Settled between the hazy blue line of the railroad tracks and our carefully planted garden lay the richest, most forbidden playground a child could want. Because of my age and the rules grown-ups make, I was forbidden to enter this realm alone. If I went, I had to go under the watchful eye of my elder sister, Nettie.
But Nettie was six years older than I, and after she had finished trying to teach me the names of all the plants and flowers, she got bored of being my keeper. Besides, there were things to explore other than that silly old field, things she would rather do with friends, without her tagalong baby sister to contend with. So I pined for the freedom of going into the great beyond, which was always just out of reach.
When mother worked in the garden, she often took me to help her, and I followed behind her plump figure as she bent down, checking the cabbages and potatoes, which were our staple. She always wore one of her cotton-print dresses and covered that with a large apron of a different print. The pockets on Mother's aprons were enormous, and she would fill them with cuttings or sweet carrots as she went. They also housed the paring knife she would use to cut the cabbages before passing them to me.
It was my job to follow behind Mother with a large metal pail, filling it with the vegetables too large for her pockets.
I learned as a child that if you watched carefully, you could see all kinds of wonders grown-ups sometimes missed. Mother's bustling and prodding through the lines of prairie produce would often send small creatures slithering or skittering, racing or leap-frogging out of her way.
THE mice, I remember, always looked so shocked when Mother lifted a leaf and discovered them. A tall giant in a print dress shrieking, "a mouse! a mouse!" The mice could not understand why such an enormous creature was afraid of them, being so small. They would run off, the giant's child following close behind them.
It was such a mouse that led me to the garter snake slithering silently amid the rhubarb. He flicked his pointed tongue at me and, catching the scent of my enthusiasm, bolted as only a snake can. His yellow and brown stripes cut a neat track in the muddy black soil.
It was the garter snake that led me to the monarch butterfly sitting sedately on a honeysuckle bush. I watched as it flitted into the evening breeze, and followed it. I had forgotten my chore of hauling the vegetable basket, and Mother, for the moment, had forgotten about me. I followed it farther and farther, until it flitted across the sky and I could not keep up. When I lost sight of it, I found that the garden was far behind me and I was in the middle of the great beyond.
But this was not the beyond I knew and loved, where my sister Nettie took me by the hand and told me the names of the flowers. This was a frightening beyond. The stinging nettles were knee-high and seemed to reach out to my uncovered legs. The path was full of sharp stones that wiggled under the flaps of my sandals. There were strange noises about, and the sky was changing to a soft velvet blue.
It was getting cold, and I was lost in the great beyond. A lump formed in my throat, and my eyes misted over.
Suddenly, something caught my eye: little lacy butterflies that looked like fairies with wings, just like in some stories. They circled around me and then, as if sensing my distress, led me across the field to safety. The garden lay before me, my mother looking a bit anxious and about to call. I ran up to her and fastened my arms tight around her waist.
I told her of the mouse, the garter snake, and the monarch butterfly. I told her about the little white "fairies" that led me home. They were heading toward the cabbages at a fast pace, and Mother rather shook her head and sighed.
"I guess we'll have to leave them for tonight," she said.
They were not fairies to my mother, just cabbage moths about to have liberty with her produce. But they had brought back her five-year-old dreamer from the great beyond, back into the safety of her arms. For now, they had earned the right to flit among the green leaves and do as cabbage moths would.
Help comes in all shapes and sizes when we are in need, it seems. As for a young girl who wandered off on that warm summer night, she would always remember the little white helpers that led her home.