We Found a Secret Fairyland
Me, Sharon, and Merrill. Median age: eight. Inseparable, wiry, bouncy as grasshoppers. Our summer days were toy chests filled with squirt guns, butterfly nets, balls, bikes, and skates. Some days we were spies, other days horses. Or circus acrobats. Space explorers. Mermaids.
The neighborhood kids congregated mostly in the alley, but we preferred to play in the woods. We were lucky our little borough offered this patch of wilderness, considering how overpopulated it was. Our woods was relatively small, compressed on all sides by civilization, but we stayed willfully ignorant of that fact. To us, the woods was vast. A place where a kid could get lost and never turn up again.
The woods had things you couldn’t find in the alley. Like Tarzan vines dangling from treetops. We’d swing out over deep ravines, hollering our little-girl jungle cries. There was treasure, too, probably gold but possibly gems, buried beneath a squarish boulder at the junction of three paths. We tried repeatedly to dig it up but never got very far. The ground was too hard, too riddled with roots.
We longed for a creek but had to settle for the droplets of water that trickled like sweat down the face of a short, rocky cliff. Most of the time those droplets did nothing more than moisten the forest floor. But after rainstorms, we could always count on finding a tiny pond at the base of the cliff. We’d let our Barbies swim in the muddy water while we sloshed around in bare feet, hunting salamanders.
At some point Merrill, the oldest member and undisputed leader of our trio, proposed that we hike to the end of the woods. Assuming, of course, it had an end. We had never ventured past a particular point where the terrain steepened drastically, dangerously. It was easy to picture yourself losing your footing and sliding down, down, down to whatever horrible fate awaited you at the bottom. Still, Sharon and I were up for the journey. Our feet had trod everywhere else in the borough. It was time we conquered the woods.
We set off into the wilderness just after lunch, chattering with the keyed-up optimism of intrepid explorers. We made it safely past the steep part and were relieved to find the ground leveling out on the other side. After a while, we were so deep in the woods, we knew that no human being had ever set foot here before. Would we be able to find our way home? The uncertainty was thrilling.
“Guys. Look,” exclaimed Merrill, who was leading the way. She was pointing to a sunlit clearing up ahead. The three of us exchanged intrigued glances. What was a clearing doing here, in the middle of the woods? It seemed unnatural. We hurried forward to investigate, and when we stepped out of the woods, we could only gawk in amazement.
We were standing at the edge of an enchanted land, a glorious place where flowers in vibrant jelly bean colors—red, pink, purple, yellow—crowded together in circular beds bordered by rocks. Nearby, a pewter watering can lay on its side as if lulled to sleep by the tranquility of the place. Butterflies were everywhere—perched on flowers, sunning themselves on rocks, flitting through the air like wind-tossed scraps of fabric. A stone path meandered across a carpet of lush, soft grass.
This place hadn’t happened by accident. Somebody had made it. But who? Considering how far we were from civilization, we knew this had to be the work of magical creatures. Fairies, elves, maybe leprechauns. No—definitely fairies, I decided. I couldn’t believe such a place existed in our very own woods. And to think we were the ones to discover it!
I don’t know how long we stood there, awestruck and speechless. Maybe a minute, probably less. At some point we glanced to the left and saw the row of houses. Plain-Jane middle-class houses like our own.
Turns out we were in somebody’s back yard.
Oddly, I can’t recall the disappointment we must have felt at having this newly found fairyland disintegrate before our eyes. In the ensuing years, every time I’ve looked back on that memory, I’ve recalled only the sense of enchantment and wonder I felt at stumbling upon a secret fairy kingdom deep in the woods. That remarkable moment of discovery is one of my most vivid and cherished childhood memories.
If there’s a lesson in that experience, I suppose it’s this: hang on to the joy, let go of the sorrow. I wish I could say I’ve lived my life that way, but I haven’t. When life gets hard, I often let it bring me down. But every now and then when I think back on the day my friends and I found magic in the woods, I resolve to do better. To keep looking for fairies.
I know they’re out there. I just haven’t found them yet.