(here one of the Satikushes–the guard-cats at The Towers that are A Word with You Press-invites a tummy rub)
Laura Girardeau has an entry into our contest Once upon a Time in which apparently she takes great pride! And well she should. Lions are the king of beasts, and the beasts of kings. Laura’s plea? “Play with me!” Who could refuse?
Here is the prologue to
The Secret Place
by Laura Girardeau
Adults worry about what doesn’t matter, like how I hold my fork and scissors. Yesterday, Mrs. Norris called my mom to say that even though I can read and the others can’t, she’s worried about passing me through kindergarten because of the way I hold my scissors. I’m left-handed and there’s no place for my thumb. I can stand on my hands longer than any boy, and speak my thoughts louder than any girl, but the scissors are what matter.
At home, my parents tell me I’m holding my fork wrong instead of asking me how I feel or what I love. I’m holding it right, anyway—the easiest way. They are holding much more than their forks wrong—they are holding each other wrong by not holding at all. I’m not allowed to eat until I hold it their way. I try to tell them they can’t eat until they love each other, but they won’t play their own game.
This it the only place that matters. This is the only place I matter: here, where the wind breathes wild. It’s after school, what I call The Golden Time, when grass glints and lion spirits wait for blood in the bushes beside me. “Take me,” I yell as I run past them. Let me join you. Please.
The first sign that I’m entering the Secret Place is the hard metal gate. If you licked it, it would sting of society and rust. I used to lick raindrops from the railing all the way home from school, but I grew wiser when I learned the taste of metal.
I hitch up my Toughskins and jump to the other side. The stripes on my terry cloth shirt seem brighter as birdsong cascades over blackberry vines. I hook my kindergarten-proof thumbs in my belt loops and start to run, my girl-boy breast heaving in happiness. Golden grasses shimmy past my calves with a rattlesnake hiss. Crickets beat my quickening pulse. Take me, I say to the lions. Play with me.
I know where to go, running down the path only I can see. Turn right at the crab-apple tree. Throw some to the sky and watch them stop for one delicious moment before falling back down. Feel your body pucker at their sharp, green taste. As I cleave the path open, I think, “My mom doesn’t know where I am, and couldn’t find me if she did.” This twinges me like that tart apple taste.
I never know how to find the Secret Place. The way is hidden, and that’s what makes it mine. It only lets me in if I’ve been good.
“Have you been holding your fork wrong? How about the scissors?” The wind asks, lifting the cottonwood leaves to show me their delicate, silver underbellies.
“Of course,” I answer. “Don’t I always do everything wrong?”
“Good. Have you gotten your parents to hug yet?”
The answer is always no, but that’s why I’m here.
I always find The Secret Place a different way—by smell, sometimes—and only when I’m not trying. I must love enough. I must love the trees and the grasses, the crab-apples and the lions, or they will die. I would too, if it weren’t for this place.
So I stick my nose to the ground and smell joy. The spring mud smells of pollywogs yet unborn, and leads me to a pine-needle bed. I roll in it awhile, loving it thoroughly. As the sun slants into my bower, a spider weaves a masterpiece for my wall. I hook my thumbs into my belt loops and forget all about the Secret Place.
That’s when I find it. My pine-needle bed opens onto a clearing, and I slink across to look for the lions. I see the path that might be familiar, and I remember what I know. A few steps and I’m through the last gate—the one I can’t see, only feel. This is where it matters. This is where I matter.
I’m running now, down the magic hill to the moss-covered oak. I climb up and hug its dripping fur, surveying my world. And God said, “It is good.” It all spreads out before me now—what is possible, if I can just get my parents to hug like these trees. The singing brook playing four clefs at once, the blackberry bramble-cave arched over it like a cathedral, the pollywog pond full of frogs-to-be like giant, twitching sperm, the miniature cherry tree that worships the brook with ever-open arms.
I worship, too. I lie on the hill, arms and legs spread to the brook, my heart playing those four clefs of happiness. What I will later find only in the arms of a lover, at five I find in the arms of the world. This is not just my place. This is Me. It gives me that tart-apple feeling again.
The Secret Place has since been mowed down to make room for more families, with all their forks and scissors, and that tart-apple twinge eludes me.
Sometimes at three a.m., when all the cars have stopped and I can hear the wind breathing a certain way, the bed next to my husband feels tiny and stifling. There’s no room to throw apples to the sky, no spider making masterpieces just for me.
My now-girl breast heaving, I run to the clearing in the living room and roll naked on the carpet, rooting for the smell of pollywogs in spring mud. “Take me,” I plead to the lions.