(The prompt for this week is surroundings and we were encouraged to focus on one aspect of nature as it relates to the story. I chose sparrows.)
Out the back gate, across the farmer’s field and into the woods I go in search of the child, knowing that she comes here frequently, alone, despite the fact that she is barely five-years-old.
“She’s either charming snakes or catching tadpoles,” an older sister, well into her teens, says in disgust.
“She’ll come home when she’s hungry; she always does,” adds another sibling, also older, but more withdrawn, this one holding a baby on her hip.
The mother lies in a darkened room upstairs, not to be disturbed, and the tension in the house is palpable.
There is a well-beaten path that runs the length of the wooded area, and no sign of trails leading into the overgrown thicket. I look for broken branches or trampled brush to indicate where the child might have gone. She is small and can fit through passages that thwart adults such as myself.
From what her family says, she is a bit of a wild child: long wavy tendrils of auburn hair she refuses to brush, brown eyes that flash with defiance, and a stubborn determination. She prefers knee-length cut offs to the dresses her mother sews for her, and would rather climb trees than play with dolls.
“I don’t know what to do with her,” her mother says. “Can’t imagine who will ever love her.”
I will, I think, pushing aside the barricades of branches, trying to imagine where she might go. What is it about this place she finds so alluring? I wonder.
Twigs scrape my skin, and fallen trunks create obstacles, their split seams exposing black holes that contain who knows what. I shudder. How does she tolerate the insects? And snakes? Is she not afraid?
A rustle nearby startles me, until I realize it is only a tiny house sparrow foraging about. Two more land nearby and so as not to disturb their scavenger hunt, I stand still and observe them. I’ve always thought of sparrows as unremarkable, and yet watching these little heads bobbing, I can’t help but notice the intricacy of their designs – the contrasting shades of the plumage, the identifying streak of brown across their eyes, and their undeniably sweet song.
The sudden appearance of a squirrel causes the birds to scatter, and reminds me of my task, so I move on, pushing aside more foliage. That’s when I hear the sound of running water. A clearing reveals a narrow creek, its bed visible beneath the shallow trickling. Rocks of all sizes line the beds and bottom, and I can imagine little feet navigating over them to get the water’s edge.
Although the water is shallow, I am aware that people have drowned in less, and am dumbfounded to think that this child should be left to her own devices in this harsh environment. I squat down beside water and dip my fingers into the cool, then wait for the ripples to calm and search for tadpoles, but it is too far in the season. Where else might she be?
The wind changes and I raise my head to listen. It’s so quiet here; so peaceful. Visions of the scene back at the house flash through my mind: a mother barely coping, children left to tend for siblings, and a father who is by all accounts a tyrant. No place for a young girl in her formative years. No access to the nurturing and stability she needs. No encouragement for a growing imagination.
This girl is not running away, I realize; she is running towards. Nature is her mother, the creatures her friends. Here in these woods there is rhythm – predictability and acceptance – that is not present at home. She finds her communion with the sparrows, the snakes, and whatever else dwells within these woods.
She is happy here, I understand, a sentiment that is not part of her family’s equation, survival being the overriding priority.
I make my way out of the woods, feeling strangely renewed. At the point where the path meets concrete, I pause and look back, whispering to my five-year-old self:
“I’ll be back, don’t you worry.”
The sparrows lift their voices in response, and I feel our collective hearts soar.