The wind may whisper and brooks may babble, but trees talk. Deep in the preserve behind our house, I pitched a tent under the unfurled canopy of a professorial oak. Waited for secrets to be revealed. I learned of the begrudging cease-fire with the squirrels: reached because all sides came to the sudden and disheartening conclusion that survival is pure accident. It’s as uncontrollable as a tiny acorn hidden under fertile ground in a since-forgotten location.
* * *
My father, the eminent naturalist, started our education in the natural world early and attended to it feverishly thereafter. He’d stand on the banks of the pond, whiskey-colored hair blowing in the slight breeze, holding forth on every species of waterfowl within his field of vision. “Mallard drake,” he’d say, gesturing toward an emerald-necked duck bobbing nearby. “They have three eyelids, you know, top and bottom like ours and then a third that closes sideways, like goggles for underwater vision.”
“Yes, dad,” we’d chorus, our thoughts drifting to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches our mother would have lain out for us. My brother and sister would fidget, throwing pebbles into the water or pawing with sticks at the ground. I’d sit and pluck blades of grass while my father talked, amassing a pile next to me. It became a form of keeping time for his lectures.
Later, when we were slightly older, my father sent us out into the woods. He’d stand in the doorway, his full head of hair now greying, and wave goodbye. My mother would watch from the kitchen window, masking her disapproval with a forced, encouraging smile. I was the oldest so I set out on these treks first. I carried a backpack loaded with water bottles, compasses, granola bars, flashlights, and whistles; contents that seemed insubstantial but nonetheless weighed heavily on my skinny shoulders. Our house abutted a nature preserve, a location chosen with exacting precision given my father’s profession. I was to spend the night out there, alone, and “learn something,” as my father put it.
Each time, I came back alive and unharmed, which seemed to strengthen my father’s resolve in his teaching methods. We’d sit by a roaring fire that licked logs he’d chopped himself. My mother always found a reason to absent herself, the details of our periodic exile too much for her to bear. I’d give my father a full account of my activities, and he would nod sagely without comment. I craved the look of pride I saw in his eyes, and eventually my childish love grew into full-throated admiration. I wonder often, though, about the shape my father’s love took for me.
* * *
I can get through the preserve with my eyes closed. I know this because we tested it. My father blindfolded me, spun me around three times, and told me to meet him at the old beech by the creek that runs through the center of the preserve. I tripped only once, felled by a stray root bulging out of the leaf-covered ground. When I reached the beech, I pulled off the bandana covering my eyes and tied it over my skinned knee. My father was standing by the stocky trunk, holding a stopwatch. “Half an hour,” he said to me. “Fantastic,” he said, more to himself.
So, I haven’t been afraid of the dark since the womb.
* * *
When my father’s hair turned entirely white, a third eyelid closed over his pupils. “Maybe you can see underwater now,” I joked, though I knew he could see nothing through the milky-white cataracts clouding his eyes. He had been without my mother for some time then; his only constant support was a sturdy walking stick.
I sat with him in the living room, by a fire made from store-bought logs. I didn’t tell him about this shortcut. I did tell him stories he’d already heard about my time in the woods. The excruciating silence after a small, black bear trundled into the clearing with my flimsy canvas tent. The shrieking hawk carrying off a field mouse still writhing within sharp talons. The long wait after I devoured a handful of blood-red berries, wondering if I’d forgotten how to tell poison by sight. On its surface, all of nature looks innocuous, much like people. “I’m tired,” my father said, “I’d like to go to sleep.”
In the morning, I helped him outside so he could smell the fresh dew beading the grass. That early, and that late in the year, the air had a clear quality to it that sliced straight through our lungs. When we stood by the pond, for a minute I saw my father as he was in his prime. Blazing eyes and unkempt hair, with a brain that held all the knowledge the earth wished to impart.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said, after some time, linking his left arm through mine. His right hand gripped his gnarled walking stick, tapping out the path we both knew by heart. I closed my eyes in solidarity and we reached the beech in twenty minutes, perhaps a record for the blind leading the blind. The beech stretched her branches above us, sending down a flurry of dried-out leaves like the clearing of a throat. We kept perfectly still, the better to listen as the beech said: These roots will cradle you until you’re ready to go home. You know the way.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, photographer and lawyer. Originally from Connecticut, she is currently based in Indiana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arcturus, Miracle Monocle and Stoneboat Literary Journal; for more, please see www.ninasudhakar.com.