The other children seemed to have forgotten about me for once, leaving me safe to emerge from my shadowy hiding places. I warily abandoned my cavernous apartments formed by the thorny branches of the black hawthorns and the passageways and tiny chambers under the sprawling tangles of scrub oak. I hopped, rock to rock across the stream, and made my way through the grove alongside the bank, on the other side of the garden. Sunlight broke through the canopy of cottonwoods and Russian olive trees in scattered beams of light, giving the ground the appearance of an outdoor stage covered in hundreds of tiny spotlights, just waiting for its miniature performers to arrive. I inhaled the smell of wild grass deeply, and occasionally reached out to stroke a soft silver-green Russian olive leaf. The quiet rumble of the stream soothed me, and as I watched the stray cottonwood puffs drifting languidly on the barely-noticeable breeze, my shoulders began to relax, and I started to enjoy the day.
It was early summer, school had just ended, and I could hear the other children in the distance laughing and hollering out to one another, enjoying that brief space of pure pleasure before summer’s novelty wears off and boredom begins to creep in as the hours of daylight expand along with the suffocating heat. I reached the edge of David’s backyard, just behind his fort. It was a large rectangular monstrosity that appeared to be growing right out of the brush and cottonwoods surrounding it. For the time, the fort was empty, and I worried that David might not be home to come and rescue me if I had misjudged the mood of the other children, but the lure of the wild places amid the acres of pastures, the rope swing, and all the discoveries the day could potentially hold were too tempting for me to ignore, and I climbed the few feet down the muddy bank and stepped into the icy water. I stood still for a few seconds letting it wash over me, relishing the contrast between the warmth of the air and the cool of the water before making my way to the tunnel.
The tunnel was about ten feet high and ribbed like cardboard. I remember the feel of the smooth, wet metal against the bare soles of my feet. I took a few steps forward and wriggled my toes in the fine sand that gathered in the valleys between the metal hills. The sounds of the other children were closer, but the echo from the stream muffled the noise just enough that I could pretend to be all alone for a while longer, time enough for me to gather the courage to set foot in the same general area as the others. I made my way back to the entrance of the tunnel and dug around the stream bed for a few minutes until I found a smooth matte-black rock only slightly smaller than my palm. I rubbed my thumb over the surface and felt the nerves begin to melt.
I made my way back into the tunnel, jumping a little at the roar as a car drove right overhead, then I emerged in the strange in-between space that always made my skin crawl just a little. On either side coming out of the mouth of the tunnel were steep banks about twelve to fifteen feet high, and only slightly wider than the tunnel’s opening. The opening of the tunnel was about five feet back from the chain-link fence in front of it, and the steep bank to the left dropped low again right before the fence, leaving barely enough room to slide under on my stomach where a half-moon hole had been cut and pulled out at the bottom. The right bank stayed high, giving the rope swing a nice launch pad to jump off and swing across the river.
I climbed up the right bank, hoping to use the rope swing, but Adam was there with his friend’s, and while he was alright, most of his friends were bullies who considered me their prime target. It wasn’t worth the risk of having to interact with them, so instead I decided to go exploring and see what tasty wild edibles were growing over the hill. I turned and crossed the field heading away from the stream and towards the hill. I had stopped to examine the wild plants growing up the slope, and had happily grabbed a small handful shepherd’s purse when the ground began to vibrate and I heard thunder rolling right towards me. I stood there, still half-bent over, unable to make my young mind register what was happening, and more importantly, what it all meant for me.
Suddenly the herd of horses that lived on that land appeared on the ridge of the hill right above me. It had been silent only moments before, then suddenly the sound overwhelmed me, and then they were there, right on top of me, a whole line of them coming up over the ridge like a wave come to life. It seemed like there were hundreds of them; everywhere I looked there were shades of rust, grey, and blond. White, coffee, obsidian, and caramel coats and manes seemed almost suspended in air as the horses came flying over the ridge. I’d seen them all many times, but they must have been just out of sight grazing right before the stampede when something spooked them; a fox, or a quail in the brush, maybe. None of that made its way into my mind until later, however, instead, all I could do was freeze.
At first, it looked like I’d be trapped right in the middle of the herd, but they flew past just to my left. I could feel the cool wind they made on my cheek. Thick clods of moist soil flew up in chunks everywhere, like burnt popcorn. I could hear the front of the herd crash into the stream and back out again, and I could hear the others behind them as they continued to splash through the water.
As the back of the herd approached, and fewer horses made their way past me, I caught sight of trouble. There was a young, dark chocolate foal directly in front of me, maybe twenty feet away up the hill. It was young and new and completely uncoordinated, with legs that clearly had turned against him. The poor creature’s eyes were as wide as the moon as they locked onto mine and we knew, both of us, that this was going to end badly. Twenty feet may seem like an awful lot when thinking in the abstract, or looking at a stationary object, but I can assure you that it all goes away improbably fast in a situation like the one I was faced with. This foal was trying to keep up with a spooked herd and a hilltop snuck up on him. If I’d had the time to think about it, I’d have felt sorry for the poor thing; he’d lost all ability to stop or to turn or to in any way avoid hitting the equally small human that had just materialized before his very eyes. And we both knew it.
I don’t remember any pain when he ran me down. He was young and small and it didn’t hurt, but the strangest thing was that there wasn’t any fear in me, there was awe. Awe at nature and the universe and at the small creature who had just ran me down. There was also relief. He stumbled and fell, but after a halting first attempt, he shot back up like a spring, and continued his wild flight down the hill and across the stream.