School was finally over, and for the kids of Goldenrod Lane, summertime had never felt sweeter. At nine years old, every inch of my body quivered with the anticipation of summer adventures yet to ensue. My imagination soared boundlessly, a stark contrast to the reality that stretched only so far as my dearly loved backyard and quiet suburban neighborhood. Just minutes had passed since the school bus dropped us off in the cul-de-sac, and the boys were already racing on their bicycles down the big hill at the crown of Goldenrod Lane, shadowed closely by the whispers and giggles of my boy-crazy little sister and her best friend, Brielle. I waited on my front porch steps for Sarah.
Growing up, my backyard was a child’s paradise. It was Goldenrod’s finest, its grassy expanse large enough for neighborhood-wide games of freeze tag, kickball, or hide and seek. The grass was soft and lush, and even the patchy prickly-pear weeds could not deter our bare toes from prancing in its velvety sheen. There was a rickety swingset off to one side, with a lone blue swing, a trapeze bar, and a pair of rings like those that a gymnast would use. On the other side was a miniature sandbox, where countless earthworms were inadvertently unearthed in many a quest to build the perfect sandcastle. But between the swingset and the sandbox was the castle. A wooden tower covered with a weathered yellow tarp, the castle overlooked the backyard and was the gateway to almost every backyard fantasy. But even in all of its royalty, my backyard alone could not satisfy the curiosity that grows with age. That summer, our insatiable appetite for exploration led Sarah and I away from the comforts of our familiar backyard wonderland and into The Woods.
The Woods was the name that the kids of Goldenrod Lane had given to the cluster of trees that occupied the empty lot behind my house. The forefront of The Woods was guarded by a massive oak tree, in which not even boldest of the neighborhood boys had ever dared to climb. The Woods were rarely ventured into, but on that first day of summer, they beckoned to Sarah and me. It was the start of our third summer together, Sarah having instantly become my best friend after moving to my hometown. Our friendship just happened; it was not something that either of us could fully describe or understand. One day she walked into Mrs. Tobler’s second grade classroom, her bespectacled blue eyes filled with fear at the foreignness of it all, and the next we were inseparable. Every day she sat in the desk to my left, and every possible afternoon was spent together at one of our houses, which were in adjacent neighborhoods. We were exactly the same height, her wavy blonde hair only slightly longer than my boyish brown bob. More than once we pretended to be twins. And our names rhymed, which surely meant that we would be best friends forever. Our third summer was to be our best one yet, and so we embarked upon our inevitable trek into the woods. It was then that we saw the tree.
Unlike the Guardian Oak, this tree was neither majestic nor intimidating. Had it reached its prime, it probably would have extended well beyond its 15 feet, but it had stopped its vertical growth only inches taller than Sarah and I. Its trunk had curved abruptly, so the rest of its height had grown grotesquely downwards at a 45-degree angle towards the ground. And by some force unbeknownst to us, a fallen branch was leaned up against the far side. The rest of the world had overlooked this particular tree, as its deformities had apparently rendered it useless. But to Sarah and me, the tree was magical, brimming with endless possibilities. We gazed at The Woods around us and saw that the entire earthen floor was littered with similar sized branches. The idea formed wildly, instantly sprung from the most imaginative of spaces within both of us. We began constructing our walls. Slowly at first, methodically selecting the branches nearest to us, and then taking turns resting them against the cool spine of the arched tree. When the area around the fort became barren of branches large enough to lean, we started off into another part of The Woods. But the branches never ran out, and little by little, our fort in The Woods began to take shape.
There was just enough room for two people inside the wooden walls of our fort, but our fire pit was set for three. Three blocks of real firewood made a triangle around the circle of stones that contained an array of delicate twigs and leaves – our imitation firewood that we knew we would never light. Around our imaginary fire was our favorite place to be on sunny afternoons. Our shaded citadel was the perfect escape from the other neighborhood kids and from our parents’ incessant need for our assistance. The ground always smelled like it had just rained, and the feeling of moist earth between my toes felt even better than any lawn. Besides the gentle tones of our conversations, the only noises Sarah and I heard were the cheery songs of forest birds and the distant hum of cars on Goldenrod Lane mixed with the joyful shouting laughter from the other neighborhood kids. From our ceiling hung several handmade ornaments – maple leaves strung together with twine, wilted yellow dandelions whose stems were carefully braided between blades of tall grass. They were tiny masterpieces within our greatest work of art, and each day the ones that had faded or blown away were replaced with those freshly made, often much more intricate than their predecessors.
The fort required constant maintenance. Summer rainstorms often damaged the flimsy walls, and Sarah and I would spend several minutes every day repairing fallen branches and adding new ones from other parts of The Woods. We grew to love these precious minutes even more than the fantasies we created within the tree fort, and we often spent so much time tinkering and building that the sun would sink below the horizon of The Woods before we could begin playing. In this basking, golden glow of sunset Sarah and I would walk together along the increasingly familiar path back to my house, our heads and hearts filled with unspoken awe at the place we had created. Our fort was unique to our best friendship. It was the one thing that Sarah and I could call completely our own – the one thing that separated us from the rest of the world, that nobody else could ever touch.
One day everything changed. There was a tension in the air around The Woods that indicated they no longer belonged solely to us. Overnight, the natural, earthen tones of The Woods had been invaded with a new color. Around the base of almost each and every tree, a ribbon had been tied. The ribbons were rough, tightly knotted, and colored the same hideous shade of orange as hunting vests and construction cones. My insides clenched in sinking fear, and Sarah’s gaze told me she felt the same. Our legs felt heavy as we sprinted down the familiar path to our beloved paradise in the trees. It too had been condemned. We did our best to ignore it, to pretend that nothing was different and that our fort would always be our summer secret – our safe refuge in The Woods. But summer ended too soon, as all summers do, and its end only brought more change. Sarah and I went to different schools, and the onset of fractions and decimals resulted in less and less time outside in the tree fort. We both met other friends at our new schools, and without our daily routine in The Woods, Sarah and I were powerless to halt the slowly creeping drift that had begun to settle between us.
I returned home from school one fall afternoon to what sounded like a thousand buzzing hornets in my backyard. That day, my mother had twice as many questions for me as she usually did, and I knew that she was trying to keep me from seeing. I dashed to the sliding glass doors that opened towards my backyard and The Woods beyond. Except that day I saw right through the woods and into the ashen realm of the backside of Goldenrod Lane. The Woods had been demolished, every tree leveled into a grotesque graveyard of lifeless stumps and branches. I rushed outside and tore down the back porch steps, praying with each step that our fort had somehow averted the massacre. It hadn’t. My mother must have called Sarah and her mother, because the three of them soon appeared at my side. When I felt Sarah’s thin shoulder brush against mine, the full weight of it all hit me with a crushing blow. Hot, bitter tears escaped from the both of us, and one sideways glance at our mothers’ dampened cheeks revealed how they shared our anguish. We stood there until we could no longer bear the sight of our fallen palace in The Woods. I reached down and uncovered a small orange ribbon lying in the dirt, and the four of us turned to go. It was the very last time we would travel along that well-beaten path.
A new house stands on Goldenrod Lane. It is misshapen and blue-grey, and its backyard consists of a gaudy three-season porch directly above an unnaturally flawless patch of sod. This artificial backyard connects with mine, and only the Guardian Tree is left to separate the two. The magic of my backyard has faded with age, and I can no longer call the house on Goldenrod Lane my own. But even now, never have I loved and loathed a place so much as that patch of sod where The Woods once stood, where underneath lies the sawdust of my childhood fortress – an everlasting memento of my summers with Sarah.