Sonja Sponholz

The Backyard Chronicles


I leaned over the rail, the metal biting into my stomach as the little pony thundered past, blowing my hair back into my face. I yelled as they flew by, Sawyer�s face a blur. That Rosebud was a mean little bit of muscle. She tried to scrape him off on the barbed wire on one side, but he kicked her over before she got too close. He started to slip as Rosie took the inside curve of the corral, the sun lighting them up as it crept down behind me. He slid farther and I pushed closer to watch, the pain from the rail now forgotten.
  The ponies weren�t trained. They were lead-able, and didn�t buck, but beyond that they knew nothing. We had them on loan from a woman who lent them to all the families in the county with children who were going through the �I want a pony� phase. He wasn�t using a saddle, and reins were for sissies. His fingers were wound through the coarse, spiky hair at the base of her mane.
  There he was, slipping, slipping. As he fell, she bolted over him, her hooves glancing off his helmet as he hit the ground. He made a dull thud as his shoulder met the hard dirt. I screamed and threw myself the rest of the way over the fence, tripping in my rubber boots across the stubbles of grass. I dodged past Rosebud as she took off behind me to join the other pony on the far side of the corral, who stood silently, watching the scene before him. Sawyer was already getting up when I got to his side. He looked fine, a little dirty maybe, but no worse than usual. He looked up at me, �What happened?�
  �You fell!� I said, looking puzzled. �Come on. Let�s go tell Mom. Are you okay?�
  �Yeah, I�m fine,� he said. He stumbled a bit standing up. �Who was I riding?� That�s when I started to get worried. His face looked so innocent as he walked next to me, a head taller at that time and so tough in little sister�s eyes.
  I pulled him up the back steps and into the kitchen where Mom was making dinner while Dad stood, bouncing little Scott on one hip. �Mom! Mom! Sawyer fell off Rosebud and hit his head!� I hollered as we walked in, always the first to break news.
  After we got past the scramble of checking for broken bones, teeth, and scrapes, we sat down for dinner. Little Scott in his high chair, sniffing his food and frowning at anything green that happened to pass his plate. �Sawyer, are you sure you�re okay?� Mom asked again, narrowing her eyes worriedly at him.
  �Yeah, I�m fine. I just have a headache. But what happened? Was I riding?�
  I shifted nervously as the adults sat back in their chairs and observed him, continuing to shovel beef stroganoff into his mouth. �Sawyer, stop it. That�s not funny, be serious!� Mom raised her voice a little and glanced anxiously at Dad. �Donnie,� she said, her voice continuing to rise, �Do something.� Mom bickered with Sawyer a little more at the table before getting up and dragging him away by the elbow. I winced for him; she had strong fingers. Dad got up too and followed them.
  I stayed at the table. I didn�t like beef stroganoff. Scott looked as though he�d start crying soon as he picked a third shrunken mushroom out of his noodles with his stubby baby hands. He looked around at the near empty table, gumming a noodle, his eyes filling with irrational tears. I made shushing noises at him.
  That was one of about three times we went to the emergency room while we lived there. Sawyer could hardly remember what had happened. He didn�t remember which horse he was riding or that he had even fallen. Mom, worried about head trauma, had taken him to the emergency room. Later, when she brought Sawyer home from the hospital, I remember her sitting up with him almost all night. She would wake him up and check his pupils every few hours, like the doctor had instructed to make sure the concussion was only mild. He had a bad headache, though, and the rest of the evening was hushed murmurs and anxious glances. They told him not to climb trees or go in high places for the next few weeks, as if that would stop him.
  A week later, Mom sent me out to check the mail. As I�m reaching in the box, I hear him giggling from up an oak tree. That tree always bugged me. The big old knot on the side you had to stand on to reach the lowest branch was always too high for me. I could never get up it without help. Oak trees are the best for climbing. There�s no sap to get in your hair or on your hands like the pines that were in the yard. He loved to climb up that thing and watch the traffic on our road, the one logging truck and two neighbors we had that only went to town about once a week. It was another slow traffic day. �Get down here. Mom�s gonna get you if she sees you up there. Come on, Sawyer, it�s not funny. You�re not supposed to be up there!� I hollered up to him. At that age, I rarely did anything but holler.
  �Oh shhh,� he said, �It�s fine if you just keep your mouth shut.� I�d never been very good at that.
  �Fine. Help me up then,� I said, never to be bested when it came to climbing trees. When we moved farther west that�s what I always missed the most. The trees.
  �I can�t. You�re too short.�
  �Okay, guess I�ll go tell Mom then,� I said, pretending to walk away, but watching him out of the corner of my eye.
  �Wait, wait, wait. Okay, get over here. But you�re gonna have to jump.� He leaned over precariously and I jumped, grabbing his hand and standing on the knot, as he pulled me up, the bark scraping every inch of my right arm. I never felt most of my scratches till I had to take a bath the next night and then the hot water seeped in, biting, and reminding me of every little adventure.
  We sat side by side on a big, wide branch that drooped out towards the road. �Thanks for helping me,� I said.
  �Mhmm,� he murmured. �That�s what we do.� We sat there together, the warm summer wind drifting through the leaves, bare toes dangling out over bark and cracked concrete. The sunlight speckled my blue dress. My scraped arm burned. He looked up, closed his eyes, and smiled. �This is a good spot,� he said.
  �Yeah,� I said looking up at him, the sun playing across his open face, �This is a good spot.�


  For once, the dirt was dry. It smelled funny since we were so used to the smell of the damp rain and loamy dirt. Dad used to tell us at bath time to scrub the moss out from behind our ears. Scott and I were hunkered down in the middle of his hole in the backyard, with Rocky, the Barred Rock rooster that was his playmate.
  When Mom and Dad decided to make the expanse of bright, green lawn in our backyard a garden, we were each asked if we wanted one, too. Of course, we were thrilled by the idea, even Scott, who hardly let a thing of actual nutritional value pass his lips. So Dad went out and roter-tilled three pie shaped pieces of land for each of his three little hooligans. Sawyer planted flowers and vegetables and kept it relatively neat. I planted flowers upon flowers and then let the weeds grow flowers too. Scott, however, planted one line of marigolds and one line of green beans. And a hole. He dug a hole in the middle. It was straight through the center about four feet deep and three feet across. At the time, he was only about three feet tall himself. We were impressed.
  �Sonja,� he said, as we sat in the bottom of the hole with Rocky, his rooster. �I�m gonna dig to China, Sonja.� My young eyes got wide.
  �But, Scott, China�s so far away.�
  �Oh, I know,� he said, �I checked on the globe, but I think I can do it.� We had a big, colored globe that sat on the hearth in the house. We loved poring over it and planning where we were going, closing our eyes, and spinning it to find where we would live one day. Usually it was the middle of the Atlantic, but some days it was Thailand or Russia, and we would sit and talk about our lives there. I remember twirling it and feeling the soft bumps of mountain ranges trail away under my fingers.
  I glanced doubtfully around, three feet underground. �Well if you think you can do it. But won�t you have to go through the middle of the earth? Didn�t Mom say that�s hot?� Being homeschooled was a blessing of our childhood there. We had lessons in the morning with Mom or Dad and the rest of the day we were free to roam or dig holes. �Well, yea, it is but� I�ll wear a special suit when I get to that part.�
  �Oh okay, that makes sense,� I said, my seven-year-old self willfully accepting the possibilities as he had. Rocky cooed next to us. He was a pretty chicken, large and white with dainty, black stripes across his entire body. Scott would walk around for half the day in a t-shirt and underwear with the rooster tucked under one arm, his already blonde hair getting bleached lighter and lighter in the summer sun. They were the kind of days you look back on and see in a haze of sunlight, green, and hair in your face from twirling in circles dancing with the poor cat.
  �Well maybe we should get to work,� I said, already hearing Chinese voices ringing through the non-existent tunnels.
  �Yeah, just let me run in and check our progress first, though,� and he took off across the yard, heading for the sliding glass doors on the back stoop. Rocky and I sat in the hole; under the wooden slats Scott and Dad had placed over part of the opening to make it feel more bunker-ish. Rocky pecked at the dirt. There were little shelves carved out on the sides where small, green army men were waging the next world war. I poked my head out of the hole as Scott came stumbling back on his short four-and-a-half-year-old legs. He slid down into the hole bringing a rain of pebbles and dirt. �We�re doing pretty good!� He exclaimed excitedly. I climbed up out of the hole, the dirt he had stirred up filling my nose and I coughed. I lifted Rocky up into the sunshine. �Come on. You can work more on it tomorrow,� I said, the prospect of actually having to help dig quickly losing appeal.
  �Yeah, okay. I�ll do more tomorrow.�
  He dug that hole off and on for years until we finally moved away. He never did get tired of the monotonous task. While China was always the end goal, he slowly realized the depth, literally, of his endeavor. �Hey, Sonja?� he said one day standing up in the middle of his excavating.
  �Yeah?� I answered sitting cross-legged in the dirt, snapping off pieces of the green beans I was eating and sharing them with Rocky.
  �China�s a long ways away.�
  �Yeah, it is.�
  �Well, I don�t know if I�ll get there.�
  �It�s okay if you don�t.�
  �Yeah. I don�t really like Chinese food anyway.�
  �Yeah,� he said, frowning down at the dark dirt, �I don�t either.�
  We grew older, but we never changed. He still dug holes, even after we moved. But they became architectural highlights of our property, tunnels that burrowed away and masked hideouts, hideouts that secreted away sneaked beers and old outdoor cushion sets, stolen lighters, and the odd cigarette. I still don�t really like Chinese food, and he doesn�t either. We still willfully believe in the other�s ability to do whatever we set our minds to and accept it when we decide maybe that�s not the best idea after all.


  �Aquiglia! Aquiglia!� I�m standing on the wire fence, leaning on the railroad tie post, getting old tar on my pajamas and dew on my bare feet. I holler again toward the mountains whose tops I can�t see in the early morning fog, �Aquiglia!� There�s no answer. I so desperately wanted there to be an answer.
  Dad�s waiting by the garage door, arms crossed against the damp, bouncing on his feet like a restless horse, his old, leather slippers making their familiar shuffling sound as the one lace he never tied dragged on the cement.
  I lean even farther out over the wire, bracing on the post and yell again. Still no reply. I give up for today and climb down, my toes sinking into the tall, wet grass. I walk back towards Dad, casting a few sad stares over my shoulder towards the mountain, its peak buried in a sky, pregnant with unshed rain. The wet grass slaps my ankles, leaving snaking trails of dew up my legs. �Anything?� Dad asks as he opens the garage door and lets us in.
  �No,� I grumble as I drag my feet up the steps into the house.
  �Oh darn. Well I�m sorry, Honey.�
  �Hmmm, I know. But why didn�t she come down the mountain, Dad? She said she would.�
  �I don�t know, maybe she didn�t hear you.�
  �But it�s so early. Not even the logging trucks are up yet.�
  �Yeah, you�re right. I guess you�re going to have to try another morning,� he said picking me up and sitting me on the kitchen counter next to him as he made his coffee.
  Some kids go through their phases quick. They�re into dinosaurs for a week, stomping and roaring down every hallway, then the next thing you know they�re Batman�s worst enemy. I wasn�t like that. We lived out in the boonies of Washington State. Every day was drizzle and evergreens and the occasional weak rays of sunshine. But it was magical for the fairies and me. The thick blankets of moss made perfect furniture and my slice-of-pie garden was a paradise. Beneath the carpet of wildflowers and overgrowth there was an elaborate village. Pebble stepping-stones led to bark huts where shell sinks and mossy beds housed my family of fairies. The mountain ash tree that drooped over my garden would drop its small red berries in the fall, leaving little gems strewn across my garden, hidden in the foliage. It would attract the blackbirds and robins, and they�d hop around the garden as I imagined fairies with luminescent wings and pointy ears onto their backs.
   I knew they stayed there when they came down off the mountain where they spent most of their time. I knew it. I knew because I wrote letters to my tooth fairy. And she wrote back. I would sit with my little brother and think up question after question to ask her until we had pages of big scrawled handwriting. I even made her presents. I sewed tiny articles of clothing for her to take home for herself and her children. She almost always took them except for the times her load was too heavy and they wouldn�t fit in her bag.
  Losing a tooth was the best, most painful present. Sometimes I would even try to use Scott�s teeth. But he got protective of them pretty quickly. I finally decided I wanted to meet her. She had told me her name was Aquiglia. Her name was derived from the honeysuckle or columbine flower. I spent many lazy afternoons laying under our climbing columbine, sucking on the end of a honeysuckle flower imagining her coming, flitting over my face, and introducing herself, telling me to stop eating her flowers.
  Aquiglia finally replied in one of her letters that if I got up �in the wee hours of the morning� and called to the mountain she would come down and see me. My poor father, he had no idea what he was getting us into.
  �Should we go again tomorrow then, Dad?�
  �Well, we could. But we might give it a few days. See if the fog clears up, and you can see the top of the mountain,� he replied, sipping his coffee and leaning against the kitchen island.
  �Yea, that�s a good idea. She�ll hear me then. Can I have some of your coffee?�
  Even as children there are certain things we question. We�re taught common sense and then expected to believe there�s a magical man who makes it to every house in the world in one night. And while it would have been logical for my father to eventually tell me he wrote the letters, or there was no fairy, or he was tired of waking up at 5 am to upset the neighbors, he didn�t. Even after we moved away from my lovely, mossy fairy, I imagined the planes fairies of farther East. I built their house in the new garden under the birdbath and beside the rose bush. I didn�t write any more letters, but by that time I was running low on baby teeth.
  If you asked me today, I�d still say I believe in fairies, and in magic, and yes, still a little in Santa Claus. To this day, my dad never explicitly said he wrote those letters, even though by the time I was fifteen I realized Santa�s handwriting and Aquiglia�s shared a stark similarity with his. The small spark of magic still lives there. Every time I see a tiny set of furniture or a microscopic tea set, it flares up. When I hike past a meadow carpeted in wildflowers or a tree with the north side blanketed in vibrant, green moss it is in the back of my mind. Fairies live here.
  My parents never told me what to believe. They never told us what to be. Like the classic users of the Socratic method, they asked questions and guided thought. They supported whims and followed tangents. We dressed ourselves and put our shoes on wrong. We were dinosaurs. We were Batman�s archenemies. We were the hooligans in the backwoods of Washington. We were falling off horses. We were digging to China. We were dancing with fairies.

Sonja Sponholz

SONJA SPONHOLZ has been bouncing around the country from Montana, San Francisco, to Nashville for the last few years. Her unconventional up bringing has led to a plethora of intriguing experiences with both her brothers. Her favorites took place in her own backyard.

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