Been Here Before...

Been Here Before...

Before I even exit my vehicle at a friend's impromptu cookout, I’m accosted in the driveway by a four-year-old, all braids and played-all-day dirt, hands on hips, declaring, “They’re not REAL!!!!!!!!!!”

A little background: The four-year-old is Miss CK.

(This real-life little girl is not to be confused with Little Miss Muse, the purple-winged imp who’s off pouting until her stock of bottle rockets and grape bubblegum is thoroughly replenished.)

Anyway, Miss CK and I have a thing.

She loves unicorns. I have a similar obsession. Months back, we discussed these magnificent creatures in detail, read some picture books, and read the books again. With a wrinkle of her nose and a “But they’re not real,” she slammed the last book closed.

“Now wait just a minute. How do you know that?”

It’s been a while since I’ve had a little one, and I’m rusty on four-year-old vernacular. Deciphering everything she said was a challenge, but the gist was this:

Unicorns are pretend. Horses are real.

Mermaids are real… sometimes. I’m unclear on the rule here.

Fairies aren’t real. Except for the Tooth Fairy. (I know for a fact the Tooth Fairy portion is accurate because Little Miss Muse has this being’s contact information…)

The jury’s out on gnomes. I believe Santa’s got a leg up on all of them.

In every encounter with this child, she reminds me—with gusto— just how unreal unicorns really are.

And every chance I get, I try—and fail—to convince her otherwise.

So, here, in her driveway, I declare, “Oh, but what if they are? What if they’re so tiny we just can’t see them.”

I see her wheels spin, and before she can crash my hopes again on un-real horses with horns, I ask to see her fairy tree—a cool little spot at the base of a tree trunk where a couple of miniature windows and a door hang, welcoming fairies and gnomes and…

Before I could finish the sentence, she grabs my hand and we’re off to the tree with a side-step into the shed to grab a small plastic purple Halloween candy pail that holds the inhabitants of Fairyville.

She plops into the grass. I plop down beside her. One by one, we name each creature as she pulls it from the bucket.

I say, “This fairy has blue wings and rides on a leaf boat. Her name should be…” I pause, and Miss CK comes up with a name.

“Ocean!” Great name, CK.

The yellow one is… Daffodil.

The orange one is… Sun.

The green one is… Grass!

We sit a long, long time, pulling Fairyville pieces from the bucket, building the neighborhood. Gnomes and toadstool people visit (a marriage in the mix ended a week-long Fairy-Gnome war, which had caused a real-life pretend ruckus as witnessed by three real-life adults). We build a forest of sticks stuck into the mud with a tree bark topper.

“That’s the Forest of No Return,” CK declares and shoves Sun into my hands. She takes Ocean, and now, we speak through the fairy figurines.

“Where do you think all the unicorns have gone?” Ocean asks.

“Do you suppose they’re in the Forest of No Return?” Sun wonders.

“Yes. Or they’re on Pluto. We should go now.” Ocean dives into the sticks-in-mud forest and destroys it. CK tosses Ocean to the base of the tree. She takes Sky from my hands and tosses her, too.

Annnnddd we’re off. Back to the shed. She drags out a hot pink balance bike. Her helmet is hot pink and stamped with a… Pegasus. I ask her if she thinks Pegasuses are real.

Her eyes light up. “Yes! And we can go find one. Come on!”

I’m forty-three years older than this kid. My body grumps from sitting on the ground too long, but I trot along after her toward the edge of their property where pine trees (real ones) line a creek swollen and rushing from way too much rain recently (also very real). Now, I’m split between playing pretend and protecting the tiny Huntress.

“This is the Forest of No Return.”

“We’ve been here before, yes? Back at your fairy tree?”

Attitude seeps. “Yes. But it’s here now.” I should’ve known. Silly me.

CK kicks it up a notch. We hunt for a Pegasus. And a unicorn. All over the place. We ditch the bike and helmet and take off on foot across a field. We make our shadows dance along the way. More than once, a monster chases us and CK squeals.

She schools me on goose safety. “They have long beaks that will pinch your cheeks right off.”

She points out how her house gets smaller and smaller. Another tree line comes up. “It’s the Forest of No Return.”

“We’ve been here before.” (And we do, in fact, return each time, but I don’t point out this plot hole. I’ve got my own plot holes to worry about. Perhaps I’m in a magical wormhole spoken into existence by a four-year-old. I’m okay with that. As far as wormholes go, it’s a decent one. Just the one monster, and, as luck would have it, an occasional Pegasus sighting.)

She marches onward, declaring herself the leader. We waddle like ducks. Step like giants. Hop like toads.

We approach active train tracks and bog-like conditions with get-your-shoes stuck in the mud and your bare legs all scraped up. And there’s that whole goose issue.

Protector mode kicks in, and since I give off a vibe around birds, I don’t want to take chances with a little girl in tow. (Trudi confirmed goose-a-tude. Geese are very protective around their nests, and even the concrete lawn ornament species can get a little miffed from time to time, especially when they’re forced to wear Christmas capes all year.)

I point out that the hot dogs will be done soon. I also mention how I despise wet tennis shoes and that neither of us has the right footwear to go further.

Somber as can be, she tosses a look over her shoulder, braids flying. She reminds me she’s the leader and snarks, “Sooo… You can Just. Be. Tough.” I could hear the punctuation in her reply.

And she keeps going.

I got schooled. On geese and whining about shoes.

Until her shoe falls off and she starts second-guessing her leader role.

A little further along, and Huntress CK becomes suddenly weary of the quest. “I’m tired now. You can be the leader.”

She stares up at me.

I stare at her. We both blink. I know what she wants. She knows what she wants…

“I suppose you’ll need a ride out of this swamp.”

She grins.

I bend down. She climbs onto my back. My leg muscles remind me that I rode a real-life horse (with no horn) just a few days before and that I should watch my step. We continue to pretend with all our might, but that fantasy world is layered over the reality of algae-caked ponds and flooded creeks. And long-necked geese. We trek back toward the smell of the smoke from the grill.

Her house gets bigger and bigger.

“The Forest of No Return!” She shouts in my ear and her arms tighten around me as we get closer to the pine trees in her yard.

“We’ve been here before. Maybe we’ll see a unicorn this time through.”

“No! Run! The monster!”

Oh, boy.

What am I to do? I toughen up lest I get schooled again. And no way she’s gonna give me the win on the unicorn front.

We are a bit late, but we make it back to the deck for hot dogs and 7-Up and mac-n-cheese…

But I’m not fully “back” at the table. I’m still half-stuck in the fantasy. Something nags me—has been this whole time. I’m in a fog of… nostalgia? I can’t shake it.

I watch CK chow down her food and only half listen as the adults converse around the picnic table, their words all dull out, and I can’t rein in my attention. I stop fighting it and let my own imagination go.

I don’t know what Miss CK will be when she grows up. Perhaps she’ll use her massive imagination to create worlds with words. Ocean can sit next to her keyboard for inspiration. I’ll be the first to buy her stories.

Perhaps she’ll be a teacher, and she’ll bring her childhood figurine collection to share on the day of show and tell. Convince a class of first graders that fairies—and unicorns—could be real. Maybe they’re just too small for us to see.

Perhaps she’ll be a doctor. CK will sit on the edge of a gurney and pull Grass or Sun or Daffodil from her scrub pocket. She’ll hand a teary little girl a fairy, open a wormhole, and provide a momentary escape from all the scary things.

Miss CK certainly stirred up my internal unhinged child. The part of me that’s stuck in limbo and doesn’t understand I’m a grown-up. The part of me that dares to throw snark and attitude, especially while creating at the keyboard. “Toughen up, lady. I’m the leader, and I have a few things to school you on.”

I had extraordinarily similar adventures when I was little (minus the Pegasus helmet). Creature hunting. Outer space. Wishing for a magic wand that worked.

Or a wormhole.

Outrunning monsters.

Fantasy layered so thick over the top of real life until my house became smaller and smaller and smaller…

Excited panic wraps its arms around my ribs as tightly as CK did when we traipsed across the field.

I’m hit with a second wave of nostal—

Wait up.

That’s not nostalgia.

That’s déjà vu.

I’ve been here before…

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