I caught someone inspecting me the other day. Okay, it wasn’t an inspect exactly –it was more of a look… Well, maybe a glance, but it bothered me all the same. I could feel her eyes doing a quick little dance on me. They started on my mud-caked running shoes, before appraising the hem of my rumpled jeans where they had partaken of the same puddle. Then they scampered up over the tattered edge of my untucked sweatshirt before flitting around my face like barn-swallows looking for insects. I felt violated, even though it certainly wasn’t my first encounter with eyes.
Frankly, I hadn’t expected the examination on a trail. It’s true I am not at my best in the woods. I am an anticipatory dresser; my couture is seldom haute even on city streets, but when I have to be en garde for roots, wary of curiously moving bushes that extend onto the path, and on the lookout for riparian sinkholes, I like to move carefully and blend in. Not make myself more of a target than necessary. And looking shabby, and unostentatious is all part of it –I do not dress for passersby, although I often wave.
I heard them coming before I saw them –a little girl’s shrieks of delight as she ran along the trail ahead of her more cautious mother. The girl was tanned, perhaps six or seven years old, and dressed in jeans and a grey sweat shirt that seemed several sizes too large for her. Curly black hair that tumbled and bounced on her shoulders as she ran, the forest held no terrors for her.
Her mother, though, was wary, looking from one side to the other, and then at her child, uncertain just what to expect. She was wearing a dark-coloured cloak that partially covered her head, and was making her way slowly over some roots and stones on that part of the path when I first saw her.
It was the mother who noticed me first, and then grabbed her little daughter and sheltered her from my advance, lest I lunge at her. I suppose I should have admired her courage –I could have been a criminal for all she knew. Or maybe a fugitive bent on taking them hostage. I mean, you just can’t be sure with men in forests nowadays. Her eyes were lasers, bullets aimed squarely at my clothes, but she was in mother mode.
Her daughter, on the other hand, was in child mode. Curious mode. She whispered something to her mother, who instantly shook her head. “Stay away from him!” she must have said, because the little girl began to pout.
Finally, she broke free of her mother’s tether and walked a few paces towards me. We had all stopped to declare our territorial boundaries by then, and she knew precisely where to halt.
“You live here, mister?” she asked slowly, her expression flirting with wonder. I thought I could detect an accent, and suspected the girl might be encumbered by a beginner’s vocabulary.
I had to smile at the innocence of the question. I shook my head and lowered my eyes to disarm the mother who by now was hurrying to restrain her child before she got too close to me.
“Where you live?” the girl continued.
I shrugged. “In the city. How about you?”
The mother had caught up with her by then and I could hear the urgent whisper but the only word I recognized was a name: “Nattie!”
Nattie looked up at her with adult eyes, and shook herself free of her mother’s grasp once more. She said something to her that I didn’t understand and then turned to face me again. I suppose I must have looked puzzled, because she then translated it for me. “’Why not speak?’ I say.” There was a big smile on her little face. “Can we be friend?” she added, glancing at her mother out of the corner of one eye.
I smiled and nodded, but her mother still looked worried –terrified, actually- so I decided not to move.
Nattie went into a sort of huddle with her mother and the two of them began to argue –or maybe it was just a discussion -I couldn’t tell. But eventually Nattie turned to face me, her eyes sparkling. “My mother want your name…” And as she said this, her eyes sought refuge on the ground. “She say is important…” I could hear her mother say something again for Nattie to translate. “She is afraid for strangers, but I say her this is Canada, not Afghanistan.” She seemed pleased at being able to communicate so well.
“My name is Gary, Nattie,” I said, uncertain about whether or not to offer my hand to shake –especially under the still-suspicious stare of her mother.
But little Nattie came right up to me and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you Gary,” she said, as if she’d memorized the phrase for just such an occasion. Then her face puzzled up. “How you know my name?”
I smiled again to reassure them both. “I heard your mother say it, Nattie…”
She immediately turned to her mother and said something, and her mother laughed and waved at me. Nattie turned back to me with a little giggle. “I say you must speak little bit Pashto, Gary… She okay now.”
We all smiled and laughed, and I suddenly realized how similar we were -no matter how we dressed for the woods. There are no strangers on a trail.