For an unknown reason, her mother stopped the wagon in the middle of the woods, “Lila,” she said, “You go on and get out right here.” The baby was crying. Lila raised her head and looked at her mother. She was five-years-old.
“I want you to get out here and wait on your brothers, they will be coming along directly.”
Lila looked around the dense trees, the sunlight dappling through the tops of those tall pines, filtering down like a host of magical, small fairies. She turned and looked at her mother, short, dark and fierce. There was nothing like Matilda when her eyes grew dark and she tore the leaves off a mulberry switch. So Lila climbed down out of the wagon full of uncertainty. She looked back at the baby and her younger sister.
“See, sit on that log there and just wait, they’ll be along shortly,” and with that, her mother whipped the horses into motion.
Lila found herself all alone in an East Texas forest, trees as massive and tall as time itself. Birds called in the distance, and she could hear a brook running its course over rocks. She watched her family as the wagon jaunted down that narrow dirt road cutting through the forest like a jagged trail leading out to the place where people lived. Lila wondered how far her brothers were behind her. Did Hiram know that she would be there? What if he didn’t know to look for her? Lila sat there not daring to defy her mother. She missed her papa, he had been gone, off helping his brother build a house, but he would come home soon. She loved the crinkled skin around his eyes, his songs that he sang just for her. She loved the happiness that flowed like a fountain at the center of his heart. When her papa was home, Lila was happy too.
Lila slid off the log and started gathering pine cones and leaves, putting them into patterns, taking them apart. Shadows began to fall in the forest, it was getting colder.
“Hiram….” Lila said softly under her breath. Then she heard a scream, a shrill scream that sent shivers down her back. The soul-shattering scream of an animal. She sat back on the log, perfectly still, twisting the braids of her hair. Lila knew there was nowhere to go. More sounds, the sound of pain. Scream – survival – predators at large in the forest. A five-year-old girl wanting to go home, wishing her father could save her, counting on her brothers to come, but where were they? Wouldn’t they be afraid of that big cat with the lingering scream? Lila cried softly, the woods were so much darker now. If she was home, she could be helping feed the baby, she could bring the wood in for the stove. Lila liked to help. She was a good girl, she would always be good.
From the slivered shadows, the noise of horses coming pulled Lila back from the ravine of despair. Someone was indeed coming. Lila peered into the distance. It was a man in a buggy. So in a time long before children were harmed randomly, she sat on the log off the narrow road, listening to the clomp, clomp, clomping come nearer.
The man in the buggy spotted her and began pulling the team to a stop.
“Whoa! Little girl, hello. What are you doing here?” he asked.
Lila looked at him. He had a kind face like her papa’s, pleasant eyes that were a deep, mellow, friendly blue.
“I’m waiting for my brother,” she said. “Did you see him back there?”
“No, little lady. There’s nobody back there. What’s your name?” he asked.
“Lila, Lila Stricker,” she said.
“Lila, why don’t you come along with me? Let’s go find where you live,” said the man.
She was happy to leave. The shadows in the woods were getting larger and closing in. There would be different animal sounds now, coming closer, Lila knew that. She had lived in East Texas her full five years, and she had been through the forest with her papa. Lila knew these things. Relieved, she climbed on up the sideboard and sat by the stranger. Lila and the kind man road on through the woods. He smiled at her.
“Now my two horses here, this one is Big Pecos on the left and Diana on the right. They are real workhorses, all right. Gotta watch Diana though, she’ll take a bite out of you if she’s got a mind to.”
“So now, you live around here?” He said as they approached the end of the forest trail. Lila nodded.
“You think you can show me?”
“Um huh,” said Lila.
“I remember some families live off Drew Creek Road….” he mused.
“So if I go up there and turn left, does that seem the right way?”
Lila looked ahead. She could see her road. The road she had gone down a million times with Papa, Hiram and sometimes Mama.
Turning onto the road, the outline of the small farm house greeted them in the distance. The buggy pulled up in the front. Hiram was busy chopping wood.
“Hey!” he said coming toward the wagon. He smiled broadly at Lila, his sandy brown hair wet at the edges and sticking up slightly in the back.
“Little sister!” He held up his hands and Lila grabbed them eagerly in her small ones. Hiram brought her swiftly and safely down to the ground. Familiar ground it was. Hiram thanked the kind stranger, and Lila waved goodbye, happy to be home.
Years later, as my grandmother faced the end of days and was beset by Sundowner’s Syndrome, she would recall with vivid details the story of a little girl left in the woods. At night as the evening shadows crept in and her mind shifted, she would look at me with frantic sadness in her eyes and call her son’s name: “Tommy, Tommy! There’s a little girl in the woods. She needs to get home. Please help her, Tommy!”
I would swallow back the tears welling in my throat, and take her hand into mine, as her brother had done many years before. “It’s okay grandmother, the little girl in the woods is safe now. She found her way home and made a home worth having for all of her children and grandchildren. She is the became the best grandmother anyone could ever hope for, and I will love her beyond boundaries, beyond forever.”