Honorable mention of the English Forum creative nonfiction division.

My father took me through the woods behind his childhood home. The air was crisp, customary for late March in the Indiana farmland. The wind droned its bass voice in my ears and made my hair twitch in all directions.

I stood at the edge of the forest and lowered my phone camera. The real view was better. A nervous crowd of trees were submerged to their ankles in leaves, and their brittle fingers kept poking me as I carefully stepped through them. An intentional yet unkempt path drew me onward into the crowd.

I kept my eyes forward. My father was ahead of me, his head lowered to avoid the crowd’s hands. I had no idea where we were going so I followed him. He moved with purpose even after he turned off the path, ducking under branches and veering toward the sun planted low in the murky sky.

I was immediately lost, a stranger amongst this repetitive crowd. I pushed aside their hands and kept my father in my sight. He rarely looked back, but always slowed whenever I lagged behind because he knew how to listen.

I wonder if it was a little voice in the earth that guided him. Perhaps a whisper from the sun. Maybe the crowd itself pointed and chanted, rejoicing at my father’s return and guiding him to his favorite place.

I stood at the edge of a field. When did we get here? How did he know? After being in the trees, it jarred me to be in the open. I offered the field a courteous view while my father told a story.

“This is as far as we could go and still hear Dad’s whistle,” he said. “If we went any farther, we had to say we were going to the Dunes.” He then pointed at a dark, thorned vine. “Watch for that guy.”

We made our way back into the trees. I echoed his words over the harsh crunch of the leaves under our feet. “Dunes?”

“Leftover sand from construction. Made this large sandy area with bushes and dirt. It’s where we would chase lizards.”

I chuckled.

“These little striped things. You’d hear them scooting under the bushes, doot, doot, doot, and then—” he snapped “—a shot across the sand. So you can imagine, three boys falling over each other as we’re scrambling after these things. You had to corner them and pounce.”

I could imagine. I laughed at the mental image of the three, my father and uncles, covered in sand and sweat, proudly peering into a small box full of striped skinks. “Where exactly are we going?” I asked, my lack of direction prodding my anxiety again.

“I found pieces of our fort last time we were here.”

“Oh yeah, I remember you mentioning that. Is it still there?”

“We’re about to find out.”

My father led onward and I followed. I liked the quiet as we went, it let me focus on keeping him in my sight and the crowd’s hands out of my face.

Eventually the crowd thinned. The trees now gave the impression of fenceposts if the one who set them chose their location based upon the landings of stray darts that missed the board.

I immediately noticed an unnatural ornament. An old sheet of hammered tin lay propped against a felled log. My father smiled fondly and hauled the old tin to its feet. “Here it is. There used to be more of these.”

The metal warbled and creaked. It had grown used to its wooden seat and disliked being forced to stand.

“We gathered a whole bunch of them and stuck them right into the ground,” said my father. “In the ground, against trees, pretty solid walls to hide out in… even got a roof for a while. We’d bring our GI-Joe figures out here all the time and airdrop them into the little fern jungles.”

He let the old tin sit down. The two of us threaded between the trees and I could imagine times past with little boys and forts and plastic action figures performing daring feats. My father stood over a log broken at the shins, its rotting stump orange with time. He thumped a fist against an upright post beside him. “This is about thirty years’ growth. Lots of weather damage on the older ones.”

It occurred to me there was little the same of my father’s forest. The trees remained but they were not the ones he played with. They were long since felled, replaced by those that were not yet seeds when he knew them.

Yet there was so much the same. As we trekked back to the house, I didn’t worry about getting lost. This was my father’s forest. He smiled to himself as we walked and I could sense his joy, his joy that he could share this part of him with me.

I realize I won’t have my father forever. But I am thankful he instilled in me a love of stories. I hope someday to return to his forest and tell his stories to someone else as we imagine playful scenes of little boys in a wooded crowd.