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At the Edge of the Woods by Frances Miller

At the Edge of the Woods by Frances Miller

Fiction, Vol. 5.3, Sept. 2011

 Let’s frighten the dragons,” I said to Pooh.
“That’s right,” said Pooh to Me.
“I’m not afraid,” I said to Pooh,
And I held his paw and I shouted “Shoo!
Silly old dragons!”- and off they flew.

“I wasn’t afraid,” said Pooh, said he,
“I’m never afraid with you.”

—Excerpt from “Us Two” by A.A. Milne

When my brother left, my childhood didn’t meander away in the fading heat of autumn; rather, it was abruptly torn away. I wondered sometimes about other children. Did they float from innocence like clouds across a summer sky or was it stricken from them as if by a lightning bolt, leaving them to wander about, dazed and smoldering ?

Before he left, Christopher and I happily rambled through childhood together. As the elder, he was in charge of my amusement. We came to live with our grandparents on their farm after our parents were killed in an accident. No one ever spoke of them or our former lives together, so my brother and I invented stories about us two. I could recite A.A. Milne poems by heart and christened my blond, sweet-faced brother Christopher Robin. I was the docile little bear that followed him everywhere, or at least tried to. We explored our very own Hundred Acre Wood, a patch of forest on the edge of our property that stood like an island in a sea of fields.

When my grandfather took me for breathless rides in his crop duster plane, we’d swoop low over the fields, pulling up just in time to miss the treetops. Christopher Robin would wave cheerfully from below, seeming so small in his baggy clothes and Wellington boots. We stalked Heffalumps and Woozles and the occasional dragon in the woods on long, carefree days when Christopher took the lead as my protector. On other days, he stalked wild things alone. His long absences caused Grandmother to pace in front of the windows and Grandfather to search for him on horseback. Christopher Robin eventually returned with tales of great battles he had won, his eyes wild and huge in his pale face. I listened while our grandmother tended to his battle wounds from deep thickets and vengeful trolls. Grandmother’s lips made a thin line in her face. She warned him not to let his imagination run away with him; Christopher Robin would sulk, insisting his foes were dangerous and real.

During the “Summer of Endless Rain,” as we named it, I turned six; Christopher Robin was twelve, as long and gangly as a colt. One day, crazed with boredom, he dragged me out for a wander despite the wet. The air was warm but the rain felt cool on our faces. I sang as we splashed across the farm lanes toward the dripping darkness of the Hundred Acre Wood. Yet as the minutes went by, Christopher Robin’s mood darkened until it matched the heavy sky. He began to slice the air ferociously with a stick, mutilating nearby trees. We came to rickety Pooh Sticks Bridge, a beloved playground of ours. The bridge spanned a stinking mud hole where surely a troll lived beneath, or so my brother always said. On that day a stream plunged below it from all the rain. I ran onto the bridge and Christopher Robin trailed behind. The only other sound in the forest was the splattering of rain on leaves.

Standing in the middle of the bridge, Christopher Robin drummed his hands on the railing. “Let’s play,” I said but he didn’t seem to hear. His drumming went on, louder and angrier. He grabbed the top board of the railing with both hands and with new strength, tore it off. His wild laugh startled birds from the trees. He swung the board over the side with a great yell, and then piece by piece, he ripped the bridge apart. I used my sternest voice, telling him to stop. His laughter echoed back at us as he ran under the bridge and attacked the wobbly underpinnings with a plank. The bridge began to sway. I threw myself onto the bank and watched my brother clash with unseen enemies. In a matter of minutes, the bridge was a pile of worn planks in the mud. “I won!” he cried. “I have vanquished the enemy!” Christopher Robin stood in the swirling water before me, his blond hair plastered to his scalp, his green eyes blazing in his red face. His hands were torn, bleeding and full of splinters. “I am King of this and all Forests,” he thundered. His face looked ugly to me then; his mouth was pulled into a grimace and his light brows made a white slash above his eyes. I ran for home, tears mixed with rain on my face. I didn’t dare look back.

From that day onward, Christopher Robin seemed a different boy, given more to tantrums than smiles. He became fractious, reckless, and cruel. He nearly crashed Grandfather’s plane, taking it right to the treetops and then so low to the fields that dirt flew up in its wake. He buzzed the barnyard over and over again, terrifying the animals. One of the horses broke a leg as she tried to flee. The plane landed hard and as he walked toward the barn, Christopher Robin’s face was frozen in a wide grin. I was crouched behind a corner of the barn and watched as my brother stormed away from Grandfather’s scolding, into the house. He emerged a few minutes later with a shotgun in his hands and threw it at my grandfather. The sharp blast of the gun went through my bones and echoed back and forth across the countryside.

Later, in the house, Grandfather’s voice cracked just like the gun and sent me racing halfway up the stairs. My grandfather’s jaw muscles moved under the white stubble on his face while Christopher Robin stared unblinking and mute. Finally he walked past Grandfather, knocking him hard with his shoulder. The front door slammed so hard the china in Grandmother’s cupboard clattered. Grandfather sat slowly, blowing the air out of his lungs through pursed lips. I crept down the stairs and into my grandmother’s arms. She held me and stroked my hair slowly but her heart thudded in her chest. Grandfather sat for a long time, hands gripping the edges of the table.

For the rest of that summer, the only time my brother and Grandfather didn’t fight was when they stood tinkering at the workbench in the barn. But these rare moments of peace never lasted; fierce storms would blow up out of nowhere as doors slammed and voices thundered. One day, Grandfather locked himself away in his private study while Christopher Robin paced in the narrow hall, cracking his knuckles. I paced with him, trying to match him step for step. Finally, he shoved me away. I retreated to the back yard and made him a dandelion chain. That night, Grandfather announced Christopher Robin would go away to school. My brother spun with joy, my gift and my tears unseen.

Summer’s end found me scuffing along the dusty lane or playing games with my imaginary brother, the one who hadn’t left me. Grandmother was pale and quiet, always twisting a dish towel around and around in her hands. Sometimes she’d pull me into her lap at the end of the day and wrap me in a fierce, uncomfortable hug.

For a few days in October, my brother came home. Grandmother said he looked as skinny as a starved cat. He was very pale with dark circles under his eyes. The first night, he didn’t say much to anyone but wolfed down his food, stole some of mine, and asked for more. After dinner, he and Grandfather exchanged loud words behind closed doors. By November, Christopher Robin was home for good. Grandfather called him a disgrace and retreated to his workshop. My brother took to his room. The sounds that came from there reminded me of the day he pulled Pooh Sticks Bridge apart board by board. Grandmother jumped at every thud and crash but made no move to go upstairs. I knocked timidly on my brother’s door in the hope that I could cheer him up. When he did come out, it was to give me a kick, sending me howling to my room.

Mealtimes became silent but for the clanking of forks and knives, the scrape of a chair. Christopher Robin’s face looked gray and his eyes had lost their light. Even his hair’s sunny color had faded. I heard him complain to Grandmother about headaches; to my grandfather he never spoke. Grandmother wiped tears away quickly before she thought anyone saw them.

One night I awoke to the sound of sobbing. I crept to the stairs. Grandmother was holding the gangly body of my brother on her lap, rocking him as if he were a small child. Her voice was low and soothing; he clutched at her neck and begged her to make the noises stop. My pounding heart drowned out the tall clock in the hall. I tiptoed back to bed and curled myself into a tight ball under the quilts, afraid to move until first light.

Just before Christmas, Christopher Robin left us again. My grandparents said he was somewhere “safe,” but I never understood safe from what. I wondered, what could be safer than home? Christmas passed quietly without the sound of my brother’s voice rousing us from our beds. My grandparents were busy with the farm. My hours were spent in the haylofts above my grandfather’s workshop, picking at straw and lobbing rocks at pigeons.

Grandfather tried his best to amuse me when he had the time. He taught me to ice skate on the pond below the paddocks. He let me sit on his workbench as he built a miniature model airplane with a propeller than spun and flaps that moved on its tiny, fragile wings. In his deep voice he explained to me how planes stayed in the air, how flowers bloomed and why clouds got inky black and full of thunder. His voice was soothing even if I didn’t understand everything.

In spring, the land shook winter off and gave birth to new life. Grandfather said it was high time I earned my keep; I was put in charge of the chickens and the two shaggy Shetland ponies. As I struggled to groom the ponies, I remembered how I used to watch Christopher Robin brush their tangled manes as he told me stories, his blond hair falling into his eyes. Though I didn’t like to think it, life was more peaceful without him. My grandparents talked at meals like they used to. Grandmother didn’t cry and Grandfather relaxed after the meal and told me funny stories about his childhood. The persistent knot in my stomach eased.

When September arrived, I started school. Grandmother walked me to the end of the long lane on cool mornings and waited with me until the bus came rattling down the road. At the end of the day, a dog or two and several bored chickens were there to greet me. I did chores and homework and life fell into a familiar routine. Christopher Robin retreated to the edge of my thoughts.

On a warm afternoon in late September a tall, skinny boy stood at the end of the lane. I threw myself off the bus and into his arms. He wrapped me in a hug and swung me around in a dizzy circle. He held me a bit too tight, cutting off my breath; though I was happy, my stomach began to hurt. I peppered him with questions, none of which he answered. He just grinned and pulled my hair. He tried to carry me on his back through the hay field, laughing and groaning about how much I’d grown. The sound of his laughter startled me; it seemed a very long time since I’d heard it. That night, when I collapsed exhausted and content in my bed, Christopher Robin tucked me in.

Though the next day dawned bright, the air outside felt as thick and heavy as it might in August. I found my grandmother alone in the kitchen, her eyes swollen and red. My stomach tensed as I ran to the barn. My grandfather was alone too. He didn’t turn when I asked where Christopher Robin was. Heat began to travel through my body. I screamed past the lump in my throat the questions I already knew the answer to: Where was my brother? Why did he always leave? Grandfather turned slowly and I saw his bloody lip and swollen eye. I ran from the barn past the expectant ponies at the gate. I ran away across the lane as far as I could go.

Clattering swarms of grasshoppers took flight as I stumbled through the fields, calling out for my brother. Trees in the Hundred Acre Wood stood still as if they were listening to my cries. Worn out and hungry, I finally returned to the barn to do my chores before I got punished. Soft whinnies from the ponies greeted me in the otherwise silent barnyard. No sounds came from Grandfather’s workshop. I raided his secret stash of candy in the tool box so I wouldn’t have to go into the house for food. In the hayloft, I sucked on peppermints until I slept, lulled by the soft cooing of the pigeons overhead.

Sometime later, I awoke to Grandfather gently shaking me by the shoulders. I looked into his sad, battered face then hugged him tight. My tears soaked his soft plaid shirt. He patted my shoulder a few times and told me to hush. My head rested on his chest as I tried to think of something to cheer us both up. “Teach me how to fly,” I begged. His eyes lit up for the briefest moment but as fast as the light came, it was gone. He shook his head and dried my dusty cheeks with the tail of his shirt. He told me that tiny feet were safest on the ground. He pulled me up and we walked out of the barn into the golden afternoon light, my little hand buried firmly in his.

Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I saw Christopher Robin perched on the front steps of the house. He stood unsteadily as we approached. I felt Grandfather’s hand tense just before he let go of me. My stomach turned to stone. My brother was breathing heavily. His eyes moved constantly and his lips were pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. He looked like an angry dog. Christopher Robin reached for me but I shrank away. “No!” I said, my voice shaking. He frowned and pulled hard at his hair. Suddenly, he lunged forward and caught me so tight I couldn’t even squirm. My grandfather moved toward him unhurriedly. “Let her go, boy. She’s done nothing to you. Let her go,” he said softly. When Grandfather got close enough, he tried to grab me, but Christopher Robin was faster. He pushed me face down into the gravel lane. I scrambled up to see my brother knock Grandfather to the ground. I ran for the house. Grandmother was standing stock still in the long hallway, her face pale and beaded with sweat.

Time didn’t move properly after I went into the house. Events seemed to flash in fragments; every time I blinked my eyes, the scene shifted into something else. Suddenly Christopher Robin was in the house, reaching behind the kitchen door. Grandfather limped into the hallway slowly. My grandmother grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the stairs. We turned to see my brother, a skinny boy with terrible eyes who looked nothing like himself, levelling a shotgun at Grandfather. The boy swayed unsteadily on his feet as he tried to shake the hair off his face. Grandfather stood tall, his arms loose at his sides. Grandmother left me and moved slowly toward Christopher Robin, talking in the voice she used on frightened horses or cornered dogs. Memories of my real brother flooded my mind; the sweet-natured, blond-headed boy who used to tramp around the farm in his Wellington boots with me happily in tow. Where was he?

In the next instant, the boy was gone, the shotgun on the floor. My grandparents held each other in the kitchen. Suddenly, I was outside and saw my grandfather’s plane flying into a patch of purple sky. Quickly the plane went up until it seemed to hit the setting sun, ripping a hole in the heavens and spilling forth an explosion of reds, ambers, and gold. I thought the sun had burst and was falling to earth. The confusion of light fell into the Hundred Acre Wood, setting it aflame. It didn’t seem to be more than a minute before the rising flames met the wounded sun and consumed it entirely.

Much was lost that night. For months afterward I floated in a cocoon of pale colors and soft voices, unable to respond to the gentle touch of doctors and nurses. When I returned to myself and to the farm, some things remained gone. Childish songs no longer played in my head. I craved silence. I moved slowly, not wanting to disturb the air around me. I refused to read, allowing dust to coat my favourite books. My grandparents treated me as if I were normal. If they were worried, they didn’t speak of it.

The charred island of trees where my brother and I used to roam no longer felt like ours. Grandfather sold the land to a neighbouring farmer who felled every last tree and ploughed the remains of the Hundred Acre Wood under.

One evening before the land was planted I stole away from the house and walked into the newly turned field. I wore my brother’s Wellington boots. They slipped off my feet with each step into the fresh soil. I stumbled into a rut, lost my balance, and fell. I sat up clutching handfuls of dirt holed through with worms and potato bugs. I stared at it for awhile, holding the black dirt that had been through so much but was still full of life. The soil sank under my fingernails and lined my skin. As I heard my grandmother calling me from the house I stuffed the handfuls of dark, damp earth into my pocket and struggled to my feet.

Diddleybow by J. Camp Brown

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