Memories from an Ages Old Schoolyard

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A VG Serial: Jory Sherman’s Hills of Eden

Episode 40

The little Arkansas town of Cedar Shade had not died. But, it was badly wounded, with boarded up stores, abandoned houses, a cemetery almost full of weathered, weed-grown and dirt-encrusted gravestones. Thad Olson had seen too much, already, and yet not enough. He drove his old Ford 150 up to the school and parked it at the crumbling curb, with its concrete so eroded, the mortar stones were exposed like some wounded serpent turned to stone, its innards exposed as if it had been disemboweled. He shut off the engine and set the handbrake because the street rose above the town and he was on a slight slope. He reached over to the passenger side and grabbed the handle of his cherrywood cane. He opened the door, and bracing himself with the cane, got out and stood up. He leaned over the top of the pickup for a moment and stared at the old clapboard building. There it was, empty and abandoned, some of its glass windowpanes were broken and had been patched over with plywood and masking tape so that its whipsawed boards, faded and gray as they were, appeared to have been chewed up by ravenous termites in several places.

He heaved a sigh and put his weight on the cane, walked around the car and into the schoolyard. He stood before the front steps for a moment or two, then walked over to the playground at the north end of the school.

That’s when Thad felt a tug at his heart as if an invisible hand had pulled at it. Leaf shadows littered part of the yard like the castoff garments of children, and he listened for their ghostly voices, their cries of joy, their laughter, the ripples of their conversations.

There was only a silence.

And, the silence was as deep as if the grounds had been covered with a sleeping ocean of dead calm. The swings stood there motionless, the monkey bars rusted and gaunt as iron skeletons, the sand mottled and mossed over, the pecan shells long since crumbled to dust.

He watched the slow movement of shadows across the playground and seemed transfixed for a second by their almost sentient arrangements, as they were putting on a show for him, or trying to communicate something incomprehensible. He felt that the shadows might be living ectoplasm from another dimension, as if there was much more to their muteness than mere silence. For, in that silence he heard the slow passage of time, as if time and space had merged there in some negation of reality.

He felt the chill of delicate feet transversing his spine and a sense of being in some kind of time-warped dream state pervaded his consciousness. He stood there, outside of time, beyond any spatial dimension, dreaming of olden days that had left only traces of events in the shadows that colored the playground and lifted it into another dimension.

What is reality, he wondered. Is life merely an illusion, some dream we dream that seems real to us only to vanish when we awaken in some sort of meditative limbo? Why am I here? Why did I come here? Why has time slipped away in such a twinkling only to stand motionless and still for what seems like a window into eternity? Am I alive, after all these years, when so many of my childhood friends have died and left empty holes in my universe?

Those moments were filled with mystery, and he could not count seconds or minutes, for they came in the form of daydreams, fleeting symbols racing across the desolate landscape of his mind, emerging from hidden depths to reach his consciousness and make him realize how much of his life was now lost, and how much he had gained over the passage of time. Perhaps the wealth of memories, he thought. Recollections of another life, other lives, his own and others.

I returned here for a reason, came back to Cedar Shade to discover something important, to try and unravel all the ribbons of roads I have traveled, the tangled paths where Fate pushed me, led me, guided me, so that I, who once was not, become someone who conceived a universe of my own and peopled it with friends and familiar tokens of my achievements and failures. Ah, he thought, there are mysteries within mysteries and much that I am not ever supposed to know in this life.

He had once lived not far from the school. A block or two. But he didn’t want to drive by and look at his old house, the house next door to a girl he had once loved, still loved, he corrected himself. A girl lost to time and memory, her image missing even in a scrapbook, no record even in a faded photograph. A girl just lost to him so long ago, he remembered her only in some dim corner of his mind. He didn’t remember any of the kids, either, the ones he had played with in this old schoolyard some 60-odd years ago. He remembered certain kids in other schools, but not the kids in this one. Except for the girl next door. He remembered her better now, now that he was standing in the playground with all the leaf shadows moving like pieces of clothing with the kids no longer in them, as if they had run away to class and left their jackets and sweaters lying there on the school ground because it was spring and school would soon let out for the summer.

He felt a twinge of pain in his hip and moved the tip of the cane to brace himself, take the pressure off the arthritic bone. The pain shifted to the opposite hip and he ignored it, bore it, forgot about it.

“Do you come here often?”

The voice startled him. He had not heard a car drive up, nor a metal door slam. He had thought he was alone.

He turned and there was an old woman there, her gray hair long and flowing, brushed to a high sheen.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t been back here in over sixty years.”

“I come here a lot,” she said. “Since the school closed down some years ago.”

“Did you….?”

“Yes, I went here. You don’t remember me, do you?”

She walked closer to him and held her head up so that he could see her face, her features, the contours of her nose, her forehead, jawline and cheeks, the features that had been softened and puffed out over the years.

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m Thad….”

“I know,” she said. “You’re Thaddeus Olson, Thad, we called you. We were in the same class together. You dipped my hair in your inkwell once.”

“I, uh,” His voice trailed off. He didn’t remember her at all.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. As you said, it’s been sixty-odd years.”

“Who….?”

“I’m Marianne Vester. You used to push me on that swing there.” She pointed to the motionless swings. He could not see her there as a young girl. He couldn’t see anyone on those empty swings.

Hills of Eden will be published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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