Sometimes I find myself so incredibly alone. Alone and tired. I miss…something. I want to go back but, like a fading dream, it slips away from me before I can remember. Sometimes I think I know what it is and where I last left it, but I’m afraid that if I go back it won’t be the way I remembered it. It’ll be different. And worst of all…maybe it’ll be the same, and I’ll be the one who is different.
Maybe it sits, somewhere far far away, growing stale while waiting on an old friend that might never return. Maybe only a thread of hope remains. Shreds turning to dust.
The shell craters in the walls cause a haunted whistle when the wind blows, and there is a tree growing in the elevator shaft. If she stands on the roof, she can look down it, three stories into the basement. The building itself is so forgotten, half sunk-half slunk down over the hill so you can only see the roof and top floor from the road. The field it’s built in seems to have no other purpose than to feed the herds of sheep that pass through on their way up the mountains. For a while everyone thought there were mines in these hills and so no one ever went exploring or grazing. It took a couple years, but the government finally got out a de-mining team to come make sure all was safe. She still remembers hearing the blast from her house as a lone mine was found, blown up, and the bits hauled away. Only then was the field proclaimed safe.
The building was originally going to be a medical center, or at least that’s what she’s been told. It was never finished and had ended up being a barricade for the people of her neighborhood. When the war broke out in 1992 everyone thought this talk of battle would blow over. Instead it blew a hole in downtown Sarajevo. Kobilja Glava, the “Mare’s Head”, was a neighborhood right on the edge of the city, up a hill and at the base of the mountains. The Mare’s Head had the misfortune of also being on the front lines. It was either kill or be killed. So the men gathered, fought, died, and won, all in that yet-to-be-finished medicine center.
The first time she went alone, her courage failed her ten feet in on the first floor. Men had died here. The thought was scary and exciting all rolled into one. There isn’t really a front door since most of the walls were blown out of the long rectangular shaped building. It’s made up of grey concrete with solid wire mesh in the middle. There aren’t individual rooms, just the important bearing walls, and if you stand on one end of the building, you can see all the way down to the other end. It is at least a football field long, if not longer and the elevator shaft is dead center.
The hill the building is hidden behind, slopes down to the first floor. Someone placed rocks there a couple years ago to make it easier to climb in. Names written in juvenile spray painted scrawl adorn the walls, and rude words and pictures are impossible to ignore. But the girl does ignore them, because the echoiness of the building breeds room in a young girl’s imagination to start it spinning. If she walks to her right, she’ll end up at the staircase. If she goes past it she’ll end up overlooking the right fourth of the basement, since the floor either was never finished, or was never meant to be in the first place. There is some sort of reservoir down there and she has to bundle up her courage to climb down to look inside. It’s filled with water, probably 20 feet deep. There is a person sized teddy bear that is at the bottom of the pool, and the macabre orangey-brown fur ripples when you throw in a rock.
Packs of dogs sometimes live in the basement, and once the girl found a dead one in the corner of the left wing, just past the reservoir. She didn’t cry or throw up or run away but instead imagined a great fight with dragons and this beast who gave his life bravely for the lives of his pack. The next time she came, she brought a shovel and buried it deep under a tree growing under the roof.
She has very few friends, and they do not enjoy the things she does. They don’t understand her writing or her stories, and the ones who do live oh so very far away. So she has made up her own, and Peter, the boy who lives at the building, is her favorite. They talk and he listens and she spins webs. These will not be written down, but saved in a box in her mind labeled simply, Peter. All the others she writes down at home, in her nook under the grand piano in the living room.
These people, conversations, and situations have been bred here, and the tendrils of thought have woven themselves into stories of betrayal and love and despair. Her mind is alive here and as she strides back and forth, her voice rising and falling as she speaks, these men and women come to life, the words dripping from the cavernous echoes of basements and elevator shafts and reservoirs. This is where she plays, her make-believe world coming closer than she had previously thought possible, with no one to judge that she spoke to the wind.
She came to the building all the time, hoping to find more friends, more characters to be happily embedded into her stories. And she grew up, and she changed, but the building did not.
One day she left, and moved away to a country that spoke the language she spoke, and lived on a hall, on a campus, in a school in South Carolina. And she forgot. She forgot about Peter and the dog and the teddy bear and the elevator shaft. She instead became a twenty-something adult with work and a job and a car. She had responsibilities and tasks and papers and to-do lists and she stopped writing.
When she finally did come back to the Mare’s Head one December, she walked the road that ran through the field. She turned and looked at the mountains and she saw the very top of the building. And she remembered. She remembered it all: every song, poem, character, story, beast and dragon that had ever been created within these cold and grey walls. And she ran. She ran all the way to the building and up the rocks and into the first floor; and she looked for Peter and the dragons and the beasts, but she was met with a snowy silence. There were new graffiti marks and the building had at some point been used for a paintball war instead of a real one. But the building hadn’t really changed.
The next day she came back again, this time with her own spray paint. She brought with her something she’d written long ago, in this very building, when the walls felt like they would fall, and every day was a struggle. She found a blank wall, which was not hard and wrote, for the first time in a long time:
“The voices are only echoes in her head and she stares blankly forward. When people look at her they see a girl that is funny, playful, smart, witty, and ultimately…happy. What lies underneath, on the other hand, is totally different. There is something curled up below her heart and past her lungs, writhing around, not knowing what to do or how to get out. A naked slimy body, not yet developed, but not so young as to see the world through a crystal bowl of innocence. Something that would dare to ask why the sky couldn’t have been green, and owls have turquoise feathers, and to question the fact that trials always seem to come to those who need the most relief. But she wants neither this beast that she attempts to tame, nor the Wal-Mart greeter that is seen on the outside. She wants to be the one to make them talk. To make them all say: “Is that her? The one who broke the mold?” She wants her hair to trail in the wind when she rides bareback in the snow, her arms and head thrown back and laughing at the wind. Green eyes made up dark, bracelets of unicorn hair and feathers of a phoenix tied around her neck. To never again care what others think. Laughing at them all. If you ever find this girl who is scared of nothing, and whose spirit rides on the backs of lightning itself, tell me. I’m looking for her.”
As she steps back, she hears a voice; very soft and very unforgettable, for it was she who had brought it into existence so very long ago.
“Welcome back, Hannah.” Peter’s voice rippled through the building.
She turned and she laughed, and the snowflakes blew in through the window holes, and she saw him. As characters peeked around walls, she felt the heat from the dragon’s fire, and she knew she was home. In this wonderful old building. Where imagination came to life.