I walk out the door of the music building, dragging my loaded-down black bag by itís fraying strap, too tired to bother lifting it to my shoulder. I start down the smooth marble steps, thankful that they are dry, as they get so slippery when it rains, and I had slid down them on more than one occasion the previous year. Suddenly my bag catches at the edge of a step and tumbles sideways, spilling its contents. I watch my favorite pen roll down the remaining steps, across the bricks, and under the tires of a passing car, and I sigh, my face falling, muscles too tired to even fake cheerfulness. Mumbling under my breath, I crouch and pick up the spilled books and papers, CD player, and various writing instruments, stuffing them all back in the bag to sort out later. Hoisting it to my shoulder with some effort, I take one last glance at the remains of my favorite pen, lying sad and abandoned near the curb, inky life bleeding slowly out through its poor, cracked hide. With another sigh, I turn and begin walking, heading for home.
I walk the sidewalk cutting across the end of the Oval, a route that I take every day, usually more than once. I walk without thinking, almost without seeing, my mind far away. I plod steadily, until my right shoe crunches loudly over something on the walk. Startled, I look down, and see the remnants of a peanut shell. Peanuts? I think groggily. Where did you come from? A flicker of movement at the corner of my vision catches my attention. I look, and to my surprise, a small gray squirrel crouches not three feet to my right, his tail flicking. I cock my head. ďHi there,Ē I say quietly. His eyes are fixed on me, and I can sense the tension in him. His tail flicks again. I smile, and kneel on the cold, hard concrete. ďWas that your peanut? I guess it was, huh?Ē He takes a cautious step forward, his eyes fixed on mine, and I imagine a kind of hope in those little eyes, an expression that all too clearly says ďMore? More food?Ē My smile grows wider, and I feel a bit less weary. Maybe, just maybe I could get him to come over to me...I fish slowly in my pocket, looking for a scrap of food or candy, something that I can lure him with. His eyes are locked on me, watching my movement, but without evident fear. My fingers close on something smooth and round, and I pull it out. A mint! Perfect. Maybe not what heís used to, but all the same... I stretch my hand toward him slowly, holding out the mint offering. His tail flicks, and he starts back a step, then pauses, watching. Such a pretty and brave little thing, his eyes are rimmed by rust colored fur, and a ridge of the same hue runs down his back, beautiful against his gray flanks. His full tail forms a curious question-mark, and flicks now and again. He stands and scents the air, his tiny paws curled against the fur of his chest in a position that makes him look anxious, and a bit worried, like heís wringing his hands while deep in thought. I laugh out loud. A mistake to be sure; he starts and leaps away several feet. With a wry smile I stand, easing the cramps forming in my calves, and toss the mint to him, not patient enough to continue the game. Okay, you win, I think with a grin, watching him as he sniffs carefully, and then grabs his prize and retreats up the nearest tree to sit chittering in its branches, surrounded by beautiful orange leaves. I pick up my bag again, and start walking, my heart a bit lighter.
I begin to think, and my thoughts turn to how lonely I have felt as late. I mull over what to do about it, and the thought intrudes: I need a pet. This touches off an internal argument, brain against heart. Oh no you donít! Living in a dorm! The last thing you need is a pet. I frown. But...I really love animals, they understand me so much better than people. I could get something small, keep it hidden... Right. Sure you could. They arenít allowed, remember? And what would your parents say! Agggh, parents. Okay, I know, youíre right. I canít have a pet. You already have fish, remember? Hmm. Yeah, fish. But you canít cuddle a fish...Beth, NO. Aww...but I really want one. I wish...NO. Canít. No more of that. Brain wins, and I sigh. Brain always wins. I glance at my watch, and am surprised to find that it is only quarter to four. It had felt so much later, perhaps because of the dark clouds that lurk overhead, a mask of night over dayís glorious face. Hmph. They match my mood, I think, turning grumpy again. Well, what do I want to do? Do I go home and sequester myself in my dark little dorm room? I donít want to. Iím going to...? I pause to think, and then an idea strikes. Iíll take a walk! Yes, thatís what Iíll do. Iíll take a walk. I cross the street in front of me and turn right, heading across South Oval towards Mirror Lake, my favorite spot on campus.
I walk the curvy path towards the lake, looking at the trees around me. A little bush catches my eye. So pleasingly shaped, this is the very bush that enraptured me so the previous spring. At that time, it was gloriously ornamented with tiny, perfect white flowers that gave off a sweet, ambrosial scent, delighting my senses. It became the inspiration for one of my best poems, The Flowering Tree...
The Flowering Tree
Tall and short together,
White branches reach up
Searching for gold in the heavens.
Ivory petals fall as snow,
Warm on the skin,
A gentle caress from Natureís hand
On my upturned face.
Low branches wrap around me,
Enfold me in their softness.
My eyes close.
Sweet sun-warmed fragrance washes over me,
God-like in itís beauty.
But Athena warm in all her glory
Carries me away on radiant wings of golden light.
This sweet little tree, so beautiful then, is different now. Heading into Autumn, its beauty has changed, yet it remains stunning and awe-inspiring. Its blossoms gone, the branches are covered instead with tiny scarlet leaves, each no bigger than a fingernail. The tree burns with life, flaming defiant in the face of the Winter that the bite in the air portends. So obviously coming, yet the tiny tree stands tall, reminding the world that it is not yet time, and there are many things to be learned, done, and enjoyed in the time remaining, reminding us all not to back away from a challenge, but to stand ground and raise our branches tall. I caress an overhanging branch with my fingertips, and a strange feeling clutches at my heart. Brave little tree, I think, railing against the inevitable. I wish I had your strength. An inexplicable sadness touches me then, and I turn from the little tree that was so soft and yet so hard, and walk on.
As I pass the standing fir, I reach out to touch a branch, and its needles prickle my fingers. I pluck a single needle and look closely at it. Veiled with a thin, gray coating, it is nevertheless vibrant green underneath. Why do these trees pass the winter? I ask myself. What is it that makes them special, that gives them alone the power to remain green and vibrant instead of sleeping, dormant, like the others? To my mind comes an old Cherokee story, a story told for many years:
ďMany, many moons ago, in the beginning of time, the earth was all water. There was no land. All the four-leggeds, all the animals, all the winged-ones, lived up in the sky on the clouds. They were waiting for the land to dry, but it would not dry. They would send one animal but he would come back unable to find dry land. The animals would regularly check the water below. Finally, after a dog had looked and reported back that it was still wet, they sent the water beetle. The water beetle dove into the water, grabbed a handful of mud at the bottom, brought it up and placed it on top of the water; and it started to dry, started to build land. He brought more and more; and still they waited for it to dry, still they waited and waited.
Finally, they sent grandfather buzzard, the mighty buzzard, down and the land was almost dry. As the buzzard flew, he'd fly down close to the land; and every time he would flap his mighty wings, he would form a mountain and a valley. That's why the Cherokee land has mountains and valleys in it today. All the animals came down and settled on the earth.
After they did, they realized they had no light. So they called to Grandfather and asked would he give them light, and he did. He brought to them the sun. He put the sun down right by the ground, and it was too hot for the animals. So they pushed and pushed, till finally they got it far enough out that it would not burn all the time; but it was still so hot that the crawfish was baked. That's why, if you look at him today, he is red from the sun being too close.
Finally, they got the sun far enough out so it would not burn and we would have night. And Grandfather told them, "Now that I have done this for you, I ask that all the four-legged, and all the animals, and all the plants stay awake for seven days and for seven nights." This is why today, when a warrior goes to cross his manhood, he fasts and sweats for seven days.
All the animals and all the plants fell asleep except for some. The owl stayed awake, and that's why he has vision to hunt at night now. The plants, the Douglas fir, the cedar, the pine, and a few others stayed awake for seven nights and for seven days. That's why only these, among all the plants, are allowed to stay green all the year round. The other plants fell asleep and so must sleep part of every year.Ē
I smile at the memory of the tale, and continue on down the path. As I near the lake, I notice that the sun has found a tiny break in the clouds and winks brightly at me off of the copper roof of the library, just barely visible above the trees. I stare into its splendor, closing my eyes partway, a hint of a joyous smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. It is good to see the sun. The moment I think this thought, the clouds begin to converge again, and very soon indeed there is no sign of that brilliantly warm copper glow, yet the memory of it stays with me, warming my soul a little with itís beauty. I no longer feel so lonely. I walk to a bench nestled beneath a tree near the waterís edge, and place my bag on the ground, then sit. Oh, how good it feels to sit. It has been a long day, and my drowsiness is back, though I am not as weary. A noise grabs my attention. As I watch, all of the ducks in the lake converge, heading towards me with a single-mindedness that only they have. They have watched my arrival, and speed over in the hope that I bring food. I laugh. ďGo away, you beggars, you arenít hungry. I know how many people feed you every day.Ē I do know, as I have passed many an afternoon watching the ducks flock from one area of the water to another, following the promise of stale bread or crumbled crackers, even cereal. One evening I watched two girls feed the flock three whole boxes of breakfast cereal, and they ate every bit, scrabbling greedily and chasing one another for each morsel. The pair of large white geese are the most aggressive, followed by the wicked mallards. The tiny wood ducks with the high-pitched calls donít often get close enough to grab a bite. When I feed these funny, quirky, utterly wonderful animals, as I have on several occasions, I always make a point to throw a special handful to those wood ducks, out farther from shore, while keeping the big onesí attentions near me. It is a nice reward to see the little male grab a cracker and take it to his female as she sits on her nest, and to watch her gobble it hungrily while he comes back for some for himself.
I find myself looking at my watch again, habit that it has become. To live always by the face of the clock...worrying, watching as slice by slice tiny bits of time are cut off and lobbed away...I shake my head and reach around; undoing the buckle I remove the contraption from my wrist and zip it into a compartment in my bag. Tonight is mine, tonight I have the whole evening, and I will not allow the clock to spoil that for me. No thoughts of what I ďshouldĒ be doing, only thoughts of what I am. I watch the ducks chase each other across the water, and a tiny sparrow hop to the waterís edge to drink. I watch three squirrels chase each other in a wild spiral up and down the red-barked trunk of a tree, and listen the their chatter reverberate against the quacking in the water. After a long moment, I reach into my bag and pull out my CD player, place the earphones on my head, and set it spinning to track seven. The melodious strains of Mendelssohnís Hebrides Overture wash over me like a soft wave, and I close my eyes. Softly, I let the music take me away, to the far Scottish shores and beyond, into the clouds of a dream.
Some time later I awaken, aware of a change but uncertain of what it is. I notice with distraction that my CD player has stopped, but I know that this silence is not what has awakened me. I remove the headphones and place the machine back in my bag, then look around. It is quite a bit darker than it was previously, and as I glance upwards I realize what it is that has brought me out of dreamland. It is the last touch of the sinking sun, warm against my face, a gentle caress that erases all cares. I watch for a long time as it sinks low, growing brilliant orange against the horizon, then slips out of sight behind the buildings across the way. In a few moments the broken wisps of cloud that remain gleam a brilliant pink, tinged with yellow where the sun hits more fully. I stand and walk past the lake, towards the road, and I position myself so that the last rays of the sun can be seen sinking over the horizon between the towers in the distance. The sky colors darken, purple creeping in, a glorious deep orange flaming to life just above the horizon, pink forming a deepening line over the orange. A cool breeze blows around me, bringing the breath of Autumn in itís touch, talking to me of the colors of the leaves, telling me of shades of being, shades of life and loving that cannot be known until they are experienced, hinting at marvelous things to come. This breeze tells me of hope and joy and life and love in the face of a coming winter, even as it blows the pink-tinged clouds away, even as the sun sinks away and darkness comes in shades of violet and indigo. The breeze tells me to look up, and I do, just before the lights around the campus blink on for the night, just in time to catch unadulterated the brilliant twinkle of the first star of the evening. I smile, for there is no need to wish.