Not long ago I found myself contorted under a spiny bush. This kindly plant had grown of its own accord into a sort of shallow cave and it laid a yard or two beyond an uneven and windy dirt path that I had trod down moments prior. I knew how hot it would be if I went out walking that day. But knowing reality and experiencing it are two entirely separate things.
The sun is untamable. Insistent and enigmatic and wild. A force farther away than we can comprehend in our finiteness, yet so intimately near that it leaves traces on our skin. Years later we still bear the tiny dots spattered across our shoulders, memories of moments spent beneath the great force beyond our sidewalks and back porches. We are at its mercy. I’d certainly was as I cowered from its rays beneath an unwelcoming plant.
The air was still. I was drenched. Exploration turned wandering turned disorientation. And two hours later it seemed my favorite place had turned against me, as each branch and mossy patch looked foreign and pitying. So I cowered in the only real shade I could find, unsure of how far I had come or how long it would be until I was home once again.
Some days, the sun is so unyielding that it seems to make noise—like a great warping—as it bakes the ground brittle. And on that day I could hear it. It was like a siren or a wail. I listened and tried to reclaim my sense of direction; the last familiar thing I remembered seeing on my walk I had passed over an hour ago. Suddenly, the clouds above me shifted, and once again, I found my eyes flooded with light. In defeat, near teary, and angry that the decision had not been mine to make, I straightened my back, emerging from my failed refuge.
Removing the crisscrossed pins from my hair, I pulled off the delicate yellow scarf I had tied over my hair and wiped the sweat and smudges from my face. After years of keeping the scarf folded perfectly, in a powdery tin, untouched, I had begun wearing it habitually. I slid my arms out of my slouchy backpack so I could unclasped and unfolded the flaps constraining my water bottle. I raised the bottle to my mouth and remembered the echoey noise I’d heard twenty minutes prior. I’d already sucked down the final sips.
My eyes clamped shut, squeezing out the sun and the moment. I bit the insides of my cheeks.
You can’t cry. You’ll lose the small amount of hydration you possess, and the one thing that could make this worse is a dehydration headache.
I stuck the still chilled side of my water bottle against my neck.
Just decide on a direction. Just move. Stagnation kills small bodies of water.
Sticking my bottle back into my pack, and sticking straight my resolve, I decided to continue forward. As I began walking, the air and everything with it began to move.
The trees sang, whistles and rustles as they were caught on all sides. Everything was, all at once, so alive. I turned to face the wind, anticipating the caressing cool it would offer me. I held out my arms to receive more, and I felt my scarf free itself from my hair so gracefully that I could almost have been glad for it. It floated away from me, caught in the breeze.
But that dainty yellow thing, greyed with my sweat, bursting with flowers and the scent of orange peel, had belonged to my grandmother. A pithy inheritance, some may say, but it was mine—pristine and reminiscent of long hugs and walks to her garden, scarf pinned over her own downy grey hair. In my puffing and boiling, I had forgotten to repin it to my head. So, as I turned and watched it flit further from the path and deeper into the unknown wood, I let out the fat tears that had spent the last thirty minutes welling behind my eyes. Then I began to run.
My first thought, as I kept my eyes focused on the distant strip of cheery yellow, was to pick my feet up because the ground hosted an absurd amount of twigs and branches, fallen and decaying, concealed by all the green shoots. My second was that Chesterton was a liar.
Eyes darting back and forth between the ground and the scarf, I did my best to keep myself upright and on course. My lungs were vices, cranking out muddled, achy breaths. I lept over a log, landing funny on the other side—too much pressure on my ankles, not bending my knees to cushion the landing the way you learn to do in childhood. With a twinge, and noticing the earth suddenly abandoned the upward slope, I slowed to a walk.
My scarf continued tumbling on, slowly and with playful billows, just seven trees ahead. The wind shifted direction, laughing at me.
I began jogging, then. The scarf had without much warning, been caught up on a sickly-looking bush, flapping in the quickening wind like a warning or a surrender. The shifting wind did me the kindness of relenting after pulling the yellow thing through twelve trees.
Forgetting my concern for my ankles, I ran once more, terrified that my slower pace would give the wind time to change its mind and take away its mercy and my grandmothers scarf. My fingertips got there first, grasping and yanking. I clutched the beloved swatch to my chest, finally pausing to breathe. I held it up to look it over and drink in my success.
In my haste, I hadn’t bothered to notice how tangled it had been. One whole corner was a mess of unraveled, silky string. The next had a large rip running right through my favorite flower, the only purple one in the sea of blues. I looked past it to the bush, ripe with thorns, one of which still held a pinch of yellow string.
Wadding it up, I shoved it into the top pocket of my backpack before throwing my body to the ground. I willed myself to cry, wanting the satisfaction, but I came up dry. So I lay there, dusty, finished, boiling my bones with my bitterness. The sun siren wailed on all around me.
A damselfly, thinking I was part of the forest, took a momentary perch on my nose and startled me. Rubbing my temple, I opened my eyes and began to look around at where I had ended up. My breath caught in my lungs: I knew this place.
Just beyond the yellow-strung bush, maybe ten feet away, the earth dropped off. My ears found the stream just a moment before my eyes did. It was swollen from rain, ripping through the winding path with a kind, gentle ferocity. Its edge was bright green pillows of skunk cabbage and mayapple and the early stalks of uncountable wildflowers.
I looked at the knobby tree at the most dramatic bend in the stream and recognized the vibrant white to its left—thousands upon thousands of tiny bells, lilies of the valley, fragrant as childhood.
I had made it to the tops of the trees where I took ten-minute hikes nearly every day. And though I touched the roots of these trees each time I passed, I had never looked up into the branches. Relieved, I pulled the scarf back out from my bag, gently, careful to keep it from catching on the zipper. I wanted to look at my prize one more time.
The corner unraveling upon itself seemed to be thinner than I remembered as if the threads had been stretched beyond their ability for some time now. The purple flower, now in two, had been sewn up before, I realized, looking at each stitch for perhaps the first time. The purple flower itself, I realized, was a formerly blue flower, stained long before it had come into my possession. I folded it carefully, with a new understanding of its fragility, and decided that while I would do my best to patch it back up, I would buy my own scarves to tie into my hair. And perhaps I would get my grandmother’s framed.
As I noticed a rather steep path, descending down to the stream, I felt a gust come up from below. I realized that my cheeks were wet once more, silos of wonder I didn’t know I had. And I stayed where I was, for just a touch longer, soaking in the sunlight and the wind, and the realization of how little I knew of the forest.
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