One fall night, just as the sun sank into a sea of brown leaves, we heard my 4-year-old son screaming somewhere in the woods. Sam’s cries were urgent and panic-stricken, those of a child in trouble.
First I should tell you that before we moved into the city last year we lived in the middle of a forty-acre wood, in the southernmost tip of Lancaster County. When we drove home and came around the second-to-last hill, the sky was low and the fields split by large rocks. It felt like we were ascending some holy mountain, some distant place few mortals dared to visit. That house was far away from everything. It took us ten minutes just to drive the lane to the house.
Sometimes, in early spring or late fall, our two youngest children wandered outside, into the trees. Abra was five and Sam was four, and my wife and I kept track of them from the kitchen window as they stumbled through the undergrowth, swinging sticks like swords. We only asked that they wear bright clothing and keep the house in sight. They moved through the drab trees like two bright kites on a day when the wind comes in close dashes, then stops, then flares up again.
We had been having a dinner party on the deck when we first heard Sam scream, and those of us close to the edge raced into the woods, crashing through the underbrush. The other kids shouted for us to come, but when we got to where they were playing, he wasn’t there. His voice was still some ways off.
I ran down a small path, the tiny branches cutting at my face. You think of the worst possible scenario in those moments. You wonder if this will be one of those days that completely change the trajectory of your life.
There he was, barefoot, sitting on a rock, screaming, tears lining his face.
“Sam?” I asked, out of breath. “What’s wrong?”
He pointed at his feet and screamed again. He had wandered into a small patch of stinging nettles, and he didn’t have any shoes on. Of course he didn’t. He rarely did. Small red blotches started to emerge on his feet and ankles and the backs of his legs. I picked him up, cradled him against me, and carried him back through the forest, back through the undergrowth, trying not to stumble.
Back at the house we put cold cloths on his feet and held his hand. We told him it would be okay and we soaked up the huge tears. He looked uncertain. He looked betrayed. It was the first time in his life he had been so hurt by a plant, and I think the realization that tender green things can cause so much pain confused him. Before it had been only dinosaurs or mean-looking insects. If this, then what? Could clouds injure him? Could the very air he breathed turn on him?
What is this world, so full of unexpected pain?
We live in the city now. We walk to St. James Episcopal Church on Sundays, and sometimes my older son and I walk to the park in the morning when the sun is just coming up over the buildings, casting fresh shadows down the alleys.
There are no stinging nettles growing up through the cracked sidewalks.
Our backyard is small and fenced in and inhabited by semi-wild cats that roam the neighborhood. Beyond our yard is a narrow alley where they live their life, yowling and fighting and moving here and there like shadows. Beyond that, a broken building rises up over an empty lot. It smiles down on us through shattered teeth.
On a whim, I bought seeds and turned the backyard over by hand, with only a shovel. The kids helped me rake it smooth, and then my oldest son, the one who goes to the park with me in the early mornings, took a small spade and made lines, shallow furrows. He counted out the seeds, one at a time, while his sisters cleaned a different bed, while his brothers clowned around on the back patio.
Leo was not alive when we lived on the forty acres. He is only nine months old, and if we do not move, he will know nothing besides this busy street in front of our house, this broken building, this stinging nettle-less landscape. We protected his older siblings from bees and falling-down trees – we protect him from broken glass and the screaming of sirens.
“Dad, what’s this?”
My daughter found a crack pipe there in the dirt while we prepared the garden. The stem was shattered, the bulb round and full of mud. It was as unexpected as Sam’s stinging nettles. We talked about it with the kids, what it was for, what it meant (as much as any of can explain the meaning of these things, this life, this pain).
There are unexpected things everywhere, I suppose, pain and hurt and other things the children will stumble upon at some point. But we go on planting, we go on letting them search, watching them find. It’s the only way to live a life. The pain is there, and the things that hint at pain, but there are also seeds, just below the surface, dying a death that brings unexpected life.
Shawn Smucker is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Building a Life Out of Words, How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp, and Refuse to Drown. His first novel, The Day the Angels Fell, was published in late 2014. He lives with his wife and five children in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at shawnsmucker.com.