(7-days of writing – days labeled below)
The first time she saw him she was a girl of ten. She was curious, headstrong, and walked through those woods with an unparalleled lack of fear. He was unshaven, stooped, and had eyes that screamed a thousand pleas at once. Her regular jaunts into the woods to climb the cedar trees’ fragrant branches and toss smooth stones into the tiny winding creek were her delights. His place in the woods and the peace he had there had been his delights and his security–until that day.
That first chance encounter at the edge of the newly plowed field startled them both, and to think she almost missed it! Had it not been for that rabbit straying from its path and leaping just beyond the treeline, she would surely not have noticed that slight rustle of briars to her left. As the rabbit disappeared into the thick underbrush, her bright eyes were drawn to a minute movement. She only noticed it because there was no wind that afternoon. Those briars shouldn’t have been shaking in the least.
He had heard her calling out, talking to herself as she always did. He had been watching her eyes and knew she would follow that rabbit. It was her habit to do just that. The animal, shouldn’t have, but took them both by surprise with its change of direction. The sleeve of his tattered flannel shirt had caught on a briar. When he realized she was closer than he had at first thought, he panicked and jerked. (Day 2) His worn brown sleeve broke free, adding one more hole to the already ragged fabric. The prick it left in the thin skin of his forearm was never felt. He was more than accustomed to the briars and their calling cards.
Everything seemed to have conspired against him. The wind had been still. The rabbit. Even his own schedule was slightly off the mark. That had been foraging day. He had searched along the border between the field and the treeline before, but wandered a little too far to the south that afternoon. The trees had begun to turn green, but the leaves weren’t quite thick enough to shield him. Looking back now, he wasn’t too sure even the thickest of foliage could have stopped her from picking him out. She had a keen eye, that one, and nothing startled her.
He couldn’t be sure why he didn’t turn his head—why he didn’t just look away. Her eyes had found his, and there was no mistaking their recognition. The slight, freckled, strawberry-blonde girl didn’t just see something in the woods. She saw him.
And when she did, he ran.
He bolted through the underbrush, grateful for the spring having been dry and the growth slow. The bend in his back and the curve of his neck were of little hindrance as he sprinted across the driest part of the creek bed. He knew the way come daylight or darkness. Scarcely looking back for fear she was behind him, he all but vanished into the deepest part of the woods—his part.
Two days passed before he ventured out of the shanty. He was afraid to make the slightest stir in the leaves around his front stoop. For two days, her stare was burned into his brain. Hundreds of scenarios ran through this mind as he sat inside the four walls. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t followed him. If she had indeed, she watched from afar because he never heard so much as the crunch of a leaf nor the snap of a twig. He was mad at himself for being so careless. He had managed on his own for years. In fact, the last time he had had a close call like this one, he was young man, spry and limber. The hunter who he believed had seen him never made eye contact, though. Not like she had. Truth be told, that orange-clad ruffian didn’t look exactly sure of what he had seen. His face held more doubt than it did surprise. The beer can dangling precariously between his thumb and forefinger surely contributed to his confusion.
Hunters weren’t on his list of worries anymore. They trekked into the woods, but they never made the steep drop into his area. The deer bedded down in the pine thicket just within earshot of his home, but the local hunters would never know that.
After finally getting a little rest in his cot, he stepped outside to stretch. (Day 3) The tiny slivers of early morning sunlight slid through the budding leaves above him. He stretched his arms forward to bat at what had to be the last leaf from fall as it drifted lazily right to left on its way to the forest floor. It must have been ousted from its resting place on the branches far above his slanted rooftop by a breeze he could only imagine. His world in the hollow was rarely graced by the wind’s presence. He caught a glimpse of the back of his hand as he just missed the stem of the leaf. It was rare for him to examine himself. There were no mirrors in his shanty, but he thought he recognized the look of his hand. His skin resembled the well-worn saddles that hung in his grandfather’s barn all those years ago. Soft, thin in spots, and somewhat discolored. They, too, looked tired and used up. It wasn’t like him to notice or care about such things.
A good stretch of his back and a sip of cool water from the dented metal cup he had rested on the fallen log outside his front door, and he was on his way. By his records, he was a day behind. Keeping watch after his encounter with the girl had upset the balance he worked so hard to maintain. His foraging had been cut short, and he had water to haul. Not wishing to waste anymore time and, feeling fairly certain his worries were over, he set out north.
Years ago—maybe decades, he really wasn’t sure—he had learned to leave his one-room dwelling by a different path each time he ventured out. The ground around his home shouldn’t look well-traveled. Paths need not exist. His goal was certainly not to invite anyone to take a wooded road to his front door. So it was that each day, he chose a different direction to exit the area immediately surrounding his tiny cabin. Just for good measure, he would return with the odd fallen branch or chunk of hollow log to toss down if he felt he could see a trail beginning to form.
(Day 4) The stream wasn’t too far from his home. He carried a bucket in each hand. One was red plastic and the other was metal. The handle of the metal one dug always dug into his palm on the return trip—not his favorite chore. He loved the stream and all the sandy patches of raised earth in the creek bed visible during dry spells. On a typical day, he would hum to himself as he worked. As he picked his way carefully down the bank, more than one tune crossed his mind. Stepping carefully across two rotting oak branches and squatting at the stream’s edge, he filled his first bucket, mindful not to include any sand in his haul. When he had filled the metal bucket to the brim, he reached for the red one without looking behind him.
“Why don’t you set both buckets in at once?”
He couldn’t be sure in that moment if it was the sound of the voice itself or the simple fact that, instead of a bucket, he had gotten a question that startled him most. Whipping his head about and stifling a shout, he was on his feet in an instant. On guard, all of his senses activated, and almost aching, he strained his neck right then left, up and down as he searched above the steep clay wall for a face to match the voice.
(Day 5) It took him longer than it should to find her. She must have been watching him for a good while because she looked quite at ease with her chin resting on her hands as she lay on her stomach peering down at him from the bank’s edge. Her head was still cocked in question when his eyes settled on her face. “Why don’t you?” she asked again.
It was her. She had found him. Despite all his efforts, she had found him.
Everything in him told him to run like the trapped animal he was. His chest ached, there was a pounding building in his ears, and his eyes darted from her face and back again. She had found him!
“Well, that’s what I would do. Just seems easier to me.” He couldn’t get used to hearing her voice. How long had it been since he had heard anyone? Heard an actual voice? She pushed herself up and sat crossed-legged with her hands busily rolling a twig back and forth between her palms. She continued to study him as he stood paralyzed below her, his bucket now tipped sideways in the swirling water.
“You’re ‘bout to lose your bucket.” She pointed toward his feet. He reached down and felt around for the bucket’s rim, lifting it slowly and never taking his eyes from her face. (Day 6)
A slow smile spread across her face. He continued to watch her as she leaned over to tie her shoelaces and then scoot to the edge of the bank. Every muscle tensed, and he considered running from her again, but he couldn’t will himself to turn away. Try as he might, he could only stare at her in fright and plead with his eyes with her to go away.
Her eyebrows raised a little, (Day 7) she seemed to read his face. “What’s wrong?” She dangled her legs over the edge and swung her legs back and forth, the heel of her worn sneaker breaking small bits of clay loose from the bank. “Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to.”
Not knowing how to respond, he continued to stare. He didn’t know where to go or what to do. If he spoke, she would stay. If he left, she would surely follow him. She had gotten here without him ever hearing her. She would, no doubt, be able to nimbly follow him now that she was inside the woods. The creek was just far enough from his shanty that it couldn’t be seen. Maybe he could put her off long enough, and she would go back the way she came. Who knew? She may have already found his home and followed him to the creek. Thoughts whirled through his head like the water swirling around the tree roots protruding in the creek bed.
Her eyes began to wander. She looked for a way down to the creek bed. “Do you want some help? I can carry one for you.”
This is what he didn’t want—help. His thoughts began to slow enough for him to answer even if it was just a shake of his head. Her offer spurred him to begin frantically filling his buckets once more. As the water reached the top of the second, he lifted them both and immediately wondered what to do next. He had no plan and couldn’t just carry the water randomly through the woods hoping to tire or confuse her. So, he did the only thing he could think to do.
“Go on, git,” his voice croaked. He hadn’t heard his own words aloud above the odd mumble he made to himself as he walked the woods. To hear himself address another person felt almost alien. His words sounded broken and harsher than he intended.
If she heard him, she gave no indication. She had stirred from her seat above and found a spot to easily slide down and she was obviously inclined to do so. Landing with a thud on the ground in front of him, she stood upright and wiped absentmindedly at the seat of her jeans.
“Go, I said.” This time he gestured with his head. Without looking directly at her face, as she was now standing before me with her feet planted firmly in the sandy soil, he jerked his head toward the bank behind her. Lifting both buckets in much more confident manner than he felt, he started toward his path up the bank. If he ignored her, she might take the hint.
She did not.
“How far do you have to walk?” She was clearly unaffected by the gruffness of his voice, or he was much less harsh than he sounded to his own ears. He couldn’t decide. Her footsteps, closely trailing his in the leaves, were a clear indication he needed a plan and needed it quickly.