By Mark York
“I’ll be right back.”
The child blissfully, perhaps naively, believed him, her wide bright eyes full of precious awe as she saw him disappear into the overgrowth — a dense, unexplored region of shadowy forest. Five years have passed since then, and those words soon became tragic lies; she’s 10 now and that innocent child is gone.
The girl woke up expecting something different: new air to fill her lungs, new light to strike her eyes, but instead she woke up in the same solitary cottage on top of the same solitary hill. Apparently, this place used to be a farm, and all sorts of folk would come to pick up their bounties. Those were the days when man and nature worked together, but not anymore; ever since that final December, there weren’t any folk to be seen. Not that it bothered the child any, that was before her time. She only mourned blurs and daydreams.
Every day she walked along the safety of the trail – littered with bullets, disabled automobiles and widespread forest – collecting food along the way. When she was younger, the girl skipped through the trenches and hopped over the wire. She would admire what used to be minefields, now dead and covered in wild grass. There was something calling her to the inorganic, but she was too old for that. Her eyes got baggy, and the child settled for what she had in the now; she had the trail, and she had herself.
She littered the ground with leftover peanut shells for landmarks, though mostly out of habit; the girl knows the way inside-out by now.
One day a shrill cry – sharp as knives – stopped the child. She looked for the source and found a baby sparrow, no larger than the palm of her hand, entangled in a shrub. The plump bird had a coat of acorn brown with dirt and twigs caught between its rustled feathers. The bird shivered uncontrollably as it continued shrieking; she heard it, and she was prepared to walk along but her feet stopped in their tracks. There was something about that sparrow that lured the child; it was probably the eyes, she thought. Its wide bright eyes, soaked in a loneliness she knew all too well.
The girl dropped everything and inspected the sparrow, noticing its broken wing, and with a firm nod she lifted that bird as if her own glass heart was inside that hatchling. She took it home, she shrouded that bird with her favorite towel and she prepared a box for the bird to rest in; just as that faceless man would have done, she’s pretty sure. The bird cooled in its cries, and the girl stood there unsure of what she had just done. She had made a decision, and a simple one at that; why was she so tired now?
This simple decision later turned into a methodical routine. Every morning she checked the box, always expecting the bird to disappear, though it never did. Afterward, she mashed up any food she found for the sparrow, and everything the bird didn’t like was – without hesitation – spat in her face. The bird grew a bottomless appetite and constantly shrieked for more. It annoyed her, but it was a tender annoyance, an irreplaceable irritation that painted a warm smile on her face.
Eventually she would tell the hatchling some stories. She would tell of Jack and Jill who fetched some water, that Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall, the earth-shakers that painted the skies black. Who knows where those stories came from, yet she remembered them all the same. She had food, she had shelter, yet stories were the only thing she felt she could give that little bird – the only thing that would last, anyways.
The bird was her only companion, a soul to return to; it became less about survival and more about two outcasts, rejected by the world, working together to see a tomorrow. It was a partnership of love and nutriment.
Perhaps she nurtured the sparrow too well; before she knew it, the bird was as spry as ever.
Fear turned into anxiety and the sparrow often glided across the cottage in bursts of energy. No more spoon-feeding was necessary; no more early mornings, no more constant chirping – it was time to let the sparrow go. Deep in her heart she knew that once the bird was free it would fly off into the eternity; she wouldn’t be needed anymore. She’d just become another faceless ghost, like her caretaker long ago.
At first the child refused, but that changed when she looked at the sparrow. It was then when she noticed sadness in its beady black eyes. She realized that this little hatchling was looking for something that she was running from the whole time, and she would never be able to give it to him.
On an especially humid sunrise she took the box outside. The air felt tight around her shoulders, but she marched on only to find that, just as she expected, the bird flew off without hesitation. Like a bullet, it left her and flew right into the shadows of no return: the overgrowth. She ran out of footsteps and her gaze locked on the sight, dumbfounded.
Days passed, then weeks, then months and she was plagued by this all-consuming emptiness. The cottage was filled with a suffocating silence and she felt countless pins pierced into her heart; that sparrow, that beautiful creature, had left her.
She felt bonded to that same trail, chained to an ever-repeating routine, but how foolish that was! There weren’t any chains on her legs, no broken wing to excuse her cowardice: just vague phantoms of a distant past.
Why didn’t she follow that bird? What stopped her from scaling that distant mountain or climbing that colossal tree? What did that sparrow have that she didn’t? She hated asking those questions, but then she would look at that mirror and she would find a spiteful creature through the looking glass – a girl who utterly despised her.
One sunny day, as she stared lingeringly at the empty box, she made a dangerous decision.
She ran out of the cabin and, kitchen knife in hand, she crept towards the overgrowth; each heartbeat synchronized with her footsteps. The forest grew darker. Autumn leaves descended like fallen angels. Any ounce of control she had over her body faded away; she wanted to go back to the cabin and cloak herself in her old blanket, enjoying the soothing aroma of a lit candle and eating her favorite nuts and berries on her old coffee table. Yet she kept walking.
The ground grew muddier and her boots began to sink in the earth; eventually she slipped on the slimy trail and fell on her knees. Panicked, she looked back, only to see that the cottage was hidden in the shadows: only darkness remained. She finally broke down; tears fell down her face and her cheeks grew blush red.
She shouted at the top of her lungs; cursing the overgrowth, that wretched hell-scape which stole her freedom, her companionship and now the life from her frail little hands. She began to get cuts and bruises from pounding on the hard, sloppy ground. She sobbed until she ran out of tears to shed. However, with newfound firmness, she wiped the tears on her muddy sleeve and kept walking. She lost all feeling in her feet, but she kept walking. She wanted to turn around, but she kept walking. She was not going to sit there like the scared little sparrow because there was nobody left to nurture her. The forest wasn’t her predator, nor was it her governor. She realized that the overgrowth was her fear, an amalgam of all her suppressed, darker emotions; it was a part of her.
She walked into the darkness, blindly making her way through branches and shadows, as she silently said goodbye to the sheltered, comfortable life she lived before. She didn’t even hear the peanut shells crunching from beneath her shoes. The woman marched on, and never came back.
Contact Mark York at myorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.