One day, we stumbled across a faint trail leading to a hill we had yet to explore. Mike ordered Pat and me to cover his flanks as he crept up the hill. To our astonishment, as he crested the hill, he dropped quickly to his belly. He turned to us, motioning us to Shhhhh. With visions of enemy fire directed towards us, we took cover, holding our breath till signaled to army crawl up the hill to join him. We raced to be the first to reach him and dropped beside him as he pointed out a sign down below.
At six and just learning the entire alphabet, I could just make out the letters, “A M I N A L” carved into the wooden sign. Well it said something after that, but we couldn’t make it out. When in doubt, Pat and I deferred instantly to our older brother, whom we called Mr. Science when he wasn’t near enough to hear us. Mike was eight and knew everything already.
“It’s a warning! Animal crossing!,” he whispered excitedly, “Shhhhhh!” he commanded as Pat and I squirmed and gasped. Any moment a mountain lion could be coming along the dried-up creek bottom 10 yards below us. We held our position until dinnertime and then reluctantly headed back home. Running the mile back to our house, we agreed that this would have to remain our secret. Why, if everyone knew of the animal crossing, then they’d all show up and scare the animals away.
That summer, anytime we tired of army games, mud pie slinging, boxcar exploring, we’d take turns keeping watch on the crossing. I was envious of Mike and Pat because they had all the watches when the mountain lions, bobcats and bears showed up. As time went on, our adventures spread out and we grew up, with little free time to spend at the secret animal crossing.
After I left home for college, the entire housing camp was torn down. People just didn’t want to live there anymore, our father told us. One by one we returned to Rainbow to say our goodbyes. I waited the longest, being the one most afflicted with Irish Nostalgia. The houses, swing sets, water fountains and elaborate gardens were gone, but the trees with the bazooka limbs remained.
It took me awhile to get my bearings before I found my way back to the animal crossing. One last survey, I decided, and then I would let go of my childhood home. I found the trail to the lookout point, dropping to my scouting pose for old times sake. This was the no trespassing point that Mike had staked out, telling us sternly that if we were to drop down into the creek bed, our scent would permanently scare away the wild animals.
I took in the sight of the dried-up creek bed, the bushes and trees that banked it; I was surprised to see the sign was still there. I slid down the bank to see it better. The carved letters were so faded after all these years that I had to trace my fingers over each letter to “read” what it once said. “Aminal Graveyard” it stated. And on the back of the sign, it said, “Here lies Max, my pet mouse.”
a napo poem I am working on:
Every Time He Asks We Draw a Different Map
Our father wants to know where the trail was
to the animal crossing his children watched over
while he was at work. We lived in the country,
down river from the falls and knew not to play
near the water. Finding this sacred pathway bound us
to secrecy. We might have shared blood oaths—depends
on which of us you choose to believe. Cactus camouflaged
the path; spring brought wild asparagus and a rabbit
with a twitched nose. Afraid he’d scare away the bison
and the tigers, we bribed him with lettuce from our fridge.
From the far side of the river, our father watches now
and sends us his photos of the abandoned camp.
He understands the humor in the lesson when
we learned to read graveyard on the cross, but no one
who thinks mysteries are for solving will ever see the map.