Children of the universe

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Up in the woods one spring I had an encounter with a child which was so innocent, so natural, and yet so like a fairy tale, I wonder if I dreamed it. He was a little boy about 13, freckled as a frog, gangly-limbed, his curly brouwn hair streaked with strawberry red, his big bespectacled eyes seeing you and seeing through you, too.

I had taken a break from my backpacking to look for some water and had found a sweet, ice-cold creek. After drinking several cupped handfuls I gazed about me , and there he was, sitting on the other side of the creek in some spear grass, drawing an old oak tree in a sketchbook. I, too, had drawn trees as a child, and for a moment it was almost like seeing myself over there. I waded across and sat down a few feet away from him, a friendly distance.

"I'm an ex-artist," I explained.

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He smiled a smile of fellowship.

"My name's David."

"Mine's Jacob."

I told him how I came to be there. And he?

He was skipping a horrible lunch at a nearby camp where his parents made him go every spring vacation.

I nodded toward his drawing. "May I see?"

"It's not finished yet," he said, handing it to me. "I always know when something's finished. Every single line looks like it's been there forever."

"It's very nice. Worth finishing. It looks like a tree, too. I once drew a tree for my art class in school and the teacher said, 'My, what a lovely rhinoceros!' After that she always asked me what I'd drawn before she told me how lovely it was."

We talked of trees and rhinoceroses and teachers for a while, and then Jacob asked me if I'd like to go back to camp with him. He wanted to show me the cook.

As we walked he said, "Do you like questions? I'm full of questions."

"Ask away."

"Which color is the oldest, do you think, of all the colors in the woods?"

I pondered this several moments. "Green, I think."

"Why?"

"Well, if a child can grow old and become childlike again, maybe green can grow old and become greenlike again."

He didn't look too satisfied with this answer.

"Which do you like better when you're sad, sunshine or rain?"

"Rain. That way it's like the weather is sympathizing."

"Do you ever wish it would rain your favorite thing to eat? Mine's fish and chips."

"Mine's spaghetti and meatballs. I have days when I'd like nothing better than a steady downpour of spaghetti and meatballs."

When we got to the campground the children were still at lunch, prolonging their respite from the planned, compulsory fun.

"There's the cook," Jacob said. "He's killing everybody off."

I saw what looked like a six-foot helping of vanilla pudding, topped with a gigantic marshmallow, puffing and quaking magisterially across a clearing with a steaming kettle in his flour-white hands.

After we saw the cook we went down to a lake, got a boat, and rowed out to a spot where, Jacob was sure, nobody had ever been before. Here was our chance, he explained, to take deep breaths of air nobody had ever breathed before. Pure, unused air, an atmosphere all our own, saved there for us from the beginning. He promised it would be very "liberating."

I leaned my head back and repeated after him the magic words, "Here I am, a child of the universe, somewhere between heaven and earth, today and tomorrow, come to breathe you, dear air, freshest in all the world." Then, together, we drank in breath after breath, cold, sharp, sweet as the pang of love itself.

"How'd you like it?" Jacob asked.

"Fantastic."

He smiled. "I knew you would."

Totally liberated, I rowed us back and we said goodbye. A hulking, red-cheeked Activities Director was blowing her whistle at Jacob and looking askance at oversized, older me, and I had to return to my journey.

Ah, Jacob! Ah, childhood!

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