The mountains of dirt rose from the earth like the burial mounds of a forgotten tribe or the tombs of forgotten kings, stretching nearly endlessly across the landscape. From a safe distance, we looked on in silence, watching as the massive machines tore at the soil with their sharpened teeth, opening its secrets to the sky, digging the foundations of the civilization that would succeed our own.
Our civilization had begun like any other, as several wandering nomads met one another on a foreign plain and slowly merged into a single people that developed a culture, became a community, and grew into a society.
Except we were not primordial men and women emerging from the desert to settle in the river valleys, forsaking arduous hunting and gathering for unreliable agriculture. We were six children living in nearby homes built at the edges of Mitchell and Butter Lanes who ventured into the outdoors to explore the orchards, horse farms, cornfields, and potato fields that lay between the two roads.
And yet, we were driven by the same desire to test our limits, both of strength and of territory, that drove our ancestors to follow the sun with no foreseeable end to their journeys.
This desire and the fascination that accompanies it — the fascination of what lies over the next hill — is particularly strong in childhood but never dies within us. It merely expands into greater tests and greater boundaries as we grow older, stronger, and wiser. Hills become mountains, ponds become seas.
I always wonder who led our ancestors’ wanderings. Was it the tribal chief who dreamed of lands more abundant with game? Was it the tribal mother who saw her children growing up in a more hospitable climate? Was it the children themselves, as I like to believe, who forced their families to follow their vivid imaginings of the beyond?
Our civilization evolved like any other, too; our early squabbles that reigned until dinnertime, when our parents would ask where we had been all day, soon giving way to the order of an urbanized kingdom.
When summer came and the corn grew high over our heads, we stomped our roads and paths into the crop and wove together the broken stalks to build the walls of our new cities. We then brought sketchpads and notebooks into the shade of the corn and scribbled across their apple cider-stained surfaces with colored pencils, drawing maps that guided us safely home each night, marking where the deer lingered, infested with ticks, and where the farmers drove their tractors, causing the earth to exhale clouds of dust. We carefully documented our harvests from the orchards and blackberry bushes to ensure we never grew hungry, and wrote down the laws that would govern our kingdom and settle our petty disputes.
Art and literature grew out of our exchange of ideas and imaginings. We drew portraits of ourselves, the founding fathers and mothers, wrote down the imagined battles we fought against imagined enemies, and scribbled down our imagined origin tales that we had orated since we had first met one another between the two roads.
All our stories were performed as dances in the late summer, when the winds blew stronger and colder and were more heavily scented with the sea. But our golden age did not last, and, like all civilizations, we fell. There was no eclipse to signify our end, no great battle, no plague or tragedy. There was simply a sign hammered into the earth at the edge of Mitchell Lane that bore two words: For Sale.
For a few days, we looked at these words knowing what they meant but refusing to believe their meaning. Then came the tractors and cranes and the cohorts of workers to dispel our disbelief, then came our silence while we watched our land opened up like a surgery, brand-new, off-white beams of wood emerging from the ground like exposed bones. And then came the cars that crunched down newly laid driveways, the nighttime spotlights that dispersed the owls and bats, and the laughter of unfamiliar children we only glimpsed as shadows behind murky glass.
At first, we tried to negotiate peacefully with the newcomers. We knocked on their freshly painted doors, bringing with us gifts of threaded grass and cooked corn and small Tupperware bowls filled with blackberries and haw fruit. But as soon as they saw us — six ragged children covered in dirt and sweat — we were told we were trespassing. We tried to tell them they were trespassing, only for their yells to disperse us back into the corn. We did not even have a chance to ask for our cities to be spared and for our borders to be restored.
So, when winter came and the snow sent most of the newcomers away, we fought. We hauled away wooden beams and tools from unbuilt homes in an effort to halt their construction. We uprooted and shattered the signs that bore the names and phone numbers of those who believed they could give away our land.
But the beams and tools always replaced themselves, the materials abundant, endless. The signs merely multiplied, and our 12 small hands were not enough to pull them all down. So, we consulted with our god for help. Not with God, of whom we knew very little. But with the old, rusted tractor that lay hidden within a small grove of evergreen trees that grew at the heart of our empire. The tractor was a relic of some bygone era we never knew and had been abandoned by the grandfathers of farmers we watched carefully from afar. We were seeing them less and less often; where would they go when they had no more land to farm?
We always wondered what it was like in those days, before our parents moved to Mitchell and Butter Lane, and would often ask the tractor: Were there other children who wandered the land between the two roads? Did they also build a kingdom? The tractor would never answer because it was trying to forget its past, we knew, which was filled with sorrow. We knew each of the flakes of paint that chipped from its hull contained one of its tortuous memories that it wished to shed, to disperse in the wind and bury beneath the pine needles.
And yet we spoke to it regardless, its silence, its mystery only causing our veneration of it to grow. So, once again, we approached it with our questions: Who were these new settlers in our land? Why did they come and tear up the land on which they wished to live so mercilessly? Did they not wish to taste the apples and corn and blackberries and haw fruit that grew there?
Again, the tractor did not answer, but this time, not because it wished to remain silent. Touching its rusted surface, feeling its cold, steel limbs, sensing nothing of the sacred aura it had once emanated, we realized it had perished. And now we repainted it with our own sorrow, our tears dripping down upon it.
We collected its memories with our hands, our pockets bursting with the paint chips, and then abandoned the body of our god, forced to retreat to our original homes, our origin places. There we were consoled by our mothers and fathers and the knowledge that our empire would always persist in our memories and in the memories of the tractor we had brought with us.
Such memories could be passed between us so long as our friendships persisted, to whomever would listen, and down to our children, we told each other. Perhaps they would even be written down one day, we reassured ourselves, as they are now.
All the while the construction continued unabated, unfettered by the death and exile it had caused.
Shreds of our crumbling walls are still visible among the fences and privets that have been erected to separate what for us was once an inseparable, expansive steppe. At the edges of backyards and driveways you can still see the caves we dug when we were nomads, within which we used gushing blackberries to paint our first dreams and worshipped our first gods.
These fragments of our lost civilization are waiting to be discovered by its successors, to reveal the lives of yet another people cast aside by new inhabitants ignorant of the land on which they now live. To help to finally undo the timeless, recurring pattern of indifference to that which came before, a pattern that has done nothing but displace and harm in a guideless pursuit to push ever forward.
Christopher Impiglia is a writer and editor from Bridgehampton, based in New York City. He holds a master’s of fine arts degree in fiction from the New School and a master of arts in medieval history and archeology from the University of St. Andrews. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia Journal, Europe Now, and Handwritten, among other publications.