GIRL IN SEARCH OF A TREE
“Hello. Is this the path that leads to the lookout?”
Benson whirled around, his heart thudding quickly. The voice here in the middle of nowhere belonged to… a child. About 8 years old. A girl.
She smiled shyly. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
Benson decided honesty was the best policy. “You did, but that’s okay. Don’t get many people this deep in the woods.” He looked around. “Where are your folks?”
The girl seemed to be trying not to laugh. “I don’t have ‘folks.’” Her emphasis on the word was odd. Benson stared. With a toss of her head, straight dark blonde hair rippling silently, the girl said “I belong to The People.”
Uh-huh, thought Benson, those words are capitalized. “Uh, The People?”
A series of nods that ended abruptly. “They won’t miss me for I’ll be back before they do.” She bit her lip, the first gesture she made like a child. “But I need to find the lookout.”
Benson removed his ranger hat, sweat-stained and stiff, and rubbed his head. No hair got in the way. “Well, I don’t rightly know what you mean by ‘the lookout’… Are you sure your parents or kinfolk aren’t here with you?”
A frown was chased away by a determined look. The girl said “You have to know where the lookout is. It’s still here, on this side, only I can’t see it because now I’m too small to climb the bigger trees to search for it.”
Benson wanted to sit down, maybe with a frosted beer in one hand. He rolled the hat in his hands, rough hands that had led a serious life. “You came alone? Several miles into this mess of woods? By yourself?” His hands were showing a tiny tremor.
The girl humphed. “I got here. Now I need to leave. But I need to find the lookout.” She put her hands on her hips and suddenly looked much older than eight. Much, much older.
Benson swallowed, then cleared his throat. An idea popped into his mind. ‘What does this, um, lookout, look like?”
The girl nodded, her child-like smile returning. Benson released a breath unknowingly held. “It’s a big oak, split near the top, with a huge set of branches spreading out wide.”
Benson sighed. The tree was famous for its strange shape and size, product of deep loam in bottom land and a lightning strike before white men trod these woods. “That’s Ole Two Arms,” he said. “About two miles from here, that way.” He pointed. After a grunt, he said “You can get there in about an hour.”
Her face fell into panic. “Oh no! I don’t have time for that! They’ll find out for sure!”
Something in Benson made him forgo the obvious “They?” He noticed the girl now looked smaller, younger, 6 now instead of 8. Maybe even 5...Then she looked up at Benson and a slow…wicked…smile came over her face and leaped into her eyes. “Maybe you can help me…” she said, her voice a deep trill along Benson’s spine.
He stood transfixed as the girl walked to him, seeming to grow with every step, her body taller, fuller, but misty, as if she were becoming transparent. With gentle stealth, she placed her hands on Benson’s face and as time stretched to eternity, she kissed him. His eyes closed of their own volition and the kiss, immeasurably sweet, infinitely warm, washed through him.
The kiss ended and Benson opened his eyes. The girl was no longer a child. Benson’s mind said Eight going on eight hundred, while his eyes told him 18...and beautiful.
With a giggle and a wink, the girl turned and ran away, impossibly fast, her giggle a musical trill amongst the whispering trees.
Benson forever after hoped that The People didn’t find out that one of theirs had been lost.