What do I remember about being small? The sheer size of everything. The scope. The mind blowing range of the world around me. How everything felt fresh, wild, new and wonderful all at the same time as being terrible, violent and unsettling. I recall only feeling free when alone out in the wilds, only feeling safe then, and whole. I’d stand on a hill and breathe in the air but I wasn’t breathing the air I was breathing in the hill, the open. Sucking it all into me in one fell swoop, frightened my chest just wasn’t big enough to contain it but helpless to stop trying.
I remember running in trees like a vagabond, breathless and dirt covered. Building forts of fallen branches. Whooping and hollering, burrowing through the leaves like a spikeless hedgehog, grin the size of the universe. That solid heathen smell of earth filling me up from head to toe, so I was part of it all. I recall looking at my limbs and thinking ‘how did they get there? what do I do with them?’ Gangly, gawky, skinny things they were and utterly alien unless out there in the wild when they became my keys to freedom. Skinny legs run fast, low wind resistance.
I remember fishing for newts and froglets with bare hands. Slimy slithering wriggling packages squeezing out between fingers. Bright red bellies with black spots, the long winding swoop of tails, curling my finger. The piston-like push of frog legs against a palm. So powerful it felt as if they’d drive a hole right through your hand. I used to blow on them until they were still and they’d sit there for a while, eyes serene green contemplation, throat gently working before, thrust, swoosh, PLOP and in the water they’d be, swift as a sparrow.
There was a deer park in a village not too far from our house in Grays. Or maybe it was far, I don’t recall. We went to the village pub often and I’d sit reading in the car, book splayed wide, in another world and lost to everything. Motorway passing in lampposts–sentinels of white during the day, a flashing spiral of fairyland at night (I’d often see that spiral in the distance and imagine all manner of wonders dancing amongst the lights). So perhaps the village, the park, were miles away and I, with the facility of childhood, shrunk hours to minutes through sheer disconnection with reality.
We always stopped to watch the herd, if they were there, every time we walked past on the way to the pub. Never missed an opportunity to study those creatures up close. So elegant, nervous and beautiful in their red coats. Graceful hooves rising and stepping bold as ballet dancers. Great black eyes, endless as the night, gazing with disdainful detachment edged with terror. They’re always fit to run, just on the verge. Waiting to fire off, red bullets scything the grass, piercing the trees.
Mostly it would be hinds and calves we spotted, sometimes juvenile males. But one time, I saw the Hart. He was huge. A construction of muscles. Antlers full grown in rutting season. Cernunnos in full deer form. He stood by an oak, utterly fearless. Our eyes met and held and I don’t know what it was that passed between us. It was powerful, too much to understand. There was so much in his eyes, the wild distilled to spirit, a great deep wisdom and so much understanding it seemed, that my chest hurt to see it. It seemed to last forever. Then somewhere, an engine roared and his hind quarters bunched beneath him. He leapt and led the herd on a magnificent dash to the shelter of the woods.
But I remember our encounter, remember it to this day as an encapsulation of everything my childhood seemed to be about. The pause of majesty before terror, the touch of something too huge to comprehend, bewilderment, horror and all-consuming wonder.