The wonder years

The little post office was quite crowded. I took my place at the end of the long, tired line, leaned against the wall, and closed my eyes. A vision of my own private postal service, with huge, many-pouched kangaroos that could hop from coast to coast overnight, beckoned to me from the land of my dreams.

A sound of soft singing, a bit off-key but very earnest, called me back. I opened my eyes and saw a little girl, perhaps seven years old, with golden hair and deep-blue eyes, dancing all by herself. She was going round in little circles, swaying her arms this way and that, up and down the line. She was the dancer and the accompaniment, too, the silence and the voice, all in a world and time of her own. All in, as her mother explained to everybody, "the wonder years."

Older ladies looked down at the child, and their eyes went soft with memory. and a young man and woman gazed at her for a long while, as if trying to foresee how the daughter they wanted would be different, or the same. For some, time had gone too fast; for others, it could hurry up a little.

The child stopped in front of me and lifted her eyes to mine. I smiled at her and inwardly wished her a long and happy life. I love children, even though their favorite observation about me is that, compared with them, I am quite old, and I am getting older all the time.

The child returned my smile, shyly. Then, pointing at the book under my arm, she said, "I can read, too."

"Can you? Wonderful. What are you reading now?"

"My picture book about the ocean. I love the ocean."

"Me too. I love the way it just keeps rolling ashore. It just won't be stopped by anything! It's got heart, the ocean."

"I love the colors and all the fishes. Especially the fishes."

I recalled a magical encounter between my wife, when she was a child, and a sort of fish. "Are there any pictures of sea serpents in your book?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I've never seen a sea serpent."

"My wife did once, when she was about your age. She wrote a poem about it. Would you like me to recite the poem for you?" She nodded eagerly. I spied a serpent in the sea, It rose out of the briny blue, Winked an eye and smiled at me, And said, "How do you do?" Frightened so by such a sight I promptly lost my head, and fled. Alas, I lost my manners, too: I know I should have stayed and said "Very well, thank you, sir. And you?" 'Tis quite a breach of courtesy To snub a serpent of the sea.

When I finished, the child was standing on her tiptoes, smiling with delight. For a moment she looked like a little immigrant in a new land, on tiptoe before her whole life, wishing she had wings to fly to meet it. Then, coming back down firmly on the ground, she looked with a kind of solicitude at those people in line who had heard the poem, too, but whose faces still showed all the signs of toil and care.

"Don't be sad," she said to them. "The sea serpent knows the little girl was afraid. He isn't mad at her. And he'll come back someday."

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