Cold water numbed the woman’s legs. Sun burned her face. Leaves and burrs hung in her thick, unraveling braids. The pack was hot on her back. Her arms ached from carrying the child. One more time she asked herself how life could have taken such a difficult turn.
She had been out late one evening helping a neighbor with a sick grandparent, had started home down the familiar wood path. All at once her village vanished. She knew she had gone the right way, but instead of finding her home nestled among other homes in Oak Valley, she found only scrub oak forest petering into a boggy marsh. In the distance she could hear voices, but when she called out, only her echo answered. And when she turned to retrace her steps, even the scrubby oak forest was gone. All around were ponds dotted with small, wet islands, some of which were but hummocks of tufted swamp grass and a tree or two. She proceeded west by following the moon and, the next day, the path of the sun. Her village should have been in this direction. She pushed hopefully through the mud and water, subsisting on berries and sleeping that first night on a tiny island.
On the afternoon of the second day she walked across one such small island and almost stepped upon a little girl asleep on a grassy hummock. She stepped back and looked around for the child’s parents. She called out, but, as before, only her own voice came back in muffled echoes from the misty wasteland. The child yawned and moved. In the mud the woman found a single footprint with large spreading toes. A wildcat? She wished she possessed her grandfather’s knowledge of the signs of animals and the uses of plants—but no one in her modern world had thought that old stuff of value.
Waking, the child regarded the woman soberly.
The woman squatted beside the little girl. “Hello. What is your name?”
“Where are my grownups?”
“I don’t know, honey. Who left you here in the grass?”
But the little girl didn’t explain.
“Come. Let’s find your grownups.”
The girl did not protest being lifted onto the woman’s hip. She was dressed in professionally faded Gap jeans and a purple Gap shirt. In her hair was a purple bow. A child of good fortune, thought the woman. May her good fortune return.