A Walk in the Woods
by Joanne Mikola
“Dinner should be ready in about an hour” she said, handing a sweating glass of iced tea to her husband’s waiting hand.“Thanks,” he responded, still toweling his dripping sun bleached hair. “I swear I can hear a fly buzzing next door, it’s so calm out there today”
“Can we go for a walk, now, Mom? You promised. Pleeease?” Jeanie whined, her little brother nodding enthusiastically beside her. “It will be cooler in the woods than here” she continued, noticing the exchange of glances between her parents. Her father scraped a chair across the deck closer to his wife and emphatically sat.
“Not now. Your Mother just sat down and dinner will be ready soon. Why don’t you just play quietly with your brother for a while. Or read him a story?”
“Better yet,” Mom mused slowly and deliberately, carefully watching their faces. “Go for that walk. Just follow the same trail we took yesterday to the Ryan’s next door.”
Disappointment sparred briefly with confusion, then understanding slowly raised Jeanie’s eyebrows high. “By myself?” she whispered tentatively.
“No. Take Mac with you. And Rocky, too, if you can find him”
It was the children’s turn to exchange nervous looks and dares.
“Fine. Mac, let’s go. Hold my hand and don’t let go.” They paced their way up the path towards the road, peeking back over their shoulders every five or six steps. Echoes of “Rocky… here, boy” followed them out of sight.
~ ~ ~
As soon as they passed the parked car and the immediate threat of poison ivy edging both the driveway and the dead end of the road, Jeanie dropped her four year old brother’s hand. “We should have put shoes on.” she mumbled, twisting her foot on yet another camouflaged stone. She could just make out the break in the trees ahead on the left, that marked the overgrown track that led further into the woods. A felled tree partially obstructed the path, leaving no doubt that pedestrian traffic was all that was permitted. The canopy of trees hung limply in the afternoon heat. The high pitched stinging song of either grasshoppers or tree toads, Jeanie couldn’t remember what her Dad had said, pierced the air. Though the shade offered was slightly cooler, a riffle of leaves would have been even more welcome. The children kept to the middle of the lane where the rotting vegetation was brown and comfortable to tread. Mac squatted to poke a stick at a large puffball, squealing with delight as it burped its dust high towards his face. So intent were the children that they missed the bird song dwindle to silence in the treetops. Then Mac looked up and around, puzzled.
“Did you hear that?”
“No. I didn’t. Let’s keep going. Unless you’re too scared and want to go back, now”
“Nah. Race you to the tree.” Off he sped to the low forked oak that they loved to climb. As Jeanie settled onto the branch beside her brother, all four legs dangling and waving, they sat in companionable silence for probably the first time in their lives. Jeanie tried to imagine a tree fort just like this at home in the city. “I love this place” she said dreamily, eyes following individual sun beams spotlighting at least a dozen different shades of green. A chipmunk poked his twitching nose out from behind a nearby pile of branches, but all too quickly, turned and fled, striped tail at attention.
” aaarr…aaarrr… aaaAAAROOOOOOooooo”
The children teetered inelegantly in their perch, so sudden was the intrusion of the howl. “Wha.. what was that?” Mac stuttered, gripping Jeanie’s arm hard enough to bring tears.
“It’s not Rocky.” Jeanie said with more conviction than she felt. “Maybe it’s a … bear… or a wolf”
” aaarr…aaarrr… aaaAAAROOOOOOooooo”
“I don’t know. Couldn’t you tell where it was coming from”
“No… No… Can we go home now?”
“Let’s wait a minute. Here, let me help you up to a higher branch this time. Maybe we can see better.”
As they struggled for better purchase, scraping fingernails and toes on the rough bark, something was definitely making noises further away in the bush.
“I still can’t see anything. Oh, forget it. Let’s run for it” Jeanie decided, leaping clear away from the protruding roots. Mac followed more deliberately, gulping air. “Don’t you dare start crying, now, you baby. Just run.”
She gripped his fist in hers and pulled him along in her wake. Past the owl’s nest. Past the big rock. Past the other trail to the sugar shack. Slaloming around the decaying giant, back to the rocky rutted road and the sight of the familiar car. They sent dry sand flying with each footfall on the straight-away to the deck. With a photo finish, they collapsed in puddles around their mother’s feet, little chests heaving, and greedy gasps stealing their words.
“There was a wolf” Mac finally declared proudly. “And I scared it away and rescued us”
Jeanie gaped, with total six year old disbelief, from her brother to her parents and back. “You did not.”
“Enough. Let’s go get washed for supper” Dad interrupted, as he ruffled both little heads on his way by. “I’m sure you were both very brave.”
The trio disappeared into the cottage, their voices still carrying along the shoreline. Joan eased her own still quaking and damp shoulders back into the deck chair, and closed her eyes to the tears of laughter still drying on her overly flushed face, her ragged breathing slowly returning to normal.