Neighbor Boys II
Pre-warning: I take nothing seriously, so laugh along with me at any over-dramatic tone, and remember what it felt like, too, to be a child-warrior.
Half-way through my life on our cul-de-sac, a giant neighborhood was built behind ours, pushing close to our woods. The contractor met with our parents, asking if part of our property could be built upon. Our parents gave away the rights, with one condition. "Our children like to play in what they call the Quarry, or the Frog Pond, down in the woods. The new neighborhood is going to stand in their way. Could you please make it possible for them to still get to it?"
"Of course," said the contractor eagerly.
The construction commenced, and we used to hear the "beep beep beep" of the warning signal before the dynamite blasted. We would run and put our bike helmets on for protection. "In case rocks fly over the trees and fall on us," we said. We half knew we were pretending, and half were serious.
The neighborhood that was built was called Boxbury Hills, and it ended up dwarfing us like a skyscraper. The 2.5 million dollar homes were of cookie-cutter design and on perfectly manicured lawns. Between two of the mansions, 27 Boxbury Hills and 29 Boxbury Hills, was an unpainted wooden fence. Perhaps grudgingly put in, and obscuring the inhabitant's aesthetic view... but that was OUR PATH. With a fence on one side, and a fence on the other, we were immune. The posts were our bodyguards to escort to our Frog Pond. Safe in the law. Innocent in the eyes of landowners. (If you go there today it is still there.)
But there was a glitch in the contract. We could get down to our Pond once we were on the street of the new neighborhood. But to GET to the street we couldn't do it without trespassing. That was an insignificant detail overlooked. It was like being promised a piece of cake and then being put in a cage with the cake five feet away from you outside the bars.
Lawns stood in our way. Clipped, velvety lawns.
"Let's just cross," we said to each other bravely. Nervous in the shadow of these foreign houses, we would edge along the woods - even suffering to be scratched by raspberry brambles - where we knew we couldn't be told we were trespassing, and then we would run across the point of the yard that was the shortest distance to the street. By the time we reached the pavement, and our feet touched the haven of asphalt, we were tripping along like true children, who know that theirs is the world and all that is in it.
Our Frog Pond was beautiful - it was a deep basin filled with cattails and frogs, surrounded by a sunshiny field with blackberries and black-eyed susans. We would play there and catch wriggly tadpoles in plastic containers, and then as the sun was setting, we would walk back along the Boxbury Hills road, muddy-ankled, and look at all the silent lawns - yawning mouths of green - and wonder, "Where are all the children?" In our neighborhood we were always bike riding, playing every single game you can think of, drawing with chalk, etc. Here we never saw anyone.
But we knew there were kids there, because we had spied on the house (the one infringing the closest to our neighborhood, getting awfully close to the pine-tree hospital of our woods-town Littleton), and we watched the construction of a huge playhouse, the tallest and biggest one we had ever seen, with a canopied top and medieval turrets, with the words, "Princess Madeleine" on it. There was at least a girl in this empty land.
So, like the dying breed we were, that believed that if children lived next door to each other, they played with each other, we decided to graciously extend relations. Diplomats with Band-Aides on our knees, we went to that house and knocked on the door. After a long time, a man opened to us. He was handsome and nice-looking. But he looked at the five boys and one girl standing on his doorstep strangely. It was very awkward, and suddenly I realized, with the delicate feeling even kids have, that we were not welcome. You know when you're being looked at by someone who thinks you are not where you should be. I felt more of a trespasser then, standing on a strange doorstep like a proper person, than in any other of our more unscrupulous transgressions.
"We were wondering," we said, summoning a great amount of effort and being overly polite, "If your daughter wanted to come out and play with us." We were pleased at our bravery, having the sensation of being hospitable in our own country.
"Oh, I'm sorry, kids," he smiled. "She's at baseball practice."
"Oh," we said. And continued, untutored, "Do you know when she'll be back?"
He volleyed. "Oh, I'm not sure, guys. But I'll let her know you came by." He smiled.
"Thanks," we said, and turned away.
We knew we wouldn't ever see her; and we didn't. Even a kid knows when he has been snubbed.
We were embarrassed but not too hurt, and just did what was natural: we scorned the playhouse and the yard and derided the invisible unseen girl, to the end of her livelong days. Natural, like I said.
Beyond the Frog Pond was glorious Rivendell, a limpid stream that skirted an enormous boulder and laughed through the roots of an up-turned tree, and splashed into a lake.
One day, in Rivendell, during the springtime when the water really rushes, while we were playing that we were Smeagol dropping a Sculpey ring into the river, we heard a,
in that tone of voice no kid should hear. If you've heard it, you know it, and you wince to hear it. It's the Boxbury voice. And then you're inadvertently on the threshold of, "Run?" or "Parley?"
I, often the diplomat, stood up and smiled pleasantly. Safest to talk. It gave us a better chance of keeping our playland than running like primary-colored deer in full sight.
"Hey! What ARE you kids doing?" It was a woman from the neighborhood, her arms folded and her nails done, peering at us through the trees from her yard.
"Playing," I called back. "We come here sometimes."
"Well, you know," she said in that reasonable grown-up's voice, "I'd really love for you guys to have fun, but there are liabilities. You know, if one of you gets hurt, there could be a lawsuit against us. I'm sorry."
Liabilities? What were liabilities? (Old world, meet new world, Sarah. Nineties child, meet the legal 21st century!)
"Okay," I called back. "No, we understand. Thanks!"
We left. We would have come back - we tended not to honor trespassing laws unfortunately - but we were sensitive, and now that we knew there were eyes on us, our play was ruined. We had been so merrily unconscious, splashing our legs in the water. But now a house, a big old house, and dark curtained-windows, were watching us.
Oh, well. We could give Rivendell up. We eventually felt like even the Frog Pond was not worth the strain on our nerves with the difficulty accessing our safe fence, and gave it up. I have an essential quick story to tell, illustrating our stress with Boxbury:
In Rivendell the boys had a past time of racing bottles down the stream (however Thomas Sawyer-ish that sounds, I'm not kidding). Mostly beer bottles they found, if that sounds more prosaic. The glinting amber and cinnamon of the glass in the light... okay, just kidding. But anyway, one day, the oldest neighbor boy cut his hand on glass. I wasn't there. His younger brother heroically left them and went off on his own, through the long and dangerous trek through Boxbury, to get a Band-Aide from his house. Well, the boys grew anxious waiting for him to return, and finally up and left themselves. They must have crossed paths with the poor boy on his way, because when he got down to Rivendell, no one was there. Now, this would disconcert anyone, especially if the sun was going down. Underappreciated for his efforts in rescuing his older brother, lost and upset and alone, he made way back up to the house, once again. And... had to cross (of course) little Princess Madeleine's yard, to get to the safety of our neighborhood. I heard this second-hand, of course, but anything that ever shook up the middle son, who was tough as nails on the outside, I believe. The lady of the house, apparently not as kind as the husband, and (I'm imagining) with the voice of crows, saw him stumbling across the yard, Band-Aide in his hand, and yelled out the door, "Get off our lawn or I'm calling the police!" Apparently, our bully-ish neighbor cried.
See, we were getting worn down and fretted out by this point, so banishment from Boxbury was somewhat of a relief. We could easily relinquish that part of our northeastern territorial domain, without feeling like we were cutting off a limb.
...But there was a precious part of our land that the shadow of Boxbury reached in the northwest called...The Field.
That ground... was holy. The Frog Pond, Rivendell, those were nothing. The Field was part of us, in our skin, in our heart. And one day we went traipsing up to it, to pay homage and worship at its golden four corners, with its barons of firs on the fringes... and we heard thuds and strange purring noises, of unforest-like beasts. We ducked behind rocks - I remember the first moment of peering over the boulders - and we saw our land's bare breast, not golden - but the skin torn back and bloody brown. They ripped up our Field. They... had destroyed our Field.
Hills of dirt half the height of houses. Piles of boulders. Oh, if only those Grendels, in their roaring, smoking, chugging, yellow excavators, and bulldozers with their ungentlemanly treads that left imprints on our fair earth, could have seen the baby Geats peaking their ferocious eyes up over boulders. If only they saw the thundercloud gathering in their brows. If only they knew what destruction little sprites with bony little hands in the middle of the night could wreak. They are quick..they are small...they are fast...they are dreadful in the redressing of wrongs against their sister Nature. They haunt like shadows in the night. Even in the broad daylight they dare to wield their retribution. If only the foremen knew this, they would not have smoked their cigarettes so jocosely as they crammed another jab into the Field that jarred us.
It was Mordor, smoking, hissing, livid, real, before us.
Watching this scene, our breath quickened. What to do? We huddled behind the boulders and looked at each other, and in that moment - though later in the day we held a formal council, in cool meditated fashion ("Permission to go to war," "Permission to go to war," "Permission to go to war") - in that moment we all looked at each other, and knew that the boiling blood that had been rising in us, and our accumulated injuries from this invading enemy, had suddenly rolled into one: they had committed the last outrage that tipped tolerance, and warranted action. When you are nine, ten, eleven, even twelve - you don't think the way grown-ups do. You think, "I have played here. I have touched this land the most. It is mine." The rules by which you play, in capture the flag, you judge the world by - even the grown-up world. We looked at each other, righteous anger and heat welling up, rolling high, beating in our hearts. They had gone too far. They had infringed too deep. Diplomacy was over.
And this is where my amused tongue bites itself, and actually holds still (after this long, long tale), because, number one, we really DID fight back - somehow thinking that it was a righteous cause, and that resistance would actually "save" our land - and, number two, though it's years later, they're still looking for us. Okay, just kidding, but as the police log said, a couple times in our town newspaper, "These five individuals are smart enough (said sarcastically, of course - no compliments to us) to take different routes home and not to lead the owner of the field back to their neighborhood - and their identification."
But I feel like if they had only put two and two together, and used logic, they could have guessed which halflings of which neighborhood were the angriest against Boxbury.