Walking Backward

Emmie hung from the railing by her armpits, watching her twig navigate the listless currents of the stream. Four of its predecessors had snagged themselves on a mat of branches by a Y in the stream.

“Come on. Come on.”

The twig caught itself in the tangle. Emmie sighed. Then she looked up. Someone was singing.

The light voice rose and fell amidst the breathing cadence of the woods. She tossed her fist of twigs over the railing and ran off the bridge following the stream, sometimes retreating to the woodchip path when the underbrush became too thick.

The woods were attached to the great green field across street from her home, and all of it resided within a large municipal park. A row of houses bordered the woods’ eastern edge; a branch of the stream flowed behind their back yards. Emmie stood on its embankment and peered into one of these backyards.

A girl about her age was idling on a swingset facing her house, singing.

The girl didn’t know all the lyrics. When she came to a line she couldn’t recall she half mumbled/half hurried past it.

“I took a bath…washing machine…so I could get…myself really clean…and…I took a bath…”

“It’s, I put in soap. Up came the suds,” Emmie called.

“You’re right; thank you,” she said, unstartled by Emmie’s presence.

“What’s your name?”

“Ciega. What’s yours?”

“Emmie.”

“I bet it’s Esmeralda and not Emma.”

“It is. How did you know?”

“Emma is as easy to say as Emmie.”

The girl had neither turned to face Emmie nor stopped drifting on her swing.

“Would you like to play with me?”

“Yes. But I have to walk through the woods and back through the park and then out to the busy street…and then I don’t know how to reach your home from there.”

“There is a bridge right there.”

Emmie craned her neck, looking downstream. A fallen Sycamore spanned it.

“The tree?”

“I’ve done it.”

Emmie climbed onto the horizontal trunk, holding onto its spiring branches for balance. Over the middle of the stream she knelt and crawled the rest of the way, hopping down onto the far embankment. She scaled the steep grade to stand clutching a chain-link fence at the top of the embankment.

“There’s a gate to your left.”

Emmie walked hand over hand holding the fence, her body leaning into space against gravity. She opened the gate and pulled herself through and walked to the swingset. The girl told her to close the gate. She had yet to face Emmie.

“Hi,” she said, when Emmie came up from behind.

“Hi.”

Emmie expected the girl to look at her, but she didn’t. So she walked to stand in front of her.

Oh, Emmie thought.

“I have glasses if you want me to wear them. Some people prefer it, although no one ever says so.”

“My brother wears glasses, but he’s always breaking them.”

“Mine are sunglasses.”

“Okay,” said Emmie.

“I’m blind.”

“Okay.”

“You didn’t know?”

“No. I thought you were daydreaming.”

The girl smiled.

“You like to swing?”

Emmie said very much and jumped onto the swing next to her new friend.

“Wanna know who’s going higher?”

“You are.”

“Okay. Now who is?”

“You are.”

“Okay. Now who is.”

“You’re barely swinging at all. Now you’ve jumped off. Now…”

“Okay, okay, okay. Do you wanna push? I can make you go as high as me.”

The girl nodded, beaming.

Emmie gave her two underdogs. She shrieked and laughed. Emmie jumped back on her swing and started pumping her legs, torquing her body into the apex of each arc.

“Now, keep your legs pumping. We’re going to have a contest to see…”

But the girl glided, head tossed back; serene. Emmie didn’t scold her, although she wanted to. Instead, like her friend, she extended her legs and leaned back. When she could swing no higher she closed her eyes.

A favorite moment.

“This is what you must feel all the time.”

“You are closing your eyes.”

“Yes. It feels like I’m flying. But not really. It feels like I am in outer space or some altogether other space. Floating.”

“Other space. Yes. That’s what it is. I live in a different world then you do. You think you see it as it is, but you don’t.”

Emmie opened her eyes.

“I see everything as it is.”

“When your eyes were closed, did it feel like you were on a swingset?”

“No, it felt like I was in other space.”

“There you go. Perhaps seeing drowns out what is really there. As our talking drowns out the sparrow.”

Emmie swung with eyes closed listening to a sparrow’s song that had always been there. What else had she been missing walking through the woods with eyes open?

“You’re thinking you’d like to be blind for one day to see what it’s like.”

“I’m going to do that!”

Emmie leapt off the swing.

“I’m going to go home and wear a blindfold all day and then I’m going to tell you what it’s like.”

The girl smiled, drifting on her swing.

“Actually, closing your eyes is not the best way to see as I see. If you want to do that then walk backward all the way home.”

“With my eyes open?”

“Yes. But you can’t turn your head. And you can’t stop. You can’t slow your pace if you become anxious or if some noise startles you. Keep your head up, your shoulders square, facing backward and walk until you are home. Then you will know the world as I do.”

“But I will still be able to see.”

“As I do.”

Emmie pursed her lips and furled her brow. This was like talking to her dad when he was teasing her. Ciega smiled again.

“Yes, I can see. However, my eyes are pointed forever in one direction and they cannot move. So if you really want to see what I see, walk home backward.”

“But just so we’re clear: I won’t be blind-blind. My eyes will be open?”

“They will finally be open. But I warn you, if you turn your head, even a little, or stop, or slow your pace…you will learn nothing. You might as well lean back in a swing and say this is what it’s like to fly.”

Emmie went hand over hand along the chain-link fence. She sidestepped down the grade, and then picked her way over the knotted river plants and exposed roots of the spindly river-trees. She crawled across the Sycamore. Scaled the far embankment. Pushed through the overgrowth and popped onto the woodland path. She knew this path as well as she knew the hallway between her bedroom and bathroom. It snaked through the friendly woods to the black asphalt path that wound through the great green field across the street from her house, ending at a white concrete sidewalk. When she reached the sidewalk she would turn around and there would be her big, blue house; her bedroom window facing the field.

She stood in the center of the woodland path, her butt pointed toward home, staring at her favorite footbridge. She started walking. Slowly. She wanted to play on the bridge, but she couldn’t; that would be breaking the rules.

Ohh!

She had walked off the path, but she kept her feet moving, angling back to the wood chips, pondering her first lesson.

Regretting the fun you didn’t have will pull you off the path.

She discovered by her fifteenth step that she could predict the bends up ahead by how the path banked and curled in the past. As soon as she saw a bend emerging from the corner of her eye she turned with it. Since she was taking deliberate steps she was always able to correct her direction in time.

“But what if the path makes a sudden right turn? Or what if it stops? Or what if a wolf appears out of nowhere to stand in my way? What then?”

She bit her lip, but refused to stop or slow her step. And with this act of discipline she earned a second insight.

The blind know that the future is a sudden thing.

At any moment you will be upon it. It is reborn with every step. The blind accept that there will be abrupt turns and wolves that you cannot prepare for.

A little ways on she felt the path rise. She heard the sounds of distant traffic. She was nearing the asphalt path. And then sunlight drenched her and she was beyond the tree line. She turned right as soon as she felt the asphalt path; she knew the woodland path dead-ended into it.

Was that cheating?

She decided it was not cheating because although she could resist the temptation to turn her head, it was impossible to lie to herself, to pretend that she didn’t know which way the path snaked.

And that was the third lesson.

It is not cheating to ask someone who has been this way before; someone who would never lie to you. In this case, herself.

The path meandered through the great green field. An Elm took shape out of the corner of her eye. At first it was a blur. Then it was a trunk, becoming easier to see as it receded into the past.

However, as it diminished, it became less and less itself and more and more a mere part of a larger mass. And then it became impossible to distinguish from its neighbors, growing smaller as the group of trees grew larger. The Elm seemed to be as one with all of the park merging in the distance.

Her right foot back-stepped onto the white concrete sidewalk along the street in front of her house and she knew the game was over. But she continued to gaze down the path toward the green-grey mass that were the friendly woods, thinking of her friend drifting on the swing.

“She was showing me how I live my life, not how she lives hers.”

“I walk backward through this green paradise regretting (gazing at bridges and elm trees, pulling myself off the path), fretting (imagining wolves and right turns), sure that the future is a long time coming. Yet, it is a sudden thing, reborn with each step.”

And just as a backward-walking girl can rely on her memory to guide her through the woods, Emmie knew she could rely on her mom and dad. For they had walked the path before her – bumping into right turns and wolves.

She crossed the street and skipped up her driveway. A happy aroma came to her. Her mother was making pancakes for dinner.

The End

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