He bent over to tie his shoelaces, before straightening up, looking again into the little arched and tree-lined entryway into the forest.
He’d just moved to Canada from his hometown in Europe. He’d gotten a new job and would start in a couple of days. As it was, he’d already gone in to meet his new colleagues, and everything was exciting and good.
It jarred him that there was just this little imperfection.
Forest jogging was to him not an obsession as much as a necessity. The feel of the slight breeze as he moved, the crackles and pops of twigs under his feet as he ran. The wood smells, each one telling his nose something different, the scent of blossoms at different times of the year. As the seasons changed, the forests would tell him a different story, even in the stark cold of winter. He’d run, and the quietness would haunt him, and chase him, as he ran through the forest. But it was more of a playful chase despite the haunting feel. He enjoyed stopping suddenly and hearing the sudden quiet.
However he felt about family, about life, or about school, or work, that instant made up for it all. As he breathed, panted, and released all his stress and pain through the sweat that dripped off his whole body, down his nose, he would laugh, or at more difficult times, cry. And a few times, he would let the rain take him, just standing there right up to the moment he started to feel the rain seep through his clothes. And then he would be off again.
So when his housing agent had told him of the apartment with a forest nearby, he was intrigued. Once he’d arrived in Canada, he’d wasted no time in looking for the forest, and he’d stood at this very entrance to the forest. And he’d fallen in love.
Until that first run.
The sounds didn’t last long, but they appeared every now and then. When he’d heard them the first time, he’d stopped running but they immediately stopped too. They sounded like tinkling bells, soft chimes that were eminently out of place in a forest. And when he stopped running to try to hear them, they stopped.
Were they wind chimes? Had someone left bells in the forest? It nagged at him, and spoiled a little of the fun of his running for him. He needed his jogs, and yet this was a small mystery that kept being on the verge of distracting him from total enjoyment, the way he wanted to, the way he needed to. He wanted to find out more, but how do you chase an ephemeral sound? How do you chase something that seems to come from everywhere, yet isn’t all around you? He was puzzled, and searched the internet for clues, but no one mentioned anything about this forest, other than that it wasn’t good for running because of the roots and uneven ground. He loved that.
No one said anything about bells, or tinkles.
He stretched his neck, first one way, then the other, and did a quick jog on the spot to loosen up his muscles. And then he started. As his feet pumped, hit the floor, his eyes roved, helping him to adjust his steps to the ground, avoiding stumps and rocks, his little dance never really disturbing the plants in his passing. Little bushes would wave as if welcoming him as he jogged past, and only the dead leaves and broken dried twigs marked his passing with their crackles, little shouts of laughter that echoed loudly in the lonely forest.
Until the tinkling started again.
This time he didn’t stop. He slowed to a walk, and listened intently. At that, the tinkling took on a note of… surprise? And this time, it didn’t stop, as he slowly tried to figure out where it was coming from.
It wasn’t easy. At times, he found huge trees or impassable terrain in his way. Once it was a huge, lazy looking snake that glared at him sleepily before it slithered off into the trees. He could have sworn that it was swearing at him. He shook his head and tried again to follow the tinkling sound. With a chirrup, it stopped sounding suddenly, and he stopped.
Now that the tinkling had stopped, he realised that he heard the babble of a brook or stream. At the same time, he saw sunlight glinting through the foliage sharply in front of him, signalling where there was a break in the forest. He headed in that direction.
As he approached, he realised that it wasn’t a brook or a stream, but a rather large river running past, though the water next to the river bank was pretty shallow. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to find someone sitting on the rocks next to the river. A little girl in a small summer frock was sitting on one of the boulders, dipping her toes into the river, and humming to herself. As he looked, she turned around and beckoned to him, patting the flat surface of the boulder she was sitting on. Bemused, he accepted her unspoken invitation and sat down with her.
He wasn’t sure what to say, so they both sat there for a while, watching the sun play off the rippling river, even as dragonflies and other insects buzzed around the surface of the water. A frog made its presence known with a loud belch, and with that, the tinkling responded. It sounded like it was admonishing the frog, which drew back, and then hopped away without another sound. The little girl laughed. “Leave them alone, Bell.”
“Bell?” He asked, still unsure of what was happening.
The girl nodded. “Bell has been here as long as I have. She tends to be over-protective of our little space though, but she said she liked you and how you seem to be one with the forest.” She turned to look at him. “She wanted to know why you keep running away though. She’s curious about you.”
He bit back a laugh at how serious the girl seemed. Gently, he explained his need to run to feel better, and she nodded. The tinkling sounded almost right next to him, making him jump a little. The girl laughed. “She says she doesn’t know why running makes you feel better, but she says she won’t stop you from running away in the future if that’s the case.”
“Why are you here?” He asked curiously.
The girl looked back at the river for a while, splashing her unshod feet again for a while, before she replied. “I’ve always been living here for as long as I can remember. I don’t have much memories about anything, but this is my home.” He was puzzled. “But what about food? Your clothes? Don’t you have any parents or anyone?”
She shook her head, still staring at the river. “I don’t remember anything about all that. I eat what Bell brings me or directs me to eat. Water from the river is cold and clean, and sometimes the fish themselves come to me to let me feed. Bell taught me how to start a small fire.”
She then turned to him. “When it gets cold, Bell brings me clothes. She was the one who taught me how to wear them.” She leaned forward and told him in a conspiratorial whisper. “I think she steals some of these. But I never ask her where from.”
The tinkling this time was annoyed. “I know you can hear me, dear Bell. But you do know that’s not right. You’re the one who told me so.” The girl laughed. It was a pleasant sound, accompanied by the sound of the river and the warm sun.
He didn’t know why he didn’t feel the need to call Child Services or whatever they had in Canada. He just sat there, feeling that the whole scene was as natural as much as it was surreal. He found himself holding the little girl’s hand in his much larger one, as she continued to hum, and Bell would sometimes chime in with tinkling accompaniments. And he found himself humming along once he caught the tune.
As the sky got a little darker, she turned to him. “You should go home. Follow Bell and she’ll lead you back to where you came from. We’ll meet again, if she’s willing to lead you.”
“Can I try to find you on my own?”
She giggled. “You can try. Bell has her own ways of doing things. I’m pretty sure if she wants to, she’ll make sure you’ll stay in this forest for a long time without finding a way out.” He gaped at that. The little girl was still smiling as she said that, and standing on the rocks, with the sun behind her, she looked like an angel, but a very dangerous one.
Nonetheless, on a sudden impulse, he reached out to her, and hugged her close. She was soft and light in his arms, but the sense of vulnerability cracking was what drew him to hold her close. At first, she didn’t respond at all, and then as Bell tinkled, she wrapped her arms around him hesitantly, as he was doing, and then suddenly the girl started to cry.
As the sun continued to turn orange, the girl’s wails echoed across the water surface. It took a while before the wailing became sobs, and then finally silence as she nestled her face into his shirt, wet with her tears. Then she released him, and gave him a light push.
“What do you call that?” She asked in a much softer voice.
“What?” He felt totally clueless.
“Where we put our arms around each other. It felt good. I felt… warm. Special. Cared for. And… lonely.”
He stared at her for a while. “It’s called a hug.”
“A hug.” She stared at the ground. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s probably the only thing in the world you can’t give without receiving something in return.” He stared at her tear streaked face. “You’ve never had one before?”
“No.” Bell tinkled at the girl, and danced around her excitedly for a bit, based on the way the tinkling noises swept around the little girl. “But anyway, Bell says you have to go before it’s too late. Come back again, and follow her. We both like having you around. She says you’re good to have around.” The little girl clasped her hands together and looked at him pleadingly. “Please?” How could he respond other than to take her hands in his, and kneel down, and tell her that he would?
As he left, his head aswirl with confused thoughts, following the light and gentle tinkling of his unseen guide, it never even occurred to him to ask for her name.
But he knew he would be back again.