Walking alone in a vast forest, you take comfort in the solitude. When the sun shines through the trees, it’s warm and when the breeze picks up, the leaves rustle. Up ahead there seems to be a small, natural clearing where the grass is moving in waves.
As you step out onto the grass, you notice a young girl sitting a short way ahead, hugging her shins, her face almost buried in her knees. She’s maybe eight and she’s crying – uncontrollably it seems. Looking up briefly, she notices you but her face returns to her knees and she continues to cry.
It’s awkward. There’s nobody else around and you know the nearest road is at least half a day away. Concerned, you walk to her, bending over slightly as you get nearer. “Are you lost? Are you okay?”
But she doesn’t respond. She just continues to cry. She doesn’t seem threatened by your presence, so you continue trying to help. “Is there someone around? Your mom, maybe?” You put your hand on her shoulder for reassurance and you can feel her shaking as she cries, completely inconsolable. The more hopeless you feel, the more your anxiety builds. You look to see if anyone else is around for some sign of what’s happened. The forest just looks back.
“Are you hurt? Can you walk?” She doesn’t seem to be in physical pain, but she’s clearly distressed. She takes a deep breath and continues to cry.
You can’t carry her all the way to help and you can’t just leave her. Why won’t she respond and tell you what she needs?
“Do you understand me,” you ask, “Do you know the way home?” She’s bawling now and you’re out of ideas. All you can think of is to lower yourself and put your arm around her. “It’s okay,” you say, not actually knowing if it is. “It’s okay.” Your heart breaks for her.
“Can I get you anything?” It’s a useless question – you’ve got nothing to give so your mind turns again to thinking about what could have happened.
“Did someone hurt you?” Sobs.
“Are you lost?” Crying.
“Should I go?” More crying.
You can’t stop the tears welling up in your eyes now and a lump builds in your throat. There’s nothing you can do to help this girl and her pain is palpable. You’re anxious but you know you need to stay with this girl, so you do the only thing left and sit down next to her.
She cries and you continue to sit.
You begin to stroke her back, but and the crying gets worse so you stop. When you ask her a question, she sobs. Her sadness seems as endless.
Minutes pass, maybe hours and you begin to get used to being there, sitting with her pain.
You’ve given up trying to console her to the point where you’re just someone sharing her space. Not waiting for anything, just there. And what else could you do? Take her away from here? What if someone’s coming back? What if she’s here by choice?
You’re getting tired now. It’s late. The sun is going down and the cool night air approaches through the forest and owls begin to call.
Surprisingly, you notice her sobs becoming less severe and her breathing slowing. You’re tempted to stroke her hair or hug her – to make it go away for good. You want to know what’s going on and to ask if she feels better. But you don’t. You just continue to share this sad space.
Slowly her sobs are replaced by sniffs. Her head lifts and you see how puffy her eyes are from crying for so long. She looks at you for a heartbeat and you share a moment of connection.
She blinks a few times and looks around through long, wet eyelashes.
You’re about to ask if she’s okay, but as you open your mouth, a look of horror transforms her face. Pained, she freezes in fear. Slowly, you close your mouth, shocked, and look at the ground in front of you.
You’re both still, both afraid.
You close your eyes and try to calm yourself down. It’s clear now, the more your try to do, the more distressed she feels. Moments pass and in the corner of your eye you see her face relaxing again. She begins to move again, cautiously. She crosses her legs in front of her.
Relieved, your body softens too and slowly you turn and face her. Sitting there, picking at her fingernails, she hums an unknown melody to herself. Her tears have dried.
She breathes in and looks up at the stars. Instinctively, you do the same.
Quite deliberately, she plants her hands on the ground, gets up and looks down at you. Though the clearing is lit only by the moon and stars, you can still discern a smile. Your heart lightens and your smile mirrors hers.
Then, as if she’d remembered there was something she was meant to do, the girl turns and walks off into the trees.
Later, you walk back through the forest to resume your life. The crickets chirp. The branches sway and creak. The leaves rustle and you shiver. A thought comes to mind and it makes you smile – next time you’ll know what to do, next time you’ll be able to help.