– 5 minute read –
It may be hard to notice her at first but there she is, hidden under a fluffy blanket. If you look closely you can see the tip of her pale, tiny nose and the edge of her bright-red knitted hat. Strands of golden-blond hair peek from under it.
Yesterday morning, on his way to school, Robert noticed her for the first time. Sitting on a young woman’s lap under the awning of the slightly raised entrance of the small town’s post office building. Secretly, Robert was hoping that today he would not see the little girl and the young woman, who’s probably the little girl’s mother. It is too cold to be outdoors anyway.
“Could they have possibly spent the whole night there?” Robert wonders. “In the blistering cold, on that raggedy mattress full of stains and smudges?”
Behind the young woman Robert notices two mega-sized plastic shopping bags, the kind you can find at the 99 cent store. He assumes that the young woman and the little girl are keeping their belongings in those bags. The thought of the young woman and the little girl having to live on that dirty mattress out in the cold causes a sudden shiver down Robert’s spine.
With both hands Robert pulls the warm woollen scarf up to his nose as he is getting closer to the post office building. He’d prefer not to come too near the young woman and the little girl but since his school is right behind the post office building so he has no choice.
As Robert passes the young woman and the little girl, a gust of wind suddenly blows right in his face. He quickly moves his head to the side, covers his face with his hand and stands still. It feels as if something has blown into his eye. Gently Robert moves his hand over his right eye and blinks it a couple of times. Gone. The odd stinging feeling in his eye seems to have faded just as quickly as it came.
Robert pulls his scarf back up again, this time a little bit higher and he resumes walking. But from his right he feels a pair of eyes staring at him. As if by itself his head moves to the right, his eyes meeting the dark brown ones of the little girl.
From the moment the wind picked up the little girl followed every single movement Robert was making. Meanwhile she’d let the fluffy blanket slide off of her head, showing the bright red knitted hat. From under the red knitted hat the streaks of golden blond hair were seemingly trying to escape but got caught by the little girl’s moist and sticky white cheeks.
Robert notices a smile appearing on the little girl’s face which he answers by smiling back.
“By rubbing you might rub the dirt into your eyes,” the little girl whispers.
Robert looks at the her, thinks for a second, then steps closer and kneels down at her feet. He tilts his head and blinks his eyes once more.
“I don’t think it was dirt that had gotten into my eye. I think it was the cold wind that blew right under my eyelid,” says Robert.
This makes the little girl laugh. To her it looked like Robert was blinking up to the grey sky
“That’s good,” she says. “If it were dirt it could easily be bothering you all day. Sometimes dirt blows into my eyes, then mama gets it out. Carefully, otherwise it could hurt.”
At this, Robert’s eyes meet those of the young woman behind the little girl. Clearly very tired. From up close Robert can see that her pale white skin looks slightly darker around the eyes.
“Good morning,” says Robert to the young woman. “Or…well, uhm…It is not really a good one…obviously.”
Robert feels that his face is glowing. He suspects that the young woman, probably not much older than he is himself, can see a shade of red appearing on both his cheeks. He feels utterly uncomfortable and is struggling with words. If only he could, he would get up and run away.
“Good morning,” the young woman says with a calm, soft voice. Like the little girl her hair is golden blond. Blue donut-shaped fluffy warmers are covering her ears. A thick woollen blanket rests on her shoulders.
“It’s alright,” the young woman says. “I’d understand it if you rather not talk to us.”
“No, no!” Robert says quickly. “It’s not like that at all! I mean, I noticed you,…the two of you I mean. Uhm…yesterday that was. And… I was wondering…”
The words spilling out of Robert’s mouth seem to have a will of their own, struggling to emerge in the first place and on the brink of stuttering.
“And now, the two of you are here again. Or…still?”
The frugal smile on the young woman’s face extends a bit yet cannot hide how exhausted she must be.
“Still,” says the young woman.
Robert sighs. For a moment he looks away.
Then he looks back at the young woman and asks: “Did you have breakfast?”
The young woman shakes her head.
Thoughts are running through Robert’s head. He cannot let this young woman and her little girl sit out here in the cold without any food. How old can the poor thing possibly be? Five?
Then Robert turns his head, looking at the small supermarket across the high street.
“I’ll be right back,” says Robert. He gets up, pulls his scarf up, looks left and right then crosses the street. It has started to drizzle.
Only ten minutes later Robert returns to the young woman and the little girl. For the second time he kneels down at the little girl’s feet, puts down a plastic shopping bag, reaches into the bag for a box of prepared sandwiches and hands it over to the young woman. She immediately unwraps the sandwiches and gives one to her daughter.
“Do you like orange juice?” Robert asks.
The little girl nods.
“Here,” says Robert. He hands her a small bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice and another one to the young woman.
“I also brought some apples, protein bars and water,” says Robert. “At least some food for the day, right?”
“Thank you,” says the young woman. She reaches out her right hand. “I am Josine.”
Robert shakes the young woman’s hand. “I’m Robert.”
Then Robert looks at the little girl. “And who might you be?”
The little girl looks at Robert, chewing on a piece of sandwich. “Chantal,” she says.
Robert smiles, then he looks back up at Josine. “I hope that the rain will stop soon so you can both have a dry day at least.”
“We already had quite a few showers,” says Josine. “Up here we are just about high enough not to get washed away. And the post office awning keeps us dry from the falling rain. We can’t complain, really.”
Robert, not knowing how to respond, nods a little. He looks at Chantal, who is engrossed in her sandwich. Enthusiastically, her tiny mouth jumps from left to right, up and down, her lips firmly pressed together. She takes a small sip from her bottle of orange juice then resumes chewing. Instead of putting the bottle down she glances at it for a moment, then holds it up in front of Robert’s face.
“The sun,” says Chantal, her mouth not completely empty.
Robert squints his eyes, looking at her questioningly.
Chantal swallows the last little piece of bread, still holding the bottle of orange juice in front of Robert’s face.
“It’s the sun,” she says. “Orange juice. Even though it’s raining, we have the sun right here. You brought it for us, in a bottle.”
A smile appears on Robert’s face.
“It sure does look like a bottle of sunshine, doesn’t it?”
Chantal nods. Then she looks down to where the raindrops are falling, next to Robert’s feet. Her mouth has stopped chewing.
“When it rains…” Chantal says quietly “…the streets stay wet.”
Small vertical wrinkles appear on Robert’s forehead, his brow furrowed. He wonders what is going on in that wee head under the bright-red knitted hat.
“Sometimes…” Chantal continues “…when it rains really hard, the streets stay wet all week. Every time I open my eyes I see how the rain comes together in puddles. And when it snows, the snow sometimes stays on the street for a while.”
Something in Chantal’s eyes has changed, Robert notices. Only minutes ago she looked tired but now her eyes seem to have some life in them.
Then Chantal looks up from the shiny, wet street and glances up at Robert.
“Why is it that sunshine doesn’t stay on the streets?” she asks, “just like the rain and snow does? Then it would be warmer and nicer when the sun goes away to hide behind the clouds.”
This remarkable question from little Chantal, who should be sitting at a breakfast table in a cosy, warm kitchen with her mother, just like most children, surprises Robert.
Robert thinks fast.
Then he reaches out for her tiny fingertips and slowly closes his hand around them.
“You know…” Robert says quietly “…I have heard about this secret, magical place, somewhere deep underground.”
Chantal’s eyes follow the movement of Robert’s index finger, pointing down.
“They say it looks like our world, but prettier, with beautiful, bright coloured flowers all year round. And the animals that live there can speak, just like humans. Some people call this mysterious place Summerland.”
“Summerland?” Chantal whispers.
“High up in Summerland’s skies you can see millions of roots coming down. Those are the roots of our trees. It takes the roots ages to grow all the way down to the bottom of Summerland. The raindrops that fall here find their way into the soil and then use the roots of the trees to drip down to Summerland where they join together in glistening lakes and rivers. The same happens when it snows up here. When the snowflakes melt they slowly drip down the roots to the floors of Summerland. And the best part of it all is…”
With her big brown eyes wide open, Chantal listens in awe to the secret that Robert is revealing, her mouth a bit open.
“…when the sun shines up here, the sun rays, one by one, dive deep into the ground and bundle up together close to the roots of our trees so they stay warm and can keep their brightness. Because of this, unlike what many people think, deep down below us in the ground it is not dark at all. Instead it is bright and warm. This warmth and brightness comes out high in the skies of Summerland. That is what makes Summerland a wonderful place where it is always sunny and warm. Like summer. And that’s the reason the sun rays here don’t stay on the street, otherwise it won’t be summer in Summerland.”
“Really?” Chantal whispers.
“But remember, Chantal this is our secret. You cannot tell anyone else about Summerland, promise?”
Chantal nods. Excitement is showing all over her face. She turns her head up to her mom. “Also you mommy, not to anyone.”
Josine smiles and pulls her daughter a bit closer towards her.
Then Robert gets up. “I really have to go now,” he says, “ I don’t wanna be late for school.”
Josine nods. “You go ahead, Robert. And thank you so much. You have left sparkles of hope and joy in a young innocent heart. Usually people don’t even wanna see us, you know.”
Chantal pulls the fluffy blanket up to her chin and crawls even closer to her mom.
“I’m going to go dream about Summerland. Maybe I’ll find a secret entrance.”
“Make sure to tell me if you do!” says Robert.
Josine winks at Robert as he pulls up his scarf ready to walk away. Robert gives her a smile and a wink back in return.
“Bye now, Chantal. See you again real soon, okay?”
“Bye, bye, Robert Summerland.”
Author: Arjan Eikelenboom
Copyright: Arjan Eikelenboom 3/2016