Heileen - Ch. 1
I remember running through the wood around our house when I was young.
It was not a big house; more like a cottage, it had been built long ago by my great-great-grandfather, and added upon over the years in order to accommodate an increasing number of children and other members of the family.
In time they had all drifted away, though, and only the three of us remained.
My father, my mother and I used to live a very simple life at the top of the hill that overlooked what I thought was the most extraordinary wood I’d ever seen. Oh – not that I’ve seen many woods in my life! And of course I hadn’t seen any other then, but I was so fond of it that I delighted in the pretence of being an expert, and – as such – deemed it the best of woods indeed. I loved the simple things of it: the passing of the seasons; the abundance of creatures that inhabited it; its soothing tranquility.
Now that I think about it, I also remember very well why I was running. I was trying to put as much distance as possible between my parents and me. I wanted to hide; I figured that, after some time, they would stop looking for me and go away for good. Then I was sure I would be able to remain there, either at the house or – why not? – in the wood itself. Surely I could find a cave or some such to spend the rest of my life?
After some time I grew tired of running, and sat in the shade of some aspen trees. I had brought with me some sandwiches, a few apples and a bottle of water, and I started sipping the water – I would surely need the sandwiches in the following days – while thinking about the past hours.
I had come home the evening before after a walk in the wood – as I always did after schoolwork and the day’s chores were over – and I had sat at the big table in the kitchen. Dinner was ready and Mom was serving
Suddenly it had all begun. Well, maybe it was not so sudden after all – it’s hard for me to recall exactly the sequence of events. They were trying to say something to me, to make me understand. Why did they have to do that? Why did I have to do it? It was all planned; they had it all worked out already – up to the tiniest detail. They were planning to sell the house (but had not done it yet, thank God!), and had rented one in the city. We would leave in a week’s time. Pa had found a job as an accountant; Mom would work as a nurse in a private hospital, and as for me – I was to go to school there. I would have to say good-bye to my friends, my house, the animals, the wood… Pa.
I had run upstairs to my room as soon as I could – there was no standing up from the dinner table if you had not finished you meal – and started crying my heart out. Mom had come to try and soothe me at a certain point, but I was absolutely miserable and heartbroken. At last I think I must have cried myself to sleep, because I woke up in the middle of the night still in my clothes and with a mild headache. I washed and changed into my pajamas, but –since going back to sleep was out of the question – I started making plans.
Could I change their mind? Absolutely not. I knew there was no way once their mind was made up. And if they had not asked for my opinion in the first place, how could I make them see? In the end I decided that running away would be the best solution. I would act as nothing had happened, and then…
I stole downstairs to the kitchen to see what was available as sustenance for the next few days. I prepared myself four ham sandwiches; took four big apples and a bottle of water; and got back upstairs in a matter of minutes. I had the bag I used to put my schoolbooks in, but that was of no use, being – obviously – full of books. So I dived into the closet and came up with the rucksack grandma had given me some months before she died (oh, had she been still alive nothing of that would have happened!). It was not as big as I wished, but I would have to make do. I stuffed it with some spare clothes, a towel, an electric torch, a book, and the food I had brought up from the kitchen. And of course I did not forget Windy, my favorite teddy bear; how could I leave without him?
Then I tried to go back to sleep.
On the following day I got up as always and acted as nothing had happened. Father and mother were quite taken aback by my sudden change of attitude, but probably decided not to push the matter further. I had breakfast and went to school as always; came back around half past one; had lunch, and then went upstairs to do my homework. Why did I not just pretend to go to school and then run away? Well, to say the truth, I had thought of doing just that, but I felt I could not leave Trisha like this, without even a word of farewell; she was my best friend and the only one to know about my plan. School would be over soon, and we were looking forward to a happy summer together.
As soon as I was in my room, I locked the door behind me; put the schoolbag on the floor; took the rucksack from under the bed – where I had hidden it – and got out of the window and into the back yard. I had done this a number of times, when I felt bored and wanted to play instead of studying; it was actually no big deal: a pipe ran from the roof down and passed just a few inches from my window. It was easy sliding down – a little harder going back up, but I wouldn’t have to do it this time.
So that’s how I came to be sitting under the aspen trees. The weather was warm, and it felt good to be in the shade. Birds where twittering above my head, and I felt the bustle of animal life around me. I did not dare to stay long, though, in case somebody would come looking for me. I knew of a nice place to hide. I had spotted it some days before on one of my walks, and – in the light of recent events – maybe it had been a sort of a sign: was it my destiny to run away like this? It was not a cave, but rather a large tree, which was hollow at the base. There was not much room; I could barely sit with my knees drawn up against my chest, but I thought I could hang out there for a few days. The opening was in the shade and overlooking a riverbed, that was almost dry – the river being more like a stream. The ground went down in a steep slope, so that it would be very difficult for somebody to walk by it, unless they knew what they were looking for.
I stored the bottle away, stood up, and started walking. I was not running anymore. I wanted to keep as quiet as possible, in order to be able to hear sounds, should anybody be approaching. The going was easy. The wood was gently sloping down, so I didn’t tire walking. After some time I arrived at a clearing. Happy for having found it – I generally never doubted my sense of direction, but you can never know, can you? – I crossed it, turned to my left and walked just a few more minutes.
I found the tree I was looking for, walked around it and stepped – or rather bent – in. The hollow was maybe a little larger then I remembered, although still small. I felt cramped and wondered whether I could stand the position for days. True, I could get out once in a while, if I was careful enough… I opened the rucksack and took out Windy. I sat there hugging him for a time. When my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I started looking around the inside of the tree. The space was narrow, but it went a long way up. There was a spot just above my head that looked like a shelf: that’s where I stored the bottle and the food. With a lighter – and softer – rucksack, I made myself as comfortable as possible, the rucksack acting as a pillow against the rough inside of the tree. With my hands and feet I started removing the leaves and sticks that had collected on the floor; I smoothed the surface as well as I could, and even started scraping bits of wood from the inside, to see if I could make the hollow a little larger. Then it dawned on me that all that work – together with the walk to the tree – might have left easily legible prints. So I carefully ventured out of my hiding place and used my jacket to wipe and spread the leaves around – starting from the middle of the clearing, and working my way slowly back to the tree. I then assembled all the dead leaves and wood I had removed from the hollow and tossed them down the slope. Doing this I noticed that the sun was now setting; it must have taken me quite some time.
I had not thought of looking at the watch before. It was now around half past seven in the evening. As the sun went down, the air started to cool, and I put my jacket back on. The inside of the tree was now completely dark, so that I would have to use the torch to see. I thought it over for a while, and realized that Father and Mother would be very worried by now, but hadn’t probably really stated to look for me yet. My absence should have gone unnoticed for a couple of hours while I was supposedly doing my homework; it then would be thought odd that I had not come down for a snack, or had not been around the house or the barn doing some chore. It had happened already, though, that I had fallen asleep and taken a nap, and – although I would be scolded later for my laziness – I would be left alone for at least another hour. This meant that my parents would probably have started wondering where I was at around half past five – even six o’clock if I was lucky. Then they would have assumed that I had simply gone out for a walk. True, it was without their permission, but I had done that already a couple of times. They had been very angry with me when I had come back for dinner, but they had not moved from the house and were simply waiting for me. I had no reason to doubt that they had done so even today, so that I did not have to fear of being spotted for some time.
That’s why I went out again and walked to the stream. It took me some time, because the slope in front of the tree was very sharp, and I did not want to leave footprints that could be easily spotted; so I had to work my way away to the left, where the ground was going down less abruptly. I wanted to wash a little (my goodness: was the water cold!), and fill the bottle. I also took a sandwich with me, and sat on a rock eating it. The air was cooler than before, and I realized I must put on something warmer soon. Thank God I had thought of bringing some spare clothes with me. At half past eight I returned to the hollow tree. I retrieved my rucksack, put a sweater on under the jacket, took another one out to use as a blanket during the night, and stepped in. I then lit the torch, placed it on the natural shelf in the tree and proceeded in finding the best posture I could. When I was ready, I turned the torch off, and hoped to go to sleep quickly.
I was actually tired. The little sleep I had gotten the night before – toppled with the excitement of the day – had left me feeling odd and worn out. I was still very excited, though, so it was difficult to sleep. I eventually nodded off and slept restlessly, waking up in the middle of a bad dream. I was in a clearing; fog had come up, and I couldn’t see where I was going, nor did I remember where I was supposed or wanted to go. I was very cold and scared. When I opened my eyes I realized that I was, indeed, cold. Moreover, I felt very stiff from sitting in the same position for a long time. I was reluctant to use the torch, but did so nonetheless, just for the time it took to glance at the watch. It was three in the morning. So I shifted for a while, failing to find a better position, and then resolved to give it up and try to go back to sleep.
It was much harder that I’d thought, and – now that I had rested a bit – my mind began racing, and I started to examine what might possibly happen in the day ahead. As soon as there was light I would carefully go out and walk to the stream again. After all, I could not keep that position all day. I needed to stretch my legs and warm up a little; and since going back to the hollow for a long period of time was out of the question, could I risk looking for a better shelter? Or should I rather spend at least another day there, sitting or standing in the vicinity of the tree, wary of sounds or movements? I decided that – cramped as it was – still it was a good shelter, in what I thought a good position. So I would stay close to it, maybe wandering around a little bit if I thought it safe, and I would spend another night in there. The prospect seemed more daunting every minute… The events of the last day kept coming back. I thought my resolve of running away was the right one, but I began to have doubts about some of the things I had done.
Perhaps I should have left in the morning, instead of walking to school as always. This would have proven right in at least a couple of ways. To begin with, I would have had more time before my absence was detected. True, coming to this tree hadn’t taken up much time, but then I could have looked for a better accommodation – maybe the cave I was thinking about. I would also have had more time to assess my surroundings better. This part of the wood was far away from the house, and I did not normally go this far in my wanderings. Also, I could have collected fruits or other vegetables. My father had often taken me to the wood, and had pointed out to me the edible plants. Since he did not have a son, but had so much wanted one, he had raised me as such – much to my mother’s dismay – and I could do things that most girls my age didn’t even think about. So I knew how to set a snare and catch a bird with my sling. He had also tried to teach me how to light a fire, but I have to admit I had not mastered that (why had I not thought of bringing matches?). We were now in late spring, so I thought I could count on the wood to feed me for a while. I had three sandwiches and four apples left; they would not last forever. Secondly, not going to school would have meant that I could have also used my schoolbag to carry more things with me. I could have used a blanket (why hadn’t I thought about it yesterday?), and more warm clothing. I could have brought more food, and maybe some simple tools. Of course both bags would not fit in the hollow of the tree, and then I would have really had to look for a better place. The thing is, I had not thought I would need a more comfortable hiding so soon. I had not realized the discomfort would become painful, nor did I know that the temperature would drop so much during the night. Being almost summer, I thought I did not have to worry about cold for a long time.
Then I began fearing that my timing had not been right at all. If I had left after a few days, that is at a date closer to the day we were supposed to leave, then maybe I would have made things worse for my parents and better for me. As it was all settled – even the day they had to start their new jobs – it would have been harder for them to organize a search. But then whom did I want to fool? Of course they would come looking for me, and would have a lot of people to help them, too. Even telling Trisha had been a mistake, though fortunately I had not told her about the tree, nor the direction I had planned to take. If I ever had a chance of succeeding, then it would be in hiding very well for as long as I could. Towards the end of the night I had worked myself into a frenzy, and was beginning to despair. I was clutching Windy to my breast, whispering soft endearments to him, while the one who badly needed soothing was I !! The first time I had really enjoyed having him beside me was a few days after my tenth birthday. I had opened the package at the party to find a very cute, very soft teddy bear winking at me. I had set it on the shelf next to my bed and left it there. Not that I had forgotten about it – I had received other gifts that day and I had a doll I was very fond of – so I hadn’t even thought of naming it, let alone play with it. A few days later it had started to snow – I was born in January – and the wind had risen. It was building up to a real blizzard, and I was getting nervous. So I had gone up to my room, but had not been able to calm down. Then I had seen it, and – taking it down from the shelf – had set it on my lap. I had started talking to it, and we became friends. Holding it had had a soothing effect on me. I had named it Windy, because of the weather, and we have been very close friends since then. Only with him did I feel secure and at peace. I hoped he would help me now, too.