The glowing Pall Mall bounced in mom’s mouth as she stirred Sweet n’ Low into her instant coffee.
That place was the old slate quarry. Abandoned and for decades free to cover the marks of picks, shovels and hard labor with new forest green, its sheer walls rose hundreds of feet from a deep pool of clear water. The water that filled her, ancient and cold, ran down from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian chain, had been pushed into place by the Ice Age a million years or more before my mom discovered artificial sweetener.
My act of defiance as a young girl was to find my way to the quarry as often as I could. There were days that I wanted to be on its vertiginous edge and so I ran past Beiber’s garage before the old man could see me, up the hill past the oil drums and into a field of long grass. From there I followed the tree line for a quarter mile or so and then, when my feet found the slope of the land I stepped into the dark wood. It was cool and damp in the forest and I tried not to slip as I clamored over huge slabs of mossy shale.
The rim of the quarry came fast and bright. Sunlight fell like a surgeons lamp examining a gaping wound. Depending on the time of day the shadowed walls of the quarry hung in curtains of purple and grey. At other times, bleached and blurred by the dancing light of passing clouds, they were shifting veils of pewter and lampblack.
On the edge my arms held tightly to saplings finding their foothold in the loose earth. As I child I was like these young trees. I was searching for a foothold, too. So there we were, the trees and me, clinging and hoping the slippery shale beneath us would not give way.
From that vantage I wondered what it might be like to let go. I dreamed about finding wings and soaring toward the blue sky and the hawk’s call.
Standing on the edge thrilled me. But it was sitting by the water’s edge that soothed my young and anxious spirit.
Finding the bottom of the quarry meant walking across Billig’s field and past the site of old Fort Everett. The fort was a defense during the French and Indian War and I knew kids who found arrowheads there all the time. Try as I might, I never did.
Beyond Billig’s field was a narrow wooden footbridge. The creek it crossed ran angry after hard rain and it seemed that after each storm another plank from the bridge was gone but I crossed it anyway.
On the other side it was a short walk down a narrow trail bordered by wild buttonbush and dogwood.
The trail broke open at water’s edge. From here the quarry was no longer a landscape violated by industry and machines. It was a cathedral. It was my cathedral and my secret. It was here the heavy and humid air of an Eastern Pennsylvania summer transformed into something translucent and weightless. The vaulted ceiling of stone and brush became a cool filter for the shafts of sunlight that fell into the void. Shrill birds’ scolding and the rustle of other unseen creatures were hymns and chants punctuating the silence. The milky circle of sky above me was a window to a different world.
When I sat at the water’s edge, with those walls of slate and shale wrapped around me, I was safe.