On the Long Road
In Sylvia’s village, all roads leading away eventually led back again. You could leave, but the road would only hold you for a few hours before you ended up back in the village where you started. Sylvia had been born there and had only walked the roads with her parents on Sundays and holidays. But next week she would turn ten, and for the first time, she would be old enough to walk the roads alone.
The village was surrounded by forest, not the menacing forest of a horror story or quaint wooded patches of well-tamed land. The trees of this forest rose tall and surrounded the village with a magnanimous disengagement. They did not care that a village was in their midst. On days when the wind blew with a heavy arm, they all seemed to turn together to face south or east, as if they were adults watching a concert while the villagers were tiny children playing with crayons at their parents’ feet.
Sylvia loved to watch the forest move like that. She watched from the schoolyard as the wind blew the trees all one direction and then another. On quiet days when the heat rose up from the grass around her ankles, she could see softer winds rustling their leaves; on those days, the trees told each other their secrets.
Sylvia lived in the village with her family, a normal group of mother-father-brother-dog. But the dog belonged to her brother, and her father belonged to her mother, and so there was no one left for Sylvia to have. In the village, there was no one else her age. At school, she sometimes sat with the older girls, letting them pet her hair and teach her math. But their math was difficult, and their hairstyles hurt her head. She sometimes lingered near them, hoping they would call on her to join them, but when they were busy being their own age, they skirted her presence, only looking at her accidentally and then quickly looking the other way.
Now she had stopped waiting for their treats and nice words, because she was finally old enough to walk the roads alone. At ten, she could go by herself, and she didn’t have to wait for other people anymore.
Her birthday was on a Tuesday, and it began with a bowl of oatmeal at the table as her family sang to her. The candle slouched down in the bowl, a sideways stick of wax that threatened to fall and ruin her breakfast. She opened her present—a pair of socks her mother had made with a butterfly embroidered in blue on each ankle. She pulled them on and headed out the door for school, and her mother handed her an extra cookie with a wink. For Sylvia, the celebration at home was just a preamble, required front matter she had to get over to begin truly reading the book of the day, the adventure that couldn’t happen until after school was done.
After the last bell rang, Sylvia was the first one out of class. She left so fast that the metal door slammed shut behind her instead of being held open by the usual stream of children; she beat them all outside and down the slope. The sun was still standoffish with the treetops, keeping its distance loping high in the sky. Sylvia scissored her feet across the lawn, running all the way to the closest road out of town.
Of all the roads out of the village that eventually circled back again, this was the longest. She had never walked this road with her parents; it was rarely used. If you are leaving only to come back to the same place, why take the longest road? Why not take the shortest road or never leave at all? Sylvia had the path to herself, two rutted tracks of carriage wheels cutting over matted grass that pulled her forward.
As the path neared the forest, dark trees grew dense around her. From the schoolyard, they seemed like gallant figures too lofty to interfere with her plans, statues of bronze frozen in a park. But on the path the branches seemed to reach toward her, as if the bronze soldier nodded his head and rattled his sword as she passed.
Sylvia knew it was daytime, but on the path, nighttime seemed close. The branches let in reminders of light without letting in the full presence of the sun. Occasionally, a splatter of sunshine fell on the woods. She would stop for a moment to look at what it revealed, like someone out for a walk at night who is drawn to open windows, even if he doesn’t want to spy.
A long way down the road, Sylvia stepped high over some fallen branches cutting through the path and looked up to see a large swath of light entering the green leaves ahead, a solitary road of permission off the path and into the forest, as if the ground between those trees had also just had a birthday and turned ten. She stepped off the path and followed the light. A stick snapped and the saplings brushed her legs on either side.
Then she saw the reason for the light: a small stream pushed through the forest and forced the trees apart, making a single river of sky above her to mirror the creek that tumbled through the forest below. The bank of the stream was matted with grass, and thin blades leaned over into the water, bobbing with the current as it wound by. She wanted to touch the water, to feel it move around her fingers like it did around the blades of grass.
Could she climb down to the stream? Would she get too close and fall in? The grass was so dense, sure to stain her clothes if she sat. And if she fell, she had nothing to dry herself except the patches of sun that crowded around the banks.
She stayed on the path, watching the stream below crinkle past her in swaying rhythm. Then she swiped at the grass below her—moving nothing but the shape of it—and sat down.
Whether she sat for one minute or twenty, she did not know. But like a painting, the girl happy watched the creek, and the creek happy carried southward, and the south happy welcomed it. She rested on her knees in the grass and thought nothing of stains or time.
That night back in the village, Sylvia lay in bed, wrapping herself in her quilt, grateful for the spring breeze that made it necessary to tug up to her ears as she fell asleep in the best way, leaving the day behind you as you plunge forward into sleep.
Every day after that, Sylvia followed the road back to the stream and watched it swim by. One day, after she did particularly well on her math test, she discovered her lost lucky coin in her desk. On her way to the stream, she plucked a late-season violet. When she arrived at the secret path, she clambered down to the grassy bank.
Sylvia leaned over the stream and opened both hands. Out of her left, the lucky coin splashed in the water, fluttering down to rest crooked in the sand next to a rock. Out of her right, the small flower fell. She watched the flower float, its purple head bobbing above the surface, impervious to the water.
Looking back at her coin, she tilted her head so that the face on the coin was even with hers. The flower would leave and follow the stream where she could not, but the coin would stay, a face looking up at the trees to watch the stream when she was away.
When Sylvia returned home that night, her wet socks seeped quietly in her shoes, but no one said anything. Her mother did not complain about having to wash the socks, and her brother did not mention the mud on her shoes. The dog seemed more interested in her than ever before, but she did not have time to worry about it. Instead, she ate well and slept without stirring.
One day, as suddenly as her birthday had changed her life, a new day changed it again. Autumn began with no regard for summer, pushing out the high sun to let the bad weather blow in. She was not permitted on the roads by herself anymore, even though she was ten. People were cautious and asked each other constantly: how were the roads? When Sylvia heard this, she scowled. Why should they care about her roads?
The winter came, and like all winters in the village, it was dry and brittle, and everyone rushed to shut doors and light fires as it rattled through. The wind blew in a few flurries of snow, but hurried them out again. Sylvia sat at her desk in school, watching her eraser make black spirals of rubber, all that remained behind of mistaken words. From the back rows, her brother and his friends tried to kicked her chair. Ahead of her, the other girls braided their hair into long plaits and tossed them over their shoulders to unwind a little bit with each movement, until they would get bored and braid them again.
A rare warm day arrived, and the students ate lunch outside. Sylvia took her lunch bucket and sat on the school steps facing the road. The boys ate on the swings and on the top of the silver slide. The girls ate inside the school behind her, and she could hear their laughter drift under the crack in the door. Sylvia bit into her sandwich and thought about the stream. Was it waiting for her now, impatient that she should neglect it for so long? She could see nothing from the school step but the entrance to the road. She could feel nothing but the cold on her fingers as they moved the sandwich to and from her mouth.
The cold weather blew away, and the roads opened again. The dry winter turned into a dusty spring, a crackling strip of time before the early summer rain. Sylvia no longer raged when adults discussed the roads, but listened eagerly, knowing that they would see the roads before she could. Her mother’s friend praised the state of the roads at this time of year—the best for carriage rides. Her father’s boss took a carriage out one Sunday and came back declaring fine weather.
Sylvia waited for the day that she could return to her road. The roads were open but crowded with people who preferred the dry spring roads over the damp roads of summer. She chose a Tuesday, a day when most people were busy with work and school. She watched the road at lunchtime to make sure that no one entered her path. No one did.
After school, she ran to the path. The road ahead of her was patchy with light, as the trees had not yet opened their leaves. The path was now two deep ruts of carriage tracks with little grass between. The long itchy blades of summer had died, and the dry grass now stayed down, trampled into submission by the winter. Sylvia let her shoelaces loosen, dropped her hat off of her head, and stomped through the grass, matting it down even more.
At a familiar bend in the path, she watched ahead for her stream, but nothing looked the same as the summer before. Surely this was the right path? Surely these trees knew her face? Surely the creek was just shy after a few months away? She spotted the bank of the stream, brittle with dead grass and mud-colored without choice. The creek bed lay almost bare, just a small trickle of water winding through the victorious rocks. She spotted her coin covered in mud, and looked for her flower to be dead here also, but she knew it was gone. It had washed up somewhere south of the creek, muddied and battered.
Sylvia reached one finger down into the stream and pulled it back. The creek that once made her clean now dirtied her. She would have to go home to wash it off.
For the next few weeks, Sylvia resisted the pull of the stream as the spring rains came in full force. Thunderstorms pounded the roof over her bed; she had dreams of the stream asking her for help, and she would tote buckets of water from the village to fill it up. But nothing worked, and as quickly as she poured, the stream lapped up the water and cried out, thirsty again. Again and again, Sylvia walked and poured and cried.
At the end of June, she celebrated her eleventh birthday. She watched the road from her lunch spot at school. She ate her sandwich slowly, sad that last year had been her last good birthday and she hadn’t even known it at the time. The cookie was dry and the water in her mug left her thirsty. Another pour was never enough. That day’s math problems made her mad, and in retaliation she hated language and history as well.
After school, she marched to the road, not caring about the other students watching her angry steps, only caring about the battle she wanted to fight. The leaves had opened now and covered her path with shades of green, spots of light dotting around her. The carriage tracks had faded—the adults had gone back to saying the roads were bad.
She rounded her corner and stared out at her bank, ready see the creek again. She knew that she could not yell at it as she did with her brother, or pout over it as she did with her father, but she hoped that something would come to her when she saw it again, the betrayal of that one dirtied finger.
Sylvia marched to the bank. The creek had grown, not back to the size of last summer, but it had expanded to its banks, waiting to flood over the last of the rocks. She could no longer see her coin and new flowers fell into the water of their own accord. She reached down and stroked the surface of the water with just one finger, letting it dabble for a moment and then pulling it back. A single drop of water rolled down onto her wrist and hit the cuff of her sleeve, making a dark dot on the pale blue fabric.
The water laughed onward, and Sylvia forgot what it was that she had come to say or do. Her socks flew off and her shoes were tossed to the side of the bank. Her toes plunged into the water, and it sent a chill up her legs. She splashed a small splash, and then a larger one. She would not remember this, but she also laughed, the loudest laugh she had in her, and blushed at the sound.
That night, Sylvia arrived home with her feet wet and her skirts just beginning to dry. Her mother told her to wash up, and her brother said she looked funny. Her father ruffled her hair, and the dog sniffed her boots. She sat at dinner and watched the sun creep out of the village, to take to the roads before it came back again.
Story by Natalie Mills