The backyard of my childhood home. Oak trees and Bradford pears, sturdy maples. The weeping cherry tree where the morning dove nested this spring in a perfect cradle. Singing and cooing low into the afternoon. Her beady black eyes staring at me, blinking slowly, judging my movements. The place where the grass is worn down, under the rusted old swingset. Me, my brothers, my nieces, the neighbor kids all too tall now, too big, too adult to fit.
I keep walking, beyond the red shed and upside-down wheelbarrow. Past the row of pampas grass that my dad planted many summers ago. He had a knack for clusters and angles and the rule of 3 when it came to our yard, his yard.
I climb up the slight berm. Stepping over the burn pile. Years and years of leaves fallen to the ground and raked up only to become little skeletons and ashes. Deadheaded daffodils and day lilies and only months later, mums. Sticks from the March winds and the November storms that go from west to east. Odds and ends from the living and breathing earth. All into the fire in an exhale.
I step over a prickly pear cactus, oddly placed and very invasive for a grassland ecosystem. Who knows how it got there. Blown by the wind, a seed dropped by some coyote on the move, or planted by someone wanting to keep people like me out of this space, a warning, the spines a menace to any passerby.
And I ascend just a few steps more onto the tracks. The decrepit tracks. Railroad ties splitting apart or caving in on each other, the rusted spikes being squeezed up from the pressure, looking like they are about to shoot like fireworks into the air, tar bubbling on the decaying wood and black creosote leeching down into the earth, little piles of coal ash like Egyptian pyramids placed between the parallel steel bars.
I walk, gingerly, carefully, knowing that one misstep would twist my ankle for good and my mom – before coming to my side – would first raise her voice asking me why I was walking on this pile of trash.
The pile of trash is my youth. The place where I disappeared. Into my mind, into the creek, into the reeds and rushes, the tadpoles, the trees, the once-in-a-lifetime monarch migration, the hopscotch from tie to tie, waiting for a train to be parked there so I could climb on it and be taken away to some place that was not here. To anywhere, really.
The railroad company still owns this land. The right of way. There hasn’t been a train on it in over a decade, a crew on it even longer. The grass is overgrown, the integrity gone. I read somewhere the company might go bankrupt, maybe a rumor but maybe a reality. The future of rail transport unclear. What then happens to this overgrown berm in my backyard, interrupting the landscape, dividing us, drawing a line? How long does it take for the earth to work her magic – the universe operating in geological time, layers of the earth’s crust blow here and there, subduction and induction, volcanoes and plateaus. Southern Illinois being earthquake prone and the New Madrid fault line could open up and swallow it whole. Or the crisscross mess of coal mines that are subsiding, sometimes multiple feet in just a year, leaving everything a little cracked and unstable. This place will continue to sink and sigh. The narrative that this place is forgotten is hard to un-prove.
I see these tracks, they no longer go any further. But they don’t forget me.