You stand at the edge of a soccer field where your kids play in the late afternoon, maybe thinking how subtle middle age was in its arrival, how time passes as you attend to your kids and their lives. The sounds of shouts and laughter dim as you walk along the woods surrounding the grounds. Overhead, the leaves stir with a sibilant breeze.
Your attention drifts to the shade, and it reminds you of something, a storybook line, a haunted grove, a stand of shadows. Then you notice a trail and, wondering where it leads, you follow it into the trees.
You realize that you’ve been here before. It’s the same path you walked as a child: ahead, a flare of twilight across glass bottles, then a line of fence posts, crumbled concrete, a broken bicycle frame half-submerged in earth—remnants of some forgotten homestead.
In the clearing you find your old tent strung with rope and green canvas from the war your father doesn’t talk about. You stoop and the floor is cool, smooth as pottery. Inside: a bow, quivered arrows, and plastic compass. You had forgotten these things from days full of wonder and taking the world’s measure with the height, width, and breadth of your imagination.
Suddenly you remember shooting arrows into the sky with your cousin who doesn’t live past his twenties and you watch them disappear overhead and the trick is to catch the flash of each arrow’s side when it turns toward earth, and your cousin laughs as you both scramble, the arrow landing with a thunk where you just stood.
And you remember reading poetry for the first time. The lines are corridors you move around in, rooms for reflection, and you can see the spider holding the moth in Robert Frost’s “Design.” Later, when you learn “stanza” means “room” in Italian, you think, Well, of course.
And you remember being baptized with your mom by the preacher who is kind and full of mirth, who talks about unfathomable love, and you feel the congregation holding its breath when he baptizes you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Afterwards, soaked and shivering with your mom outside the sanctuary, just the two of you, you’re giddy and laughing like children with a secret.
You know if you stay in this place your brother and sister will step from the trees lithe and sleek as deer, and you will share sips of water from your father’s canteen and a cup that collapses into your pocket like magic. You know at the far end of the path is a house where your parents are young and omnipotent. Beyond that, who knows?
Just then, someone says Daddy. You turn and your daughter takes your hand. You were gone forever, she says. The two of you join her brother and sister waiting in the near dark. You drive them home and don’t look back. Before you arrive, seeing your house at the end of the street, your son says, It’s like a lighthouse.
Later you wonder what your children will remember about these days and where the past will find them, taking their breath away with memories of people and places long gone—and a time when they first measured the world.
Robert Erle Barham’s work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Complete Sentence, the Baltimore Review, the Florida Review, Beautiful Things from River Teeth, Appalachian Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at a liberal arts college in Georgia and lives with his family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This essay was originally published by Current.