“I think I’d like to taste like salted caramel,” I mused to the silent, sun-baked eyes. “Sweet up front, but not afraid to be honest, to be unique. A little quirky, but always grounded. Real.”
The wrinkles relaxed as the old oak let out a drawn-out, understanding sigh. “You worry too much,” he exhaled. I stood up, wiping the rubber crumbs out of my palms, and then reached for the lonely puffs of whipped cream floating through the sky.
“What do you know about worry? The loving earth feeds and cares for you, and your only obligation is to adorn her graceful collarbone.” I nestled myself back into the all-too-familiar shingles of rough bits that endured my weight. The layers of forgiving gravel cradled my wilted figure, and the trees and birds gave my heart a space to ponder outside the suffocation of my own thoughts. The elderly oak’s limbs let out a deep, creaking bellow, and the birds chittered their giggles as the joke spread, though I was unaware as to what they thought was so funny.
“What? Did I say something? C’mon, what is it?”, I prodded, embarrassed.
He gave me an empathetic shrug, “Humans are always worried about something insignificant, something so small in the scheme of life; they definitely aren’t quick to learn. A wise old man once wrote, ‘Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.’”
I shot upwards, excited to share my knowledge and prove myself to the weary oak, “That’s Paulo Coelho, from The Alchemist!” I’d only read the book eighteen times. The birds twitted from branch to branch, concerned only with the fact that there were indeed too many squirrels renting the apartment one floor down.
“Very good, little one,” the kind hearted timber whispered. “Maybe you could think about what has brought you to be. What do you “taste” like now? Who are you really?” The truth was, the community of telemarketers thriving high in the branches and the residence itself had always been there to listen when I’d needed it most. It had, however, taken me mounds of frustration and ignorance before I paused and glanced up from the ground to understand that they had always been there waiting to love me, and to lead me in the right direction. I ran my fingers through my mousy brown hair as my mind wandered back to a time of canoeing, sunshine and cabins.
I was cocooned in a shell of gentle yet firm motherly arms. I didn’t want to have to think about anything. I wanted to curl up in my bed, cry myself to sleep, and escape into my dreams. Kalai stepped back, giving me a chance to wipe away the thick river flowing towards my chin and then tenderly dried the streams of scalding tears with a comforting swipe from her thumbs. Grateful of her care and yet ashamed of my uncontrollable misery, I drowned my emotions in the floodwaters incessantly flowing from my eyes.
Kalai was a fiery redhead: slender, elegant, and sophisticated, though only a few years older than me. I’ll admit I was a little jealous of her beauty, her poise, and her allure. But she’d always been there to listen to my complaints, to discuss boys, and to play with my hair when I was lonely. She was wonderful.
“Can I show you something?”, she asked softly, grasping my hand delicately, pulling me towards the forest. We trekked through the dense foliage for quite some time, marauded by mosquitoes buzzing a deathwish until we came upon a small, comfortable clearing. The place felt mythical and homelike at once, like I had been there before, as if I were dreaming and yet in a genuine fairy tale. The light bounced off the trees, giving them an aura of altruism and goodwill, crowning Kalai and me with the brilliance of angels. I was Rapunzel, I was Snow White, I was Cinderella. I was a child of nature.
“I always come here when I need to be alone, when I need to get away from everything, from myself, and just listen to the earth and her creatures,” she uttered, breaking the immortal silence. Bending down, Kalai ripped handfuls of weeds from the ground, not angrily, but carefully, as to not hurt the plants that had graciously welcomed us to their home.
I observed her actions for several saturated minutes before joining in the strange ritual, taking care not to harm the natives. Timeless giants loomed over us, at first appearing to scrutinize our every move, but from their bold stance I realized that they were our fearless guardians, defending against the world budging in.
There was an antique air about the place, the way the breeze flirted with the leaves, how the dirt and earth held an enticing warmth against the chilled sunset. The peculiar weeding continued for an extended period of time, though I was much too lost in the repetition of my actions to notice, and soon enough the rustle of grasses ceased and I swivelled to discover Kalai gazing longingly past the branches and nests into the heavens above.
Joining in the admiration, I looped my arm into hers as we contemplated the immortal dot-to-dots for another wonderful eternity. She eventually led me back through the path we had taken previously to reach the familiar trail leading to the dining hall I was sure we were supposed to have checked in for dinner hours ago.
A faint yet irritating bell assaulted our eardrums for several seconds before granting a silent relief. It was Dutch Barn song night, where all the campers gathered in a hot, stuffy barn to lift their voices in unison. It was always beautiful. Although I had been looking forward to this all year, my heart was not in the mood to join in the cheerful chorus. I was definitely not in any kind of mood to be around people. I just wanted to shut everyone out, to delve deep into myself, to resolve everything and somehow find peace of mind. Kalai embraced me, whispering, “I wish you didn’t have to go through this, sweetheart.” My heart longed to curl up and stay wrapped in Kalai forever, to live as a bird, a tree, a squirrel, or to be the moss in the lake. I could feel the dam breaking, but I wanted so badly to hold it back. In defense, I loosened up. I wasn’t hugging back. I couldn’t hug back.
“No one deserves that, least of all you. But I’m so proud of you. Hun, you are the strongest person I know, and I have no idea how you do it. Just know, if you ever need to just walk, to feel nature, to have someone hug you and not ask you the details or pry, I’m here. No questions. No assumptions. Just here.”
Wishing so badly to stay in that moment forever, or to be born again a different entity, I saw that the world was spinning, but was the same as always.
“Are you coming to the Dutch Barn?”, she asked, trying not to sound pushy.
“I think I need some time to walk,” I muttered, attempting to be as emotionless as a nail.
“Need someone to come with? Or do you need some air to yourself?”
She knew the answer before the inquiry left her lips, but I’m sure she just wanted to reiterate her promise. I waited several seconds before I could get my mouth to form the answer.
“I’d like to go alone.”
She held me for a couple short minutes before letting me breathe. “Baby girl, you are amazing,” she declared, spinning around and slowly meandering towards the cluster of camp society.
I stood in abundant listlessness, trying not to let negative thoughts attack my brain. My eyes sagged, weary from the tears it had shed and the many attempts to stop the rain from escaping, to keep the floods contained.
Focusing on the pads of my feet, my body strode into the thick foliage, carefully hopping from root to root, attempting to be an Indian guide. I was, after all, part Native American. Maybe I had acquired some of their natural talent. Tripping over a lone twig, crunching into piles of decayed leaves, I decided they had made a mistake in my geneology. Crawling out of the leafy cave, I held onto the closest tree to regain my balance, then marched off with newfound awkwardness, and at the same time, an appreciation for the tree’s prank.
As I drew close to the girls’ cabins, voices emerged closer than I would have liked, and milliseconds before they might have discovered me I jumped behind a large shrubbery. As soon as they had passed, I continued making my own trail through the leafy jewels and whimsical ironwork of the ancients, travelling as far away from civilization as I could get before my absence was noted. If it was noted.
Suddenly, my mind was racing. A lone thought had broken through my defences. It was running with it. Rising from my great apathy came an overwhelming feeling of self-pity, of a certain bleakness deriving from the thought that I had been a disappointment, that I had done nothing in my life and would never have the capability to do anything. People were laughing, and the world was spinning, but I hadn’t boarded the merry-go-round. From that arose an intense hatred toward the amount of control my negative thoughts had on my life, the power it had to pull the strings and make decisions for me. I hated myself for not being strong enough, for letting my ego trick me time and time again. How on earth was I supposed to defend myself from myself?
I unleashed my anger, flailing my limbs, attempting to beat up that which blows cannot maime. Camouflage meshed and swirled around me as I frantically sprinted as fast as my breath would allow me, trying to escape people, deceit, disappointment, and myself.
Adrenaline pumping, I plowed through the lush plants, finally slowing down to capture my breath. Tripping on another root, I regained my balance, smacking the right side of my head into a nearby tree. Drawing back my right arm, I did something I never would have considered before in my entire life. I punched that tree as hard as I could, socking the anger, the hatred, the frustration straight in the face. Then I landed another one with the other first. Blood dripping down my fingers, I collapsed face up in the layers of decomposing plant life. The ground around me dampened from the spring flowing down my splotchy red cheeks. I could not stop sobbing.
The leaves formed a patchwork quilt, cradling my exhausted form, shielding me from the hatred and the chill. The wind stroked my hair. Birds and squirrels circled around to chitter loving encouragement and comfort. The stars winked and grinned lovingly at me, and the ground below me warmed and calmed me. The trees, they sang to me the most beautiful melody I’d ever set ears to.
I thought I might know that song. In fact, I was sure I knew that song. Humming along, I wandered towards the angelic music. I eventually joined in, but only the trees can hear my tattered, shaky voice. As the trees bowed in to listen, it dawned on me that what I had been listening to was not the trees, but the campers in the Dutch Barn.
I followed the noise until I was less than a mile from the camp. On the way, the oaks and pines, sworn to secrecy, listened to my frustrations, stroking and soothing my nerves with their occasional rustles and conjectures of advice.
Out of nowhere came a shrill yell, “Taegan!” Great. It was Ashley, my preppy, blonde, flirtatious counselor, here to make sure everyone was at each event.
“Over here!” I replied with anything but excitement. She’d just ruined the calm I’d striven for, the moment I’d had with myself.
The trees enticed me forward, reminding me that they’d be there every day, and would be there for the rest of time, holding the secrets of the earth and life. As I strode towards the sound of my name, I realized that the wind had dried my tears and softened my tense muscles, and I was feeling relaxed and composed.
Cutting through the weeds and bushes, Ashley rode out to me on her bike, leaping off to grab me by the shoulders. Quickly stuffing my hands in my pockets, I tried to act nonchalant all the while whispering a silent prayer. Several times she checked to make sure that I was alright, and that none of the other girls were giving me trouble.
Climbing on the back of the bike, I ensured her that I had just needed some fresh air, but turning back as we rode away, I realized that I really was going to be okay.
As we drove through the tall, soft grasses, the wind tickled my chin and the lone giants waved a short-term goodbye, bringing a smile to my lips and a warmth in my heart. Everything was going to be alright.
My mind returned to the present, where the shed roof was as comfy as ever and the oak and its inhabitants were snuggled along with me, protecting me from the night’s frost and keeping me company while I had thought about his advice.
“I love you,” I declared to the trees and birds and grasses and bugs. I even loved the shed, though I knew he wasn’t listening.
I bent down, wedging myself between the roof of the house and the wall of the garage, grabbing onto the brass handle and the light sconce as I hopped to the cement below. It had been a good evening to talk, to think through my own thoughts. Climbing up the beams of the back deck, I crawled over the railing and slid the glass door open.
Turning back to the tree I whispered, “I am real, I am sweet, I am honest, I am kind. I taste like salted caramel, but I sound like the rustle of leaves and I feel like the gentle breeze.I am a child of nature. I am loved.”