I go into the woods with my two boys after reading about a dusty cave on the coast of Spain where archeologists found etched eagle talons — part of a necklace once worn by a Neanderthal. Toby, 5, and Nate, 2, rush past the school playground cordoned off with caution tape, not even turning to look at the orange CLOSED sign posted on a pirate ship. They slide down the hill, make for the forest and the trail that crosses small streams, eager for our “hawk walk,” named by my husband for a time when the boys flushed a Cooper’s hawk from a high branch. Faint school bells chime to empty classrooms. What will anthropologists say when they study this epoch?
Closer to home, I worry my children will be stunted by the solitary nature of our lives. During a hard season, a tree slows its growth. A ring for a year of strain nothing more than a thin encasement, the depth of skin. We’ve spent months in isolation, only briefly in the midst of others, but never close enough to touch. Toby and a friend have amassed a catalogue of children’s tricks: speaking through windows; using parallel driveways, running up and down nearby but not together; taking turns coming up with dances, copying each other from afar. Toby and I talk about boundaries to not cross when we visit. He draws a chalk line on the macadam and asks, “What about here?” I hesitate to answer. They may grow inches during this strange time, not the lean growth ring of a tree under pressure, but they will be changed in other ways.
Nate doesn’t even try to mount the stairs to the slide or reach for the wind-pushed swing. Daily, we leave behind a playground hulking, useless, ignored. We look for hawks on newly leafed out branches, in what we can see of the blue sky. Nate says “bird” by sticking out his elbows. He runs with his body bent at the waist, arms straight back. He hands me a curved stick, stripped of its bark. In my pocket, it feels like an eagle talon. For Neanderthals, long seen as brutes, the ornament might have been a sign of fast-flight through a large sky, prey held tight, thump of heartbeat. Like us, the archeologists say, they may have mourned their dead.
I shouldn’t worry. On a path bumpy with roots, Nate stops when he spies a white feather brought in by the breeze. He reaches for it. When he tires of the chase, I pick him up, blow on his hair, and he turns his head to look at me. Far ahead, Toby pauses at a sheaf of bark tossed like a shirt upon the branches of another tree. We return to it often, study its paisley of moss and lichen, the surprising burnt orange underside where it peeled away from the trunk. On this odd cloth and hanger of a branch, the moss and lichen live aloft.
I put Nate down and he places pebbles in my pockets. Toby, not to be outdone, hands me hunks of rock, gravel from some ancient riverbed, or so I tell him.
We pause to study a rivulet, the route water takes when it has nowhere else to go.
Before Nate’s birth, Toby and I sat with friends on the sun-bleached wood of an observation tower overlooking the spin and whirl of herring gulls on a wetland a few miles drive from our house. On a railing, I found a mottled blue-black snail shell — how did it get there? — and handed it to Toby’s friend. He traced the expanding circle with his finger and then passed it to Toby. An hour later, at the car, I lifted my son into his car seat, pried the shell from his palm, stinking of salt and tidal decay, and tossed it into the weeds.
"Not everything has changed," I want to tell the anthropologists. I still hope for my children to be made whole by this world. Nate squirms to be set down. He runs towards his brother. They part branches, step over roots, climb railroad ties set into the hillside, a makeshift staircase up to the school again. We head towards a future I can’t quite imagine. Yet I am grateful. In a city, not so far away, nurses climb stairs to hospital roofs to begin each day with prayer. One says she feels God’s presence on the wind. We are all witnesses to this moment.
“Look,” I say to Toby and Nate, even when they never seem to stop looking. In their youth — and their stubborn curiosity — they remind me of what is as old as the Neanderthals, a desire to hold what we see in the sky. Tens of thousands of years later, anthropologists went to a cave, ready to part rock, chisel, and sweep away time, to find mystery etched in bone, a story they could tell of those who came before us. Each day, my boys and I tell our own stories, woven of whatever crosses our path.