Sunday, October 10, 2010

Listen ...Forest Song: Letting Go

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Chapter One

“Oh, good, Inga, you’re back. You were gone a long time,” Babcia’s grin was maternal when she welcomed me home. Pixie small and candle straight, her white hair loose to her waist, she flicked her wrist when I shrugged to explain my days-long absence. “No, I said to take your time. I knew where you were. I wasn’t worried. Have you made your decision?” I nodded. “Good, good. Now have some vegetable soup.” Sitting at her table, I accepted the soup and told her about my adventure. She didn’t eat. Instead she sat on the edge of her chair and, leaning on her elbows, tilted toward me, her peridot eyes changed to rapturous blue, anticipating a long and complex story.

Three days before, I had gone to explore the forest I would mother if I stayed. Pretending to feel safe, I’d hummed a cheerful little ditty while treading only on the sunny spots. But every rustle, every crunch, every snap of a twig had hauled my heart to my throat, had stopped me short. Arms extended, my fingers defensively splayed, muscles clenched into panicky knots, I couldn’t move my head but, working on their own, my eyes had scuttled to the menacing shadows.

Finding nothing, or at best a scampering squirrel, I’d gone on, fiercely working to trust September’s warmth. Ever watchful for snakes or the signs of a bear, though I didn’t know what those signs could be, I placed one foot in front of me, sniffed the air like a hare, hummed a note, and eased the other foot forward. In a month all the leaves would be gone from the trees, and the woods would be more light than shade. The snakes and bears would be safely tucked away in hibernation. In a month I would be much less endangered. In a month, I told myself, I could walk through the trees and smile at my soul-squeezing fear. But on that September day I dared not let my guard slip, for I could not see what lurked behind the curtain of leaves or what prowled among the whispering gloom.

“What are you doing?” I demanded of myself. The afternoon breeze puffed my hair into my face. “You don’t have to do this. It’s not your job to save the woods. Just say no and go back to your life.” My life wasn’t so bad if I squinted just right and ignored the dismal fact of Mama’s death. I could tell Babcia that I had decided not to stay. I’d go home and make peace with my father. I’d quit school, find a job. And when I had some time off, I’d visit the old woman, maybe bring her a gift. She’d understand and forgive. I turned around to go back, but I could no longer see her house.

Which way had I walked? All the trees looked the same. All the shading held the same pernicious secrets. Heart thudding, I studied the ominous dark. Not a stone or a twig looked familiar. I plopped down on a rock and swore at myself. If I had stayed and refused the old woman’s request, I’d be safe by her hearth. I’d have a bed and a meal. She’d guide me home in the morning. I would live. Or, better, if I hadn’t ever come to the woods, I’d be home with my father, not entirely safe, but at least not a lunch for some bear. Tears stinging my eyes, I berated myself. “Don’t you dare give in to tears! Keep your head, Inga! Think!”

When I’d entered the woods, a slim golden path had led me to the old woman’s house. Intrigued, I had followed and knocked at her door having no plans to stay overnight. But her tale so intrigued me that I couldn’t walk away until she had finished the telling. And maybe that was a mistake. This time there was no path. While I knew the way home to be generally west, I couldn’t see the sun, nor could I see in the dark which way the jumbled shadows were pointing. “Someone help me,” I pleaded to the afternoon breeze. But the foliage swallowed up my prayer.

Working without thought, my fingers fondled a fern while I fretted over what to do. A tickling snatched at my attention and, shuddering with horror, I shook an ant that had crawled onto my hand. Ants are the housekeepers of the woods. Respect the work they do to keep the forest clean. Where had that thought come from? I didn’t remember Babcia ever saying such a thing. I watched the ant, or one like it, skitter over the leaves. How many times had I thoughtlessly stepped on an ant or reflexively killed another insect? “We are all made of star stuff and kitten breath,” Babcia had repeated in her story. “Every living thing has a spark of the divine.” Did that include the common ant? And was I like that little being, as fragile looking as a breath but Goddess strong? Bending so low I nearly touched it with my nose, I breathed an apology. Unimpressed, the little insect disappeared beneath a leaf, but I was sure that I had learned something important.

“Well, all that’s nice, but it doesn’t get me closer to home. And it won’t put anything into my belly.” Once again I scrutinized the sun-splotched foliage of the woods and begged it for a clue of where to go. The woods were still. They offered nothing. Even the breeze had decided to take a nap. I huffed a sigh. I didn’t see anything to do but to walk and hope I’d find the forest’s edge.

Getting up, I dusted imaginary dirt from the seat of my jeans then looked around. I took a step. A crow cawed. Was that a warning I was wrong? Or was the cry just the sound of an indifferent bird taking care of its own agenda? I waited. The crow was silent. I took another careful step. Again it cawed. I didn’t know what to do. “Oh does it matter?” I chided. “Whichever way I choose, if I go in a straight line, I’ll find a town.” But in a few short steps, I discovered that the trees prohibited walking a straight line. “Well, okay then. I’ll just walk.” But I couldn’t move my feet. ...

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