Purlieu

The art museum’s smallest room
is filled with miniature landscapes.
We stop in front of each,
& my 8-year-old niece waits for me
to hoist her up by the armpits
for a five-second look.

***

I learn a new word from the exhibit’s title: purlieu. “A frequently visited place, an outlying district,” says Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate. In the plural, “Confines, bounds” as well as “Neighborhood, environs.” From the French, “to go through,” it came into use in the Middle Ages, when it had a fairly specific denotation: “ME purlewe land severed from an English royal forest by perambulation.”

***

Later, she watches from
the back seat of the car as
a ten-dollar bill change hands. Giggles.
“They hold the money
as if it were fragile!
she whispers in my ear.

***

Eva and I go for a ramble in the new snow, me with the big plastic saucer under my arm. She discovers tracking: “If you follow an animal’s tracks, you can tell where it went!” But the squirrels elude pursuit on the ground for longer than the distance between two trees. Then it’s time to re-examine our own tracks. Walking forward, craning around to see what we would see if we were tracking ourselves. We’re detectives now, she decides.

She follows tracks to where they disappear in a hole or under a log, wants to begin excavating on the spot. I remember this fascination with burrows going back to when she was four, if not earlier. “What lives here?” was one of her first intelligible questions. Now more and more this question comes accompanied by a wish: to live there too. At any given charismatic opening in the woods: “This would be a great place for a kind of a house. Well, not with walls or anything. Just to sleep in. This summer we could camp here. We can bring blankets and make tea.”

We follow a deer trail through the woods, pause to inspect weasel and mouse trails. “How far is the spruce grove?” “We’re not heading for the spruce grove. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction.” “Are we ever going to find these deer?” “Probably not. These prints were made before last night’s additional snow.”

So it seems animal tracks can’t be trusted to take you where you want to go. The chief detective looks for something else to investigate. Thirsty, makes a discovery: the snow right here doesn’t quite taste quite the same as the snow over there. Or so she says. We thread though the laurel to the woods road and make our way to the top of the field, stopping every ten feet to sample the snow.

“Can’t you taste the difference?” “Um, no. See, you lose your sense of taste when you grow up. That’s one of the great things about being a kid.” “This one tastes like cotton candy!” “I’ve never had cotton candy. What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had it either.”

At the edge of the field, a new wish: to walk without leaving any footprints. “What if you just ran really, really fast?” She tries it: no luck. I reason with her. “You saw all the squirrel tracks. Squirrels weigh less than a pound! Think about it – even the mice leave tracks. The only things that don’t are the ones with wings.”

At last, the spruce grove at the top of the field: the ultimate outdoor living room. Destination of countless picnic excursions with her Nanna. With me she plays tour guide, gets exasperated at my evident familiarity with the spot. Our footprints cross paths with a pair of turkey tracks, a lone coyote. We cut back into the field just soon enough to avoid the deer carcass, which neither of us mentions. “I love the view from up here,” she says. Ridge after ridge stretching away to the east.

Time to put the saucer to use. We go to the edge of the steepest hill and my heart sinks. I grew up with sleds you could steer; with the saucer, gravity has almost the only say over where you end up. But determined to cut a good trail I sit down in the thing and lie back, trusting in my outstretched legs to keep me pointed downhill. Bump bump bump, a half-turn and I’m at the bottom looking up. I shout something cheerful, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of my voice. On the brow of the hill a small red figure jumps up and down with glee.

I would’ve been terrified at her age, but I don’t tell her that. “Now hold on tight and be careful!” “Give me a push!” A quarter of my weight, she goes airborne at each bump. At the second one her hat flies off. Spinning around, going backwards or forwards, it’s one continuous shriek all the way down. Then here she comes charging back up the hill, half-unbuttoned coat flapping, stopping to examine the places where the saucer left the ground. “Did you see me flying?”

***

Snow in March
brings marvels:
a phoebe diving for snow fleas,
the track of a chipmunk,
a turkey vulture flapping its wings.

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