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The Pine Needle Path
One time, when I was younger, I drew a very nice picture in the dirt. You see the dirt at my cabin, in this little clearing just ten large paces from the lake’s edge, is very thin and the top layer is this beautiful silvery gray, and when you drag a stick across it’s surface, the silvery gray dirt is pushed away to reveal dark black dirt underneath. So I drew a very lovely picture of a flower poking out of the ground with some bits of grass around its stem and its single leaf.
My older brother, a rather pugnacious young boy with a taste for trouble, always found it amusing to drag the silvery gray dirt back over my drawings until they were only smudged and mostly invisible impressions. When he did this to my flower, which I was a really proud of since I’d made the petals the perfect size and shape—whereas I usually messed one up and made it bigger than the rest or they overlapped awkwardly, giving it a childish quality I didn’t feel my drawings deserved—I threw my stick at him.
Of course, I missed. I was only six, and I had yet to gain my good aim. My brother laughed. He was eight, and he laughed with his eyes almost closed, his little nose shriveling up as his mouth opened wide.
I threw another stick that lay near me. This, too, missed him by a yard. He jogged around me, still laughing his high little boy laugh, his freckled cheeks pushing up into his eyes, which became even thinner slits of blue. I pouted. I was really good at pouting. I’d stick my lip out as far as I could, which was about two centimeters: I’d measured once, and I’d scrunch my back and cross my arms.
My brother, of course, took this as encouragement to continue his playful torment. He grabbed a stick of his own and in the dirt, he wrote:
you are dumb
It was messily written because he wasn’t much of an artist—although he always claimed to be better than me and that I was awful. I usually retorted with something just as untrue and nasty. Now, I look back and I know that he was just envious of my talent, and envy sparked in him an exasperating behavior. If I’m being honest, I was a little envious of his ease with numbers, but I guess we grew our of envies as we aged, though of course we've always been at odds in some capacity.
I shook my head furiously, still pushing my lip out two centimeters.
“Yuh-huh,” he nodded just as furiously as my shake. By his judgment, he’d probably say he nodded more furiously then I shook, but that’s only because his bones were made of boyish competiveness, which, in later years, would turn into a manly competiveness that drove him to do some pretty great things.
“Nuh-uh!” I cried. He just laughed triumphantly at his successful taunt and the subsequent response of irritation.
“It’s true, Lily,” he told me, his eyes wide and lively. I’d never guess then that he didn’t actually mean it. Years after, he explained his rather vexing conduct with the words “tough love.”
I ran at him then, exploding into my immature rage, yelling wildly as if I were demonstrating a war cry or perhaps I had become some feral animal. He laughed and ran away, his longer and more mature legs propelling him farther than I could reach. I kept trying despite the impossibility of his capture.
“Jamie!” I screamed. A low pine branch hung in my way, and I didn’t have the time nor the agility to avoid it as my brother had. My face collided with the poky needles, and I punched the branch away. I’ll admit I imagined the branch as my brother’s face. That seemed to produce an effective result.
I pulled out the needles and chucked them in the direction of Jamie. “Take that!” I yelled, my voice cracking from frustration. Oh, the biting words of my six-year-old self.
“Wait, wait, Lily, hold it!” my brother grabbed my arms and pulled me away from the branch. “Stop!”
I kept squirming. “Stop! Lily, stop it now! I’m serious!”
Finally he had a hold of my wrists and held them motionless at my sides. I glared at him. He gave me a half-mooned grin in answer. “Lily, I have an amazing idea.”
“What?” I snarled viciously. I was in no mood to chat, no mood that was remotely pleasant actually. I guess I had somewhat of a good reason, but I didn’t dwell on reason at that point. “You gonna ruin another of my drawings?”
He ignored my question. “You know that story dad told us?” his eyes sparkled in the sunlight that filtered through the canopy of trees. We’d run into the forest between the lake and the clearing. Actually, the forest went all the way around the clearing and up a hill, where our cabin nestled comfortably, and extended for miles, only cut across by a few roads.
“You know, about the Pine Needle Path?” he continued at my furrowed eyebrows.
I nodded slowly, remembering. When my father was a child, he and his brother had discovered a path. The deer used it to get through the forest quickly. Evidence of that fact was how beaten down and defined it was, and my father had even found some tracks—not to mention some scat. Anyway, he and his brother were having trouble figuring out a name for their special path. They contemplated naming it Deer Path or something of that nature. Or perhaps even Maple Path because there were some maple trees growing along it. There was a squabble or two, much debating, but in the end, they came up with something a little more imaginative. One of them—I don’t remember who exactly—came up with the idea to take a bunch of pine needles and spread them all over the path, covering it so that the needles outnumbered the dirt and the maple leaves that littered the ground. So they gathered and gathered and spread and spread. It took days and days, but finally they carpeted the path with pine needles, green from the fresh ones and yellow from the dry. So then, as they stood looking down their successful project, my father and his brother agreed that it would be forever named the Pine Needle Path.
“So what?” I wrenched my arms free and put my hands on my hips.
“So we should do that! We should cover the Pine Needle Path again!” he exclaimed. He did a little jig while I gave him a skeptical look.
“We’ll gather a bunch of pine needles, duh! Come on!” He knelt down and demonstrated to me the simplicity of his plan. I was still reluctant, especially at his intentions, but as he collected the needles swiftly and with much enthusiasm, I realized he genuinely wanted my help.
“Okay,” I got on my knees and scooped up the needles, disregarding the prickly sensation that they created. When we gathered all that we could carry, we ran up the stairs that lead to the cabin to the right and the Pine Needle Path to the left.
We took the correct direction, venturing deeper into the woods. Some small plants sprouted on the path, braving the footsteps of deer and humans alike. Greenery decorated every part of our vision except the trunks of trees, some slim, some thick, and the leaking sunlight that speckled the leaf-ridden ground.
We began at the beginning, which was logical and exactly how our father had done it more than thirty years before. Of course, the sprinkled pine needles were practically invisible against the rusty orange and green leaves, plus the new layer was much too thin.
I looked over at Jamie, scowling. “This isn’t gonna work. We can’t carry it all up here.”
He seemed not to hear me but maintained a steady gaze on a cluster of pine needles near him. “Could we make a pulley system up the stairs?” he finally said, looking at me, holding his thin fingers to his rounded face as if he were considering some serious, adult problem, which, in those days, was ultra significant and an adjective used only to describe the dire moments of a major situation. This, to him, was one of those adult moments. His plans were often outlandish but clever. I guess that’s why he was destined to be an engineer when he got older.
“I dunno…” I wasn’t entirely sure what a pulley was, but I didn’t want to confess that to him. “Could we get a blanket and just pile it up on there? Then bring it up?”
Jamie grinned. “That’s smart, Lil’! Only I think we should use a tarp instead of a blanket. Come on!”
The shed, which held the said tarp, was situated downstairs in the clearing. It was kind of old looking with a rusting lock and darkening wood, and it smelled like oil and dirt inside. We quickly removed the grey crinkly thing that Jamie insisted was a tarp and I thought was a ghoul lurking at the back of the shed.
“We have to shake it off. We don’t want any spiders in our pine needles,” Jamie nudged me, waiting for my reaction of fear or disgust.
“I don’t mind spiders,” I told him, shrugging. It was true—still is. You see, it isn’t eight-legged spiders that set me on edge it’s the seemingly infinite amount of legs on a centipede. Especially the really big kinds that have really long legs extending from their greyish bodies, and they crawl disturbingly, weaving up walls and the like.
Jamie rolled his eyes. We shook the tarp out and went straight to work. It was fun throwing the pine needles onto the grey crinkly square, like fireworks only without the fire and orderly design. Sometimes Jamie would toss some at me, sometimes I would toss some at Jamie, and then we would laugh and spit because we laughed with our mouths wide open and that let in mosquitoes and flies.
We took six trips with the tarp as full as our tiny attention spans would allow, and by that time, the Pine Needle Path had four feet of solid pine needles and then for two feet the needles petered out into nothing. On the sixth trip, a call for dinner came from the cabin, which set our stomachs’ growling. Jamie grabbed the tarp and wore it as a cape and chased me all the way back. We laughed the entire way, short, silly laughs that broke into irrepressible fits of giggles.
It was late morning the next day when we remembered our important task. With just as much fervor, the two of us ran downstairs and began again to create a mountain of pine needles on the tarp. We took three trips before we realized how very hot and humid the air had become. It was as if we wore two very large and heavy and uncomfortable sweaters.
“Jamie?” I said as we climbed the stairs lethargically, our feet wearily stomping out a slow tempo. “I’m so tired.”
He looked back at me—he carried the front of the tarp because he was the project leader. “Me, too,” he sighed and looked about, listening, for a moment, to the cicadas chirp. My father always called them “hot bugs” with a special kind of nostalgia that made his lips perk up and his eyes flicker.
“And I’m hot,” I continued.
“Swimming?” I prompted.
He looked back at me again, beaming. “Yeah!”
We ran up the stairs, threw the pine needles carelessly onto the path, and raced back to the cabin. Swimming took a couple of hours. Our energy was rejuvenated by the chilliness of the water and the excitement of splashing about, and afterwards, our work seemed hardly work at all.
When the project was halfway completed, my brother suggested we should show our father. Minutes later, he came back from the cabin, towing my father, who had his eyes covered, along behind him.
“Keep them closed!” Jamie commanded, guiding him roughly through the budding plants. “Okay, now, stop.”
They came to stand next to me. “You can open your eyes now.”
Our father took his hand away and took in our project. His lips perked up, eyes flickering, in his special kind of nostalgia. “Wow. This is amazing. How’d you get all the needles up here?”
“With the tarp,” Jamie pointed to the grey crinkly thing a few yards away. “It was Lily’s idea.”
The smile on our father’s lips widened. “It’s truly amazing. Good work, Jamie, Lily.”
He then took us in his arms and said merrily, “Let’s go get your mom. She’ll want to see this.”
We never finished blanketing the Pine Needle Path in its namesake, though we came close. Strangely, I’ve never minded. I don’t think that was actually meant to be the final goal. I should say I never forgot those couple of days, but I did forget them for a while—in fact, it took a great deal of time trying to remember all of it and still there’s probably more to remember. But I guess that’s because, well, you don’t know a moment’s important or worth-telling until quite a bit later.