I was raised by migrant worker halfings. For us, life consisted of making semi-permanent dwellings, setting up a farm, and fixing various things the locals needed fixed. Some knew various crafts they would sell among the surplus food produced. We’d stay in one place for a year or two usually, until most of what needed fixing was fixed and our other wares lost their novelty. Then the settlement was packed up and we’d find a new place to live for a while.
As a wee elfling, much of my own time was spent wandering out in the fields with my family, watching them work the land and playing in the dirt when I got bored. Though I became quite the little expert at making mud castles, mud men, and the like, if I do say so myself, other crafts of greater interest to the local villagers rather eluded me. This left me with the great desire to become the best farmer I could to help everyone out, as dirt was something I was already quite familiar with.
For my seventh birthday, I think it was, I received a little hand trowel. Of course to me, it was the greatest dirt-mover/spoon in all the land. Not that my mother much appreciated my attempts to eat my soup with it when I thought she wasn’t looking, but I tried all the same. With this glorious instrument, I knew all things were possible.
The next few days, when I wasn’t building even cooler mud castles or chasing butterflies and crickets, I was planning in meticulous detail my elaborate plot to create the most wondrous garden anyone had ever seen. In the dead of night by the light of my little candle, I wrote them out in what broken Sylvan I could recall from the rare elves that would pass through. Just in case anyone else happened to find my secret plans. It was perfect. I would go out into the forest, careful so no one would see me, search until I found where I wanted to put my garden, plant it, and tend to it when I could. Giddy, I hid the list in my pants and blew out the candle before crawling into bed. Staring at the ceiling more than attempting to sleep, I waited for dawn.
When the sun rose, I followed, as was typical of everyone in the community. While the sun worked, we worked. While the sun rested, we rested. At the breakfast table, I had a hard time not bouncing with excitement, which made eating eggs with a trowel quite difficult. My mother had given up trying to discourage my using it, but washed it off so I’d stop getting dirt in my food. My father just laughed, attributing it merely to the energy of youth.
As soon as I was excused, I tore out the door. No one else was really outside yet, so it would be the perfect time to make my way into the forest without being seen. Just to be sure, I laid down as flat as I could on the ground and awkwardly crawled towards the trees. I occasionally peeked to see if I had been spotted. The few who had wandered out were just giggling to themselves as they prepared for that day’s work. I’ll take that as a no. Encouraged by my stealth, I crept along, ignoring the periodic laughter I heard. Must be a good day for everyone.
Reaching the forest’s edge, I leapt up and hid behind a tree. Peering around it, I saw everyone was still going about their business as usual. Now just to find the perfect spot. I couldn’t say what would constitute the “perfect spot,” but I was sure I would know it when I saw it. One plot somewhere within this forest awaited me, beckoning my trowel closer so that it might sow the garden of the ages.
On I walked, confident that I would find the spot I was looking for. As I traveled deeper and deeper into the forest, I was reassured that by choosing a spot so far in, it would stay safely hidden from my family until I was ready to reveal my masterpiece to them. When walking straight through didn’t seem to be helping much, I began weaving through trees, wandering away from beaten paths and following whichever direction felt right somehow.
At long last, I had found it. There was a perfectly round clearing, despite the otherwise dense trees growing all around it, with a ring of red toadstools along the outer edge. The sun by this point was high in the sky, hidden behind pale grey clouds. I was so happy to have found the spot that I didn’t much care that so much time had passed or notice the wind picking up. Taking a moment or so to celebrate, I danced around in the circle, many butterflies following me all the while.
With that, it was time to start my garden. Looking around, I found various sticks, rocks, leaves, pinecones, and other things to plant. I thought about picking some of toadstools for the same purpose, but they seemed happy where they were. Just like I had seen my family do, I dug a bunch of holes in a line, moving over to make new lines until I had a good square. I separated all my seeds out so I could better plant full lines of each. I placed one of each seed at the head of the rows to mark what was where before covering all the holes and seeds with dirt. I couldn’t wait for my seeds to start growing! How proud my parents would be to see what I had done, all on my own, mind you. Now to water them somehow. There was a small stream flowing through nearby I had taken a drink from periodically, but no bucket or watering can. Maybe that would have been a good thing to bring. Simply using my hands, I scooped up some water and tried to bring it back, but most of it slipped through my fingers before I reached my garden. Even running didn’t help. After a few failed attempts, I used my trowel to carry the water. In its infinite magic, it worked! So long as I walked very slowly, I could get water back to my plants.
When I was finally on the last row, it was becoming very difficult to carry water back. I was getting really tired and the wind had grown so strong, even with the trees, that it often took several trips to bring even a little water back. My stomach rumbled with the sky and I remembered I also forgot to bring any food with me. Drinking water from the stream helped, but my mother’s hot soup and a thick slice of fresh bread sounded better and better by the second. A raindrop hit me square in the nose, followed steadily by others. Home was starting to sound very good indeed, and the rain could finish watering my garden. Giving one final tour around the circle, I left and walked a short ways. Looking around, I kept expecting to recognize something, that the path I had taken would somehow light up in the oncoming darkness. No matter how far I walked or where I looked, nothing was familiar, or maybe everything was. Every tree seemed the same standing next to identical fallen limbs and the symmetrical placement of various hollows and large stones.
Realizing I had no clue where I was, I broke into a mad dash, as if I could outrun the rain pouring down with increasing fury. I willed my magic trowel to tell me which way, clenched firmly under white knuckles, but there was no answer. No pulling in any direction to lead me home. Falling out of my sprint, I collapsed in a miserable heap in the moss and mud. Somehow in the circle I hadn’t noticed my fatigue or hunger too acutely. It was there, but nothing to really worry about. Just another chore upon returning home. Sitting in a growing puddle, I didn’t think I had ever been so tired or starved. Rain fell as icicles as fear stabbed through my heart. How could I ever make it back? So far away, so cold, exhausted. And who could find me? No one even knew I was in the forest.
I don’t know when I might have started crying, but I became aware of it then, of the tears’ faint heat cascading down my face growing numb. I clutched my trowel to my chest and looked around desperately. There had to be some place to hide, some sort of safety to be found. In a flash of lightning, I saw a small hollow in a fallen tree a short ways ahead, further sheltered by an overhang of dirt and roots. Hoping something else hadn’t already made such a perfect little spot its home, I scrambled towards it, doubting I’d find a better nook to hide in.
Nothing of particular concern lurked within, so I curled up as tightly as I could against the back, trying to find what warmth I could. Rain was still splashing in, no matter how much I pressed against the wooden wall behind me. Hearing it creak, I looked to see that beyond the rotting wood was solid dirt. The tree must have fallen and in its rot conformed to some sort of slight hill. Once again wielding my mighty trowel, I dug at the back wall, tearing out much of the remnants of the rotting tree and burrowing into the soft dirt beyond. Its sweet smell and residual warmth called me in like a loving embrace.
Safe at last from the spray and slightly warmer, I remembered my hunger. I couldn’t recall seeing anything edible on the way out here and even if I had, I doubted I had the strength or orientation to find it. All that was in this hollow was rotting wood, the occasional insect, and dirt. None of them sounded appealing, but I needed to eat something. My stomach refused to be ignored and hurt terribly. Unsure of what to do, I closed my eyes and pressed closer into the dirt when the sweet smell hit my nose again. Opening my eyes in weary confusion, I stared at the soil as well as the lightning outside would allow. Has dirt always had such a pleasant aroma? I had been around and in it as long as I could recall, so it was hard to say. So pleasant and familiar…. I hadn’t cared too much about getting some dirt in my food due to eating with my trowel, grittiness aside. Cautiously, I reached up and grabbed some of the dirt. It felt like moist cake in my fingers. Picking through it to make sure there were no bugs, I took a tentative nibble. Not quite cake, but not bad. After another bite, I grabbed my trowel, taking a fair scoop out of the wall. Quickly scanning for bugs with my fingers and deeming it safe, I nearly inhaled my newfound dinner. The more I ate, the more cakelike it seemed to become. Stomach satisfied at last, I curled up again in the recess for what warmth was there to be found, soon falling into an uneasy sleep to the constant pounding of rain outside.
When I opened my eyes, bright light stabbed through them, awakening a wide variety of pain erupting throughout the rest of me. I was so tired and sore, all I could think about was sleep. Closing my eyes again against the blinding light, I was nearly asleep when I hear voices calling outside. I couldn’t think offhand who might have been out there, but had the feeling that being found would be a good thing. With all the strength I could muster, I extended my arm towards the opening, raising it as high as I could and letting it fall to the ground repeatedly, the metal of my trowel clinking on the hardening soil and rocks. I tried calling out to them, but my voice was maybe a whisper. I kept at it anyway, knowing I couldn’t let these people leave without finding me. I couldn’t understand why not, why just sleeping could possibly be bad, but the need persisted. I watched my arm slowly moving up and down, the movement surreal to my blurry vision. At least the light didn’t hurt my eyes so much anymore, though I winced whenever the sun reflected off the tip of my trowel. The voices grew closer and hands soon pulled me from my shelter. A blissfully cool hand rested against my forehead and I prayed it’d never leave. The voices sounded upset, but I couldn’t make out words. I might have heard my name. Pressed against someone’s chest, I flew. Looking up I saw flashes of tan skin, brown hair, and so much green. The face looked down at me and said something in a kind voice. I closed my eyes and tried to move closer to them somehow, soon knowing no more.
When I woke up again, I was in my bed with my parents seated on either side of me, holding my hands. My mother began crying, kissing the hand she held and my check as soon as she noticed my eyes had opened. My father squeezed my other hand, fear, anger, endless relief, and maybe other emotions battling behind his eyes. He placed his hand upon my forehead, frowning. Removing the cloth from my forehead, he disappeared momentarily, returning with a cooler one. My mother went to retrieve a glass of water, hot soup, and some bread before helping me eat and drink. Satisfied, I fell back asleep.
My next waking was clearer and less pleasant than the previous. I felt better, until my parents and as many others as could fit in the room began asking me questions. Why had I ventured so far into the forest alone? Didn’t I realize the danger of my actions? Did I know how lucky I was they were able to find me? As the questions kept pouring in, I did my best not to cry again, remembering my reasons and the heartache at where they lead me. My happiness at finding the perfect spot and just wanting my parents to be proud of me. I think they noticed, guessing my thoughts, and the room grew unbearably quiet. My mother took my hand once more in hers, only slightly larger than mine, and very kindly started over, asking simply why I had gone into the forest. From there, the tale spilled forth. I don’t know if I could have stopped at any point had I wanted to. She did nothing but smile and encourage me to continue, her hand still closed over mine. My resolve gave out halfway through and I began sobbing despite desperate efforts not to when I told her of my greatest triumph turning into a night of terror, feeling the gaze of much of the community upon me. When I finished, she kissed my forehead and said we’d talk about it more later. For now, I should rest. I asked for my trowel back and someone brought it forward. Clinging to it, I fell into dreams where forests are safe havens, filled with faeries dancing in rings of toadstools red.
Eventually, we had a long talk about the dangers of going off alone, but nevertheless they promised to teach me more about farming if learning was that important to me. I could even have my own little plot near the house to take care of, though I was sad to learn that planting rocks and sticks didn’t have the effect I thought it did. Since then, I’ve continued to nibble on dirt occasionally, noting different flavours and consistencies in different areas. The taste still manages to comfort me somehow, despite the gritty texture.