ended. It was an affront to her pride- her natural free state of being- to exhibit the tendencies of flight. Spreading her feathered wings was a cruel hypocrisy.
The alien giants appeared to believe they were doing her a favor, placing her small domain adjacent to a glass temptation of paradise. Oh, she could see the world. She watched in agony as her kin lived lives she would never take for granted. As they praised the glorious sunshine with their instinctual melodies, all that the sparrow could think of was her own imprisonment.
When winter’s harsh winds relented to allow spring’s sweet breath of life to exhale, the monsters would open the glass, if only a crack. It was a bittersweet rebirth. She experienced immeasurable bliss with the entrance of the fresh air- it felt so exhilarating after months of stale oxygen. It stirred something deep within her, though, illuminating the most painful aspect of her being. A small muscle that beat, buried in her feathered breast cried to join the chorus of the birds that flew through the fresh new morning. When that heart was denied its freedom, the sparrow lost her ability to fly.
A melody from the sparrow would be the reverberations of a funeral dirge; the melancholy notes of a lamentation, for the true blissful chirp of a bird, that one often thinks of, is its ode to freedom. While this song was one she could not sing, she yearned for the day when it would be as natural as breathing. She knew that her life would not end in the same manner of its beginning, for the cage could not be her only home. This knowledge, this determination, became her sole motivation to lift her beak to the rising sun.
The pale giants began to ignore the very creature that was once a beloved pet when the sparrow reached the realization that banging against the ivory walls of her cage was a pointless endeavor. They received entertainment from her pain, for it meant she was a spectacle to be watched. Yearning for a world beyond her prison cell, she became nothing more than a fixture upon the walls of the monsters’ dwelling, aspiring to be set free from their insatiable desire for endless possession.
Dust grew on the walls as if it were moss on ancient trees. The aliens had not walked past the sparrow’s humble prison in what seemed like a small eternity.
Lonely days and nights passed by without a second thought on her part until the storm arrived- changing everything. Tumultuous winds shook the suburban dwelling, striking the glass panes of the window with unforgiving gusts.
The bird’s cage, hanging precariously from the ceiling, swung back and forth, submitting to the will of Mother Nature. The sparrow sought no more freedom in this moment than she expected from her years of misfortune. With one final swing of the cage on its hook, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, the sparrow’s plastic abode crashed to the marble tile of the floor. The cheap, fragile structure surrendered to the strength of the stone, and the world became a wide open expanse for the bird to seize. She could hardly believe this godsend, yet she opened her dull-feathered wings fully for the first time in such a long time, and rose from the rubble of her prison.
The sparrow breached the boundary of the glass window, her strength weak but her will mighty. The storm had set a nearly impossible task before her, but her wings beat down against the unrelenting gusts of the wind. Fresh air tasted like freedom to her senses dulled by years of incarceration. She flew on into the stormy night, not for one moment looking back.