Her return to the woods was both unexpected and unplanned – halfway home she realized she had left her book on the large rock beside the creek bed where she had been writing and, distraught, she entered the woods a second time that afternoon, but this time more frenzied than when she had entered earlier in the day.
Her father’s funeral had undone her, and she had not expected it. It must be somewhat easier when you know it’s coming people had said to her for the past few weeks, but they had been wrong. A slow demise is still demise, and death, when it bites, is no respecter of persons – its teeth are always sharp. She had come to the woods to be alone – the minister’s words had been apt and her brother had read a fine (and even funny) eulogy, but the girl was tired of comfort, and company; she needed to hear what the creek and the sparrows had to say. She’d stayed long on the warm rock and listened to the wind’s story. She’d written the Lord gives and the Lord takes away across the top of the page where she had taped a photograph of her father as a young man, and then she carefully wrote down most of the lyrics of the creek’s song, the lyrics she had heard and sung for much of her childhood, lyrics she thought she understood. As the sun began to cool, the girl turned reluctantly toward home – it was irresponsible to stay out so long with so many visitors in town for the funeral. She knew it must seem rude. But halfway home she realized she’d left the woods without her words, she’d left her journal behind her somewhere, so she went back into the woods at a faster pace, the second time in the same afternoon.
The journal was not on the large rock by the creek bed. I know I left it here, she said out loud to the trees. I didn’t sit anywhere else. She searched beneath and beside the stone, but found nothing, save the small mounding of a night creature, maybe a mole or a small ground hog. The girl kicked the leaves around the stone and searched frantically behind trees she had not even been near, but her worn journal seemed determined to be lost.
The day having defeated her yet again, the girl turned toward home, her head low.
“Can we help you?” said a quiet voice behind her and the girl started in alarm, and turning, she saw an unusual pair standing just behind her, close to the water – a very old man and a very young boy, holding hands.
“Can we help you?” the old man repeated in an ancient whisper, and the young boy nodded with a shy smile.
“I’ve lost my words,” the girl said and began to cry.
“Ah, yes.” He paused. “Is that all you’ve lost today?” the old man whispered.
“No,” the girl whispered back.
The little boy kicked at the grass around the large stone and look at the girl shyly. There was a long moment of quiet. Only the birds filled the silence with soft song.
“This little boy don’t say much, he ain’t got his words yet, ” the old man said. “And I’m almost done with my talking, it looks like.” The old man smiled at his own story. “But I guess me and him are pretty content with things for the most part.”
Another long moment of silence.
“My father’s funeral was today,” the girl said.
The old man nodded and said nothing and the little boy smiled at her gently.
“I wasn’t ready for it, even though he’d been sick a very long time.”
The creek gurgled softly and the quiet pair said nothing.
“I wrote all about it in that journal,” the girl whispered. “I wrote everything for the last year there, and now it’s gone too.” And with that the girl put her face in her hands and wept.
The very old man and the very young boy stood very still and said nothing, but the birds kept singing.
After a long time the old man finally said, “Well, we seen your book a while back, floating down the creek. Must’ve fallen in when you stood up to go home. The little boy here jumped in to try to grab it, but it was in the fast, deep water by that time. Anyway, he was too little to get it and I am too old to swim now. We tried, did what we could, but we couldn’t save your treasure.”
“It’s a great loss,” the girl said.
“Yes,” the old man agreed. “The loss of one’s words is a great loss, maybe the greatest of all. I been feeling mine fading for a while now. And the little boy ain’t got his yet.” He smiled a gentle smile and the little boy patted his hand.
It was quiet again for a long spell before the girl spoke again. “Well, I guess I’d better head on home. I’ve been gone long enough. Everyone will worry.”
“There’s maybe only one thing as important as words,” the old man said as she turned to leave.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Can you tell her, little boy?” the old man asked the young boy.
The boy had picked a tiny purple flower from the edge of the creek, his fingers still wet from the picking. He put it to his ear for a moment before he gave it to the girl with a gentle smile. Then he opened his lips and sang with the birds – the sweet song of the woods, the song from his deepest memory – the song from before his time here began, since before time began at all. The rocks and flowers and winds joined in the chorus and the air was sweet with the ancient music of the woods.
The girl stood still in the majesty of the moment. As the boy’s song faded, the old man spoke his last words, in a whisper so soft the girl wasn’t sure if it was the wind.
“Memory may be our greatest gift, maybe better than words,” he said. “When you have lost your words, hold fast to your memories, for they are your sustenance.”
And without a good-bye, the very old man and the very young boy turned and walked deep into the woods. The girl, her words lost, took the memory of her father out of the woods with her and carried it deep within her for the rest of her days.
And it sustained her.
Larry Joe Ray – 1934-2018