I met a man once who smelled of lavender and grilled peaches. He wore the wilderness in his leather boots and in his dirty plaid overcoat, but the small child that hung in his eyes wore nothing wild at all. The child told him the sweet things to compliment me on, like how I made the sheets smell like pine and the way I cook elk chili. He showed the man how to touch me gently in the places where girls don't feel vulnerable, so that I wouldn't see him as a predator when his hands awoke me in the night. He was the child's puppet whose strings were pulled in the way my daddy always told me a man should play music for a woman. The child could read my dreams and make the man propose to me on the bridge above the river on the evening of the first snow, just as I'd always written in my journal. I guess I got used to the child. I stopped noticing him as much, as if he had faded into the hazel of the man’s eyes. Perhaps all children grow out of their innocence; at least the most unfortunate do. By the end of the eighth winter that I’d spent there among the trees, the child aged and learned and traveled on to find a girl for himself. But I missed him when the wilderness overgrew his place in the man's eyes and I hid behind the extra boots in the spare closet, holding my breath so I wouldn't smell the lavender when the mountain man came to show me his ruggedness.
She only noticed the éclair because it was smashed between her toes. The chocolate filling dripped over her pinky toe and into the middle of the letter “c” on the welcome mat. She stood awkwardly and unmoving on her front porch, one foot in the pastry and the other floating bent in the air. She’d gone outside that morning only to retrieve the Saturday paper. But she left the paper on the second step where it received a light shower from the sprinklers and instead brought in a trail of footprints outlined in chocolate custard and maple glaze. She set the flattened éclair on the stovetop. It had arrived on nothing but a few brown paper towels, the scratchy kind, like the ones in gas station bathrooms.
She smelled the éclair, and prodded it with the ends of a plastic fork.
When she was a girl, her mother had taught her to never accept sweets from a stranger. So instead of enjoying it with her cup of unsweetened Irish Breakfast tea, she let it roll off the soggy paper towels so that it flopped icing-down into the dog’s dish. The collie came happily trotting into the kitchen at the metal clink of the dish, and scarfed the éclair down without question. She walked to the rose garden in the back, starting the hose on the way, and began to hum as she watered.
The morning next the girl tiptoed to the front door and peeked around the side of the honeycomb shades to watch for another delivery. When the lawn looked empty and the sprinklers ran as normal, she unlocked and opened the door. A second éclair sat staring at her from the same spot on the rug. This one was glazed in chocolate, rather than filled with it. This one sat on a triangular white porcelain plate, rather than on brown paper. She picked up the plate and held it with only three fingers, one balancing under each point of the triangle. She held it at a foot’s distance from her face as she shuffled inside. This time she set the éclair on the center of her dining table, and watched it.
She watched while she sipped her tea, but today she sweetened the Irish Breakfast with a teaspoon of maple syrup. She watched the éclair while she spread cherry jam on a slice of burnt toast. When she finally took a napkin and pushed the éclair from its plate to the dog’s dish, it did not come at the metal clink. She checked the corner of the common room where the sunlight spilled through the windows and warmed the carpet, and she checked the shaded patch under the largest peach tree in the back, but the dog sat in neither. She whistled on every floor, calling, “Ellarose! Come Rosey!” but the bell on the dog’s collar never rang. She peeked again outside the windows in the front, peered down the street and into the cul-de-sac, but she knew the dog hadn’t tried hopping the fence in years. Even so, she opened the door to call out its name into the neighborhood. She found Ellarose lying breathless on the spot of the rug where the éclairs had appeared. She left the dog there, and went quietly into the kitchen to find that day’s pastry.
She sat crisscrossed on the hardwood floor in front of the dog’s dish until her anklebones were sore. She eventually sank a fork into the center of the éclair. She twisted it down, pressing the metal to the metal of the dish and cutting the pastry in half. When she released the fork, leaving a valley between the halves of dough, the filling poured from it, making a lake in the dog’s dish. It was a lake of blood. Of whose blood she did not know, so she sat and watched it spill from the inside of the éclair- except for a few clots that still rested on the edges of her fork.
I remember his boots disappearing into the brush. I’d been running for miles, away from some life that I’ve long forgotten about. I was somewhere far from the hiking trail where the woods grow tall and close together when I heard him. He was whistling. Without the thump of boots against the dirt, I might have let him pass as a bird- his whistling was so delicate.
I hid behind a large tree and watched him for a bit while he whittled a log into an eagle. I thought of saying hello; I wanted to, but didn’t want to. He wore a brown flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows and a flashlight and pair of glasses in the front pocket. The boots I’d followed were tied with red laces and caked with mud along the soles. As I watched him, a chipmunk hopped up onto the bench he was sitting on and sniffed his jeans. He offered his palm to the creature and it leapt on, skittering up his arm and finding a place to rest on his shoulder. They seemed like old friends, the kinds that can meet up after years without speaking and be just as content to coexist as before. That’s when I said hello.
His eyes turned shy at first, flittering around and looking at everything but me. Yet he gave off an aura of warmth and peace, like an open fire in a cabin or like a cobbler made by a grandmother. We froze there a moment or maybe a few, calmly waiting for there other to speak. Eventually he did. He gave me a toothless smile and an, “Hello, I hadn’t seen you there, are you lost?” I told him I wasn’t, but that I was exploring, and he took me with him into the woods.
For many seasons we walked. We walked the trails, the rivers, the acres of untouched land, up the mountain, and always back to his cabin before nightfall. His skin was rough, dark, and freckled like he was made of tree bark. He smelled like the earth after it rains and always smiled at me like I was one of those deep purple sunrises over the horizon of a large valley. He showed me the flowers and told me stories of how they got their colors from the fairies that come out at twilight; he introduced me to the trees, saying hello to them as if he walked through a crowd of people and talking to the tallest ones like they were family; he showed me how to play with the fish that swam in the creek behind his cabin and we would sit there for a while, dropping bits of cracker into the water and watching little scaly noses poke the surface.
At night, we made up stories about the stars. He always said the big one on the left of the moon was the hero, and that he would always be there to save all of the smaller stars from the clouds. I remember the last night, as I told him about the little star next to the big dipper and how she was a mermaid, he kissed me. It was the first time he’d touched me since we met the summer before. His palms were rough on my cheek and his beard tickled my lips. His breath smelled of wood and honey. He held me there for so long we began to breathe together, our chests heaving in unison and our exhales brushing each other’s cheeks.
But in the morning there was fire. There had been no rain for weeks, only heat, and the trees began to burn. I felt the heat in my fingertips first, then in the creases of my palms. I felt the heat at my back, climbing up my spine and settling itself at the nape of my neck. The heat tickled and singed my eyelashes and that’s when I remembered to breathe.
I ran to him, screaming that we should call for help. Run to the river. Corral the animals in the marsh. Get away from the fire. Don’t go towards the flames. But he just walked. He walked into the heat, slow and calm and with his arms held wide. The flames reflected in his eyes and in the tears that dribbled through his beard. It was all so hot and so orange, and for a moment I thought he was crying fire. And then I realized that he was. Burning. He was burning with the trees.
He stared at me from the fire, whispered, "I belong with the trees," and then turned and left me with the ashes. And I remember his boots disappearing into the burning brush.
I first went to a street typist to copy a love letter. There were at least ten stationed along the main street of my neighborhood in Jakarta City, and everyday, as I traveled to and from school, I matched my footsteps to the rhythmic tapping of typewriters, composing little melodies in my head to the metronomic sounds. I chose the only woman typist as I felt it less embarrassing to approach her than the others who were wizened men that would laugh at my foolishness. She was young and wore a pale blue hijab that perpetuated the piercing quality of her dark eyes. She raised her thickly penciled eyebrows as I mumbled a greeting. After an awkward silence, I almost threw the crumpled piece of paper into her hands. I could see her identifying the second thoughts that flashed across my face and her red stained lips curled in a faint smile that was matronly beyond the woman’s years. As she read through it, I began to blush, noting the smile in her eyes as she scanned the painfully clumsy confessions of infatuation.
“Your handwriting is rather atrocious,” she commented curtly as she squinted at the rumpled note. “You should read to me the second paragraph. Wait a moment.” She began to type the first sentences, turning the muddled characters into something that I could hear – percussive clacking and the distinctive ring as a line was finished. My battered manuscript was becoming a song. It was delicate and stumbling, but I felt reassured as the neat black marks marched across the clean white page.
“Okay, now read to me.” She handed me the small letter with her thin hands that possessed the deftness of a spider spinning a web.
“I am not very good with words,” I started, before she cut me off.
“I know you’re not. Just read what you wrote.” She adopted the air of a harried businessman, but her eyes squinted with wry amusement.
“No, I mean that’s what I wrote,” I clarified, turning an even darker shade of red which was not helped by her slight smirk as she returned her attention to the type writer. She gestured for me to continue. I cleared my throat.
“Everything you do seems beautiful to me, even the little things. When you put your hands in your pockets and whistle, when you touch your nose when you don’t know what to say, and when you once walked in on me playing piano alone in the classroom and tripped over a desk trying to leave quietly. I never felt like I could connect with anyone, like there was a glass that was always between myself and the world that distorted everything. But it disappears when I talk to you and I know that because of this, we understand each other like no one else can.
Remember when we went on our second date and I mentioned that I wanted to buy a scarf but I couldn’t decide which one as we passed the stall? You immediately said you’d buy whichever one I wanted. We were in that place for hours, it seemed like. The colors began to swirl together before my eyes and I started to cry. I think my frustration bewildered you. After all, it was such a simple thing that for some reason brought me to tears. We left without buying anything and as we waited for the bus, you muttered something about forgetting your glasses. You returned with a scarf that you wrapped around my shoulders and said was lovely. I never would have chosen it, but the fact that you did made it so impossibly beautiful.
Anyway, I feel like the things I’ve said have been so plain, but I don’t think I really know the words that can capture how much I love you so I am left to describe the times that made me feel it the most.”
I finished with a deep breath and she nodded as the final ring completed the copy. The draft I held in my hand seemed like a cocoon cast off by a butterfly in comparison to the copy she handed to me after blowing on the ink.
“You’re not so terrible with words,” she said as I gave her money and turned to leave.
I rolled the fresh copy in my hand and stuck it in my bag as I navigated through the crowd that defined the streets better than the pavement itself. I saw the typist almost every time I walked that way, and she was always absorbed in reading and typing, glimpsing just a little bit into peoples’ lives as she revealed from their scrawling script the sonority of their hearts.