I have returned as an adult to scrutinize the little kingdom on the Wenatchee River where Lord and Lady Brown and their princeling and many princesses and royal menagerie ruled the apple orchard world.
From the top of the hill, I have tried to remove the gossamer crazy quilt of memory and see the landscape for what it is. I want to see it as ordinary, to strip myself of sentimentality and see clearly at last.
I see the river makes a wide bend, carving the steep cliffs of Sunnyslope on the far side. Then it sweeps in green rapids under the high trestle where the black pipe banded in iron cable carries irrigation water to the orchards; after that, it enters directly into the Columbia River.
During the as many as twenty-five Bretz Floods 15,000 to 13,000 years ago, when the ice plug on ancient Lake Missoula worried free and let loose at 80 miles per hour, the landscape of my childhood was shaped from the clay.
The flooding Columbia backed up the Wenatchee and backed up Horse Lake Creek until my whole future life was under water. As the lake slowly settled, fine white silt created the clay bank a short ways up the canyon road from our house on the flood plain.
This steep cove was built of layers and layers of hard-packed clay laid down in parallelograms, so when I picked up a chunk and pulled it apart, it broke along angled paths. My siblings, cousins and I would scramble to the top and heave our clay bombs to the county road below. They exploded with satisfying cracks and poufs of white smoke that hung suspended in the quiet air.
The clay was also just the right texture for tunneling. The soft, white dust got embedded under my fingernails, and I could feel it sifting down my shirtfront, caking in the sweaty creases of my knees. We jumped bare foot from high up, suspended like our bombs in the timeless air, revolving like the earth does around its sun at 18 and a half miles a second, until we came down rolling in a flying flurry of powder.
The bank faced north, so the clay stayed cool and shady during the scorching afternoons of August. We kids often played up there until the sun could be seen glinting red on the distant snowfields of the high Enchantments. I see this from my adult, God’s-eye perspective because I know that if I were riding my horse up Hay Canyon,
But down in the canyon, we couldn’t see outside the clay cove surrounding us. It especially surrounded us as we dug holes and interlocking arches and tunnels. Completely absorbed in our play, deep inside the earth, we didn’t notice the movement of the sun across the sky.
The 15,000 year old clay held other curiosities for us. Every once in a while, we would unearth concretions—stone-hard nodules, usually flat, with funny appendages; like fresh ginger, they had knobs and ears that made me think of Ice Age animals. These we kids collected and hauled home to show Mom and Daddy, the assembled uncles and aunts.
After a long afternoon of digging and bomb throwing, we straggled back home through the apple orchards like a gang of little ghosts covered with our sheets of fine, white clay. Mom would meet us in the yard with a hose and turn the water on us: clothes, shoes, hands full of concretions—everything got hosed down. My dark braids plastered wet against my cheeks like twin question marks I would carry with me into my mysterious future.
Wet and shivering, we each got an old towel and were sent into the house through the basement door. Wet clothes got left by the washer, and we all went screaming with chatter and laughter back up the stairs to warm clothes and dinner.