John Janelle Backman
One sunny day our four-year-old disappeared into a meadow. I couldn’t imagine what possessed her to do so until seventeen years later, when I did the same.
Disappearance was never in our daughter’s repertoire. Her clutch on my leg got even tighter in the presence of strangers, like the old friends we were visiting in western Massachusetts. Their low rambling house seemed tailor-made for the meadow in back, whose grass towered over our daughter’s head.
Toward the end of our visit, five of us stood in a semicircle on their small patch of backyard, gazing out over the meadow toward what looked like a sheer drop-off. The day was sleepy and so were we, muttering end-of-visit pleasantries and promises to stay in touch.
I glanced toward our daughter just as she plunged into the field.
Two seconds later she was invisible except for the quiver of tall grass that marked her path. My throat began to close as I called her name again and again. The first summons should have brought her back—it always did—but the quiver kept moving toward the drop-off. I didn’t know how long she had left.
Then, as quickly as it began, the grass stopped moving. My wife called her, and the quiver started back, slow at first, then gaining speed, till she reappeared at our legs, eyes shining, grinning just wide enough to look unhinged.
The wildflowers, swishing against our waists, long ago obliterated whatever trail corresponded to the red line on our map, the trail my wife and I pretended to follow now, interrupted occasionally by a clay anthill that reached up to our thighs. She knew hundreds of flowers—including those in her gardens, where she’d whisper their names in a quiet ecstasy—but not here in South Africa, so she made some educated guesses. All I remember are the colors: flecks of yellow mostly, pastel orange, violet shading to lilac, sun whitening every inch of sky around us. The map called this a wildflower preserve, but it looked to me like any of a dozen low hillsides nearby, a straight slope along which we were traversing a straight line. No matter how far we went, we could always turn around and go back.
Lost among those wildflowers, I could not bring myself to care. My wife could still see me, but I’d already disappeared.
Perhaps our daughter’s mad dash shouldn’t have stunned me, since she and nature had bonded the year before.
The two of us always turned left after stepping into the bird sanctuary near the Massachusetts coast. We’d amble our way down the lush grass of the trail, through the spindly birches to the pond. At age three she was still close to the ground, so I pointed out the woods’ lower splendors: moss, animal tracks, roots. Every detail absorbed her. She never ventured too far away, though; as often as not, my leg would feel her small arm encircling it, with the thumb of the other hand in her mouth.
On a windy autumn day my wife joined us for the first time. She paused at the first trail intersection, as most adults would. Our daughter didn’t miss a beat, marching with authority down the left path, small arms pumping, coat flapping around her sides, calling over her shoulder, “Come on, Mommy! We go this way!”
My heart fluttered as I watched her go. I didn’t quite know what I was seeing, but it may have been what mystics call union: a child disappearing into the woods, the woods enfolding her in reply.
Gradually we learned other South African flowers. The king protea, national symbol, spiky flowerheads surrounding a dome of pincushion stamens. The jacaranda, canopies of purple shading our heads. The bird of paradise, a kingfisher in profile, orange crown with deep violet beak. I’d walk up to one and gaze, each feature scanned into memory for times like now. The flowers drew me in, and I drew them in, and even though we’re half a world apart we have never left each other’s side. Any time I like, I can disappear into them again.
At the pond in the bird sanctuary, I’d seen bumblebees cling to flowers in a rainstorm and two mallards bob their heads in a courtly dance before mating. I’d caught the flash of red cardinals against bare trees, the bellies of kinglets high in the woods. The chickadees swept across my paths in their chattery droves.
Before my daughter, I met them alone—or, more precisely, with no humans.
That was my way in every woods, even when people walked with me. The others would separate into clumps of two, or three, often chatting; I would go quiet, drift back to walk alone among the birches and massive gray oaks, look upward, absorbed in the hush. If they asked where I was, I would not be able to tell them.
c. 1300 BCE
The sight of Moses would have thrown anyone that day, especially the band of Jews he led. They hadn’t seen him in weeks, for starters; now he strides toward them direct from the mountain that terrified everyone with its angry clouds, lightning forks, and vague sound of a voice. This God was too much for them: the kind of too much where any new development—like the two massive stones Moses cradled in his arms—puts you on edge.
What unnerved them most, though, was the light, which seemed to emanate from Moses’ face. The nearer he came, the eerier it looked. So they drew a line in the sand: No closer. Cover up first.
The ancient texts say the presence of God set him a-shimmer. That could be true. So could this: he’d spent weeks alone on a mountain, in a desert, and the splendor bewitched him. In that way, his legendary glow was no different from my wife’s whispers to her plants, from my silent rapture in the New England woods, from the mad grin on the face of a girl fresh from a field.
About the Author
John Janelle Backman (she/her) writes about gender identity, ancient spirituality, the everyday strangeness of karma, and occasionally wildflowers. Janelle’s work has appeared in Catapult, the tiny journal, Tiferet Journal, Psaltery & Lyre, and Amethyst Review, among other places. Her essays have made the shortlist of the Eunice Williams Nonfiction Prize and Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.