I’m currently writing a children’s story. It’s a great deal of fun, primarily because I’m writing with my children in mind, thinking about what will interest and entertain them. They really are the perfect audience: endlessly forgiving and easily amused.
In this story, I’m just getting to know a particular character. I know she walks every morning and evening with two small, ugly dogs, carrying a walking stick hand-carved from the trunk of a redwood tree cut on her own property. I have no inkling as to her name. I know that when she’s walking, she often speaks out loud, and with great passion, as if she’s conversing with nature and they are intimate friends.
Four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission. The excerpt that follows finds them fidgety and awkward, having just encountered her for the first time.
Behind them, birds fluttered in and out of the tall dried grasses, filling the evening air with their calls and cries. Mice, rats and gophers scampered and rustled home through the underbrush. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds, and over all, the three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. The tiny old woman leaned heavily on her stick and pivoted to face the raucous field. She kept her left hand on the stick, raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her frail body, she cried out,
“Draw a peace over this teeming field–
wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.
Blanket this space in quiet, still life
waiting on breathless wing for summoning.”
Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, as if soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.
Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she was required to say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, she was rescued by the little woman, who seemed to see no need for anyone else to speak.
“Well,” she said, with such force that all five of them fixed their eyes on her wrinkled face. She was not looking at them. She had turned around to face the low mountains that rimmed the far side of their property. There the sun seemed to rest on the mountain tops, a hesitation that bathed the valley below them in soft, golden light. “The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think? It’s a wonder anyone bothers.” She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Joshua expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. She shrugged, and smiled at them. “Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. The cathedrals, sculptures, paintings, magnificent compositions. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? When I see them, or hear them, or when I’m outside on an exquisite evening like this, I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She smiled at them again, her large eyes glinting in the fading light.
Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes! Yes, I know exactly what you mean! She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, oils, acrylics, a pencil–anything–and create. Heck, she was tempted to drop to one knee in the dirt and start tracing her finger in the dry brown earth.
As usual though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”