My muscles ached and I wondered if they were bulging through my spandex pants from the strain of hiking the long trail up to the lake. I pushed myself to keep moving forward; I hoped that as my legs pushed me up the trail, they would push my past out, maybe helping me to molt and shed my skin.
The sun beat down and I worried that it would sizzle my skin, turn it into a crust. It heated me to my bones and beckoned my sweat to emerge, pool, and eventually evaporate into the atmosphere.
My feet ached. I felt like my toenails would fall off. When I reached the lake, I scrambled down the embankment, careful to not trip although part of me wanted to because it would give me a good reason to land in the water and rinse this all away. I did stumble a little but caught myself, in the end afraid of the pain that would come from a fall.
When I found a good place to rest, I sat on a boulder and removed the boots. I dipped my feet in the water and began to rub them, smoothing out the sore spots. If it could only be this easy, to remove my skin and rub out the aches from my soul.
I watched my feet as I swirled them in the water, making small circles, gradually increasing their circumference almost like I was tickling the water’s surface, trying to not disturb anything else.
As my toes traced infinity, I felt a tickle on my hand which was wrapped around my knee. I didn’t move but looked down to where a butterfly rested. It was faded, battered by life, with slightly frayed wings. Its proboscis tasted me, using the straw-like organ to suck the sweat from my skin and satisfy its need for sodium, something not provided by its diet. I remained still and simply watched, glad that I could freely give this creature something it needed, some nourishment on its journey.
I heard the man’s boots before I saw him. I looked up at him and raised the index finger of my unoccupied hand to my pursed lips and he slowed to a tiptoe, moving closer to me; he gestured at the ground beside me. I nodded an invite so he sat down in a slow quiet motion. I was hesitant to move, to disturb the butterfly’s universe but apparently this new addition was too much for it to handle. Or maybe the creature got all of the nourishment he was going to get from my sweat, so he fluttered and floated away.
The man apologized to me for disrupting my moment and then said, “what can I do to make it better.”
“umm,” I said at first.
I didn’t know what to say as this had been just a moment, one of those strange, unexpected, and nearly magical moments that seem to drift away as quickly as they come. He kept looking at me, his head tilted as if expecting an answer, so I gave him the best I could, explaining how the butterfly was just seeking nourishment that it struggles to find in nature, so it was giving me real butterfly kisses to take the salt from my skin. "I mean," I finished, "we all seek nourishment, those things that help us to survive." He cocked his head and repeated his original question, “what can I do to help?”
“Tell me a story,” was all I could say. And he began to talk.
“Why hike, someone once asked me and I simply replied, 'it’s fun.' No, strapping the leather boots on, slinging the day pack across my shoulders, and walking with no real destination did not seem like something enjoyable to most people, but for me, there was no greater release.
"On this day the sun shines hot and uncomfortable, just like it was on this same date last year. Just like I am sure it would be next year and the year after it," he continued.
"During my father’s last minutes, his eyes looked like the leaves of an old tree illuminated by the sun. I took his hand, hoped for some words of wisdom, that movie moment when he would say something that would make this all better, give me some hope or something. I wanted to hear that it would be okay, that I would find what I was looking for, that he would be with me, even some instructions on how to deal with the plumbing so I could cope without him. But there was nothing. Simply an expiration of breath.” He paused there and apologized, saying he was not much of a storyteller. But then he continued.
“I guess when I walked the trail and looked at the sun shining through the trees I hoped to see the green of his eyes again, but all I saw was transformed sunlight.
"When I reached the lake, I saw you sitting, your arms wrapped around your legs as if you were in a cocoon. The back of your shirt was streaked with sweat. I almost wished I was as sweaty as you were, could feel that river soaking through my shirt, but I remained cool despite the heat.
"My heart began to speak to me so loudly that I worried you would hear it. Use your legs to move closer it said. Use your words to connect you, it said. And don’t worry about the outcome, it said. I tried to approach quietly, not wanting to startle you; you seemed so peaceful. You motioned to me to be quiet and so I sat down and the butterfly that had been kissing you flew off. I felt guilt settle into my spirit for having disturbed your moment, but you spoke of butterflies and salt and I wanted to hear more of your voice, hopeful I guess that the sound of it would transport me on the breeze I guess. And next year on this day, I will walk again.
"And now it is your turn,” he said.
I thought about telling him about my path up the mountain, past the rocks and trees and through the streams. I thought about telling him about my path through life, about the losses and desertions and starting over again and again and the realization that in the end, the only thing we have is ourselves. I thought about telling him how much I loved the sun and the clouds despite it all. But I knew it would be a word salad and may not provide more nourishment than iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. So I did what my mother always did, which was to start with once upon a time.
“Once upon a time, there was a young girl bound in a high tower. In the night, she sang with the hope that it would bring animals or people to rescue her from her loneliness. Instead, she sang alone, filling the sky with her music. She imagined each note drifting up to spend time with the clouds. She imagined that the stars sparkled with joy to hear her song. But the clouds and the stars never answered her.
"She peered out from her window to the world she was not part of. One night, she began to spin, creating ropes using the only material she had: words. Her words intertwined. They were stronger than silk. She had heard stories of the uses of ropes. Stories of how they could be used to bind. Stories of how they could be used to whip. And other stories too terrifying to tell. But she was never told stories of how fear could work that same way, could bind, could whip, could destroy.
"As the moon graced the night sky, she tied the word-rope tight around her waist and lowered herself through the air until she felt the grass push between her toes. She walked, her feet trembling until she could skip and spin and feel the wind against her. She pulled the word-rope free from the tower window and wound it around her waist before she went out to meet the world.”
When I finished talking, I fought the desire to keep my feet bare, gradually sliding my boots onto my feet that still bore the aches of the hike up to the lake. The man looked at me, puzzled. All I could say is that I felt like we were all that girl in the tower, trying to overcome our stories and the stories of others, connecting in the best way that we knew how. He held out his hand and helped me to my feet.