Ten years or so ago, I took a class on journal writing. I think that was the topic (I may have taken a separate one on nature writing). One exercise was to describe our dream house.
This was an interesting idea to me because, as an introvert who had lived in a mobile home for 18 years, then a shared dorm room, then a shared apartment, then a rundown studio at the time of the class, my dream was not of a specific house or style, but simply to live in one like “normal” people. To have an upstairs and a downstairs — my favourite concept. To have an attic and a cellar and the mysteries those imply. To have a front yard and a back yard — private outdoor space. To have some accessories, like a gazebo and birdbaths. I would have been happy, however, in anything that could reasonably be called a house.
Yet when it came to writing this piece, which was intended to be an exercise in free writing, that is, writing what occurs to you as it occurs without any imposed structure or editing, I could not think of a dream house. I could think only of a dream home, deep in an old forest — an old forest like those that haunted my favourite fairy tales.
I don’t think I have what I wrote any more; if I do, it would be hard to find. I do remember the idea, however, because it’s the same idea I’ve always had, yesterday, today, tomorrow.
There is an ancient forest. The trees are tall. Their canopies touch each other and the sky, blocking it out. It may be midday up there and in the outer world, if there is one, but here it is an eerie, quiet twilight.
The forest floor smells earthy, damp, and rich with decay. It’s black and cool and soothing, teeming with life and the remnants of death. If you look closely, you can see the soil move as the living processes the dead in a cycle of untold age.
Nearby, a brook babbles along over rocks, occasionally turning into a miniature waterfall. The canopy is not so dense along the edges of the brook, so the water brokenly reflects the midday sun and clouds. Still, there are many shadows and still pools. Like the soil, the water is cool, just right for wading as long as you watch out for sharp rocks. One of the best places to stand is at the top of one of the miniature falls, looking down, or at the bottom of one, feeling the refreshing water splashing your feet and up against your legs. There are fish-shadows darting about, while water striders delicately walk the surfaces of the still areas and mating dragon- and damselflies buzz over the surface. Once in a while, a frog leaps in surprise in the wet grass along the edge. A large cloud passing by overhead occasionally covers everything with its shadow and a temporary chill.
Not far from the brook the forest becomes dense with brush that is hard to walk through. It opens into a younger woods, with a pleasant walking path. It is still shady, but the ground is sun dappled. There are whisperings and stirrings as small animals and birds move about, and a snake sprawls carelessly across the empty path, warming itself in the sun. The woods are mostly quiet, though, but they will become noisy later in the afternoon with bird and insect song.
Suddenly the woods open into a meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers, awash with sun. Older trees with short, thick trunks surround it; they have not had to struggle for light and air like their deep-forest counterparts. The grasses are perfect for lying among; they are cool and hide their refugees well.
In the southeast corner of the meadow there is a small stone house. The doors, one on each side, are made of dark, heavy, weathered timbers. The windows are small and leaded, making the inside of the house feel cool and somewhat dim, but shafts of sunlight form pools of heat on the worn wooden floors and colourful rugs. There is a deep, comfortable chair, pulled up to an open window. An insect hum from meadow fills the room, almost but not quite drowning out the running water nearby. Sometimes the sound of a woodpecker drumming floats into the open window, which also draws in the cool, flavorful air of late spring.
There are wood, knotty shelves filled with books everywhere. Some books are piled on the floor in a few places as though someone had just been studying them, but most are arranged on the shelves. Some are leaning over a bit on their neighbours, as though they are tired of not being picked up and read.
In the kitchen, the plates are made of pewter, which is dented and worn from use. An Aga cooker dominates the small room lined with dark wood cupboards. A tea kettle and teapot look as they have just been returned to their places.
There’s a tiny dining nook with a heavy table brightened by an erratic bouquet of wildflowers from the meadow and woods. Two places are set, but one chair is more worn than the other. A short, dark hallway leads to a little bedroom, soon to be darkened by the shadows of the trees that both overlook and guard it.
A door from the hallway opens onto a path that heads into the woods. Although it’s a clear path, it’s not an easy one as it goes on. It’s tempting to follow any of the many side trails and to get lost in the depths, which are dark and cool and tangled. No one has ever found the end of the main path — if there is one. No one has explored all of the side trails. They wait for someone to find what they lead to — lakes, mountains, valleys, vast vistas, fairy lands.
It’s just past midday now, and it won’t be long before the surrounding trees throw their shadows over the meadow, transforming it into a pool of vague menace. The deepening darkness brings with it the sound of life — birds and other animals torpid with heavy breakfasts and noontime warmth slowly roused and becoming restless with timeless urges as the evening and night approach. They chirp, chatter, and rustle in discrete phrases, always sounding alone and lonely.
And then it is night, under the watch of the virgin white full moon.