Silence reigns in the attic room. I flip the light switch, exposing Aaron's life things: a Hank the Cow Dog tape ejected halfway through Chapter Seven; pajamas inside-out in a heap; scraps of cardboard, castaways from the great rocket-making of the previous morning; an upside-down coffee can, its shiny interior the last view a nosy wasp got of this world. The props of an 8-year-old play whose star has gone off to sleep-away camp for the first time.
Here at our escape hatch in North Carolina's western mountains, just down the road but a world away from EARTH Camp, the quiet is a little unnerving. Aaron's father and I laugh at this little preview of our empty nest syndrome, coming 10 years before the real thing. We remind ourselves that it's not as if his camp week is without other adventures to keep us busy.
The day before he left, we discovered a starving Shetland sheepdog cowering in our barn, covered in burrs, clearly homeless and utterly sweet natured. Now, she dreams full-bellied at my feet, needing a brushing, a bath, and some meat on her bones.
And it seems that the septic tank is full, and the man who comes many miles from the nearest city to pump it tells us we must find it first or pay his crew a lot of money to bulldoze our yard. So we dig random holes in the mud, heaving rocks, hunting PVC pipe and a big hunk of concrete. Our summer sweat spatters into the clay sucking at our boots. We chuckle at the image-versus-reality of our romantic mountain getaway without our little one, while we consider the possibility that there is no septic tank.
Amid all this upheaval, a mother bird, undeterred by our weekend intrusions upon her first tiny family, has laid a second set of eggs in her nest. Since she's chosen the windowsill of our only bathroom, every shower, every tooth-brushing, every closing of the back door prompts a guilt trip, as she scuttles off scolding. I fumble in the dark because the light scares her. My husband laughs at me. We both cross our fingers that she will not abandon the eggs, and we wonder whether her May fledglings flew.
In between these adventures, we write Aaron funny letters, hoping secretly that he's too busy shooting blow-darts, making dream-catchers from sinew and carving a flute out of reeds to write us back.
On the day he returns, it will become apparent that I should have been more explicit about why I packed him one T-shirt for each of his seven camp days. His favorite, the green one that says "Toucan Diving - Bonaire" across the chest, will have bitten the dust four days in a row during "Capture the Flag." Seven clean pairs of socks, balled up like matching soldiers in the bottom of his duffel bag, will come home exactly as they left. His feet will not.
Aaron will complain about the cold creek baths and then admit that he took only two. He will complain about the food and then admit that he learned to like a few new dishes. And he will play beautiful, proud, clear notes on his homemade flute and regale us with his stories for weeks to come.
But for now, in his absence, his father and I rock on our cabin porch like the old people we will be someday, squinting toward the closest mountain ridge at the green spot where Aaron roughly is. We imagine him making his own adventures there across the valley, and treasure the notion of his sweet, separate life, roots deep and arms wide to the world.