Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"Along the Path"

Marek’s family was incredibly athletic. His mother ran marathons for fun, raising money for charities every other weekend of the year. His uncles had travelled all the way to Brazil to train as professional soccer players (though in that country the sport is called football, as it is in many places). One of Marek’s grandfathers had even ventured to the summit of Mount Everest, and had lost three toes while climbing back down. All of his siblings were on school teams, and joined up with one neighbourhood program or another. They even jogged to class every morning. But Marek? Well, he was a naturally stationary sort.  Very few things in life pleased Marek more than standing still in one place and listening as the world moved around him. He loved the shoosh-shoosh sound of people passing him by, especially in the fall and winter when their coats would briefly catch on his sleeve, if they were close enough. He also loved the quiet, squeaky-crunchy sound that shoes make on a fresh layer of snow. It’s not a sound you can hear well when you are making it; you have to wait until somebody else lifts their foot to move, and then hold your breath and listen. It’s magical. He never said these thoughts aloud, of course; people don’t always understand the joy of little moments like this and sometimes it’s safer to keep certain treasured ideas to yourself. Marek was like that with coat sleeves and footprints. But other thoughts he made known. I don’t want to go on a hike!” he protested, as his Mum packed salami and cheese and carrot sticks into her backpack. “Can’t I stay here and… read, maybe? Reading is good for me too!” “It is,” agreed his mother, reaching for a box of crackers. “But so is hiking. Today we’re going hiking. Besides, the book will be here when you get back. Fictional characters are very patient that way; they never do very much when you’re not looking.” She took the sealed bag of crackers out of the cardboard box and added it to her satchel before pressing the box flat and handing it to Marek. He carried it to the recycling, and stood over the blue bin ‘til he could think up another argument against physical exercise. Behind him, in the kitchen, his mother was starting to make sandwiches for the trip. They went on a hike like this once a month, piling into their minivan and trekking to a provincial park, sometimes quite far away. They would hike for several hours, until every part of Marek’s body felt blistered and worn. He didn’t look forward to the trips like the rest of his family did, and he found them much more work. He tried once more with his mom. “What if I stay home and clean the house? I’ll even scrub the toilets!” But his mother was immovable. They left within the hour.

When they arrived at the park, Marek’s mom went into a little cabin-style office to register their vehicle, and came back out holding a folded paper map. “I was thinking,” she said to the group, “that we would tackle ‘Centennial Ridges’ today. It’s only 10.4 kilometers long. The map says it takes an average of six hours to complete it, but I think we can do it in less.”

“SIX HOURS!?!” cried Marek, in obvious distress.

His mother simply nodded. “The trail is marked along the path with a plaque at each kilometer.” She handed Marek the map and pointed to a series of red dots. “Every time we come up to one of those, we’ll take a little rest and have a snack, for those who want it. It’ll be a helpful way to mark our progress. Why don’t you be our map-keeper?” she suggested, slinging her backpack over her shoulders and tugging the straps tight. “Alright troop, let’s march!”

The trail was long, and hilly, and covered with fallen leaves that sometimes camouflaged tree roots, so you really had to pay attention. At the first kilometer marker, all Marek could think about was drinking water and catching his breath. At the second he felt weak at the knees, so he ate some of the food his mother had brought. By kilometer six or seven, he’d hit a bit of a stride, and his body wasn’t fighting the hike quite so much. The second half of the hike was almost enjoyable.

Just as they were about to leave the trail, Marek stood completely still, and listened. He heard the smallest cracking of a twig in the brush, breaking under the weight of a scampering squirrel; he heard the pulsing sound of his heartbeat, drumming in his ears; he noted the dry autumn leaves rustling in the wind, and it sounded like distant applause. Marek looked down at the map in his hands, with all the red dots now circled -- a record of their progress. Maybe he wasn’t a could-be Olympian like the rest of his family, but he could be proud of these little victories over his own fear and reluctance. Maybe next time his family packed up for a hike, he would remember the pleasure of hearing new sounds, and of getting to each new milestone, instead of being hopelessly overwhelmed by the challenge ahead.

He smiled, satisfied, and got back in the van.

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