It’s a minor miracle that I survived my childhood. I was born female, grew up to be feminine, but acted like a tomboy in the first grade. We lived at the edge of the woods, and for lack of other play ideas, I played in the woods. Alone. The scariness of this arrangement is somewhat relieved by the fact that at first I was only allowed to stay within clear sight of the house. Our house was a huge cube with five large windows facing the woods, so I could spy on my mother doing chores through the windows while I was playing in the woods. The moment she opened the middle top window and yelled my name, I had to report back immediately. When I made her yell at length, Maaa-raaa, hooome, nooow, I was in trouble.
Do you know the tree houses from American films? Well, forget it. That’s what we call a fancy summer house in Eastern Europe. A real tree house is a tree that you carefully pick to spend your play time around. You sweep the forest floor around it, you bring stones and stuff to decorate it and when you’re done, you climb it and contemplate. The best feature of my tree house was a thick low branch that worked as a swing. That is, until a big kid from the neighbourhood intruded my house and broke the branch. He didn’t find my treasure though: a set of toy kitchen utensils buried in the tree’s roots and containing actual sugar, salt and coffee that I stole at home. It horrifies me to think I mixed it with water and ate it. The coffee tasted particularly revolting.
When in the woods, I was always on a mission. I was a prehistoric gatherer. I gathered leaves and twigs, bark and pebbles, flowers and berries. I was at least smart enough not to eat these. My mission could be circling around a molehill and waiting for a mole to peek out. It never did. Or it could be clearing from obstacles a tiny stream that was springing from the ground at one spot and disappeared in the earth again a few hundred feet farther on. My favourite mission was very unsavoury. It consisted of crossing the road that cut through the woods and trespassing on a local dump. For some reasons I thought it was amazing to rummage through other people’s waste, and there were awesome things to find, including dresses and toys.
Sometimes the woods scared me to death. When I climbed the board fence enclosing an area with freshly planted trees, I was frightened by the noise of something big and heavy moving nearby. I was wondering if the thing was inside or outside of the enclosure and if it could be a boar, which were spotted in the woods before. I was sorry to die, and I experienced an unpleasant epiphany that my mother was right to warn me from going so far from the house. I never learned what it was, but it didn’t kill me, and I could live with that. Speaking about past tense, once I quite literally stumbled on dead deer. It was staring at me with one huge brown eye as flies were feasting on it. Seeing that I couldn’t bury it, I prayed for the corpse. This must have been ridiculous, because I wasn’t instructed in religion, so I made up a prayer for dead deer on the spot.
This was in summer. Winters were less fun because the slopes of the woods grew too slippery to climb, and it was really too cold to hang out on a tree branch. There were two sledging hills behind the house. The small one was parent-approved, and it took about two seconds to slide from its top to the bottom. The big one was a different thing. It was a long and winding cleft in a hill, potentially dangerous to manoeuvre. I went down it on a sledge several times, and it was exhilarating. Until I made a manoeuvring mistake and hit a tree. The tree was fine, but I got briefly unconscious and spent weeks in the hospital with a concussion, a swollen eye and half my face grazed by the bark. I made a full recovery, but the woods were never the same again.