I found Annie the summer I turned fourteen. I was living up in the Rocky mountains, then, in a stucco house amidst a few acres of Ponderosa Pines. My family had moved from a small suburb of Chicago the year before. I was a loner, still--hadn't made any friends yet and kept to myself mostly, wandering the hillsides and reading girlish novels. Finding Annie was a surprising surprise.
It was a typical summer, Friday morning. My mother had gone off on one of her weekly garage sale-ing jaunts and returned with her usual bag of finds, one being a hardcover book she'd found lying in a box of dusty, one-dollar paperbacks. She bought it because it looked pretty: The cover was made of cloth; the text on the binding shimmered with gold, scripted lettering. I was rummaging through her bag of finds, as I always did, when the shimmering caught my eye. My eyes quickly panned over the binding--it was Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Picking up the book, I immediately began fondling the pages, peeking inside the front cover. To my surprising surprise, it was a first edition.
I asked my mother if I could borrow it. She said it wasn't for reading; it was only for looking at and put it on the shelf in her bedroom with the other "pretty" books--old, gilded copies of Dickens and Austen. The next morning I snuck into her bedroom as she was tidying up the kitchen and slipped it stealthily off the shelf. Hiding myself in her closet, I began to read--one, raw sentence at a time. Although I was only fourteen, I got it. Mysticism was mine. I knew the language Annie was speaking. I spoke it even more fluently than she.
Hours passed by quickly, intensely--the bloody cat crawling through the open window, the muskrat and mantis eggs, the eskimo. It was time for dinner. I said I wasn't hungry; I was on Fecundity and sprinted off with Annie tucked beneath my arm, making my way up Old Antler's Trail to Hidden Springs Glen, a small, communal lake that I liked to call my own. I lay on the grass as the sun set and soaked up the hypnotic buzzing in Annie's head. When dusk had finally settled down, I ran back home, crawled into bed and kept reading until the sun made its way back over the mountains.
In the fall of the year I turned twenty, that stucco house amidst a few acres of Ponderosa Pines burned down, burning my first edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek along with it. The moment I heard the news is still clear in my mind. My mother called me from the driveway of the house, speaking calmly. I sat on the steps of my small apartment, the phone cradled against my shoulder, looking at concrete parking lot below.
"How about the Annie? Is she gone, too?"
My mother didn't say anything. She didn't have to.
Of all the loss I have experienced in my life thus far, it is the first edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that has plagued me the most. Losing that book was worse than losing my first lover. I felt an emptiness in every molecule of my being for what seemed like an eternity afterwards.
But time has passed, and just as the age-old addage says, with its passing, the wound has healed. I have lost that sense of loss. In its place I have found something new: the genuine knowledge of a voice all my own and a shimmering hope for the future. Things like these always seem to come as a surprising surprise.