I keep pedaling, inching toward my destination and enjoying the newly cool air. It has been a lovely day; the first of all the days of spring, with crocuses and daisies in the neighbor's garden, and white asters blooming all around.
I don't simply like nature, but I rather love it. The trees and the flowers and the animals who lasted all around. Imagining all of nature destroyed would be like leaving my soul gasping for breath.
On the city streets I am a walking wallet, a consumer, a citizen. There are rules of conduct any which way you go. I must cross the street at the lights on command, I must wait in line-ups in the stores and be courteous. But here in nature I am just another organism, another animal, although one with fancy clothes and a cell phone in my pocket. There's something liberating in that.
If I want to I can shout my lungs out; there is not a soul to cast a disapproving glance or whisper doubts as to my sanity. I can run, walk, or turn cartwheels. I can walk for an hour or an entire day.
So long as I pack my bag with enough food, I needn't return until sundown. I'm not really a camper, I like a nice soft bed, but perhaps the urge to keep on walking will get the better of me one day and I'll need a tent.
I stop rotating my legs and pull on the brake of my bike, not waiting for it to come to a complete stop before hopping off and sprinting through the meadow; leaving the back wheel slowly spinning at a funky angle and my backpack bouncing up and down on my back. I spread my arms wide, letting the tips of the long, golden grass brush my fingers.
It's my birthday today. I guess that's why I came; I used to celebrate every birthday here. I feel more excited than I thought I would, that's for sure. Being away for so long and coming back...it felt good.
The trail that leads to the woods is gone, not from the fading light of the sun, but by more grass that has grown over time. It has been years since I've visited...with college and helping my sister move in to her new apartment, I've been busy.
And yet I still remember the exact places to put my feet, the exact part of the meadow to make a left, and the exact branch of the exact tree to hang my backpack on.
I slow my pace, coming to a stop and catching my breath.
The trees of the woods cast shadows, with orange beams leaking through any part of the blockade of wood. The sounds of the night come alive; crickets begin to chirp and the owls begin to wake as the sun dips below the horizon.
I move forward on the path decorated with overgrown roots and newly blooming wildflowers, paying attention to every little detail of the forest.
The crackle of branches as deer scurry away from my approaching footsteps. The sound of water running in a creek about 20 feet away.
A soft breeze succumbs the clearing, sending a chill down my spine and a shiver through my body. Leaves gently tumble across the path, taken off their trees by the winds; it reminds me of fall.
I clutch my sweater closer to my body and pull my sleeves over my hands. Almost the same second as I do so, I regain the body warmth that I had lost for the brief moments that the breeze had settled over me.
I release my grip and keep walking, going faster now with the fading sun diminishing my sight. Like I said, it's not like I need it that much anyway; I ran down this path almost everyday since my mother showed it to me when I was six.
I pass the bush shaped like my family's old dog, Benji, and the "Wailing Tree"- my father named it after a storm hit and caused the branches to stick out everywhere.
Finally, I approach the thicket at which the entrance to my destination is. Straight through the middle of it is a gaping hole, which reveals nothing extraordinary...yet.
The trampled path is dead, and there is no sign of life. It is a brown, musty color, with decayed leaves and branches laying on top of it. However, I disregard these things; I know that they do not weaken the beauty of what is feet away.
Not far along, the path stops, blocked by a large tree's branches, swaying in the breeze and brushing the ground with their tips. I cautiously move the droopy branches with the outside of my right hand, closing my eyes and preparing myself for what I would see.
It had been years since I was here, and since my mother's disappearance three years ago, no one had been taking care of it. It may lack the same warmth, the same feeling of protection and comfort.
When I reopen my eyes, I gasp in surprise.
It would be described as a formal garden. The bonsai trees line the perfect lawn in their wooden boxes. In the center, there is a pond as large as a small lake with flowering lily pads and a wooden bridge that crosses the middle, so you can look down at the koi carp. The flower beds were a riot of May color and even on close inspection, they were weed-free.
Mother and I sit on the edge of the pond, laughing and picking off rose petals one by one, tossing them into the water and watching them float gracefully down.
"Close your eyes, Phoebe," she whispers, and I obey, grinning widely.
"Open them." I blink open my eyes to see a beautiful pink flower resting on her hand, full bloom with a yellow center. The tips of the petals are a darker pink than the base of them, creating an hombre more beautiful and elegant than anything I have seen in my life.
"Do you know what this is, my sweet?" I gaze into her eyes and shake my head enthusiastically.
"No, Mother. It's very pretty." I say, and she smiles, tucking a wispy strand of hair behind my ear.
"Just like you," she murmurs, face softening. She continues, "This is a dahlia. It's my favorite flower, and what I believe to be one of the most beautiful."
Her voice is so full of love and affection that I barely notice what she is saying, but I nod my head. Mother reaches out and takes my hand, turning it over so my palm is face-up. She delicately places the dahlia in the center of my outstretched hand, and pats it lightly as it sits there.
"I want you to keep this. Whenever this flower dies, you may pick another to hold."
"But Mother, I've never seen this before. Where do you keep them?" I question, and she smiles warmly.
As she leads me out of the garden, I skip along, twirling the dahlia under my nose and smelling it. It smells so flower-like and earthy, I hold it underneath my nose until my mother stops walking. We have arrived in a clearing of the woods, about fifteen feet wide and twenty feet long.
Here, there is a separate garden, one that is only filled with dozens of dahlias, sunlight streaming down on them through the large gap in the trees that surrounds it. There are handmade benches along the edge of the garden, and a walkway through the middle of it. I gasp.
"Do you like it?" Mother asks.
"Like it? It's breathtaking."
Mother smiles warmly, walking over to one of the benches and sitting down. I follow.
We stay in the dahlia garden, talking and laughing, naming all of the trees and flowers we knew until the sun no longer shines, and stars begin to poke holes in the sky above us.
All I smell is the same earthy scent of a dahlia. Exactly like the one Mother first placed in my hand, and like the last one she put in it, too.
The garden is not the same as it was seventeen years ago when Mother first showed it to me. The wooden bridge across the pond still stands strong, but the wood is cracking. The koi are still swimming, and the bonsai trees are wilting. But there is something on the bridge.
I walk up to it, and as the scent of dahlias grows stronger, I suck in a wary breath, not sure what to expect. I hold out my left hand, running it along the side, laughing when I have flashbacks of all the splinters I would get from doing that, and the way Mother would playfully scold me.
I want her back.
As I approach the bridge, I see something that I didn't expect.
A dahlia lay on the bridge, beautiful and fresh. After it lay another. And another. They trail off of the bridge, and I follow them, picking them all up as I go.
I already know where they are leading me, but what I see when I reach the dahlia garden is what really takes my breath away.
There stands my mother, my beautiful mother, whom I hadn't seen in 3 years, radiant as ever and smiling ear to ear.
"Happy 23 birthday, my sweet."