The Girl and the Warring Wolves
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a bland house, whose family had little money to spare, and who was burdened with a mind and heart that waged great battles between themselves. To many, she was invisible. To the government, she was a number. To herself, she was flawed.
But to her grandmother, she was lovely. Brilliant. Kind.
She loved spending time with her grandmother, sitting on the brown, worn carpet, eating lemon drops, and listening to stories. These stories, told over and over, belonged to both of them. They were the fabric of their shared history, the sole possession no one else could claim.
The girl felt sorry that she could offer nothing so prized in return. Her heart wanted to tell her grandmother how much she loved her. Her brain told her heart that everything fell short. Around and around, they went, warring over how they were going to resolve the matter.
The war raged on as she packed two bags for the walk through town to her grandmother’s. She hoped that the time walking would help her piece something together. The bag of food was heavier than she had anticipated as lifted it off the counter and it fell from her arms and landed with a thud. She picked it up, telling herself that carrying the bag was the least she could do, hoping she had not broken the jar of pickles that was packed with the things her mother had bought for her grandmother on her recent trip out of town. In the other bag, she carried two sweaters and a pair of horribly ugly, but practical, shoes her grandmother had forgotten at her house.
Her hair in a pony tail, sunglasses on her nose, she held a bag in each hand as she walked down the driveway and headed west. She breathed in, and as soon as she thought she had caught the notion of lilacs in the air, she sneezed, verifying their presence. Figures, she thought, everything I enjoy comes back to bite me.
Enjoy it anyways, her heart said. Lilacs are here to be enjoyed, it whispered, the scent getting stronger as she rounded the corner and saw the row of bushes lining the street, beautiful purple and pink bunches crowding their branches. She couldn’t resist them, and she nearly got petals up her nose when she leaned in, smothering her face in them, half of a deep breath in when she sneezed rather loudly.
“Do you need a tissue, honey?” came a voice from the other side of the bush.
She walked to the edge of the row and peeked around. An old man sat on a green painted park bench. He held a small plastic pack of tissues out to her, and she took it.
“Thanks.” She wiped her nose, shoved the used tissue in her pocket, and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She had to get to her grandmother’s house, but the old man held her gaze as if he wasn’t through with her.
“My Mariann used to do the same thing. She loved lilacs, they were her favorite. In fact, she planted these bushes. She said they reminded her of the bushes that grew next to her swing in the yard when she was little. But they made her pay,” he laughed. “She would be out here all day in the spring, sneezing and wiping her eyes. By supper, her nose was as red as a clown’s.”
He hardly seemed to be talking to her until he blinked. “Did you know my Mariann? She used to work at the library, in the magazine room.”
The girl shook her head.
“Ah. Well, I suppose that was probably years before your time. It’s a great story, though, of Mariann in the magazine room. Would you like to hear it?”
“Um, OK, but I kinda can’t stay very long,” she said, sitting next to him on bench, grateful to have a place to set the bags down for a moment.
“Yes yes,” he said, but it didn’t seem at all like he had heard her. “I was a young man, a few years older than you, and I will start by telling you I was horribly in love. Oh, I hung on her every word, and knew every speck of her eye and every freckle on her face. She was perfect, and I knew she and I would be together forever. She would think so too, if she knew I existed.
“She worked in the magazine room at the library, where I saw her one day, when I needed an article about President Truman. I fell in love right when I saw her. I went back every day, requesting articles and back issues of Life Magazine until the day I left for boot camp.
“Soon, I was overseas, up to my knees in mud and pining for her. My mother, bless her, wrote often, and she added my name to the list at church. I wasn’t one to attend unless my mother prodded me through the chapel door, but the letters from her church friends were kind enough. One was from a young lady who wrote exceptionally well, and she and I began to write to each other more and more. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, even though I was a bit sad to let go of my love for the girl in the magazine room.
“I didn’t come home for nineteen months, but her letters promised she would wait for me and welcome me home, and that she did. I was twenty-one years old when I stepped off the train, and saw her: my Mariann, in a dress the color of those lilacs there, holding my name on a sign like a cab driver!
“All that time, I had loved her, never knowing that the one writing to me was that same girl from the magazine room.” He finally paused. “So it was meant to be, me and my Mariann.”
The girl sat still, waiting.
“Someday, you’ll be that girl in the magazine room,” he said, placing his hand on hers. “You will get to live your own fairy tale, like my Mariann and I did. There will be dragons and earthquakes and miracles of your own, but oh, what an adventure it will be!”
The man stood, slowly.
“And here I am, an old man, keeping you from it!” He smiled and offered her a hand to help her stand, an unnecessary gesture done out of habitual chivalry.
It was then that the girl realized how long she had sat there, and knew she would have to walk faster to get to her grandmother’s before she started to worry. She picked up her bags and awkwardly smiled at him. “Thanks. I mean, well, um. She sounds like she was a nice lady.”
The words felt stupid falling out of her mouth.
“She was. And you’re a gentle one to listen to an old man talk. Go on, and pay attention to your adventure so that you can tell it to someone some day.”
The girl walked out of the yard and headed uphill. Of course I would have to walk twice as fast when I’m walking UP hill! she grumbled to herself.
Four blocks later, she gave up on switching the bags from one arm to the other; both arms were tired and she still had three blocks to go. The wind picked up and the sun seemed to be setting faster than usual. She pulled the hood on her sweatshirt up and tightened the strings.
The wind took that as a challenge, and began blowing into her face.
Despite her usual anxiety about hidden places, she turned into the alley behind the hardware store, a path that would save her both distance and time.
She was a little more than halfway through when she heard hushed, frantic speech that she couldn’t quite make out. Her heart pounded. She couldn’t breathe. To turn around would be a longer trek to the open streets, but to keep going could mean an unwelcome encounter.
It’s OK. Be cool. If you’re cool and act like everything is fine, they’ll leave you alone.
She tried to keep a steady pace and fake confidence.
She heard a sniff. A little rattling metal. A sigh, but not a human sigh. Her heart pounded even faster as she neared the end of the hardware store.
She saw the end of the sleeping bag first. Then the end of a tail. She slowed and looked around the corner of the building and saw a woman trying to make herself comfortable, braced against the wall, soothing the shabby dog that sniffed and sighed next to her. The woman made eye contact with the girl but said nothing, pulling the sleeping bag in a little tighter.
The girl stopped.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
The woman continued to fidget with the sleeping bag.
“Are you cold?”
The woman looked at the dog.
Why are you bothering? It’s not like you can do anything about it, her brain nagged at her, before her heart chimed in: give her the bags.
The girl felt helpless. This woman needed more, needed a rescue, a superhero, a… something else. Someone else. What good would it do to give her the bags, really? The bags really weren’t hers to give. But…
“I think it’s going to get colder, and I know it’s not a lot, but I have some food, and…” She set the bags down in front of the woman, who still said nothing. She turned and walked down the alley. She tried not to be so obvious about it when she looked sideways as she turned, and saw the woman laying back down, pulling the sleeping bag up over her shoulders, which were now snug into the confines of what used to be her grandmother’s sweater.
She walked, almost running for another block. She was disappointed. She was supposed to have used this time to come up with something good, something profound and worthy, but instead, she had only bought herself more trouble. She would have to explain why she was late, and why she had given away what wasn’t even hers. She was barely up the front steps when her grandmother flung the door open.
“Where on earth have you been!? I expected you to – And where is – why is your face so red, are you OK?” Her grandmother spit out questions and half-questions faster than the girl could answer.
“Grandma!” The girl nearly shouted.
Her grandmother stopped.
Not having had the time to put something polished together, she simply started talking. She told her about the lilacs and the old man, about his Mariann and the look on his face when he spoke of her. She told her about the dark pathway, when she was afraid until she found someone who was probably more afraid, about how her heart told her to give the bags to the woman, even if it wasn’t much. She told her about how she was supposed to have spent the time being clever and ran out of time.
The grandmother was silent.
She brought the girl over and sat on the brown carpet with her, reaching up onto the coffee table for the dish of lemon drops.
“My girl,” she finally said. “What you did today is better than words you could have said. You listened to the heart that needed to be heard. You shared without expectation. You’ve made me proud of who you are.”
“You’re not mad?”
“I was worried, but no, I’m not mad. The day didn’t end up like we had planned, but how can I be mad at you loving when there were people to be loved?”