Nola had studied the local history of her town in her library class, fascinated especially by the old photographs. Some things looked familiar to her, like the downtown storefronts, even with the horses and buggies parked along Main Street instead of cars. But other pictures were unidentifiable; they looked completely foreign as if they weren’t taken in her town at all.
She listened intently to the town historian as she explained that Darlington was one of many suburbs around New York City that grew out of a once predominantly agricultural community. There were still vague remnants of a few old farms, though they were dwindled down to only a handful of measly acres now. Bits and pieces of the woodland areas scattered throughout the currently upscale and quaint neighborhoods were actually once farmer’s fields, overgrown through the course of a mere half century or so with large oaks, hemlocks, maples and sycamores, the forest reclaiming what the plow had abandoned just a few generations ago. It amazed Nola how quickly nature could change things, how fast it erased all human traces if given half the chance.
Nola’s own home was a quaint old farmhouse preserved from another era, once part of one of the largest farms in Darlington, owned by members of the Darlington family themselves. She saw lots of pictures of the house at the library, but only a few of the people who lived there, other than Ramsey Darlington, the town founder, his pictures were plentiful. Her house had once had acres and acres of land around it, all cleared and nearly flat. Today the land surrounding her house was barely a quarter acre. Much of the original parcel had been sold off lot by lot during the housing boom of the fifties and the rest was eventually donated by the Darlington family to nearby Mahwah Mountain College for expansion in the sixties.
Landlocked behind Nola’s home was a 10-acre tract of woods, likely once one of those flat, cleared fields where maybe cows grazed or corn grew. Along the perimeter of the former field was the remarkably intact vestiges of a low, stone wall, no doubt built by that long gone Darlington farmer who once lived in Nola’s house. Today the wall acted as a divider of sorts; along one length of it the woods were divided from the houses of the bordering street, and on the other side it outlined the edge of the rolling college lawns. Across the third side, the farthest stretch of wall from Nola's yard, it created a property line for another old Darlington farmhouse, smaller than Nola's, but of the same era.
Nola liked to think about the farmer that lived in her house, and his wife and children. She pictured them picking up rocks turned up by the plough and placing them upon the ever-growing wall, stone by stone. Nola could imagine that maybe the children might be able to identify which individual stones they’d each placed there, maybe even proudly boasting about which one of them had laid the largest one, heavier than his or her brothers and sisters were able to lift. Nola always imagined there were lots of kids; all those old time farmers had big families. Grandee had told her it was necessary to have lots of children because there was a lot of work to do, and sadly sometimes the children didn’t all live so they needed to have as many as they could to ensure there’d be enough to carry on the farm. Times were different back then, harder for children and adult alike.
It must have been a daunting task to lay a rock wall like that if you thought about it, but Nola guessed they didn’t give it much thought, that farmer and his family with all his many kids. They probably just took it in stride and did what needed to be done. That’s what it seemed like all people from the past did. Whenever her grandmother told her stories from her own childhood it seemed like people in the generations past accepted their lot in life better than people did today. At least that’s what she always said.
Nola loved her house, and she loved her street and the surrounding neighborhood, but perhaps her favorite place lay in those woods behind her home. Safely contained within the confines of that old stone wall at the center of the woodland, was a place called the Sycamore Cave by the local children, as they’d called it since before Nola was born, though it wasn’t a cave by any means. It was actually a half downed tree, what once was an impressive sycamore, it’s trunk 20 feet in diameter, over 100 feet tall. But lightening had struck the giant, probably back when it stood alone in that cleared farmer’s field, and the top half had been severed almost all the way through, but not quite. It snapped and fell in such a way that the upper portion stayed attached to the trunk, and, as if bending down from the waist, the top landed astride of it. The once lush, long limbed canopy was now upside down and created a fifty-foot cone of sorts, like a teepee of tangled limbs.
Through the years vines and brambles quickly grew over the outer branches so that the interior, starved of sunlight, was completely hidden from view and only a carpet of dry leaves blanketed the ground within. Bare, dead limbs on the shaded interior of the “cave” seemed almost like a rickety framework, an unfinished cathedral created by some crazy architect, now abandoned. You could climb to the top, the once middle of the tree, if you were brave enough. Nola hadn’t attempted it since she was little, but then she never made it to the top. She was glad now she hadn’t. She decided not to try anymore, to leave it unclimbed.
Nola often wondered if Ethan had ever seen the tree, but her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t, Grandee said he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood with Granda. They’d be gone for hours and Granda would come back carrying Ethan, half asleep, they’d gone so far in their travels that it had worn him out. Nola always wished she could have known her grandfather. Everyone, even Grandee, said he was a mean man; a hard man is what she’d say. Nola’s own dad would shake his head and say his father was a tough old coot, “hard as nails and twice as sharp.” But everyone agreed he had a soft spot, a special place in his heart for his grandson. Nola knew her grandmother felt that way about her, that she held that kind of special place in Grandee’s heart. But it would have been nice to have a grandfather carry her home after an adventure.
Everywhere Nola went in her neighborhood, her little world, she wondered if Ethan had been there before her. As she got older than he had been when he died, she began to realize that his world had been rather small, he hadn’t had the chance to expand it the way she did. She was the lucky one, her mother would often say, who got to do all the things he didn’t get a chance to. Sometimes when she’d whine about something she couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed to do her mother would give her a sad look and say, “You should feel lucky for all the things you do have, all the things you do get to do, your poor brother didn’t get his chance.” It always made Nola feel bad. Whenever she got to do something that she knew Ethan didn’t get the opportunity to experience she felt like she should try extra hard to enjoy it. That way maybe she could make up for what he missed. It was difficult, though, and she never felt like it was enough, never felt like she could enjoy things enough for the two of them.
When grown-ups mentioned Ethan to her mother or father, which they rarely did, but if they did, they would always say what a blessing Nola must be to them. Her parents smiled and said yes, thank God for Nola, they didn’t know what they would do without her. But Nola didn’t feel like a blessing. She wished she did, she wished she could be a comfort, a gentle reminder that Ethan had been here on earth.
She’d already lived longer than her brother, she’d surpassed him, she was in a new territory beyond his knowing, his touch. Darlington had been Ethan’s home just like it was the home of the farmer’s children who lived in her house, yet those children would hardly recognize their home now, the woods in what was once their level, cleared field would seem as foreign to them as another planet. Would it be that way for Ethan, too? Someday the Sycamore Cave might finally fall down completely and rot into the earth, leaving no trace of the children who once climbed its lofty heights. The rock wall could crumble and the stones laid with care would disappear beneath the leafy mulch of the forest floor. That felt unforgivable to Nola. Time was cruel, unyielding. It felt unsafe.
six words: see ya soon - minor eye injury still needs healing