I was on my walk two days ago, Sally and I had rounded the last bend in the large loop that rings the preserve. I could see a couple ahead of me making their way to the entrance, where you can decide to go one way or another. Up beyond the couple was a young father with two small children. I heard them calling to each other, screaming as kids do, in their excitement to arrive at the park.
As I’ve mentioned before, I love this place for walking. It’s just beautiful, for one thing, but also, you can see where people are and divert your path. I made the mistake of thinking others will do the same thing. See who's coming and go the other direction. The young father was not of the same mind. He and his two kids entered the path and began to walk toward the couple ahead of me. I saw them stop and take a moment to put on their masks. I put on my mask. The couple and the kids, one of whom was on a bike with training wheels, passed each other. The grasses have grown too high in the last week or so to really go off the trail when someone is approaching so they sort of leaned away from the kids as they passed. Once cleared of each other, the couple then di the same lean away pass with the dad and the kids moved toward me, the one on the trike began barreling toward me.
I love the word flummoxed, don’t you? It’s so awkward and rangy. Like a gorgeous ostrich of a word. I stopped pulled Sally gently up so she stopped and watched the kids and their dad approach. I was flummoxed. Why not go the other direction? There was no one that way. Why not call your kids and ask them to wait, let the folks who are about to step off the trail and head back to the parking lot get by first and then hit the path? Or, why not have your kids wear masks when they’re going to pass people, and have one yourself for these moments.
“Wait a second,” I called to the kids and his father behind him, “You’re coming this way?” A dumb thing to say, of course they were coming this way, because here they came. What I was really saying was, “why are you coming this way?” But I was reluctant to say that. They were strangers, after all. Did my tone convey it, perhaps subtly. I didn’t whine or sound exasperated, but just asking it made it clear that I had thoughts about the father’s choice to lead his kids toward us instead of away, maybe I even had thoughts about his parenting style over all.
“Yep,” he called back to me, with a we sure are, implied in his tone. I could have quarreled with him, said something, or decided to frighten the children, that’ll teach ‘em. Let Sally bark and bark at them as I charge ahead screaming, I eat children!
Instead I said to Sally, “ok, let’s go,” and we leapt to the right, over the tall grasses and the small ravine and then up the hill toward the parking lot. This is not advised. As I said, the grasses get very tall as summer hits, it’s a nature preserve so they don’t want you walking off the path. Also, we live in tick country and walking through grassy, scrubby landscape is a prime way to pick up a few ticks, for both Sally and me.
As we pushed away from the path I imagined the kids asking their dad: who was that strange man? And why didn’t he like us?
In William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, picnic, a young, hunky stranger arrives to a small town in Kansas, disrupting the veneer of gentility and upsetting the moral code of the town. American theater is filled with strangers—some are magical: the Rainmaker, the Music Man. Some are dark, evil: Jud in Oklahoma. Films are filled with strangers, too—especially film noir, which emerged in the aftermath of WW2 when the darkness at the heart of our country began to be of interest. We’re we really a land of heroes and good guys? Or were bad guys and crooks all around us? Hiding out in shadowy rooms with Venetian blinds, leaving the scene of. The crime in a long black car with a pistol in the glove box? Guys named Johnny and Rocco and Fats.
When did the first stranger appear? Imagine you’re living in a cave with your people, a small tribe which shares resources—food, shelter—the children are raised communally. The only other animals you’ve ever seen before are the birds in the trees, boards and saber tooth tigers. Animals you eat or animals you avoid. You spend your days sewing pelts together and making paste out of grain which you cook over the newly discovered fire. One day while squatting by the creek to fill a bladder with fresh water you hear a rustling and looking up, you see an animal that looks like you and your small tribe but you don’t know them, you’ve never seen them before.
“Hi.” They say.
“Ungha.” You reply, because your language is different. Are you afraid? Do you reach for your knife? Cry out for back up?
“How are you?” Asks the stranger, stepping forward.
“Ungha wungha,” you reply, uncomprehending their words but understanding their movement. And what you’re saying in your language is, “you’re coming this way?” And what you really want to say is, “why are you coming this way?”
You leap into the creek to get out of the way of the stranger. You swim to the other side without looking back and once on land you run all the way back to the cave. Through heavy breaths you try to get the story out, “ungha wungha, wungha, bungha.”
I saw someone, not one of us. You’re not hysterical but you are in a heightened state. Your tribe elders are concerned. Not sure they understand or believe you. There have been other times one of the tribe thought they saw an unknown animal looking like us but why don’t you go see the wisewoman, she lives in her own cave off by herself.
So you set out, it’s afternoon. Everything in the woods, all around you, causes you to startle. A snap of a twig, the buzz of a fly.
She welcomes you, the wisewoman. Leads you inside, offers you a small stone bowl with water and leaves.
“Oonghawa,” she asks you, which means, “why are you here?” In your language.
“The elders told me to come.”
“Yes,” she says, sitting down next to a small fire. “But why are you here?” She’s brusque.
You say, “I saw someone I do not know.”
“But why are you really here?” She presses you.
“I saw someone I do not…”
“Yes,” she says, interrupting you, “but why are you really here?”
You wait. She waits with you, occasionally stirring the coals, refilling your bowl with hot water.
It’s the first time you’ve done this, sat with a question you don’t know how to answer. You're a person of action, a problem solver. Now you’re aware of a new sensation, a kind of internal movement, toward something you don’t know, something you’re not sure you want but still your inside self moves toward it.
Outside the cave it grows dark and cool. Wolves howl in the distance. You sit gazing into the fire for a long time, until finally you look up.
“Well?” Says the wisewoman.
You speak and your voice is different, less sure, not declaring but wondering as you say. “I saw someone I’ve never seen before, who looked like me, like us, but it was not someone I knew. And it scared me.”
By the light of the fire you see something like a very small smile on the wisewoman’ s face, her eyes soften.
“And so, why are you here,” she said again, softer now.
Leaning forward from her place by the fire, she rests her soft, papery hand in your cheek. “Yes.”
And I made it up the grassy hill and hustled Sally back into the car. And the couple who had been ahead of me on the trail made their way to their car. And the man and his kids went off along the path and between them, and within us all, our stories began to grow.