When I smell spearmint, I think of blackberries. They sprawl along our creek in heaping tangles of maroon thorns and bleached twigs. Beneath the arching vines, damp air fills with the musty molder of leaves and seeps across the water. Mosquitoes dance along the glassy surface, jerking erratically as if they can already taste my blood. And it was never long before they did. My bite-speckled legs and scabbed arms bore testimony to it.
My sister and I used our fingernails to press deep ‘x’s into the obnoxious welts, which we devoutly believed decreased the itch. After all, no one wanted to run back to the house, even if it was only a few minutes down the road.
Our neighbors lived further from the creek bank, but they discovered it first. The narrow road passed above it and cedars formed an unkempt mass along the hillside. A few clung tightly to the edge of the gravel, which at one point poured in a mixture of dark soil and dust over the hillside, sloping down into a grassy collision.
I always went barefoot—almost as if it was holy ground. It seemed like desecration to crush the tiny flowers speckled among the shades of frosty green and emerald. Every now and then a dandelion lay among them like a sunspot on earth.
My sisters and I tucked the dandelions between our fingers and pretended they were rings. Then we scattered them in the water and watched as it bore them away through the currents, sweeping them to unknown lands. Or a snag of branches. We often wondered how far they would go.
Sometimes we explored the bends of the creek, but the main attraction was the pool. It lay almost on equal level with the moist, mossy bank—held in place by a dam of stout boulders arranged by an unknown engineer. A thin sheet of water passed over the top.
The pool was only about a foot deep—maybe two at most—but its bed held more sand than pebbles and if you lay on your stomach, you could swim—theoretically. Of course, doing so sent the minnows fleeing upstream—with us in pursuit on most occasions. They were experts at avoiding our grasping hands no matter what traps we devised. Eventually, my sisters and I employed more sophisticated methods. We fished them out with a butterfly net.
Once, we discovered an odd wire box tucked under the embankment. Two large fingerlings—almost the length of my hand—butted against the confining bars. We attempted to pry the trap open, but its rusty sides withstood us and we regretfully left the fish to their fate. I never saw the trap again.
Originally, my mom disapproved of our excursions because she couldn’t keep an eye on us. I was around six or seven when our neighbors first brought us to the pool. We played for a few hours and my mom vented her worry when we returned.
“Where on earth were you?” she exclaimed, hurrying up the driveway to meet us. “I looked for you!”
An old well stood near the pool—tucked against the hillside. Its thick cement sides formed a worn pipe that towered at twice my height, but if you climbed the hillside, you could jump high enough to grasp the mossy mouth. Zebedee, one of the neighbor kids, tried it first. I remember anxiously coaxing him from his unsteady perch. He was too curious and he leaned too far. And my mom had forbidden us to climb it.
Zebedee and I climbed it anyway—much to the disapproval of my older sister. She tattled on us later and we both received a lecture.
It never stopped us from climbing the well to throw rocks in it. We just did it when my sister wasn’t around. We would cling to the edge and count the long seconds before the dull thud. One…two…three…four. Then the rock hit the stagnant layers of leaves in the depths. Peering down into the blackness with my feet braced against the pipe, I could feel the damp air bring a chill to my face. Then a car would pass by and I would quickly abandon my perch and huddle at the base of the well, hiding behind Zebedee. I wonder how many people actually saw us.
Across the pool, a boulder the color of slate rose in a jagged wall. I tried to climb it once, but an overgrowth of poison oak forced me to retreat, and after experiencing an extensive rash, I admitted defeat. I turned my efforts toward the opposite bank, where a craggy willow wove its gnarled roots through the sandy ledge. One thick limb curved over the water, forming an ideal seat. If I set my back to the curve, I could see my reflection beneath me—a faint watercolor shaded by dusky pebbles.
The willow sprouted hairy shoots that took over my seat, however, and the red ants traveling the rugged grooves of bark caused me to relinquish the perch to my sisters, who quickly abandoned it.
Imaginative games became imaginary stories as I entered my teens. I distinctly informed my younger sister that I had a “special spot.” I wouldn’t tell her where.
With my back to the blackberries and my feet placed between the smooth peaks of rock, I sat and spun stories to the soft sounds of water. My characters had never-ending sagas and I lived them from my secluded seat, watching them play out like scenes in a movie.
Now and then, a minnow sent ripples echoing through the water, breaking the stillness. In crevices of stone and moss, flowers of Mandarin orange and gypsy yellow opened horn-like throats to drink in the sunlight. At the base of the willow, a cluster of irises sprung from the mud—draped in royal purple. The faint summer breeze brought me the smell of spearmint—the scent of fantasy.
After the first rain of fall, I would seek my haven, drawing the rich, earthy scent of life and clay into my lungs. The watershed from the road above sent a stream trickling through the twisted roots of an ancient oak, carving its way to the creek. Tapestries of moss dangled over fairy-like waterfalls and red soil.
I almost believed it was enchanted. Almost.
Then reality became stronger than fantasy, and life turned outward like the petals of the iris. A new neighbor bought the land along the creek and I graduated high school. The road became my wandering space and I passed by the entrance to my haven, seeking my thoughts elsewhere.
A few years ago, I went back. The heavy powder of dust coated my flip flops and the blackberry vines were dry, though it was still early summer. I thought of the lush grass.
The gravel slope extended closer to the creek and the grass lay flat and bruised. A deep set of tire tracks cut into the bare earth, leading to the rusty blue bulk of my neighbor’s dump truck. A few dandelions sprouted around its massive tires.
The irises were gone. Either the bulbs had died or had been uprooted.
I kicked off my flip flops and stepped into the pool. Clouds of silt and sparkling Fool’s Gold rose around my toes, but the water barely covered my ankles. Someone had pulled away the dam, pushing the boulders off the top, leaving only the submerged base to bear testimony to what had been.
I followed the narrow stream bed to the fairy waterfalls. They were dry and the moss hung stiff and yellowed against the roots. I smelled dead leaves.
The crackling of gravel under tires startled me and, out of habit, I hid behind the well. Its top was barely out of my reach now. If I stood on my tiptoes, I could touch the edge. I picked up a pebble and dropped it in—listening.
It fell in silence—too small to make a sound.
I sat on the creek bank with my feet in the water, like cold reality, wondering if memory had embellished experience and watching the dirt dissolve from my toes.
The grasses sighed and bent before the breeze. It twisted through my hair, bringing dust and the scent of spearmint.