My brother learned to ride a motorcycle when he was 13 years old.
I? I was 15. Loved riding with them, wanted to learn so that I could do it too.
But I was a girl.
The summers I was 12, and even 15, I was mewed in Nana's compound- the tall walls showing only trees and sky- the way a virgin nun is mewed in a cloister: I could not leave except for holy days and special outings, even then escorted by a guard of more than one of my aunts and at least one uncle.
(Often friends are amazed at the number of books I now read and have read. I tell them they should not be; but they seldom listen. And few of them know, and none have guessed, that the price for this skill, for the early catalogue of my knowledge, was an imprisonment as real as any convicted criminal experiences. Only… I was innocent.)
So, I climbed.
My uncles were all right with it. (I assure you that had they not been, I would have had to climb at night, in secret.) After all, my mother had done the same thing twenty years ago (but gotten into dreadful trouble over it, then); and I was still inside the walls. There was no chance of me being seen by anyone other than family, or of getting out, even had I thought of doing such a thing (I didn't; I had promised when I was 12 not to leave without permission, and I keep my promises): the tops of the walls are inlaid with broken glass.
I climbed and climbed and climbed. Barefoot. Shod in everything from flip-flops to sandals to sneakers. The mango. The coconut palm. (I got yelled at for that one.) The windowsills, the well- I would haul buckets of water up, over and over and over again, for something to do, for the chance to feel my muscles straining- the guava.
And, figuratively speaking, the walls.
I'm in the midst now of my biennial reading of Tolkien, which always reminds me of that pen, reminds me that though I was as strong, as fast, as graceful, as enchanted with riding as- and a better rider on horseback than- my brother… still I was left behind.
Any wonder that, instead of the magnificent, the immortal and exquisite Undómiel, I've always sympathized with Éowyn- mortal, flawed, fair and fell Shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim?
It was Gandalf who said these words of her: My friends, you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours... who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?
Éowyn made sure Aragorn, too, understood: "What do you fear, lady?" he asked. "A cage," she said. "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
I am free of walls and wards and warnings now. And I am, as an acquaintance of mine once told me, no longer governable, unbridled save for those bonds I accept of my own will. I come only to whom I please; I go only to where I choose.
I am, J. said, still a wild thing.
J. is only half right; for I am not still a wild thing. I am a creature who grew up penned and watching others running free.
I am not still wild. I am now wild.
And now, and here, are bonds I have chosen- a cage to which only I hold the key.
And I still, as I told my friend Kristina three nights ago, climb- climb everything I can climb. Not as often nor as high as I used to, though I still eye fences and trees and walls, and occasionally things like shelves or bridge supports, measuringly.
Heights I reach myself, with my own limb and sinew: not only air, and perspective, and sanctuary. Freedom.
I know this. And occasionally I remind myself of it, experimenting along the way. Like tonight.
No bitter watches of the night with air unbreathed, deeds undone, for me; no words spoken to the darkness. Only my breath and the scrape of bark and leather, the sting of weight on my palms and fingers, the rough press of tree-limbs through my jeans.
(Oh, yeah- even though they'll scuff, you can climb a magnolia in Doc Martens.)