A Sun Dog Afternoon
home may be the hardest place to be
There were rituals to coming home that had to be closely observed, if the delicate peace the house had achieved was to be maintained. It was called Sugar Valley on the map, but Sara laughed out loud the first time she saw it written. No one who had ever lived there called it that. Home is almost always a bittersweet place, she thought, and Sugar Valley was surely more bitter than sweet. Maybe that’s how most everyone felt about their home, though.
She always stopped at the frog holler on the way home, where the valley began to narrow, to remind herself to put away all the things she had once run there from. When she made it up the driveway, a walk through the garden – neutral ground, where the newest plants could be admired and greeted - was always first. Her mother would have food, which would have to be eaten and praised, followed by drinks on the porch. “The first drink I’ve had in almost a year,” her mother would say. She’d said the same thing when Sara came home last month. Then the sun would fall behind the ridge, and that mountain breeze would begin to come down. Sara would go inside then, to slip out the downstairs to watch the fireflies rising down by the creek. It was safer to be further from the house. The next morning, she would call Liz, and they would go up to the lake.
It was a long walk, but it wasn’t steep until the very end. The little lake hid behind a curtain of hemlock and ash trees. In the 1930's, there had been a CCC camp in the valley, and they had cut the first trail up to the lake. She loved to hear her grandmother talk about her mother getting dressed up, to drive from town all the way out into the country for the Saturday night dances. She imagined they had been quite different affairs than the field parties she’d gone to in high school, but it made her smile to think of her great-grandmother flirting with boys around a campfire in Sugar Valley, just like she once had.
Liz had moved away, too, but they came back home a few times a year, and in every season of life. They would meet in the field halfway between their parents’ houses, and walk the rest of the old road together, because it gave them more time to talk. When they were in college, they would bring a bottle of whiskey with them. Laughing, a little tipsy, their conversations roamed freely through time – the past, present, and future - but always came back to boys. Other years they moved more slowly, tired and heartbroken, stopping to talk and cry. Then, there were spring afternoons when they were so high on the possibility of their lives, they ran fast down the familiar trails, as if they were indestructible, which is how she felt until that fall.
That year, home for Thanksgiving break, she called Liz, her voice shaking. They were 21, and there was a boy she thought she loved, but she knew he would be even more scared than she was. Liz met her in the field the next day, and held out the box, and a small flask.
“One way or another, I figured we’d need this,” Liz said.
Sara stepped off the trail, behind a magnificent white oak tree, and Liz followed her without saying anything else. When she finished, she set the white stick on a rock by their feet and they passed the whiskey between them.
“You’ll tell me when it’s done?” Sara asked, looking down the trail the way they had come, and Liz nodded and reached out for her hand. A few minutes later, she squeezed it, and she heard Liz take too big of a breath before saying, “Sara, it’s going to be ok.”
Her face turned white then, and she burst out crying. They never made it to the lake that day. Her mother found out, some months later, and then she didn’t come back home for a long time.
Finally, after some years, a truce was declared. The first winter she came back home, Liz asked to meet at the house instead of the field. It would be easier, with the kids. She’d just had twins - two blonde boys, “One for each of us,” she joked. So they set out for the lake with babies attached to them, moving oh-so-slowly as they walked over the ice that coated every surface. They took the final steps cautiously as they carried the weight of the new lives they suddenly found themselves with. The boys slept most of the way, and Sara tried not to picture what would happen if she slipped and fell forward. She counted the bones in her body that she would break to break their fall, gladly, and wondered why children were made so soft.
When they reached the top and made their way through the trees to the water’s edge, she saw that the small lake was frozen over. She had only seen this happen once before, and she started laughing as she looked over to Liz.
“Do you remember…” she said, giggling softly and trying not to wake the sleeping blonde beast on her chest, "..the time we caught the lake on fire?”
Liz’s eyes went wide, and she brought a hand to her mouth, and started laughing softly, too.
“I thought we were going to burn down the whole mountain. And go to jail. I’m not sure what for, but we definitely thought we would go to jail, ” Liz said, grinning widely.
They were 8 or 9 years old, and a cold snap had come through late that winter. They’d headed up to see the icicles that grew on the rock walls on the trail up, some of them 3 or 4 feet in length, as the mountain cried itself to sleep on the long, cold, winter nights. They said they were going to see the ice, but they really went to shoot off fireworks they had stolen from Liz’s older brother. When they got up to the lake, they took turns lighting M-90’s and throwing them out on the ice. They were trying to bust a hole in the crust, for no other reason than to see the wreckage – they were like boys, that way, she’d once thought - when Sara threw one hard and low across the pond.
It skittered all the way across and exploded, unfortunately, in a small tuft of grass on the far side. Sara and Liz looked at one another, panicked, and then comically set off in opposite directions to run around to the other side. Liz made it first, and she was already trying to kick through the ice while shouting something incomprehensible to Sara, who was hesitantly stomping at the small flames around the edges of the spreading, charred blackness. Finally, Liz broke through the ice, and started flailing and kicking at the water, then reaching down to scoop large handfuls of cold water towards the flames.
Between their efforts, after a few minutes, they managed to get the small fire put out. Once they did, they saw just how very small it really was, and they collapsed onto the snow and laughed until the tension left their small, vibrating bodies. It was the first time she had set in motion a series of events she could not control, Sara later thought, and she felt undone by the action. They had never told anyone about that day, though she couldn’t find a particularly good reason for that now.
It had taken the Corps several years to finish the trail, and they had carved out thick, tall, stone steps at the end. Sara had done that hike so many times, and the first time was so long ago, that the memories blurred together.
She remembered climbing up the final steps when she was small enough to still need help – and then, quite suddenly it seemed, the years passed and she was the one holding tight to little fingers wrapped around hers. She felt like she was seeing the lake for the first time again, that time. As she crouched down to point those little eyes towards a heron high-stepping through the water, the trees grew taller and the water more grew more expansive. She felt the faint echo of a memory, elusive itself but bringing everything around her into sharper relief. She thought - this is what trees were supposed to look like. This is how a lake is supposed to be shaped. She closed her eyes, and felt the wind and sun on her face, and thought – this is how fall is supposed to feel.
Sara and Liz talked furiously and quickly as they walked around the lake. They filled up each moment with hurried stories and laughter and tears, that were constantly interrupted by children screaming and leaping every which way with the force of their being that they were just beginning to understand. She watched the two little blond boys turn over rocks in the creek that fed the pond, running towards them every now and then with aching fingers to hold out the tiny treasures they had found.
How young and foolish she had been then, to think that home was a place she wanted to be. There was a sun dog that afternoon, making a red halo as it sunk down behind the mountain. The sun set early that time of year, and it was late in the evening when the moon appeared. That in between time had its own certain kind of fear.
They walked back down the trail finally, in a fading light with the boys on their back, and then she heard a small voice behind her ask, “Mommy, is Sara our family?” Her heart cracked open a bit more then. She held on a little tighter to the small legs wrapped around her waist, and kept on going down the trail, towards the house that was still trying to be home.