Fresh air and light blasted my face. I stumbled forward, blinded, my hands out in front of me; until I ran into something and was able to steadied myself with it. The rough texture of the object left small scratches on my palms, earthy musk filled my nose, bird songs sounded around me, and a soft wind brushed against my skin.
Slowly, I opened my eyes to the woodland around me. Green leaves swayed, rippling the sunlight that filtered through the treetops stretching high above me. Meanwhile the forest floor was open, allowing for easy paths to walk through on the patches of moss and grass mingled in amongst the old leaves.
For a moment I was frozen, then all my senses exploded with joy. As if in a dream, I began walking, then skipping, then casually twirling and dancing. I stared at the canopy of soft leaves, I ran my fingers along the bark, and for a time I totally forget myself.
I didn’t wonder how a door in the city had led me into a forest, I didn’t think about the madness of my home and its pink skies and love-sick mobs, I hardly even remembered that I was trying to find my cat. In this moment, the world was a wonderland around me, and I never wanted to leave.
Thinking back, it felt like years since I was in a woods. How had I survived that long without them?? I wondered, gazing at the green, green world around me. A smile formed on my lips as I closed my eyes and sighed.
Suddenly, the peace was shaken by a loud cracking of wood and a thud, followed by a giddy, “Woohoo!”
Startled, I stopped and listened. A voice was singing, not too far away in fact. I quickly followed the sound of running feet and shouting, until suddenly I was at the end of the clearing. I ducked behind a tree, and as I tried to catch my breath I peered out from my hiding place.
In the clearing was a girl. She was young, older than a small child, but not old enough to have started growing past her flat and stick-like figure. Her hair whipped around in its short ponytail as she danced around herself, the jeans she wore were dirty and worn – and kept sliding down due to lack of hips – and she had on a faded pink T-shirt with white flowers.
I watched for a long time, until I realized that I recognized the shirt! It had been one of my favorites. I remember wearing it during our first trip to Georgia, and I had been able to wear it – somehow – for years after. I smiled at the memory as I watched the younger version of myself in the clearing.
Some sort of drama, that only she could see, was playing out before her. She talked in different voices, having intense conversations as she acted out the scenes. Sometimes she’d pause mid sentence as she thought about what was to come next, or retraced her steps to do it again. She was totally lost in her world, and it looked wonderful.
I kept smiling at her, but inside I sighed. It had been quite some time since I’d played like that. Seeing her reminded me of those carefree days, when I was most adventurous – when my imagination was as wild as I was young. That was before other things took over my thoughts. The real world becomes ever more demanding as one grows older.
I pushed the thought away, focusing again on the girl. She was coming to the end of her act, and although I had only caught parts of it, the story seemed exciting. When she finished I couldn’t help myself, and I stood and applauded.
Adventure April, as I now thought of her, was so surprised she jumped backwards into a tree. I tried not to laugh as I started forward to help her. But I hadn’t taken more than a step when she pulled a rope that was behind the tree. Suddenly I was in the air, my arms and legs flailing and getting stuck in the net around me.
“Hey!” I shouted, trees and rope blurring in my vision as I swung from side to side. Branches snapped below me as my younger self approached. When everything came into focus, I saw her standing, with a stick in her hand, giving me a very suspicious and cold look.
I smiled and tried to wave. She just narrowed her eyes and poked me with the stick.
“Ow!” I twisted away from her as much as I could, “What was that for?”
April Jumped back in surprise, “Oh! You’re real!”
“Of course I’m real!” I said, putting on an indignant look.
“Hmm, daydreams aren’t supposed to be real…” she muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” her head snapped up. “Who are you anyway? What are you doing here?”
“Oh, me? Well at the moment…” I gave her my cheesiest grin, “I’m just hanging out.”
April sighed and slapped the palm of her hand against her forehead, “Can you leave?”
“I’m fine with leaving,” I replied, “but it’s kind of hard when I’m stuck in a tree.”
April thought about it a moment, gave a little nod and shrug, “Yeah, you’re right on that,” she went to the side of the tree and pulled on the end of the rope. The net opened, and I went tumbling to the ground.
“Ow.” I groaned, casting a sharp look her way, “That was uncalled for.”
“Sorry,” my younger self shrugged, not looking very sorry at all.
Sighing, I got up and brushed myself off. It’s time to stop fooling around, I have places to go and a cat to find. I looked one way and saw trees. I looked the other way. Trees. I spun in a circle, and realized I had no idea how to find my way out of this place.
“Huh? Wait, how did you know my name?” she said, narrowing her eyes at me again.
“Call it a lucky guess,” I said, not paying her much attention. “Anyway, do you think you could show me the way out of this forest? See, there’s a bit of trouble going on where I live. I need to get back to find my cat and make sure he’s alright.” I looked at her and folded my hands together, “Pleeeeeease??”
April gave me a funny look, then shrugged and said, “Sure, just follow me.”
After saying a gracious thank you, I gathered myself up and followed my younger, plucky self. Wind blew, causing the leaves to mummer. Birds jump through the underbrush and sang to each other. It was quiet, alive, and peaceful. I enjoyed it immensely as I followed my younger self through overgrown paths.
The more we walked, the more I relaxed. Adventure April was continuing her stories, and as we went, I began seeing them myself. Animal characters, creatures, all sorts of things filled the trees around us. I was so inspired and delighted watching Adventure April talk, laugh and act with them. I wished I could have stayed like this forever.
But along the way, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two of the imaginary characters were falling in love. I just can’t get away from it, can I? I thought to myself, almost in disgust. It seemed love was everywhere, it had taken over my city, and it was even present in the mind of my younger self.
Would I ever get away from it? I wondered. When this love-apocalypse ends, if it ever ends, what would the state of my home be in? My house? Would it still be livable? I left it in such a mess… what sort of other disrepair could it have fallen into? And the bills! What if this went on too long? What mountain of bills would I have? Did anyone still pay bills? What of my job? Would everything have gone out of business while the population was roaming the streets hanging over each other? Would there be any life to come back to?
As thought after thought piled up in my head, the visons of stories disappeared one by one. I sighed and wrapped my arms around myself, and my feet began to drag. I’m so lost, and I can’t even find Muse. Where is that cat??
A small bit of resentment turned in my stomach, and I pressed my lips together into a frown. I’ve lost him, or he ditched me… I don’t care which. I’ve never been so long without him….. I can’t stand it!
How am I supposed to write? I fretted. Who is going to be there, forcing me to go further and write more. Who is going to keep me going now, so that I don’t feel so disappointed in myself later? He is SOOO annoying sometimes, but how am I supposed to live without my Muse??
I stared hard at the ground, as if casting all my anger and frustration upon the dead leaves would somehow fix my problems. Why did life have to get in the way! I curled tighter into myself, trying desperately to keep my head and heart together. I just want to forget it all, I just want my cat back, I just want….
Suddenly my bubble of pity and despair was popped by a sweet melody. I looked up, sniffing and wiping my eyes. Adventure April was walking down the path, singing to herself again.
I stared at her and felt all my strength fail. I just want that again…..
I hadn’t realized I had stop moving, and so with a start I jumped into a trot. As I caught up, I slowed down to get my breath, and after a moment, joined her song.
Livin’ in a valley old and strong
Livin’ in a valley for far too long
With mountain’s high and rivers deep
Where many weary travelers can find their sleep.
Nostalgia filled every line. I felt myself transported back to simpler days, to when I used to sing songs to myself as I tended the animals. I used to make up so many songs, but this was one of the few I’d written down.
The song was about a town in a timeless valley, where no rain had touch the land for years. A traveler comes and seeks shelter in a pig barn. He falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, but the daughter is promised to another man. They plan to run away together, but the father comes to stop them. However, by some miracle, the drought in the valley ends. The young couple is swept from the desolate town on a wave of water.
It was simple, but fun, and I used to sing it often to myself as I tended to my morning chores. I let myself get lost in the song, remembering those days, and all the worries that had been so present a minute before, were swept away. Even as the last note ended, I lingered, swaying on my feet as I walked, my eyes closed.
“Are you okay?” the small voice asked.
Without opening my eyes I replied, “As much as I can be.”
There was a long moment, in which I could feel the girl giving me a very hard and curious look, “Who are you anyway.”
I allowed my sight to come back and focus on the girl. A soft smile touched my lips as I looked at her. “Can I give you some advice?”
April’s brows drew down, and she turned her head to give me a sidelong look. “I guess so….” she finally said.
Stopping in the middle of the path, I dropped to one knee so I could see her eye to eye and placed my hands on her shoulders, “Never lose this.”
“This…. What…?” April frowned and looked confused.
“Walking in the woods, singing to yourself, making up stories and acting them out, you need that, trust me, you do. Don’t ever let that go.”
“I really don’t know what you’re getting at…” she trailed off and looked at me like I was the crazy one.
I sighed, and explained, “Someday, you will grow up. It’s not all that great, in fact it can really kick you in the butt at times, but it will happen. You’ll have to deal with jobs, money, people, having all your time taken away from you… it’s a lot of responsibility and stress. But as long as you keep this,” I gave her a light poke on the chest, “as long as you keep that childlike wonder, as long as you keep faith, as long as you keep telling stories… you’ll be alright. Because if you don’t…” I trailed off, unable to speak while my chest tightened. I closed my eyes and took a careful breath, before looking up at her with pleading eyes, “Just hold onto that and don’t let go, please.”
April was silent for a long time. She studied me, and then said, “Alright, I can do that, I guess. I can try anyway.”
I gave her a tight smile, “That’s all any of us can do.”
“Now,” I said, standing up and clearing my throat, “as much as I’d like to stay here forever, I’ve lost my cat and I really must find him. So we must be going.”
“Don’t worry about that.” Adventure April sprung to her feet; the misty and curious look she had gotten during my speech was instantly replaced by a wild grin, “We’re almost there. It’s just at the end of this path. Follow me!”
And with that, we both jumped into a run, and sprinted to the end. The trees receded, the air felt different, and for the second time, I found myself stepping into blinding sunlight.
To Be Continued