Hunting for Spring in the Woods

AS the door closed behind us, the crisp May breeze grabbed our faces. We blew warm air clouds back and giggled. Cautiously, we peeked into the tidy grass nest hidden among our rhododendrons. The mother song sparrow had left for breakfast, and her three tiny speckled green eggs looked lonesome. "Don't worry. She'll be back," I whispered.

We turned onto our street. I slipped my hand into his. Pop's hand was always warm as a big winter mitten dried on the fireplace hearth. Keeping up with his long stride, I skipped along beside him. Neither of us spoke, though now and then he smiled down on me from his height.

We walked past the Whites' house. "Mornin', Greg," I called to my friend, even though he was nowhere in sight. Past Mrs. Crockett's. I was happy to be firmly attached to my father, for window shades were never raised at Mrs. Crockett's, and her olive green house was scary. No one ever saw Mrs. Crockett. Greg and I imagined her as sharp-nosed, stringy-haired, yellow-eyed as an owl, glaring intently at us from some hidden roost as we hurried past on the far side of the street.

Belmont Road came to an end, with Madison stretching to the right and to the left. Straight ahead lay the woods. Excited and expectant, we stepped into them.

"You know," Pop reminded me, "the Indians never made a sound as they walked in the woods." I marveled at his statement as, try as I would not to, I always crunched.

"You sure, Pop?" I asked. He nodded. Pop was raised in New Hampshire, in Indian country, and he knew stuff like that.

Honeysuckle bushes, their small red berries plump to bursting, stood as ushers on either side of the path. Pop ducked a spider's web. Its small fuzzy maker, startled at our intrusion, darted frantically to inspect an outer thread. Violets, around for a while, dotted the ground everywhere. May apples had bloomed, and now the small green fruit ripened beneath umbrella leaves. A young robin, anxious at the contrast between its snug mud-grass home and the big world, skittered ahead, calling loudly for its mo ther.

Sunshine reached among the leaves and finger-painted the woods floor. Playing tag, it danced on my shoulder, the toe of my shoe, my woolen cap. It hadn't the warmth of the summer sun, and I hugged my jacket closer.

"There should be one around this corner." Pop's whisper was nearly as loud as most people's regular talk, but we always spoke softly in the woods.

Except for the woodpecker's occasional rat-tat-tat-tat, the bluejay's squeaking-door rasp, the squirrel's scold, a sweet quietness settled everywhere, a hush like that inside a church just before the service begins.

Our eyes searched. Pop gently lifted leaves with his large boot. He smiled and shrugged. I shrugged. "Don't give up," he said. "We'll find one."

The footpath narrowed into a long aisle with pews of black raspberry bushes along either side.

"This way," whispered Pop. "I believe I spot one way down there." My father had the sharpest eyes in all of New Jersey.

We left the path and scuttled on our behinds down the side of a small ravine. My hand never left Pop's. It was darker at the bottom, and the damp crept through my jacket.

"There!"

My eyes traveled along the invisible line from the end of Pop's pointed finger. Sure enough: the first lady-slipper of spring. Tiny, it stood straight and proud. I squatted. Touching it with my free hand, I traced the delicate lines. How pretty, how fragile it was. "You are so beautiful, lady-slipper," I thought.

Pop had taught me that we should never pick a lady-slipper, for away from the woods, it would quickly die. The plant left behind would die, too, for the picking would disturb the tender roots. We would love it enough to leave it alone.

"It was a good hunt today," Pop announced. We glanced up. The lowering sun etched the leaves high above into stained-glass patterns. It was time to go home to supper.

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