We drove past the Reservoir on the way home. The day is grim winter gray punctuated by bare trees and piles of wet lifeless leaves. It is sprinkling. The temperature is cool enough for light layers and warm enough to feel muggy. This is not a day to delight in nature.
This is a day to huddle inside some man-made structure, to insulate oneself with bricks and mortar, with snacks and favorite libations, and ignore nature until she gets her act together and launches spring.
But we drove past the reservoir. We drove past a small spread of water ringed by dull, denuded woods, and today, unexpectedly, caressed by a thick, undulating silver mist. A shifting, swirling fog covered the lapping water and transformed a country recreation spot into a setting fit for fairies and nymphs and other odd folk who act out truth in children’s stories.
Man made that lake, they say, but anyone who sees it today will know that is not true. On this lukewarm day, nature graced a common, man-formed stretch of water with a subtle, uncommon beauty. And it was good.
A few weeks ago, I sat with my youngest daughter in a doctor’s waiting room. She had forgotten to bring a book and was bored. Very bored, and very restless. I pulled a pen and notebook from my purse and suggested we write a story together. We made it through the opening scene before we were called back for our appointment. Later, I finished off the story for her Christmas present, an homage to our favorite make-believe land, Narnia.
In a soft blanket of new-fallen snow, two sets of footprints coursed side-by-side over a meadow and disappeared into the shadows of a forest. One set of prints was larger than the other. They were broad, deep, and tipped with the tell-tale marks of a bear walking upright on its hind legs. The second set of prints was much smaller. They were made by snow boots weighed down by no more than a young girl.
The bear and the girl walked hand-in-paw, deeper into the forest, which was not as dark as it seemed when one looked at it from the meadow. The trees were bare. Cold, white sunlight picked its way through empty limbs and lit the forest like a lace-curtained room at midday.
“Jacksie,” the little girl, whose name was Zelda, stopped suddenly, “are you sure you know the way?”
The bear turned his great shaggy head down toward the girl. His eyes were as dark and shiny as his glossy fur. When he spoke, his voice rumbled up from so deep within him the girl thought it must start in his massive, fur-covered belly.
“I know the way.” Then, having compassion for her eagerness and her fear of disappointment, he added, “It is all true. I have seen it many times, and I can find it in any season.”
Still, she did not move. Her freckled face was tilted toward him, though she kept her eyes on the way ahead.
“Are you the only one who knows the way?”
He was silent for a moment.
“Some others do. But not every bear that walks on his back legs and speaks in a friendly manner does know. Some would willingly take your hand and lead you a different way, one they think is better.”
“Do the foxes know? The squirrel we just saw?”
His laugh rumbled up like his voice. “Some. Some do.”
“What about the trees? Do they know?”
“Yes,” he said, solemn. “But they’re not allowed to tell you.”
“Why not?” She looked at the trees as if she pitied them, stripped clean of their summer beauty and not allowed to share what she was sure must be their greatest secret.
“Well, we each have our part, and telling is not for the trees.”
He continued walking, and she grasped his paw tighter, scurrying to catch up to his lumbering strides.
“What about you?” Her long dark curls bounced into her face as she looked up at him. “What’s your part?”
“I simply show the way to anyone who asks.”
“But what about the trees? What part can they have if they know, but are kept silent?”
“Little one!” This time his laugh was nearly a roar, and bits of snow fell in little clumps from the trees. “These are questions too great for such a little mind, surely.”
He looked down at her and noted the set mouth, her eyes fixed on his face.
“Ahem. Well, it’s a fair, honest question, and it deserves a fair, honest answer.” Pausing briefly to sniff the air, he then gestured to the right to indicate a change in direction. “It’s true the trees know and don’t speak. Their charge is to stand.”
He did not have to see her face to know that she was disappointed.
“Yes, little one. That is exactly it. They stand, and because they do, we can always find what we’re looking for.”
They walked in silence after that, the girl stepping twice as many times to keep pace with her guide. Their feet shushed through the snow. Every now and then, the girl looked hard into the distance, looking for the forest to open again, hoping for a hint of what she longed to see.
“Here now, this way.” The bear turned sharply left then immediately began ascending a small hill.
When they reached the top, they both stilled and looked down. Jacksie stayed quiet, his breath blowing gentle clouds about his head. Zelda squeezed his paw with both small hands.
“I knew it was here,” she whispered.
Below them, a clearing in the trees lay still and quiet beneath a pure white covering. On the opposite side of the clearing, against a backdrop of fragrant evergreens, stood a lamp post as bare and black as the winter trees behind Zelda. The lamp cast a pool of warm golden light upon the snow. And away from the lamp post marched two sets of footprints made by a young girl’s sturdy shoes and the delicate hoof prints of a woodland faun.