The Cliff

My town sleeps on the mountains. Not the treacherous peaks of the Rockies, but the ancient rippling spine of the Appalachians, sometimes cloaked by pale cerulean clouds and sometimes revealing a blended palette of forest green, burgundy, and crimson trees. Looking up, or across, or sideways, I always glimpsed a circle of lilac slopes protecting the blue vinyl houses and crackly lawns of Johnson City, Tennessee. I grew up in this sheltered town, cradled by ancient heights, where the clerks at Kroger greeted you by name, and where your history teacher lived next door and watered her poinsettias each evening at half past eight. At night, I didn’t jerk awake to glaring city lights or frantic ambulance sirens, but to a definite hush which sprinkled the town like drizzling rain.

Each morning I walked to school from my flat-faced, red brick house. That was routine—each day the same English, science, history courses, each day the same cafeteria with the same turquoise trays, and the same clocks in each room, which were behind for half the year because the school never bothered changing them after daylight savings time.

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It was after the last bell rang that my fantasies gushed out, carrying me to exquisite palaces and scorching deserts, to perilous slopes and freezing wastelands. Above the school—or rather, behind and above the school—was a soccer field, and what I liked to call a cliff. A steep face of imposing gray rock. To reach the cliff required two treacherous expeditions: one from the back of the school, over a fence, up a grassy slope, and onto the soccer field, and the second from across the soccer field to a labored climb up the steep rock face. I never dared to venture all the way up the cliff, but made a home in a small flat clearing, more than well equipped with ornate thrones carved from rocks, and plush beds of grass.

When I wanted to flee from my parents’ belligerent voices, shattering each other over and over in endless battle, I grabbed my Jansport backpack and ran out the back door to my cliff. Perching on a smooth pile of rocks, my throne, I would look over the small flat town and the continuous curve of the Appalachians. Here I was at peace, I could sit cross-legged and draw without covering my ears to drown out my parents’ screams, I could sleepily gaze at the sunset and feel the sprinkling of stardust, while fantastic beings from other worlds came to pay their respects. Eventually the cliff acquired a blanket, carefully folded into a rock hollow, pages of writings and art, buried underground and marked with arcane symbols in the dirt, and even a plastic tarp, for when it rained. My palace was complete, and my kingdom as beautiful as ever, for it was now summer.

And of course, we moved. Moved from beautiful Tennessee to cold and flat Iowa, where every morning I trudged through a foot of snow to the tiny school, carrying my bagged lunch in one hand and a rented violin in the other.

But two years later–when we moved yet another time to Georgia–we visited my beloved town. I expected a quaint, lovely small mountain town, the wonderful place I left. Instead, a silent, desolate expanse of failing shops and empty street corners greeted us. As we drove up to my old neighborhood, I eagerly peeked out the window, searching for that sharp slab of slanted rock. I saw the school, traced my eyes over the soccer field, and over a small rise of rock, and over a steeper rise, and to the road and houses above, and above that more trees…did they cut it down? My mom points out the window, “Look, remember that’s where you used to play?”

She was pointing to the tiny slope. We drove closer; my parents parked the car to visit the school. I walk slowly, steadily up not-so-steep hills to my clearing. I sat on my rock and tried to grasp some of that enchantment which so inspired me before, but all I could find were fading memories. My palace had fallen to reality, the fantasies unwound.

Sometimes when we return to childhood corners we feel silly and alien, too big to believe in the sparkling world we made for ourselves. My childhood was protected by gentle mountains and fluffy clouds, where every challenge seemed like an adventure and every misfortune a heartbreak. In hindsight these fancies seem ludicrous, but the inspiration we draw from them stays with us. Though I was too sophisticated—so I thought—for my palace, it was still on that small “cliff” that I felt completely at peace.
I sat there for a long time.

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