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On Fernwood Hill

Emma sees things close to the ground where the grass is green and wet and the worm pokes like a groping finger from the earth. A little black beetle crawls out of the latch and trundles across the neighbour’s gate and a banana slug leaves its sticky trail across the path. The leaves on the bushes shower her when she shakes them. In the morning she is playing with Wendy in the backyard. They argue about whose father’s feet are bigger. Wendy goes home mad.

In the afternoon Emma goes to kindergarten. She walks to the corner of her street and turns. She goes past the vacant lot where her big brother once beat off hordes of neighbour boys with a garbage can lid. On Fernwood she passes the butcher shop where their dog Billy sometimes sits outside the door and waits for scraps. She walks down the street to the corner and sees an old man in a yard filled with fallen leaves. He speaks to Emma. She knows he is the grandfather of the boy who lives across the street. His name is Mr. Gower. He asks her if she wants an apple or a pear. She doesn’t know. No one’s ever asked her that before. She imagines what they taste like—the hard crunch of an apple, tart on the tongue, and the soft juicy sweetness of the pear dripping on the chin.

“A pear,” she says.

She eats it on the way to school, stomping her feet on the wooden sidewalk. She kicks dry leaves into the air and her heart lifts up with them.

She walks this way alone because Wendy doesn’t go to school yet, but Wendy wants to go with her. One morning she asks her mother if she can show Wendy the way to school so she will know when it is her turn. She takes Wendy with her all this way and then across the vacant lot and down the hill to where the great yellow brick school George Jay looms over them like a terrifying ogre. She leads Wendy to the back of the school where the new annex looks a little less scary.

“This is where the kindergarten is and the teacher’s name is Mrs. Toder.”

They play hopscotch on the empty school ground for a little while until the bell rings and the bigger children come out and scare them away.

On the way home, they stop at the corner where Mr. Gower lives, and Emma tells Wendy the story of the pear. Then she makes another choice. She decides to take Wendy to her grandmother’s house. She thinks it isn’t far. They go there every weekend in the family car and it doesn’t take them very long. She tells Wendy it is just that way, halfway up Fernwood Hill.

So instead of turning right toward home, they turn left and go down Fernwood and across a very busy street with a traffic light and then across another busy street. Wendy is afraid but Emma tells her it will be all right. They are almost there now, just a little further up the hill.

Fernwood Hill is as steep as a mountain. They climb and climb and climb. She looks at the houses one after another, but she does not see her grandmother’s house. When they are almost at the top, she stops, a little worried. Perhaps this isn’t where her grandmother lives after all. And she worries about this thing called time. Her mother keeps it for her. Her mother knows when it is time to eat lunch and when it is time to go to school. The little girl doesn’t know what time it is, but she knows she is hungry. They haven’t even reached the top of Fernwood Hill and Wendy wants to go home and Emma isn’t sure any more.

She turns around to go back home again, and from this height on the hill, she can see far, all the way to the snow-capped mountains, to the edge of the world. And below her feet, as if it has somehow fallen there, she can see her whole world spread out, filled with housetops and treetops, and only the tops of things so that she cannot see down underneath to where her home is.

Emma’s world suddenly comes apart from her.

She wants to be home now, away from this fear. She starts to run and Wendy runs with her. The hill pulls them down so fast they are almost falling. They run so fast it feels like someone is chasing them, so they keep on running all the way home, back up the other side of Fernwood and then down to her house on Stanley Avenue where her mother is at the door, arms crossed, waiting for her.

“Where have you been? Don’t you know what time it is? You’re too late to go to school now.”

“I was lost,” Emma says. It is not true—she knew exactly where she was every step of the way on her journey—but in some way she doesn’t quite understand yet, it feels absolutely true.

Emma is gone now. Many years ago she went off, far away, over the other side of Fernwood Hill. But wherever she went, no matter how far, a little bit of Fernwood stayed with her like a wet leaf or something gooey stuck on the bottom of a shoe.

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